Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Social Contagion of Autobiographical Memories


Today's post is from Celia Harris, who works in the Department of Cognitive Science at Macquarie University in Sydney Australia. In this post she summarises research from her paper "Social Contagion of Autobiographical Memories" recently published in Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition.



I’m interested in memory, and particularly the social and functional aspects. What do we use memory for in our day-to-day lives, and in our social relationships? And how does this inform our models and theories of memory, which have typically been developed by focusing on individuals learning word lists in a lab?

One of the aims of my research has been to counter the negative emphasis on the power of social interaction to distort memory. My research suggests that social influence does indeed shape and alter memories in interesting ways, consistent with our goals of agreeing with others and being informed by them. However I argue that we shouldn’t necessarily see these influences as “distortion” and individual memory as “pure”, but rather we should understand these social influences on memory in their ecological context as serving goals for individuals and groups.

In a recent paper, along with my co-authors, I reported a study where we applied the “social contagion of memory” paradigm to autobiographical memories. Social contagion – adopting a ‘disease’ metaphor for social influence – is an experimental method that has been developed to study social influences on memory in the laboratory. In the original paradigm, participants view a set of household scenes and recall them with a confederate (acting as a fellow participant but actually working for the experimenter). During the course of their joint recall, this confederate mentions specific false items that never appeared. The social contagion effect is demonstrated when participants later recall these false items as if they had actually seen them.

We were interested in whether we would find similar effects when people recalled and discussed personally experienced events instead of more artificial stimuli. In our autobiographical adaptation, participants described four specific events to a confederate, who also described four (scripted) events. Participants and confederates summarised each other’s memories, and the confederate inserted two specific new details when they summarised participant’s memories. We tested whether participants later included these details when recalling alone, thus showing evidence of social contagion.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

TEDxBrum 2017




On 15th October 2017, a team of volunteers headed by Immy Kaur hosted TEDxBrum 2017 at the Birmingham Hippodrome. The theme for the day was Perspectives: "we learn more about reality by sharing perspectives". On stage speakers and performers powerfully addressed the theme by reference to their own experiences, art, work, or research.




Some talks discussed the importance of new technological advances and their potential challenges.

Catherine Allen talked about virtual reality (VR) and argued that this new technology has a lot of potential but we should develop some critical distance from it. VR is special because it is not a rectangular space that represents reality (which is what TV, mobile phones, or laptops do) but it is a simulation of reality that enables people to do things rather than just watch, and to empathise with other people.

Ade Adewunmi addressed the contradictions of a software-mediated world. Personal data are gathered by manufacturers, because of their economic value. If manufacturers both own customers' data and control the use of the devices they sell, we have a situation where there is a power imbalance. Customers should start negotiating with manufacturers so that product information can be shared.

Other talks focused on the idea of a city: what makes a city a good city?

Glenn Howells argued that good cities are interesting places where things spontaneously happen and not everything is regulated in all the tiny details. When regulation becomes too suffocating, telling citizens what they can and cannot do even with the space, the city does not develop its own distinctive style. Some spaces should be created without a specific purpose, so that they can develop into something dynamic.

Amahra Spence talked about the need for artists to create spaces where they can live and work together and contribute to the rest of the city. She designed what she calls an artist-led hotel where people can stay and share project spaces. She is also involved in community hubs built for inclusivity where training for young people can happen and ideas can be exchanged.  

Two talks were particularly close to the themes of PERFECT.

Rob Nash discussed the widespread occurrence of false and distorted memories. He argued that remembering is not like going to the library to get a book (information being retrieved), but it is like telling a story (information being constructed). When we tell a story, we add some details or focus on some aspects of what happened to make a point or provoke a reaction.

And I (Lisa Bortolotti) presented our project PERFECT's perspective on mental health: by stressing that experiences of mental distress can be understood in context and often have positive as well as negative outcomes, we can undermine the foundations of mental health stigma and recognise that we are all vulnerable to unreliable memories and poorly supported beliefs.




It was a great day and I learnt a lot by listening to the other speakers and talking to some very engaged members of the audience. TEDxBrum is a perfect example of how to bring expertise and research to bear on people's lives in a fun and informative way.

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

What Causes Post-Traumatic Stress?

Today's post features Christopher Mole, Associate Professor of Philosophy, and Chair of the Programme in Cognitive Systems at the University of British Columbia. In this post he outlines a recent debate concerning the causes of intrusive memory in post traumatic stress. 

Christopher has published on this topic in his papers "A methodological flaw in 'The neural basis of flashback formation: the impact of viewing trauma'" (Psychological  Medicine, 46(8), p. 1785) and "Causes and correlates of intrusive memory: a response to Clark, MacKay, Holmes and Bourne." (Psychological Medicine, 46(15), p. 3255).


People often witness events that cause post-traumatic stress in others, without suffering from such stress themselves. Because of that, it has been supposed that the explanation of PTSD should not be sought in the experience of the traumatizing event, but in disruptions to the processes that occur in the days and weeks after it: processes of grieving, coping, and coming to terms.

That supposition is questionable, and an explanation of the fact that only some witnesses to an event will be traumatized by it does not require it. That fact could instead be explained in lots of other ways. Some disgusting event might traumatize Jones, but not Smith, because Jones has just eaten. Some violent event might traumatize Smith, but not Jones, because Smith better understands its consequences. And so on, for any number of other reasons; some to do with differences of situation, some with differences of personality, some with cognitive factors, and some with emotional ones. There is no need to suppose that the untraumatized person has better coping capabilities than the traumatized one.

The several factors that might contribute to post-traumatic stress at the time of the traumatizing event have seldom been studied, partly because the assumption that PTSD is a disorder of subsequent coping has long been the orthodoxy, and partly because such peri-traumatic factors are hard to observe in the lab. A series of experiments has begun to rectify this. The experiments use fMRI to observe the brains of people who are watching films of events such as eye-surgeries and road traffic accidents, and who are therefore undergoing something analogous to a traumatizing experience. 

These participants are then asked to keep a diary, which enables the researchers to ascertain which of the upsetting films are recollected intrusively. Such experiments enable us to identify factors at the time of a traumatizing experience that contribute to its PTSD-like recollection. They have made a crucial contribution to our understanding of the ways in which peri-traumatic factors might contribute to PTSD. (A review of this paradigm can be found here.)

These experiments are undoubtedly of the first importance, but I have a qualm about one way in which their results have been interpreted. To bring the qualm into view, notice that, whereas some of the possible peri-traumatic contributors to PTSD are emotional (Smith is frightened), some are not (Jones has just eaten). One might naïvely suppose that it is always the emotional factors doing the work. Jones having eaten contributes to his trauma only to the extent that it makes him susceptible to an emotion; in this case disgust. Smith’s understanding of the violence contributes to her trauma, only to the extent that it makes her susceptible to an emotion; in this case fear. According to this naïve view, the immediate causes of trauma-symptoms are emotional through and through. That view may ultimately prove to be mistaken. My qualm is that it has been dismissed too quickly. The data that are thought to make trouble for it do not.

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Beyond Concepts

This post is by Ruth Millikan. Ruth Garrett Millikan is Distinguished Professor Emerita at the University of Connecticut. She is a Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and Winner of the 2017 Researcher Prize for Systematic Philosophy.



I am a retired professor of philosophy from the University of Connecticut with special interests in thought and language, the ontological structures of the world that support thought and language and the kinds of selection ---- genetic, learning, cultural ---- responsible for their evolution and development.

Beyond Concepts weaves together themes from natural ontology and from the philosophies of mind, language and information. The sprawling topic is Kant's how is knowledge possible? but viewed from a contemporary naturalist standpoint. The assumption is that we, along with the other animals, are evolved creatures that use cognition as a guide in dealing with the natural world, and that the natural world is, roughly, as natural science has tried to describe it. Very unlike Kant, then, the book begins with a discussion of what the world is like prior to cognition, only later developing theories about the nature of cognition within that world.

Central to the view of cognition is the introduction of “unicepts” and “unitrackers” which, together, serve to replace traditional concepts. They are responsible for “tracking” items perceived in different ways and at different times, for recognizing what is the same again as the same again and for storing information thus collected in a way that marks it clearly as information about the same. A novel description of the act of recognizing an identity is central. The ways that various unicept complexes may be developed from experience over time is explored, one conclusion being that the law of noncontradiction acts as a regulative principle in the fashioning of unitrackers, coherence serving as a test for correspondence. The training of unitrackers is not always successful but sometimes leaves behind redundant, equivocal or even empty unicepts or “would-be” unicepts.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

No need to know



Matthew Frise is a Lecturer at Santa Clara University. He writes on memory in epistemology and the philosophy of mind. In this post he discusses his paper "No Need to Know" published in Philosophical Studies in 2017.

Knowing isn’t always best. It’s never best, actually. Something that’s not quite knowledge can be just as great. And folks think knowledge is great. In fact, some philosophers think it’s so great that we should focus on explaining other great things in terms of it. Some even think knowledge isn’t just valuable, but uniquely valuable. Nothing else has its value. Knowledge, after all, closes inquiry. Once we get it, our investigation wraps up. Also, we seem to prefer knowing over any kind of not knowing. Doesn’t that all show knowledge is special?

Nope. Some knowledge shares its value with something that isn’t knowledge. If that’s right, knowledge isn’t so special. Its value isn’t unique to it. What shares the value of knowledge? Being in a position to know. A person in a position to know some fact already has plenty of reason to believe it, yet doesn’t believe. When you are in a position to know, you are geared up to know. All you still need to do is believe – on the reasons you’ve already got – and you’d know.

Here is why being in a position to know is as good as knowing: belief is fiddly, and memory is a rascal. Human memory works in surprising ways, partly having to do with belief. It turns out we don’t always believe what we would have thought we believe. This is because memory isn’t hanging on to the beliefs you form, or to all that believing requires. Instead it’s hanging on to a blueprint for belief. It’ll use the blueprint and crank out a belief whenever one is ordered. In the meantime, memory’s shelves are empty of beliefs.

Another surprise about memory: it likes to hang on to and even piece together information we never actually believed, but would believe, if we only gave it a moment’s thought.

Whatever we don’t believe, we don’t know. Since memory doesn’t stock beliefs, it doesn’t stock much of the knowledge we once had. Then again, memory can put us within spitting distance of new knowledge, knowledge we never thought we had. So there’s a lot we don’t know, but only thanks to bitty technicalities about how memory happens to work. Still, memory puts us in a position to know quite a bit.

And that’s great – great in the way that knowing is great. We can stop inquiring, once we’re in a position to know. We wouldn’t always find reason to trade places with someone who knows whatever we’re just in a position to know. It’s odd to suppose that, merely forming belief here – going from a position to know, to knowing – would always drive up value. Better to suppose the value doesn’t always change, to suppose something besides knowledge can have the value we thought belonged to it alone. The value of knowledge isn’t unique. Knowing is still great, but there’s no need to know. That’s surprising. But so is memory.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Reasons, Rationality, and Intentional Agency




Christian List organised a two-day workshop on Reasons, Rationality, and Intentional Agency in the Lakatos Building (picture above) at the LSE on 29th and 30th September 2017. I was lucky enough to attend three talks on the 29th, and here is a brief report. The event was funded by the Leverhulme via a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship awarded to List.




Kate Vredenburgh from Harvard (picture above) opened the workshop with a paper entitled “Rational Choice Explanation”. She started with the observation that choice-frameworks have been criticised a lot recently. Especially, the revealed preferences approach, according to which statements about preferences are summaries of choice behaviour, has been criticised on the basis that it cannot provide causal explanations and action explanations. Vredenburgh's main thesis was that, if revealed preferences theorists adopt a unificationist theory of explanation, then they can avoid some of the problems.

Revealed preferences are not something constructed out of preference data but something that summarises the choices the agent made (or the agent could make, depending on interpretations). The main objection is that the revealed preferences approach is circular and thus cannot explain choice on the basis of preferences. But one assumption in this argument is that for something to be a good explanation it needs to refer to the causal mechanisms responsible for the phenomenon to be explained. 

We can resist this assumption by adopting a unificationist account of explanation where all the explanation does is systematise the information about the phenomenon. The revealed preference relation explains by efficiently fitting individual choices into a pattern of choices. According to Vredenburgh, unificationism matches well the spirit of the revealed preferences approach because preferences fail to tell us something about choices that is not already implicit in the choices themselves.


Francesco Guala from Milan (picture above) presented a paper entitled “Preferences: Neither Behavioural nor Mental”. In the old behaviourist approach (1900-1950) the attempt was to do without any psychological concept, and preferences were reduced to observed choice behaviour. There is an ambiguity in the view: are preferences revealed by behaviour or are they just behaviour? The latter position is not held by many.

For Guala behaviourism is untenable but mentalism is not a good option either. So we need a third way. The untenability of behaviourism is due to the fact that two people can make the same choice but have very different preferences. And this has already been shown. But the inadequacy of mentalism needs to be argued for, and this is the purpose of the talk. Guala talks about preferences as dispositions, where for S to have a disposition to B is for S to be disposed to do B in C. Dispositions do not give us the details of the causal process, but they are informative. Dispositions don’t tell us about causal bases, but looking at causal bases is useful to establish how to model dispositions.

Two different but related projects can be pursued: (a) in choice theory preferences explain behaviour and (b) in behavioural economics psychological dispositions explain preferences. But these psychological dispositions are not mental! The 'psychological' there only indicates that economists need to know about psychological theories and psychological methods for research concerning preferences. 

There is no reasons we exclude from choice theory decisions made by robots, organisations, animals, etc. Choice theory can be applied to the behaviour of all the systems that have the following characteristics: S has conflicting goals and there are trade-offs to make; and S resolves the conflict by weighing pros and cons. But the weighing of the pros and cons does not need to be in the human brain. So the preferences economists are interested in are not mental, they are dispositional properties with different causal bases (in humans these are psychological states, which means that you need to study them using the resources of psychology; but in other creature they may be something else).




Franz Dietrich (CNRS & PSE) talked about “Reason-based choice: An overview and progress report”. He argued that there are two paradigms about choice: ranking-based vs. reason-based.
According to the ranking-based approach, we do something because we rank it highest. According to the reasons-based approach, we do something following our best reasons. Dietrich prefers the reason-based model he developed with Christian List.

There are three problems with ranking-based explanations of choice:

· Empirical problem. This kind of explanation for actual choice has been falsified because we are not as rational as the model suggests.

· Explanatory problem. Preferences do not genuinely explain choice. Preferences are at best the most immediate cause of a choice, but they are rarely part of the most interesting causal explanation (the causal explanation is not at the right level). There may be choices that are not caused by preferences at all. Also, preferences do not give us reasons for choices.

· Predictive problem. An ordering of the options does not help us make predictions that are non-trivial. We cannot make predictions in novel contexts on the basis of preferences. (This is the problem that would most interest economists).

The reasons-based explanation Dietrich favours says that each option has several properties: option properties (e.g. the sweet is healthy); context properties (e.g. there are 12 sweets in the basket); and relational properties (e.g. the sweet is the smallest sweet left in the basket). An agent’s choice is explained by a reason structure: a motivational salience function (which for each context specifies the motivationally salient properties of an option) and a preference relation between property bundles (e.g. politeness trumps the preference for healthy sweets). For each choice there are several reason structures that could explain that choice (underdetermination). Which explanation is chosen is determined by (1) psychological accuracy; (2) prediction in novel contexts; (3) welfare judgements.

It was a very informative morning session, with some interesting overlap among the talks!

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Self-awareness and Schizophrenia


Today’s post is by Valerie Gray Hardcastle, Professor of Philosophy, Psychology and Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience at the University of Cincinatti.




I study the nature and structure of interdisciplinary theories in the cognitive sciences and have focused primarily on developing a philosophical framework for understanding consciousness that is responsive to neuroscientific, psychiatric and psychological data. Currently, I am investigating the neuroscience of violence and its implications for both our understanding of human nature and the criminal justice system.

I am also trying to figure out whether notions of embodied cognition help or hinder theorizing about consciousness. (I think that the answer will be neither.) Most recently, I have received research fellowships from the Medical Humanities Program at the University of Texas-Medical Branch; the Centre for Mind, Brain and Cognitive Evolution at theUniversity of Bochum; and the Institute for Philosophy/School of Advanced Study at the University of London. Below I summarize a recent paper of mine that discusses how studying schizophrenia can help us understand self-awareness.

Self-awareness is the kind of awareness that underlies our standard, first person attributions of consciousness. It is an awareness—often in the background—of being an agent who interacts with the world, though that awareness can be quite vague and nascent. Disturbances in self-awareness can intuitively seem quite strange, for, in its most basic form, it appears to be a fundamental aspect of our conscious experiences. This experience of a blue square is an experience that I am having now; I know this because I am the one having it. And I know it in a raw and immediate way. How is it that one could be confused about what the “I” is thinking or perceiving? And yet, it appears that certain mental disorders, like schizophrenia, can give rise to that error quite regularly.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Art and Belief

This post is by Ema Sullivan-Bissett, Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Birmingham, and previous Research Fellow on Project PERFECT.




Together with Helen Bradley and Paul Noordhof, I have edited a collection Art and Belief, recently published with Oxford University Press. The volume consists of twelve new essays at the intersection of philosophy of mind and art.

Our appreciation of artworks raises substantial challenges for our understanding of the cognitive attitudes involved, specifically, beliefs and related attitudes. Some of our beliefs concern the quality of the work in question. Others will derive from the content of the work, reflecting the commonly held view of art as a source of truth and knowledge. Both kinds of belief bring challenges for orthodox understandings of belief.

The volume is divided into four sections which explore a variety of questions on art and the nature of belief.

Section I: Author Testimony


Can we form justified beliefs upon author testimony? Kathleen Stock (‘Fiction, Testimony, Belief, and History’) argues that authors of fiction can pass on matters of empirical fact, and that there are no special problems with the testimony of authors of fiction.

Also optimistic about testimony in fiction is Eva-Maria Konrad (‘Signposts of Factuality: On Genuine Assertions in Fictional Literature’), who argues that a fictional text can consist of both fictional and factual discourse, with the latter being reliable sources of knowledge. 

In contrast, Anna Ichino and Gregory Currie (‘Truth and Trust in Fiction’), conceive of testimony as the highest point on what they call the expression spectrum, and argue that the expression of belief in fiction is usually below such a point, and as such fiction falls short of being a case of genuine testimony.

Section II: Non-Testimonial Epistemic Contributions of Fictions


If a work is one of fiction, it might be thought that it has no epistemic role to play. The second section of the book includes authors arguing for broadly positive conclusions about the epistemic value of fiction. James O. Young (‘Literary Fiction and True Beliefs’) claims that justified beliefs can be gained from fiction in virtue of its ability to present to readers perspectives on the world which they can adopt.

Peter Lamarque (‘Belief, Thought, and Literature’) focuses on the relationship between fiction’s epistemic contribution and its literary value. He argues that whatever epistemic contribution fiction makes, it is not relevant when we are thinking about fiction from a literary point of view. 

Allan Hazlett (‘Imagination that Amounts to Knowledge from Fiction’), argues for a new process of knowledge acquisition resulting from engaging in fiction. Taking fictions as invitations to imagine, he argues that imaginings engendered by fiction can amount to knowledge, regardless of whether this is consistent with the idea that a necessary condition on knowledge is belief. 

Lucy O’Brien (‘The Novel as a Source for Self-Knowledge’) closes this section of the book, arguing that although it is difficult for novels to transmit truths to readers directly, they can provoke in their readers reactions which constitute evidence for beliefs about the self.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Am I Racist?


I am Professor of Philosophy at Macquarie University and a Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics. These days I work mainly in philosophy of psychology and mind and applied ethics. Find out more about my work here. This is a precis of "Am I Racist? Implicit Bias and the Ascription of Racism," recently published in Philosophical Quarterly.



Implicit bias has recently received a great deal of high quality attention from philosophers. Papers have probed their nature, how their effects can be countered and their implications for ethics and for epistemology. In moral philosophy, the question that has dominated has been whether agents are responsible for actions partially caused by them. But little space has been given to the question of how we are to characterize agents who harbor them. The agent who is explicitly sexist is a misogynist. But what about the agent who is only implicitly sexist? I explore this kind of question, focusing on implicit racism (and supposing that my IAT results are accurate, and I harbor mild implicit biases against Black people). In virtue of that fact, and given my explicitly egalitarian attitudes, am I racist?

Obviously, answering that question requires an account of what racism consists in. There are a variety of accounts in the literature. Simplifying greatly, according to cognitive accounts of racism, to be a racist is to have racist beliefs. According to affective accounts, a racist is someone with racist emotional responses (say contempt for members of other races), while behavioural accounts emphases, naturally, behavior (obviously, disjunctive or conjunctive accounts are also possible options). Rather than attempt to adjudicate between these competing accounts, in my paper I explore how those who harbor implicit biases stack up on each of them.

I can appeal to my own earlier work in trying to ask whether those with implicit biases count as racists on a cognitive account. There are various accounts of what beliefs consist in, but the only one that is a viable contender for showing that implicit biases are beliefs is one that identifies beliefs with structured representations. If our implicit biases have the right kinds of structural properties – which entail dispositions to inferential promiscuity and evidence sensitivity – then they are beliefs, on this account. 

Most psychologists have argued, or assumed, that implicit biases are structured associatively but Eric Mandelbaum has shown that they are wrong. Implicit biases interact with other attitudes in ways that entail that they have some propositional structure. But we should not follow Mandelbaum and conclude from the fact that they are not mere associations that they are beliefs. Despite having some propositional structure, they seem to fall short of being beliefs: they fail to respond to evidence when they should, if they were beliefs, and also respond to stimuli when they should not. We can therefore conclude that they are not beliefs.

They are, however, beliefy: somewhat belief-like. If the cognitive account of racism is correct, implicit ‘racists’ aren’t racists. But they’re not clearly not racists, either. The right answer to the question “am I racist?” is probably “somewhat”.