July 8, 2008

The Neural Buddhists

Index - Article - One - Two - Three - Four

Some time ago I engaged in a discussion about the existence of the soul with members of a Net forum that I hang out at, which is a place that is generally spiritual in its outlook and topics of discussion. While some discussion occasionally takes place on scientific subjects, I do not think that these are covered in much depth. In any case when one member posted The Neural Buddhists article from the New York Times, which happened to be the most emailed article that day, I posted my thoughts on it.

What follows is that article interspersed with my thoughts. This led to an interesting discussion about the existence of a soul between myself and several forum members, which I would like to outline in forthcoming posts on this blog. Some details will be changed in order to make the points clear and coherent for this blog audience but the verve will remain the same. So without further ado:

"In 1996, Tom Wolfe wrote a brilliant essay called 'Sorry, but Your Soul Just Died,' in which he captured the militant materialism of some modern scientists.
"To these self-confident researchers, the idea that the spirit might exist apart from the body is just ridiculous. Instead, everything arises from atoms. Genes shape temperament. Brain chemicals shape behavior. Assemblies of neurons create consciousness. Free will is an illusion. Human beings are 'hard-wired' to do this or that. Religion is an accident. In this materialist view, people perceive God’s existence because their brains have evolved to confabulate belief systems. You put a magnetic helmet around their heads and they will begin to think they are having a spiritual epiphany. If they suffer from temporal lobe epilepsy, they will show signs of hyperreligiosity, an overexcitement of the brain tissue that leads sufferers to believe they are conversing with God.
"Wolfe understood the central assertion contained in this kind of thinking: Everything is material and 'the soul is dead.' He anticipated the way the genetic and neuroscience revolutions would affect public debate. They would kick off another fundamental argument over whether God exists. Lo and behold, over the past decade, a new group of assertive atheists has done battle with defenders of faith. The two sides have argued about whether it is reasonable to conceive of a soul that survives the death of the body and about whether understanding the brain explains away or merely adds to our appreciation of the entity that created it.
Comment: I have to admit that the question of whether the soul exists or not is one of my current muses. Just a couple of days ago I read a transcript of a 1999 debate (actually a discussion) between Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker who more or less presented the "hardcore materialism" and "cognitive neuroscience" viewpoints respectively. Perhaps I need to read through it again to refamiliarise myself with his points but I found Pinker's candour refreshing: the soul can't exist because the brain is essentially modular; there is a module for "this" and a module for "that", if a module stops functioning through brain injury or whatever then that part of the person is gone. The person may lose their ability to see, think or feel in a certain way, or in cases like Phineas Gage they undergo a complete personality transformation. This and other examples provide evidence of a sort that shows that the mind is an entity in the physical world as much of its functioning is due to the proper functioning of neural correlates.

Incidentally, this started me thinking about the institutional belief in the the eternal existence and indivisibility of the soul which is a hallmark of Hindu/Buddhist religions that generally proclaim the view that "Consciousness is the symptom of the soul". So then, what about paraplegics and quadriplegics? They are paralysed from the waist or neck down, so those parts of the body are now soul-less since they are no longer conscious? The soul is divisible after all?

"The atheism debate is a textbook example of how a scientific revolution can change public culture. Just as 'The Origin of Species' reshaped social thinking, just as Einstein’s theory of relativity affected art, so the revolution in neuroscience is having an effect on how people see the world. And yet my guess is that the atheism debate is going to be a sideshow. The cognitive revolution is not going to end up undermining faith in God, it’s going to end up challenging faith in the Bible."

Comment: I would prefer it if faith in God was undermined or completely eradicated altogether, but this is utopian and probably will never happen. We as a race will probably kill ourselves over religion instead of living long enough to intellectually evolve to the state of realising the utter redundancy of religion in an organic manner. Such a bitter irony.

"Over the past several years, the momentum has shifted away from hard-core materialism. The brain seems less like a cold machine. It does not operate like a computer. Instead, meaning, belief and consciousness seem to emerge mysteriously from idiosyncratic networks of neural firings. Those squishy things called emotions play a gigantic role in all forms of thinking. Love is vital to brain development. Researchers now spend a lot of time trying to understand universal moral intuitions. Genes are not merely selfish, it appears. Instead, people seem to have deep instincts for fairness, empathy and attachment.

"Scientists have more respect for elevated spiritual states. Andrew Newberg of the University of Pennsylvania has shown that transcendent experiences can actually be identified and measured in the brain (people experience a decrease in activity in the parietal lobe, which orients us in space). The mind seems to have the ability to transcend itself and merge with a larger presence that feels more real."

Comment: I'm not too well-read on the capabilities of the parietal lobe, but it doesn't strike as sensible to say that a module primarily concerned with spatial orientation can "transcend itself" to feel things that are essentially emotional in content, a characteristic of the temporal lobes or general limbic system. I'd be interested in reading Newberg's papers though, I'll have a root around on PubMed when I get a chance.

In any case, I find that a good dose of chocolate helps me feel transcendent and aware of a larger presence. Forget about soma and LSD, Cadbury's Dairy Milk is where it's at! ;-)

"This new wave of research will not seep into the public realm in the form of militant atheism. Instead it will lead to what you might call neural Buddhism. If you survey the literature (and I’d recommend books by Newberg, Daniel J. Siegel, Michael S. Gazzaniga, Jonathan Haidt, Antonio Damasio and Marc D. Hauser if you want to get up to speed), you can see that certain beliefs will spread into the wider discussion."

Comments: Good tips. I especially like Gazzaniga and Damasio.

"First, the self is not a fixed entity but a dynamic process of relationships. Second, underneath the patina of different religions, people around the world have common moral intuitions. Third, people are equipped to experience the sacred, to have moments of elevated experience when they transcend boundaries and overflow with love. Fourth, God can best be conceived as the nature one experiences at those moments, the unknowable total of all there is."

Comment: I don't see how No. 4 follows from No. 3, neither do I agree with this guy's definition of "sacred". People can have moments of elevated experience from viewing a wonderful piece of art or a nice example of architecture, or even a great book, which can overwhelm one to the point of ecstasy and fill one with a boundless sense of appreciation for the amount of work that has gone into producing such an example of beauty. Standards are variable. I suppose this is "sacred" in some way, when one's heart is touched in this way, but trying to extrapolate that into some kind of definition of God (how nice and ambiguous his definition is, it may as well not exist at all!) is a bit much if you ask me.

Besides, this guy is skirting over at least 6000 years of human history. People haven't gone to war throughout the centuries over some feelgood feeling.

"In their arguments with Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, the faithful have been defending the existence of God. That was the easy debate."

Comment: Hmmm, I don't really think there was any "debate" at all. How exactly is one supposed to "debate" the contention that something doesn't exist? Prove that it exists? Where is this proof then?

"The real challenge is going to come from people who feel the existence of the sacred, but who think that particular religions are just cultural artifacts built on top of universal human traits. It’s going to come from scientists whose beliefs overlap a bit with Buddhism."

Comment: I think that most intelligent people have already figured out that religions are a huge mess of constructs and shaky scaffolding ostensibly based on some original emotions and feelgood feelings that really were as feelgood as it was possible to be then. Except for Islam and Mormonism I'd say. This is not an out-of-this-world observation.

I do find it rather interesting how some prominent neuroscientists have Buddhist interests. I wonder why? I'd like to do some reading on that. Or if somebody with greater access to PubMed or PsycInfo than I could send me an article from a journal that I don't have access to, I'd really appreciate it. Here's the reference for you lovely people willing to do me this favour:

Mikulas, W. (2007). Buddhism & Western Psychology: Fundamentals of Integration. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 14:4, 4-49.

If you have an ATHENS login, you can get it from here. I downloaded this article a while back when I had a better login but carelessly deleted it. Now my current login is insufficient for this journal.

"In unexpected ways, science and mysticism are joining hands and reinforcing each other. That’s bound to lead to new movements that emphasize self-transcendence but put little stock in divine law or revelation."

Comment: Sure, but I don't think science and mysticism are joining hands. They might do so in very small ways such as OXSCOM's attempt to understand pain, but not in terms of the bigger picture. Just because Stephen Jay Gould tried to butter both sides of the debate up with his ideas of separate magisteria (see his 'Rock of Ages') doesn't mean that these magisteria exist, and certainly doesn't mean that these magisteria can overlap or unite.

"Orthodox believers are going to have to defend particular doctrines and particular biblical teachings. They’re going to have to defend the idea of a personal God, and explain why specific theologies are true guides for behavior day to day."

Comment: What does he mean "going to"? Every dog has its day and, in my opinion, religion's day ended back in the 19th Century or so. As far as I'm concerned, religion and religious people have nothing substantial to contribute to any such "debate". Instead of defending the idea of a personal God, perhaps they should set about proving that one exists in the first place. Then there would be no need of any such defence. Hahaha, this one line shows the redundancy of this argument.

"I’m not qualified to take sides, believe me. I’m just trying to anticipate which way the debate is headed. We’re in the middle of a scientific revolution. It’s going to have big cultural effects."

Comment: It is indeed a most wondrous and fascinating journey.

Index - Article - One - Two - Three - Four

July 6, 2008

Quotes of Whoa #1

As part of the whoa-ness theme of this blog, a large amount of whoa can be found in science soundbites. I'm gonna start a series of these Quotes of Whoa and post them as and when I find them. Here's the first one, aptly from one of my favourite books, and quite a perfect example of what fascinates me about neuroscience:

"A piece of your brain the size of a grain of sand would contain one hundred thousand neurons, two million axons and one billion synapses, all 'talking to' each other. Given these figures, it's been calculated that the number of possible brain states - the number of permutations and combinations of activity that are theoretically possible - exceeds the number of elementary particles in the universe."

-- V.S. Ramachandran, Phantoms In The Brain (1998), p. 8.

July 5, 2008

Project Tidbits

It ain't really good practice to blog about the research one is doing in order to avoid the risk of it being stolen from right under your nose, so I'm not gonna spill any details of the project I'm involved in now. Except just to say that it is going to be very exciting to break new ground in a relatively under-researched area of neuropsychology. :-)

Nothing to stop me from dishing out a few tidbits with some details changed though, and here's one:

"Neurophysiologically, a recent study by Eisenberger, Lieberman, and Williams (2003) demonstrated that the social pain of ostracism is similar to physical pain at the neurophysiological level ... The exclusion of participants led to increased activity in their anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), and the right ventral prefrontal cortex (RVPFC). The ACC is the same region active during physical pain, suggesting that ostracism taps primal reactions of hurt. Self-reports of distress were highly correlated with ACC activity. The activity in the RVPFC moderated feelings of distress for the intentional (but not intentional) ostracism, suggesting that this regulates the ACC activity."
Cool, huh? ;-)

To think that intentionally or unintentionally excluding people from activities activates the same neural pain centres as when you're getting punched. Something to think about there....

My Research Interests

A question which I often get relates to my research interests: What are they?

They ain't as easy to explain, unlike most people, because I'm actually interested in a wide variety of stuff. But I can tell you what drove me into this field which would give an idea of the interests I currently hold.

After years of engaging in lively Internet debates with people on a variety of subjects such as science, multimedia computing, and religion, I developed a curiosity within me to try to understand what it is that makes people so annoyingly stubborn about their point of view and why they try to hold to their views even after contrary evidence is presented. A good example of this is the fundamentalist religious mind or even religious minds in general; Why do people deeply believe in God so much so that they would kill each other in his name or at least get ultra-defensive when they feel their beliefs are under threat. You could even say that some of these people are crazy. And this took place in the wider context of my developing interest into how people think. You know, the actual neurological processes involved in thinking: How does it take place? I felt convinced that a neurological understanding of the process may provide answers as to how thoughts are generated within the brain and then solidified (metaphorically speaking!) into beliefs and maintained thereby to form belief systems and internal paradigms.
I have a good neuropsychology textbook that has given me the answer to this. I expect it's easy enough to think about thinking in terms of neurons, axons, dendrites, action potentials, synaptic vesicles, nerve endings and so on, whereby the rest of (neuro)psychology largely analyses and explains how these processes act as a basis for the individual to interact with other people and situations. The sheer physicality of the thinking process is fascinating enough in that it all takes place faster than lightning speed, what to speak of the oceanlike expanse of the field in attempting to understand the depth of the multifarious interactions involved. And what happens when something goes wrong? This is the situation of those who suffer from various types of mental disorders. Think of the most sophisticated and complicated piece of electronic equipment that you have in your home and what it looks like inside; a few circuit boards and a shedload of wiring to make it do what it does, right? The brain is the most complex piece of hardware nature has ever created with a million billion wires in place. What happens if some wires are disconnected? Or plugged into the wrong port?

It's probably wrong of me to oversimplify conditions like schizophrenia and the like in this way, but a cursory understanding of the neurosciences suggests that mental disorders are often down to the concept of "faulty wiring". These conditions are also not just something that happens as a result of birth or genetics, but may also occur due to brain injury. So this is one of the reasons that sparked my interests in psychology as a whole: the process of thinking and what happens when things go wrong, and how the "normal" mind can be destabilised through stress and/or torture to slip into "insanity".

One of the first books I read as a psychology undergraduate was V.S. Ramachandran's Phantoms In The Brain, for which I had to write a review. This book fascinated and deeply impressed me and I strongly recommend it to everyone who has even a passing interest in brain function. A certain chapter within that book acted as a catalyst for my feelings on religion and sparked an interest in the neuropsychology of religious experience, whereby I have learnt that religious feelings and associated states of bliss and ecstasy are associated with temporal lobe function. This comes in a wider context of neural correlates for every brain state, implying that religious visions and the like may be a purely neural function and not a real happening. I hope to discuss these concepts on this blog in the near future.

So those are my two main interests thus far: Mental disorders (and phenomena such as auditory and visual hallucinations) and the neuropsychology of spiritual experience.

July 4, 2008

Is the brain irrelevant to psychology?

This interesting item in the BPS Research Digest caught my eye: Is the brain irrelevant to psychology? Hmmm, at first glance I'd say no. But then I'm rather biased since I've spent the best years of my life making brain function the centre of my universe, but seriously, it still astounds me as to who can ask a question as ridiculous as this?

Lately I've had discussions on this topic on two separate occasions, both with people who seemed somehow convinced (yet producing little to no evidence to support their views) that brain function is either something that is "not quite fully understood" or that it's relevance to psychology is marginal until fully understood. Both these views were held by people with degrees in something other than psychology (anthropology and biology, actually) and it was plainly obvious that their viewpoints smacked of dualism, which, in all entirety, is almost completely irrelevant to the neuroscience field which employs a monistic viewpoint. With extremely good reason too.

However, this item was irritating for another reason: Opposing arguments are almost always brought by philosophers! Jerry Fodor, in this case. I don't know about you, but I've always been mildly irritated by how philosophers who talk about neuroscience topics almost always serve to act as a spanner in the works. If I was an optimist (which I am, but not an overly enthusiastic one) I'd appreciate their arguments as something to think about and which can provide good ideas for further research. But that's just it: We neuroscientists end up having to do all the hard slog while the philosophers sit around like armchair critics trying to poke holes in studies.

But anyway, enough of my Friday night rant, have a look at the item for yourselves and see how silly dualistic/philosophical arguments can be easily consigned to the garbage heap:

Cognitive neuroscience explores how our mental faculties emerge from, and are organised in, the slimy tissue of our brains, and it's currently a thriving field. But some critics argue it's a dead-end, that biology is irrelevant to psychological accounts of how our minds work. In the words of philosopher Jerry Fodor, "If the mind happens in space at all, it happens somewhere north of the neck. What exactly turns on knowing how far north?"

Now, writing in a special journal issue on the interface between psychology and neuroscience, language expert
Peter Hagoort has hit back, arguing that knowing something about the biology of cognition can help to shape psychological models.

Hagoort cites two key examples to support his claims. A little background is required.

When we encounter an unexpected word in a sentence ("He spread his warm bread with SOCKS."), a negative spike in electrical activity recorded from the surface of the scalp is detectable 400ms later and is thought to reflect the extra brain processing required for the surprise word.

Meanwhile, when we encounter a grammatical anomaly (e.g. "The boys kissES the girls") - there is a positive, more posterior, spike of activity, 600ms afterwards. This latter effect is observed even with nonsense sentences that violate grammatical rules, thus showing that the spike is independent from the processing of meaning.

Taken together, Hagoort says these findings have implications for psychological models of language processing because they endorse the idea that meaning and grammar are not handled by a "general-purpose language processor", as he puts it, but rather they are "
domain specific" - in other words, processed independently.

For his second example, Hagoort points to a
brain imaging study that showed the pleasantness of a smell was rated differently depending on whether it was accompanied by the label "cheese" or "body odour". Crucially, the brain imaging data showed the verbal label affected processing in the actual smell centre of the brain. "This example illustrates something that would not so easily be found out with a behavioral method: that language information acts directly in the olfactory input system," Hagoort said.

Reference: Hagoort, P. (2008). Should Psychology Ignore the Language of the Brain?. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17(2), 96-101. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8721.2008.00556.x (Access is currently free).

Addendum: Yes, I have heard of Jerry Fodor and ideas on modularity and, while he is not just a philosopher, he is also a cognitive scientist and is thus in a position to know something of what he's talking about. My remarks against philosophers were directed to people such as Daniel Dennett. Shock horror! Yes, Daniel Dennett. As an undergraduate I hugely enjoyed studying the 'Consciousness' module and devoured the textbook, and found that Dennett was a prime example of one of those who act as the proverbial spanner. As Blackmore described issue after issue, Dennett seemed to pop up everywhere as a naysayer.

Ah well, perhaps I'm wrong and I was just in a bad mood when I read that book.

Facebook generation may be 'dangerous'

I caught this article on the BBC News site today ('Mental risk' of Facebook teens) and, although I understand the reasoning behind it, I'm not sure an entirely accurate picture is painted of teenagers.

Children growing up alongside the rise of social networking websites may have a "potentially dangerous" view of the world, says a leading psychiatrist.

Dr Himanshu Tyagi said sites such as Facebook and MySpace may be harmful.

He told the Royal College of Psychiatrists annual meeting people with active online identities might place less value on their real lives. And the West London Mental Health NHS Trust expert added this could raise the risk of impulsive acts or even suicide.

I read a story a while back about a boy who committed suicide after his girlfriend dumped him by email. You gotta wonder about the effect of reading cold words like that in equally cold black-and-white print and the emotional effects thereof, completely bereft of the 'personal touch' of face-to-face interactions in discussing a matter that is, in all respects, rather delicate. It is very easy to dismiss such people as being weak-minded for committing suicide in general, but such statements don't reflect the gravity of the situation or correctly identify/explain the depth of the mental processes involved.

So I can appreciate the point about how sites such as Facebook and Myspace (a significant advancement from plain email) could cause people to attribute a lot of importance to interactions taking place in a virtual world, but it is important to distinguish between people who correctly use such platforms as an extension of their lives rather than as a substitute, and people who tend to be emotionally vulnerable or sensitive and are likely to be profoundly affected by virtual interactions. Cyber-bullying and cyber-stalking are also huge problems in this respect.

Dr Tyagi said that people born after 1990 did not know a world without the widespread use of the internet. He warned that the current crop of psychiatrists were perhaps not fully prepared to help young people with internet-related problems. While social networking sites offered great benefits, he said, there were potential pitfalls.

This much is true; I first started using the Net around 1997 and it is rather disturbing to think about kids 7 or older using it, especially in those days when the Net really was all about freedom and lack of censorship, when a single typo in the URL downloaded the most horrific porn for you or took you to racist "White Power" sites, etc. Well, things are slightly better these days but not all that different. If we use porn as an example, several studies have been carried out that support the theory that occasional or regular viewing of porn can contribute to a variety of disturbing behaviours such as decreased respect for females, disturbing trends in sexual behaviour, and other negative symptoms. Unless some good 'nanny' software is installed, it is pretty easy for kids these days to download all this stuff and view them with a click of a mouse.

And it's not just porn that's a problem, it's just about everything. The sheer accessibility of the Net allows it to be viewed by almost everyone without so much as an age-check that has no real verification ability. Not that I am a fan of censorship but I can see how it can have an effect on young minds and quite probably be the cause of some serious warping.

It is also an open issue that internet issues have not been adequately studied. A few low-level studies have been done but not nearly enough to give psychologists any real guidance for issues that may arise in therapy and counselling sessions. Applying real-life strategies for bullying, for example, may not work in quite the same way for the phenomenon of cyber-bullying as the environment and methods by which it takes place may be similar but the differences are significant. So yes, it is definitely true that psychiatrists and psychologists alike are not adequately equipped to deal with patients with internet-related problems.

"It's a world where everything moves fast and changes all the time, where relationships are quickly disposed at the click of a mouse, where you can delete your profile if you don't like it, and swap an unacceptable identity in the blink of an eye for one that is more acceptable." He said: "People used to the quick pace of online social networking may soon find the real world boring and unstimulating. It may be possible that young people who have no experience of a world without online societies put less value on their real world identities and can therefore be at risk in their real lives, perhaps more vulnerable to impulsive behaviour or even suicide." He called for more investigation and research into the issue.

However, Graham Jones, a psychologist with an interest in the impact of the internet, said that while over-use of social networking sites could lead to problems, the risks posed by them had been overplayed. He said: "For every new generation, the experience they have of the world is a different one. "When the printing press was first invented, I am sure there were crowds of people saying it was a bad thing. In my experience, the people who tend to be most active on sites such as Facebook or Bebo are those who are most socially active anyway - it is just an extension of what they are already doing."

I can agree with this much. As tragic and heartbreaking was the suicide mentioned earlier, such cases are ultimately exceptions and isolated examples. But these issues are definitely ones to think about.

July 2, 2008

Does the crowd affect the result?

I'm quite a tennis fan. Not playing, mind you, but I do enjoy watching the matches on Eurosport whenever one of the major Grand Slams are going on, just as I am avidly following Wimbledon right now. (I'm a fan of Rafael Nadal, if you must know.)

I never really thought much about sport psychology as an undergraduate. "Sport psychology" - how terribly boring! The lecturer of that subject was almost always seen wearing a tracksuit, which gave me the impression that her students were having a bit of a laugh playing games all day and getting experiments out of it. It seemed like a bit of an easy life and a fast-track career path to becoming a PE teacher.

Until I read a general review of the research in that field and was impressed with it; the psychology behind concepts like being "in the zone" and the effect of teamwork upon individual performance suddenly made sense to me and gave me a new-found respect. Although I still wouldn't consider getting into that field (everyone has their own interests after all) I do think that it can contribute a lot to public education.

Hence a story on BBC News today. The recent fourth-round match between Andy Murray and Richard Gasquet was something to behold. Given that British players don't have a great record and after hearing that Murray was two sets down, I didn't bother to watch it. I couldn't escape the news of Murray's astounding third-set comeback and eventual winning of the match though, and I sat through an enjoyable hour-long replay being broadcast at the BBC site. If you ask me, I will agree that Murray's comeback was incredible and that his achievement was not to be understated. However, I think that he was also very lucky: The match lasted about 5 hours in total (finishing at 9.30pm in bad light), the Wimbledon crowd were openly baying support for Murray and there was also the small matter of Gasquet getting tired and making some very bad shots as a result. But the behaviour of the crowd was definitely an issue as they roared their support for every winning Murray move, and Murray wasn't exactly blushing because of it either.

This begs the question:

Does the crowd affect the result?

Two sets down against Richard Gasquet, Andy Murray seemed dead and buried. But backed by a vociferous crowd he turned it around and won the match. So how much influence can the audience at a sporting occasion have?

At times during his five-set thriller Andy Murray looked as if he was conducting the crowd on Wimbledon's Centre Court, and he paid great tribute to their influence afterwards. But there is disagreement in the world of sports psychology over just how much the crowd can achieve.


It doesn't need a survey to tell you that the vast majority of sport fans believe in the power of home advantage, and believe that the crowd has the key role in that advantage. "There's plenty of research out there which says crowds have an effect on athlete performance," says Matt Jevon, a sports psychologist who works with stars in golf, motorsport, rugby and tennis. In footballing terms it's often referred to as the "12th Man", the power of the crowd to amplify the abilities of the home team and weaken the away team. Dutch club Feyenoord went as far as dedicating the number 12 shirt to the fans. And certain football stadiums are notorious to opposition fans because of the consistency of the noise generated by the crowd and the perceived difficulty in going there. Valencia's precipitous Mestalla stadium, the red wall of Liverpool's Kop, Celtic's Parkhead on a European night and the notorious cauldron of Galatasaray's Ali Sami Yen are all well-known internationally.

But there are plenty who say home advantage is down to a more complex raft of factors than just the noise. "It is not really the crowd that has the biggest effect, it is a shot of testosterone when you are playing at home," says sports psychologist Sandy Wolfson. The testosterone boost starts happening even before the crowd arrive, and may relate to a sense of primitive territoriality. Some animals perform better in conflicts with rivals when defending their home territory than attacking foreign territory. Then there's also travel fatigue, disorientation, and unfamiliarity with an idiosyncratic pitch to be considered.


Another factor that may explain home advantage is the crowd's effect not on the players, but on the match officials. "In football, it's the referees that make the difference. If there is a harsh challenge, the crowd roars and the referee reacts," says Prof Ellis Cashmore, author of Sport and Exercise Psychology. It is common to see a referee miss a bad tackle on a player from team A, realise he has made a mistake, have booing directed at him, and then be lenient to the players of team A for a few minutes afterwards.

A Harvard University study last year of 5,000 English Premier League matches suggested away teams gave away more penalties. The crowd effect was particularly pronounced on inexperienced referees. In boxing it has occasionally been suggested that judges have a subconscious home bias, for example unwittingly favouring the American fighter in a Las Vegas bout over his foreign opponent. In tennis of course, the decisions are too clear cut for subconscious bias to be possible. And yet there was a key decision that went in favour of Murray in his match with Gasquet. The Frenchman was desperate to go off for bad light and resume play in the morning. The crowd would have reacted angrily if this had happened. And in the event, both the umpire and tournament referee seemed happy that the light was adequate for play to continue.


In the Murray/Gasquet match, the Frenchman was visibly annoyed by the amount of crowd noise immediately before points and between serves. Making noise between the first and second serve is considered particularly unacceptable in tennis, but occurred numerous times during the fifth set. Gasquet has a reputation as a psychologically frail player, and it's not beyond the realms of possibility that this was putting him off. "During the first couple of sets Gasquet had got the crowd pretty quiet," says Jevon. "They were sitting there thinking 'another British loss'. As soon as there was a pick-up in the crowd noise and involvement, Gasquet wasn't mentally tough enough."

Coping with an unexpected Murray resurgence was difficult, but allied to a sudden jump in pro-Murray crowd volume it was very problematic. "You can't be human and not notice these things," says Jevon. "The more you try and block something out the more you have to deal with it."

In golf, another game where the competitors are accustomed to quiet, it has been suggested that when a player is barracked, as Colin Montgomery often has been in the US, his performance could be affected. In Italy's clash with Spain in Euro 2008, the Italian forward Antonio Di Natale was roundly booed by the audience as while "injured" and off the pitch, he rolled back onto it in order to get the referee to stop the game and thereby stop a Spanish attack. When it came to the penalty shoot-out his poor effort - amid whistles and jeers - was easily saved.


Of course support can be too much. There has been at least one survey suggesting that it is an advantage to take a penalty shoot-out in front of the opposing fans, the theory being that the pressure becomes too great in front of your own fans. And there are plenty who thought Tim Henman struggled to cope with the pressure lumped on him by the crowds. "There is some lab evidence that the support of crowds can have a negative effect," says Prof Wolfson. "The performers always think the supporter or the audience had a positive influence but sometimes it didn't."

And if you want to be gee'd up when you're down, and you get the crowd going, as soon as you've turned things round, you still want to be able to screen out excess noise so you can concentrate. "You have got to be confident as a team that you can cope with the outcome of you stimulating that kind of support," says Jevon. In Murray's battle with Gasquet, the commentators noticed he was focusing on particular individuals in the crowd to motivate himself. This controlled use of crowd energy could be the answer.

July 1, 2008

God, Insects, Robots: Are They Aware?

This nifty little article at Scientific American is something that piqued my interest in it's discussion of how people tend to impute conscious intentions and feelings to "entities" that resemble human bodies. The headline is a little misleading though: The article discusses people's intuitions rather than whether insects and robots actually experience "awareness". After first discussing the application of psychological concepts to organisations, the study's authors found that their results indicated that people were more willing to attribute certaian types of psychological concepts to corporations than actual phenomenal consciousness.

Isn't this a little obvious, though? As an example, people are more likely to say thing like: "Microsoft intends to implement a new sales strategy" rather than "Microsoft believes Google will eventually fail". These are instances of where certain psychological concepts may be applied to amorphous and faceless corporations. The study found certain things; It may be acceptable to use sentences such as:

- Acme Corporation believes that its profit margin will soon increase.
- Acme Corporation intends to release a new product this January.
- Acme Corporation wants to change its corporate image.

But they balked at all of the sentences that attributed feelings or subjective experiences to corporations:

- Acme Corporation is now experiencing great joy.
- Acme Corporation is getting depressed.
- Acme Corporation is experiencing a sudden urge to pursue Internet advertising.

So, clearly, people aren't inclined to attribute corporations with thoughts and feelings in quite the same way as they would do for humans. Again, isn't this obvious? You'd have to be quite a stupid fellow to come out with things like "Google's heart will break if it's new project fails"! Although the sentiment can be appreciated, I'm sure.

Other studies test the hypothesis that that phenomenal consciousness is likely to be attributed to things that may resemble physical bodies? Enter the robots; studies revealed that people are reasonably aware that robots are capable of some pretty cool things and so they wouldn't have a problem describing a robot that can "tell that a triangle has three sides" but, conversely, would have a problem saying something such as "the robot feels unhappy when it doesn't get what it wants." In this instance, certain kinds of mental states are attributed to the robot (awareness of shapes) but not those states that require phenomenal consciousness.

Now here's the thing: What about ascribing phenomenal consciousness to things that have no body? Enter the Big Boss (God). A Harvard study (with Daniel M. Wegner as an author) analysed people's intuitions about conscious states that could be experienced by God, and the results were surprisingly similar:

People were content to say that God could have psychological properties such as:

- Thought
- Memory
- Planning
But they did not think God could have states that involved feelings or experiences, such as:
- Pleasure
- Pain
- Fear

The article goes on to mention that attributions of mental states to God were comparable to mental states attributed to Google Corporation, and that further research is necessary to go some way in describing the underlying cognitive processes that lead people to selectively attribute consciousness to certain entities. No kidding! Given that all things should be standardised, how does this work for those religious and theological systems that don't have a conception of God as an amorphous and faceless entity? I'm not big on religion but even I know that religions such as Islam and Sikhism tend to portray a formless God who supposedly takes an active role in affording salvation to believers and granting prayers/desires. The Advaita Vedanta tradition in Hinduism is given to the "uninvolved" conception of a Deity so that might bring about similar results to this study if adherents of that tradition were studied.

It might be interesting to study the attitudes of those who advocate the notion of a formless deity but who differ on the exact nature of that deity's involvement in the workings of the world and believers' lives. What to speak of studying those who believe in a corporeal or transcorporeal deity. What knock-on effects this may have for consciousness studies and schizophrenia research is anyone's guess.