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Not psychology: early 19th Century analysis of modern issues

I’ve been reading EP Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (Gollancz, 1980) in an attempt to make up for the weaknesses of my academic education in the 1950s and 60s. Not having had the benefit of having been taught in a modern comprehensive, my history knowledge derives mainly from Time Team and Blackadder (I note that Michael Gove hasn’t objected to Blackadder’s portrayal of Elizabeth 1 and the Prince Regent, so I guess he thinks those are pretty accurate).

I’ve been really struck by how precisely things people wrote 200 years ago mirror modern issues. Perhaps if I knew more history, it wouldn’t be so striking – but perhaps if many modern commentators knew more history, they would have more sensible things to say about these modern issues.
So (p225 in the 1980 edition): “Thus as early as 1817 the Leicester framework knitters put forward, in a series of resolutions, an under-consumption theory of capitalist crisis”, which could be seen as support for raising the minimum wage, and a criticism of the global race to the bottom in wage rates:

  • That in proportion as the Reduction of Wages makes the great Body of the People poor and wretched, in the same proportion must the consumption of our manufacturers be lessened.
  • That if liberal Wages were given to the Mechanics in general throughout the Country, the Home Consumption of our Manufactures would be immediately more than doubled, and consequently every hand would soon find full employment.
  • That to Reduce the Wage of the Mechanic in this Country so low that he cannot live by his labour, in order to undersell Foreign Manufacturers in a Foreign Market, is to gain one customer abroad, and lose two at home ..

And the benefits system works in the favour of employers to subsidise wages, and to maintain a pool of workers for zero-hours contracts (p244):

…a country magistrate in 1800 […] went on to argue that the poor-rates, by maintaining a surplus population and encouraging marriages – thereby ensuring a supply of labour in excess of demand – brought down the total wages bill. Indeed, he showed himself a pioneer in the science of ‘averages’:
‘Let us suppose the annual poor-rates, and the amount of wages throughout England added together in one total; I think this total would be less than the sole amount of the wages, if the poor-rates had not existed.’
The motives which led to the introduction of the various systems of poor-relief which related relief to the price of bread and to the number of children were no doubt various. The Speenhamland decision of 1795 was impelled by both humanity and necessity. But the perpetuation of Speenhamland and ’roundsman’ systems, in all their variety, was ensured by the demand of the larger farmers – in an industry which has exceptional requirements for occasional or casual labour – for a permanent cheap labour reserve.

And, in the eyes of employers and the comfortably off, the countryside in 1800 was pretty much like Benefits Street. The same prejudiced ranting that you’ll find in the modern right-wing press was visible than, too. Depressing.
243: from the Commercial and Agricultural Magazine, October 1800:

[The village poor are] ‘designing rogues, who, under various pretences, attempt to cheat the parish’ and ‘their whole abilities are exerted in the execution of deceit, which may procure from the parish officers an allowance of money for idle and profligate purposes’.

..and by 1816, the human rights menace from Brussels (or at least Paris) had been added (p246):

‘In regard to the poor-rates,’ one Bedfordshire ‘feelosofer’ (Dr Macqueen) wrote to the Board of Agriculture in 1816, ‘I always view these as coupled with the idleness and depravity of the working class:
The morals as well as the manners of the lower orders of the community have been degenerating since the earliest ages of the French Revolution. The doctrine of equality and the rights of man is not yet forgotten, but fondly cherished and reluctantly abandoned. They consider their respective parishes as their right and inheritance, in which they are entitled to resort …’

I guess the poor are always with us, and so always need to be slagged off by those who benefit from maintaining their poverty, in order to justify to themselves and others what is done to maintain that poverty (we psychologists call it Dissonance Reduction).
Later in the 19th century, I believe (haven’t got that far in the book yet), these lower orders and mechanics organised themselves and affected some improvement in their conditions. Might that happen this century?


Where’s the harm in creationism?

I was talking to a friend about being sceptical about being sceptical, and he raised the question: “where’s the harm in creationism?” Creationism is offensively stupid, of course, but then so are lots of other commonly held beliefs – like that anything Paris Hilton (2016 update: any of the Khardashians. Paris Hilton has lost her appeal, it seems) does is interesting and should be monetised – which are equally stupid, but probably don’t do much harm. Other –isms – racism, sexism, sectarianism, homophobia-ism – are clearly harmful and can be directly linked to discrimination, ethnic cleansing, rape, murder, war….Those are isms clearly worth combating – but is creationism anything to get het up about? What did the creationists ever do to us?
A good question, and it got me thinking. Here is why I think creationism is damaging. I’m talking here about Abrahamic creationism – mainly because that’s the only kind of creationism that I have any theological grounding in: I was raised as a Christian. There are lots of other versions of creationism (the ones involving Raven and Halibut are part-way convincing), but I guess one set of creationists aren’t prepared to co-opt other sets’ versions to work towards a general theory of creation.

So, where’s the harm in creationism? What did the creationists ever do to us?

1) It supports lots of the other –isms.
Sexism: Woman was created secondarily to Man, and therefore inferior and subservient to Man.
Speciesism: Man was created master over the rest of creation.
Racism: the curse of Ham falls on people with dark skin (‘a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren’*) – no, wait: that is in Genesis, but it’s not really part of the story of the Creation, which ought to end with the abatement of Noah’s flood, if not with the expulsion from Eden.
Sectarianism: no, that’s probably post-Holy Scripture.
Condemnation of same-sex acts: biblical, but not part of the creation myth (though it could have been: lots of creation myths have the creator making several false starts before getting humanity right; so there could have been a version in which God first created two same-sex individuals, rather than a man and a woman, and then decided that that wasn’t a good basis for procreation. Missed a trick there, 5-10th century B.C.E bigots.)
But then many evolutionists are just as bad. The eugenics movement developed alongside, and as a natural extension of, really, the theory of evolution. The (mistaken, admittedly) notion that some species and races are ‘more evolved’ than others is used to justify speciesism and racism.
There’s a whole genre of sexist evolutionary thought. You know the kind of thing: women evolved to have better colour discrimination than men because back in the old hunter-gatherer days, out on the savannah, those women with excellent colour discrimination were better able to choose the right colours to use to knit** effective camouflage garments for their mates, which enabled those men to go out and kill more sabre-toothed mammoths than those who had partners with mediocre colour discrimination, and therefore raise more offspring. Conversely, men are more stupid than women because back in those evolutionary days, you had to be stupid to go out trying to kill sabre-toothed mammoths when you could easily have raised (rather fewer) offspring on worms and beetles. Evolutionists have a problem understanding same-sex relationships, too: what’s the point? However, I think you can model an evolutionary advantage to having a gay uncle (a lesbian aunt probably enhances infant survival odds even more). So, from the point of view of harmful isms, there may not be much to choose between creationists and evolutionists (though maybe not all evolutionists are as bad as evolutionary psychologists).

And don’t get me started on Social Darwinism.

2) Some of the big problems and dangers which face us depend on evolutionary mechanisms, and if we don’t understand or believe in those we could be stuffed.
One of those problems is species loss and reduction in biodiversity, and the food security risks of genetically limited monocultures. Reasons for thinking these things are dangerous depend on at least some acceptance of evolutionary processes (though presumably lots of good creationists got the point of the Irish potato famine at the time).
From a creationist point of view, what’s the problem?

Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.
And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for food. Genesis 1: 28-29

There you go; we’ve been given it, and it’s there for us to exploit AS WE THINK FIT.
Well, you’d hope that a sensible creationist would think that even if the rest of the world was created to serve humanity, that doesn’t mean we can trash it with impunity – and for less sensible creationists, surely any act of deliberate or negligent extinction is blasphemy? Do we really have the right to destroy what God saw fit to create?
Of course, selective breeding itself ought to be a problem for creationists. Obviously it can’t work, because the mechanisms we use (artificial selection) are too close to the natural selection which doesn’t work and doesn’t modify organisms. Or if it does work, we shouldn’t do it. Modifying that which God saw fit to create in all its perfection has to be blasphemous, again. Every heavily overbred bulldog  is an Abomination Unto The Lord (they’re probably right on that one***). This interpretation seems logical to me, but I’ve not heard it raised by creationists, though it does appear in John Windham’s post-apocalyptic novel The Chrysalids.

The other evolution-based problem that’s worrying me is the evolution of antibiotic resistance in common bacteria. Here’s somewhere where lack of belief in evolution and natural selection will surely kill our grandchildren. This one in itself is enough to condemn creationism.
Having said that, the bland refusal to bother with scientific stuff shown by our ruling and communicative classes is just as dangerous. Last week, I heard an interviewer on Radio 4’s Today programme, interviewing an expert about antibiotic resistance, twice saying that antibiotics had become less effective because ‘our bodies have got used to them’. The second time he said it, the interviewee gently (much too gently, I think) corrected him – but such cluelessness can be as dangerous as creationist resistance. I blame Oxbridge education.

3) Creationism sets a bad intellectual example, which may warp people’s ability to cope with other aspects of the world. Ever since Darwin, what we’ve discovered in all kinds of areas apart from the zoology and botany he was mainly using for evidence – geology, physics, molecular biology – has fitted in with the general notion of the change and diversification of organisms and the age of the earth, most spectacularly in genetics and molecular biology, where we’ve understood the mechanisms for processes which Darwin could only infer, and plate tectonics, where we understand the mechanism for a process which seemed necessary to account for the distribution of living things (and rocks) over the surface of the earth, but which, even in my lifetime, seemed manifestly impossible. By and large (there are always complications in science) the evidence FITS, even in areas which seemed to have little to do with the original thesis****.
If you’re prepared to deny all that, you’re prepared to deny almost anything in science, and probably everyday logic as well. So a the cast of mind which allows a belief in creationism (or, more accurately, denial of evolution and the age of the Earth) is a serious intellectual handicap which can spread to all kinds of other areas of life, with potentially damaging effects, like starting wars to protect ourselves from Weapons of Mass Destruction. Put more simply, creationism is monumentally stupid, and choosing to be monumentally stupid is a hazard to your health, and probably to the health of those around you.

4) Creationism is a subset of a wider problem: literal belief in every single word in the Christian Bible, as the word of God. One problem I have with this is that I can’t find a solid provenance of the fully divinely Authorised Version. I’ve read lots of English versions of the bible, which are all translations of translations, as far as I can make out, and different versions say different things, and I know that in the past people were put to death for asserting that some sentences in the bible should be translated one way rather than another. But maybe that can be put aside as an epistemological problem for believers which we non-believers don’t have to worry about.
But have you seen what the Bible says outside of Genesis?*****
Leviticus 11: 30 forbids eating ferrets and chameleons, which seems fair enough, but 11: 23 forbids eating flying creeping things with four feet (which are extinct now, though not as a result of evolutionary pressure), and 11: 10 bans lobster bisque and moules marinière, which is going a bit far.
Leviticus 19: 19 bans linen/wool blends, though the abomination that is cotton-rich seems to be spared.
More seriously, Leviticus 19: 33-34 says:

And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not vex him. But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.

– which rules out any anti-immigration policy. Exodus 35: 2 says:

Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you an holy day, a sabbath of rest to the LORD: whosoever doeth work therein shall be put to death.

This should be grim news for many workers in modern retail.
The New Testament is worse. We are encouraged to undermine the economic and moral order:

Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.
Matthew 19:21


But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.
Matthew 5: 44

(The quotes above are from the King James version: authenticated by the King as the Lord’s agent on Earth at that time.)
So, apart from decimating fine dining and retail, the Bible requires us to welcome immigrants, sell everything and give the proceeds to the poor, and do good to those that hate us. That would hit the Home Counties like a Zombie Apocalypse. Imagine what the Daily Mail would say.

If creationists believed all this stuff, and acted on it, society as we know it would be in big trouble. THAT’S where the real harm in creationism would lie.

5) However, either most fundamentalist creationists don’t believe what it says in places like this in the Bible, or believe it and aren’t prepared to act on it – which seems like monumental hypocrisy. And, eventually, that may be the biggest harm: just as creationism is a training in intellectual inadequacy, claiming to believe and follow the Divine Word of God as set out in the Bible – but not doing so on matters like those above – is a moral failure, which softens people up for accepting all the other injustices, cruelties, prejudices and meanesses of life.

Many thanks to Andy Sutton for the original question.

* Although Wikipedia points out that in the original story (or factual account, if you want it that way), there’s no reference to Ham being Black, and Abraham’s curse is on Canaan (Ham’s son, or maybe the nation descended from Ham’s son), not on Ham himself: “And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.” (Genesis, chapter 9)

** Yes, I know that’s pastoralist, but it’s a shame to get historical accuracy get in the way of a good evolutionary psychology story.

***And the hairless cat is Satan’s Work Right Here On Earth:

**** Note that this is strikingly different from modern cosmology, where developing research and theory has led to more and more weird notions because the evidence doesn’t fit. Dark matter and dark energy do seem very like theological inventions to explain away awkward reality, and not that unlike celestial spheres. Doubting the big bang theory because of these counter-intuitive accretions is probably unjustified, but does make intellectual sense.

***** West Wing fans will know that I got most of the ideas for this bit from ‘Bartlett’s Quotations’:

Why the private sector shouldn’t do public service: or why these people behave like scum, even if they didn’t start out like that

Three stories in The Guardian over the last week which started me thinking about the inherent, and serious, danger of using the private sector to run organisations which are supposed to be for the public good. My disgust started with a story about Adam Afriyie, who has emerged as a possible conservative leadership contender (no, I don’t know what that’s about either, but obviously someone has a Cunning Plan): Adam Afriyie profile: before any plot, there was always a word farm by Robert Booth The Guardian, Thursday 31 January (

“Afriyie, the MP for Windsor, who was forced to deny any ambition to unseat the PM, has made a multimillion-pound fortune from businesses that include an operation employing hundreds of young writers to churn out thousands of news stories a day about anything from car roof racks to the best way to cook Christmas lunch.
Afriyie owns businesses that include Adfero which bills itself as “the UK’s leading dedicated online news provider”. It produces thousands of short articles for corporate clients who need fresh content on their websites featuring popular keywords in the daily battle to appear near the top of Google’s search rankings.
[…]  Adfero staff are asked to produce around 30 articles per day, each of around 200 words – a rate of one every 15 minutes in an eight-hour shift. The stories – many written from press releases harvested systematically – are then sold to clients at a price of around £18 per time to clients.
Adfero is part of the burgeoning industry of “search engine optimisation” and to make sure Google puts an organisation’s website high up its list of search results whenever an internet user inputs search terms that relate to that organisation’s trade. So by writing stories about a film star such as Jennifer Lopez and posting them on a film rental website, when a movie fan does a Google search for Jennifer Lopez, there is a higher likelihood of the company’s site appearing in the search.”

I can’t imagine anything more vacuous, meretricious, and wasteful (and deceitful to those of us who [unwisely] trust Google’s algorithms to find us good quality content) – but you can make a multi-million pound business* out of that.

Then I found: The Google adverts helping to rip-off consumers Patrick Collinson The Guardian, Saturday 2 February 2013 (

“There are a bunch of slimy toerags who create websites that trick people into paying £1.50 a minute to ring free services such as calling NHS Direct and DWP benefit helplines, or lure them into paying £10 for a European health insurance card when they’re free, or charge £50 for what should be an £8 US visa. Now unsuspecting visitors to London are being targeted with sites that mislead drivers into paying 50% more than they should for the congestion charge.”

Slimy toerags is mild – but if there’s money to be made…..

….And finally, I remembered from the week before: Fake reviews plague consumer websites: Consumer website reviews should give you the truth about goods and services – unless they’ve been written to order Mike Deri Smith The Guardian, Saturday 26 January 2013 (

“Websites such as Trustpilot claim to have millions of “authentic reviews from actual customers” to help shoppers buy online with confidence. But a Guardian Money investigation has uncovered fake reviewing on an almost industrial scale, with companies paying offshore contractors to post numerous glowing accounts of their activities, yet maintaining they are from unbiased consumers.

Many of the fake reviews uncovered by Money were written by computer science specialists in countries such as Bangladesh, India and Indonesia, who, for a relatively low fee, will write and send false reviews using scores of aliases and fake addresses. Many offer their services to western companies on, which promotes itself as an international website on which you can “outsource anything you can think of”. Companies simply post their requirements and wait for freelancers to start bidding for the work.

Guardian Money tracked down fake reviews promoting WAE+ (formerly known as We Are Electricals), which last year was the most complained about company to our consumer champions’ Bachelor&Brignall consumer champions column.”

OK, you shouldn’t believe everything you read in The Guardian, but you just know this stuff is true, because it’s absolutely in character: the character of the private sector.

The point of private enterprise is to make profit for the owners. There is no other objective, and from its point of view there should be no restrictions on how to do that, as long as it’s legally allowed (thank goodness there are some legal restrictions, which is why – for any libertarian US  readers – yes, we really do need a democratic government and a set of laws). Anything else can go and get stuffed. I was first made aware of this thirty-odd years ago when I read The Famine Business (1977)**, a book by Colin Tudge, the excellent science writer about all kinds of things, where he pointed out that the business of food companies was not to make food, but to make money – and once you realise that, a lot of unfairness and suffering in the world starts to make sense.
OK, there can be useful side-effects. Maybe the public sector wouldn’t have done what Apple did (though it might not have overcharged, restricted use of its technology, and introduced infuriating DRM, either), but producing all that good stuff isn’t really the point for Apple. If they had brilliant products which didn’t produce fat profits, they’d ditch them. On the other hand, if there are malevolent products which make good profits, then it’s the entirely consistent business of the private sector to promote them. It isn’t an aberration that there’s one mis-selling scandal after another: mis-selling is what they do. It’s what they should do, if mis-selling produces more profit than ethical selling.
On the other hand, the business of the public sector is to benefit the public. There will be all kinds of failures, wrong decisions, self-serving employees, bureaucratic befuddlement – but in the end, what people are trying to do (and what they’re judged by) is to do something useful. The NHS is supposed to promote health and provide medical care; the fire service is supposed to prevent fire, and save lives and property, the education system is supposed to help people understand the world and get the skills to cope with life and work (and, yes, to filter to deserving classes from the dross, but if we really wanted, we could change that aim). They won’t succeed, but at least they’re trying do the right thing, and there will be attempts at correction.
As I write this, I realise that this is so stupidly obvious that I shouldn’t be wasting your time expecting you to read it – or my time writing it, maybe – but it doesn’t seem to be something that’s realised by the people who are in the business of making life worse for almost everyone (the coalition government). Actually, that’s probably wrong, because they’re acting in the interests of people who stand to profit enormously from things like the privatisation of health care, and they know that very well. But why do we let ourselves be fooled?

So – someone can get enormously, unnecessarily, rich, by employing people to write meaningless articles about useless topics in order to fool people about which websites are most useful or relevant to their interests. WTF.

*Unlike me, who…..

** but don’t buy it from Amazon, unless you’re citizen of Luxemburg. Better Books World have two secondhand copies in stock (on 3 February 2013):

One of the foundation myths of modern psychology: “Brain Scans Show”

I’ve written about this before ( and, but reading through Dorothy Bishop’s excellent BishopBlog (, I came across a post of hers which made the points more clearly than I can:

Bishop also links to from Neuroskeptic, who makes similar points. Neuroskeptic’s argument is not as carefully organised as Bishop’s (and ends up by dismissing the James-Lange theory of emotions as obviously rubbish, which isn’t really justified), but is pleasantly forceful.

Neuroskeptic also discusses the Bennet & al (2009) ‘brain scan of emotion-judging activity in a dead fish’ study (  which Christina mentioned in her lecture. The original poster by Bennet & al (it didn’t make it into a peer-reviewed journal, as far as I know) is at – .

Why do we believe these stories, and believe that brain scans are the royal road to an understanding of the unconscious (or at least a way of answering psychological questions)? I’ll try to explain in my next lecture.

Doctors encouraged to unnecessarily delay treatment to NHS patients in BMI Healthcare hospital

I’m interrupting normal service (a piece on what ‘hardwired’ might actually mean, and another on re-evaluating Milgram’s research, supported by some recent research, are on their way) because a recent news story appalled me, and I’m also a bit concerned that it hasn’t been more widely circulated.

The story was broken by The Independent on 21 July:

It reveals how the chief executive of a private-sector hospital doing NHS work devised a policy of artificially delaying treatment of NHS patients in the hope of coercing them into ‘converting’ to more profitable private patients.

Bernie Creaven, executive director of the private BMI Meriden Hospital, Coventry, had ordered an immediate four-week postponement of operations on NHS patients referred to the hospital, which will be extended to a minimum of eight weeks by September.
In a letter to the hospital’s consultants dated 13 July, seen by The Independent, Ms Creaven said the imposed delays were to discourage patients thinking of going private from opting for treatment on the NHS.
Private hospitals receive taxpayer money for treating NHS cases, but can make larger fees if the patients go directly to them for treatment.
“I believe time to access the system is the most critical factor for private patients converting to NHS patients,” she wrote. She added that “other aspects of differentiation” would be introduced over the next few weeks to make NHS treatment at the hospital relatively less attractive.


In her letter to consultants, Ms Creaven says: “Over the past few months I have had numerous discussions with consultants regarding the lack of differentiation between NHS and private patients and there is significant anecdotal evidence to suggest that the lack of differentiation has had a negative effect on our private patient referrals.
“I now wish to implement with immediate effect a new rule which will mean that operations on NHS Choose and Book patients will not be able to take place until at least four weeks following their outpatient consultation. Also, in each subsequent month, I will extend this by another week until September and the time will be eight weeks from initial consultation. I believe that this time to access the system is probably the most critical factor for some private patients converting to NHS patients.”

Good grief.

Ben Goldacre, whose tweet about this was the first I saw of it, comments “If an individual Dr did what @BMIHealthcarePR did, wd get struck off, no?” I think it’s possible. Were medics involved?”. Well, yes, they were: the letter was to the hospital consultants. Maybe one of them was the whistleblower: perhaps that’s the one who shouldn’t be struck off. Let’s hope that BMI healthcare don’t lay them off instead.

People close to me pointed out that this is only the logical extension of the despicable ‘go private and jump the NHS queue’ practice which we’ve long been familiar with, which is true, but I think there’s a qualitative difference here. Treatment is being withheld for no other reason than to convert patients. Not because there aren’t beds, nor available staff, or even that higher-paying patients come first: the policy is to automatically deny necessary medical treatment, even if it could be easily provided: to stand by and say ‘even though you’re fully entitled to treatment, and the NHS will pay us fully for that treatment, we’ll not do anything for you for several weeks unless and until you pay extra’. It’s definitely not crossing over the line to deliberately inflicting damage on patients so you can benefit from treating them, but it seems to me to be getting horribly close to that line.

Note that MS Creavon promises that “other aspects of differentiation” will be applied, whch sounds dangerously threatening when you consider it’s an extension to unnecessarily denying treatment . Withholding analgesics? Less thoroughly cleaned wards? (oh, sorry: private enterprise has imposed that in NHS hospitals already).

As I said at the top, it’s also shocking how little the story’s been picked up, considering that dopey misreported stories about ‘hardwired racism‘ can run round the world in 24 hours. The only other mention I can find online about it (on 23 July) is a piece from Labour Left:

They say that the Department of Health has put out a statement:

Minimum waiting times that do not take account of healthcare needs of patients are unacceptable. Decisions on treatments, including suitability for surgery, should be made by clinicians based on what is best for the patient. This applies regardless of whether a hospital is run by the NHS or the independent sector.
We will therefore be contacting BMI to ensure that NHS patients are not disadvantaged.

– but point out, rightly, that as long as you have organisations whose only motive is profit supplying services for the public sector, this kind of thing will happen. Ms Creavon was operating in the best traditions of the private sector to maximise surplus value for her bosses and their shareholders (and probably for herself, too: it would be a step towards public accountability if we could see her management targets). That’s what these organisations were set up to do. As has been very obvious lately, the idea that the private sector can do things either more cheaply or better than the people who are working for the public good doesn’t work out in practice. What this case shows, though, is that the private sector is good at finding inhumane ways of exploiting people to maximise profit – and the poor old, much-maligned public sector probably isn’t up to controlling their abuses. As the NHS is increasingly privatised, expect to see more of this.

Psychologists worried about existential queries. What’s the point?

Story by John Hooper in The Guardian today (18 July) about Corigliano d’Otranto, a small town in southern Italy, which has appointed an (unpaid) municipal philosopher. The town mayor, Ada Fiore, is a philosophy teacher.

Under Fiore’s mayorship, the council has put up ceramic plaques with quotations from the likes of Saint Augustine. It has given out postcards for distribution in bars and shops that ask existential questions, such as “Why were you born?”.

The municipal philosopher (hours 3-7 on Friday, €15 a session), Graziella Lupo, said that “Much of her work was about getting people to think clearly, listen to each other and formulate questions that bore on the subject in hand.” Right on, Graziella.

Dangerous stuff, which the head of the regional psychological professional body has roundly condemned.

Dr Giuseppe Luigi Palma said the use of a consulting philosopher was “not only misleading and confusing, but utterly perilous”. He said his organisation was ready to take “all the most appropriate actions to combat any offence that may be identified”.

What would be ‘all the most appropriate actions’ here? I guess trying the old ‘My next statement is a lie. My last statement was true’ trick on her won’t work – she’ll have seen that one before. Maybe giving out postcards saying ‘Have you ever wondered why you were born? Forget it, you don’t want to know: trust me, I’m a psychologist.’ Or could the population be infected with rampant reductionism?

If you do want to take the utterly perilous step of getting into existential queries, there is a discussion group: (though I think a lot of the questions there are metaphysical, rather than existential), which was linked to Existential Questions TV ( – but ‘this channel has been deleted’. Worrying.

For myself, I think many existential questions can be answered by watching Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. (And although this is a perilous area where psychologists should fear to tread, I can give an explanation, based on Cox’s Transactional Stress model and the Yerkes-Dodson Law, why it isn’t a good idea for the Knight to challenge Death at chess. If you’re brave enough, email me).

Graziella Lupo is on Facebook. I haven’t friended her, but she gives some public information: among her favourite authors/books are Zygmunt Bauman (yes!), Martha Nussbaum and  Virginia Wolf, and Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
One of her favourite films is The Matrix – not a good choice, but perhaps it’s compulsory for philosophers. That’s backed up with Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, which I hope she’s recommending to the citizens of Corigliano d’Otranto.

Palma has a website:, which is about his bid in the 2010 Puglia regional elections.

Lupo doesn’t seem impressed with Palma’s warnings:

“I don’t think the college of psychologists knows what a philosophical consultant is.” And being a philosophical consultant, she added: “Their criticism is in any case devoid of epistemological content.”

Can’t argue with that – at least, not without looking up ‘epistemological’.

ps As I’m coming near the end of 39 years of teaching psychology, the existential questions ‘what was that all about, then?’ and ‘was there any point?’ do crop up. ‘All the most appropriate action’ needs to be taken – writing blogs, calvados and singing, probably.

pps On the same page of The Guardian was the headline: “Chain of bicycle thieves sought by Paris police”. I bet that gave them a laugh. They got a completely irrelevant reference to De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves into the piece, too.

You Are Not a Gadget: Jaron Lanier on Technology and Personhood

Saw Jaron Lanier on Newsnight last night, adding some sensible wider persepectives to a debate on ways of filtering internet porn, and was reminded of how interesting his ideas have been over the last twenty years or so.

Lanier is a virtual reality programmer and internet activist from way back. He looks like a dreadlocked Buddha (on Newsnight like a dreadlocked Buddha who has let himself go a bit), but that shouldn’t undermine his authority (actually, for me, it probably enhances it).

His recent (2010, 2011) book You Are Not a Gadget (here’s the book on*)is a fascinating discussion of the social and philosophical implications of the particular ways we have chosen to structure computer systems. The basic idea is that particularly successful systems, like the World Wide Web, the mouse and windows interface, MIDI, and the UNIX operating system, both structure our reality and lock us in to those systems, pre-empting other ways of doing things (and therefore pre-empting other ways of thinking about things – and maybe pre-empting other ways of being) . The installed base/lock-in problem isn’t a new phenomenon which appeared with computing. Other examples are the qwerty typewriter/keyboard layout (did you know it was originally designed to slow down typing, but repeated attempts to introduce faster, easier-to-use systems have been complete failures – because too many people know how to do it the qwerty way?), and the steering wheel/two or three pedals way of controlling motor vehicles (actually, probably quite a good system, from what we know about multi-tasking, but probably the result of a few technological accidents 100+ years ago). These things aren’t just technology and design issues, though: they can have psychological and social implications, which is why I’m discussing his book here. One section is headed “Digital Reification: Lock-in Turns Philosophy into Reality”, which sums up the starting idea of the book well, I think.

Here’s Lanier’s opening statement about the book:

You Are Not a Gadget argues that certain specific, popular Internet designs of the moment – not the Internet as a whole – tend to pull us into life patterns that gradually degrade the ways in which each of us exists as an individual. These unfortunate designs are more orientated towards treating people as relays in a global brain. De-emphasising personhood, and the intrinsic value of an individual’s unique internal experience and creativity, leads to all sorts of maladies, many of which are explored in these pages. While the core argument might be described as “spiritual,” there are also profound political and economic implications.
p. x

And here’s something about the mechanisms of how it affects us:

The most important thing about a technology is how it changes people
When I work with experimental digital gadgets, like new variations on virtual reality, in a lab environment, I’m always reminded of how small changes in the details of the digital design can profound unforeseen effects on the experiences of the humans who are playing with it. The slightest change in something as seemingly trivial as the ease of use the button can sometimes completely altered behaviour patterns.
For instance, Stanford University researcher Jeremy Bailenson has demonstrated that changing the height of one’s avatar in immersive virtual reality transforms self-esteem and social self-perception. [Here’s the publications page at Bailenson’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford: interesting stuff. Specific refs at ** below] Technologies are extensions of ourselves, and, like the avatars in Jeremy’s lab, our identities can be shifted by the quirks of gadgets. It is impossible to work with information technology without also engaging in social engineering.
One might ask, “If I am blogging, twittering, and wikiing a lot, how does that change who I am?” or “if the ‘hive mind’ is my audience, who am I?” Inventors of digital technologies are like stand-up comedians or neurosurgeons, in that our work resonates with the philosophical questions; unfortunately, we’ve proven to be poor philosophers lately.
When developers of digital technologies design a program that requires you to interact with a computer as if it were a person, they ask you to accept in some corner of your brain that you might also be conceived of as a program. When they design an Internet service that is edited by vast anonymous crowd, they are suggesting that a random crowd of humans is an organism with a legitimate point of view.
Different media designs stimulate different potentials in human nature. We shouldn’t seek to make the pack mentality as efficient as possible. We should instead seek to inspire the phenomenon of individual intelligence.
“What is a person?” If I knew the answer to that, I might be able to program an artificial person in a computer. But I can’t. Being a person is not a passive formula, but the quest, a mystery, a leap of faith.
Pp. 4-5

Now, I guess I might disagree with Lanier in believing that a random crowd of humans does have a legitimate point of view, at least a legitimate artistic/aesthetic point of view, as I argued in talking about the evolutionary view of traditional music, and so I’d go for more of a dialectic between the social/individual, because “inspiring individual intelligence” also seems a good idea. Lanier isn’t a swivel-eyed individualist, though:

A happy surprise
The rise of the web was a rare instance when we learned new, positive information about human potential. Who would have guessed (at least at first) that millions of people would put so much effort into a project without the presence of advertising, commercial motive, threat of punishment, charismatic figures, identity politics, exploitation of the fear of death, or any of the other classic motivators of mankind. In vast numbers, people did something cooperatively solely because it was a good idea, and it was beautiful.
Some of the more wild-eyed eccentrics in the digital world and guessed it would happen – but even so it was a shock when it actually did come to pass. It turns out that even an optimistic, idealistic philosophy is realisable. Put a happy philosophy of life in software, and it might very well come true!

It’s an interesting book. You might want to read it.

Lanier, Jaron (2010, 2011) You Are Not a Gadget: a manifesto Alfred Knopf, 2010; Penguin Books, 2011 (‘with updated material’)

*Remember that you shouldn’t really be buying stuff from Amazon UK unless you’re a citizen of Luxembourg, where they pay their taxes.

**Yee, N. & Bailenson, J. (2007). The Proteus Effect: The effect of transformed self-representation on behavior. Human Communication Research, 33(3), 271-290.

Yee, N. Bailenson, J.N. & Ducheneaut, N. (2009). The Proteus effect: Implications of transformed digital self-representation on online and offline behavior. Communication Research, 36(2), 285-312.

Here’s Nick Yee’s 2007 Doctoral Dissertation The Proteus Effect, which describes a range of similar effects:

How does music evolve?

Two questions about music and evolution. How did humans evolve to be musical? (last post) How does music evolve? (below)

 Warning: this starts with interesting stuff about the psychology of music and evolutionary mechanisms applied to non-biological systems, but then drifts off into quite a lot about traditional music.

An experimental demonstration of how random sounds can evolve into something that seems quite musical by means of human selection. Here’s an intro to the project on Psypost:

It’s more fully written up in the paper: Evolution of music by public choice by MacCallum, Mauch, Burta, and Leroia of Imperial College London and the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST), Tsukuba, Japan at

Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) in 2012. Here’s their abstract:

Music evolves as composers, performers, and consumers favor some musical variants over others. To investigate the role of consumer selection, we constructed a Darwinian music engine consisting of a population of short audio loops that sexually reproduce and mutate. This population evolved for 2,513 generations under the selective influence of 6,931 consumers who rated the loops’ aesthetic qualities. We found that the loops quickly evolved into music attributable, in part, to the evolution of aesthetically pleasing chords and rhythms. Later, however, evolution slowed. Applying the Price equation, a general description of evolutionary processes, we found that this stasis was mostly attributable to a decrease in the fidelity of transmission. Our experiment shows how cultural dynamics can be explained in terms of competing evolutionary forces.

You can find examples of the evolved music at where they’ve now got up to 3,500 generations, and you can also take part in the study. The ‘selective influence’ is just asking people to rate the clips – do they like them or not? The ‘sexual reproduction’ is done by splitting and mixing the clips with each other to simulate chromosome mixing (sex is good for mixing up genes), and the ‘mutation’ is introducing a bit of random variation. So that looks like a nice model of reproductive selection, and what comes out sounds more and more like music as you go down the generations. In fact, there may even be new species evolving: a tweet today says: “Amazing stuff on the main channel right now – a whole new phenotype has emerged – inter-loop chord changes and more!” (Yes, you can follow them on twitter at darwintunes).

Well, that’s fascinating and fun but as an old folky I thought ‘Duh!: I thought everyone knew that music evolved.’ A long established theory of the development of traditional music is one of evolution with variation provided by imperfect recall and bits of musical innovation, and selection provided by people’s preference for what they would like to hear and play again, or maybe just by what sticks in memory.

Here’s the definition from the International Folk Music Council (no, I didn’t know there was one of those, either) in 1954:

..folk music is the product of a musical tradition that has been involved in the process of oral transmission. The factors that shape the tradition are i) continuity which links the present with the past; ii) variation which springs from the creative impulse of the individual or group; iii) selection by the community, which determines the form of forms in which the music survives. (Quoted in Lloyd 1975, p15)

Cecil Sharp said much the same kind of thing in 1920:

…the most typical qualities of the folk-song have been laboriously acquired during its journey down the ages, in the course of which its individual angles and irregularities have been rounded and smoothed away just as the pebble on the seashore has been rounded by the action of the waves; that the suggestions, unconsciously made by individual singers, have at every stage of the evolution of the folk-song been weighed and tested by the community, and accepted or rejected by their verdict; and the life history of the folk-song has been one of continuous growth and development, always tending to approximate the form which should be at once congenial to the taste of the community, and expressive of its feelings, aspirations, and ideals. (p. viii)

Sharp was looking it from the point of view of National Song. Lloyd, a Marxist, uses a different framework:

..the formulation is valuable for its clear suggestion of the vital dialectic of folksong creation, that is, the perpetual struggle for synthesis between the collective and individual, between tradition and innovation, between what is received from the community and what is supplied out of personal fantasy, in short, the blending of continuity and variation. (Lloyd, 1975, p16).

Gerould points out in The Ballad of Tradition (1932, 1957) that this process can also produce a range of equally admirable (in his terms: equally viable, for the evolutionary argument) variants. He does want to bring artistic judgement and ability into it:

the existence of many variants, both melodic and contextual, which are manifestly not due to haphazard, undirected substitution for what has been forgotten shows a widespread power of musical and poetic expression (p183)

…and I guess that’s fair enough. What Mississippi John Hurt or Harry Cox brought to the tradition is probably a step which goes beyond natural selection.

It also seems to me that the biological idea of hybrid vigour is shown when different musical traditions cross: what happened when Scotch-Irish ballads met African-derived music in the Appalachians*, or Toumani Daibaté (and others) combining the power of West African classical music with other traditions**.

A nice modern summary comes from the blogger The Irate Pirate in a post on his Wrath of the Grapevine blog (, 2009)

Like most musics, I suppose, the more you listen to folk music the more you develop a taste for it. But part of the fascination that’s particular to folk music is that you’ll hear bits and pieces of one song that you could have sworn you heard in a completely different song. And you’d be right. Because folk music is an evolved music, and like humans & chimpanzees, there are uncanny similarities lurking just below the surface that point to some invisible, unknowable ancestral precedent. And, like all things subject to evolution by natural selection, the essential parts are maintained and the extraneous, inconsequential bits fall aside. What this means in terms of folk music, particularly these old traditional ballads, is that while a song may be quirky and seemingly obtuse, at some level (often a non-conscious, irrational level), the song is deeply meaningful and helps people to negotiate the trials and uncertainties of this muddled mortal existence.

And, of course, since folksong-evolution is an organic process in an oral tradition, sometimes bits and pieces get lost along the way and we’re left with only fragments (you could say this too is a product of natural selection: the part that remains is that which is most memorable). And since it is sung by people who weren’t professional musicians, it had to relate to things that everyday people could relate to, rather than abstruse musical concepts and the self-indulgent wankery that professional artists are susceptible to. The universal subjects are thus revealed: love, death, nature, heartbreak, childhood, remorse, dream/spiritual encounters, and leaving home. These themes can be found recurring in folk music and most great narrative art across time, from Homer to Shakespeare to Stan Brackage. It’s as if these subjects keep coming back because they’re the moments in our lives that stay with us, and we need songs & stories like these to help mark those moments and distill meaning from them.

So, the process that produced the Lowlands of Holland or the Leaves of Life is rather similar to the process that produced the cheetah or the kingfisher (and the warthog and the platypus, to be fair). It’s not surprising that traditional music is so good.

GeroulD, G.H. (1932, 1957) The Ballad of Tradition London: Galaxy, OUP

Lloyd, A.L. (1975) Folk Song in England St Albans: Paladin (orig. publ. Lawrence & Wishart, 1967

MacCallum, Robert M, Matthias Mauch, Austin Burt, & Armand M. Leroi (2012) Evolution of music by public choice, PNAS, no paper version yet
Available at:

Sharpe, Cecil (1920) English Folk Songs, 2nd ed Novello; London

* Here’s Clarence Ashley doing CooCoo bird (music doesn’t start until 3.30):

**TD with the AfroCubism band:

..and playing Cantelowes:

it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are

it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae… it doesn’t matter in what order the letters in a word are, the only important thing is that the first and last letter be at the right place

Lots of people have seen this, and it’s fun – but what does it really show?

It’s not actually true that it’s ‘Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy’, as some versions have it, but a researcher at Cambridge University (Matt Davis at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit) has been thinking about it, and published a fascinating page taking the meme apart:

This has versions in many languages: Hebrew, Czech, Russian, Icelandic…. (he’d like to know if it works in Thai or Chinese). It does vary from language to language; it’s fine in French and Spanish (even I, with basic French and very little Spanish, can read it), but apparently not in Hebrew (no vowels) or Finnish (long complex words, and all those vowels can pile up a bit).

Davis has traced some previous research by Graham Rawlinson in 1976, and also shows that the ‘first and last letters’ thing doesn’t necessarily work, even in English, and goes on to take apart the standard version, relating to what we know about reading, to demonstrate that the usual example is quite carefully tailored to be easier than many other passages in English might be.

A fascinating bit of real-life, non-anglocentric research, and then applying standard theories about reading to a unconventional example. Would be the basis of a good theories-of-reading lecture, I think. I don’t teach cognitive psych any more, but it could be an idea for someone else. Thanks, Matt.

(….and also thanks to Bart van Leeuwen who posted the link in the middle of a fairly heated argument about proper spelling and punctuation on a photography discussion group – no, I can’t understand how that got started, either — well, actually, if you know what discussion groups are like sometimes, you can understand it.)

My typing is awful, and I make many mistakes, often reversing the order of letters if one is right-handed (-fingered, actually) and one left-handed. I’ve gone back through this post correcting those errors, as usual, but I need not hvae btoherd, raelly.

You can rewire your brain! Well, maybe

As usual, a psychology story in the press which made me think ‘yes, but…’.

This is in today’s (Weds 13 June) Guardian: How Barbara Arrowsmith-Young rebuilt her own brain:

Barbara Arrowsmith-Young had a phenomenal memory but was ‘living in a fog’. She realised that part of her brain was not functioning properly so she devised a series of cognitive exercises to develop it. The results changed her life – and now she has helped thousands of children with learning disabilities

It looks as though this is a PR-inspired article. The second paragraph has the line: “She has just published a groundbreaking, widely praised and enthralling book called The Woman Who Changed Her Brain”. The online version of the article comes with a link to the book in the Guardian bookshop:
Some quick research turned up various online interviews and articles from various parts of the world in the last month or two, like this Australian book fair video: , and she was on at the Hay Festival on 5 June, so I guess the Guardian article is part of a world tour publicising the book – and her Arrowsmith cognitive program for children with learning disabilities:

So I think it’s important to note that this is a story that promotes a commercial operation from Arrowsmith-Young’s point of view, though that’s presumably not why The Guardian thought it worth publishing. That doesn’t mean it’s not psychologically interesting, or (more important) that there might be something here which really could benefit people with cognitive problems.

This is the story. AY (sorry, I ‘m too lazy to keep on typing Arrowsmith-Young) was a child with multiple cognitive problems: in the Australian video linked to above she describes a wider range of problems than are identified in the Guardian article. The basic point seems to be, though, that although she had a “phenomenal” memory, she “didn’t understand anything. Meaning never crystallised. Everything was fragmented, disconnected.” For example, she couldn’t grasp the relationship between hands of a clock and the time. “I was just not attaching meaning to symbols.” In spite of this, by hard work and memory power, she was able to pass school and university courses.
Then she came across two pieces of psychological research. The first was a case study by Alexander Luria of a Russian soldier who had been shot in the head* and suffered damage to the left occipital-temporal-parietal region:

I recognised somebody describing exactly what I experienced. His expressions were the same: living life in a fog. His difficulties were the same: he couldn’t tell the time from a clock, he couldn’t understand bigger and smaller without drawing pictures, he couldn’t tell the difference between the sentences ‘The boy chases the dog’ and ‘The dog chases the boy.’ I began to see that maybe an area of my brain wasn’t working.” [Luria’s book, The Man With a Shattered World (1972), which describes this case, is still available. There’s a useful, but very basic, summary at]

and then:

She read about the work of Mark Rosenzweig, an American researcher who found that laboratory rats given a rich and stimulating environment, with play wheels and toys, developed larger brains than those kept in a bare cage. Rosenzweig concluded that the brain continues developing, reshaping itself based on life experiences, rather than being fixed at birth: a concept known as neuroplasticity. Arrowsmith-Young decided that if rats could grow bigger and better brains, so could she. [Some details of Rosenzweig’s work further down]
So she started devising brain stimulation exercises for herself that would work the parts of her brain that weren’t functioning. She drew 100 two-handed clockfaces on cards, each one telling a different time, and wrote the time each told on the back of the card. Then she started trying to tell the time from each, checking on the back each time to see if she was right. She did this eight to 10 hours a day. Gradually, she got faster and more accurate. Then she added a third hand, to make the task more difficult. Then a fourth, for tenths of a second, and a fifth, for days of the week.
I was experiencing a mental exhaustion like I had never known,” she says, “so I figured something was happening. And by the time I’d done that for three or four months, it really felt like something had shifted, something had fundamentally changed in my brain, allowing me to process and understand information. I watched an edition of 60 Minutes, with a friend, and I got it. I read a page of Kierkegaard – because philosophy is obviously very conceptual, so had been impossible for me – and I understood it. I read pages from 10 books, and every single one I understood. I was like, hallelujah! It was like stepping from darkness into light.””

After all that (some years ago), AY has moved on to become able to talk “fluently and passionately and with great erudition” about her book and about her program for helping children with cognitive deficits. She has developed a range of mental exercises for helping a range of cognitive functions (The Guardian says 19) to help thousands of children diagnosed with ADD or ADHD over the years in 35 schools in the US and Canada.

OK, that’s the story, and it’s very interesting. But a few things worry me.

The first one was wondering how someone with no clear idea of cause and effect, and not able to understand a television news programme (she gives the ability to understand such a program after her exercises as evidence that they had worked), could understand the ideas and implications of Luria’s and Rosensweig’s work, and then make the conceptual jump from that to the clockface card exercise. I think I need more information to understand how that worked. I guess I should read the book.
The second worrying thing is that I don’t know of any peer-reviewed research to support this. A quick search in Google Scholar shows links to stuff published on her website, but not much else. I do know of research which suggests that ‘muscle-style’ training of cognitive abilities doesn’t seem to do much good. So Melby-Lervåg & Hulme (2012), after a meta-analysis of twenty three studies of working memory training, conclude in their abstract:

Meta-analyses indicated that the programs produced reliable short-term improvements in working memory skills. For verbal working memory, these near-transfer effects were not sustained at follow-up, whereas for visuospatial working memory, limited evidence suggested that such effects might be maintained. More importantly, there was no convincing evidence of the generalization of working memory training to other skills (nonverbal and verbal ability, inhibitory processes in attention, word decoding, and arithmetic). The authors conclude that memory training programs appear to produce short-term, specific training effects that do not generalize.

The third thing is my generalised cynicism about the spurious convincingness of explanations which depend on brain function. Now, I may be being unfair to AW, but there is evidence for this spurious convincingness as a general effect**. Weisberg, Keil, Goodstein, Rawson, and Gray’s (2008) paper The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations (available at tried out good and bad explanations for psychological phenomena, and found that adding a bit of neuroscience flannel enhanced credibility, at least for non-experts. Here’s their abstract:

Explanations of psychological phenomena seem to generate more public interest when they contain neuroscientific information. Even irrelevant neuroscience information in an explanation of a psychological phenomenon may interfere with people’s abilities to critically consider the underlying logic of this explanation. We tested this hypothesis by giving naïve adults, students in a neuroscience course, and neuroscience experts brief descriptions of psychological phenomena followed by one of four types of explanation, according to a 2 (good  explanation vs. bad explanation)  2 (without neuroscience vs. with neuroscience) design. Crucially, the neuroscience information was irrelevant to the logic of the explanation, as confirmed by the expert subjects. Subjects in all three groups judged good explanations as more satisfying than bad ones. But subjects in the two nonexpert groups additionally judged that explanations with logically irrelevant neuroscience information were more satisfying than explanations without. The neuroscience information had a particularly striking effect on non-experts’ judgments of bad explanations, masking otherwise salient problems in these explanations.

For camparison, here’s an accountof the AY approach from AY’s commercial website,

Recent discoveries in neuroscience have conclusively demonstrated that, by engaging in certain mental tasks or activities, we actually change the structure of our brains–from the cells themselves to the connections between cells. The capability of nerve cells to change is known as neuroplasticity, and Arrowsmith-Young has been putting it into practice for decades. With great inventiveness, after combining two lines of research, Barbara developed unusual cognitive calisthenics that radically increased the functioning of her weakened brain areas to normal and, in some areas, even above normal levels. She drew on her intellectual strengths to determine what types of drills were required to target the specific nature of her learning problems, and she managed to conquer her cognitive deficits.

I’d prefer some empirical evidence for determining “what types of drills were required”, rather than drawing on AY’s “intellectual strengths”, but the main point is that I think the opening statement is only really supportable in a fairly trivial sense: “by engaging in certain mental tasks or activities, we actually change the structure of our brains–from the cells themselves to the connections between cells.” Well, yes: to the extent that we’re cognitively changed by what we do, our brains change. What else could be happening? Those changes can affect our experience qualitatively, even in later life. Some years of struggling with singing in a choir, and trying to cope with big books full of notes, have made me almost able to read music directly and recognise intervals in a way which is experientially quite different from my earlier strictly by-ear experience of music, and I encourage anyone to try it – your brain will work better, and you’ll experience things you didn’t before!! – but I don’t see that as a neurological breakthrough. Is the AY statement a neurologically-enhanced not-much-of-an-explanation? Certainly the Rosenzweig*** studies, while important and fascinating, don’t take us into AY territory. You can read an original 1964 Bennet, Diamond, Kreech & Rosenzwieg paper here: (It’s always really valuable to read the originals), and a later 1996 summary (Rosenzweig and Bennett, 1996) here:
R&B were mainly concerned with increase in brain size and connectivity, and later on with improvements in memory and learning (obvious things to look at in rats). I always took that research as being more of a warning about the damaging effects of deprivation more than the enhancing effects of stimulation (though the B&Al paper does distinguish between non-deprivation and extra stimulation). I’m not up-to-date on this stuff, so I’d be interested to hear of more recent evidence which might suggest changes in more advanced cognitive functioning as a result of changed experience (apart from the non-result of M-L&H, cited above).

Am I being too sceptical here?

*People getting shot in the head is a valuable source for psychological/neurological research. If we ever run out of wars (unfortunately, not likely) we’ll have to make do with motorcyclists (note to my friend John: be careful out there).

**I got this reference from one of Ben Goldacre’s blogs about Mind Gym. Goldacre is wonderfully scathing, and funny, about Brain Gym, which also has some neurological explanations which don’t convince me (actually he’s wonderfully funny and scathing about lots of Bad Science – read the book, follow the blog, follow him on Twitter [for an interesting example of one way of using Twitter, including crowdsourcing advice about what to eat in your fridge]). This particular blogpost was
(The link G gives at the end to the Weisberg & al paper doesn’t work, but the ones I give here are OK – in June 2012, anyway)

***I can’t resist pointing out that Rosenzweig’s grandparents were asylum seekers (the people formerly known as refugees) or economic migrants (as with many valuable contributors to their new host society) – and no, not ‘bogus asylum seekers’ – what’s the point of seeking bogus asylum? Or even not really (bogusly) seeking asylum?: ‘Oh, thanks for giving me refugee status, but I don’t really want it: it was just a windup, actually.” Anyone who uses that phrase needs to take a (non-subsidised) course to improve their understanding of English and logic, and then be deported (to whatever planet they came from) if they fail. [Mild trolling here]

Bennet, Diamond, Kreech &, Rosenzwieg (1964) Chemical and Anatomical Plasticity of Brain Science 146, 610-619

Melby-Lervåg, M., & Hulme, C. (2012). Is Working Memory Training Effective? A Meta-Analytic Review. Developmental Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0028228
A short writeup about  this paper: No Evidence That Working Memory Training Programs Improve General Cognitive Performance

Rosenzweig, Mark R. and Edward L. Bennett. (1996) Psychobiology of plasticity: effects of training and experience on brain and behavior Behavioural Brain Research 78 57-65

Weisberg, Deena Skolnick, Frank C. Keil, Joshua Goodstein, Elizabeth Rawson, and Jeremy R. Gray (2008) The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 20:3, pp. 470–477