Category Archives: cognition

Simulating the future and remebering the past: Are we prediction machines?

This post is about an article by Schacter et al (pdf) regarding how the constructiveness of memories may crucially be due to the need to simulate future scenarios. But before I go to the main course, I would like to touch upon a starter: Jeff Hawkins Heirarchical Temporla Memory (HTM) hypothesis. I would recommend that you watch this excellent video.

As per Jeff Hawkins, we humans are basically prediction machines, constantly predicting the external causes and our responses to them. Traditionally, the behaviorist account has been that we are nothing but a bundle of associations- either conditioned pavlovian associations between stimuli and stimulus-response or a skinerrian association between our operant actions and environmental rewards. Thus every behavior we indulge in is guided by our memory of past associations and the impending stimulus. Jeff Hawkins refines this by postulating that we are not passive responders to environmental stimuli, but actively predict what future causes (stimuli) are expected and what our response to those stimuli may be. Thus in his HTM model, the memory of past events not only exerts influence via a bottom up process of responding to impending stimulus; but it is also used for a top-down expectation or prediction of incoming stimulus and our responses to it. Thus, we are also prediction machines constantly using our memory to predict future outcomes and our possible responses.

Now lets get back to the original Schacter article. Here is the abstract:

Episodic memory is widely conceived as a fundamentally constructive, rather than reproductive, process that is prone to various kinds of errors and illusions. With a view toward examining the functions served by a constructive episodic memory system, we consider recent neuropsychological and neuroimaging studies indicating that some types of memory distortions reflect the operation of adaptive processes. An important function of a constructive episodic memory is to allow individuals to simulate or imagine future episodes, happenings, and scenarios. Because the future is not an exact repetition of the past, simulation of future episodes requires a system that can draw on the past in a manner that flexibly extracts and re-combines elements of previous experiences. Consistent with this constructive episodic simulation hypothesis, we consider cognitive, neuropsychological, and neuroimaging evidence showing that there is considerable overlap in the psychological and neural processes involved in remembering the past and imagining the future.

As per the paper the same brain areas and mechanisms are involved in both remembering a past event and imagining a future one – and the regions involved include the hippocampus. These findings in itself are not so fascinating, but the argument that Schacter et al give for , as to why, the same regions are involved in both memory retrieval and future imaginings, and how this leads to confabulations and false recognitions is very fascinating. As per them , because we need to simulate the future events, and as the future events are never an exact replica of past events, hence we do not store the past events verbatim, but store a gist of the event, so that we can recombine the nebulous gist to create different possible future scenarios. Due to this fact (the need for simulation of future events), the memory is not perfect, and in normal individuals it is possible that they confabulate (attribute the source of their memory erroneously) or make false recognitions on memory tests like the DRM.

Fisrt a bit of background on DRM paradigm. In this test, a list of related words are presented to a subject: eg yawn, bed, night, pillow, dream, rest etc. All of these relate to the theme of sleep. Later in a recall test, when this thematically related word is presented to normal subjects, they most often say that they had encountered the word sleep earlier. However given an unrelated word like hunger, most are liable to recognize that the word was not encountered previously. What Schachter et al found was , that in those subjects that had damage to hippocampus/ other memory areas and were amnesics, this effect of confabulating the gist word was reduced. In other words, those with brain damage to memory areas were less likely to say that they had encountered the related word sleep during the original trial. this, despite their poor performance in overall remembering of old list items as compared to controls. This clearly indicates that remembering the gist vis-a-vis details is very important memory mechanism.

I believe that we should also take into account the prototype versus exemplar differences in categorization between the males and females into account here. I would be very interested to know whether the data collected showed the expected differences between males and females and hopefully the results are not confounded due to not taking this gender difference into account.

Anyway , returning to the experimental methodology, another sticking point seems to be the extending of results obtained with semantic memory (like that for word lists) to episodic memory.

Keeping that aside, the gist and false recognition data results clearly indicate that the constructive nature of memory is an adaptation (it is present in normal subjects) and is disrupted in amnesics/ people with dementia.

Thus, now that it is established that memory is reconstructive and that this reconstruction is adaptive, the question arises why it is reconstructive and not reproductive. To this Schacter answers that it is because the same brain mechanism used for reconstructing memory from gist are also used for imagining or simulating future scenario. They present ample neuropsychological, neuroimaging and cognitive evidence on this and I find that totally convincing.

The foregoing research not only provides insights into the constructive nature of episodic memory, but also provides some clues regarding the functional basis of constructive memory processes. Although memory errors such as false recognition may at first seem highly dysfunctional, especially given the havoc that memory distortions can wreak in real-world contexts (Loftus 1993; Schacter 2001), we have seen that they sometimes reflect the ability of a normally functioning memory system to store and retrieve general similarity or gist information, and that false recognition errors often recruit some of the same processes that support accurate memory decisions. Indeed, several researchers have argued that the memory errors involving forgetting or distortion serve an adaptive role.

However, future events are rarely, if ever, exact replicas of past events. Thus, a memory system that simply stored rote records of what happened in the past would not be well-suited to simulating future events, which will likely share some similarities with past events while differing in other respects. We think that a system built along the lines of the constructive principles that we and other have attributed to episodic memory is better suited to the job of simulating future happenings. Such a system can draw on elements of the past and retain the general sense or gist of what has happened. Critically, it can flexibly extract, recombine, and reassemble these elements in a way that allows us to simulate, imagine, or ‘pre-experience’ (Atance & O’Neill 2001) events that have never occurred previously in the exact form in which we imagine them. We will refer to this idea as the constructive episodic simulation hypothesis: the constructive nature of episodic memory is attributable, at least in part, to the role of the episodic system in allowing us to mentally simulate our personal futures.

I’ll finally like to end with the conclusions the author drew:

In a thoughtful review that elucidates the relation between, and neural basis of, remembering the past and thinking about the future, Buckner and Carroll (2007) point out that neural regions that show common activation for past and future tasks closely resemble those that are activated during “theory of mind” tasks, where individuals simulate the mental states of other people (e.g., Saxe & Kanwisher 2003). Buckner and Carroll note that such findings suggest that the commonly activated regions may be specialized for, and engaged by, mental acts that require the projection of oneself in another time, place, or perspective”, resembling what Tulving (1985) referred to as autonoetic consciousness.

This Seems to be a very promising direction. The ‘another time and place’ can normally be simulated withing hippocampus that also specializes in cognitive maps. We may use the cognitive maps to not only remember past events, but also simulate new events. In this respect the importance of dreams may be paramount. Dreams (and asleep) may be the mechanism whose primary purpose is not memory consolidation; rather I suspect that the primary function of dreams is to work on the gist of the memory from the previous day, simulate possible future scenarios, and then keep in store those memories that would help and are likely to be encountered in future. Thus, while dreaming we are basically predicting future scenarios and sorting information as per their future relevance. Not a particularly path-breaking hypothesis, but I’m not aware of any thinking is this direction. Do let me know of any other similar hypothesis regarding the function of dream as predictors and not merely as consolidators.

Brave Heart: does will power reside in heart?

I have written earlier regarding the Heart Rate Variability, that is primarily caused by the Autonomous Nervous System (the opposite effects of PNS and SNS), and how a flexible HRV is related to better response to stress and reduced anxiety in face of external stressors. While looking at the evidence and linkages between HRV and emotional regulation, I had also speculated in it that a lower baseline or resting HRV may be reflective of depression and low regulation/motivation; while a high resting or baseline HRV reflective of Mania and high regulation/ motivation.

A recent study has looked into the issue of whether cognitive self -regulation (will power / motivation) is also associated with HRV. The study reported that higher baseline HRV was associated with more will-power and ability to resist temptation. Also, as they had surmised that will-power is a limited resource and hence the ability to resist temptation must exhaust the will- power ability, hence if the subjects showed higher HRV during the resisting temptation phase, then they would have exhausted their will-power reserves and would not persist in subsequent demanding tasks and this is exactly what they found.

The study consisted of measuring HRV, while the subjects were given a choice of eating cookies/candies or carrots. those who chose carrots over candies (thus exhibiting more will-power to resist the temptation of candies) also showed higher HRV.

In the second experiment, after the subjects chose candy or carrot , and hence supposedly exhausted their limited will-power cognitive reserves, they were asked to do a tough anagram exercise. Those who had chosen carrots were more likely to give up the task earlier. Yet those with higher baseline HRV showed high motivation and will -power regardless of whether they chose candies or not.

This I believe is a good corroborator of Higher resting HRV to be related to better self-regulation and mania , while lower baseline HRV to be related with depression and poor self-regulation. So maybe our hearts do tell us a lot about ourselves, our abilities to resist temptations and our will -powers.

The courage of a mouse to say ‘No’: A case of metacognition or risk-aversion?

A recent article in Current Biology by Foote et al (courtsey Ars Technica) posits that rats have metacognition abilities. till now only Humans and primates were assumed to have metacognitive abilities. One feature or defining characteristic of metacognition is knowing what you know and also knowing what you don’t know. It means one can think about one’s own mental states and determine what knowledge one already has and what knowledge one has not yet learned. So a related ability would be the ability to decline a test of knowledge if one thinks that one has not learned enough to ace the test. For those who gave GRE/ any other exam recently and maybe postponed that exam, they would have no difficulty appreciating this that postponing/declining a test involves metacognition.

Taking this line of reasoning further, Foote et al surmise that if a rat could decline a test, under conditions when the rat was not sure of its learned knowledge regarding the test and doubted its ability to successfully complete the test, then such a declining behavior would indicate that the rat has metacognitive abilities. I find no flaws in this reasoning, but have a few quips about their particular experimental setup, which may have confounded the results by not factoring in the risk aversion.

First regarding their hypothesis of the experiment:

Here, we demonstrate for the first time that rats are capable of metacognition—i.e., they know when they do not know the answer in a duration-discrimination test. Before taking the duration test, rats were given the opportunity to decline the test. On other trials, they were not given the option to decline the test. Accurate performance on the duration test yielded a large reward, whereas inaccurate performance resulted in no reward. Declining a test yielded a small but guaranteed reward. If rats possess knowledge regarding whether they know the answer to the test, they would be expected to decline most frequently on difficult tests and show lowest accuracy on difficult tests that cannot be declined [4]. Our data provide evidence for both predictions and suggest that a nonprimate has knowledge of its own cognitive state.

Now on to the actual experimental setup:

Each trial consisted of three phases: study, choice, and test phases (Figure 1). In the study phase, a brief noise was presented for the subject to classify as short (2–3.62 s) or long (4.42–8 s). Stimuli with intermediate durations (e.g., 3.62 and 4.42 s) are most difficult to classify as short or long [11, 12]. By contrast, more widely spaced intervals (e.g., 2 and 8 s) are easiest to classify. In the choice phase, the rat was sometimes presented with two response options, signaled by the illumination of two nose-poke apertures. On these choice-test trials, a response in one of these apertures (referred to as a take-the-test response) led to the insertion of two response levers in the subsequent test phase; one lever was designated as the correct response after a short noise, and the other lever was designated as the correct response after a long noise. The other aperture (referred to as the decline-the-test response) led to the omission of the duration test. On other trials in the choice phase, the rat was presented with only one response option; on these forced-test trials, the rat was required to select the aperture that led to the duration test (i.e., the option to decline the test was not available), and this was followed by the duration test. In the test phase, a correct lever press with respect to the duration discrimination produced a large reward of six pellets; an incorrect lever press produced no reward. A decline response (provided that this option was, indeed, available) led to a guaranteed but smaller reward of three pellets.

The test they have used is a stimulus discrimination test. Their results indicated that indeed the rats declined more often on difficult trials (trials in which the stimulus were closely spaced around the men of 4s) as compared to easy trial (in which they had to discriminate widely spaced stimulus (say 2s and 8s). This neatly demonstrates that the rats were internally calculating what their odds of passing the test were, and in case of the difficult test they took the better option of choosing the decline-the-test condition. However I would like to see more of their data and factor out the effcets of risk aversion.

We all know that humans are prone to risk aversion. That is if I present to you an option of choosing a sure amount of 100 rs or a 50% chance of winning 200rs , you would normally choose the fist option, though if one compares the utility function it is the same. In first case you have and expected value of 100 and in the second case too you have an expected value of 100 (0.5*0 +0.5*200). Thus it doesnt make much sense why one would use one over the other. This becomes more interseting when we increase the amount of the risky option. suppose we now have 100 rs assured vis-avis a 50 % chance of 300 rs still , most of us end up choosing the assured sum.

In this setup the utility of declining the test is 3 pellets; while if we assume that the rats have not learned how to discriminate the stimuli; then assuming that they press the levers at random and thus each option of the test condition is equally probable we have the utility as 0.5 *0 +0.5 *6 = 3 pellets. so we have the same situations as with humans. Now taking risk aversion into account, one would find that the rats would decline the test more often in the difficult stimulus conditions as that is a safe and assured option as compared to the take-the-test condition. As a matter of fact I am surprised that there were some rats who did choose the take-the-test condition. I guess men are more meek than mice!!

So the best thing to do would be to take risk-aversion into account and then after factoring it out decide on whether the rats knew (in a conscious sense) that the test is difficult. Risk aversion is mostly sub-conscious and would not involve metacognition. However, the trend of rising declining behaviors with test difficulty does point to the fact that the rats did have some metacognition.

I would love to have this study replicated using a maze (mouse trap sort of) task. In a amze the cognitive map of the maze provides a good indicataor of how much the mice know about the test/ test difficulty and measuring the declining in this case may be directly related to their meta-cognitive abilities.

Religion continued: Throwing the baby with the bathwater?

I recently came across the work of Norenzayen et al regarding the linkage between religion and tolerance (courtesy Mixing Memory) and found some surprising commonalities with the views I have espoused earlier.

For one they talk about the need for religion and accept it as a human universal. They also note some aspects of the religious belief that are universal.

Anthropologically-speaking, there is a near universality of 1) belief in supernatural agents who 2) relieve existential anxieties such as death and deception, but 3) demand passionate and self-sacrificing social commitments, which are 4) validated through emotional ritual (Atran & Norenzayan, 2004). There are salient similarities to be found between even the most radically divergent cultures and religions (Norenzayan & Heine, 2005).

One can see that these have clear parallels with the autism/ schizophrenic differences on four dimensions I highlighted yesterday. Specifically:

  1. Agency: belief in supernatural agency in religious people
  2. Meaning: religious beliefs give meaning and relive existential anxieties like those of death (Terror Management theory)
  3. Causal and Magical thinking: leading to rituals, and pro-social behaviors in the religious people
  4. Experience: An emotional and ecstatic experience of oneness with others in the devotees and mediators.

The book chapter goes on to describe the two aspects of religiosity: a subjective/natural one and a objective-coalitional one. To put in simple words, one is belief in a personal , felt and experienced god (combining 1 and 4 above) and the other is the traditional scripture and culture driven coalitional religion that binds people together and provides them wioth a sense of meaning and purpose (combining 2 and 3 above).

For centuries, those who have attempted to explain religion (and even those who have propagated certain religions) have often distinguished two aspects of religion, treating them not only as distinct but also as opposites.

Dual understandings of religion generally consider a sense of the omnipresence of the divine (whether sensed directly and spontaneously or with the aid of prayer, meditation or drug-ingestion) more subjective/natural than it is socially transmitted/cultural.

Some illustrative examples are: James’ (1982/1902) distinction between the “babbling brook” from which all religions originate (p. 337) and the “dull habit” of “second hand” religion “communicated … by tradition” (p. 6) as well as that between “religion proper” and corporate and dogmatic dominion (p. 337); Freud’s (1930/1961) distinction between the “oceanic feeling” as an unconscious memory of the mother’s womb and “religion” as acceptance of religious authority and morality as a projection of the father; Weber’s (1947, 1978) distinction between religious charisma in its basic and “routinized” forms; Adorno’s distinction between “personally experienced belief” and “neutralized religion” (Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswick, Levinson, & Sanford, 1950); Rappaport’s (1979) distinction between the “numinous”—the experience of pure being–and the “sacred” or doctrinal; and, more recently, Sperber’s (1996) cognitive distinction between “intuitive” beliefs—“the product of spontaneous and unconscious perceptual and inferential process” (89), and “reflective” beliefs “believed in virtue of other second-order beliefs about them.”

The authors then go on to synthesize material on tolerance- religiosity linkages and explain how the subjective-natural religiosity is inversely related to intolerance while the coalitional- objective religiosity is directly related to intolerance and co-occurs with intolerance and prejudice. A note of caution though, the authors do not consider the two dimensions of religion independent, but find a positive correlation between the two.

The measures we are most concerned with are those tapping religious devotion, rooted in supernatural belief, and coalitional religiosity, rooted in the costly commitment to a community of believers—a community that is morally and epistemically elevated above other communities. Religious devotion centers on the awareness of and attention to God or the “divine” broadly conceived.

Coalitional religiosity, on the other hand, should be approximated by validated scales measuring what social psychologists consider coalitional boundary-setting social tendencies, such as authoritarianism, fundamentalism, dogmatism and related constructs (e.g., Kirkpatrick 1999).

The authors then go on to explain coalitional religiosity in terms of sexual selection and costly signalling, instead of group selection as we had discussed yesterday.

Coaltional religiosity is likely rooted in the costly sacrifice to the community of believers that is the hallmark of religion. As evolutionary theorists have noted, sacrificial displays can be selected for if carriers of honest signals of group membership are more likely to be reciprocated by a community of cooperators. Even in rights-oriented “individualist” cultures, one is expected to sacrifice all selfish gains that might accrue from being on the benefiting end of injustice towards others. Atran (2002) and others (Atran & Norenzayan, 2004; Sosis & Alcorta, 2003) note that sincere expressions of willingness to make any kind of sacrifice (including the potential ultimate sacrifice of one’s own life) only occasionally necessitate actually following through on that sacrifice in a way that has long term costs to the potential for survival and reproduction of the genes carried by that individual. However, the material and social support benefits that can accrue to those who sincerely express or demonstrate such willingness are both more likely to occur and are of more obvious value to the long term survival of one’s genes—unless one is among the unlucky individuals whose sincere demonstration involves actually dying before reproductive potential is maximized (and even then, socially-given benefits to close kin may offset the genetic loss of one individual). This “adaptive sacrifice display” explanation for religious devotion is related to the evolutionary concept of “costly signaling”, a process that explains many forms of sacrificial displays in the animal kingdom, for example, why male peacocks who burden themselves with more costly plumage may nevertheless be more likely to pass on their genes, by increasing their chances of mating with a receptive female. Costly signaling theory offers an explanation of why humans engage in altruistic displays such as sacrifice and ritual without treating the group as a unit of selection (Sosis & Alcorta, 2003).

While I disagree with the above explanations for coalitional religiosity, I still believe that it works primarily to ensure altruism/ pro-social behavior and to manage existential anxieties. the evolutionary rationale for subjective or intrinsic religiosity (spirituality) is much more problematic. The authors believe it is selected as it enables us to empathize and to become transcendent to group boundaries.

That coalitional religiosity encourages intolerance towards outgroups seems obvious. But it is less clear why devotional religiosity can, under some conditions, foster tolerance. Some evidence from neuroscience may help us with a novel speculation as to the process by which devotional experience may lead to transcendence of group boundaries.Some investigations (e.g. Holmes, 2001; d’Aquili & Newberg, 1998, 1999; Newberg, d’Aquili & Rause, 2001) have found that when people are subjectively experiencing a transcendent or supernatural-oriented state, there is often decreased activity in the parietal lobe or other object association areas, where perceptions that distinguish self from non-self are processed…..These areas may play a role in any relationship prayer might have to greater tolerance, empathy or other-concern, since they all seem potentially relevant to whether sense of self is experienced in a more limited or more expansive way. Perhaps commonplace empathic experiences of seeing oneself in another or caring for another as one would care for oneself have some family relationship to rarer mystical experiences of ”oneness” and even to more extreme cases where the self-other boundary melts down completely.

They finally get to why transcendence is needed or what function it serves.

Coalitional religiosity arguably reflects a limited kind of self-transcendence that simply upgrades individual selfishness to group selfishness, sometimes with dramatically violent consequences. Yet religious devotion’s independent relationship to tolerance suggests that religion has the potential to transcend group selfishness as well. It is almost as if a more limited religious transcendence is in tension with a more thoroughgoing transcendence. What lies beyond group selfishness we may dub “God-selfishness,” a focus of oneself on a God or divine being or principle that is transcendent of all individuals and groups, including oneself and one’s own groups. God-selfishness would appear to be what religious devotion measures tap into when the variance of coalitional religiosity is controlled for. To the extent that this broader transcendence of self often manifests itself as a tolerant sense of kinship with all, then it would appear to render Dawkins’ pessimism about religion unwarranted.

With that note I’ll end the post and explore the readers not to throw the baby with the bath water, when it comes to religion/ spirituality.

The Mind – Brain dichotomy: What it means to have a mind

Researchers at Harvard, Gray et al, are conducting an ongoing mind survey, and have also reported some findings from that online survey, based ona asmaple of more than 2,000 people.

The survey attempts to make one think about different forms of entities that may have a mind and to assign different degrees of consciousness/ mind on them.

Gray worked alongside fellow psychologists Heather Gray and Daniel Wegner on the study, which presented respondents with 13 characters: 7 living human forms (7-week-old fetus, 5-month-old infant, 5-year-old girl, adult woman, adult man, man in a persistent vegetative state, and the respondent himself or herself), 3 non-human animals (frog, family dog, and wild chimpanzee), a dead woman, God, and a sociable robot.

Participants were asked to rate the characters on the extent to which each possessed a number of capacities, ranging from hunger, fear, embarrassment, and pleasure to self-control, morality, memory and thought. Their analyses yielded two distinct dimensions by which people perceive the minds of others, agency and experience.

The participants attribute different degrees of these factors to the characters based on a forced choice between a pair of characters on a particular ability related to a mind capacity like feeling fear or making moral decisions. I believe they than id factor analysis or some such statistical method to come up with two independent dimensions or factor underlying the concept of mind: Agency or Experience.

Agency seems to be related to the fact that people (entities with mind) can take volitional actions and are thereby responsible for their actions. They can thus also be judged morally based on their actions and the choices they make.

Experience seems related to the fact that people (entities with mind) have an ability to feel and are emotional entities that have subjective experience of emotions like pain, fear and hunger and also have desires, longings and feelings etc.

The ability to perceive qualia surprisingly didn’t come out as a separate entity and consciousness or ability to perceive qualia is supposedly covered under the Experience factor.

These dimensions are independent: An entity can be viewed to have experience without having any agency, and vice versa. For instance, respondents viewed the infant as high in experience but low in agency — having feelings, but unaccountable for its actions — while God was viewed as having agency but not experience.

“Respondents, the majority of whom were at least moderately religious, viewed God as an agent capable of moral action, but without much capacity for experience,” Gray says. “We find it hard to envision God sharing any of our feelings or desires.”

The regular readers of this blog will remember that one of the important distinction that I hypothesized between Schizophrenia and Autism was that due to agency: with schizophrenics attributing too much Agency; and Autistic attributing too less Agency to others (other people or other entities that may have mind). Also as God is perceived as having too much Agency, but not much Experience, thus when the Schizophrenia end of spectrum kicks in, they may also attribute too much agency to themselves and feel God-like or Divine. The negative symptoms related to less of experience would also fit the fact of being God-like or being an angel/ special person and thus not having too much emotions. The Autistic end of the spectrum however would be guided by too-less-mind sort of attributions and thinking; and thus they may view themselves and others as brains and not minds. They might thus be more capable with inanimate objects and rules of nature (thus making them good scientists/ engineers/ systemizers) ; but poor at social/ ethical aspects that require attributing minds to animals for example.

One should also distinguish between the two dimensions of Agency and Experience. Thus Autistic may have a defect due to Agency, but may have mirror neurons or other systems that confer on them the ability to feel , not only subjective feelings of self – but empathetic feelings of others too.

Also, it has been this blogs contention that the Dimension of experience is best seen as a dimension on one end of which is the Bipolar patients and on the other end of which is the Deprosanalisation/ apathetic / derealization spectrum. while the Bipolar feels too much emotions and motivations; the depersonalised/ derealized person may show too less emotion/ motivation.

Thus in mind at one end we have people having too much mind/ believing in too much mind (and exemplified by Schizophrenic and Bipolar ) and at the other end we have too people having too much brain/ believing in too much brain (exemplified by Autistic/ depersonalised people). One gives great Art, the other great Science.

Returning to the current study:

“The perception of experience to these characters is important, because along with experience comes a suite of inalienable rights, the most important of which is the right to life,” Gray says. “If you see a man in a persistent vegetative state as having feelings, it feels wrong to pull the plug on him, whereas if he is just a lump of firing neurons, we have less compunction at freeing up his hospital bed.”

This is exactly one of the pertinent point made by the film Munnabhai MBBS– that coma patients have feelings and have a right of life. While I have featured the effects of Lage Raho Munnabhai earlier; I would also like to pay tribute to its prequel/ precursor.

On that note, let us keep our antennas up for how thinking about us as entities with Agency and Experince can lead to Art; while thinking of us as brains can lead to good scince. I’m sure you’ll agree that we need both of these concepts about us humans.

Schizophrenia and Bipolar disorder: The propensity towards psychosis

Schizophrenia, as we all know, is one of the most dibilating psychological disorder. It was primarily conceived of as a behavioral disorder, characterized by socially inappropriate and bizarre behavior, but much attention has been focussed nowadays on the cognitive component and the cognitive pathology underlying schizophrenia and it is not unusual for it to be characterized as a thought disorder nowadays .

Bipolar , or Manic Depressive disorder, on the other hand, has been primarily conceived of as a mood or affective disorder , characterized by excessive swings of emotion and motivation. One of my earlier post had tried to analyze the cognitive components involved in the Bipolar condition, and relate it to that found in unipolar depression.

While in my earlier posts, I have discussed the differences between the social and communicative difficulties of Autistic and Schizophrenic probands, especially in relation to their different cognitive styles, and how a milder form of such thinking can lead to different types of creativity, I had also promised for a similar dichotomous discussion of bipolarity at one end of the spectrum and depersonalization/ derealization/ ‘Alienation’ on the other hand- this time the important dimension being the feeling/emotion/motivation dimension.

While that discussion still awaits, I have come across a fascinating article by Lake et al(freely available, registration required) that tries to analyze the schizophrenic and bipolar type I disorders and concludes that there is no such thing as schizophrenia – the psychosis underlying schizophrenia, schizoaffcetive and Bipolar disorders is actually due to a not-yet-diagnosed Bipolar disorder in the patient. The extreme case of a Bipolar manic behavior would be a full-blown psychotic episode and in absence of proper assessment is likely to be diagnosed as schizophrenia. The article hopes, that identifying Bipolar in early stages would prevent unnecessary neuroleptics / anti-psychotics administration to the patient and prevent the significant side-effects of such medications and the rapid-cycling of the bipolar disorder itself, as mood stabilizers like Lithium and Valproate would not be given early on in the absence of bipolar diagnosis.

The other rationale for a single unified diagnosis of Bipolar is to prevent stigma associated with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. There has been well-documented research on the creativity-bipolar linkages; a similar research exists for creativity and schizotypal individuals- but due to the chronic, dibilating and adverse effects of a full-blown schizophrenic diagnosis , the literature about creativity and full-blown schizophrenia is limited (and perhaps inconclusive). The comprehensive ill-effects of a wrong diagnosis are given below:

For patient

  • Less likely to receive a mood stabilizer or antidepressant

  • Without a mood stabilizer, cycles increase and occur more rapidly; symptoms worsen

  • More likely to receive neuroleptics for life, increasing risk for severe and permanent side effects

  • Greater stigma with schizophrenia

  • Less likely to be employed

  • More likely to receive disability for life

  • More likely to “give up”

??For clinician

  • Increased risk of liability if patient given long-term neuroleptics instead of mood stabilizers develops tardive dyskinesia or commits suicide

The article takes a case study of a patient named Mr. C and tries to analyze how and why different diagnosis are made for the same patient depending on the presented symptoms and why Bipolar diagnosis occurs late in the cycle. Going through the case study may prove disheartening to many, and may make them skeptical of the whole psychiatry profession-leading to some anti-psychiatry rants too- yet one should realize that psychiatry is both an art as well as a science- asking the right question to get the patient (and disorder/ medication) history is very important. To appreciate this I would strongly recommend every body to read the “Selection of Antidepressant ‘ series on Corpus Callosum, which gives a fairly good idea of how psychiatrists make diagnosis in practice.

It is instructive to recall that we have earlier reported on a study that leads to common genetic markers for Psychosis and Mania– implying a single diagnosis, rather than a separate diagnosis of bipolarity or schizophrenia.

The article cites the following DSM-IV diagnostic criteria for Schizophrenia and explains how each is explicable as symptoms of extreme manic episode resulting in psychosis /depression.

Schizophrenia diagnosis6

Seen in psychotic mood disorders

Criterion A

??Hallucinations and delusions

50% to 80% explained by mood16,21


Hides grandiosity4


75% explained by mood7,8

??Disorganized speech and behavior

All patients with moderate to severe mania15

??Negative symptoms

All patients with moderate to severe depression4

Criterion B

??Social and job dysfunction

All patients with moderate to severe bipolar disorder5,13

Criterion C

??Chronic continuous symptoms

Patients can have psychotic symptoms continuously for 2 years to life5,6,13

I would like to pause here and group the symptoms of schizophrenia according to the basis they have:

  • A sensory basis (hallucinations etc, which may be due to senosrimotor gating as well as a lack of proper inhibition mechanisms; delusions of reference which may be due to inability to gate the inputs and thus end up treating everything as salient and consequently referring to self),
  • A cognitive basis (delusions – which may be due to extremes of normal cognitive biases that we all have – a manic delusion of grandeur- that may also lead paradoxically to delusions of paranoia( fear and suspicion) as one thinks of oneself as very special and hence vulnerable to the evil out there in the world)
  • A motor basis (catatonia – which may be due to problems with volitional control of motion- either too much control or too little- in one case ending up in the positions in which someone else has put them in- in the other remaining in the same position (samadhi in religious contexts) by exercising the will to move. Here again dopamine dysfunction would be relevant as it is involved in motor pathways.
  • A social/theory of mind basis (disorganized speech(flight of ideas) as one assumes too much ToM abilities in others and believes that the specifics one has left unsaid- and the abstract way in which one is talking – is comprehensible to others; disorganized behavior- which may be due to not taking social appropriateness into account as one is presumably on a very important mission on Earth.
  • An embodiment/ grounding basis and problems with agency(religiosity as one thinks of oneself as not grounded in the body and thus may lead to delusions of control and persecution (as a shadow that is embodied elsewhere is trying to control one) . Here metaphorical thinking and use of symbols as symbols for something else (an overarching idea) rather than referring to something out in the world may lead to loss with reality and magical thinking that takes too much correlation-is-causation kind of thinking and extends it to non-material and non-living things.
  • An Affective basis ( related to the fifth point for those who believe that emotions are due to body states) : the characteristic anhedonia , alogia and avolition. Symptoms that are similar in many ways to the symptoms of depressive state.
  • A Volitional basis (social and job dysfunction may be due to disturbances in the volitional system- too much goal direction (and where the goal happens to be not socially or work-place acceptable) leads to job dysfunction as does too less of goal-directed behavior.
  • Chronic nature: once neuroleptics are started one gets caught in the downward vicious circle. Also the nature of the disorder is cyclic just like the Bipolar with Positive symptoms more prominent in one phase and negative symptoms more prominent in the other phase. In between there can be remission and proper functioning.

Thus, I agree with the broad assessment of Lake et al, that most cases of schizophrenia may be juts an undiagnosed psychotic bipolar episode. Yet, I believe that schizophrenia is a heterogeneous disorder and there may be one or more sub-types. In my view schizophrenia proper leans more towards ToM/ social/ cognitive/ agency dysfunctions while Manic depressive is more about affective and volitional and recurrent dimensions. In my developmental framework; while the schizophrenic struggle with the first five developmental tasks; the bipolar struggle with the next three. Yet their common psychotic style confers susceptibility to psychosis in both cases. This would be as opposed to the same developmental challenges also faced by those with Autism/ depersonalization/ derelaization etc., who have an entirely different take on these issues. While one leans towards science (whose utility is well established); the other leans towards arts (whose utility is doubted sometimes), but which in my view is very important.

We are getting evidence of how emotions can affect decisions towards a better outcome and how having a framework that gives one a sense of meaning and purpose is essential. Science and evolutionary thinking at times robs us of these finer appreciations of life- at that time we do need a counter-dose of Art to keep us more grounded and to make life more enjoyable and worth living- even if that costs some people their sanity!! Maybe we need both GOD and evolution; both science and faith to keep us sane and on the right course.

Hat Tip: Neurofuture

Depression and Mania: The Bipolar thinking style

PsyBlog has recently posted an article on Cognitive Therapy (CBT) and how it is useful in Depression treatment. this therapy has been shown to be equally effective in Depression as is medication, though this woks in a top-down fashion in the brain (revealed by brain scans), while anti-depressants work in a bottom-up fashion.

PsyBlog quotes the following irrational beliefs , as outlined by Beck, that are prominent in Depression.

* Over-generalization. Drawing general conclusions from a single (usually negative) event. E.g. thinking that failing to be promoted at work means a promotion will never come.
* Minimalization and Maximization. Getting things out of perspective: e.g. either grossly underestimating own performance or overestimating the importance of a negative event.
* Dichotomous thinking – Thinking that everything is either very good or very bad so that there are no gray areas. In reality, of course, life is one big gray area.

To me all of these beliefs are equally relevant for Manic thinking, although in the Manic case these beliefs would be about positive events and have a different spin.

  • Over-generalization: a single instance of success at some endeavor disposing one to think that one can achieve anything in unrelated fileds. Also more co-incidence detection and more correlation-is-causation type of thinking that may ultimately lead to the Magical Thinking of full-blown Psychosis.
  • Minimalizations and Maximizations: Here, again, things go out of perspective: Overestimating one’s own performance and underestimating the importance of external happenstances that might have led to success.
  • Dichotomous thinking: thinking that things are mostly good/bad and unfounded optimism/faith/trust – the opposite of the depressive feeling. Although the reverse thinking that things are mostly bad (external environment is bad, I am good) can also kick in. The point is seeing the world in Black/white but not in shades of gray.

PsyBlog also has an earlier post on depressive thinking style in which it elaborates on the internal-locus-of-control predisposition in depressive probands. Thus, the depressive style is marked by the following internal, global and stable attributions: :

* It is my fault that I didn’t get the job. Here I have made an internal attribution.

* I think I am worthless: a thought that is likely to affect all areas of my life. Now I am making this attribution global.

* I see no reason for the fact that I am worthless to ever change. Now the attribution is stable

It is clear that the Manic person too makes the similar attributions: His success (maybe a single, lucky success) is due to his genius(internal attribution). His genius is not limited to one field- he is generally the most valuable, productive and creative genius and is an all-rounder(global attribution). His genius is not a short-lived entity- he will continue to remain a productive genius no matter what external circumstances / reality (stable attribution). He may thus have no drive to learn about external reality as he suspects that the external reality is not relevant and he can predict outcomes (which are bound to be good) based on his skills, expertise, grandiosity alone. An extreme form of this thinking may lead to the loss of reality characteristic of a full blown Psychotic episode.

While the minimalisations and maximizations are explained by the internal locus of control, the over-generalization is explicable by a propensity of jumping-to-conclusions sort of thinking that leads to global, stable over-regularizations. Another feature important in my view would be the mixing of contexts, where things from one context are referenced in another, dissimilar context. One could call this mixing up of metaphorical thinking where wrong analogies are applied and thus wrong (positive or negative) conclusions are arrived at. The third factor of dichotomous thinking is also very important though hard to pin down. Why should everything appear black and white in depressive or manic thinking and why in one case(depressive ), black is the color of self, while in Manic white is the color of self, remains a mystery. Answering how and when the switch from a grayish-world to a black-me-world(I’m a piece of shit) or white-me-world(I’m the next Einstein) happens would go a long way in making the bipolar patient control his moods and if he has to be sick then enable him to go for a manic episode (where the price may be insanity- a psychotic episode) instead of a depressive one (where there is a real risk of life).

Although the other wrong attributions and thinking styles also need to be addressed, the mechanism of the switching of mood/ black-white world view would help the most and should be the first one targeted in CBT/ medications.

Moral Intuitions (alternate title : Who framed roger rabbit?)

Disclaimer: Haven’t seen the movie “Who framed roger rabbit”, nor know the storyline- just used the alternate title as it is eye-catching:-))

Classical Moral intuitions research has focused on identifying how we arrive at moral conclusions. The Kohlberg’s developmental theory is based around identifying the reasoning process, by which, the children arrive at a moral decision regarding a moral dilemma; or identifying an action that would be ethical in a given situation; or forming a moral judgment regarding a given event-outcome.

Much of the discourse is limited by the few example problems around which these dilemmas are framed. A good example is the famous Trolley problem, in which one has to decide whether it would be worth sacrificing a single person, in lieu of five or six others; and its variations involving whether one is in direct contact with the person and is performing an active action of ‘sacrificing’ the person by pushing him/her from the footbridge; or is merely a bystander and passively (from a distance) pulling a switch that would direct the trolley to a different track. Variations include whether the person (who if sacrificed could save five or six others) is related to you, or whether he is innocent (a child playing on an unused track) vis-a-vis those being sacrificed are careless and thus not worth saving ( stupid children playing on running tracks).

While some framing of this Trolley problem are in utilitarian terms- one life versus many others, other framings are in emotional & selfish versus sacrificial & rational terms -your child or your action vs other children and universal action (by universal action I mean the same action irrespective of whether you are in touch with the person (the footbridge case) or are merely pulling a lever).

The framing involving ‘good/ careful’ vs. ‘bad/careless’ in the good-boy-on-unused-track and bad-boys-on-used-tracks fascinates me the most.

At the outset, let me clarify that in regards to moral dilemmas of this sort, my personal position is reasonably clear. In a discussion some years back with some good friends (not over a cup of coffee; but over an intranet discussion group:-) , while we were discussing this dilemma, I had surmised that while we may debate endlessly what the action should be, the most reasonable guess one can make is that there would be no action at all. In the Trolley switch case, this means that the person my get so much frozen by the decision pressure and inability to arrive at a conclusion, that he/she may not pull the switch at all (the switch that would direct the train/ trolley to the unused track ). Instead, he may just remain frozen- just like one gets frozen sometimes in times of extreme fear- a third reaction apart from the usual fight or flight response. Yet, dilemmas, such as these, and our ‘hypothetical’ responses to these may somehow tell us more about how we reason about moral situations- whether it is post hoc (just like it is claimed that Consciousness is post hoc)- and if so, why would we be constructing different post-hoc moral reasons for the same dilemma when it is framed in different terms. (Hauser’s research shows that the intuitions are different in the classical trolley (switch) versus the personal contact (footbridge) cases.)

Marc Hauser’s lab is doing some excellent research in this field and though I have taken their Moral Sense Test, I have a feeling that I have stumbled on a new type of framing and dilemma (that was not present in their tests…though one can never be sure:0) that may enable us to reflect a bit more on our moral reasoning process.

I’ll frame it first in neutral terms, and then try to refine it further. Let’s call this the Aeroplane problem. Suppose that you are traveling in an Aeroplane, and there is only one doctor present on board, and the Air hostess staff is not sufficiently educated in all first aids. Suppose further that you are way above ground, with any emergency landing at least 20 minutes distant. Suppose, that their are two people on the Airplane, who start getting a third heart attack (they are both carrying medical histories/ badges that tell that it is the third and potentially fatal heart attack (BTW, why is the myth of 3rd heart attack being fatal so enduring?) ), and the heart attacks are almost simultaneous, and only the lone doctor on board can give them the first-aid and resuscitation (CPR) that could ensure that they both remain alive, till the airplane makes an emergency landing (the emergency landing may itself risk the life of all passengers slightly). Now, when all other details are unknown, it is potentially futile to ask which one to attend- you may as well choose one patient and concentrate all efforts on him/her.

Suppose, one of them is an octogenarian, while the other is a teenager. Now, which one should the doctor choose? Suppose one is an old lady, while the other is a young brat, which one should the doctor choose?

Suppose the Doctor has Asthma, and no body else knows how to administer the oral inhalation medicine correctly except for the doctor; then should the doctor take care of a patient or should he/she take care of himself/herself? what if there is only one patient and one doctor? What if there is one doctor and many patients? Would the decision be easy?

Suppose further, that out of the two persons, one is faking heart attack symptoms, while the other is genuinely suffering; should the doctor be able to find out who is who? Would this make the dilemma easier? Would we (the airplane travelers) respect the doctor’s decision and let him /her attend to the person s/he thinks is genuinely suffering from heart attack?

Suppose further, that both the patients are terrorists and the doctor says that both are faking symptoms, potentially to hijack the plane; would we listen to the doctor and let him not attend to any of the potential causalities? Or would we try to help ourselves, potentially causing bedlam and fulfilling the plans of the terrorists?

I am sure by now you can conceive of other similar scenarios!! (one that comes to my mind is both the doctor and patient are accomplices and terrorists on-board to cause bedlam and mayhem and hijack the plane. Please let’s add as many scenarios in the comments as possible.)

Now let us take a moment to reflect on our moral reasoning process. I believe most of us would be prone to go with our intuitions and would think about rationalizing our decisions later. Thank god, we do have some moral intuitions to guide us in time of indecision/ threat perception.

Suppose that instead of framing the last few scenarios in an anxiety provoking setting (involving terrorists and what-nots), we framed this in terms of forward-looking, futuristic terms.

Suppose that one of the patients is a very promising child (has an IQ of 200/ or is a sport prodigy and is as well-known as Sania Mirza) while the other is again a famous scientist indulging in some ground-breaking research (Say Marie Curie, whose Radioactivity discovery is definitely a very useful discovery); then who should the doctor choose? Should she look at their achievements or potentials? Or should she remain immune to all this and dispassionately ignore all (ir)relevant information? or should s/he be affected by age, gender, race, achievement, potential etc?

Suppose further that instead of well-known celebrities like Abdul Kalam , or Sachin Tendulkar, who are present in the plane, the younger patient is a product of genetic engineering, destined to become a great scientist/ artist/ whatever; while the older patient is working on a top-secret classified dual use research which potentially could help humanity overcome the impending fuel crisis (and related arctic melting, ozone hole etc crisis-she is working on a hydrogen powered (water as fuel) engine, which could be used in automobiles as well as in outer Space like Mars, where only water may be available for refueling). Also, both these persons are not well-known currently and not recognizable by the doctor/ crew/ passengers. Death of the older person would put humanity back by at least 40 years- only after 40 years would someone like the younger patient that the doctor saved (in case the doctor let the older patient die), could have worked out the designs for using water as a fuel again. Now which one should the doctor attend to? Should s/he attend to the young one or the old one? The future or the present?

Should she take the time out to see the credentials (the proof that this child is genetically modified to have a good IQ/ whatever and the proof that this scientist is indeed working on classified research that may potentially help millions) of the patients or should she just act on her intuitions? Why is the reasoning different here as compared to the threat-scenario?

What if the instead of Science frames above, we used frames of Art(I mean artistic frames and not the frames that visual artists use for paintings:-)….Art is much more than visual art:-).

Suppose, that one of them (the older one) could become a Paul Gauguin; while the other (younger one) could become a Van Gogh (again I mean an artist like Gogh and Gauguin, not their works of arts:-) ), now which one should the doctor choose? Why does it become irrelevant as to who should be saved if the frame is of Art, but a question of life-and-death if the frame is of Science?

Finally, some things to note and think about: the Airplane problem is entirely framed in life-saving context (doctor helping save a life); while the Trolley problem is entirely in death-prevention context (someone acting messiah and preventing death of five Vs One; good vs careless etc). Again, Doctors usually give rise to feminine frames with one assuming a doctor to be a female; while the Foreman’s are usually entirely male. I hardly believe that framing is all of the problem; or that the framing is done deliberately: the framer of the problems/ dilemmas is equally susceptible to the same framing effects that the readers have experienced-while formulating a problem (a moral dilemma) one may fall prey to the same sorts of Frames that we become susceptible to when thinking about the problems (the moral dilemmas). Thus, the aphorisms, that (paraphrasing) “It is equally important to ask the right questions, as it is to find the answers to the problems”. Translated in the language of the scientific research world, this becomes that “it is important to design good experiments/ observation-study-setups and be very careful about the study designs.”

Returning back to the issue of framing of moral problems, if the frame exists it is also because of our history: just like the moral intuitions – that at times help us survive and at times let us fall prey to frames- are due to our shared evolutionary history: so too the frames we use to cast and perceive the moral dilemmas are rooted in our history ( Nothing profound- what I mean by shared history is that someone formulated the problems in those terms, silly!!.)

I believe the problem is more with our inability to detach ourselves form frames and take more reasonable perspectives and know when to use our intuitions and when reason. As the saying goes “It is by the fortune of God that, in this country, we have three benefits: freedom of speech, freedom of thought, and the wisdom never to use either.” Mark Twain (1835-1910). Alternately, another related saying that comes to mind(paraphrasing) ” God, give us the ability to change what we can, humility to accept what we cannot and the wisdom to know what is what”. We perhaps cannot change the historical frames or intuition that are in place, but we can definitely change our moral reasoning powers and following a developmental framework have compassion and understanding towards those who might not be employing the highest levels of moral reasoning.

Finally, If you are interested in my moral intuitions, I hypothesize, that the doctor (in the plane) would not be affected by Age, gender, race, potential, achievement etc would overcome his/ her Implicit Associations and would not try to find-out or gather-information deliberately to determine which life is more valuable- He/she would end up rushing between the patients and helping both at the same time; but if he/she is an intelligent doctor, would definitely save his/her life first, if suffering from Asthma, so that he/she could take care of others. This might seem like a rationalization (saving one’s life so that one can help in whatever small way others), but one should use intelligence, even before emotions or moral instincts take center stage.

I believe that in the Airplane Scenario described above, there is a potential for a histrionic/hysteric reaction of the crew and travelers, as everyone tries to help the patients, (especially if no doctor is on-board) and that this may be the reverse of the bystander-effect like phenomenon I have hypothesized might happen in the Trolley problem (freezing and taking no action when a train is approaching towards five or six humans or towards a lone human). To make more sense of preceding line please read comments by Mc
Ewen on Mind Hacks post titled ” “Mass Hysteria” closes school”. Also, a solemn and personal request, please do not jump to conclusions, read or try to co-relate things out of context- or try to make sense of psychological concepts based on everyday usage of terms. If you do not understand any concepts mentioned above, read related literature and focus on that aspect alone- to the exclusion of other distracting eye-catchers. In case of any persisting confusions, feel free to ask your local psychiatrist/ psychologist/ psychology professor as to what those concepts mean.

PS: I believe that the post has become difficult-to-read, this was not done intentionally. Again, there might be spelling mistakes/ grammatical errors- don’t get alarmed/ confused that this reflects racing thoughts etc- just point them out and I’ll fix them- most of the times the editorial errors (some of them quite funny) are due to lack of time to revise/ lethargy to read. Also, this is also a part of my ongoing series, where I have posited that their may be gender differences in cognitive styles. Some of that may also be a required reading.

Schizophrenia, Religion, Autism and the Indian culture (alternate title: Life, The Universe and Everything)

In continuation of my focus on the Schizophrenia-Autism dichotomy, I’ll like to highlight two articles that seem to support my view.

The first is a blog post by, John Horgan, speculating whether religiosity is the inverse of autism.

The anthropologist Stewart Guthrie proposes that religious experiences—and particularly those involving visions or intuitions of a personal God–may stem from our innate tendency toward anthropomorphism, “the attribution of human characteristics to nonhuman things or events.” Guthrie called his book on this theory Faces in the Clouds, but he could have called it Jesus in the Tortilla.

Recent findings in developmental psychology dovetail with Guthrie’s theory. By the age of three or four all healthy children manifest an apparently innate ability to infer the state of mind of other people.

Psychologists postulate that autism stems from a malfunction of the theory-of-mind module. Autistics have difficulty inferring others’ thoughts, and even see no fundamental distinction between people and inanimate objects, such as chairs or tables. That is why autism is sometimes called “mind-blindness.”

But many of us have the opposite problem—an overactive theory-of-mind capacity, which leads to what the psychologist Justin Barrett calls “hyperactive agent detection.” When we see squares and triangles moving around a screen, we cannot help but see the squares “chasing” the triangles, or vice versa, even when we are told that the movements are random.

This is compatible with this blog’s Schizophrenia-is-the-inverse-of-Autism theory for the following reasons:

1. Too much belief in agency in Schizophrenics (the hyperactive Agent detector conceptualized above) vs too less belief in agency in Autistics – characterized by me earlier as a Fantasy/Imagination Vs Reality orientation – has a direct relevance to whether one attributes anthropomorphic agency to non-living things and events (and thus Nature or God) or even fails to attribute intention to humans and animals and assumes them to be mere automata. I believe while a schizophrenic mindset can be characterized by a suspension-of-disbelief and too much causality and intention attribution (thus leading to the mindset compatible with religious/ spiritual leanings), the autistic mindset would lead to too much skepticism, too much even-causal-happenings-are-only-coincidental mindset and a reductionist, atheistic mindset that attributes no intention to humans, least of all animals, and believes that they are just advanced machines. I guess both are extremes of delusion, in one case one characterizes that as the GOD delusion; but the other extremist who sees no role of agency or intentionality (even in humans) is hauled as a great scientist!!

2. Another prominent dimension on which the Schizophrenics and autistic differ is the Literal-Metaphor dimension. I would like to frame that in terms of a Reference-Meaning use of a linguistic word and the consequent distinction in linguistics between a symbol as a referent of something and a symbol as signifying a meaning. For an excellent commentary on this difference, please do read this classical paper.

Meaning, let us remember, is not to be identified with naming. Frege’s example of ‘Evening Star’ and ‘Morning Star’ and Russell’s of ‘Scott’ and ‘the author of Waverly’, illustrate that terms can name the same thing but differ in meaning. The distinction between meaning and naming is no less important at the level of abstract terms. The terms ‘9’ and ‘the number of the planets’ name one and the same abstract entity but presumably must be regarded as unlike in meaning; for astronomical observation was needed, and not mere reflection on meanings, to determine the sameness of the entity in question.

It is my contention that while the Schizophrenics are meaning obsessed; the Autistics are more reference obsessed, and thus have problems with metaphorical and figurative speech. From linguistics one can stretch the Meaning-Reference distinction and conceive of too much meaning orientation in schizophrenics ( and a meaningful life requires a GOD that gives a meaning to our lives) versus a nihilistic orientation in autistics that views the life/ evolution as purposeless. As many evolutionists famously claim – there is no meaning inherent in evolution, life or humans – rather that the question of meaning is invalid. Life just is.

3. Many schizophrenic delusions can be explained by an extreme manifestation of religiosity/ spirituality. As Szasz famously said, ” If you talk to God, you are praying; if God talks to you you have schizophrenia”. Both a belief in GOD and his ability to listen to our prayers (the religious belief) and the converse belief that God can talk to us , many times in symbolic ways, but sometimes in the form of actual auditory hallucinations are a manifestation of the same cognitive mechanism that attributes too much agency, causality and meaning. Many schizophrenics, indeed do suffer from delusion of Grandeur, whereby they think of themselves as GOD-like; or the delusion of persecution and paranoia whereby they are persecuted by Satan like evil figures. thus both hallucinations as well as the common delusions are explainable by the religiosity orientation. this time the GOD delusion is different – one believes that one is a god-head. In non-religious cultures, these being-GOD delusions may take the non-religious forms of being a famous historical person (who had great agency and effect on Human history and is presumably now active via the agency of the deluded schizophrenic), and the persecution delusions may not refer to Satan- but to their non-secular counterparts- the CIA and the government!! Of course the pathological forms of an Autistic mindset, that may have nihilistic orientations, and out of boredom and feelings of meaninglessness, may resort to meaningless acts of violence like the Columbine Massacres is one direction which needs further study.

I would now like to now draw focus on the Cultural differences post where I had speculated on the different incidences rates of Schizophrenia and Autism in the East Asian and American cultures based on the differential emphasis on holistic and contextual versus analytical and local processing and cognition and also presented some supporting evidence. The well documented religious/spiritual inclination of Oriental cultures versus the Scientific/materialistic orientation of the American and western cultures may be another factor that would affect and explain the relative incidences of Schizophrenia and Autism in these cultures.

In a culture like India, in which the people believe in 18 crore (180 billion) Gods and Deities, believe in reincarnation and believe that every human being is potentially divine, if a human errs towards an extreme and starts developing funny ideas of being a God herself, then that may not ring the alarm bells immediately. Rather some form of that delusion may even be encouraged (that is why in India names are kept after the Gods and Deities; while its rare to find the name Jesus in West, you can find millions of Rams in India). If the same GOD-delusion develops in an American, then his idea of being Jesus (or an angel) would definitely be detected early, lead to an earlier ‘label’ and an earlier hospitalization.

That said, I would now like to draw attention to an article today in the Times Of India, that pointed me to some more literature that unequivocally shows that not only are the incidence rates of schizophrenia less in India (and other third world (Asian) countries), the prognosis is manifold better in Indian patients as compared to American patients.

The success story of schizophrenics in India was propagated by mental health professionals based on the WHO research DOSMeD in 1979. This was carried out in 10 countries including developing ones such as India, Nigeria and Columbia. The findings showed striking differences in the prognosis of schizophrenia between developed and developing countries. The underlying causes for the diversity were associated more with family and social variables than clinical determinants. Majority of patients in developing countries showed remission over two years; only 50 per cent of them had a single relapse though around 15 per cent never recovered. Patient outcome in developing countries was superior to that in developed economies.

This difference has been hypothesized to be due to the strong family structure (and I do believe that it is an important factor) and the social cushion, support and acceptance that a family provides to the patient and shields him/her from stressful situations that may trigger a relapse.

This theory of a family-protective-advantage has come under attack recently, but I think the attack is flawed because it clubs countries not according to Cultures, but according to developmental status. Indeed, the other factor that may be affecting a better outcome in schizophrenic patients may be the cultural differences like the different cognitive/perceptual styles and a more tolerance for religious/spiritual/ mystical ideas. By shielding a person from stigmatization and isolation, based on eccentricities exhibited along these dimensions, one may be preventing or delaying relapse, and ensuring better outcome by not pushing the person over the edge. In the pats, it was not infrequent, for those who had psychotic experiences to be labeled as shamans and to be treated with respect, rather than stigma and isolation; thus ensuring that they were not exposed to social stresses in the future.

I have taken a somewhat deprecating attitude towards the extreme autistic orientation characterized by no intentionality, causality, spiritual beliefs, but I am a strong believer in the fact that though the extreme manifestation of Autism/Schizophrenia makes one dysfunctional, a pronounced autistic/ schizophrenic orientation does endow one with creative faculties – either to understand and manipulate the world (the Sciences) or to understand and manipulate the subjective experiences (the Arts) . In particular, as the readers of this blog would most likely be scientists, and because I belong the the scientific community and have failed to see how a scientific orientation is incompatible with an artistic/symbolic/spiritual orientation , I have taken a harder line for the extreme Atheist and nihilism zealots.

I believe one can, and must, utilize the different types of cognitive abilities these extreme manifestations and disorders caricature. Do let me know what your think!

Abstract vs Concrete: the two genders?( the catogorization debate)

In my previous posts I have focussed on distinctions in cognitive styles based on figure-ground, linear-parallel, routine-novel and literal-metaphorical emphasis.

There is another important dimension on which cognitive styles differ and I think this difference is of a different dimension and mechanism than the figure-ground difference that involves broader and looser associations (more context) vs narrow and intense associations (more focus). One can characterize the figure-ground differences as being detail and part-oriented vs big picture orientation and more broadly as analytical vs synthesizing style.

The other important difference pertains to whether associations and hence knowledge is mediated by abstract entities or whether associations, knowledge and behavior is grounded in concrete entities/experiences. One could summarize this as follows: whether the cognitive style is characterized by abstraction or whether it is characterized by a particularization bias. One could even go a step further and pit an algorithmic learning mechanism with one based on heuristics and pragmatics.

It is my contention that the bias towards abstraction would be greater for Males and the left hemisphere and the bias towards Particularization would be greater for Females and the right hemisphere.

Before I elaborate on my thesis, the readers of this blog need to get familiar with the literature on categorization and the different categorization/concept formation/ knowledge formation theories.

An excellent resource is a four article series from Mixing Memory. I’ll briefly summarize each post below, but you are strongly advised to read the original posts.

Background: Most of the categorization efforts are focussed on classifying and categorizing objects, as opposed to relations or activities, and the representation of such categories (concepts) in the brain. Objects are supposed to be made up of a number of features . An object may have a feature to varying degrees (its not necessarily a binary has/doesn’t has type of association, one feature may be tall and the feature strength may vary depending on the actual height)

The first post is regarding classical view of concepts as being definitional or rule-bound in nature. This view proposes that a category is defined by a combination of features and these features are of binary nature (one either has a feature or does not have it). Only those objects that have all the features of the category, belong to a category. The concept (representation of category) can be stored as a conjunction rule. Thus, concept of bachelor may be defined as having features Male, single, human and adult. To determine the classification of a novel object, say, Sandeep Gautam, one would subject that object to the bachelor category rule and calculate the truth value. If all the conditions are satisfied (i.e. Sandeep Gautam has all the features that define the category bachelor), then we may classify the new object as belonging to that category.


Bachelor(x)= truth value of (male(x))AND(adult(x))AND(single(x))AND(human(x))

Thus a concept is nothing but a definitional rule.

The second and third posts are regarding the similarity-based approaches to categorization. These may also be called the clustering approaches. One visualizes the objects as spread in a multi-dimensional feature space, with each dimension representing the various degrees to which the feature is present. The objects in this n-dim space, which are close to each other, and are clustered together, are considered to form one category as they would have similar values of features. In these views, the distance between objects in this n-dim feature space, represents their degree of similarity. Thus, the closer the objects are the more likely that they are similar and the moire likely that we can label them as belonging to one category.

To take an example, consider a 3-dim space with one dimension (x) signifying height, the other (y) signifying color, and the third (z) signifying attractiveness . Suppose, we rate many Males along these dimensions and plot them on this 3-d space. Then we may find that some males have high values of height(Tall), color(Dark) and attractiveness(Handsome) and cluster in the 3-d space in the right-upper quadrant and thus define a category of Males that can be characterized as the TDH/cool hunk category(a category that is most common in the Mills and Boons novels). Other males may meanwhile cluster around a category that is labeled squats.

Their are some more complexities involved, like assigning weights to a feature in relation to a category, and thus skewing the similarity-distance relationship by making it dependent on the weights (or importance) of the feature to the category under consideration. In simpler terms, not all dimensions are equal , and the distance between two objects to classify them as similar (belonging to a cluster) may differ based on the dimension under consideration.

There are two variations to the similarity based or clustering approaches. Both have a similar classification and categorization mechanism, but differ in the representation of the category (concept). The category, it is to be recalled, in both cases is determined by the various objects that have clustered together. Thus, a category is a collection or set of such similar object. The differences arise in the representation of that set.

One can represent a set of data by its central tendencies. Some such central tendencies, like Mean Value, represent an average value of the set, and are an abstraction in the sense that no particular member may have that particular value. Others like Mode or Median , do signify a single member of that set, which is either the most frequent one or the middle one in an ordered list. When the discussion of central tendencies is extended to pairs or triplets of values, or to n-tuples (signifying n dim feature space) , then the concept of mode or median becomes more problematic, and a measure based on them, may also become abstract and no longer remain concrete.

The other central tendencies that one needs are an idea of the distribution of the set values. With Mean, we also have an associated Variance, again an abstract parameter, that signifies how much the set value are spread around the Mean. In the case of Median, one can resort to percentile values (10th percentile etc) and thus have concrete members as representing the variance of the data set.

It is my contention that the prototype theories rely on abstraction and averaging of data to represent the data set (categories), while the Exemplar theories rely on particularization and representativeness of some member values to represent the entire data set.

Thus, supposing that in the above TDH Male classification task, we had 100 males belonging to the TDH category, then a prototype theory would store the average values of height, color and attractiveness for the entire 100 TDH category members as representing the TDH male category.

On the other hand, an exemplar theory would store the particular values for the height, color and attractiveness ratings of 3 or 4 Males belonging to the TDH category as representing the TDH category. These 3 or 4 members of the set, would be chosen on their representativeness of the data set (Median values, outliers capturing variance etc).

Thus, the second post of Mixing Memory discusses the Prototype theories of categorization, which posits that we store average values of a category set to represent that category.


Similarity will be determined by a feature match in which the feature weights figure into the similarity calculation, with more salient or frequent features contributing more to similarity. The similarity calculation might be described by an equation like the following:

Sj = Si (wi.v(i,j))

In this equation, Sj represents the similarity of exemplar j to a prototype, wi represents the weight of feature i, and v(i,j) represents the degree to which exemplar j exhibits feature i. Exemplars that reach a required level of similarity with the prototype will be classified as members of the category, and those fail to reach that level will not.

The third post discusses the Exemplar theory of categorization , which posits that we store all, or in more milder and practical versions, some members as exemplars that represent the category. Thus, a category is defined by a set of typical exemplars (say every tenth percentile).

To categorize a new object, one would compare the similarity of that object with all the exemplars belonging to that category, and if this reaches a threshold, the new object is classified as belonging to the new category. If two categories are involved, one would compare with exemplars from both the categories, and depending on threshold values either classify in both categories , or in a forced single-choice task, classify in the category which yields better similarity scores.


We encounter an exemplar, and to categorize it, we compare it to all (or some subset) of the stored exemplars for categories that meet some initial similarity requirement. The comparison is generally considered to be between features, which are usually represented in a multidimensional space defined by various “psychological” dimensions (on which the values of particular features vary). Some features are more salient, or relevant, than others, and are thus given more attention and weight during the comparison. Thus, we can use an equation like the following to determine the similarity of an exemplar:

dist(s, m) = åiai|yistimymiex|

Here, the distance in the space between an instance, s, and an exemplar in memory, m, is equal to the sum of the values of the feature of m on all of dimensions (represented individually by i) subtracted from the feature value of the stimulus on the same dimensions. The sum is weighted by a, which represents the saliency of the particular features.

There is another interesting clustering approach that becomes available to us, if we use an exemplar model. This is the proximity-based approach. In this, we determine all the exemplars (of different categories) that are lying in a similarity radius (proximity) around the object in consideration. Then we determine the category to which these exemplars belong. The category to which the maximum number of these proximate exemplars belong, is the category to which this new object is classified.

The fourth post on Mixing Memory deals with a ‘theory’ theory approach to categorization, and I will not discuss it in detail right now.

I’ll like to mention briefly in passing that there are other relevant theories like schemata , scripts, frames and situated simulation theories of concept formation that take into account prior knowledge and context to form concepts.

However, for now, I’ll like to return to the prototype and exemplar theories and draw attention to the fact that the prototype theories are more abstracted, rule-type and economical in nature, but also subject to pragmatic deficiencies, based on their inability to take variance, outliers and exceptions into account; while the exemplar theories being more concrete, memory-based and pragmatic in nature (being able to account for atypical members) suffer from the problems of requiring large storage/ unnecessary redundancy. One may even extrapolate these differences as the one underlying procedural or implicit memory and the ones underlying explicit or episodic memory.

There is a lot of literature on prototypes and exemplars and research supporting the same. One such research is in the case of Visual perception of faces, whereby it is posited that we find average faces attractive , as the average face is closer to a prototype of a face, and thus, the similarity calculation needed to classify an average face are minimal. This ease of processing, we may subjectively feel as attractiveness of the face. Of course, male and female prototype faces would be different, both perceived as attractive.

Alternately, we may be storing examples of faces, some attractive, some unattractive and one can theorize that we may find even the unattractive faces very fast to recognize/categorize.

With this in mind I will like to draw attention to a recent study that highlighted the past-tense over-regularization in males and females and showed that not only do females make more over-regularization errors, but also these errors are distributed around similar sounding verbs.

Let me explain what over-regularization of past-tense means. While the children are developing, they pick up language and start forming the concepts like that of a verb and that of a past tense verb. They sort of develop a folk theory of how past tense verbs are formed- the theory is that the past tense is formed by appending an ‘ed’ to a verb. Thus, when they encounter a new verb, that they have to use in past tense (and which say is irregular) , then they will tend to append ‘ed’ to the verb to make the past tense. Thus, instead of learning that ‘hold’, in past tense becomes ‘held’, they tend to make the past tense as ‘holded’.

Prototype theories suggest, that they have a prototypical concept of a past tense verb as having two features- one that it is a verb (signifies action) and second that it has ‘ed’ in the end.

Exemplar theories on the other hand, might predict, that the past tense verb category is a set of exemplars, with the exemplars representing one type of similar sounding verbs (based on rhyme, last coda same etc). Thus, the past tense verb category would contain some actual past tense verbs like { ‘linked’ representing sinked, blinked, honked, yanked etc; ‘folded’ representing molded, scolded etc}.

Thus, this past tense verb concept, which is based on regular verbs, is also applied while determining the past tense of irregular verb. On encountering ‘hold’ an irregular verb, that one wants to use in the past tense, one may use ‘holded’ as ‘holded’ is both a verb, ends in ‘ed’ and is also very similar to ‘folded’. While comparing ‘hold’ with a prototype, one may not have the additional effect of rhyming similarity with exemplars, that is present in the exemplar case; and thus, females who are supposed to use an exemplar system predominantly, would be more susceptible to over-regularization effects as opposed to boys. Also, this over-regularization would be skewed, with more over-regularization for similar rhyming regular verbs in females. As opposed to this, boys, who are usinbg the prototype system predominantly, would not show the skew-towards-rhyming-verbs effect. This is precisely what has been observed in that study.

Developing Intelligence has also commented on the same, though he seems unconvinced by the symbolic rules-words or procedural-declarative accounts of language as opposed to the traditional confectionist models. The account given by the authors, is entirely in terms of procedural (grammatical rule based) versus declarative (lexicon and pairs of past and present tense verb based) mechanism, and I have taken the liberty to reframe that in terms of Prototype versus Exemplar theories, because it is my contention that Procedural learning , in its early stages is prototypical and abstractive in nature, while lexicon-based learning is exemplar and particularizing in nature.

This has already become a sufficiently long post, so I will not take much space now. I will return to this discussion, discussing research on prototype Vs exemplars in other fields of psychology especially with reference to Gender and Hemisphericality based differences. I’ll finally extend the discussion to categorization of relations and that should move us into a whole new filed, that which is closely related to social psychology and which I believe has been ignored a lot in cognitive accounts of learning, thinking etc.