Are there cognitive differences between sexes?

Cheeky peekIn a series of posts, entitled ‘Gender Is Dead, Long Live Gender’, ‘Social by Nature’, and ‘Girl Power’, philosopher Alva Nöe makes some contentious claims about the sexes.  Never one to shy away from controversy, Nöe argues that almost all behavioural or cognitive differences between males and females will not and cannot be explained in terms of underlying psychological or neurobiological processes.  Instead, what will do all the heavy lifting in explaining any such divide is society and the way in which our concepts assume certain differences between the genders.  Such deeply held assumptions in turn structure our lives and our expectations of ourselves, and these expectations turn into self-fulfilling prophecies.  In other words, boys aren’t really better at math and science, our social concepts just assume boys to be better, boys in turn expect themselves to be better, and this leads them in fact to be better.

It’s a long chain of reasoning, one that Nöe never really defends or argues for in a particularly illuminating way.  Indeed, across the three articles, he can’t decide whether or not to include the category of the psychological as something underpinning differences seen in the use of gendered concepts (psychology understood as the place where social concepts do their work), or indeed as something that is part of and explained in terms of sex-differences (psychology as understood as structures and processes like memory and reasoning).  And this vacillation might be one of the reasons that lead him to conclude that most behavioural or cognitive difference between the sexes is explainable only at the level of wide-spread social concepts.

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Could iPhones be part of our minds?

ElephantHow do our engagements with the everyday world contribute to the way we both go about it and think about it?  Could such contributions feed back upon and bootstrap our own capabilities, and in part form new and different ways of interacting with the world?  The situation of one Patrick Jones asks just these questions, and further seems to be an interesting case study in the on-going debate around the Hypothesis of the Extended Mind (or HEM, for short).

Patrick Jones suffers from the effects of Traumatic Brain Injury, of which there are many causes and effects.  In Patrick’s case, he suffers from extreme short-term memory loss.  But what is interesting about Patrick is the way in which he has employed Evernote; software that allows users to upload notes, pictures, and documents to a cloud server, which can then be accessed anywhere and at anytime by palm-pilots, computers and iPhones.  When Patrick runs into everyday problems, like dealing with email exchanges or attempting to remember what to buy at the grocery, he consults Evernote installed on his iPhone or Mac computer, and searches for relevant keywords and tags to help him connect the dots and form a reliable understanding of the situation he finds himself in.  In more philosophical vernacular, without a reliable biological short-term memory system, Patrick relies on a hybrid of internal/external and biological/technological resources instead.

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Art for Love’s Sake

Recent neurobiological research has shown that viewing art stimulates the brain in a way that mirrors the experience of romantic love. The study, conducted by Semir Zeki, Professor of Neuroaesthetics at University College London, scanned and mapped the brains of participants who had been asked to look at a variety of paintings from such artists as Botticelli, Turner, Monet and Cezanne. It was found that experiencing art releases into the orbito-frontal cortex of the brain a significant quantity of the neurotransmitter dopamine, a biochemical associated with love, happiness and sociability, as well as drug use and certain psychological disorders.

The result comes at an ideal time for the art world in Britain, which has felt itself to be targeted by the extensive cuts in public spending. The correlation between aesthetic experience and happiness gives extra leverage in justifying the arts according to standards of public interest, a justification which normally consists in pointing out the economic benefits of the revenue which art institutions can generate. Speaking to the Sunday Telegraph, Stephen Deuchar, director of the arts charity Art Fund, said:

I have always believed art matters profoundly so it is exciting to see some scientific evidence to support the view that life is enhanced by instantaneous contact with works of art

Professor Zeki’s work in neuroaesthetics also stands to be of high value to the philosophy of art. This latest link between art and love is just one of many discoveries made by Zeki which coincide almost seamlessly with what artists and theorist about art have said for centuries, perhaps even for thousands of years. Plato, in his dialogue The Symposium, recounts a speech in praise of Love (Eros) made by Socrates which describes a journey of ascent from sexual love, through aesthetic appreciation of the body, to a spiritual love of the soul, arriving finally at the contemplation of the Platonic Form of Beauty itself. Continue reading “Art for Love’s Sake”

Mind-altering Parasites and their Zombie Hosts

I have spent time, perhaps too much time, discussing with my girlfriend and closest friends (you don’t talk about this kind of thing with just anyone, after all) about what we would do to ensure our survival in the event of a zombie apocalypse. Ideally I would like to be holed up in Bamburgh Castle in my homeland of Northumberland only with people I completely trust, with plenty of food and weapons. Less Ideally,but more realistically, I would make for the top of my block of flats in Bethnal Green with a tent, a baseball bat and as many boxes of coco-pops I could carry and weld the door shut behind me.

This is my favourite thing about zombie movies; that they make you reflect about your own potential for survival in that situation.

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Xbox: The Guardian of Sleep

This soldier is clearly a regular gamer...

Violent computer games desensitise people to violence. This is normally considered a bad thing, but perhaps this is not necessarily so. Soldiers in a warzone face a situation in which they must encounter extreme violence routinely, and a survey has revealed that playing violent computer games might well help soldiers cope with this prolonged exposure to the extreme violence of war. To be more precise, the survey revealed that soldiers who frequently played computer games that involved war and combat experienced fewer violent dreams, and when these dreams did occur they reported feeling lower levels of fear and aggression compared to their non-gaming colleagues. The gaming soldiers reported feeling more able to “fight back against whatever forces were threatening them” in their nightmares.

It’s not difficult to formulate a plausible theory that would go some way towards explaining this data. Certainly, it seems clear that the desensitising effect of playing computer games could be a contributory factor. It’s quite unremarkable that soldiers who frequently encounter war as a game – albeit in the artificial context of a computer game – subsequently find the actual reality of war less threatening when they encounter it in their dreams. They learn to associate war with a game, perhaps as a game, and as a result their natural inclinations of fear and abhorrence are suppressed. But as a philosopher who possesses a passing, though not-insignificant, level of interest in psychoanalysis and the work of Sigmund Freud, I wonder if a more interesting explanation and investigation might be available to us… Continue reading “Xbox: The Guardian of Sleep”

Pain and the Body Image

It is more than strange that while dismantling Cartesian divides between mind and body has been at the forefront of philosophy for over a century, philosophy of mind is overwhelmed with literature that presumes a mind / world relationship, in which the role of the body is often up for grabs.

However, recent breakthroughs in studies of the experience of pain will hopefully inspire philosophers to bring the body back into the philosophical picture. As the BBC reports, the experience of pain is never as simple as a signal running from body to brain that results in a qualitative experience of a certain magnitude. Psychologist Flavia Mancini has demonstrated that the experience of pain is shaped by our own body-monitoring. For instance, concealing the left hand with a convex mirror that reflects the right, a patient’s threshold for pain in the left hand dramatically increases; likewise, a mirror that appears to shrink the left hand decreases the pain treshold. The larger the painful body part appears to us, the more the pain lessens in intensity.

This shows that the body image is not merely a representational space wherein pains are located like darts on a board; but rather that our own awareness of our bodies shapes the content of our experience. Perhaps even more compellingly, it shows that the body takes into account certain aspects of itself (apparent size) in determining the magnitude of a feeling or sensation. Yet all of this pales in significance compared to the fact that one finally has the excuse to keep a convex mirror in every room of the house.

Related Articles

> The Embodied Cognition Research Program

>Theories of Consciousness

You can read more at John Lidwell-Durnin’s blog, Consider the Bitter Gourd

It’s Me or the Dog!

JSeay: 2008

It’s a dog’s life, so the saying goes. Thanks to one dogged photographer we are finally privy to the reality of this proverbial canine existence. London-based Martin Usborne has drawn inspiration from the secret world of dogs for his latest project, entitled Mute: the silence of dogs in cars, a series of photographs of forlorn and forgotten four-legged friends. It comes as a darker follow-up to his more overtly amusing collection Life as a dog in the recession, and was yesterday described by the Independent as ‘capturing dejectedness, anger and sadness.’  Not quite as dark, though, as the controversial piece of dog related art executed by Costa Rican artist Guillermo Vargas, who, as part of an exhibition in 2007, tied an emaciated stray dog to the wall of the Códice Gallery, Nicaragua, and reportedly left it to starve. (Due to incandescent outrage within the blogging community, the truth was later revealed that the stray dog was both fed and spared death – Vargas, however, refused to officially comment on what exactly became of the hound). Vargas’s contribution provokes some obvious ethical questions (including, Vargas would argue, one aimed at the hypocrisy of viewers/bloggers, their dismay towards a single stray in a gallery not matching up to their attitude towards the countless strays that continue to starve outside it). Usborne’s work, on the other hand, may elicit some subtler philosophical questions, relating to such diverse philosophical areas as aesthetics, ethics, and the philosophy of mind.

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