Sunday 25 December 2011

Introducing Elliott Thomas

Sabrina and I are proud to announce our most recent joint production: Elliott Thomas Wilson Golonka, born at 16:05 GMT on the 21st of December, 2011, at St James' Hospital in Leeds to the tune of 'Fairytale of New York' (seriously, you can't escape that song this time of year, even in operating theatres!). 8lb 13oz, all fingers and toes present and correct! Thanks to everyone at St James for their sterling work, and to the ongoing midwifery support courtesy of the UK's National Health Service. NHS, we love you lots!

Elliott will be be contributing his experiences as a developing perceiving acting embodied organism to the blog (and, most likely to another blog we'll set up to nerd out about our son). We look forward to his unique insights into the processes of perceptual learning and development, and to recreating some fun experiments in the comfort of our own home.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all our readers; 2011 has been a big year for us in lots of ways and while obviously the blog is going to slow down for the next while, we're looking forward to more fun in 2012.

Andrew, Sabrina & Elliott

Wednesday 14 December 2011

Leaning to the left makes you believe odd things about embodied cognition

Embodied cognition is not what you think it is. But I do understand why people think differently; it's because of the depressingly endless stream of papers published in Psychological Science that claim to have found that body posture somehow influences the contents of some cognition about the world. The latest "exciting" new finding claims that estimates of magnitude (size, amount, etc) are affected by your posture. The paper is well summarised at the Guardian for those without access to the paper (UPDATE: I am also talking to Rolf Zwaan, lead author of this paper, in the comments section there.)

It's a terrible paper, so it's apparently time for another in what might have to become a more frequent series, In which I am a bit rude about a rubbish paper and worry about how to kill papers like it. At the end, I've also talked a little about the role science journalism plays in maintaining the momentum for papers like this, via their own version of the file drawer problem. I'd be interested in people's thoughts.

Friday 9 December 2011

Some Ground Rules for a Theory of Psychology

Add psychology to the list
A fairly common response to our theory post was 'here's my theory, which is designed to replace and fix all the others'. However, it's more a symptom of the problem I was discussing than a solution for everyone to have their own entirely separate theory which doesn't talk to any other work in the field (see above). One of my personal goals in science is to not be that guy. I want to see cognitive science become more integrated, not more fragmented. We have also been asked, however, and quite sensibly, what we think the solution to our problem is. The question then is how to propose a theoretical approach for psychology and cognitive science where we don't just reinvent the wheel.

Sabrina and I have been working on this for, well, the entire blog. It has been a place for our "brave attempt to think out loud about theories of psychology until we get some" since day one; we've been identifying problems but, just as importantly, solutions the whole time. The theory post identified the big picture problem we see in psychology; time to lay out some solutions.

Step one is to present a map of the blog, organised thematically to guide new readers to work we've already done here. This should also help map out the gaps in the approach, so we can focus on things to do next; feel free to point us to problems we can't yet address! (And yes, we know about episodic memory and language - we're working on it.) This post is not a comprehensive summary of past work - it's a map for you to use to find what we've done so far.

To summarise: in essence, and some minor details aside, we are advocating for Chemero's (2009) radical embodied cognitive science, with the addition of some elements he was missing (network science & task specific devices). Cognition is embodied, extended and held together by the direct perception of affordances and events; the result is a complex, nonlinear dynamical system that must be analysed as such. The brain is not the sole source of our behaviour, nor is it representing the world; it clearly plays a critical role in this system, though, and we propose that we'll need the tools of network science to describe what it's actually up to (Sporns, 2010). Methodologically, we must carefully characterise the task, the resources available to solve the task (which include brain, body and environment) and the information these resources create which can sustain the formation and control of an embodied solution. This method is Bingham's (1988) task specific device approach (the main piece Chemero was missing, I think).This approach applies to all and any behaviour you want to explain, including the hard stuff like episodic memory and language.

Critically, this approach, while new (and uncommon in insisting on a role for Gibson's ecological approach) isn't just something we invented: all these elements are active parts of modern cognitive science. The only new part is bringing it all under one roof, with the goal of getting on and getting some decent normal science under our belts.

Here's what we've covered so far. If you want more details on any point, click on the links!

Tuesday 6 December 2011

This is not the paternity leave policy you were looking for

So, this is a bit off the scientific/psychological beaten path, but since we get a good amount of traffic from people in the UK it seemed worth mentioning...
Image via Hammonton Photography
You might be aware that the UK government recently did something awesome by giving employed fathers the right to take up to 26 weeks off work during the first year of their child's life. This was a massive step forward from the previous Ordinary Paternity Leave policy, which gave dads a whopping 2 weeks off work. In terms of government mandated pay, the scheme is pretty close to the maternity leave policy; dads receive the lesser of £128.73 a week, or 90% of average weekly pay. One difference, is that fathers can only begin their leave after the mother takes 20 weeks of her leave.

Many employers (universities among them) offer additional pay for maternity leave to employees within certain salary band (which is great- thanks!). But, (here's where things aren't so great), some employers don't feel that this extra pay should extend equally to paternity leave (warning - I don't have national data on this; my conclusion is based on the policies I've seen from a handful of institutions). For example, a maternity leave plan might offer extra pay to mothers until 26 or 31 weeks, while fathers who start their leave at 21 weeks would receive no extra pay (beyond the statutory rate mentioned above). This means that, in practice, maternity leave policies are more financially generous than paternity leave policies. Sharing leave between parents is often more financially detrimental to a family than having the mother take the entire leave.