Monthly Archives: April 2014

Brain to brain ‘direct’

April 2014: Some random musings that might get me into trouble.

2-brainCommunication in essence is trying to make another person’s brain a bit more like your brain. So would direct brain to brain communication achieve this much better than we can achieve this now? Communication has thrived through technological inventions. Writing enabled human beings to communicate with other people long dead and people far away. Continue reading Brain to brain ‘direct’

Printing and mass literacy extended the reach of written language to anybody. Telegraph and telephone enabled human beings to communicate instantaneously even when both are in distant places. Smartphones have enabled human beings to ‘text’ and ‘chat’ with very little time lag.

Now consider this: Two people can be in different locations, and they are asked to connect with each other by the power of their thoughts and feelings. Imagine electrical activity, perhaps in the form of waves displayed visually, as the only way that messages can flow between the two people. With a little more technological development it might be possible to induce the waves to follow that same rhythm in both brains.

Since communication is in essence changing each other’s brains to be more alike, would such a direct connection make communication better than ever?

There is something strange about this. But what?

Everything we normally use for communication, words, voice, expression, gesture, and so on, is produced by our brain, but is bypassed in direct brain to brain communication. Communication typically suffers if one of these channels is not available – so what would happen if none were? All these channels are the result of millions of years of evolution, precisely to enable brain to brain communication.

Surely there is more to communication than sharing our thoughts and feelings and making each other’s brains more alike. But what? What about conscious reflection? What about conscious decisions about what to say and what to conceal, what to make a joke about, thrown scorn on,  or hammer home relentlessly. What about knowing when to stop a communication?

My preliminary conclusion is that communication brain to brain can at best be only contagion and contagion is only the most basic form of communication. In this sense brain to brain communication is no better than body to body communication:  we can pick up ‘vibes’, smells, moods, laughter, fear and anger from each other. But this is only the basic alignment stage of social interaction. What is the alignment for, that is the question.

Once aligned, we can start to change each other’s brain in the way we like to do it – by talking, usually.  Communication as we know and like it involves persons and not just brains. Involving persons means taking into account the history of previous communications, the attribution of dispositions, traits and attitudes. On top of this it also requires the tracking of mental states from moment to moment.  Strangely enough, although all these processes can function unconsciously and automatically, at the sub-personal level, it seems that to properly communicate we need the personal level. In other words, consciousness.

The different channels of communication are not enough to do the job that we have come to expect from talking to or texting each other. There is something over and above that owns and deploys these channels, and this is not just the person, but the conscious person.

We need to do more than linking up brains to improve communication.





The great Smurf Experiment

I am at the gorgeously magnificent Széchenyi baths with Ágnes Kovács, one of the senior researchers of the CDC group at the CEU. I have long admired Ági’s work and one experiment conducted with Ernő Téglás and Ansgar Endress, has completely changed how we think about the development of Theory of Mind. 

We are sitting at the edge of the pool marked 36ºC. Silky water is all around us and we can comfortably settle at the edge.

UF: Agi, how did you come to embark on your amazing experiment that showed that 7-months old infants can track another person’s false belief? Most researchers up until then were convinced that Theory of Mind was testable only from age four onwards. Continue reading The great Smurf Experiment

agnes melinda kovacs

AK: It started in a conversation I had on a train in Trieste. I did my PhD there in Jacques Mehler’s lab, on bilingualism and its effects on cognitive development. Amongst the effects I considered were Theory of Mind (ToM) and Executive functions (EF).

It turned out that these two factors had been confounded in the well known Sally-Anne task that was typically used to test ToM. I wanted a pure test of ToM. It occurred to me that I actually wanted a ToM test for babies, and that it simply had be a non-verbal version of the Sally-Ann task.

UF: Wow that was ambitious! So how did you get this idea and go about designing such a test?

AK: I didn’t know it was ambitious, – I only knew that there was a risk  of not finding anything. So I only pursued the project on the side. Jacques Mehler very kindly allowed me to do this – even though he himself was very skeptical about it. In his lab I had learned that by merely observing babies’ looking behavior you can get an idea about what they expect. So it should be possible to look for evidence of whether or not they have an implicit form of ToM.

UF: If babies have expectations, does this mean that they have mental representations –  images perhaps of what might be there in the outside world? And sometimes this image agrees with what is out there, and sometimes it doesn’t?

AK: You could say that. We knew already from earlier studies that infants can represent the continued presence of an object even when the object was hidden behind a screen. When the screen was lifted, the infants still expected the object to be there.

UF: So, they did a double take when the object wasn’t there.

AK:  These and other findings suggested that young infants can also represent another agent’s goal, and this made me think that it might be possible to study not just infants’  representation of objects, whether they are present or absent….but beyond this, whether infants represent not just their own beliefs about objects, but the belief of another person.

UF: Why did you test 7months olds?

AK: I thought even 6 months olds might do this, since even at this age they understand goals.  But at the time, the babies coming to the lab to be tested were 7 months old.

To go on exploring the baths we are moving to a slightly warmer and larger pool, surrounded by Roman style marble columns.

UF: You designed the famous Smurf task. Can you briefly describe what your aim was with this task?

AK: We wanted to we find out whether human beings would spontaneously track another agent’s belief about a location of an object – even when the agent and his beliefs are completely irrelevant for the task. So, basically, we transformed an object detection task into an implicit ToM task.

UF: The other agent was a Smurf! The thrilling question was whether observers, adults or babies, were influenced by the Smurf’s belief. So when he had a false belief, namely that an object was still there when it had actually been removed, then the observer might be systematically affected by this. But how did you measure the effect on the observer?

With adults we used a simple visual detection paradigm. They have to detect the presence of a ball and press a button as quickly as possible when it was present. We knew already that our expectations and knowledge modulate behavior. For instance, imagine a person arriving to a crowded airport and spotting her best friend. She will be much faster in noticing her friend if she knew in advance that the friend was waiting for her, as opposed to the situation when she did not know that the friend was coming.

In our baseline task participants watch short video and have to detect the presence of a ball behind a screen when the screen falls. We find that they are faster in detecting the ball when they have previously seen the ball rolling behind the screen, and expect it to be there, as compared to the situation when they have seen the ball rolling out of the scene, and thus don’t expect to find the ball.

In our critical condition we vary the belief of the Smurf and this is how we did it: if the Smurf walks out of the scene before the ball rolls away, he would “think” that the ball is still behind the screen.

UF: Ingenious! So you expect participants not only to be faster in detecting the presence of the ball when they themselves believed the ball to be behind the screen, but also when the Smurf believed this.

Baby watching Smurf

AK: And this was the result. It suggested that just watching animations could lead participants to automatically compute the Smurf’s (false) beliefs, even though the Smurf’s belief was entirely irrelevant to the task they had to perform.


UF:  What was the task in the case of the infants?

AK:  Here we measured looking time. In exactly the same situation as the adults, they looked longer when the Smurf had a false belief.

UF: These findings must have just clicked into place for you. It must have been thrilling to see your ‘high risk’ study work out.

We visit the steam room and are surrounded by thick mist. My glasses completely become clouded and I can only see through a fog. After a refreshing shower we brave the outside. There is an open air hot pool at Szechenyi baths. An amazing sight greeted as: steam rising against a purple evening sky, lights glinting and water pouring from the spouts of statues at the edges of the pool. We braved a short walk through the cold air and then gratefully slipped into the delightful warmth of the water. 

AK: Well, arriving to the final design took many hours of discussions with Erno and Ansgar to make sure we control for various factors to rule out other interpretations. Another difficulty was that we wanted to use the same movies with adults and young infants, thus movies had to be simple (1 location, 1 object, 1 agent).

UF: Can you tell me something about your collaborators, Erno Teglas and Ansgar Endress?

AK: It was Ansgar I had the conversation with in the train when it all started. He suggested that we test the paradigm first with adults.  Here we used Reaction Times, not eye gaze. This was a really good idea. Ernö was indispensable. First he was my boyfriend, and we previously had had long discussions on how to study ToM in infants; second he was doing a PhD where he had gained the necessary experience with studying looking behaviour in infants.

UF:  Can you briefly summarise the results?

The results were just as I had expected. With the adults and then also with the babies, when we used eye gaze as a response. We have found that adults and infants spontaneously tracked an agent’s belief about a location of an object, even when the agent and his beliefs were completely irrelevant for their task.

UF: I believe it took some time before you published the paper?

AK: I had to finish my PhD first. We did present the results at a conference and it was known what we were trying to do – and there were many skeptics.  So we did not rush to get into print. We wanted to do every thing properly and be sure about our results…

The nice thing was that Jacques Mehler encouraged us to submit the paper to Science, and just as the three of us, only students, without him as a senior author. This is actually quite rare, and it had the additional benefit, that on the strength of this publication I could apply for a European grant.

After more showers, and a short stay in a sauna, Agi and I get ready to leave. But first, we share a refreshingly cold Stella Artois overlooking the outdoor pool. The evening visitors are now arriving.

UF: Thank you for telling me the story behind the Smurf experiment. I vaguely remember when I saw this study, when it was published in Science in 2010 it made me jump for joy. It was not only because I liked the results – it was the beautiful design that made it possible to compare children less than 1 year old with adults. Getting the same results for both groups really put a big question mark about what we call ‘development’ of Theory of Mind. New questions had to be asked. For example: Is the ability to attribute mental states part of our brain’s hard ware?

AK: Well, this is a highly interesting question! Together with my students and collaborators we are currently performing studies addressing this question as well.


Post-script 30th April 2014:

“Why on earth was it a Smurf?”   Because they are cute, of course,  but here is Agnes:

“The practical reason was that we had the software to animate a Smurf, making him roll the ball, turn around, move along, and so on. Also we knew from other experiments that babies really love animated shapes.  They don’t need to watch real people doing things to pay attention; simple shapes with faces and self initiated movements are just as good, if not better. Deep down there was perhaps also another reason: For our generation, and certainly for Ernö, Ansgar and myself,  Smurfs are incredibly bound up with happy childhood memories.”



Selfish – moi?

March 2014, Uta Frith

Chris and I are in our nice office in the Swan-house (Hattyuhaz). Agnes Volein, the coordinator of the Babylab has come in for a few minutes of chat.

Photo on 07-02-2014 at 11.55CF: I must finish this Q&A to send to the Cognitive Neuroscience Society. My paper with Masahiko Haruno is going to be published at last and they will highlight it on the journal’s website.

AV:  What is the paper about?

CF: The title is Activity in the Nucleus Accumbens and Amygdala Underlies Individual Differences in Prosocial and Individualistic Economic Choices

It’s about individual differences in people’s preference for fairness or otherwise. We call it their social orientation, which can be pro-social or pro-self. Continue reading Selfish – moi?

UF: You have often said that you don’t believe that we are all basically selfish and constantly working hard to inhibit  this tendency. Instead you think that, deep down, most of us are pro-social. Some people would say that is a charming belief, but surely naïve.

CF. Well, in this paper we present data to confirm my belief.

UF: Here is the first question for your Q&A: How did you personally become interested in this topic?

CF: A very long time ago (1969) I did my PhD on individual differences, but subsequently paid little attention to this aspect of psychology. More recently, I have been interested in social cognition and the neural mechanisms underlying social interactions. Most studies have tended to ignore individual differences. This is a shame because the functioning of human societies depends upon individual differences in order to achieve optimal division of labour.

UF: Lets go to question 2: In just a few sentences, what were the objectives of your study?

CF: Fairness is a very important concept in human society. But some people are more concerned about fairness than others.

Paul van Lange has used a questionnaire about the sharing out of money. Prosocials (~60%) prefer the money to be split evenly even if this means getting less themselves. Individualists ( ~30%) will choose the split that gives them the most money without regard for what other people get. Competitive types (10%) want to get more than others. Importantly, the behaviour on this questionnaire relates to real life behaviour. Prosocial people are more cooperative, give more money to charity and tend to vote liberal rather than conservative.

These differences seem stable, like personality traits. We wanted to explore their neural basis.

UF: Did you have a hypothesis?

CF: In a previous brain imaging study, Haruno & I found that dislike of unfairness was associated with activity in the amygdala. Since the amygdala is a relatively ‘primitive’ brain region, we suspected that this was a rapid, automatic response that did not involve much conscious reflection, and we wanted to test this idea further.

UF: How did you do measure dislike of unfairness?

CF: We gave people an ultimatum game to do in the scanner. Here an amount of money is presented, and a split is offered. The person has to make a decision to either accept or reject the offer, – and this is the ultimatum. If the answer is accept, the split goes to each person as per the original offer. If the answer is ‘reject’, neither person gets anything. We also had a version of the game, where the other person got his split even if the decision was ‘reject’, the impunity game.

A fair split is 50% of course, but most people accept less. For people strongly oriented towards fairness, the more unfair the split, the more likely their decision will be ‘reject’. Not so the pro-selfs. They take something rather than nothing. We wanted see what would happen when people were prevented from thinking too deeply about their response to fair or unfair splits. So we gave them a task that distracted them.

UF. Were you surprised by any of the findings in your study?

CF: We had expected that cognitive load would not affect the behaviour of our participants since their responses to unfair offers in the ultimatum game would be intuitive rather than reflective. Our findings showed that the cognitive load actually exaggerated the individual differences. So the prosocials became more prosocial, as shown by rejecting offers that were insultingly low. The pro-selfs became more selfish. That is they accepted even tiny offers, because something is better than nothing. They did not care about the other person getting a lot more, especially in the impunity version of the game.

UF: What was the significance of the activity you saw in the nucleus accumbens and amygdala?

CF: We believe that the activity in these ‘primitive’ brain regions reflects intuitive, rather than reflective processes in decision-making, and that it is these intuitive processes that largely determine whether a person is selfish or prosocial.

UF: So you feel confirmed in your belief that people are pro-social and basically have an aversion to unfairness?

CF: Absolutely. It goes against the widely held belief that people are basically selfish and that we need to reflect upon what we are doing to overcome our selfish urges. Our research says most of us are basically prosocial rather than selfish. Of course we can override this basic tendency. When we do that, our powers of reasoning are typically used to justify selfish behaviour.

The ten thousand babies of the Swanhouse

HattyuhazWe are spending several months at the Cognitive Development Centre at the Central European University Budapest. It is currently housed in the extraordinary postmodern Hattyuhaz.  The name derives from the street it is in, Swanstreet.

We are here to mingle with an incredibly talented group of cognitive psychologists, all interested in social interaction. Chris and I are planning to interview them to find out about their favourite experiments and about what they expect of the field in the future.

Continue reading The ten thousand babies of the Swanhouse

On one floor of this building is the Babylab, where over the last few years thousands of infants, mostly between the ages of two and 18 months, are participating in an incredibly productive programme of many experiments conducted in parallel by about a dozen students under the supervision of senior researchers. The questions addressed are very fundamental: how do babies understand social agents? How exactly is their attention drawn towards relevant social signals?

There are four different colour coded labs, all soundproofed, with video screens and cameras. Computers record the babies’ eye gaze or the electrical activity in their brain, using EEG and NIRS. A lab coordinator and lab manager recruit and receive the participants and make them feel at ease in the friendly toy strewn waiting area.

It all looks deceptively easy. The infrastructure provides the smooth running and a continuous supply of babies. The babies and their mothers are clearly interested in the colourful experimental displays. The computer programmes collect the data, the conscientious students analyse them, and so on. But, this is not a factory. For each experiment to come to fruition, it takes months and years to refine the hypotheses, and to interpret the results. Actually, it takes about 3 years for a paper to be published in a scientific journal and often reports a whole bunch of experiments that follow logically from each other. Such a paper is always the results of a cooperation between several scientists and their students.

Wunderkammer of the mind

Photo by Gerhard Lang

I met Gerhard Lang in the course of a Wellcome SciArt project that aims to get scientists and artists to work together on a project. Our project was an exhibit for the Head-On exhibition at the Science Museum in London in 2002.

I was very excited when I heard of Gerhard’s plan to construct an exhibit he wanted to call Imago cerebri, because it would include a purpose made display cabinet full of objects. I had been intrigued by the idea of a Wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities, for a long time. As far as I had understood, the Wunderkammer is a collection of anything and everything interesting, and it can serve different purposes: education, reflection, knowledge expansion, possession, memory and fantasy.

Continue reading Wunderkammer of the mind

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="604"] Ole Worm’s cabinet of curiosities (1655) from Smithsonian Institution Libraries[/caption]

Some of the objects in Gerhard’s cabinet were selected by him from our own house, and it was thrilling to see them nestling together with objects he had obtained on loan from different London museums.

To me the Wunderkammer is one of the best metaphors for psychology, that is, the study of the mind.  It highlights wonder and surprise.  It suggests paradoxes, in mysterious of juxtapositions, and effortlessly evokes emotions through the images and their juxtapositions.

What is the mind? Of course it is not just a collection of memory images and things. The mind is also a machine that enables us to fit into our ecological niche and moreover constantly create slightly different niches. The mind is created by the brain, but we have no idea at what level the equivalence of mind and brain will eventually be established. At this stage we are talking about a very global level: mental components and extensive brain regions; mental operations and connections and networks between brain regions. At this global level it is probably okay to use the words brain and mind to stand for each other.

Photo by Gerhard Lang

What are social minds? Two heads are better than one and this blog is curated jointly by Chris Frith and Uta Frith.

Much of our brain is dedicated to our complex social lives. Getting old and older with the 70th Birthday milestone already in the distant past, Chris and I are becoming only more intrigued with our social abilities and disabilities. We have both studied conditions, which are marked by deep social failure.  I have studied autism over a lifetime and Chris has studied schizophrenia for just as long. We have gained insights that has given us cause to has given us the impetus to look for a biological basis of social interactions, which we first wrote about in 1999.

There were some more papers since then, which we will summarise and reflect on in later posts.

We hope we are now ready to go a step further and write a book on this topic. This blog is a way of telling the backstory of this book – as yet unwritten.