Category Archives: Budapest

What’s this for? The teleological instinct

We are in Budapest again for April/May 2015. Everyone in the CEU Cognitive Science Department has moved to a splendid 19th century town house close to the CEU main buildings. The Babylab has extended its space, and, no question, it feels and looks like the best in the world. Here’s a conversation we had with Gergely Csibra, director of the Cognitive Development Centre. His incredibly distinguished list of publications has earned him a wide influence. We were having lunch with him  in a typical small Hungarian restaurant in the city centre. After the difficult business of choosing the most typical Hungarian dishes – Rakott krumpli for me and Pörkölt for Chris – our conversation turned towards books we would like to write, and moreover, are committed to write.

UF: So, Gergö, what are your books going to be about?

GC: One of them could be about our propensity for teleological thinking.

UF: Ah – you have been thinking about this for a long time!

GC (lifting the elaborate serviette holder standing on the table): a human being would immediately ask, what is this for?

UF: So?

GC: The point is that only humans would ask this question. All animals are programmed to pursue certain goals, and they are able to select the best means of achieving the goals. But humans can start with the means and then ask about the goal they can achieve.nuts&bolts

CDF: We wonder a lot about purpose and meaning.

GC: We even ask “what’s the meaning of life?”

UF: We keep asking, even if there is no answer. Continue reading What’s this for? The teleological instinct

CDF: We often love the means even more than the goals: look at this amazing tableau from the National Museum which proudly displays the huge variety of bolts made by a factory. We embellish tools and work on them to make them beautiful beyond the merely functional. Also, there is a whole chain of actions that is provoked: we make tools to make tools. We are very inventive about this.

GC: But actually, humans are not very inventive. Innovation is rare. Instead of finding new means to achieve an end we tend to consider the opposite: what can this old object or action be used for?

CDF: Innovation in ends may be rare. But not in finding uses for an object. You can easily find 101 uses for a brick, as required by a well-known psychological test.

GC: People have invented lots of tools that were rubbish. Just occasionally somebody produces something that turns out to be really useful.

UF: Can you imagine individual differences in teleological thinking?

GC: Not really. It’s not a skill, it’s a motivation. Even an obsession.

UF: Lets consider this then: Can you imagine what a person would be like who lacks this motivation?

GC: Interesting… I don’t know.

UF: Would this be the case with severe depression? To depressed people nothing makes sense and they are not interested in making sense either. Life has no meaning.

CDF: A depressed patient lacks motivation for anything. So this is not a good example. We’d have to think a bit more about what kind of pathology could create an absence of this particular lack of curiosity in what things are for.

UF: I wonder. We are also constantly asking questions about the names of things, what’s this cake called, this flower, this bird? Could this be related to theteleological instinct, if I’m allowed to call it that?Budapest Central Market Cakes

GC: It could be. The name may often give a clue to the function or purpose of something. This is because both names and object functions are culturally determined.

UF: Ah – now we come to a key concept in social cognition, culture. Cultural knowledge is built on the expectation that all things have a meaning, and exist to serve a purpose. The serviette holder is for holding serviettes. The serviettes are for protecting my clothes from food being spilled. And here I am trying to tack a very flimsy piece of paper into my skirt. I better be careful because it wouldn’t serve the purpose very well!

CDF: Some people would claim we have an urge to attribute causality. Would you separate causal thinking and teleological thinking?

GC: They’re supposed to be completely different explanations – think of Aristotle’s efficient and final cause -, but often they can be translated into each other. There’s this interesting thing about Darwin: he turned the teleological questions into causal explanations.

CDF: Something like this: Natural selection by fitness creates (causal) the functions that animals have (teleology)?

GC: He attempted to explain how teleological functions are brought about by blind forces of selection.

CDF: I wonder if clever animals using tools have teleological thinking.

GC: Animals use tools for the immediate ends they are motivated to pursue. They never have any lasting interest in the tool. Humans do. They take the tools with them in case they need them again. They even value objects for their potential use in the future. Even if they have no idea what use they could be put to.

CDF: When the bicycle was invented it was at first not a very useful tool to get from one place to another.

UF: We are always asking for the meaning of things, but we are never satisfied by the answers. Perhaps that’s what religion ‘is for’: it’s something that is always ready to satisfy the need to get answers to the big questions, especially giving reasons for terrible suffering – perhaps it’s meant to teach you a lesson; to punish you; or,  to make you a better person.

GC: I don’t think religious behaviour is any more teleological than other behaviour. It’s a drive that is present in very young children long before they are exposed to religion.

UF: What about science? I presume here you don’t ask what something is for, but what made it happen? Science is about causes, not purposes.

CDF: But even scientists, being human, are still highly attracted  teleological thinking.

GC:There are a number of papers by Deborah Kelemen on teleological bias in domains such as biology or religion, and in science.

CDF: There’s an interesting study where she tested physicists in speeded conditions. In this case they were more likely to endorse teleological than causal explanations of natural phenomena. Just like everyone else. To quote from the abstract: ‘Specialization as a scientist does not, in itself, … ameliorate scientifically inaccurate purpose-based theories about the natural world.’

UF: Isn’t this teleological bias helpful for developing technology?

GC: Teleological thinking serves not so much the development of new technology as the learning or understanding of existing technology.

UF: One downside is that there are unforeseen side effects. As you say, tools can often lead to things that were not envisaged before, and not even intended.

GC: Tools allow us to create new options. This is not the case when animals are using tools. Their options are unchanged by the tools.

UF: I look forward to your book. It is such a fruitful idea and we need to relate it to social cognition.

GC: The idea is not new, but I think it has not received as much attention as it deserves. I have thought about this topic for a long time. Whether I will make it a book or just a paper – you will see it in a year’s time.

Image credit: Cakes in Budapest’s Central Market Hall

Women at the baths

Eva Fodor, sociologist and professor of gender studies at the Central European University Budapest, is also director of the Institute of Advanced Study at the CEU. We meet every week for seminars followed by a convivial lunch in the CEU’s Café Central. I wondered whether we could have a get together to talk about gender issues. Where better than in one of Budapest’s many baths? Eva immediately suggested the Rudas baths, one of the oldest, originating in Ottoman times, with its Turkish architecture largely intact. This was not the only attraction. These baths have a Women Only day, which seemed highly appropriate.

Continue reading Women at the baths

Walking past ancient pillars we steered towards a mysteriously shining pool in the middle of an octagon. We were surrounded by women of all ages all chatting and enjoying themselves. Water was pouring in from huge spouts. We leaned back against the warm stones and wallowed in the water.

14-bIt could have been a scene from antiquity, but we wanted to talk about modern women. Eva had some interesting statistics (based on US data). She said that at the time I did my PhD in 1968, I would have been one of only 18% women in the psychology graduate program. She asked me what I thought it would be now.

–       50% , I guessed, thinking that Psychology was a topic chosen quite a lot by women nowadays.

–       80%  was the surprising answer.

–       So, what is the consequence of so many women choosing a certain topic for their research career? Is this a good thing? Will they all become leaders and role models for women in other disciplines?

Eva Fodor–       Not necessarily. We call this process  ‘femininization’, and there is evidence that this could mean lower pay, or at least a less steep pay increase, and lower status for the discipline.  This has been the case for example when large numbers of women entered teaching or banking.   It is probably true in academia as well.   When women start predominating in an occupations, the job is redefined as something ‘a little bit easier to do’ and a little bit less worth in terms of salary.

–       But, isn’t it is also possible that women are allowed to enter once the job gets devalued? Do we know which is cause and effect?

–       This is difficult to disentangle! Still, there are examples, when it is a bit more clear, when a tacit devaluation of a job happened and relative salaries went down only after women entered a profession en masse.

–       Perhaps women are not confident enough to fight for higher salaries…?

–      …or to assert their expertise.  In any case, the prospect of lower rewards then leads to fewer men wishing to enter, and then a further loss in status occurs. So cause and effect might run both ways.

We admired the magnificent vault above us. Openings cut into the ceiling and set with coloured glass let in the light in beautiful patterns. Spreading our limbs in the pool, we let our imagination conjure up women through the centuries, finding respite in warm waters.

–       What happened in Eastern Europe in state socialist  times?

–       Communist parties had an explicit emancipation programme for women.  For example, they were encouraged to take up technical jobs, such as engineering, where more people were needed.   Some did indeed enter this field, certainly more than was the case in the UK at the same time.  My own mother is an example.

–       – Ah, but you defected to the Humanities! Is this the case with many women of your generation? Do we know what happened to the daughters of the pioneering women who were scientists, technicians, engineers and computer programmers?

–       We do not, but according to my mother most women in her college cohort did not end up doing actual engineering work, even though they did gain the degree.  It would be interesting to study this in more depth.

We clambered out of the the dark central pool to sample some of the smaller adjoining pools, slightly cooler,  and we were looking forward to a proper massage at the end of the morning. The centuries between the time when the baths were constructed and now disappeared. Yet, so many changes happened to the role of women.

Our discussion ran around the question of what makes women with their high-flying academic careers today often so stressed?  First of course we mentioned the business of juggling family life and work.  But why is it that women still spend so much time doing housework, when labour saving devices fill the closet in every kitchen and middle class professionals have access to fast food and all sort of other services?

Eva came up with answer that surprised me.

–       I believe our standards about the quality of life that we expect have been driven up relentlessly.  Unlike our predecessors a century ago, we take a bath, shower, change clothes every day. Our washing machines and tumbler dryers are running constantly. We need to have fresh sheets and ironed shirts. Laundry day and bleaching in times past was often just one spring clean.

washing day–       Yes, when I was a child in the fifties, I remember , laundry day, soap suds, scrubbing boards, washing lines. It was a big deal.

–   It’s not just the laundry. We need to have complex foods, different every day; we take into account what every family member likes and dislikes. Some of us even bake our own bread, make our own pasta.

–       In the 1950s it was quite chic to serve a frozen dinner. Imagine this nowadays! Isn’t it strange – when we could have it so much easier?

–       So, you think it is this constant increase in the standards of living that puts women under more and more stress?  Why do women care so much about these high standards?

–       Women’s identity as women is often tied to taking proper care of family members. Thus they do seem  to care more about these things, even when they are extremely busy, when men in the same situation would take the pizza delivery option.  But what can we do to counteract this possibly unnecessary source of stress?

–       I have been advocating short cuts, even if they are called ‘cheating’ by those with the highest standards. Of course, women in high flying careers should use their earnings to get help with household, with childcare.

–       Perhaps it is a good thing if women are made aware of the radical changes in our standard of living over time. They could be encouraged to reap some of the benefits of household conveniences rather than being pressurised to aspire to ever higher standards.

–       Perhaps women should not be taught to be perfect mothers and perfect housekeepers, but good enough mothers and good enough housekeepers.




On Andrassy Ut

This is the Champs-Elysée of Budapest: a grand tree lined avenue, framed by glamorous buildings, and with some famous coffee houses. We are sitting outside the classic Café Müvesz, with a splendid view of the Opera: Ildiko Kiraly, Kata Egyed, Chris and me after a nice open air lunch at Liszt Ferenc Tér, not more than two hundred yards away.
-You used your famous “Head-touch” experiment with autistic children. You found in a new experiment that young autistic children, unlike carefully matched children with Down Syndrome, disregarded the experimenter’s intention as indicated by ostensive gestures. This is a strong indication that we cannot rely on what  Gergely and  Csibra called natural pedagogy when teaching autistic children.

Continue reading On Andrassy Ut

The waitress brought cups of coffee and glasses of water. I took up a previous threat of our conversation:

-Your colleagues made the stunning discovery that the A not B error in young  infants was much reduced if the experimenter did not use ostensive gestures. Let me see if I got this right: It is precisely the communicative setting that makes infants perseverate in their error. It is as if they assume the experimenter has taught them to go to a particular hiding place – and this is what they reach for. If the experimenter does not use ostensive gestures, they don’t learn this and consequently don’t make the error. Instead they go for the new hiding place where the object really is.

-Yes, that’s correct, said Ildiko, -and this was the same in dogs, but not in wolves, as shown in the paper with Topal. So natural pedagogy is something that works for dogs too, probably because they have been social companions of humans for millenia.

Chris and I had been extremely interested in studies testing the theory of ‘Natural pedagogy’, introduced by Gergely and Csibra (aka the rockstar Hungarian developmental psychologists). It is a fascinating theory that suggests that humans have a means to acquire culturally relevant information from each other, that makes learning incredibly fast and powerful. The trick that evolution has provided is ‘ostensive communication’.

Chris: – There are two ways of learning from others.  They can address you ostensively, perhaps call you by your name, look at you directly, flash their eye brows at you. But you can also learn by just observing them.

When  our coffee was almost finished, the conversation strayed towards a Bayesian theme. Chris asked: -Why do we pay so much attention to the information that comes from our own senses? When does this start in development?

Ildiko and Katalin both considered this question. -It seems very possible that at first young infants do not pay so much attention to their own sensory information. Take the A not B error. They follow the object with their eyes, and they therefore know where it has been put. But this information counts for less than the information conveyed by the adult’s communication. So it is another person’s perception that seems to win over their own.

-Interesting! So it is not so obvious that we first and foremost regard our own sensory perceptions when making any inferences about the world. Perhaps we are taught that the evidence of our own eyes is the best.

Chris added: – I have just seen a paper by Jaswal who studied children’s trust in information provided by adults. Toddlers believe what an adult says even though they have just seen something different.

My thoughts strayed to “nullius in verba” -take nobody’s word for it- the motto of the Royal Society.

– So is it only since the enlightenment that we feel we must see for ourselves to believe? It was clearly a huge cultural change that brought about the attitude that we should not put our trust in the evidence transmitted to us by others.

-But then aren’t there lots of pitfalls when we put all our trust into our own senses? And by implication, our own experiments?

– Hmmm, we have a conundrum and this relates to our earlier and rather controversial post “Not to be found in any methods section.”



Under the Markov Blanket

I mentioned Markov blankets to Uta and she immediately was intrigued, as was my intention. We talked about it again when we were having lunch on a sunny Saturday in the Angelica Café next to St. Anna church.

Over a nourishing beef broth and a chicken salad, we were sitting under a tree that was just bursting into leaf. We could look across the Danube. Opposite us, in filigree splendour, was the Parliament building. In the distance, to the left, we could see the island in the river that is connected to both sides of the town via Margit bridge. Yellow trams were constantly moving along it in both directions. Toylike.


Continue reading Under the Markov Blanket

Uta felt despondent despite the glittering river view, despite the magnificent scenic backdrop, despite the delicious beef broth. She was complaining about people not liking boundaries in diagnostic categories, like autism and dyslexia. They were forever talking about grey areas and one thing shading into another.

“Actually, it’s just the point of Markov blankets that there must be boundaries” – I said to cheer her up.

“Please say more.”

From this point on she couldn’t get a word in edgeways.

How I discovered Markov blankets

I went to a lecture by Pierre Jacob the other day, where I learned that people who believe in embodied and extended cognition hate boundaries. So there is no boundary between the brain and the body – hence embodied cognition – and there is no boundary between the brain and sophisticated tools such as iPhones – hence extended cognition.

Boundaries play such a critical role in biological systems, that it was strange for me to find that some people should hate them. Take for example the cell membrane.

The cell membrane surrounds the cytoplasm of living cells. Very complicated transmembrane proteins span from one side of a membrane the other. These function as gateways to control what enters and exits the cell. Without the membrane, the cell ceases to exist and its components are absorbed back into the environment.

In mammals, the skin acts as a protective barrier. The outermost layer of the skin, the epidermis, forms a protective barrier over the body’s surface, responsible for keeping water in the body and preventing pathogens from entering. Here again complicated mechanical devices are found, such as the ears, mouth and anus, which function as gateways to control what enters and exits the body.

So I started wondering, ‘Is there a cognitive boundary defending and defining that bundle of psychological abilities that we call the mind’?

Fortunately, I had just been reading Karl Friston’s paper on ‘Life as we know it’. This paper introduced me to the concept of the Markov Blanket.

“So, at last – what is a Markov blanket?” Uta asked, looking up from her plate expectantly.

Markov blanketA Markov blanket separates states in a Bayesian network into internal states and external states that are hidden (insulated) from the internal states. In other words, the external states can only be seen indirectly by the internal states, through the Markov blanket.

In response to Uta’s frown, I said,

“The blanket is like a cognitive version of a cell membrane, shielding states inside the blanket from states outside.”

I just had an e-mail exchange with Karl Friston to find out more about these cognitive membranes, I told her, opening my laptop.

CDF: Boundaries play such a critical role in biological systems, that it was strange to find that some philosophers hate them.

KJF: This is interesting – I got an e-mail from Jakob Hohwy a few days ago – he just got a paper accepted in “Noûs”. He was also addressing these strange philosophers by talking about “evidential boundaries”. He framed the issue in terms of radical embodiment but clearly wanted to use Markov blankets to bring the boundaries centre stage.

CDF: In cognitive terms, the brain/mind is shielded by a Markov blanket with sensory inputs and motor outputs as the only way of interacting with external states. Does this provide us with a cognitive definition of the mind?

KJF: To my mind (sic) yes. This is because (being completely ignorant of philosophy) I can equate consciousness with inference. Inference is only defined in relation to (sensory) evidence – that necessarily induces a Markov blanket (that separates the stuff that is being inferred from the stuff that is doing the inferencing)

CDF: 3. Are iPhones, laptops, &c. protected by their own Markov blankets? If so, this is an argument against the extended mind.

KJF: Yes it is – this would be Jakob’s position. As I understand it, we still have an internal representation of an iPhone and make active inferences about how we expect ourselves to use it. (But the iPhone itself is outside the blanket and may be making inferences about us.)

CDF: Can Markov blankets form and dissolve over a short time (e.g. during selective attention or joint attention)?

KJF: Yes – I have not thought about this but the Markov blanket is itself an dynamic process and, over time, will visit many different states. I can imagine the sleep-wake cycle being an example of formation and dissolution of a Markov blanket through sensory gating. I will have to think about attention!

Uta has cheered up. “Now we have defined the mind. Next time we can use a Markov blanket to define dyslexia and autism.”

Some more technical stuff

The Markov blanket for a node A in a Bayesian network is the set of nodes composed of A’s parents, its children, and its children’s other parents. The Markov blanket of a node contains all the variables that shield the node from the rest of the network. This means that the Markov blanket of a node is the only knowledge needed to predict the behaviour of that node. The term was coined by Pearl in 1988. (Pearl, J (1988). Probabilistic Reasoning in Intelligent Systems: Networks of Plausible Inference. Representation and Reasoning Series. San Mateo CA: Morgan Kaufmann.


There can be hierarchies of Markov blankets. For example, the Markov blanket of an animal encloses the Markov blankets of its organs, which enclose Markov blankets of cells, which enclose Markov blankets of nuclei and so on.



Not to be found in any Methods section

On 27th April Ernö Teglas, Chris, Agnes Melinda Kovacs and I met up at the most OTT coffeehouse in Budapest, the New York. The décor puts you into Rococo mood, but the pianist on the upper level suggests a 1920s jazz feeling. Continue reading Not to be found in any Methods section

NYCafe Erno TeglasWe are having outrageous layered coffee Melange with Chili, extravagant New York ice cream cups, pistachio cake, but Chris asks a glass of Furmint and a plate of Mangalica ham.

The conversation quickly turned to how to do experiments with babies. Why do such experiments take forever to complete? What to do with non-replications?

– “But this is the same with any experiments we have ever done!” – Chris quips.  “But why do you think your experiments take a long time to complete? Why are you skeptical about non-replications?”

ET: Here is my claim: The success of a baby experiment is decided by how you instruct the parents, how and where they hold their baby.

Instruction is particularly relevant because it is the parents who coordinate the data acquisition. Without them these experiments simply cannot happen and they are very willing to help. The problem is that they have no experience with such situations. So, in a short session we have to turn them into “experimenters”. Every detail matters. It may seem surprising, but we really have long debates about how to hold the baby during tests, and what is the optimal position. The way a baby is held makes all the difference to their freedom to move. For example when held just under the arms, the mother may exert more influence on the baby than necessary. Also, the baby can easily slip down just slightly. And then eye gaze slides too. It may no longer be on the target you display on the screen. The hold has to be on the hips of the baby.

CF: Experiments stand and fall by how the experimenter instructs the subject.

UF: But isn’t this against the idea that scientific experimentation has to be independent of the experimenter. The whole point is that they can be replicated by somebody else.

CF: Ah, there are critical aspects of instructions, which often don’t get spelled out in methods sections.

ET: The pity is that if a student doing a first experiment fails to replicate a previous result then this throws doubt on the previous finding, when in fact it throws doubt on the student who is still learning and doesn’t yet know how to do the experiment. Only once the student has succeeded in replicating a well known robust finding, can he or she be trusted to do a good job.

CF: When I first worked at the long disbanded MRC Clinical Research Centre, the biochemists (who, mysteriously, later turned into molecular biologists) often said things like: today the reaction just didn’t work. We have to try again.

UF: So it’s not necessarily the sign of an immature and still soft science that you have to be pernickety on exactly how an experiment is carried out. If an experiment doesn’t replicate, there are many possible reasons and does not necessarily mean the previous results are not true.

ET: With infants we basically rely on measuring what they are looking at, and for how long they look at it: they look longer at something that surprises them; they get bored and look away when something is highly predictable to them. However, they also look away when something else attracts their attention; when there is some noise, when they feel uncomfortable for some reason. All this makes us extremely careful to have completely soundproof labs, very relaxed mothers, and babies who have only recently woken up and have been fed before we even start the experiment.

NYCafe+3– This was the moment when we found out that the coffee Melange with Chili is actually rather spicy, but the honey that served as a bottom layer softened this feeling. “Overall each ingredient plays a role if their interaction is orchestrated by a hand sensitive to details” says Ernö

UF: Is it true that you often don’t get results that you know we should get?

ET: True! Then we go over every step of the procedure and find possible reasons.

UF: Is it okay to eliminate data when you believe there was a slip in the procedure for one particular baby?

ET: Actually you have to do it. You have to eliminate data all the time. If you don’t you include complete nonsense, when for example an infant no longer looks at the target. You need him/her to look to take notice of the scenario you have devised. We have to eliminate usually 20% of the data, if not more. …of course it depends on the experimental protocol: In habituation studies rejection rate can be as high as 50%. The procedure only lasts a few minutes because babies soon tire of watching a simple scenario on video. Sometimes we can only use a fraction of these few minutes.

UF: It makes me marvel not only at the fact that you are so incredibly scrupulous in your procedure but also that you have so many successes with your ingenious experiments.





An autism walk in Budapest

On 5th April we all met up in front of the National Academy of Sciences, about 400 people, friends and parents and children, holding blue balloons. The light rain soon stopped as we walked along the river bank, the famous Duna Corso. It was a leisurely walk and I could talk to a number of parents involved in the Hungarian autism association. Like parents everywhere they talked about good times and bad, worries and expectations about their children, all mixed with funny anecdotes. Continue reading An autism walk in Budapest

Uta, Eustacia and Connie BudapestOne of the participants was Eustacia Cutler, mother of Temple Grandin, to the left of the photo, looking absolutely regal aged 89 years. She  had given an inspiring talk the day before. So had Connie Kasari from UCLA, who is in the middle of the photo.  I am on the right holding a biscuit made in the shape of a puzzle piece with blue icing made by a parent.

It was a delight to be in the company of these great women. Many people might be surprised to learn that Temple Grandin’s mother is a Grande Dame of the old school, a one-time actress and still a star performer, and above all a sparklingly intelligent advocate for autism. But it is not so surprising, if you consider that fiercely intelligent Temple too has the quality of a performer. However, it is only Eustacia  – [oh what an apt name] – who has the recognizable charm that radiates from great performers.

What is charm? An intangible quality, far beyond the reach of research in social cognition.

I found only one paper in a Social Psychology journal with reference to charm in the title: Feminine charm: An experimental analysis of its cost and benefits in negotiations. By Laura Kray, Connson C. Locke and Alex B. van Zant.  I was struck by something in the abstract:

…[The authors] expected that the degree to which females were perceived as flirtatious (signaling a concern for self), rather than merely friendly (signaling a concern for other), would predict better economic deals for females.

So it could be that charm is ‘signaling a concern for self’,  while friendliness is ‘signaling a concern for other. What an interesting idea! It seemed to speak to the difference between charming Eustacia on the one side, and friendly Connie and me on the other. It also seemed to hint at an explanation of why autistic children so often strike us as simply charming. But, of course you can be autistic without being charming, just as much as you can be charming without being autistic.



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.