Report from ESPP ’09

Posted on August 31, 2009


On the night train from Budapest to Warsaw. In my enthusiasm, I have written quite a long post so I’m putting it below the fold. The short version is that I loved ESPP.

I really ought to make ESPP an annual habit. In almost every session I had the problem that out of the five concurrently running talks I’d want to see at least three. Unavoidably, I have not seen a number of interesting talks. At the same time, very few of the talks I have seen have not been in some way valuable to me. And I certainly do not mean the trivial way that hitting your finger with a hammer teaches you not to do it again – the lesson that seeing some talks does seem to reduce to.

Due to having to come in from Vienna, and a certain amount of morning laziness, I missed the first three sessions on Thursday. Each day begins with a plenary and a symposium – both of the ones on Thursday having been of potential interest. The plenary talk was by Dare Baldwin on how people discern meaning in actions. From the abstract it sounds like Baldwin reviewed the current research. The question that comes to my mind, of course, is whether religious rituals recruit the relevant cognitive mechanisms to lend meanings to the gestures that are part of the rituals. From a discussion I had during the conference dinner with Amy Pace, a post-doc from San Diego who is working in that area, this sounds quite plausible. Thursday’s seminar focussed on comparative work concerning rational imitation – something that I’ve tried to keep an eye on since having met Zsofia at the KLI and having seen some of this work at EHBEA.

The first session that I did see was on communication and it was good to see that people are going in the same direction as John and I go in our pragmatics stuff. In particular, Ingrid Lossius Falkum’s talk on polysemy and pragmatics reached very similar conclusions to what we say about the role of pragmatics. That evening was the welcome reception and I got to meet a whole stack of postgrads, all very much excited by their work and most, unfortunately, facing a very uncertain future once their current sources of funds disappear. Very often, I think about how lucky I am to have a permanent position, even if it is not in the best of places. The mental comfort I get from knowing that cannot be overstated.

Friday began with a plenary by Leonard Talmy, in which he surveyed his work on cognitive linguistics. I was completely unfamiliar with this work and the overall effect was somewhat overwhelming due to the scope and detail of what he’s clearly managed to achieve over many years. I was particularly interested to know what he thought the developmental story was, however – a topic he did not consider. Talmy identified both differences and similarities across languages and it would have been interesting to know what kinds of environmental, cognitive and cultural factors might be responsible for them. I had not slept well that night (as well as every night – the beds in the CEU Residence where I was staying were not comfortable) so during the seminar on consciousness in vegetative state patients I managed to attain a fair approximation of the state in question. A pity, I am sure. After a lovely lunch with Christophe and some of his friends from France it was again time to make one of those difficult decisions as to which talks to see. In the end, I went to a session on visual perception and points of view. The session consisted of a couple of empirical papers that helped me to get an overall feel of that area, as well as a more philosophical paper that was given by someone who was standing in for the main authors and did not feel very confident with the material. The result, unfortunately, was very difficult to follow. The second of the empirical papers was given by Elisabeth Stoettinger and was a thing to wonder at – very tightly argued and meticulously supported by experimental work. It was a survey of the problems that have plagued work on two visual systems, all leading to Elisabeth’s own experiment that, thanks to very careful design, managed to avoid all of those problems.

After lunch it was time for children, i.e. developmental psychology. The session was of particular value to me as it dealt with the developmental story behind reference – again something of relevance to the work I’m doing with John on pragmatics. One of Bruce Hood’s postdocs, Erika Nurmsoo, was among the speakers and presented her work on how children monitor gaze to identify referents. After the talk a discussion developed concerning the experimental design to be used to get the most valuable results. It is fascinating to watch how scientists work when thinking about experimental design. It is both very straight-forward, in that many of the things they consider are fairly obviously once mentioned, and also very different from the way most people think most of the time. This is because the approach is generally very cooperative and much more open to allowing that there may be problems with the argument as it stands. Many times someone from the audience would suggest a twist on the experimental design and the speakers would thank them for the idea and promise to try it out. So, I tried to participate a little in the discussion after Erika’s talk and I hope my comments will be of use to her. The best news is that she has managed to get a permanent position.

On Saturday morning I did not go to the plenary or the symposium, instead choosing to spend the time reworking my talk. I had earlier translated the version I gave some time ago in Lublin. Having done that, however, I was unhappy with the flow. Not having slept well, once again, did not aid my concentration – thirty minutes before my talk I was looking for a quiet place to shut my eyes and catch a mini-nap. The talk I gave was something of a compromise – not what I would have wanted to really present if I’d had more time to think about it. Also, I did not think that my presentation of the material was as tight as it should have been. Still, I did manage to fit an awful amount of theory into the thirty minutes that were available. I did have a good group, though I suspect that this was due more to the two talks that followed mine being given by people from well-known labs: Liz Robinson’s and Keith Stenning’s. The questions that followed were mainly clarificatory, but most people did seem to understand most of what I tried to get across. Tim Crane was one of the people in the room, which was nice of him given that he’ll get to see pretty much the same talk in a week’s time in Kazimierz.

After my talk it was time for Kerry McColgan to present work on when children, and adults, seem to prefer to guess the outcome of chance events, such as dice throws. It appears that children prefer to guess as late as possible whereas adults, perhaps due to a better appreciation of the situation, are happy to guess once the outcome is determined. I suggested to Kerry that this might be due to a System 2 evaluation overcoming a System 1 preference for guessing as late as possible. I felt somewhat silly using the terminology, having just spent half an hour criticising dual process theories, however it is very useful – a good reason for it having become as popular as it is. The System 1 preference could be explained in evolutionary terms as a mechanism to minimise possible cheating by conspecifics as well as to leave open the possibility for obtaining additional information. As a way of checking if the interaction between the two systems does take place as I suggested, I proposed to Kerry that she try running adults under cognitive load, hopefully knocking out System 2 and getting similar results to those with children. Liz Robinson thought this was a good idea and said that they’d try it. I’ll be very interested to see where this work goes and I’ll have to keep in touch with Kerry and Liz. I’ll also have to think of an alternative way of referring to the System 1/System 2 distinction that does not reify them. Following Kerry, it was time for Andy Fugard, who works on how people actually reason when presented with deductive logic problems. I was very pleased to see him bring out the rich complexity of the pragmatic considerations that people bring to bear upon the information they are provided with – music to my ears. It was also great to see how he then examined the effects autism has upon this process. The work was every bit as nice as the paper given by Elisabeth Stoettinger I talked about earlier; and they’re both now in Salzburg. During his talk Andy mentioned that he’d love to see how people altered their approach to the problems in a different, non-laboratory, setting. That sounds like a great project and, again, something I want to keep an eye out for. I mentioned to Andy the book Cognition in the Wild, by Edwin Hutchins, that I thought would be very interesting to him and it seems like he’s going to chase it up. I wonder if it takes his research in a new direction.

The session I was in was really useful for me. Yet, the one that followed was just as great – I had been told by Christophe to go and I do not ignore Christophe’s advice. The first talk was by Fabrice Clement, who is a friend of Christophe’s and was one of the people at lunch the day before. Although it is a very minor point compared to the talk’s other virtues I have to say that watching Fabrice’s presentation I got serious design envy – the slides were lovely to look at and highly informative. I particularly loved his use of white space for great effect. Humans are dull and easily distracted so every bit of motivation helps and these slides were hard not to concentrate upon. Getting to the content, Fabrice’s was very closely connected to that of the talk subsequently given by Olivier Morin, another friend of Christophe’s. Both argued, in different ways, for the need to treat social institutions as playing a significant role, rather than as the mere result of the actions of individual people. Fabrice discussed his experiments on how children use social roles as cues in making predictions. Olivier examined how people treat conventions with the example of a recipe. After Fabrice’s talk, a discussed started up concerning the possible role of essentialism in the study he did. Fabrice suggested that essentialism may very well be recruited by culture to make social roles easily noticeable for people. I had the idea that he could perhaps explore this idea with the experimental set-up he was using – i.e. telling stories with the help of Playmobil figurines wearing uniforms indicative of their social role – if he got the figurines to change their uniforms as part of the story. I am not at all sure what will happen if he tries that but there are many things he can vary, such as explanations for why the figures change their uniforms. Olivier’s talk struck me as particularly relevant to my interests as the points he was making feed nicely into an explanation for how ideology can work – something that I have to keep in mind given my characterisation of religion. Another thing that struck me as of significance for me was his discussion of the cultural transmission of an illusion that has been experimented upon by Zucker in 1977 (assuming I copied the reference right).  I was most pleased, therefore, when he told me after the talk that he’d seen my blog and noticed that I’d made comments on the Culture and Cognition blog that he’s running. Hello, Olivier, if you’re reading.

Given my philosophical training, I would like to put the discussion Olivier and Fabrice added their voices to in terms of reductionism and emergence and/or causation and epiphenomena. I am concerned, however, that in doing this I would be missing some of its subtleties. Hopefully, I will get an opportunity to clarify this issue at some later point in time.

If the conference had finished there and then, it would have been already one of the best ones, if not the best, that I’d ever attended. Yet, Sunday contained more gems. The day started with Giacomo Rizzolatti talking about mirror neurons – neurons that fire both when the person (or monkey) in whose brain they are does something and when that individual observes that action being done by someone else. Although controversial, mirror neurons have been something that psychologically inclined philosophers have been all over for the last twenty something years as they provide a possible way into understanding sociality. Rizzolatti is particularly well placed to discuss these neurons as he discovered them. Following that, we had a symposium on action and perception with three more highly informative talks. The first was by Melvyn Goodale, who talked about the state of the research on the two pathways (parietal and dorsal) involved in vision. And, yes, just like Rizzolatti and mirror neurons, Goodale (with Milner) discovered the two pathways. Interestingly for me, Goodale works at the University of Western Ontario, where I got my Masters. It reminds me that one of my friends there did his PhD on blind-sight, which is explained using Goodale’s discovery. The other talks were by Jessica Sommerville, on how interaction with objects helps children to interpret others’ actions with those objects, and by Josef Perner, who showed some very nice work on false beliefs that relied upon using children’s gaze as a clue to how they are processing the problem.

In the last, afternoon, session, I only managed to see part of Katalin Farkas’ talk. My brain had fried by this stage and, although I had several comments to make, I found myself unable to formulate them into sentences. I gave up, although I should have very much liked to have seen the remaining talks.

Having written up my experiences at this ESPP several thoughts strike me. The first is very simple – why didn’t I got to the previous three ESPP meetings! I have no excuses. I need to attend one meeting on a regular, annual basis and ESPP is it. It is full of great people doing great work and I want to be part of that. Having said that, I thought that the philosophers somewhat let the side down. There were fewer of their talks that I saw (this probably says more about me than the other philosophers) and they seemed to be somewhat weaker than those given by the psychologists. The good thing was that I did not feel like there was a big divide between the two groups – something that I recall having felt after the ESPP meeting in Lund. There is still a divide but that is because these two groups are learning to talk to each other, I think. And I rather think that it is the philosophers that have a bit more to learn at this stage. The psychological work I saw was, for the most part, conceptually deep and very thought provoking for a philosopher such as myself. Certainly, a world away from the psychology of religion meeting I had just come from.

Next year, the meeting is going to be somewhere in Germany. I hope that Christophe and I have our paper done by then so that we can present that. I could not think of a better audience.