Saturday, November 11, 2017

Aesthetics and the psychology of creativity



I have misgivings about the autonomy of aesthetics and the philosophy of mind

Joseph Margolis, The Cultural Space of the Arts (2010)

Given my interest in the psychology of creativity as well as in philosophy (specifically philosophy of mind), it has been remiss of me up until now not to have more of an interest in the area of philosophy known as aethetics. Having recently developed a curiosity for it, I sketch a few initial thoughts and aesthetics and psychology below.

In his Critique of Judgment, Kant argued that beauty is in the eye of the beholder (if I understand Kant's argument correctly). We do not/should not refer to the object itself in trying to discern its beauty, but rather the subject who is observing the object and their subjective appraisal thereof.

In an influential paper, Beardsley and Wimsatt posited that there is an "intentional fallacy"; although we may assume that the intention of the author can be read from a literary text, this is not the case. They rightly pointed out that the poet (for example)'s intention should not be the key yardstick for judging a piece's quality, and furthermore if the intention is not clear in the poem itself, the critic will look for information outside of the poem (e.g. an interview with the poet, a critic's or teacher's appraisal of the work). The poem does not simply belong to the poet, the critic, or both, but rather to the public at large.

Running these ideas together, we cannot assume that artists put their creativity "into" their work, which then "holds" this creativity until someone "unlocks" this creativity from the finished piece sitting in a gallery, on a bookshelf etc.

A question of interest to me, then, is whether an aesthetic sense (by which I mean the ability to have an aesthetic reaction to some creative work) is necessary for creative cognition. In stage theories of creative thinking, one of the latter stages involves appraising a creative product (this contrasts somewhat with Beardsley and Wimsatt's separation of judgement and production of creative work). Without aesthetic appreciation, is such a process possible?

This is a pressing question for artificial intelligence (AI) approaches to creative cognition. If a particular domain (say, musical notation) can be mapped out in conceptual space, then AI with good memory, rule-learning and a random output generator can generate outputs which it can compare against its memory for novelty and against certain criteria for a genre/form etc. Nonetheless, is there any reason we should think that AI has a subjective reaction to creative work? How can AI distinguish competent musical composition from a really great or deeply moving piece of music, or at least that which is deeply moving to a human?

For a broad overview of philosophical issues surrounding creativity and how they intersect with psychology, I would recommend the article linked below:

Gaut, B. (2010). The philosophy of creativity. Philosophy Compass, 5(12), 1034-1046.
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1747-9991.2010.00351.x/full 

Related posts
But is it creative?
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Saturday, October 28, 2017

2sp00ky: The psychology of tension and suspense



While browsing youtube one evening, I happened across an interesting analysis of the opening scene of Tarantino's "Inglorious Basterds". The author of the video draws upon a paper I had previously been unaware of: "Towards a general model of tension and suspense". Authors Moritz Lehne and Stefan Koelsch take on a topic that, although it has piqued the interest of psychologists as far back an Wilhelm Wundt, has been surprisingly under-examined in recent times. Furthermore, when it has been examined, it tends to be in a specific context (e.g. film OR sports OR music), as opposed to trying to develop a more general theory.

They define tension and suspense as: "affective states that (a) are associated with conflict, dissonance, instability, or uncertainty, (b) create a yearning for resolution, (c) concern events of potential emotional significance, and (d) build on future-directed processes of expectation, anticipation, and prediction." 

Quite a mouthful, but it captures the complexity of tension and suspense. There are some points here as well that are sometimes missed in those who create works designed to induce suspense. In inferior horror narrative one comes across characters with whom it's difficult to feel empathy for, hence (c) above is missing.  

In a footnote, the authors distinguish between tension and suspense, whereby suspense arises in anticipation of a specific outcome, whereas tension is a more "diffuse" or general feeling where the anticipated outcomes are not so clearly specified. A suspenseful short film I can think of is "He dies at the end"It creates a strong sense of suspense quite quickly, as the messages from the computer become increasingly specific to the protagonist. This contrasts with "Hungry Hickory" from the same director, which creates an eerie sense of tension, although for much of "Hungry Hickory" there is arguably not much suspense, as there is no clear antagonist like the "messenger" in "He dies at the end". Nonetheless, Stefan and Koelsch assert that both tension and suspense are driven by a similar underlying psychology.

Although most emotions are dynamic, tension may be a particularly dynamic emotion (compare how relaxed contentment may continue indefinitely until interrupted to how tension usually "builds" towards a feared or desired resolution). Examining tension at one particular moment may only tell us so much. In fact, if we want to study these phenomena empirically, we probably can't rely on simple stimuli like static images or brief sounds, but rather have to look at more complex stuff life movie scenes, books or pieces of music. I recall a final year psych project that used the film "Wolf Creek" as a means of inducing fear. (I consider it one of the most tense movies I've seen, although a lot of people who have seen it disagree). The researcher got people to watch the film the whole way through-I can't recall if fear was measured throughout the viewing of the film, but it seems a pity that tension and suspense were not measured throughout the viewing as well. Where ongoing feelings of suspense are not captured, this might be a example of a much more pervasive issue in psychological research, whereby researchers do not gain the maximum amount of data from participants' time and investment in the research. 

Suspense and tension may be experienced in the current moment, but they generally draw on cognition relating to the future. Watching a film, we wonder what's going to happen when the protagonist walks through the door. The difference between suspense and tension becomes more important here I think, whereby we can think more clearly about a specific future event if we know what the possible outcomes are. The youtube analysis I mentioned at the beginning highlights how Tarantino can heighten the emotional engagement of the viewer during a long scene by shifting from tension (where the audience is unsure of exactly what's at stake) to suspense (by revealing, halfway through the scene, what the stakes are).    

Just last year an interesting thesis appeared online (although you have to request it to get  copy) that took quite an experimental approach to examining tension/suspense experiences in response to various different film clips. The perhaps rather aptly named Keith Bound proposes a rather physiological model of tension/suspense. He has investigated his model in people who enjoy horror movies using physiological recording of electrodermal activity (a measure of autonomic nervous system activity, tapping into "fight or flight" physiology) as well as qualitative methods. 

In Bound's view, we can differentiate "momenty fear" (lasting 1-3 seconds-the infamous jump scare) from "extended fear" (lasting for longer periods). Bound suggests that electrodermal measurements tap unconscious responses to fearful stimuli that are complemented by conscious verbal report of individuals' responses to, say, a scary film. He also notes that jump scares are more likely to be verbally reported than aspects of atmosphere that evoke a more prolonged but low-level sense of anxiety or dread, even though such factors heighten electrodermal activity.

It does concern me that horror film makers in particular seem to be focused more on jump scares-perhaps focus group approach is vulnerable to people being more inclined to remember (and therefore mention) jump scares over atmosphere or more subtle aspects of tension and suspense evoked by scary movies. 

P.S. Boo! 

Related articles:

Lehne, M., & Koelsch, S. (2015). Toward a general psychological model of tension and suspense. Frontiers in psychology6.


Sunday, October 8, 2017

Thoughts on oral history and psychology




"It is not by speeches and majority vote that the great questions of our time will be decided — as that was error of 1848 and 1849 — but rather by iron and blood." Otto von Bismarck

Memory is a key subject in the psychology; one might think it would follow that how people talk about history should be an obvious area of inquiry within psychology. Since I have started working with Dr Richard Roche on research concerning reminiscence and memory, I have started reading a bit about oral history (i.e. the study of history via interviews with those who witnessed historical periods or events). However, although oral history has interacted with disciplines such as education, sociology, and gender studies, a search of the terms "oral history psychology" returns slim pickings. There is an ongoing project by the  British Psychological Society conducting oral history with psychologists on the subject of their own discipline, as well as an interesting study using oral history methods to predict divorce, but otherwise very little of direct relevance to these two areas.

Ronald Grele and others remind us that oral history is constrained to what people can remember, and we know that human memory is fallible. Although we have our own introspective insight into the limits of memory, researchers such as Elizabeth Loftus have indicated how we may place more faith in our memory than might be justified. The cognitive and developmental psychology of memory is also helpful in detailing predictable faults in typical memory and its development over time (e.g. consider the reminiscence bump, or the tendency for people to have greater autobiographical recall for events occurring over a certain period, usually from around adolescence to early adulthood).

However, oral historians have also pointed that, with a critical perspective, even narrators who are unreliable may be informative in their own regard. An intriguing essay from Kathleen Blee discusses her experience of conducting oral history with female former members of the Ku Klux Klan; people who were involved in the Klan at a time when it was a dominant force in their communities. When Blee (herself a white woman) would challenge the interviewees on some of the points they were making, they often did not moderate their racism. Blee got the impression that they were treating her challenges as "public talk", and that they could always return to a "private talk" where overt racism can be assumed as the norm. There are interesting parallels here with the false consensus effect, whereby one assumes that one's own views are closer to those of others than might actually be the case. As long as the veracity of oral historical accounts can be contrasted with other sources, a more nuanced picture of the intersection of time and mind can be built up.

Paul Thompson has pointed out how local history in particular might give the inhabitants of a town or community a sense of context or meaning for where they live. Historians, and the documents available to them, have typically given preference to shifts in political power rather than a description of everyday life and how it changes over time. Indeed, where the history of ordinary people's lives is dealt with, is in generally in aggregate. However, oral methods (the study of history via interviews with those who witnessed historical periods or events) can open up other lines of historical enquiry (e.g. family life in the past). Consequently, where historians or others raise concern that an oral history may not be statistically representative, they may be missing what some of their colleagues are really aiming for. Grele argues that really what matters is whether an oral history represents "typify historical processes". Thus, oral history may be seen to be judged by the qualitative standard of transferability rather than the quantitative standard of generalisability, and like qualitative enquiry, there is scope for probing meaning, as opposed to getting a quantitative measure from a representative section of the population. Furthermore, the opportunity to probe the day-to-day lives of people in the past offers a greater chance to apply psychological insight to our history.

Oral history is often conducted in older respondents. When I imagine some interviewing me in 40 years, I imagine a future where posts on social media may be used in an effort to capture the zeitgeist. Of course, this will raise other issues, such as the substantial risk of such content being lost over the decades (bebo anyone?). Consider also the echo chamber effect, that leaves many users of the internet with arguably not much greater breadth of information than their grandparents had. In any case, a full understanding of human memory in the broadest terms should invite more psychologists to start talking to historians and archivists.

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Sunday, September 24, 2017

Time out of mind: historical events and memory as therapy

Image result for paintings old storyteller

"It is understandable that, as long as the historical sea is calm, it must seem to the ruler-administrator in his frail little bark, resting his pole against the ship of the people and moving along with it, that his efforts are moving the ship. But once a storm arises, the sea churns up, and the ship begins to move by itself, and then the delusion is no longer possible. The ship follows its own enormous, independent course, the pole does not reach the moving ship, and the ruler suddenly, from his position of power, from being a source of strength, becomes an insignificant, useless, and feeble human being.

Tolstoy, War and Peace


I've seen things you people wouldn't believe...attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.

Rutger Hauer, Blade Runner

University staff of around my age are surprised at the latest crop of undergraduates not having any recall of the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers in New York (no doubt older generations are more used to the necessary historical amnesia of younger generations). I imagine when I am a very old man, and when my generation are dying out, there will be a desire to share memories of this event with a younger generation who have no direct recall of its occurrence*.

When the oldest living person is interviewed, besides the usual silly season fodder about them smoking every day/eating too much fat, one fact that invariably gets mentioned is a famous person they met, or a famous event they witnessed, or even just that they were around in a particular century. Basically, something that no one else living today could have direct physical experience of themselves. There is a strong drive to capture these direct memories before they are lost to the death of a generation.

Reminiscence therapy involves speaking with people (often in a group format) about their past. Unlike many psychodynamic therapies, there is not so much focus on uncovering causes of maladaptive behaviour in the present. There is evidence that this therapy can benefit autobiographical memory, including in patients groups such as those with some level of memory impairment, although benefit may depend on level of engagement. A number of approaches to reminiscence therapy focus on the individual's life history, encouraging reminiscence of events such as starting a first job, going to school, weddings etc. However, there is also some precedent for using not just people's personal past, but also historical events in reminiscence groups-a study from Iceland developed reminiscence material that included not only aspects of everyday life in the past, but also specific events but also the Althing anniversary festival.

The use of historical events allows not only for integrative reminiscence on the part of those people completing the therapy, but also for the production of oral history. There are interesting research questions here with regard to how people talk about their memories of bigger historical events. If typical life review involves integrating various aspects of personal autobiography, then integrating historical events, particularly those which have some emotional resonance for an individual, is a logical next step. Of course, we should heed Tolstoy's words of the individual's impotence in the face of the sweep of history. If the aim is increase a person's self-efficacy, their powerlessness in the face of major historical events (particularly traumatic events) has great potential to undermine this. Nonetheless, with managed expectations, people may draw strength from acknowledging their own role in social movements (e.g. protesting against a war, or indeed fighting in a war perceived as just).

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Days of future past


*...notwithstanding new technologies that may appear in the meantime-perhaps I will just be able to give them a neural implant/transplant...





Sunday, September 17, 2017

Book review: "The Noonday Demon" by Andrew Solomon



As an undergraduate, I had dreamed of being a writer so accomplished that students there would study my work. But when I hatched that fantasy, I didn't envision the work as a memoir assigned in an Abnormal Psych course. (From the Epilogue, p. 445)

Andrew Solomon, resembling a cross between Tobey Maguire and Sheldon from bad sitcom The Big Bang Theory, is a tremendous public speaker and storyteller. He is somewhat of a regular on the Ted talk circuit. You can hearing him holding forth on adversity and identity, as well as parenthood. One of his most interesting talks concerns depression. This talk is a primer for his much more in-depth treatment of this topic in "The Noonday Demon", a modern classic on the subject.

Solomon discusses his own experience of depression in depth, giving a sometimes poetic description of the phenomenology of his depression, and describing clearly how his level of activity was drastically reduced. He gives a warts-and-all account, describing not only his suicidal ideation but also how distorted thoughts led to self-destructive behaviour that must have seemed illogical to Solomon himself with hindsight. A memorable aspect of these accounts is his fear of relapse, and how he seemed to predict one relapse following a physically painful accident (whether it was a self-fulfilling prophecy, we cannot say).

In discussing depression, Solomon highlights the confusion in how we discuss body and mind (e.g. how a "chemical depression" can make some patients feel that it's not their fault, as if it would be their fault were it more "purely" psychological). He follows this controversy and confusion over the mind-body problem back to the days of Ancient Greece, when the more medical model of Hippocrates contrasted with the views of Plato and Socrates, with Aristotle taking the view of a closer interaction between the body and mind.

In a similar vein, when Solomon moves on to the subject of treatment, he wastes no time in attacking a duality between talk therapy "versus" pharmacological treatment. He touches on this in his own continuing use of pharmacological treatment to avoid relapse, where he feels that there is some pressure to come off medication now that he is better. Although no simple cheerleader for dualism himself, to some extent Solomon needs to find some way of distancing from his own experience of severe clinical depression, initially describing it as something outside of himself; indeed, his cross-cultural experiences of depression lead him to praise traditional approaches to treatment that externalise  depression by linking it to spirits. Nonetheless, he also harks back to days when it felt the depression may have always been there in the background, waiting to be triggered

The mind-body relationship appears again in Solomon's investigation into the politics of mental health. From meetings in the USA's halls of power, he notes the bipartisan support for funding in mental health. However, as the book was originally published just a few years after the 1996 Mental Health Parity Act, he points the history of differing health insurance policy with regard to mental compared to physical health. Politics again rears its heads in the issue of poverty and depression. Solomon does not shy away from the role that poverty can play in precipitating depression (and childhood abuse, though hardly unique to poorer people, seems to be a recurring theme on this point). Nonetheless, Solomon is also a champion of individual treatment of depression in poorer patients (although what treatments they can/will afford is another issue...)

In discussing suicide within a book about depression, it is positive that Solomon highlights that many suicidal people do not have depression and vice versa. It is on this topic that he is perhaps at his most confessional, outlining how he helped his mother in assisted suicide. Suicide throws up thorny ethical questions about self-determination (as does the question of involuntary institutionalisation), and although Solomon offers an even-handed view he is not afraid to grasp some of these nettles.

Although this book is authoritative in its research and brave in its exposition, it is flawed. Some aphorisms don't come off quite so strong: Solomon prefaces some statistics with "...it is a mistake to confuse numbers with truth" (mind = blown, man). Notwithstanding that the book was written over 15 years ago, it seems a bit off that exercise is listed as an "alternative" treatment for depression when religion is in the same chapter (on mainstream treatment) as psychotherapy and psychopharmacology. As for listing homeopathy as a "serious" alternative-Jesus wept. Nonetheless, Solomon is at pains not make empty promises about relief from depression. He is clear that every treatment out there will work for some people but not others, and he warns that relapse is always a possibility.

Indeed, in a new epilogue, included in the 2015 edition, Solomon maintains that a relapse could always be on the horizon for him, though he seems arguably more accepting about it now, feeling that recovery will follow relapse. Solomon updates his account of treatment with an outline of the grandchildren of electroconvulsive therapy, including more precise methods such as transcranial magnetic stimulation and even more precise (though highly invasive) methods such as deep brain stimulation-the development of which (including setbacks and ongoing uncertainty) is laid out with great narrative drive. He also follows up people he interviewed for the main text of the book, and discusses whether stigma surrounding depression (and the treatment thereof) has changed; well-known reactionary Irish journalist John Waters comes in for a (less than glowing) mention here.

This is a sprawling overview of a deeply complex topic, that goes some way towards conveying how depression is different for everyone it touches, yet still places it within a broader social and political context. I would highly recommend it to anyone looking for a reasonably accessible book on this subject, as long as they are willing to sit with this subject for some time.

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Saturday, August 19, 2017

Days of future past: Autobiographical memory and thinking about the future



"For the older writer, memory and the imagination begin to seem less and less distinguishable. This is not because the imagined world is really much closer to the writer's life than he or she cares to admit (a common error among those who anatomise fiction) but for exactly the opposite reason: that memory itself comes to seem much closer to an act of the imagination than ever before."

Julian Barnes (2008), Nothing To Be Frightened Of  (p. 238, paperback edition)


Think of the last time someone annoyed you. If you're like me you might replay the scene over in your mind. You might think of different things you might have said, how you could have got your own back on the person, or conversely how you could have responded with a greater level of calm. This kind of counterfactual thinking is useful in that it can prepare us to respond better if/when such events re-occur. Memories from our past can thus be tied up with how we think about our future.

As I'm planning a new project examining autobiographical memory, I recently picked up a really interesting book on Understanding Autobiographical Memory. One chapter in particular (see reference below) takes a rather interesting perspective on the connections between memory and future thinking. D'Argembeau highlights an interesting case study of a patient who lost not only his ability to remember past episodes from his life, but also to imagine his future; he described his attempts to engage in either form of thinking as leading to a mental blankness.

This is a rather extreme case that may be difficult for the average person to imagine, but in general both autobiographical memory and thinking about the future can be described as forms of "mental time travel" (imagining oneself in a different time, offering oneself the possibility to experience now what one is not experiencing directly from the present moment). They can both draw upon similar knowledge structures in the mind such as episodic detail or social scripts. For example, your knowledge of what happens in a job interview helps both to delineate what did and did not occur during a past job interview (e.g. bumping into one of the interviewers beforehand was not part of the interview, or so you hope) and to think of how to be more successful in similar situations in future (e.g. by responding to a type of question differently). A difference between the two forms of thinking is that spontaneous thoughts about the future tend to be more generic than their remembered counterparts. However, people may draw upon autobiographical memory in order to "flesh out" more generic thoughts of the future with episodic detail.

An interesting meta-analysis has suggested that a network of brain regions is activated during both autobiographical memory and thinking about the future, in addition to other forms of complex cognition such as theory of mind. Perhaps there is some connection here with creative thought; even though autobiographical memory does not and future thinking about oneself typically should not concern fictional events, both could be described as a forms of imagination. As Ruth Byrne has suggested, counterfactual thinking can be a form of creativity, and when this is applied to our own autobiography, the work of fiction can be how our own pasts may have played out.


D'Argembeau, A., 2012. Autobiographical memory and future thinking. In D. Berntsen & D.C. Rubin (Eds.)Understanding autobiographical memory: Theories and approaches, pp.311-330. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 




Sunday, August 6, 2017

Psychology of the brain-gut-microbiome axis



"Excretion is a universal part of the human experience, but it is veiled in taboo. Psychologists have torn the veil off other taboos, such as sex and death, but they have largely ignored elimination. Nevertheless, it is linked to a rich assortment of intense emotions, mental disorders, personality traits, social attitudes and linguistic practices. From psychoanalysis to neurogastroenterology...the psychology of the toilet offers surprising insights into mind–body connections, culture and gender."


Nick Haslam (2012), The Psychologist magazine


"And I remember...my first memory...I was four years old, and I was standing in front of my parents' house and I was shitting in my pants. I was just shitting a massive, terribly painful shit...the centre of this shit was so wide that I actually came online as a result of the anal pain that I was experiencing. It actually awakened me into AAAAAAAA this stream of consciousness I am now living"


Louis C.K., stand-up comedian

Those interested in the human mind have been interested in how it interacts with our guts since at least the days of Freud and colleagues, although as Haslam implies, interest in this area may have waned with the decline of psychoanalysis within academic and research-driven psychology. However, with an increasing interest in the body within psychology and cognitive neuroscience, research is starting to address how gastrointestinal factors may play a role in human psychology.

The nature of this interaction likely goes well beyond the psychology of elimination habits. Although our central nervous systems may do the cognitive heavy lifting available to consciousness, we have an enteric nervous system within our gastrointestinal tracts. Bacteria can produce neurochemicals that impact upon receptors within this nervous system. Ted Dinan, professor of psychiatry and mentor of mine at UCC, refers to it as a form of "collective unconscious". Although the Human Genome Project has mapped out the genes of human cells, there are a huge host of bacterial cells within us; furthermore, different types of bacteria will appear in different people, so this area is opening up a whole industry of gene sequencing of our microbial tenants. The whole area of gene X environment interactions just became more complex.

A major topic in this area is stress; intuitively, you may have noticed changes in your bowel habit while going through periods of heightened stress. One of the major research findings in this area is evidence of alteration in the gut microbiota in stress-related psychological disorder. Irritable bowel syndrome is the most obvious example, but studies from Ireland, China and Norway have indicated alteration of the microbiota in major depression. However, although these studies use healthy adults as controls, it is still too early to comment on what "the" healthy human microbiome looks like. A greater level of diversity is generally seen as a good thing, but as I mentioned above there is likely to be considerable variation in microbiota between different individuals who are generally healthy, so what "the right mix" is is still up for debate.

Despite this interesting evidence in stress-related disorder, there has generally been a lack of research looking at how chronic levels of stress per se can alter the microbiota. This is regrettable when one considers that following the same individuals over periods of greater or lesser stress could get around the issue of how much difference there is between different individuals.

Conversely, could tweaking the microbiota affect stress? A small study I was working on indicated that administration of a probiotic over four weeks could reduce reported daily stress as well as an acute stress response in healthy volunteers. This would suggest that manipulation of the microbiota can potentially affect psychological outcomes. These effects did not occur using the same assessments with a different probiotic; one would expect that different strains will have different effects, but even trying to combine research on a given strain can be fraught, as pointed out in a recent editorial.

Perhaps one of the more tractable questions in this area is how changes in dietary behaviour may impact upon our microbiota at a relatively broad level. There have been studies that compare a contemporary Western diet to groups of people relatively untouched by such dietary trends, such as the Hazda of Tanzania and children from rural Burkina Faso. Although one might think the easy availability of foods from around the world might increase the Westerner's microbial diversity, some findings suggest that it's actually the other way round. We could, of course, speculate that differences in levels of stress in different populations could also have some impact upon microbial differences (and indeed, our diets may become somewhat more processed during stressful times!).

Needless to say, issues such as diet and stress play out in a broader cultural context. It would be interesting to see more research being done on the social psychology surroundings the taboos and neuroses of our toilet habits and the kind of mishaps described by Louis C.K. However, unravelling the question of just how, and to what extent, the microbiota interact with an embodied psychology is going to be keeping people busy for some time.


Allen, A. P., Dinan, T. G., Clarke, G., & Cryan, J. F. (2017). A psychology of the human brain–gut–microbiome axis. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 11(4).

Image is a detail adapted from Fig. 1 of the paper cited above. See full text here.

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