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?
Where does the mind begin and end?
Two different ways

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.

Related posts
Time out of Mind
Days of future past

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).

Related posts
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.

Related posts
I felt a funeral in my brain
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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.

Related articles
Irritable bowel syndrome
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Probiotics and stress

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Book review: "The Art of Losing Control" by Jules Evans


We were guided through intense emotions, like buttons on a TV remote. And the strange thing is, I felt each emotion. Are we so easily manipulated?
(p. 143)

I've won via a book thanks to a competition at The Psychologist magazine. It's a thesis on ecstatic experiences by Jules Evans, philosopher and bon vivant (in a broad sense of the term). Although the term "ecstasy" is used to describe religious or sexual experience, Evans highlights that many different forms of activity can be associated with this type of experience, which is not just about extreme happiness or pleasure but a loss of the sense of self.

Evans does not simply wish to sit at the sidelines but rather engage in some of the kinds of experience he discusses in the book. Sometimes he draws on past personal experiences, at other times he engages in new activities as research for the book (his attempts to dip his toes back into organised religion veer between endearingly awkward and slightly off-putting, as congregants and preachers hungry for young blood latch on to him or try to use him as a mouthpiece). Unsurprisingly, when dabbling in these various activities Evans often fails to become ecstatic. However, he draws on characters from the past who have abandoned themselves to ecstasy more than Evans himself, from sexualised cult leaders to preachers who found ecstasy in the natural world.

Indeed, like many philosophers, Evans has a healthy interest in history. He traces much of the reaction against ecstatic experience (or most ways of seeking ecstasy) to the Enlightenment. He posits that at this time an increasingly materialist worldview was increasingly hostile towards ecstatic experiences where sense of self (and therefore self-control) is lost.  I mention "most ways of seeking ecstasy" above, as the ecstatic appreciation of the natural world may be a form of ecstasy less antagonistic to Enlightenment values; people from Dawkins to Tim Michin have highlighted how we shouldn't need God when we could be happy and in awe of the wonder of the Natural World. Evans himself insists that he remains agnostic about religion, although he does seem to want the skeptical reader to consider the spiritual realm.

In delving into the world of ecstasy, a recurring theme is the danger underlying the loss of self. Besides the hazards of dangerous drugs, Evans highlights the negative reaction some people have to meditation. He even suggests there is a dark side to the seemingly innocuous ecstatic appreciation of the natural world; there is a risk of reading an excessively benevolent intention into Nature. However, Evans also suggests a further risk is that ecstasy in nature could distract from a higher power/transcendence (his nudging the reader towards the spiritual again?) This counterbalance serves as a useful rejoinder for the tendency of many self-help types to give an uncomplicated view of phenomena from romantic love to peak experience and flow.

Perhaps the boldest chapter is that which highlights war as a means for searching for ecstasy. Evans mentions Malthusian philosopher John Gray's reference to war as being a major part of the human psyche. Evans does not go as far as Gray in suggesting war as a universal drive, but he does delve deeper into suggesting a number of different reasons why war and violence can be a means to annihilate the self, such as a loss of self to a "greater cause". Of course, with war, unlike most other ecstatic pursuits, when the pleasure fades, you have not just temporarily annihilated the self, but permanently destroyed the other.

This book will raise more questions than answers, which is almost inevitable for a book that deals with a relatively under-explored phenomenon from such a wide-ranging perspective. Is there anything wrong with a life of modest happiness, rather than overwhelming ecstasy? Why is it that ecstatic experience can be turned on/off for many people engaging in quite diverse activities? Why, for so many people, is the self a burden that needs to be shed?

Related posts
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Sunday, July 2, 2017

Honeymoon diary: Karpathos, Greece



Today this supremely beautiful landscape seemed to me to be almost unreal in its perfection. It produces a tonic effect on me…I felt a kind of aesthetic exhilaration, a mental exuberance and keenness of perception, a complete environmental euphoria. (John Fowles, “The Journals: Volume 1” p. 168)

The knot is tied. Daniela and I are honeymooning on a Greek island-KarpathosI am reading the journals of a favourite writer (I had just recently picked these up in Cardiff, having previously planned to re-read his famous novel with a Greek island setting, The Magus). In his early twenties, John Fowles’s initial resentment and self-absorption in England change to a more outward focus on the extravagant characters he encounters when he takes up a teaching job on the Greek island of Spetsai-possibly the most extravagant of which is the landscape of the island itself. 




From visiting the in-laws in Italy, I am by now used to the fairly urban Verona and Bergamo airports. Landing in Karpathos airport, one is struck by the almost alien landscape. It is a little bit like a grey/deep green version of Red Rocks in Denver. Although the sun takes the temperature into the high twenties, the island is windy, with enough of a breeze to make it feel like low twenties much of the time.

We are honeymooning with an Italian tour operator (Irish tourists are a novelty on the island) who take us from the airport to the Aegean Hotel, Amoopi. A polite yet brilliantly deadpan Serbian waiter attends to us at dinner. We dine a few times at a taverna down the road. The highly extroverted husband & wife proprietors engage their patrons/audience not only with cuisine that often incorporates their mini-farm by the taverna, but also with anecdotes and conversation, the hijinks of their dog, a chance to hold newly-born chicklets etc. They also do a mean Greek coffee. 




Our first excursion with the tour operator is to Olimbus. The various shops sell bespoke items, and the keepers call to the tourists as they stroll past to check their wares. (I look the archetypal tourist in shorts, T-shirt and a Karpathos baseball cap). In one place we pick up a necklace made up butterfly eggs. Another shopkeeper, who sells us a mug she made herself, is as comfortable discussing her life as an architect in Athens outside of the tourist season as she is asking us what age we are.

We hire a small car. I have never driven on the right before, and by force of habit I frequently reach left for the gearbox. In comparing our relative levels of stress when I am driving versus when Daniela is driving, I decide that I should stick to acting as navigator more often than driver. The car is used to travel to various beaches around Karpathos. Starting from the beach outwards, the water starts transparent, then aquamarine, then azure, then a deep blue. Most of the beaches are enclosed by cliffs or hills reaching down to the outskirts of the water. When swimming I tread water to admire the landscape, feeling a touch of Fowles's "aesthetic exhilaration".  

Our second excursion with the tour operator is to the island of Saria, the tiniest bit North of Karpathos. Although some people travel out on a semi-regular basis, when the boat pulls in the island it is quite deserted apart from three mules observing us from the rocky beach. We then walk up a steepish ascent under direct midday sunlight (some of the people on the tour are older-I have to wonder how everyone manages). On the descent we take slight divergence from the way up; there is a dead sheep lying on the path. I was reminded about a reference to travel research I made in an Irish Indo piece highlighting how satisfaction tends not be higher during the initial part of travelling, when one is actually doing the travelling to the place you want to get to! 




Towards the initial high point of Saria we encounter a beautiful small church. There seem to be very numerous Orthodox churches dotted all over the island, although they also tend to be either small or very small (a few of them would struggle to accommodate a full family, were they Catholic churches of yesteryear). The churches usually have a similar style in terms of the icons depicted. One less small church we visit elsewhere is besides a large floor mosaic, much of which has been lost in time.  



Following Karpathos, we return to Verona, Italy for a few days, for some quieter time in Italy post-wedding excitement, when we can settle some debts and run around with the niece and nephew. Then the return to Ireland and relative normalcy-assembling a wardrobe for our apartment and gearing up for more research at work. The honeymoon is not just another holiday. There's an expectation of creating memories that one holds on to for good. I don't think I'll forget the sunset view from the Aegean Hotel at dinner, overlooking the footpath to the hills that stretched to the sea.

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Monday, May 29, 2017

Stigma "goes meta"




When Irish voters were about to go the polls for a referendum on gay marriage, something interesting happened. There were certainly people out there who were willing to express their opposition to such marriages, but within the mainstream Irish media, there seemed at times to be less debate about the referendum question itself, and more debate about whether you could voice a “No” opinion without being “labelled a homophobe”. In short:

The foregone conclusion*: full gay marriage should be legal

The controversy: Pfff, just because someone is opposed to this specific issue they are being labelled as prejudiced. Surprise surprise, here come the stereotypes about Catholics… 

I wonder if something slightly similar is happening with disclosure of mental disorder.

I daresay most people would voice their opposition to stigma of people with mental disorder (especially when phrased in such general terms as that). And yet…there is a fatigue setting in about certain things. One is famous people disclosing mental disorder. If there’s something about the person that may challenge stereotypes around mental disorder it might get a bit more attention (e.g. Bruce Springsteen is an energetic, strong and successful man of an older generation but has depression; rappers often project a tough exterior but, hey, they can have mental vulnerability as well). However, if A.N. Other Montrose kid with a trendy haircut cries on RTÉ as they disclose that they have suffered from depression, you can bet that some viewers are rolling their eyes.

The foregone conclusion: we do not stigmatise mental disorder

The controversy: here we go, another person “opening up” about how they feel a bit down sometimes and they got prescribed an SSRI by a lazy GP. You should feel a bit down, you’re a vacuous Irish sleb model! Here come the stereotypes about…

Does the analogy become a bit strained here? In the case of mental disorder, who are the perceived stigmatisers who are being stereotyped? Older people?  Some ethnic minority group? Of course, I couldn’t be stigmatising people with mental disorder-stigma is bad!

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders generally indicates that the symptoms of mental disorder only become a disorder when it is associated with significant impairment, such as social or occupational functioning. Are we being “labelled as a stigmatiser” because we can’t work around the person who can’t come to work as they have depression? But the fact is, that person with depression is the only person on our current team who can do this specific task, and it needs to be done…

But, sorry, we were talking about public disclosure of mental disorder, not mental disorder itself. Or are we?

“Look, we know now that disorders like depression and anxiety disorders are really quite prevalent. Why do we still need to hear about how some celebrity has it?”

Perhaps we don’t need to hear them say it. But we should let them say it. Because we can’t be sure that the real issue here is freedom of speech, but rather that society has a problem with a certain group of people.

Related posts


*I realise it was actually not that much of a landslide, the “foregone conclusion” is just the vibe of a foregone conclusion coming from the mainstream media


Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Conference review: Dementia and fMRI



I am back where I did my PhD studies: Cardiff University. The research project I am newly involved in examines memory, dementia and brain imaging employing fMRI. I have come for a trip back to Cardiff for a focused meeting on fMRI and dementia, bringing together researchers and clinicians in the field from the UK and further abroad.

The talks open with some quite technical discussion of brain imaging acquisition and analysis. Although the mathematics and physics are generally beyond my level of comprehension (I’d need to learn more about the applications of complex numbers for a start), it does draw attention to how different algorithms can be used at various stages of the research process.

A big focus of the talks is on predicting who is at greater risk for developing dementia. An interesting talk by Tony Bayer discusses subjective cognitive decline as a precursor of mild cognitive impairment (which in turn precedes dementia). There is a surprising plethora of approaches in this area, although people working in this area have recently got together to try and create some consistency in how this area is investigated.

In terms of work addressing dementia directly, there is much discussion of Alzheimer’s Disease (the most prevalent form of dementia), but it’s also encouraging to see a lot of research in other forms of dementia (e.g. frontotemporal dementia, Lewy Body Dementia and rarer conditions such as posterior cortical atrophy). It’s also nice to see someone venture outside the hippocampus (a classic target for brain imaging in this area) to look at the cerebellum; Michael Hornberger highlighted that he has had trouble convincing reviewers of his research on the role of the cerebellum in dementia, although he did show interesting results from a meta-analysis in this area as well as his own data.

At lunchtime I take a tour of CUBRIC 2; a new brain imaging centre at Cardiff that builds on the success of the first phase of CUBRIC (Cardiff University Brain Research Imaging Centre). In addition to a high-resolution 7 Tesla fMRI scanner, it boasts a rare 3 Tesla connectome scanner, as well as TMS, MEG, EEG and sleep laboratories. It seems to be one of a number of new buildings coming online in Cardiff University, along with a new Innovation Centre nearby (I believe this will be more geared towards humanities and social sciences). One can only hope the Brexit fallout does not hold neuroimaging at Cardiff back from attracting the talent and research funding needed to keep a centre like this operating.

Back at the talks, it was great to see Dennis Chan (who has worked with Nobel Laureate John O’Keefe) outline some of the novel assessments of memory he has been using, including applications of virtual reality. The conference was grounded by a patient who spoke about her own experience of taking part in research. As someone who had been active in writing and teaching as a younger person, she had a great sense of loss of agency when she developed cognitive impairment. She described how taking part in research gave her the sense that she could in some way help others in the future.

The poster section is very small but very focussed and lively. Quite a few posters highlight new developments in methodology.

Next year’s meeting will be held at Cambridge. Given the level of focus, and the potential to meet researchers in the field at a relatively “intimate” meeting, it’s worth going if this is your area.


Related articles 

Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Loved Ones



As someone who tries to use language precisely, I dislike it when terms stray into inaccuracy. For example, the phrase “making love” has tended to annoy me for years, as it is sometimes used as an all-purpose stand-in term to describe any sexual intercourse. Although I’m sure such inaccuracy isn’t the intention (people just want a euphemism), the term nonetheless seems to imply that sexual activity is somehow inherently loving. However, this pet peeve is a bit flippant compared to a somewhat similar example I’ve noticed more recently.

In my recent work on dementia caregivers, one can end up thinking quite a bit about the best way to use language in describing patients and those who care for them. The majority of dementia carers who aren’t professional carers are either children or spouses of the patient. However, you do see siblings, sometimes nephews/nieces, or even friends or neighbours. “Carer” or “caregiver” (as opposed to “family member”) works fine, as it describes what they do.

What then is the best single collective term to use for those being cared for? “Patient” or “person with dementia” is fine, but doesn’t capture who they are with relation to the carer. “Family members” covers most, but not all, patients with unpaid carers. “Loved ones” looks like a good one -the patient doesn’t have to be a family member of their carer for us to call the patient a “loved one”. And does it not capture the idea of care as loving? I recall seeing a video of an elderly man caring for his wife with a caption along the lines of “If this isn’t true love, what is?”

One afternoon, while speaking with a carer, she took the opportunity to share some of her thoughts and feelings. She had been caring for her husband with dementia for a number of years. After speaking more broadly about caring for her husband, she came to the topic of love and marriage: “You know, sometimes I ask myself whether after x years of marriage, do I still love this man?…And really, the answer is no. Well, you’re a young man-I suppose it’s something you’ll understand when you’re older…”

Another carer (again caring for her spouse) spoke of how she no longer loved her husband at a gathering of carers. She added that it’s not something she felt she could say to her (adult) children. Maybe she just wanted to get it off her chest when speaking to other carers, or perhaps she wanted to see if she wasn’t the only one who felt this way. On hearing what she had said, another carer (caring for a parent) suggested that maybe the first carer didn’t like her spouse any more, but she did love him. The first carer who had spoken of her feelings restated them.

I can see how people might identify with the carer who made the “not liking, but still loving” suggestion. Perhaps there is a temptation not to take these statements about an end of love at face value. We could be suggesting that carers perform love, even if they don’t feel it, if we say things like “If this isn’t true love, what is?” But if we try to downplay these feelings (or lack of feelings), are we not also downplaying how, in some cases, there is great social pressure to stay in the full-time carer role? (Particularly if society at large is not giving them enough help). And are we not more generally downplaying the level of altruism such carers are showing?


If caring for someone you love is heroic, caring for someone you no longer love is more so.

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Saturday, April 8, 2017

A brief guide to accusing someone of hypocrisy



A man who moralises is usually a hypocrite.
Oscar Wilde

"I consider myself a vegetarian because there is no meat in here." A tongue-in-cheek comment in the 2am queue in McDonald's from some woman I had met an hour or two previously. In an argumentative train of thought and taking her comment a bit too seriously, I nonetheless refrained from voicing aloud the idea that she was doubly hypocritical; firstly for describing herself as a veggie when she eats meat and secondly for dissing McDonald's when clearly about to buy their stuff.

But when is it best to accuse someone of being a hypocrite? It's something I've thought a bit over the past while. Here are some questions to consider:

1. Is the person really a hypocrite?

1a. Do their actions contradict their current stance, or is it just their previous stance/opinion that contradicts their current stance?

To state the obvious, being a hypocrite involves saying/doing something and then doing/saying something else that contradicts that. It's worth thinking clearly about whether the person has really done anything or is just giving one opinion and then opining differently later on. (This may be harder in the case of politicians or more powerful people, where speech acts may have quite tangible consequences).

1b. Do they just have a short memory about something they previously said?

People are notoriously inconsistent about their preferences and opinions, including those about hypocrisy itself, and may at different times believe that something is THE most important aim. "You must respect others' religious views" and "the rights of women should be upheld" may strike the same person as very highly important principles, but depending on the situation one particular view may be more salient than the other. As a result, they may segue from suggesting that westerners should leave religious minorities alone to advocating (or maybe even engaging in) strong intervention if women's rights are in some way compromised by a religious minority.

1c. A question of extent

If a person is vocally against a strong instance of a crime, are they a hypocrite if they commit a much milder version of the same (or very similar) crime? Unfortunately, we all have to live in a physical and practical world. It would be nice to always live up to the standards of a particular view, but this may not always be very practical...

1d. To what extent can they freely choose their actions?

Without wanting to get bogged down in a debate about free will, someone may be pressurised into selling out their views. If someone is threatened with job loss, blackmail, or even harm to their family they may be pushed into actions that contradict their genuinely-held values.

1e. Are their actions as an individual inconsistent with their views on broader societal issues?

The anarchist drawing the dole, the climate change warrior driving their petrol-burning car...If the person is vocally advocating for societal change, do their actions as an individual really have to stand up to what they are advocating for society at large? If someone speaks out against violence against women (a societal issue) but is controlling his wife with threats of violence, that's pretty damn hypocritical. However, the climate change warrior is probably only making a negligible contribution to the problem (whereas one battered wife is in itself a clear wrong). Furthermore, the advocate for societal change still has to exist in a society which may not allow them to function without contributing in some way to climate change (see also 1d above).


2. What's in it for you?

It's worth pausing to think why you want to accuse someone of hypocrisy.

2a. Is your key aim to prove your own point?

Are you using the person's hypocrisy about a matter as a way of "proving" that their stance on an issue is wrong? This is a logical fallacy. Maybe there are better examples, but a topical example in Ireland is that many pro-choice advocates seem to point out the (sometimes glaring) hypocrisy of various pro-life individuals or institutions and just leave it at that, without going on to make their own case for why the freedom to choose to have an abortion/bodily integrity outweighs the preservation of the fetus/embyro/zygote etc.* This can be self-sabotaging, as one misses out on the opportunity to showcase why your point of view makes sense in its own right.

2b. Are you trying to discredit the person, or their argument?

Pointing out hypocrisy may go some way towards undermining your opponent's argument/actions, or at least their rationale for speaking/acting this way. However, is the real agenda here to actually undermine people's perception of your opponent's character?

Given some of the issues raised above, most people with an opinion may come off as a bit hypocritical at some point. In this sense I wonder how much of a character assassination an accusation of hypocrisy really is (unless the really damning thing is some awful act they committed that they're now being a hypocrite about).

In any case, deciding what your key aim really is will help in making a more cogent case.

2c. Do you actually want to get through to the person?

If so...


3. How can you get through to the person?

Perhaps you really feel this is a moment where you can show someone the error of their ways, or at least a contradiction in their thought patterns. But consider...

3a. Do they actually care?

The expressed opinion of the person may simply be telling people what they want to hear, before pounding out business-as-usual in their actions.

It can be surprising how often one is fighting a lost cause.

3b. Will they think that you are just trying to discredit them as a person or just using their hypocrisy as a "proof" of your own point-of-view, or defence of your own actions?

If they think you're falling into some of the positions mention above, then they are unlikely to think that they're going to actually pick up anything worth learning by listening to you.

3c. If you're outlining their opinion, are you giving a fair account of what they've said?

As argued by Daniel Dennett and others, one should try and develop the best account of what your opponent is really trying to argue, or what the aims of their actions are, before you start criticising them. Going after a straw man is not really the best use of one's time.


Obviously these suggestions are easier to make than to follow. Just earlier I saw an argument online that seemed somewhat contradictory, and I nearly went off on a train of thought whereby I speculated that the person would engage in a number of other hypocritical arguments (that were purely imagined by me at this point). Had I put anything down in writing I'm sure I would be failing to heed a number of points here.

What a hypocrite, ay?

Related posts
Daniel Dennett book review
Being right wing and doing the right thing



*This is just an example of how someone might frame the debate on this issue; I realise people may have more/less utilitarian stances on this.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Conference Review: American Psychosomatic Society Meeting 2017



There's a film-making legend that Michael Caine accepted a role in a particular movie immediately after reading the opening line "EXT. South of France. Day". When one sees "Seville, Spain" for a conference, this in itself could be sufficient reason to go. A beautiful city, bike-friendly but not so veggie-friendly (one menu helpfully lists a dish with eggs and fish under "vegetables"). But I'm here for the American Psychosomatic Society's Annual conference. Thanks to the generosity of their Young Investigator Program, I had registration fees written off this year, so with so many interesting talks on it was an offer I couldn't refuse!

At lunch the day before the conference proper began, one researcher was voicing a scepticism with findings from psychological research in general, at least in terms of their ability to translate into tangible outcomes for people in everyday life. Hey presto, here's a slide from the first morning session:



Not that the society hasn't concerned itself with the major issues of the day-the major addresses of this conference acknowledge the anti-intellectual spectre of the Trump administration, a source of anxiety for US researchers hoping to fund (and disseminate) their work. This breadth of focus of the society goes back to its beginnings. This being the 75th birthday of the APS, the opening plenary by Joel Dimsdale delved into the Society's history. Formed during World War II, there was a heavy focus on military psychology and the impact of combat. During the Nuremburg trials, a number of APS figures were involved in psychological profiling of Nazi war criminals, including a brain postmortem. Although the methods may have been outdated (an unblinded evaluation of Rorschach), it remains the only psychological study of cabinet-level war criminals. It'd be a difficult study to replicate!

On that note, perhaps some of the difficulty in getting research applied comes down to the replication crisis within psychology and other disciplines. If the research can't be replicated, it's unlikely to be applied, and statistical analysis that leads to false positives may confound the problem. A session on statistics in the post p < .05 era began with some fairly basic 101 on p-values (a tad dull to wade through, although a show-of-hands at the beginning did suggest a lack of understanding of p-values even in a professional audience). More interesting were the suggestions of tips on what to do next, such as using effect sizes rather than p-values for our benchmark for replication.

Larger sample sizes are one way of avoiding replication issues, and a session on the genomics era certainly delved into big data. From my own perspective a talk by Brenda W. Penninx was particularly interesting, as she focused on the genetics of depression. Her work had the interesting approach of both identifying genetic similarities between depression and other conditions, but also delving into the differences within depressive phenotypes (e.g. some people have lower appetite and sleep less, other sleep more and have a higher appetite). It will be interesting if she can show genes that are predictive of treatment response in future analyses.

A talk by David Clark on Friday really brought a focus to a national level, describing Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) in the United Kingdom. Although IAPT targets depression as well as a variety of anxiety disorders, Clark grounded things by giving the specific example of social anxiety, and how cognitive therapy can address the thoughts and behaviours that can exacerbate anxiety in people with social anxiety. They've collected a lot of data from IAPT, which has been shown to be cost effective. It made me wonder why we can't do something similar in Ireland.

At the poster sessions, in keeping with trying to gain more replicable and generalisable results, a number of posters on various topics tapped into large cohort/prospective studies. It was also good to see other people covering caregiver research, with researchers from Madrid finding that psychological therapies could reduce blood pressure in dementia caregivers, and a systematic review from researchers in Bath, UK indicating that problem-focused coping in particular was associated with better outcomes in younger carers (aged under 18). Belgian researcher Natalie Michels presented a poster on microbiome research-this is another area of investigation that will be generating large datasets and will again challenge us to avoid false positives. With regard to false positives in abstract screening, my own poster on dementia caregiving was somewhat upstaged by a truly "interesting" poster beside it, manned by 5 or 6 Japanese researchers, which indicated in its rationale that different deities emit different forms of light. Provocative stuff...

In terms of "walking the talk", at least in our own lives, the conference had well-being sessions every day. Mindfulness sessions included mindful walking (which I attended; good fun) as well as loving kindness meditation and T'ai Chi. Un/fortunately, although the Society also strive to have healthy options at their conferences, the venue was rather keen to keep the pastries and treats flowing at the coffee breaks-as well as showing the Sevilla fondness for meat I mentioned above!

All in all this was a forward-thinking meeting, with researchers, clinicians and thinkers who weren't going to let the sunny weather stop them from focusing how to ensure our discipline remain relevant to life outside the academy.

Related posts
Conference Review: APS 2016
APS 2016: Young Investigator Colloquium