The new science of prospective psychology

“What if the mind is not a storehouse of knowledge, but an engine of prediction? What if we are not Homo sapiens, but Homo Prospectus?” Martin E. P. Seligman

future1The University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center has established a new branch of Cognitive Psychology: Prospective Psychology. Prospective Psychology investigates the mental representation and evaluation of possible futures. Through the Templeton Science of Prospection Awards, 22 two-year projects will explore the field of prospection.

To read: Seligman, M. E. P., Railton, P., Baumeister, R. F., & Sripada, C. (2013). Navigating into the future or driven by the past. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 8(2), 119-141.

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Human Brain Project: the role of cognitive neuroscience still up in the air

The European Commission (EC) issued, on July 18th, a reply to the Open Letter submitted, on July 7th, by a group of concerned neuroscientists. The reply can be found here. The future role of cognitive neuroscience in the project is still unclear. There are promises to address “the most effective integration of the cognitive neuroscience community in HBP’s activities.”

I have just been sent a press release for immediate distribution from some of the signatories of the Open Letter. “We are very encouraged to hear that the EC is willing to take notice of the overwhelming concern in the neuroscience community evident in the signatories to the open letter. The suggestion that the ring-fenced budget will not be unlocked unless there is a satisfactory approach to the issues raised is most welcome, but needs to be accompanied by an open and transparent mechanism for ensuring that the approach is indeed satisfactory. We therefore need to understand how the independent evaluation mentioned in the EU’s message will meet the simple and obvious standards for the review that we raised. We expect a true two-way dialogue involving formal engagement by the EC with neuroscientists of all stripes, not only within, but also outside the HBP. The agenda for tackling the enormous challenges of understanding the human brain must be an inclusive one.”

Media contacts: Zachary Mainen, Alexandre Pouget, Peter Dayan

A BBC News report is here.

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Human Brain Project under fire

Source: 33rd square

Sources: Nature 511, July 7, 2014. Also: The Guardian, July 7, 2014.

The European Human Brain Project has come under fire. In an open letter, more than 500 neuroscientists oppose the management style of the project. The Guardian and Nature report that the international protest was triggered by the elimination of studies on cognition from the project. Cognitive neuroscientists feel ousted.

From The Guardian: “Central to the latest controversy are recent changes made by Henry Markram, head of the Human Brain Project at the Swiss Federal Institute for Technology in Lausanne. The changes sidelined cognitive scientists who study high-level brain functions, such as thought and behaviour. Without them, the brain simulation will be built from the bottom up, drawing on more fundamental science, such as studies of individual neurons.”

From Nature: “Stanislas Dehaene … says that such a simulation, “while not totally useless, will fail to elucidate brain functions and diseases, much like a simulation of every feather on a bird would fail to clarify flight”. Along with other ousted colleagues, Dehaene believes that a top-down, reverse-engineering approach is required, starting with behaviour and high-density recordings of electrical activity in the brains of humans or animals to elucidate how information is encoded and used.”

More discussion from MIT Technology Review.

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3D movies of brains

From MIT News. With video.


Caenorhabditis elegans. Wikimedia Commons

Larval zebrafish. Source: Howard Hughes Medical Institute

“Researchers at MIT and the University of Vienna have created an imaging system that reveals neural activity throughout the brains of living animals. This technique, the first that can generate 3-D movies of entire brains at the millisecond timescale, could help scientists discover how neuronal networks process sensory information and generate behavior. The team used the new system to simultaneously image the activity of every neuron in the worm Caenorhabditis elegans, as well as the entire brain of a zebrafish larva, offering a more complete picture of nervous system activity than has been previously possible.”

Robert Prevedel et al., Simultaneous whole-animal 3D imaging of neuronal activity using light-field microscopy. Nature Methods, 18 May 2014.

Connections: We now have the means to connect neuronal activity to behavior in a worm and in a fish. That’s exciting, but it isn’t the end of the story. Fortunately, there are a couple of passages in the recent NIH BRAIN Initiative Report that emphasize that efforts to understand the brain can’t be limited to finding the links between neuronal activity and observable behavior. “In advanced organisms our concept of ‘behavior’ must be extended to include sophisticated internal cognitive processes in addition to externally observable actions” … “Mental life can flourish within the nervous system, even if the behavioral link to the observable world is tenuous. Thus the BRAIN Initiative should focus on internal cognitive processes and mental states in addition to overt behavior.” Unfortunately, research on language and the brain doesn’t seem to be on the agenda for the NIH BRAIN initiative. That’s a big oversight, if not an outright blunder – there is probably no cognitive domain that we collectively know more about at an abstract, computational, level. There is no better window into the human mind than language, and it’s already wide open. The Max Planck Society must have seen the potential and importance of ongoing brain research on language when electing Angela Friederici as their new vice-president.  There is also an NSF report about a recent workshop on Linking Language and Cognition to Neuroscience via Computation

Connections: The neural code that makes us human.

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Linking the sciences and the humanities

Semantics, the investigation of linguistic meaning, draws on the traditions, methodologies, and superegos of the humanities and the social and natural sciences. As semanticists, we work in libraries and in the field, in armchairs and in labs, with grammars, corpora, consultants, and experimental data. We use logical and statistical methods. We are in a good place to connect the humanities and the social and natural sciences. We should do more to build those bridges. 


Source: Hannah Arendt Center

The humanities are in a crisis. Enrollments for classes have dropped dramatically in recent years. Here is a commentary by Deborah K. Fitzgerald, the Dean of MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. 

“As educators, we know we cannot anticipate all the forms our students’ future challenges will take, but we can provide them with some fundamentals that will be guides for the ongoing process of exploration and discovery. We can help shape their resilience, and prepare them to analyze and problem-solve in both familiar and unfamiliar situations. Calling on both STEM and humanities disciplines — as mutually informing modes of knowledge — we aim to give students a toolbox brimming over with mental and experiential levers to support them throughout their careers and lives.

Inspiration for how to design imaginative interdisciplinary undergraduate classes bridging the sciences and the humanities might come from the new magazine Nautilus, ‘a New Yorker version of Scientific American’: “Each month we choose a single topic. And each Thursday we publish a new chapter on that topic online. Each issue combines the sciences, culture and philosophy into a single story told by the world’s leading thinkers and writers.” The magazine and its website have essays, investigative reports, blogs, fiction, games, videos, and graphic stories. Another source of inspiration could be the Mapping Ignorance initiative of the Chair of Scientific Culture of the University of the Basque Country.

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Philosophical conversations with Sarah Jane Leslie

sarah-jane-leslieSarah-Jane Leslie is anchoring conversations with well-known philosophers in a series entitled “Philosophical Conversations.” The series has conversations with Joshua Knobe, Rae Langton, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Roger Scruton, and Elizabeth Harman. Upcoming interviews will include Sarah-Jane’s father, the cognitive psychologist and autism expert Alan Leslie. The series can also be accessed via the Sanders Foundation’s YouTube channel.

Source: Marc Sanders Foundation.

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Paris Forum of the Cognitive Sciences

13th Forum of the Cognitive Sciences

Source: Forum des Sciences Cognitives

Depuis trois ans, le forum s’est ouvert au grand public avec succès : au vu de l’importance grandissante des sciences cognitives dans la société actuelle, il semble de plus en plus nécessaire d’apporter aux non spécialistes un regard critique sur ce domaine. Durant la journée, des chercheurs renommés et spécialistes sont invités à intervenir lors de conférences tout public tandis qu’en parallèle auront lieu des conférences plus spécialisées données par des doctorants et jeunes chercheurs.

Vous pouvez télécharger le programme complet, en cliquant ici.

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The multilingual classroom


A book about 20 languages that are spoken by students in German classrooms, including Turkish, Arabic, Polish, Hindi, Japanese, Italian, and English. The book is meant to help teachers understand the properties of their students’ native languages and provides materials for classroom use. The authors are prominent linguists, but the book is for the general public. The idea was conceived by the semanticist Manfred Krifka from the Humboldt University in Berlin.

The book is in German and for German classrooms, but we should all work together to produce such a book for the US, too.

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Il linguaggio al Festival delle Scienze di Roma

Il linguaggio al Festival delle Scienze


Il linguaggio. Una delle “caratteristiche più straordinarie e distintive della specie umana”. Sarà questo il tema del Festival delle Scienze di Roma, al via il 23 gennaio all’Auditorium Parco della Musica della capitale.

Language, one of the most extraordinary and distinctive properties of the human species, was the topic of the 2014 Science Festival in Rome.

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