This last week was a very busy one. As you may have noticed from the side bar the call for papers for Consciousness Online is now out…spread the word!
Tuesday I attended a talk/discussion of a paper by Ned Block on Attention and direct realism. Direct realism, roughly, is the view that when one has a veridical experience, say of the subway train coming into the station, the phenomenology of one’s experience is is determined by, or is constituted by, the properties that the object actually has. So on this view when one sees the subway one is somehow directly in contact with the physical object. This is contrasted with the view that one’s phenomenology is instead determined by, or constituted by some kind of mental representation that is perhaps caused by a physical object but which represents the physical object with a set of mental properties.
Block was arguing that direct realists can’t explain a certain fact about attention. His argument revolved around an interesting phenomenon discovered in attention research. If one is staring at a fixed spot and while doing that focuses one’s attention on one of three circles that are interlocked (something that is hard but can be done) one sees the circle one is attending to as brighter than the others. With practice one is able to move ones attention around the three circles and light them up as one goes. Given this some researchers took two gratings one of which was slightly dimmer than the other and what they found was that when the subjects attended to the fixation spot they could tell which of the two gratings was actually brighter than the other. But when they attended to the fixation point and shifted their attention to the dimmer patch they judged it to be the same brightness as the other patch; that is the two patches looked equally luminous. Block’s argument was then that the direct realist did not have any objective thing in the figure that they could point to to explain the difference in phenomenology. the figures stayed the same. Nor did they have any principled reason to say that one of the two perceptions was illusion and the other veridical.
On Friday I went to Jeremy Grey’s talk at the cuny cog sci speaker series. he was presenting data on the relationship between intelligence, as measured by standard psychological measures correlates with self-control. He was arguing for what he called the Individual Differences view. He started with a famous and intriguing study that found a correlation between self-control in 6 years olds and their subsequent performance on the SAT’s. Kid were given the following two options. They could either take a marshmallow that sitting on the table in front on them right now or they could wait until the experimenter returned and have two marshmallows. The experimenter then left and the children were videoed. Some of the kids were able to wait for the two marshmallow reward while others gave in immediately and ate the one that they had in front of them. What was surprising was that 12 years later when they took their SATs the ones who did best were those that waited longest for the two marshmallow reward. That is, the longer they were able to resist the marshmallow in front of them and wait for the return of the experimenter (some made it others didn’t) the higher their SAT scores were. Grey did a series of studies on adults to test the relationship between intelligence and self control and he found that there was indeed this relationship. There were, however, some people who scored high on the standardized tests but also scored high on impulsivity tests (that is they would be classified as high intelligence and low self control). The even more surprising thing was that if you factored in a certain kind of genetic variation which results in a variation in the dopamine receptors one saw that the outliers had this variation while those who conformed to the model did not. He also pointed to a study which suggested that pre-school children who participated in daily self-control exercises improved their performance on standardized IQ tests and so there is room for optimism that one is not stuck at one’s current IQ/self-control level.