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Nicole Pernat: Graduate Student, Simon Fraser University

October 28, 2012

Interviewer: Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Numbering: Issue 1.A, Subject: Psychology

Place of Publication: Langley, British Columbia, Canada

Title: In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Undergraduate Journal

Web Domain: http://www.in-sightjournal.com

Individual Publication Date: October 28, 2012

Issue Publication Date: May 1, 2013

Name of Publisher: In-Sight Publishing

Frequency: Three Times Per Year

Words: 3,462

ISSN 2369-6885

Interview with Graduate Student Nicole Pernat

Issue 1.A, Subject: Psychology

1. Why did you start studying psychology? Where have you acquired your education?

I took an intro course in first year and loved it.  I received my BA (Honours) Psychology from Kwantlen, with a minor in philosophy, and ended up getting a certificate in language studies (4 courses of German) after I graduated.

2. You published a paper with Dr. Elizabeth Loftus & Dr. Daniel Bernstein in 2011 entitled The False Memory Diet: False Memories Alter Food Preferences. What did you find in this research?

This particular publication gathered work that had already been done—largely by Danny (Bernstein et al., 2005), professor Loftus, Dr. Alan Scoboria (U. of Windsor), Geraerts (et al., 2008), and Laney (et al., 2008).  The general theme was applying false memories to food experiences.  Loftus’ famous work on false memories found that people’s memories for events, including videos, could be manipulated by wording.  For example, subjects watched a video of a car accident and were asked to rate how fast the car was going.  When the questions used loaded words such as “smashed” rather than “hit,” subject gave higher speed ratings.  Memories can clearly be altered.

Entire memories can even be fabricated.  The thesis of the book chapter was that implanting entirely false memories could change people’s food preferences and eating behaviour.  Through various experiments, the aforementioned authors discovered that people can develop false memories about foods, such as getting sick from a particular food (e.g., egg salad sandwich), or liking the food as a child (e.g., asparagus).  People are more likely to develop false memories for uncommonly eaten foods, such as ice-cream, and less likely to develop them for common foods, such as cookies.  This makes evolutionary sense; humans are wildly omnivorous—we can eat almost anything, meaning we often encountered novel foods and needed to learn quickly if that food was poisonous.  Thus, we can more easily develop aversion to novel food.  In contrast, it is difficult to convince us that familiar foods that we have eaten for years suddenly turned poisonous and made us sick.

There are some commonly eaten foods, however, which are amenable to false memories.  These are foods that contain naturally more “disgusting” (easily spoiled, or smell rotten) components, such as yogurt (dairy spoils) and eggs (which naturally smell of sulphur).  This also makes sense in evolutionary terms.  Although, pickles are also among that list, which is a bit mystifying.

Most interestingly, and to the point, they found that with false memories came corresponding attitudinal and behavioural changes.  In one study, half the subjects developed the belief that they loved asparagus when they first tried it.  A week later, the experimenters emailed the subject asking them to come into the lab, and pick what foods they wanted to eat; they ranked a list of sandwiches and vegetables by what they preferred.  Thirty-four percent of the subjects in the Love Asparagus group indicated that they wanted asparagus.  This suggests that false food memories influence preferences and behaviour.  In another study, subjects were told that they got sick from egg salad as a child.  Thirty-five percent falsely believed that this happened.  Different types of sandwiches were offered at a later session, including egg salad.  There was also a follow-up four months later, disguised as an unrelated taste-test.  Participants were told that the food was going to be thrown out and that they could eat as much as they wanted. Those who erroneously believed they got sick from egg salad were less likely than others to eat egg sandwiches, both shortly after and four months after receiving false feedback.  They also gave lower appearance and flavour ratings to egg.

I was not involved in the original experiments.  My part was on researching applications for other health issues and disease.  This focused on the “false memory diet,” suggested and coined by Danny and Loftus. It’s highly controversial idea, suggesting the implantation of false memories in order to manipulate diet choices.  Nevertheless, it could be useful for neo-phobia (fear of trying new foods, which often results in restricted vegetable and fruit intake) and obesity.  Ideally, the false memory diet would help people eat more healthy foods and fewer unhealthy ones—including alcohol.

Unfortunately, an average of merely 23% of subjects developed false food memories.  So even if a false memory diet were to catch on, it would have a small market.  Moreover, it’s unclear exactly who would benefit in the first place.  Then there are obvious ethical concerns.  First, you’re implanting fabricated memories.  Second, a false memory diet could exacerbate eating disorders.  That said, just as how the same medication brand may be good for one but harmful to another, false memory diets could still be helpful for some people.

Relevant references:

Bernstein DM, Laney C, Morris EK, Loftus EF. Soc Cognition. 2005a;23:11–34.

Bernstein DM, Laney C, Morris EK, Loftus EF. P Natl Acad Sci USA. 2005b;102:13724–31.

Bernstein DM, Godfrey R, Loftus EF. In: Markman KD, Klein WMP, Suhr JA, editors. The handbook of imagination

and mental simulation. New York: Psychology Press; 2009. p. 89–112.

Geraerts E, Bernstein DM, Merckelbach H, Linders C, Raymaekers L, Loftus EF. Psychol Sci. 2008;19:749–753.

Laney C, Morris EK, Bernstein DM, Wakefeld BM, Loftus EF. Exp Psychol. 2008a;55:291–300.

Laney C, Kaasa S, Morris EK, Berkowitz SR, Bernstein DM, Loftus EF. Psychol Res. 2008b;72:362–75.

Laney C, Bowman-Fowler N, Nelson KJ, Bernstein DM, Loftus EF. Acta Psychol. 2008c;129:190–7.

Scoboria A, Mazzoni G, Kirsch I, Relyea M. Appl Cognit Psychol. 2004;18:791–807.

Scoboria A, Mazznoi G, Jarry J. Acta Psychol. 2008;128:304–9

3. You entered an emerging field co-founded by Dr. Patricia Churchland called ‘Neurophilosophy’. Can you describe the field?

Neurophilosophy is the study of consciousness in philosophy that draws heavily on (cognitive) neuroscience and related sciences.  My supervisor, Dr. Kathleen Akins, gives an excellent detailed description on her website:

“‘Neurophilosophy’ is an interdisciplinary field at the intersection of philosophy and the neurosciences. In neurophilosophy, we attempt to understand how various traditional, long-standing problems about the nature of the mind and the world can be resolved (or at least nudged towards resolution) by current findings within the neurosciences. In this group, we use current research within neurophysiology, neuropsychology, neurethology and psychophysics in order to understand the nature of perception, cognition, consciousness, the emotions and mental representation in general.”

http://www.sfu.ca/~kathleea/

(Please excuse the lack of APA style citation for the sake of ease).

I understand that ideally, there would be a 2-way dialogue between the disciplines—neuroscience informs philosophy, and philosophy can help guide neuroscience through testable hypotheses.  Though I do not know how often, philosophers actually affect contemporary psychological sciences.

Neurophilosophy can be confused with philosophy of neuroscience, but they are distinct. The latter belongs to philosophy of science, and studies the foundations of neuroscience and its methods (see Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy [SEP]).  SEP gives the following examples; philosophy of neuroscience might ask about different conceptions of representation and how they are employed in neuroscience.  In contrast, neurophilosophy might examine how neurological disorders affect our view of a unified self.

4. Why did you choose it for graduate studies?

Because it is sexy.  I wanted to get at the root of consciousness—specifically the neural correlates– and felt as though cognitive and perceptual psychology mostly tap around the periphery.  I wanted to get at the heart, and figured that it would be either cognitive neuroscience or philosophy that would get me there.

Anyhow, I emailed Dr. Christoff Koch (Biology department, but famous for his work on the neural correlates of consciousness with Dr. Francis Crick) for advice on what was required to get into CalTech program.  He was very amiable and responded soon after, advising a strong background in math, physics, chemistry, and/or bio.  At least a minor in one of them would be preferable.  Bummer.  I was at the time, willing to go back and get the requisite background, but my lack of quantitative aptitude would continue to be a hindrance (I did well in psychological stats, but struggled horribly with calculus).  I didn’t feel like I would thrive in the hard sciences environment.  That’s certainly not to say that philosophers don’t make good quantitative people!  Often it’s quite the opposite—for example, many physics undergrads with a thirst for the nature of reality (metaphysics) end up in philosophy.  This comes from a professor of mine, Dr. Holly Anderson, who has a BA in physics.

Aside from the quant conundrum, I still loved philosophy.  A previous PHIL professor, Dr. Colin Ruloff, finally helped convince me that philosophy was a sweet route.  He had been telling me for years that I should go into philosophy, but I kept saying, “No, I like philosophy, but I want to do Psychology.  I want the empirical side of things.”  Well, in neurophilosophy, you get both.  Colin pointed out that Dennett and Churchland (both prominent neurophilosophers) visit neuro labs and talk to the scientists.  That sounded good to me.  I mulled everything over and decided that I would go philosophy.

5. What topic(s) seem unsettled and controversial in neurophilosophy? If any, how do you analyze the topic(s)?

Take your pick.  The nature of representations, unity of self, colour vision, inverted spectrum, sensory modalities, perception of time, emotions, social cognition… Neurophilosophy is still a toddler—a really smart toddler, mind you.  It’s an open field out there. (Ha, stupid pun.)

Analyzing the topics is a challenge, at least for someone who’s not used to coming at a problem from two different disciplines.  Take the following illustration: I am taking this fall (2012), appropriately called “Neurophilosophy.”  For our projects, we pick a topic that traverses both philosophy of mind and neuroscience (surprise!).  We look at the literature in both fields, and then synthesize them.  So there are two components in neurophilosophy; analyzing the issue from both sides, and then synthesizing the sides.  I do not know if it is all like this, but looking at some other pieces of neurophilosophy (e.g., the Churchlands, Akins), it seems to be a similar sort of process.  I would recommend the piece, “What is it like to be boring and myopic?” where Kathleen describes in detail a bats echolocation system and surmises that through bat physiology and neuroscience we can indeed know what it’s like for a bat to be a bat (Akins, 1993).

6. You probably had philosophical assumptions prior to entering university.  How have your philosophical views changed over time to the present?

I would say so.  I now realize that philosophers can (and often do) object to assumptions that I’ve carried over from psychology.  For example, I thought that it was a pretty easy answer as to whether there are moral truths; namely, “no, there aren’t any.”  After all, morality evolved.  If it evolved, then it’s superfluous to posit moral truths that exist objectively and independently of moral/social creatures.  Now I realize, after working on the third version of a final paper for a meta-ethics class, that this question is not so easy to answer.  There are many smart people arguing for moral realism, and they can make quite convincing cases.  I was questioning my view (as I should be).  Now, my view on morality is basically the same as it was (I don’t think there are moral truths), but it took more reasoning than I expected.  In sum, I am slowly learning that sometimes what seems most obvious actually takes a good solid argument to establish.

In addition, I thought that science could answer every question, though now I am not so sure.  Science can’t tell us what we should do; it only describes how things are.  Science doesn’t tell us exactly what an explanation is, or how much you must explain for an adequate explanation.  For example, if a 4-year-old asks, “Why does that thing float?” Their parent could answer “because it’s a boat and boats float.”  In other words, for a child, learning that something belongs to a category with a particular property is sufficient for an explanation.  Obviously, the same is not true for a physicist.  They probably want a detailed causal story.  But are laws sufficient?  They seem rather empty, merely describing rules.  And what exactly is causation?  Is it a mechanism with consistent, identifiable parts?  Is it what you get when you intervening on variables to control them?  Again, it comes down to defining what exactly an explanation is.  That is where philosophy comes in.

Lastly, I used to assume that the scientific method was independent of philosophy, thank you very much.  Now I’ve changed my mind.  The “artful” component of experimental design seems to be a philosophical exercise, for example.  It’s the juice that gets the scientific method up and running.  Or consider that when we construct operational definitions, we’re stipulating them.  We’re picking out things in the world and identifying them.  For example, perhaps “happiness” is X amount of endorphins or being paid more than $60 K a year.  Of course we draw on past empirical work to help us along, but how and why we choose particular operational definitions, I argue, are at least partly philosophical.  Reason marries science and philosophy.

In short, my previous assumption that science was all and Everything Forever has been overturned.  Philosophy, it seems, helps us address questions that science, strictly speaking, cannot—what we should do, what explanations are, or how to design an experiment.

7. What advice do you have for undergraduate students in psychology intending to pursue graduate-level study?

Take time to figure out what you really want to do.  Talk to many people in different disciplines, professors and students included; when you are prospecting potential supervisors, ask their students what their relationship with the prof is like, because your supervisor is someone you are going to be in close contact with for 2-7 years.  Apply for a Tri-Council Scholarship.  The process is a… challenge, but it’s rad if you get it.  (Food!)

Ask yourself if you willing to spend another 2-9 years getting a degree, that might not get you the job you want?  Also, if you don’t like travelling, academia probably isn’t the place for you; if you pursue academic work, you’ll go wherever the schools are and wherever the job is.  Psychology and philosophy are overflowing with masters and doctorates, and there are very few jobs out there.  For example, if you get a PhD from one of the top 50 philosophy programs, you might have a 25% chance of actually getting a career as a philosopher.  And don’t expect the career to happen right away.  Many have to wait a number of years before they get an untenured job as a sessional, with no health benefits and unstable work.  It’s a damn tough market.  That said; if your dream is to be a psychologist or philosopher, do not give up on it quite yet.  Even though it’s tough to get into, there is still a job market.  I hear it is slightly better for psychology.

Of course, you should read Scott Jacobsen’s blog.

8. Who influenced your intellectual development the most? Have they written any noteworthy books/articles that characterize their views well?

At the risk of sounding cliché, my professors at Kwantlen played important roles.  Certain profs stand out clearly; in Intro Psychology I brought up some sketchy “evidence” from a book for some weird claim about consciousness; Jocelyn Lymburner asked to see the book’s references.  That has stuck in my mind for eight years now.  Wayne Podrouzek also punched some of the dumb out of me.  He pushed me to really think about morality, consciousness, pseudo science, and personal issues.  I used to think I had substantially different sensations and perceptions than others–Rick LeGrand challenged my interpretation, suggesting that perhaps I pay attention to those things more, and that because I share the human physiology, it’s likely that others (can) have similar experiences.  Danny Bernstein drilled better writing skills into me (any errors I’ve made here are thanks to my neglecting his advice).  I’m convinced that the 15 rounds of editing on one manuscript gave me my wicked score on the GRE’s analytic writing section.  Overall, the most valuable thing that I got out of my degree was a radical shift in how I look at the world.  I used to have unsubstantiated “New-Age” beliefs (ghosts, psychic powers, etc.). Now I have the training to scrutinize such claims and realize that either there is no evidence, or “evidence” from studies that usually had shitty methodology.  It took most of my degree (and the professors) to get there, and the rest to hone my skills.

Outside of Kwantlen, I’ve been particular touched by the “4 horsemen,” Dan Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens.  These four to me are paragons of critical thinking applied to religious dogma (find them on YouTube to see what I mean. I recommend Harris’ (audio) books “End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation.”  Harris’ succinct, eloquent style is ear-candy; I recommend Harris’ (audio) books “End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation”  His book, presumptuously entitled “Consciousness Explained,” is an eye-opening read for anyone interested in blind sight, split-brain phenomenon, illusions of time, 1st person science of consciousness, and I host of other related issues.

On the topic of colour vision and its pervasive use in philosophical thought-experiments, Kathleen Akins has moved me.  She and Dr. Martin Hahn (SFU) are currently coming out with a tome on colour vision.  Colour is not the basic property philosophers and others often think it is; chromatic information (hue / wavelength, brightness, and saturation) are each processed for multiple different functions, such as motion detection, object identification, and distinguishing surface properties from atmospheric ones (e.g., looking at obnoxious blue pants in a yellow-lit store looks different than under sunlight, but we compare the pants to colours of other objects to figure out what the colour of the pants actually are).

On a totally different vein, my interest in physics have led me to David Bohm’s “The Implicate Order,” where he discusses a notion based on quantum mechanics that events, not objects, are basic units of reality.  In the first third of the book, he even suggests a verb-based language to reflect this—a rather philosophical endeavour for a physicist!  He later argues that the universe is something like a hologram, with information about the whole existing in every part.

Of course, no dilettante of physics would be complete without Stephen Hawking, the god of black holes.  His book “A Brief History of Time” is a pleasant-to-read, comprehensive overview of physics, starting with some of its philosophical roots (Aristotle), and discussing the evolution of physics, including, of course, our theoretical knowledge of black holes.  I fell in love with those mysterious things in grade four, and owe much of the satisfaction—and sparking—of my curiosity to Hawking.  Could black holes really lead to other universes?  Is that where half of my socks have gone?

Coming back to Earth, dish-washing has become a mental adventure; the dishes feel solid, but are actually mostly empty space interlaced with collapsing probabilities—or something to that effect. (Thank you string theorist Brian Greene, for your description of quantum mechanics).  When you are exposed to these ideas, you look at your environment and think, Holy shit, this is awesome.  And then you wonder how a physical thing like your brain could produce all these fantastic experiences.  And then you pursue something like neurophilosophy.

How has physics for lay people influenced my intellectual development?  (1) By giving me mental stimulation, satisfying and provoking my curiosity in the nature of reality, and (2) by showing me that this is the value of science brought to the public.  I think that science has a duty to share its findings with the public, and these authors have demonstrably (and admirably) fulfilled that duty.  I think the same is true of all academic disciplines; access to what the Ivory Tower is finding can enhance the life quality of the (interested) public.  At least, it did for me.  And considering the public funds our work, it’s important to give information back to them.  In this way, every academic author of books (that I have read) for the common person has affected me.

License

Creative Commons Licence In-sight by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Copyright

© Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-sight, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-sight with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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