These points are extracted from a combination of my notes and my memory, both of which are at best only noisy indicators of the true content. I imagine a large amount of editorialising is present. If anyone feels their views are misrepresented I’d be happy to include their comments alongside my orthogonal interpretation, so please do correct me!
Emotions in Homo and Pan
Mariska Kret presented work studying bonobos in captivity. Remarkably, her experiments involve no compulsion for the animals, offering a computer screen as an interesting feature of the environment and encouraging appropriate performance with rewards. The starting premise was that expressions are communicative, rather than being direct displays of feeling, and that therefore expressions must be differentiated from direct cues to feelings such as pupillary responses.
By presenting bonobos with a dot-probe task with neutral vs. emotional scenes (featuring bonobos), Mariska and colleagues were able to demonstrate greater attention to emotional scenes, and particularly to positive emotional scenes (which are particularly ecologically relevant for bonobos). Other studies demonstrated contagious scratching and yawning in orangutans.
The work was rounded off by a several studies of response to pupil size in human interactions, indicating that larger pupils, and pupillary dilation, were associated with increased liking and trust. There was some evidence from a neat experimental paradigm in which people interacted with a quasi-human-like avatar that people mimic social partners’ pupil size.
Finally, a study conducted at a music festival in which heterosexual pairs of participants engaged in a speed-dating procedure while having their pupil dilation and other physiological signals recorded dominated much of the Q & A. The finding that physiological synchrony predicted dating success was argued to be better understood as dating success predicting physiological synchrony: especially because negative physiological trajectories were discounted, the results seemed readily explained by participants exciting one another rather than participants modulating their physiological reactions in response to those of their partner.
Mentalising Adiposity in Anorexia Nervosa
Katerina Fotopoulou1 gave us a very early stages talk focussing on the concept at the centre of her upcoming grant: the idea that predictive processing feedback loops can only be closed in infancy by the contingent activity of a caregiver, and that failure to establish feedback robustly leads to psychopathologies such as Anorexia Nervosa. The importance of the subject area was highlighted with the point that Anorexia Nervosa has an extremely high fatality rate2, and is incredibly resistant to treatment because it is ego-syntonic (i.e. it accords with the patient’s beliefs about themselves).
The picture painted of Anorexia Nervosa was somewhat different to the understanding I acquired during high-school psychology some 15 years ago, so it was pleasing to have my knowledge updated. Rather than a central focus on deluded body image, the emphasised features were the desire for certainty as idealised by the skeleton, and the feeling that the flesh which covered the skeleton was an unwelcome imposition of softness and uncertainty.3
The main point of the talk was to illustrate how the world looks from the perspective of an infant - on this view a predictive processing system which is largely incapable of fulfilling its own requirements. While infants engage in a continuous system of research, coordinating bodily movements with sensory feedback, they are wholly incapable of supplying their own demands for nourishment or appropriate environments in which to sleep. Consequently, they are reliant on their caregivers to fulfil these needs. Where caregivers are responsive to infants’ needs, as expressed through communicative cries, the infants build a model of the world in which sustenance and safety are reliably obtained on demand, and learn that their requirements are met as part of a social system. The argument from thence is that infants who do not experience appropriate contingent caregiving have a learned perspective of the world as a chaotic and unpredictable place, and prefer the certainty of hunger to the uncertainty of discovering when they will next be able to eat.
The idea of non-contingent caregiving as a causal factor in psychopathology has been presented for various other conditions, but the approach is novel in Anorexia Nervosa, despite the longstanding emphasis on control. The major challenges to my mind will be in providing an account of how non-contingent caregiving produces Anorexia Nervosa in some cases (most notably in adolescent Western Females) and other conditions in others. It will also require a good deal of sound evidence to make the case, because blaming primary caregivers prematurely has caused substantial damage in the past (e.g. the ‘refrigerator mother’ hypothesis for autism spectrum conditions). It will be very interesting to see how this work develops, and sincere thanks are due to Katerina for being courageous enough to show us her thoughts at such an early stage.
Psychological and economic factors behind the rise of right-wing populism
Michael Pauen presented an analysis of the rise of right-wing populism which raised some enticing questions despite running out of time to deliver any answers. The central premise of the argument was the existence of a feedback loop between social cohesion and income equality. The loop was argued to be positive in both directions: a reciprocal relationship between high income equality and high social cohesion in which mutual prosperity facilitates mutual concerns and reduces otherness, which in turn increases the perceived value of potential employees and reduces the need for aggressive social markers; while a similar reciprocal relationship between low income equality and low social cohesion means that those who are seen as increasingly socially distant are regarded as more appropriately exploitable, and those who cannot maintain a respectable standard of living due to low pay are seen as increasingly socially distant.4
An historical analysis was given to illustrate the uniqueness of the postwar years as a time of incredibly high income equality and social cohesion, contrasted with the ancient world, feudal Europe, and the falling income equality of today. The high income equality was argued to derive from the inter-block conflict of the Cold War: the great threat of a looming outsider allowed stronger social cohesion to emerge in response. The prognosis for the future was not good: it was argued that wealth pays power for protection of its interests, cementing inequality. Even though social cohesion is not a matter of the ultra-rich vs. everyone else (instead being a matter of economic divides between laissez-faire and redistributionist thought traditionally tied to conservative vs. liberal politics), the fall in income equality produces a fall in social cohesion in part through the myth of the self-made entrepreneur.5
The first section of the talk was an under-compelling illustration of the mechanisms of power in human society as being grounded in psychological rather than physical (force-backed) phenomena, which did not seem to be required for the arguments in the latter parts of the talk. Disappointingly, time ran out before we could properly cover the enticing third part of the lecture, in which we were promised a portrayal of how low income equality and social cohesion produce the plethora of right-wing populists sweeping Europe and the USA.
Two very interesting ideas to emerge from the talk were the notion that low social cohesion is associated with greater personal freedom, and the idea that democracy requires a minimum level of income equality. I am not wholly persuaded on the first point; perhaps I’m overly optimistic, but I can envision a society in which social cohesion is based around a widespread acceptance of personal liberty and a willingness to engage with those who express themselves differently to oneself, rather than requiring overt badges of social belonging such as participation in ritualistic behaviours, regimented codes of appearance, or invasive enforcement of morality. The second idea, for which Ancient Athens was (appropriately) supplied as an example, is perhaps true so long as one only looks for equality among voters - the women and slaves of Ancient Athens had little or nothing to their names. That latter idea is frightening if true - unless the runaway reinforcement of income inequality at the expense of social cohesion is reversed, there will come a time when democracy is either overtly or covertly destroyed.6
Katerina was prompted to professor while on Aegina, a very well-deserved appointment! ↩
Around 30%, if my memory for high-school psychology serves me well. ↩
The idea of a need for control is not new, but the particular emphasis on bones as evocative of that control was novel for me. ↩
This double-positive feedback loop means that, all else being equal, income equality and social cohesion will tend to force one another to extremes, either high or low. ↩
It is perhaps a necessary corollary of the idea that those who are successful are morally entitled to the exclusive enjoyment of its rewards that those who are unsuccessful are morally liable for their failures and deserving of their tribulations. ↩
I am aware that there are those who suggest this has already happened. ↩