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3 Minute Thesis

November 25, 2011

So I saw this tweet an hour ago:


#3MT #UBC #GradSchool – Have you heard? The UBC 2012 – 3 Minute Thesis competition website is up and check it!


And I had a look. Explain your PhD thesis, and why it’s important, in 3 minutes. After I finished making slightly panicked noises at the thought of condensing thousands of words and hours of work into 180 seconds, I had a quick go at it. 180 seconds is ~300-400 words if you speak quickly enough and eschew dramatic pauses for effect.


As I wrote, I realized that I’ve been trying to condense my thesis into a couple of minutes since I started – when asked by relatives, friends of family, and slightly interested friends who really don’t want the whole spiel.  So I started trying a bit harder to actually make it work. It wouldn’t hurt to have a 400 word synopsis that communicates the basic ideas.

So here’s what I’ve got after about an hour:

Our modern culture doesn’t explicitly endorse racist or sexist attitudes. And yet, even people who claim vehemently not to be prejudiced, who truly believe they are not prejudiced, act in prejudiced ways. “Implicit Tests” are designed to tap into attitudes that you might not be willing to disclose, or that you aren’t aware you have.

I’m tackling implicit testing from a behavioural perspective. A behaviourist doesn’t think of “attitudes” in the same way as most psychologists – we don’t think of attitudes as something that cause your behaviour, but rather that an “attitude” is a way of describing a particular history of interacting with a culture, and the pattern of behaviour that that history produces. The behavioural field is beginning to understand the processes involved in verbal behaviour – in particular, a behaviour called “derived relational responding” which is unique to verbally able humans.

Derived relational responding is a behaviour we all learn as we’re being taught language. Even when humans learn a few things through direct reinforcement, the implied relationships between stimuli, between words and ideas, also become part of our behavioural repertoire. The number of relations that can emerge is truly massive – the number of emergent relations is the square of number of directly taught relations. When you consider how many ideas you absorb from the culture, you get a staggering number of emergent relations.

This is where my research comes in – we think that this process of deriving relations is responsible for these prejudiced behaviours from people who don’t believe they’re prejudiced. They’ve never directly been taught to act that way, but this behavioural process means that these implied, derived relations affect how people act, even if they’re not aware of why they’re doing it.

 I’m developing a testing methodology that uses knowledge of these processes to subtly, but sensitively test for this kind of relation in a person’s learning history. It’s called the Functional Acquisition Speed Test – it looks at how easily you learn new relations when we put them in opposition to the suspected relation we’re testing for – the slower you learn, the stronger that past relation is. The FAST is research tools that will help us understand the processes that create attitudes indirectly, as well as test for the existence of these attitudes in people who don’t want to admit they have them – for example, in prisoners who want to “fake good.”





“Insanity is often the logic of an accurate mind overtaxed.”

May 10, 2011

I have a bit of a bugbear about how “insanity” is written in a lot of fiction, in particular in popular fiction (regardless of the medium, but TV/Movies are the worst offenders, since they don’t tend to provide any kind of internal monologue, and thus rely on behaviour to communicate “insanity”) I have a lot of problems with “insanity” as a concept, which sets up a feedback loop. I disagree with how people think about insanity, so the portrayal of it as such annoys me, and the portrayal further feeds into those erroneous ideas in the popular consciousness.

In popular discourse, the words “insanity” or “insane” (or other synonyms) are used to indicate that a character has gone “out of his mind.” They’re not simply “mentally ill,” or a “eccentric” but rather have crossed some imaginary line which places them into another category – one which labels the character as fundamentally different in his way of thinking than everyone else. Insane characters say, believe, and do things that are in no way based on the reality that every other character shares. More often than not, a “diagnosis” (I’m getting a lot of use out of quotation marks today) of schizophrenia (or a subtype) is mentioned.

A characters’ schizophrenia generally manifests as either lighty comic, with characters spouting chuckle-worthy nonsense in the vein of “Crazies say the Darndest Things.” Not a great start. More often, however, insanity is portrayed as something sinister and dangerous. This is understandable to a point – that which we don’t understand is scary, and it’s very hard to understand a person whose motivations are based on a reality that is not the same (or similar) to yours.

In particular, insane characters are generally portrayed as prone to violent outbursts.

Some real data: (From

Schizophrenia and other psychoses are associated with violence and violent offending, particularly homicide. However, most of the excess risk appears to be mediated by substance abuse comorbidity. The risk in these patients with comorbidity is similar to that for substance abuse without psychosis. Public health strategies for violence reduction could consider focusing on the primary and secondary prevention of substance abuse.  (Emphasis mine)

That is to say, the drunk/ drug using guy is as dangerous as the schizophrenia patient.

And despite these comic-mocking or fear-mongering portrayals of insanity, we get one other facet of insanity in popular fiction – Truth-Seers. In particular in genre fiction where psychic phenomena or supernatural forces are at work, the insane are portrayed as seeing something we don’t. Except for one problem. Vindication that what that character has been “hallucinating” is actually real is usually enough to provoke a significant improvement in their mental health overnight. They weren’t crazy, you see, just misunderstood. Like I said earlier, true insanity involves crossing an arbitrary line that divides you from everyone else. Once it’s established that their reality is real, they can’t really be insane, can they?

The foregoing is one of the reasons I’m really enjoying Fringe. I watched the pilot long ago, and it didn’t grab me – I thought that, in Walter, we were getting another Savant/Miraculous Cure type insane character. But when I persisted, I was pleasantly surprised. Or perhaps pleasantly is a poor choice of words…

Walter’s “insanity” (indeed, they rarely use that word) is portrayed in a way that is both tragic and human. . I wasn’t expecting there to be this kind of treatment of insanity in a show so obviously billed as a “mad science” show. Which it is, and there are certainly plenty of moments in which Walter gets very excited about a morally ambiguous or outright bizarre experiment. (Which, to be honest, I find more endearing than threatening. Because science is exciting.)  There are moments of comedy, and there are moments of threat, but at the heart of it, Walter is a sympathetic character.

Walter is evidently a very, very intelligent man, but the damage to his mental health has left him unable to properly care for himself, and perhaps more tragically, barely able to remember things he once grasped so easily. The Walter Bishop we come to know is, intellectually, a shadow of his former self – and this must be particularly devastating for a man who made his intellect and rationality a pillar of his own self-image. The joy he feels (and intellect he demonstrates) when he starts to understand an event or sees something fascinating and new to investigate is heavily contrasted with his sadness and embarrassment at his problems with basic functioning. His obsession with food and narcotics, while often funny, still has a shroud of pathos over it – each slip into a food conversation during something important is another example of his mind betraying him.

What I really enjoy, however, is the portrayal of the journey back from the rock bottom we first encountered him at. Despite being removed from St. Claire’s, despite his theories being frequently proved correct, despite being reunited with his son, there is no miraculous fix. The road to self reliance is long and tortured, and as sad as hell when you see him stumble. But there is progress. Insanity/Sanity is not portrayed as line that is only crossable in one direction, or even as a binary state. It is a continuum, one which you can move along in either direction (though it is tragically easier to go one way than the other. Overwriting old behaviour and thinking is far harder than acquiring it in the first place.)


Cryptozoological Dreams

January 17, 2011

I have been dreaming some deeply unusual dreams these past months.

I usually enjoy that bit of the sleep cycle that occurs when you wake up mid-dream and you drift in and out of waking and dreaming. While in that state, my dream recall is better and I get to write down what I’m dreaming about when I drift into awake without really waking up. It’s a fantastic palette of strange imagery and events that can inspire stories and games. Some of my best bits of strange storytelling have sprouted from this kind of dream.

But more often than in recent memory (by which I mean “they’re happening at all”) I have been dreaming dreams the likes of which I haven’t had since I was very young – the kind that leave you with that creeping feeling, an adrenaline feedback hum that tenses all your muscles and makes you want to leap for the bedside lamp. The kind that puts sentences in my head like “Do not go downstairs after having a nightmare – they are heavy, like treacle, and gather thickly at the bottom of the stairs to entrap you again.” Admittedly, this line has managed to generate a children’s story that is gathering shape quite nicely indeed. However, it remains an unusual character for my dreams to have.

As far as the “Meaning of Dreams” goes, I am not a fan of any of the “systems” out there. Since Freud, psychology has remained pretty quiet on the subject. Mostly because Freud made it up as he went along. But despite that, I’m still fascinated by the content of my dreams, and often wonder where it comes from. I’ve come to think of the content of dreams (rather than their actual psychological function, which remains difficult to pin down in psychology last time I looked – admittedly, I don’t look often… but I may have a gander now while it’s in my head) as not dissimilar from one’s internal monologue. When you honestly appraise your internal stream of consciousness, you’ll discover it’s a lot weirder than you think. Try sitting and writing literally every word that passes through your head, without thinking about it, commenting on it, or judging yourself for it. (Particularly when you are stressed or excited about something.) If you were to keep that as a diary on a daily basis, any casual reader unaware of the premise would probably think you’re slightly unhinged. It certainly reads the way many writers write pathologically scattered or crazy people. But the words that actually run through our heads on a constant ticker are not often organised or at all linear.  I find that the way in which your internal monologue meanders between ideas to have a not un-dream like quality to it. There are beginnings of good ideas or insights there, and on occasion, actual ideas and insights, but for the most part it’s simply an idle brain firing out arbitrary bits and pieces and trying to paint a picture over it.

And another thing…

I noticed this morning, shortly before I was jolted awake by the aforementioned adrenaline tingle, that dreams have what I can only describe as “the wrong emotional soundtrack.” Those bits of TV soundtracking that exist only to set the mood – the horror movie’s deep vibrating note of tension, the action movie’s rising brass… the “mood” soundtrack. In many of my dreams, the underlying mood of the dream in no way gels with the imagery and narrative that is apparently unfolding. The mood of the dream continues to be light hearted and merry as terrible and strange imagery surrounds you, and the waking happens because you become suddenly aware of the rats swarming out of drainpipes and leaping onto the stairs into your house as you climb them. And of course, they’re the damn terrifying stairs that don’t have risers. Rats have never been a particular fear of mine, but stairs without risers freaked me out immensely between the ages of Learning to Walk and Four, and my first home had a big set of iron steps up from the back garden (kind of like a fire escape.) So, good work, unconscious brain, for dredging up that imagery from the deepest vaults of childhood horror.

Other highlights include trying to escape from a zoo populated by Very Strange Animals. And I would swear  that I was on a perfectly benign tour of Something Indoors But Interesting moments before. Animals involved included a massive constrictor snake with the face of a androgynous person, a kangaroo that leapt very high indeed and then proceeded to have its already substantial feet grow to massive, shadow-coming-down-on-your-head-that you-can’t-quite-escape-from-as-it-descends proportions, and something lizardy with a leonine mane made of strips of golden scales.

And then there’s that dream with the Thing That’s Outside The Bedroom Door that only exists when you believe in it, and you’re okay because you know it’s only a dream, but it’s very fast and nasty so if you forget for too long that it isn’t real it’ll be able to get you before you get to the bedside lamp and banish back to imagination.

It really seems like my dreams are loving the “childhood horror” and “evil animal kingdom” genres these days. Which has been wonderful fodder for a children’s story. But still darned unusual fodder for my usual dreams.

This all inspired me to look back on Tweets I’ve made about dreams… highlights include:

“People using scalpels to extract eyeballs from their abdomens. Also, people vomiting snake hatchlings” Um… not for use in the childrens’ story.

“Dream Diary: “Of course it’s Sarah Palin, the squirrel is playing paddleball”” Um…. Your guess is as good as mine. The only thing I remember from that dream is that “soundbite.”

“Dream Diary: Airport Snafu leads to being at a High Fantasy Style Asian Temple during a service/blood splattery massacre”

“If dreams are rehearsals for dangerous situations, then my brain is primarily worried about Lions, Dogs, Orange Things, and Daleks”

The “rehersal for danger” theory is one fairly popular psychological theory for the purpose of dreams, but given the content of mine, I think my brain is either still stuck in childhood, or working in the extreme abstract. Unless you can feasibly add non existent animals and old schoolmates pretending to be Grimlock to that list. And the predominance of Highlighter Orange as a colour in my dreams which veer towards the scary is a really odd motif.



May 5, 2009

I never know where to begin with the first post of a blog. Which is why I usually end up talking about why I chose the particular name for the blog, and what I plan to do with it. But the process of writing the starting bit made me think about how difficult I generally find it to begin writing something I’ve germinated an idea for, so I’m going to talk about that, and cover the other items in subsequent posts.


The blank page is my worst enemy as a writer. Before you write any words on it, the story is still wide open. The potential is infinite. The very second you write words, you begin defining the story, but definition also involves the loss of that potential. The focus narrows, possibilities are excluded.


And, perhaps more to the point, the beginning of something needs to be the hook. Your first line, first paragraph, first chapter. If they don’t pull people to the next one, then you’re going to lose your reader. While to an extent that’s true for every line, paragraph, and chapter, it’s far more salient for the firsts. So beginnings are the highest pressure part of any piece of writing. It makes me savagely perfectionist about writing the beginnings.


One thing that I have found that does help is to go write something short. Leave the blank page be for a while, and write a very short story. Take something from your file drawer of ideas that didn’t have enough substance for a big story, and write it. Begin and end it in ten minutes. Even if it’s not particularly good, it gives me a great rush to begin and end something. It generates momentum for the start of the main project. (Ending things is my other problem. The middle usually goes fine. Endings will likely get a whole other blog post. Y’know, after I finish something significant.)


My second method for dealing with a blank page is to open a new word file and start transcribing my stream of consciousness. Without commentary, without reflection –  I just write every word that comes into my head as it does. It’s often nonsense, or very weird, or pure frustration, but it tends to free up the brain from extraneous distractions. (And, bizzarely enough, I’ve found my internal monologue loses steam after a few minutes, and you’re left blank… which is a good space for new ideas to jump into, which is when you go back to the main project.) It’s also served as a strange diary which allows me to go back over it and indulge in some frenzied self analysis, or comb it from random thoughts that can germinate into ideas. If I could, I’d carry a dictaphone and constantly talk into it as I went about my daily business away from the computer. But then I’d look really weird.


So to end this beginning, here’s a short fiction I wrote to break the block on the beginning of the ever elusive Chapter 4 of my current major work in progress.



Push push out push out with foot kickpush kickpush out there from in here in here I I I here in here you out there. Kickpush hello.


Listen. Bah-dum Bah-dum Bah-dum Bah-dum outside Bah-dum outside around Bah-dum outside around rush bah-dum outside around rush inside bah-dum outside around rush inside bah-dum inside outside around bah dum outside inside around rush inside. Rhythym inside around outisde the same.


Kickpush hello again again again. I in here you around outside I inside pushing outside bah-dum rush kickpush out out push in. Push in push in push in I inside pushing outside pushed outside and bright and bright and cry and cry and cry and bah dum rush inside not around and cry and cry and crypush hello outside.


I outside now and now outside kickpush hello and I kickcrypush hello and others crykickpush hello and outside happens so much so fast and crykickpush because cry and smile and gurgle and I cry and smile and gurgle and she around who now is Mother will come and be around again and all is good. Cry and smile and gurgle become talk and now Mother know what it is I need for all to be good and she comes and brings and gives. Outside happens fast but then I know and I know and I know and still I don’t know all and then I know and I know.


Mother goes away and is outside no more then peek a boo and Mother is not gone away any more and I do not know where she goes when she is not outside and before peek a boo where she is gone if it isn’t nowhere. Then I know she is not gone nowhere but behind and peek a boo is funny because I know not because I am happy Mother is not gone. And I know and I know and I cry and gurgle and talk more and more and more.


And then Mother is gone but I know that she is not nowhere so it is funny because I know. And I wait and cry and gurgle and talk and know but Mother does not peek a boo. Father comes and says that Mother is not coming back again but I know she is not nowhere because nothing is nowhere it is funny because I know. But she does not come back and I cry and cry and cry but Mother and Father is around but he is not Mother and all is not good and she is nowhere.


She is nowhere. And I cry and I cry and I know. She is nowhere.