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Presidential Blog

Decoding the mind

01 March 2017 | by Peter Kinderman

Electrodes have their place, but we can also use cleverness and ingenuity – and computer models – to understand how we think.

Several news items and one blog caught my eye this past week, for bad and good reasons respectively. The BBC ran two items that caused me to wince a little. The first was a story about how researchers in the US are inviting people to donate their brains for scientific study (reassuringly, after their death).

I was struck by the line that there is "a shortage of brains from people with disorders that are incorrectly seen as purely psychological rather than neurological in origin". This sweeping phrase was in the context of an otherwise unrelated story discussing the possible benefits of neural implants to help people improve their mood or control better their eating.

As Clare Allan recently pointed out, simple, reductionist, explanations are usually wrong, and especially when it comes to something as complex as mental health. This is perhaps made worse by the uncritical use of diagnostic terminology which the British Psychological Society has suggested risks "the entirely unjustified assertion that all mental disorders represent some form of biological dysfunction".

Our psychological wellbeing depends on a huge array of things as well as our genes and our biology, from how our classmates treated us at school, to whether or not we’ve encountered abuse and trauma in our lives, to government economic policies. In fact, one of the strongest predictors of developing mental health problems is living in an unequal society.

And these things constantly interact in a complex, interactive dance. So nobody doubts the value of biomedical research, but it’s rarely the whole or even the main answer

That's why I really liked a blog by my colleague, Caroline Rowland, who studies how children learn language. Language development, of course, is seated in the developing brain. And, just as in the area of mental health, neurological research gives us wonderful insights.

But Caroline also uses other techniques; more psychological than neurological. She deciphers children’s developing language like a cryptanalyst deciphers enemy codes.

For example, as Caroline points out, children have to learn the difference between nouns (I eat the cake) and adjectives (I ate the happy). And they have to do this by working out what the rules are, not by having the rules explained.

Caroline described how “corpus analysis” - analysing real conversations between people – can help psychologists reveal the clues and cues built into the sequences and frequencies of words in speech that allow us to discern the underlying rules.

And, just as code-breakers use computational or statistical modelling to decipher messages, these techniques can reveal how children might use frequencies and co-occurrences to predict which words will follow in a particular sequence.

And that's one of the reasons why I like a psychological approach. Electrodes have their place, but we can also use cleverness and ingenuity – and computer models – to understand how we think. That applies to learning languages, as Caro demonstrated, it applies to the complex routes to offending behaviour and it applies, of course, to our mental health.

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