A Tale of Two Summer Conferences: ISRE-2015 and CogSci 2015

I attended and presented at two conferences this summer:

  • ISRE-2015 July 8-10, in Geneva (International Society for Research on Emotions),
  • CogSci 2015, July 23-25 in Pasadena (37th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society).

I enjoyed and will continue to benefit from both conferences. But there were psychosocially interestingly differences.

ISRE-2015 felt much more intimate to me than CogSci-2015. It seemed to me that it was much easier to engage with people, and to enter meaningful dialog. The air vibrated. There was palpable cognitive zest for affect. My impression may be due to any combination of the following reasons:

  • It had fewer people, was in a smaller setting, and the people were studying affect. (Most of them felt they were presenting on emotion but many were not specifically about emotion. But that’s another story.)
  • Perhaps the topic of emotion attract more affable people?
  • Perhaps people are more affable when they are in a context where affective concepts are primed, as they most certainly are at such a conference?
  • Is it that I myself am more passionate about cognition+affect than cognition without affect (knowing, however that cognition and affect are not just intertwined but blended)?
  • Was it the personal tone of many of the presentations, from the opening plenary session to the final plenary that commemorated one of the great minds of our “field”, Nico Frijda.
  • Was it that on the last full evening of the conference there was a dinner, that led to memorable mingling?

Don’t get me wrong, however. I also thoroughly enjoyed the CogSci conference. I had lots of warm interactions there, made many promising new connections, and encountered interesting new ideas. For example:

  • Rosalind W. Picard gave a keynote addressed on several surprising findings her lab has produced. One of them was that asymetrical electrodermal activity, which can be measured with two of her ‘smart wristbands’, predicts seizures. The story behind this fascinating contribution to science is related 26 minutes into this video. Interestingly, this information could not be picked up by EEGs, nor would it have been noticed if only a single wrist sensor had been worn by the girl who had the seizure that led to this discovery. Picard’s lab has also created machine learning algorithms that can better classify smiles of frustration than humans can. People tend to assume that smiles result from positive emotions. But many of us often smile out of frustration.[1]
  • Dr. Anna Belardinelli presented some eye tracking data that shows that the purpose to which one wishes to put an object predicts where we will gaze in relation to it and how we will grasp it. In turn, our gaze predicts where we will will grab it. Thus, football players are trained to look ahead at the scrimmage line, and not to visually betray their plans. Still, Belardinelli emphasized in her poster that eye movements are almost impossible to control.

As interesting as the events were, one’s mind can’t help but also generate negative evaluations for any conference. That’s what the effectant mind does, isn’t it? It finds “issues” that prompt it to improve itself and its tools. (Yes, conferences like knowledge and IT are tools.)

For instance, at ISRE I was disappointed that most of this expert community seems to have overlooked the fact that perturbance is critical to emotion. Few even seemed to know the term ‘perturbance’, or the expression ‘tertiary emotion’ now used by Aaron Sloman. I asked many presenters questions about this key feature of emotion in relation to their work but they drew a blank. For instance, I asked Johnny Fontaine and Klaus Sherer’s group (at their Friday symposium on “Semantic analysis of emotion words using the GRID paradigm: Validation and application of a brief version of the instrument”) whether the obsessive nature of emotion emerged from their research. They said it didn’t. And yet if we look at some of the major information processing theories of emotion (Simon, 1967; Frijda, 1986, 2007; Oatley & Johnson-Laird, 1988; Sloman, 1987, 2003), one finds obsession is a key facet of higher-order emotions. If one looks at theories of limerence (e.g., Dorothy Tennov’s and Helen Fisher’s), one finds obsession is the key cognitive feature of ‘romantic love’. You’re not limerent or angry unless you have at least to a certain extent, lost control of your processing of a motivator. (This is an oversimplification. There are propensity and architectural concepts at play here.) This is not to point fingers at anyone. Clearly, the concept of and facts about perturbance have not been appropriately articulated in the appropriate journals. One of my goals, starting with a paper on somnolent mentation (the sleep promoting and inhibiting properties of information processing), is to rectify this state of affairs.

At CogSci-2015, I witnessed modern cognitive science’s distressing obsession with quantification: Bayesian approaches, dynamical systems, connectionism, etc. No surprise there if we look at cognitive science journals. We have a generation of researchers who are trained to use mathematical tools and seem automatically to assume that those are the right tools for the job. (That’s what their supervisors tell them.) What would Max Wertheimer, an early cognitive psychologist who studied how people so quickly jump to solutions before understanding problems that ought to drive them, say of all of this, if he had also seen the grand vision of Marvin Minsky, Aaron Sloman and their kin? Yes, Grand AI is daunting. No, there is no silver bullet. But that goes equally for the quantitatively dense approach as for what has been dismissively labeled as “classical AI”. It is noteworthy that the’new’ approach is now much older in person years than “classical AI” was when the latter straw man was erected in the ’80s. Where Axel Cleeremans wants to take us with his claptrap critique of “classical approaches” in favour of simple connectionist accounts of consciousness—as “hear! hear!”‘s peal through the decades—I feel Cognitive Science needs to be served a book analogous to the one Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld served to neuroscience.. (I said analogous but I haven’t spelt out the analogy. To interpret this right, you need to give me the benefit of the doubt and assume I’m being respectful of the quantitative side.) I am not alone. This view was also expressed by some of my esteemed colleagues — before, during and after the conference.

I am not claiming that these mathematical techniques never yield interesting results; nor am I saying they are irrelevant. Compare the machine learning work I referred to above. I’m talking about emphasis and fashions.

Imre Lakatos’s papers convinced me that only time will tell whether a research program is progressive. There is no short-cut solution to the healthy, constitutive problems of Cognitive Science. We will, I am sure, learn deep lessons from the current fashion. Biological evolution thrives on diversity; so does science. Still, my hunch is that future historians of Cognitive Science will see the irony in the current narrow focus on what connectionists consider biologically plausible and sensible.

I expect to write a few other things that I learned at these two conferences. (If one is to spend days at conferences, one might as well spend time reviewing, and even practicing, what the information, in order to truly learn from it.) In fact, I began to write this article intending to share something about memory and emotion. So expect a future post on this topic. It will refer to an unforgettable paper presented by a Belgium graduate student, Laura Nys, on “Emotional ‘counter-practices’ in the discipline section of the state re-education institution for female juvenile delinquents (1927-1939)”. What made it both unforgettable and pertinent to this article and web site? Hint: cognition and emotion are blended.


1. I don’t have time to elaborate on this but the theory of humor proposed by Hurley, Dennett and Adams (Inside Jokes) can explain this. I discuss that theory in Cognitive Productivity.


Beaudoin, L. P. (2015, July). Specification for a productive practice app to assess and improve psychological treatments for romantic grief and other tertiary emotions. Poster presented at ISRE 2015. Geneva, Switzerland. Retrieved from http://summit.sfu.ca/item/15224.

Beaudoin, L. P., Gauthier, G. & Winne, P. (2015, July) Cognitive productivity: Can cognitive science improve how knowledge workers use IT to learn from source material? Poster presented at the 37th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society. Pasadena, California USA. Retrieved from http://summit.sfu.ca/item/15272.

Belardinelli, A. (2015, July). It’s all in the eye: multiple orders of motor planning in gaze control. Poster presented at the 37th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society. Pasadena, California USA.

Cleeremans, A. (2014). Connecting Conscious and Unconscious Processing. Cognitive Science, 38(6), 1286–1315. http://doi.org/10.1111/cogs.12149

Digdon, N. & Beaudoin, L. P. (2015, July). A test of the somnolent mentation theory and the cognitive shuffle insomnia treatment. Poster presented at the 37th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society. Pasadena, California USA. Retrieved from http://summit.sfu.ca/item/15270.

Fisher, H. (2005). Why we love: The nature and chemistry of romantic love. (iBooks version). Available from https://itunes.apple.com/ca/book/why-we-love/id569886738

Frijda, N. H. (1986). The emotions. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Frijda, N. H. (2007). The laws of emotion. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Hurley, M. M., Dennett, D. C., & Adams, R. B. (2011). Inside jokes: Using humor to reverse-engineer the mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Lakatos, I. (1980). The methodology of scientific research programmes: Philosophical papers. (Vol. 1). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Minsky, M. L. (1986). The society of mind. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Minsky, M. L. (2006). The emotion machine: Commonsense thinking, artificial intelligence, and the future of the human mind. Hew York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

Nys, L. (2015, July) “Emotional ‘counter-practices’ in the discipline section of the state re-education institution for female juvenile delinquents (1927–1939)”. Paper presented at ISRE 2015. Geneva, Switzerland.

Oatley, K., & Johnson-Laird, P. N. (1987). Towards a cognitive theory of emotions. Cognition & Emotion, 1(1), 29–50. doi:10.1080/02699938708408362

Oatley, K., & Johnson-Laird, P. N. (2011). Basic emotions in social relationships, reasoning, and psychological illnesses. Emotion Review, 3(4), 424–433. doi:10.1177/1754073911410738

Picard, R. W. (2014). Your Future Smart Wristband. Retrieved from https://www.radcliffe.harvard.edu/video/rosalind-w-picard-your-future-smart-wristband

Picard, R. W. (2015, July). Surprising Findings from Measuring Emotion in Real Life. Paper presented at the 37th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society. Pasadena, California USA.

Satel, S., & Lilienfeld, S. O. (2013). Brainwashed: The seductive appeal of mindless neuroscience. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Simon, H. A. (1967). Motivational and emotional controls of cognition. Psychological Review, 74(1), 29–39.

Sloman, A. (1987). Motives, mechanisms, and emotions. Cognition & Emotion, 1(3), 217–233. doi:10.1080/02699938708408049

Sloman, A. (2003). How many separately evolved emotional beasties live within us? In R. Trappl, P. Petta, & S. Payr (Eds.), Emotions in humans and artifacts (pp. 35–114). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Tennov, D. (1979). Love and Limerence. Scarborough House. http://doi.org/10.1037/018287

Wertheimer, M. (1959). Productive thinking, Enlarged Ed. New York, NY: Harper & Brothers.

Published by

Luc P. Beaudoin

Head of CogZest. Author of Cognitive Productivity books. Co-founder of CogSci Apps Corp. Adjunct Professor of Education, Simon Fraser University. Why, Where, and What I Write. See About Me for more information.

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