The Joy of Old Library Books

I can’t be the only person who gets sheer joy out of discovering ancient library books. The ones that are tucked away in the basement where nobody even remembers them. The ones that you have to open without breathing because it could crumble into dust at any minute. The ones with the flowerly language that fills a beautiful minute with what could have just taken a few seconds. The ones that you absuolutely cannot believe they allow you to check out and just stuff into your backback and walk out of there. It’s like being an art theif. It’s like being atime traveller.

I’m holding right now an original copy of “The DIagnosis of Stupor and Coma” by Plum and Posner. This book changed the world so much that they released many versions of it. But this is the first version. I don’t know how many copies of this book exist anymore, but one of them is right here with me. With a spine that has seen better days. With call numbers from the library written directly on the book’s cover. WIth a little slip of paper showing that someone checked this book out on Novemeber 7th, 1984. And on February 19th of 2006. And many other dates, but none anywhere recent. Who were those people? Did they find as much joy as I did in carefully turning the pages?

Someone wrote all over chapter one. Possibly multiple someones because there were several writing utensils used. They wrote the word “Evidence” as if at long last they had found what they were looking for. They underlined some passages in red pen, probably never realizing some day I would be judging them.

This book has a story unique to this volume and a story unique to the physical book itself. Sure, this is where the term “locked-in syndrome” was invented, but to whose eyes did that term flow? Who read it and agreed? Who read it and scoffed?

If I weren’t so conscientious, maybe I’d leave a note in this book for the next person who comes along someday. But this will suffice.

The Oldest Opinion Polls

I'm working on helping a collection of students create opinion polls for a research methods class, and it got me wondering how opinion polls (public surveys) even came to be in the first place.

I imagined I would be able to find records of scientific opinion polls from Ancient Civilizations, such as Egypt, or maybe Greece, but I couldn't find such a thing. According to what I could find, back in older times, people known for thinking (such as Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau) apparently mostly considered public opinion to be a force beyond measurement, sort of like an emergent property where the whole was more than the sum of the parts.

It wasn't until the mid 1700s that the term "public opinion" even began common use! France was one of the first countries to start using the term, but did not have a scientific approach to measuring it. The first official straw polls of public political opinions probably didn't show up until the 1800s. The United States had a small one in 1824 regarding Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams, but since there was no effective way to get a massive amount of people to respond to the survey, it only garnered roughly 500 responses.

Today, you can't get away from the things, and as someone who has studied the design of surveys, many of them aren't even being conducted effectively or fairly in the first place. Marketing teams could seriously benefit from learning how to write questions that aren't loaded, leading, or double-barreled. There are lots of ways to write a bad survey, and much fewer ways to write a good one.


Erikson, R. S., & Tedin, K. L. (2015). American public opinion: Its origins, content and impact. Routledge.

Madonna, G., & Young, M. (2002). The First Political Poll. Retrieved from:

A Lack of Imagination -- Aphantasia

As a cognitive psychologist, I spend a lot of time thinking about how the brain works. It was shocking, then, when I recently learned that there is something in my brain that doesn't work. Specifically, that I am extremely lacking in my ability to generate mental imagery, a condition called aphantasia.

The most incredible part is that I made it this far in my life without realizing that the way that people describe mentally imagining (e.g., scenery, colors, memories, etc.) is a literal visual experience. I'm not sure how it hadn't occurred to me previously that the way that I mentally list things such as the colors of objects or events that happened is not the "normal" way of accomplishing these tasks. Apparently, because the experience of these mental states (moving pictures or lists of events for memories, for example) is a very subjective thing (perhaps even classifiable as a type of qualia), discovering that the way that you do it is different from other people takes some seriously frustrating discussion.

For me, it happened during a graduate course. We were discussing mental rotation, mental "zooming in", and other cognitive tasks such as imagining colors. I became increasingly uncomfortable. Eventually, I interrupted the discussion to ask some questions along the lines of "But you can't really imagine colors, can you?" and "Surely this is all metaphorical, like, imagining traits of colors?" and "You actually see where something is in space when you imagine it?". But no, it turns out, as indicated by my lifelong navigation troubles, that when people claim to be imagining mental maps of spaces that they were accomplishing something that I had never quite learned to do.

This discovery led to me feeling really weird for a couple of days, and several discussions with friends as we tried to piece together how it is that I accomplish tasks that the average person uses mental imagery for. I also found out, now that I was paying attention, that my ability to use mental imagery isn't completely absent, just very impoverished. For example, when I am tired (e.g., just waking up) or asleep, I can do some basic visual imagining like other people apparently always can. I also believe that my abilities are improving, slightly, through exercising them -- whenever I walk through a building these days, I do my best to imagine what the map looks like. It takes a serious level of focus.

If you are interested in reading more about this, there are some recent articles such as this one:

Or check out this video from SciShow that explains how recent the naming of this condition was: