Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Nightclub owner? Use perfume...

Here is an amusing bit...not surprisingly, smells in the environment change behavior. The summary from Science Alert:
In nightclubs, body odors and the stench of stale beer stand out. Most nightclubs now forbid smoking which, for better or worse, used to cover up those smells. Can giving patrons whiffs of something more fragrant make them happy and coax them into buying more drinks? A private company called MoodScent in Amsterdam, whose mission is to "revolutionize the nightclub experience," thinks so. Along with a pair of university researchers, they pumped orange, seawater, and peppermint scents into a set of three clubs in Germany and Holland over different nights. They filmed the clubbers and rated them on their dancing, and had them fill out questionnaires as they left. Online in Chemosensory Perception this month, the authors report that visitors were more cheerful, danced harder, and were more confident in approaching the opposite sex when there was a scent—it didn't matter which one. The clubs' alcohol sales were higher, too.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Control your spotlight

Here are excerpts from Jonah Lehrer's contribution to the Edge.org question "What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?"  He discusses Mischel's work showing that it is not willpower, but "strategic allocation of attention" that leads to successful life outcomes.  His simple experiment was to offer 4-year olds either one marshmallow immediately, or two marshmallows if they waited while he stepped out for a few minutes. Mischel:
...discovered something interesting when he studied the tiny percentage of kids who could successfully wait for the second treat. Without exception, these "high delayers" all relied on the same mental strategy: they found a way to keep themselves from thinking about the treat, directing their gaze away from the yummy marshmallow. Some covered their eyes or played hide-and-seek underneath the desk. Others sang songs from "Sesame Street," or repeatedly tied their shoelaces, or pretended to take a nap. Their desire wasn't defeated — it was merely forgotten. ...Mischel refers to this skill as the "strategic allocation of attention," and he argues that it's the skill underlying self-control. Too often, we assume that willpower is about having strong moral fiber. But that's wrong — willpower is really about properly directing the spotlight of attention, learning how to control that short list of thoughts in working memory.

...this cognitive skill...seems to be a core part of success in the real world...when Mischel followed up with the initial subjects 13 years later — they were now high school seniors — he realized that performance on the marshmallow task was highly predictive on a vast range of metrics. Those kids who struggled to wait at the age of four were also more likely to have behavioral problems, both in school and at home. They struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention, and found it difficult to maintain friendships. Most impressive, perhaps, were the academic numbers: The little kid who could wait fifteen minutes for their marshmallow had an S.A.T. score that was, on average, two hundred and ten points higher than that of the kid who could wait only thirty seconds.

These correlations demonstrate the importance of learning to strategically allocate our attention. When we properly control the spotlight, we can resist negative thoughts and dangerous temptations. We can walk away from fights and improve our odds against addiction. Our decisions are driven by the facts and feelings bouncing around the brain — the allocation of attention allows us to direct this haphazard process, as we consciously select the thoughts we want to think about.

Furthermore, this mental skill is only getting more valuable. We live, after all, in the age of information, which makes the ability to focus on the important information incredibly important. (Herbert Simon said it best: "A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.") The brain is a bounded machine and the world is a confusing place, full of data and distractions — intelligence is the ability to parse the data so that it makes just a little bit more sense. Like willpower, this ability requires the strategic allocation of attention.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Predicting the conscious experience of other people

Here is a fascinating abstract for one of the lectures, by Geraint Rees and colleagues, at the upcoming 15th annual meeting of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness. Mind reading with machines may be closer than we think.
There has been considerable interest in using multivariate decoding techniques applied to fMRI signals in order to decode the contents of consciousness. The use of such signals has inherent disadvantages due to the delay of the hemodynamic response. Moreover to date it has not been shown possible to generalize the decoding of brain signals from one individual to another. This limits the potential utility of such approaches. Here we used a different approach that circumvented these difficulties by using magnetoencephalographic (MEG) signals to decode the contents of consciousness, and to test whether such correlates generalized reliably across individuals. We recorded the MEG of 8 healthy participants while they viewed an intermittently presented binocular rivalry stimulus consisting of a face and a grating. Using a leave-one-out cross-validation procedure, we trained support vector machines on the MEG signals to decode the rivalry percept. Decoding was significantly better than chance in all participants. We then tested whether a support vector machine trained on MEG signals from one participant could successfully decode the rivalry percept of another. Again, decoding accuracy was significantly better than chance. These findings demonstrate that it is possible to decode perception independently of physical stimulation using MEG signals in near real time in a way that generalizes across individuals. Our findings indicate that certain neural mechanisms universally covary with the contents of visual consciousness, and mark a potentially important step in the design of devices for decoding the contents of consciousness in individuals unable to report their experience behaviorally.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Musical experience enhances hearing in the aging brain

Parbery-Clark et al. perk me up a bit with this bit of work, suggesting that without my musical training, my increasing difficulty in hearing speech in noise might be worse!
Much of our daily communication occurs in the presence of background noise, compromising our ability to hear. While understanding speech in noise is a challenge for everyone, it becomes increasingly difficult as we age. Although aging is generally accompanied by hearing loss, this perceptual decline cannot fully account for the difficulties experienced by older adults for hearing in noise. Decreased cognitive skills concurrent with reduced perceptual acuity are thought to contribute to the difficulty older adults experience understanding speech in noise. Given that musical experience positively impacts speech perception in noise in young adults (ages 18–30), we asked whether musical experience benefits an older cohort of musicians (ages 45–65), potentially offsetting the age-related decline in speech-in-noise perceptual abilities and associated cognitive function (i.e., working memory). Consistent with performance in young adults, older musicians demonstrated enhanced speech-in-noise perception relative to nonmusicians along with greater auditory, but not visual, working memory capacity. By demonstrating that speech-in-noise perception and related cognitive function are enhanced in older musicians, our results imply that musical training may reduce the impact of age-related auditory decline.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Guilt motivates cooperation

An article by Chang et al. in Cell examines neural, psychological, and economic bases of guilt aversion. They use fMRI during a game involving trust to demonstrate that signals rising in the insula, anterior cingulate cortex, and elsewhere promote cooperative behavior in the game, possibly facilitated by the psychological motivation to avoid disappointing others. The abstract includes an outline summary and a video discussion of the work.
Guilt can be formally operationalized as failing to live up to another's expectations
Guilt aversion motivates cooperative behavior
Decisions which minimize future guilt are associated with insula, SMA, DLPFC, TPJ
Decisions which maximize financial reward are associated with vmPFC, NAcc, DMPFC

Why do people often choose to cooperate when they can better serve their interests by acting selfishly? One potential mechanism is that the anticipation of guilt can motivate cooperative behavior. We utilize a formal model of this process in conjunction with fMRI to identify brain regions that mediate cooperative behavior while participants decided whether or not to honor a partner's trust. We observed increased activation in the insula, supplementary motor area, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (PFC), and temporal parietal junction when participants were behaving consistent with our model, and found increased activity in the ventromedial PFC, dorsomedial PFC, and nucleus accumbens when they chose to abuse trust and maximize their financial reward. This study demonstrates that a neural system previously implicated in expectation processing plays a critical role in assessing moral sentiments that in turn can sustain human cooperation in the face of temptation.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A correlate of our distractability in our brain's parietal cortex

From Kanai et al.:
We all appreciate that some of our friends and colleagues are more distractible than others. This variability can be captured by pencil and paper questionnaires in which individuals report such cognitive failures in their everyday life. Surprisingly, these self-report measures have high heritability, leading to the hypothesis that distractibility might have a basis in brain structure. In a large sample of healthy adults, we demonstrated that a simple self-report measure of everyday distractibility accurately predicted gray matter volume in a remarkably focal region of left superior parietal cortex. This region must play a causal role in reducing distractibility, because we found that disrupting its function with transcranial magnetic stimulation increased susceptibility to distraction. Finally, we showed that the self-report measure of distractibility reliably predicted our laboratory-based measure of attentional capture. Our findings distinguish a critical mechanism in the human brain causally involved in avoiding distractibility, which, importantly, bridges self-report judgments of cognitive failures in everyday life and a commonly used laboratory measure of distractibility to the structure of the human brain.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Is happiness overrated?

John Tierney does a nice article on Martin Seligman, the founder of the positive psychology movement, who has modified his views since the appearance of his 2002 best selling book "Authentic Happiness" - whose title he now regrets.  Seligman has subsequently noted limitations of the 'authentic happiness' concept,  suggested by observations of people proceeding joylessly and repetitively through tasks such as making lots of money, playing bridge -  repeating and accumulating in the apparent absence of any positive emotion - suggesting that accomplishment is a human desiderata in itself.
This feeling of accomplishment contributes to what the ancient Greeks called eudaimonia, which roughly translates to “well-being” or “flourishing,” a concept that Dr. Seligman has borrowed for the title of his new book, “Flourish.” He has also created his own acronym, Perma, for what he defines as the five crucial elements of well-being, each pursued for its own sake: positive emotion, engagement (the feeling of being lost in a task), relationships, meaning and accomplishment...
“Well-being cannot exist just in your own head,” he writes. “Well-being is a combination of feeling good as well as actually having meaning, good relationships and accomplishment.”

...The best gauge so far of flourishing, Dr. Seligman says, comes from a study of 23 European countries by Felicia Huppert and Timothy So of the University of Cambridge. Besides asking respondents about their moods, the researchers asked about their relationships with others and their sense that they were accomplishing something worthwhile.

Denmark and Switzerland ranked highest in Europe, with more than a quarter of their citizens meeting the definition of flourishing. Near the bottom, with fewer than 10 percent flourishing, were France, Hungary, Portugal and Russia.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Language processing in our visual brain

Bedny et al. make the fascinating observation that some regions of the visual cortex of congenitally blind people become active in processing verbal tasks. Thus, brain areas thought to have evolved for vision can take on language processing as a result of early experience, innate microcircuit wiring properties specific to language are not required.
Humans are thought to have evolved brain regions in the left frontal and temporal cortex that are uniquely capable of language processing. However, congenitally blind individuals also activate the visual cortex in some verbal tasks. We provide evidence that this visual cortex activity in fact reflects language processing. We find that in congenitally blind individuals, the left visual cortex behaves similarly to classic language regions: (i) BOLD signal is higher during sentence comprehension than during linguistically degraded control conditions that are more difficult; (ii) BOLD signal is modulated by phonological information, lexical semantic information, and sentence-level combinatorial structure; and (iii) functional connectivity with language regions in the left prefrontal cortex and thalamus are increased relative to sighted individuals. We conclude that brain regions that are thought to have evolved for vision can take on language processing as a result of early experience. Innate microcircuit properties are not necessary for a brain region to become involved in language processing.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Twitter/Facebook/Our Brain

I recommend checking out this entertaining exchange,  also these comments on whether Facebook helps or hinders offline friendships.

No sleep, better mood...

It is known that sleep deprivation leads to exaggerated neural and behavioral reactivity to negative, aversive experiences, but some patients with depression seem to perk up with lack of sleep. Gujar et al. now find that sleep deprivation also increases the reactivity of our brain reward networks, biasing us towards more positive appraisals of good emotional experiences. They did MRI measurements on 14 people who hadn't slept for about 36 hours while presenting them with emotionally neutral and pleasant-looking images. The volunteers rated a greater proportion of the images as 'pleasant' than did people who had maintained a normal sleep routine.:
....Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), .. we demonstrate that sleep deprivation amplifies reactivity throughout human mesolimbic reward brain networks in response to pleasure-evoking stimuli. In addition, this amplified reactivity was associated with enhanced connectivity in early primary visual processing pathways and extended limbic regions, yet with a reduction in coupling with medial frontal and orbitofrontal regions. These neural changes were accompanied by a biased increase in the number of emotional stimuli judged as pleasant in the sleep-deprived group, the extent of which exclusively correlated with activity in mesolimbic regions. Together, these data support a view that sleep deprivation not only is associated with enhanced reactivity toward negative stimuli, but imposes a bidirectional nature of affective imbalance, associated with amplified reward-relevant reactivity toward pleasure-evoking stimuli also. Such findings may offer a neural foundation on which to consider interactions between sleep loss and emotional reactivity in a variety of clinical mood disorders.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Academics and health of minority students improved by brief social-belonging intervention

From Walton and Cohen, who briefly presented to half of the students in the study a narrative that framed social adversity in school as shared and short-lived. The message encouraged students to attribute adversity not to fixed deficits unique to themselves or their ethnic group but to common and transient aspects of the college-adjustment process.
A brief intervention aimed at buttressing college freshmen’s sense of social belonging in school was tested in a randomized controlled trial (N = 92), and its academic and health-related consequences over 3 years are reported. The intervention aimed to lessen psychological perceptions of threat on campus by framing social adversity as common and transient. It used subtle attitude-change strategies to lead participants to self-generate the intervention message. The intervention was expected to be particularly beneficial to African-American students (N = 49), a stereotyped and socially marginalized group in academics, and less so to European-American students (N = 43). Consistent with these expectations, over the 3-year observation period the intervention raised African Americans’ grade-point average (GPA) relative to multiple control groups and halved the minority achievement gap. This performance boost was mediated by the effect of the intervention on subjective construal: It prevented students from seeing adversity on campus as an indictment of their belonging. Additionally, the intervention improved African Americans’ self-reported health and well-being and reduced their reported number of doctor visits 3 years postintervention. Senior-year surveys indicated no awareness among participants of the intervention’s impact. The results suggest that social belonging is a psychological lever where targeted intervention can have broad consequences that lessen inequalities in achievement and health.

Raw GPA by student race, experimental condition, and academic term. Means are noncumulative and were combined across cohorts. Ranges in sample sizes and standard errors for European Americans are N = 25 to 33 and SE = 0.08 to 0.14; for African Americans, N = 30 to 37 and SE = 0.09 to 0.12.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Nice guys finish first...

Here is a nice compilation and review of the messages in several books I have mentioned in previous posts.   David Brooks does his usual interesting summary on a contemporary topic in social and evolutionary psychology -  in this case the evolution of cooperation.

Cultural attractors

I'm not exactly breaking any speed records getting through my scan of the responses to Edge.org's annual question of the year - "What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?" Here is one more:

Dan Sperber - Cultural Attractors
In 1967, Richard Dawkins introduced the idea of a meme: a unit of cultural transmission capable of replicating itself and of undergoing Darwinian selection...I want to suggest that the concept of a meme should be, if not replaced, at least supplemented with that of a cultural attractor.

...bits of culture — memes if you want to dilute the notion and call them that — remain self-similar not because they are replicated again and again but because variations that occur at almost every turn in their repeated transmission, rather than resulting in "random walks" drifting away in all directions from an initial model, tend to gravitate around cultural attractors. Ending Little Red Riding Hood when the wolf eats the child would make for a simpler story to remember, but a Happy Ending is too powerful a cultural attractor.

...Why should there be cultural attractors at all? Because there are in our minds, our bodies, and our environment biasing factors that affect the way we interpret and re-produce ideas and behaviors...When these biasing factors are shared in a population, cultural attractors emerge.

...Rounded numbers are cultural attractors: they are easier to remember and provide better symbols for magnitudes. So, we celebrate twentieth wedding anniversaries, hundredth issue of journals, millionth copy sold of a record, and so on.

...In the diffusion of techniques and artifacts, efficiency is a powerful cultural attractor...Much more than faithful replication, this attraction of efficiency when there aren't that many ways of being efficient, explains the cultural stability (and also the historical transformations) of various technical traditions.

...And what is the attractor around which the "meme" meme gravitate? The meme idea — or rather a constellation of trivialized versions of it — has become an extraordinarily successful bit of contemporary culture not because it has been faithfully replicated again and again, but because our conversation often does revolve — and here is the cultural attractor — around remarkably successful bits of culture that, in the time of mass media and the internet, pop up more and more frequently and are indeed quite relevant to our understanding of the world we live in.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Testosterone and economic risk aversion.

Here is a curious finding... people with low or high levels of testosterone are less aversive to economic risk:
Testosterone is positively associated with risk-taking behavior in social domains (e.g., crime, physical aggression). However, the scant research linking testosterone to economic risk preferences presents inconsistent findings. We examined the relationship between endogenous testosterone and individuals’ economic preferences (i.e., risk preference, ambiguity preference, and loss aversion) in a large sample (N = 298) of men and women. We found that endogenous testosterone levels have a significant U-shaped association with individuals’ risk and ambiguity preferences, but not loss aversion. Specifically, individuals with low or high levels of testosterone (more than 1.5 SD from the mean for their gender) were risk and ambiguity neutral, whereas individuals with intermediate levels of testosterone were risk and ambiguity averse. This relationship was highly similar in men and women. In contrast to received wisdom regarding testosterone and risk, the present data provide the first robust evidence for a nonlinear association between economic preferences and levels of endogenous testosterone.
[Note: Mean salivary testosterone concentrations were 86.5 pg/mL (SD = 26.0) for men and 14.2 pg/mL (SD = 7.0) for women]

Education, religion, and wealth

An interesting graphic from yesterday's New York Times Magazine.  (X axis is percentage of college graduates, Y axis is percentage of households with annual income above $75,000, Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Baptists at lower left, reform Jews and Hindus at upper right, secularists just above middle of the line.).  Click on the graphic to enlarge it. :

Friday, May 13, 2011

Black Swan Technology

Vinod Khosla's answer to the Edge.org question "What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?":

The Black Swan Technology
Think back to the world 10 years ago. Google had just gotten started; Facebook and Twitter didn't exist. There were no smart phones, no one remotely conceived of the possibility of the 100,000 iPhone apps that exist today. The few large impact technologies (versus slightly incremental advances in technologies) that occurred in the past 10 years were black swan technologies...I believe "black swan technology" is a conceptual tool that should be added to everyone's cognitive toolkit today is simply because the challenges of climate change and energy production we face today are too big to be tackled by known solutions and safe bets.

So what are these next generation technologies, these black swan technologies of energy? These are risky investments that stand a high chance of failure, but enable larger technological leaps that promise earthshaking impact if successful: making solar power cheaper than coal or viable without subsidies, economically making lighting and air conditioning 80 percent more efficient. Consider 100 percent more efficient vehicle engines, ultra-cheap energy storage, and countless other technological leaps that we can't yet imagine. It's unlikely that any single shot works, of course. But even 10 Google-like disruptions out of 10,000 shots will completely upend conventional wisdom, econometric forecasts, and, most importantly, our energy future.

To do so we must reinvent the infrastructure of society by harnessing and motivating bright minds with a whole new set of future assumptions, asking "what could possibly be?" rather than "what is." We need to create a dynamic environment of creative contention and collective brilliance that will yield innovative ideas from across disciplines to allow innovation to triumph. We must encourage a social ecosystem that encourages taking risks on innovation. Popularization of the concept of the "Black Swan Technology," is essential to incorporate the right mindset into the minds of entrepreneurs, policymakers, investors and the public: that anything (maybe even everything) is possible. If we harness and motivate these bright new minds with the right market signals and encouragement, a whole new set of future assumptions, unimaginable today, will be tomorrow's conventional wisdom.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Dirty Liberals!

Helzer and Pazarro make some interesting associations between reminders of physical cleanliness and moral and political attitudes. Their abstract, with a few parenthetic additions:
Many moral codes place a special emphasis on bodily purity, and manipulations that directly target bodily purity have been shown to influence a variety of moral judgments. Across two studies, we demonstrated that reminders of physical purity influence specific moral judgments regarding behaviors in the sexual domain as well as broad political attitudes. In the first study, individuals (the usual gaggle of college undergraduates used in studies like this, 60 in this case) in a public setting (entering the hallway of a building) who were given a reminder of physical cleansing (questioned near a wall mounted hand sanitizer) reported being more politically conservative than did individuals who were not given such a reminder (and did not see the sanitizer). In a second study, individuals reminded of physical cleansing in the laboratory (a wall sign about air born contaminants, use of hand wipes) demonstrated harsher moral judgments toward violations of sexual purity and were more likely to report being politically conservative than control participants. Together, these experiments provide further evidence of a deep link between physical purity and moral judgment, and they offer preliminary evidence that manipulations of physical purity can influence general (and putatively stable) political attitudes.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A monkey could paint that well!... apparently not

Maybe abstract art is more accessible than I thought...From Hawley-Dolan and Winner:
Museumgoers often scoff that costly abstract expressionist paintings could have been made by a child and have mistaken paintings by chimpanzees for professional art. To test whether people really conflate paintings by professionals with paintings by children and animals, we showed art and nonart students paired images, one by an abstract expressionist and one by a child or animal, and asked which they liked more and which they judged as better. The first set of pairs was presented without labels; the second set had labels (e.g., “artist,” “child”) that were either correct or reversed. Participants preferred professional paintings and judged them as better than the nonprofessional paintings even when the labels were reversed. Art students preferred professional works more often than did nonart students, but the two groups’ judgments did not differ. Participants in both groups were more likely to justify their selections of professional than of nonprofessional works in terms of artists’ intentions. The world of abstract art is more accessible than people realize.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

New happiness research

While I seldom mention (and am remiss in even reading) other blogs,  this item in the Freakonomics blog caught my attention. It starts with a summary discussion by NYU economics professor William Easterly who reminds us of the Easterlin paradox, which stipulates that it is our income relative to our peers rather than our absolute income that determines our happiness.
...the paradox has not held up that well, although it survives in some truncated form. The first important finding that has emerged from the new flood of data is that the original idea of “happiness” failed to discriminate adequately between two different ideas: first, emotional feelings of “happiness”, measured on a day-to-day basis; and second, a more stable, long-run satisfaction with one’s life. The first continues to be called “happiness” ... while the second is now called “life satisfaction”. Both are valid and useful concepts, but they should not be confused. The newest surveys do a good job at measuring the two separately. The Easterlin paradox turns out to hold much more with “happiness” than with “life satisfaction”....The piece of the Easterlin paradox that really falls apart with newer data is his evidence that there was little difference between rich and poor countries on average happiness. Especially with the life satisfaction concept and a much larger sample, the differences are now recognised as vast...

Brain Buzz, a 9 volt battery and some wires...

Here in an engaging review by Douglas Fox, of efforts to enhance learning and intelligence by transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS), which is as simple as hooking up a 9 volt battery and an appropriate resistor (remember ohm's law? I= E/R) to deliver about a 2 milliamp current to the scalp. The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has funded research showing that a video game designed to train US soldiers bound for Iraq is learned twice as quickly during the electrical stimulation. Fox discusses a number of other studies, as well as debate surrounding the technique.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Language evolution inferred from phonemic diversity

Atkinson has done an analysis that strongly points to a single African origin of modern human languages. The greatest diversity in phonemes (perceptually distinct units of sound that differentiate words) in languages spoken today is found in Africa. These include strange sounding (to westerners) clicks and staccato noises. His abstract, and a figure from the paper:
Human genetic and phenotypic diversity declines with distance from Africa, as predicted by a serial founder effect in which successive population bottlenecks during range expansion progressively reduce diversity, underpinning support for an African origin of modern humans. Recent work suggests that a similar founder effect may operate on human culture and language. Here I show that the number of phonemes used in a global sample of 504 languages is also clinal and fits a serial founder–effect model of expansion from an inferred origin in Africa. This result, which is not explained by more recent demographic history, local language diversity, or statistical non-independence within language families, points to parallel mechanisms shaping genetic and linguistic diversity and supports an African origin of modern human languages.

Language locations and regional variation in phonemic diversity. (A) Map showing the location of the 504 sampled languages for which phoneme data was compiled from the WALS database. (B) Box plots of overall phonemic diversity by region reveal substantial regional variation, with the highest diversity in Africa and the lowest diversity in Oceania and South America. The same regional pattern also applies at the language family level.

Slow spring at Twin Valley

I returned to the 1860 stone schoolhouse that is my home in Middleton Wisconsin April 12,  having no idea that spring would be so chilly and slow here.  The picture shows the few blooms that have appeared.  The Magnolia bush behind the daffodils is usually in full bloom at this time. 


Friday, May 06, 2011

Monkey memory.

We now have the collapse of yet another supposed barrier between the minds of men and monkeys. It is known that monkeys can recognize pictures they have seen before (in experiments in which they are rewarded for doing so), but Basile and Hampton have devised a further behavioral protocol that let's them demonstrate recall, holding in mind an object without actually seeing it. Language is not necessary — either for having the ability to recall, or for proving it to an experimenter. Here is their abstract:
If you draw from memory a picture of the front of your childhood home, you will have demonstrated recall. You could also recognize this house upon seeing it. Unlike recognition, recall demonstrates memory for things that are not present. Recall is necessary for planning and imagining, and it can increase the flexibility of navigation, social behavior, and other cognitive skills. Without recall, memory is more limited to recognition of the immediate environment. Amnesic patients are impaired on recall tests, and recall performance often declines with aging. Despite its importance, we know relatively little about nonhuman animals' ability to recall information; we lack suitable recall tests for them and depend instead on recognition tests to measure nonhuman memory. Here we report that rhesus monkeys can recall simple shapes from memory and reproduce them on a touchscreen. As in humans , monkeys remembered less in recall than recognition tests, and their recall performance deteriorated more slowly. Transfer tests showed that monkeys used a flexible memory mechanism rather than memorizing specific actions for each shape. Observation of recall in Old World monkeys suggests that it has been adaptive for over 30 million years and does not depend on language.
Here is the basic protocol, as described by Nicholas Bakalar's NYTimes summary:
Researchers trained five rhesus monkeys. On a 5-by-5-inch grid on a computer screen, the monkeys were shown a shape consisting of three adjacent squares, one blue and two red in various patterns...After a moment, the red squares disappear, and the blue square moves to a different box on the grid. After another delay, the monkey has to restore the red squares to their original places in relation to the blue one by pressing on the correct boxes of the grid. When he does so successfully, he gets a food reward.

Increasing vanity in our culture.

John Tierney points to some fascinating work that looks at the lyrics of popular songs to assay our culture's increasing self absorption:
...after a computer analysis of three decades of hit songs, Dr. DeWall and other psychologists report finding what they were looking for: a statistically significant trend toward narcissism and hostility in popular music. As they hypothesized, the words “I” and “me” appear more frequently along with anger-related words, while there’s been a corresponding decline in “we” and “us” and the expression of positive emotions.
Last year, data from studies on nearly 50,000 students was subjected to a meta-analysis published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, that confirmed that narcissism has increased significantly in the past three decades. During this period, there have also been reports of higher levels of loneliness and depression

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Healing anxiety disorders with cortisol

Around 6% of the adult population experiences some degree of acrophobia, strong anxiety and dizziness on exposure to, or anticipation of, a range of height-related situations. In some, but not all, people this condition can be ameliorated by behavioral therapy aimed at achieving habituation and eventual extinction of the phobic reaction by presenting them with the real or imagined phobic situation in a graduated way. de Quervain et al. show this therapy can be enhanced if a cortisol pill is taken one hour before a therapy session:
Behavioral exposure therapy of anxiety disorders is believed to rely on fear extinction. Because preclinical studies have shown that glucocorticoids can promote extinction processes, we aimed at investigating whether the administration of these hormones might be useful in enhancing exposure therapy. In a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study, 40 patients with specific phobia for heights were treated with three sessions of exposure therapy using virtual reality exposure to heights. Cortisol (20 mg) or placebo was administered orally 1 h before each of the treatment sessions. Subjects returned for a posttreatment assessment 3–5 d after the last treatment session and for a follow-up assessment after 1 mo. Adding cortisol to exposure therapy resulted in a significantly greater reduction in fear of heights as measured with the acrophobia questionnaire (AQ) both at posttreatment and at follow-up, compared with placebo. Furthermore, subjects receiving cortisol showed a significantly greater reduction in acute anxiety during virtual exposure to a phobic situation at posttreatment and a significantly smaller exposure-induced increase in skin conductance level at follow-up. The present findings indicate that the administration of cortisol can enhance extinction-based psychotherapy.

Heartbeat synchrony between performer and crowd - emotional resonance

Amazing observations on the annual fire walking ritual in the Spanish village of San Pedro Manrique. Researchers were stymied in their efforts to measure physiological parameters such as blood pressure, cortisol levels, or pain tolerance in individuals as they were walking across a bed of hot coals, but were able to put heart rate monitors on both fire-walkers and spectators. It was a small study, monitoring heart rates of 12 fire-walkers, 9 spectators related to fire-walkers, and 17 unrelated spectators who were just visiting.
The heart rates of relatives and friends of the fire-walkers followed an almost identical pattern to the fire-walkers’ rates, spiking and dropping almost in synchrony. The heart rates of visiting spectators did not. The relatives’ rates synchronized throughout the event, which lasted 30 minutes, with 28 fire-walkers each making five-second walks. So relatives or friends’ heart rates matched a fire-walker’s rate before, during and after his walk. Even people related to other fire-walkers showed similar patterns.
This cohesion and solidarity happened in spectators who were simply watching, not sharing with performers the movements, vocalizations, or rhythms usually presumed to accompany social bonding through emotional resonance.  (added later...here is the PNAS article on this.)

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Have your legal hearing just after the judge’s lunch break.

Fascinating observations by Danziger et al.:
Are judicial rulings based solely on laws and facts? Legal formalism holds that judges apply legal reasons to the facts of a case in a rational, mechanical, and deliberative manner. In contrast, legal realists argue that the rational application of legal reasons does not sufficiently explain the decisions of judges and that psychological, political, and social factors influence judicial rulings. We test the common caricature of realism that justice is “what the judge ate for breakfast” in sequential parole decisions made by experienced judges. We record the judges’ two daily food breaks, which result in segmenting the deliberations of the day into three distinct “decision sessions.” We find that the percentage of favorable rulings drops gradually from ≈65% to nearly zero within each decision session and returns abruptly to ≈65% after a break. Our findings suggest that judicial rulings can be swayed by extraneous variables that should have no bearing on legal decisions.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Physical pain and social rejection: same brain areas

This open access article by Kross et al. is well worth a look. It is a beautiful example of piggybacking a newer kind of human social emotion on top of brain area that originally evolved to deal with physical insults:
How similar are the experiences of social rejection and physical pain? Extant research suggests that a network of brain regions that support the affective but not the sensory components of physical pain underlie both experiences. Here we demonstrate that when rejection is powerfully elicited—by having people who recently experienced an unwanted break-up view a photograph of their ex-partner as they think about being rejected—areas that support the sensory components of physical pain (secondary somatosensory cortex; dorsal posterior insula) become active. We demonstrate the overlap between social rejection and physical pain in these areas by comparing both conditions in the same individuals using functional MRI. We further demonstrate the specificity of the secondary somatosensory cortex and dorsal posterior insula activity to physical pain by comparing activated locations in our study with a database of over 500 published studies. Activation in these regions was highly diagnostic of physical pain, with positive predictive values up to 88%. These results give new meaning to the idea that rejection “hurts.” They demonstrate that rejection and physical pain are similar not only in that they are both distressing—they share a common somatosensory representation as well.

Monday, May 02, 2011

"Evolving the I" a MindBlog lecture at the Univ. of Wisconsin

I thought I would pass on to MindBlog readers a a web version of the lecture I gave last Thursday to the Evolution Seminar Series at the Univ. of Wisconsin Madison where I am an Emeritus Professor. The title and topics:

Making Minds - Evolving and Constructing the “I”

I. Evolving brains.
The Beast Within
Varieties of “I”

II. Developing brains
Physical environment
Social environment

III. Modeling the subjective self:
The illusion of agency
The virtual machine and virtual organs
Emotions as evolved organs of consciousness

IV. Embodied cognition
Social emotions
Art and Music

V. Summary - the Self Illusion

Why old folks don’t sleep as well.

Older people have an earlier phase of everyday activity compared with the young. Not only is the consolidation of sleep and wake dramatically reduced, but overall circadian amplitude of hormones and body temperature are lower. Now Pagani et al. find that the biological clocks in cells taken from young and old people have the same periods, but they can be shortened by a heat labile factor in blood serum from older people. Identification of this factor might lead to development of drugs that block its action.:
Human aging is accompanied by dramatic changes in daily sleep–wake behavior: Activity shifts to an earlier phase, and the consolidation of sleep and wake is disturbed. Although this daily circadian rhythm is brain-controlled, its mechanism is encoded by cell-autonomous circadian clocks functioning in nearly every cell of the body. In fact, human clock properties measured in peripheral cells such as fibroblasts closely mimic those measured physiologically and behaviorally in the same subjects. To understand better the molecular mechanisms by which human aging affects circadian clocks, we characterized the clock properties of fibroblasts cultivated from dermal biopsies of young and older subjects. Fibroblast period length, amplitude, and phase were identical in the two groups even though behavior was not, thereby suggesting that basic clock properties of peripheral cells do not change during aging. Interestingly, measurement of the same cells in the presence of human serum from older donors shortened period length and advanced the phase of cellular circadian rhythms compared with treatment with serum from young subjects, indicating that a circulating factor might alter human chronotype. Further experiments demonstrated that this effect is caused by a thermolabile factor present in serum of older individuals. Thus, even though the molecular machinery of peripheral circadian clocks does not change with age, some age-related circadian dysfunction observed in vivo might be of hormonal origin and therefore might be pharmacologically remediable.