Where did all the memories go?

What’s your earliest memory? If you’re an adult, it’s unlikely to be from before you were three and half to four years old. So what happens to your memories from before that age? It’s not that you never had any: two and three-year-olds gladly talk about events from over a year ago, suggesting these earlier events were once encoded in verbally-accessible long-term memory.

Carole Peterson and colleagues at the Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada wondered at what age these earlier memories become inaccessible. Perhaps younger children have access to earlier memories than teenagers and adults do. So they asked 128 children and teenagers aged from six to nineteen about their earliest memory.

They found children aged six to nine years had earlier first memories (from when they were about three) than the older children and teenagers, but that beyond age 10 there was no difference: a typical 10-year-old’s first memory was no earlier than a typical 19-year-old’s, usually being from when they were around three and half to four years old. So what happens to these earlier memories when children reach the age of ten? Peterson and colleagues don’t have the answer: “…this report adds to the paradox”, they said “…children are able to verbally retrieve memories from a period of their lives to which they later have little or no verbal access”.

Another finding that surprised the researchers was that the content of the children’s earliest memories was similar regardless of their current age – usually a snapshot of an individual experience, rather than a more detailed story. Children from more collectivist cultures would probably recount more group-based early memories, they said.

They also found, contrary to earlier research, that most of the children’s earliest memories were emotionally neutral. However, girls were more likely than boys to recall an emotional memory, the latter tending to recall events surrounding play.

Peterson, C., Grant, V.V. & Boland, L.D. (2005). Childhood amnesia in children and adolescents: Their earliest memories. Memory, 13, 622-637.
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OCD and fearing who you really are

It’s not the content of the persistent, unwanted thoughts experienced by sufferers of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) that is particularly abnormal, it is their interpretation of these thoughts. Now Sue Ferrier and Chris Brewin have shed new light on what’s different about the way people with OCD interpret their thoughts.

"Cognitive therapy may have in some cases to address deep-rooted beliefs about the self..."

First they found OCD sufferers, more than anxious and healthy controls, tended to feel more responsibility for their thoughts, agreeing with statements like “If I don’t resist these thoughts it means I am being irresponsible”. Secondly, OCD sufferers were more likely to draw negative inferences about themselves based on their intrusive thoughts, agreeing with statements like “Some of my intrusive thoughts make me think that deep down I am a bad person”. Finally, the researchers asked the participants to describe the person they fear being; here the assumption was that this actually reveals something about how that person sees herself. OCD sufferers tended to describe a dangerous person who was bad, immoral or insane. In contrast, anxious controls tended to describe a fearful or hopeless person, and healthy controls described more general character flaws.

“The data suggest that people with OCD are not just unwilling to give up their rituals because they would be responsible if bad outcomes occurred [if they didn’t perform those rituals], but because they additionally see themselves as a likely source of those bad outcomes, due to their dangerous characters”, the authors said.

“Cognitive therapy may have in some cases to address deep-rooted beliefs about the self, rather than simply targeting people’s beliefs about their intrusions”, the authors advised.

The results were obtained by asking 24 OCD sufferers, 21 anxious controls and 16 healthy controls to complete several questionnaires.

Ferrier, S. & Brewin, C.R. (2005). Feared identity and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 43, 1363-1374.
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Hemispheric specialisation depends on brain state

The idea that the two hemispheres of the brain are specialised for different tasks was popularised in the 1940s by experiments with split-brain patients, in whom the nerve fibres connecting their cerebral hemispheres had been severed. But when healthy people with fully intact brains are tested, evidence for hemispheric specialisation is often not found. Now Christine Mohr and her colleagues have tested the idea that this is because hemispheric specialisation isn’t a permanent feature of the healthy brain, rather it depends on the brain’s state at any given moment. These different “functional brain states” last from “80 to 150ms”, and are characterised by different distributions of neuronal populations being active.

Over dozens of trials, 22 healthy participants (11 women) decided as quickly as possible whether either of two letter strings contained a word (e.g. dfdhk/ thing; located on either side of central fixation point). Meanwhile Mohr’s team recorded the surface electrical activity of their brains via 123 electrodes. Remember that because of the brain’s cross-wiring, stimuli presented on the left side of visual space are processed by the right hemisphere and vice versa. To measure hemispheric specialisation, the researchers exploited the fact that studies with brain-damaged patients have suggested a right-hemisphere advantage for processing emotion-related words.

Here, the female participants were quicker to detect the presence of a word if it was emotion-related (rather than neutral), regardless of which side of space it appeared on, and regardless of their current brain state. By contrast, for approximately half the presentations, when their brains were in a ‘left-anterior/right-posterior’ functional state, the male participants showed a clear advantage for emotion-related words, only if the word was processed by their right-hemisphere (after its presentation on the left side of space). So whereas the women showed no hemispheric specialisation for emotional words, the men did, but only when their brains were in a certain state of activation.

This then poses the question “whether functional brain states relate systematically to experimental and person variables or whether they are of random occurrence”, the authors said.

Mohr, C., Michel, C.M., Lantz, G., Ortigue, S., Viaud-Delmon, I. & Landis, T. (2005). Brain state-dependent functional hemispheric specialisation in men but not in women. Cerebral Cortex, 15, 1451-1458.
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Fear of terror in Britain before 7/7

Two years before the recent London bombings, Robin Goodwin and colleagues surveyed 100 employees at the British Library in London, and 240 students in London and Oxford, to see if there was a relationship between what they valued in life and how threatened they felt by terrorism.

People who placed more importance on enjoying their life were more fearful of being personally at risk of an attack. Somewhat paradoxically, people who reported being more open to change (valuing variation and novelty, being creative and curious) felt less personally at risk. The researchers also found older people, women, and those living in the suburbs rather than the city, thought a terror attack was more likely. On average, the staff at the British Library said an attack in Britain was 66 per cent likely, while the students said 46 per cent (where 0 per cent meant “not at all likely” and 100 per cent meant “extremely likely”). That an attack would directly affect themselves or their family, the library staff said 34 per cent likely, and the students 20 per cent. Those people who reported believing an attack was more likely, tended also to say they had changed their travel plans and avoided ‘high-risk’ areas.

“Our data suggest that older respondents living in suburban locations may require greater psychological assurance about levels of risk, whilst individuals higher on openness to change values may be less easy to alert about preparations for a potential attack…”, the authors said.

They concluded: “Our findings show that particular individual and demographic factors can contribute to perceptions and responses to terror threats. Social psychologists need to consider these factors as an important part of their theoretical arsenal as they seek to understand, and hopefully in time, help alleviate, this continuing threat”.

Goodwin, R., Willson, M. & Gaines Jr. S. (2005). Terror threat perception and its consequences in contemporary Britain. British Journal of Psychology. In Press. DOI: 10.1348/000712605X62786
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Tickle: not such a laughing matter

The similar way we react to a joke and to being tickled has led some, including Darwin, to suggest that our emotional experience of each is the same: that tickle is a 'physical joke'. Now for the first time, psychologists have studied people’s emotional reaction to tickling and compared it with their reaction to joke-induced humour and to pain.

Eighty-four participants’ faces were filmed while their sides were tickled from behind by a researcher. They were also filmed reacting to jokes by stand-up comedians, and while they placed their hand in icy water. Afterwards they answered questions about how they had felt in the different conditions.

Christine Harris and Nancy Alvarado found that when tickled, people showed some authentic ‘Duchenne’ smiles, in which the skin creases around the eyes, thus suggesting they really were enjoying being tickled. But this smiling wasn’t

"Ticklish smiling need have no closer a connection to mirth and merriment than crying when cutting onions has to sorrow and sadness..."

correlated with self-reported enjoyment – people who said they’d enjoyed the tickling didn’t show any more of these genuine smiles than people who said they didn’t enjoy it, and vice versa. Moreover, while they were tickled, participants also exhibited facial expressions associated with pain, including wrinkling their nose and raising their upper lip. Also, in the tickling condition far more than in the comedy-clip condition, participants showed a mixture of pain-associated facial movements and smiling – what the researchers dubbed a ‘masking smile’ intended to conceal negative emotion.

“The dissociation between smiling and self-reported pleasure during tickle provides some support for the hypothesis that, in tickle, Duchenne smiles can arise as automatic responses to a physical stimulus that need not be mediated by positive affect [emotion/feeling]”, the researchers said.

This suggests that “…ticklish smiling need have no closer a connection to mirth and merriment than crying when cutting onions has to sorrow and sadness”, they concluded.

The authors also discussed possible evolutionary explanations for why we laugh and smile when we’re tickled, including that it might promote play in young primates: “…tickle may elicit discomfort in the one being tickled in order to motivate the developing primate to avoid the tickling and may, at the same time, elicit smiling to encourage the tickler to continue (thereby promoting rough-and-tumble play)”.

Harris, C.R. & Alvarado, N. (2005). Facial expressions, smile types, and self-report during humour, tickle, and pain. Cognition and Emotion, 19, 655-669.
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Overestimating the impact of future events

If I asked you to predict how you’d react emotionally to a given situation – say your train to work was cancelled, or if your football team were to win next Saturday – then research suggests you would overestimate its emotional effect on you. That’s because in using our past experiences as a guide to how we’ll feel in future situations, it is our most extreme experiences that most readily come to mind, thus biasing our future expectations.

Carey Morewedge and colleagues approached commuters at a railway station. They asked some to recall their worst experience of missing a train, and to rate how they’d felt at the time. They asked other passengers to recall any experience they’d had of missing a train and to rate how they felt. Morewedge’s team found those passengers asked to recall any experience, remembered an episode they rated just as unpleasant as those specifically asked to recall their worst experience (other passengers asked to recall a mixture of experiences were able to do so). This pattern was replicated with sports fans approached at a football game and a baseball game: those asked to recall any occasion their team won, remembered wins that were just as amazing and enjoyable as those asked to recall the best win ever.

"This finding could help people anticipate events more realistically..."

However, when these same participants were next asked to imagine how they’d feel if they were to miss a train now, or if their team were to win that day, it was only those participants asked to recall any previous experience who then made extreme predictions for how bad or good they’d feel (the usual bias shown by previous research). In contrast, the participants asked to deliberately recall their worst or best previous experience had more modest expectations. Their awareness that they had recalled an extreme example seemed to help them make more moderate forecasts for the future.

This finding could help people anticipate events more realistically. The authors pointed to the example of someone dreading a visit to the dentist because of a previous bad experience. In a case like that, “When biased recollection is unavoidable”, the authors advised, “it may make sense to explicitly promote it, thereby alerting people to the unrepresentativeness of the events they are remembering”.

Morewedge, C.K., Gilbert, D.T. & Wilson, T.D. (2005). The least likely of times. How remembering the past biases forecasts of the future. Psychological Science, 16, 626-630.
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Imagining World War II

People apparently find it harder to imagine battle scenes from World War II than from the Middle Ages, probably because of their exposure to authentic footage of the Second World War, which is often poor quality. And the less able someone is to imagine World War II scenes vividly, the more likely they are to deny Nazi cruelty.

That’s according to Eric Rassin and colleagues who asked students to imagine a battle scene from either the Second World
War or from Medieval times. Students who imagined a Medieval scene rated their own imagery as more vivid than those who imagined a Second World War scene. And students whose Second World War imagery was less vivid agreed more strongly with the suggestion that history books exaggerate Nazi atrocities.

“…perhaps people may conclude that a particular event cannot have taken place because they are unable to imagine it”, the authors speculated. “[And this] activation of unclear mental imagery may foster readiness to deny Nazi cruelties”, they continued. In which case, “…next to political reasons there may also be a cognitive reason for Nazi cruelty denial”.

"...for educational purposes it would be better to show people modern films like Saving Private Ryan..."

In a final experiment, students who imagined a Second World War scene after watching a clip from the war movie Saving Private Ryan rated their imagery as more vivid than students who had first watched a clip of authentic war footage. “…the data ultimately suggest that for educational purposes it would be better to show people modern films like Saving Private Ryan, than it is to show authentic footage”, the authors said.

Rassin, E. & van Rootselaar, A-F. (2005). Nazi cruelties: are they literally hard to imagine? British Journal of Psychology, 96, 321-329.
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When women prefer taller men

Women who are in the fertile phase of their menstrual cycle, or who are looking for a short-term relationship, tend to prefer taller men. That’s according to Polish researchers Boguslaw Pawlowski and Grazyna Jasienska who asked 110 women to look at drawings of six male-female couples and say which they thought was the ‘best match’. The illustrated couples varied in the height difference between the man and woman. The man was either 19 per cent taller, 14 per cent taller, 9 per cent taller (the average male-
female height difference in Poland), the couple were the same height or the man was 4 per cent shorter.

More women in the fertile (13) phase of their menstrual cycle than women in the infertile (11) phase of their menstrual cycle chose a couple where the man was 19 or 14 per cent taller. In contrast, many more women in the infertile phase (25) than women in the fertile (8) phase of their cycle chose a couple who were the same height, or where the man was shorter.

Next the researchers asked the women to choose their ideal male-female height difference for a short-term vs. a long-term relationship. Over twice as many women (42) chose a taller man for a short relationship than for a long relationship, rather than the other way around (20). The remaining women chose the same ‘ideal match’ for a long or a short relationship.

“Our results confirm that when women are potentially fertile or seeking a partner for a short-term relationship, they more often choose larger men”, the authors said. “A man’s height may indicate his high quality genotype”, they explained, so “…women follow that strategy which increases the chances for acquiring better genes for their offspring”.

Pawlowski, B. & Jasienska, G. (2005). Women’s preferences for sexual dimorphism in height depend on menstrual cycle phase and expected duration of relationship. Biological Psychology, 70, 38-43.
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Do you remember that time strawberry ice cream made you sick?

Here’s a dieting technique you may not have come across before. Psychologists at the University of Washington misled people into believing they had been made ill by strawberry ice cream as a child, thus leaving them less willing to eat strawberry ice cream now.

Daniel Bernstein and colleagues gave hundreds of undergrad students six questionnaires to fill in about their food preferences, lifetime food experiences and their eating behaviour at parties. A week later the students were given false feedback – purportedly from a computer programme which had an analysed their earlier answers – informing them that as a child they’d “disliked spinach, enjoyed eating pizza and felt happy when a class mate brought sweets to school”. Some of the students were also told they had been “made sick after eating strawberry ice cream”. When the students then filled in some of the eating behaviour questionnaires for a second time, those who’d been given the false feedback about ice cream reported less preference for, and less willingness to eat strawberry ice cream than they had in the previous week’s questionnaires. In contrast, control students not given the false ice cream feedback didn’t show any change in their attitudes to ice cream. The aversive effects were stronger in a second experiment when the students given false feedback were also asked to reflect on their (fictitious) bad experience with ice cream.

However, the false feedback technique didn’t work for chocolate chip cookies, a fact the authors speculated might be because the students expressed a stronger initial preference for cookies, and reported eating them more regularly.

"...our findings have important implications for food choices and dieting..."

“We believe that our findings have important implications for food choices and dieting”, the authors concluded. “If people can be led to avoid certain fattening foods simply by believing that they had a negative experience with those foods as children, then perhaps people could learn healthier eating habits”.

Bernstein, D.M., Laney, C., Morris, E.K. & Loftus, E.F. (2005). False beliefs about fattening foods can have healthy consequences. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, Early Edition.
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Learned fear of people who are different

Some people are predisposed to fearing those whose skin colour is different from their own, in much the same way they are predisposed to fearing snakes and spiders.

Andreas Olsson and colleagues presented participants with two photos, one of a black male face and one of a white male face. When either the black or the white face was consistently presented at the same time as a mild electric shock, the participants soon learned to react more fearfully to that face than they would do normally, as revealed by the sweatiness of their skin. However, how each participant reacted after the face was no longer paired with an electric shock, depended on whether or not the face had the same skin colour as their own. Black American participants continued to show an exaggerated fear response when the white male face had previously been paired with the shock, but not when the black face had (their response returned to normal with a black face), whereas White American participants showed the opposite pattern. This persistence of an exaggerated fear response is what happens after an electric shock is no-longer paired with a photo of a snake or a spider, but not when a shock is no-longer paired with a butterfly or a bird.

“…it is likely that sociocultural learning about the identity and qualities of outgroups is what provides the basis for the greater persistence of fear conditioning involving members of another group”, the authors said.

The researchers found this fear bias towards faces with a different skin colour to one’s own was reduced in participants who’d had more interracial dating experience. “Millenia of natural selection and a lifetime of social learning may predispose humans to fear those who seem different from them; however, developing relationships with these different others may be one factor that weakens this otherwise strong predisposition”, the authors said.

Olsson, A., Ebert, J.P., Banaji, M.R. & Phelps, E.A. (2005). The role of social groups in the persistence of learned fear. Science, 309, 785-787.
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Judging what came first

You can’t possibly process everything that’s going on around you. Instead you’re armed with an attentional spotlight that selects areas and objects of interest for preferential processing. An anomalous consequence of this, is that we judge objects appearing where our attention is focused to have appeared earlier than objects located elsewhere, even if they really appeared at the same time. It could be that information arising from the attended object is transmitted through the brain’s sensory pathways more quickly than information arising from the unattended object, thus resulting in the perception that the attended stimulus occurred first. But now, using electroencephalography (EEG) to record electrical activity in the brain, John McDonald and colleagues refute this suggestion, arguing instead that selective attention increases the size of the neural signal arising from the attended object, not its speed.

Twenty-eight participants sat through hundreds of trials in which an irrelevant sound first grabbed their attention to the left or right, before two lights flashed up, one on their left, the other on their right. Consistent with past research, the light that flashed up on the same side as the sound (where the participants’ attention had been drawn to), was perceived to have occurred earlier than the other light, even if they had both appeared at the same time. However, EEG recordings of the brain’s electrical activity showed that although the light on the same side as the sound was perceived to have occurred earlier, it wasn’t processed more quickly in the brain. It was, however, associated with a larger neural signal (over the contra-lateral ventral occipital cortex), than the unattended light.

“…attention-induced effects on time-order perception may arise from changes in the strength of neural signals in ventral occipital areas that underlie visual object perception”, the authors said. “It follows from this hypothesis that attention-induced enhancements in signal strength that occur at early stages of visual processing are interpreted as a timing difference by a later comparator mechanism”.
McDonald, J.J., Teder-Salejarvi, W.A., Russo, F.D. & Hillyard, S.A. (2005). Neural basis of auditory-induced shifts in visual time-order perception. Nature Neuroscience, Advance Online Publication: DOI: 10.1038/nn1512.
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When three's a crowd

When people go shopping they prefer not to be alone in the aisle. That’s according to Jennifer Argo and colleagues who watched dozens of student participants while they went into a shop to buy some batteries. The students thought they were participating in an investigation of the shop’s management but really the researchers were studying how the presence of other people in the aisle affected the students’ shopping experience. The researchers used a team of accomplices so they could control how busy the battery aisle was.

Students who shopped with one other person in the battery aisle subsequently reported feeling happier and more confident while shopping than did students who shopped in an empty aisle. However, whereas the company of one other person had a positive effect, students who shopped in the company of two or three other people were no happier than students who’d shopped alone in the aisle. A second experiment showed these effects only applied when the other people in the aisle were two feet away; when they were eight feet away, their presence or absence was irrelevant. The proximity of other ‘shoppers’ in the aisle also affected the students brand choice, leading them to buy more expensive batteries, presumably in order to impress.

Explaining their finding that people don’t like to shop in an empty aisle, the authors said “Research has suggested and shown that the mere association between people can create an initial level of social attachment, and that this change to one’s perceived belongingness can elicit a positive emotional response”.

“However, when the social size increases beyond the comfort of one person”, they added “consumers’ emotional reactions turn negative, possibly due to the increasingly crowded environment”.
Argo, J.J., Dahl, D.W. & Manchanda, R.V. (2005). The influence of a mere social presence in a retail context. Journal of Consumer Research, In Press (due September).
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