Intuition enhanced by drug

A sedative drug that interferes with memory also has the contrasting effect of enhancing intuition – the ability to use one’s ‘gut feelings’ – according to researchers at the Universities of Arizona and Colorado.

Michael Frank and colleagues tested the ability of 23 participants to learn the relative value of different abstract symbols. The participants learned through trial and error which of two symbols was the more valuable, one pair at a time. Later on, they were tested on their ability to recall the outcome of many of these specific pairings, and also on their ability to work out the more valuable of two symbols not previously compared.

After taking the tranquiliser Midazolam, participants became worse at remembering the outcome of previously encountered pairings, but they actually became better at solving the outcome of novel pairs. Novel pairings can be solved either by logically working through one’s memory of the previous pairings or by using one’s intuitive sense of which symbol is the more valuable based on its overall performance during the learning phase. The researchers believe Midazolam interfered with explicit memory for previous pairs, but enhanced participants’ ability to use their gut feeling to solve novel pairs.

The researchers say this supports the idea that learning can occur via two distinct systems – an explicit, hippocampus-based system, and an implicit, intuitive system, more dependent on the brain’s reward pathways. And they believe that by knocking out hippocampus-based explicit memory, Midazolam actually enhances memory based on intuition.

“We suggest that the brain areas associated with implicit reward-association decisions are dissociable from those supporting the explicit forms of decision making”, the researchers concluded. “Our findings suggest that it may be useful to rely on intuition to guide decisions, particularly when explicit memory fails”.

Frank, M.J., O’Reilly, R.C. & Curran, T. (2006). When memory fails, intuition reigns. Midazolam enhances implicit inference in humans. Psychological Science, 17, 700-707.
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Why it's so difficult to reassure people with medically-unexplained symptoms

Doctors face a fundamental hurdle when seeking to reassure patients with medically-unexplained symptoms that they are physically well. Apparently such patients have a problem remembering information about how likely it is that they or other people have certain illnesses.

Winfried Rief and colleagues played 33 patients with medically-unexplained symptoms a tape-recording of a doctor’s report on a patient with abdominal pain. In his report, the doctor rules out certain illnesses – for example, that the pain is “certainly not stomach flu”. Yet later, when asked to indicate on a scale from 0 to 100 how likely the doctor said these illnesses were, the participants with medically-unexplained symptoms said the possibility was 20 per cent. By contrast, a group of depressed patients and healthy participants rated the possibility as significantly lower – as 13 and 3 per cent, respectively.

This memory bias shown by participants with medically-unexplained symptoms was specific to medical probabilities. They could hold as many numbers in short-term memory as the depressed and healthy participants. And when played an audio-tape about a case of social rejection (a person not being invited to a neighbourhood barbeque), or about a car breakdown, they remembered probabilistic information contained in these reports just as accurately as the depressed and healthy participants.

“Our results show that medical reassurance and the presentation of negative test results can lead to patients remembering overestimated probabilities for medical explanations, especially in patients with unclear somatic complaints”, the researchers said. “Check-back questions on what patients have understood from doctors’ reports, and asking patients for summaries about the provided information, could help detect this memory bias…”, they advised.

Rief, W., Heitmuller, A.M., Reisberg, K. & Ruddel, H. (2006). Why reassurance fails in patients with unexplained symptoms – An experimental investigation of remembered probabilities. PLOS Medicine, 3, e269. Open access.
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Writing about your relationship could help it last

image by DementdPrncessWriting down how you feel about your romantic relationship could help it last longer. That’s according to Richard Slatcher and James Pennebaker at the University of Texas at Austin. They recruited 86 heterosexual undergrads and asked half of them to spend 20 minutes a day for three consecutive days writing about “…their deepest thoughts and feelings about their current relationship”. The other half of the undergrads were asked to spend the same amount of time writing about their daily activities. Three months later, 77 per cent of the undergrads who’d written about their relationship were still in the same relationship, compared with just 52 per cent of the students who’d written about their daily activities.

So why does writing about one’s relationship have this effect? Slatcher and Pennebaker analysed instant messaging communication (like instant email) between the study participants and their partners, recorded before and after the writing exercise. They found that after a student had written about their relationship for three days, both they and their partner used more positive emotional words when they communicated with each other. If it was a man who had written about the relationship, then there was also more use of negative emotional words.

“That people may enhance their romantic relationships by simply writing down their thoughts and feelings about those relationships has clear implications for clinicians”, the researchers concluded.

The findings come as a survey of 2000 women by the UK government Department of Skills and Education (DfES) found 44 per cent had not received a love letter in over a decade. The DfES said its Get On campaign, which encourages adults to improve their literacy, could help men brush up on their love letter writing skills.

Slatcher, R.B. & Pennebaker, J.W. (2006). How do I love thee? Let me count the words. The social effects of expressive writing. Psychological Science, 17, 660-664.
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Understanding why people take 'sickies'

You’re a company boss and you want to reduce illegitimate sickness leave among your employees. What do you do? Introduce schemes to increase job satisfaction among your staff? It sounds sensible – the problem is, time and again research has only found a weak link between measures of job satisfaction and employee sick leave. The same is true for measures of job involvement and organisational commitment. But now Jurgen Wegge and colleagues think they’ve found the reason for this. The key, they say, is looking at how these factors interact. Lack of involvement in one’s job only matters when it’s combined with low job satisfaction.

Wegge’s team administered questionnaires to 436 employees of a large German civil service organisation. On their own, neither job satisfaction (measured by agreement with statements like “In general I am satisfied with my job”), nor job involvement (measured by agreement with statements like “Most of my life goals have to do with my work”) was related to the amount of sick leave an employee had taken over the last year. However, low job satisfaction and low job involvement combined were strongly related to the amount of sick leave taken.

The researchers said their finding has practical implications. “…it can be argued that establishing high job satisfaction (e.g. by job-redesign strategies, promotions, increases of salary) among employees will pay off as this prevents the transformation of low job involvement into high absenteeism”.

Wegge, J., Schmidt, K-H., Parkes, C. & van Dick, R. (2006). ‘Taking a sickie’: Job satisfaction and job involvement as interactive predictors of absenteeism in a public organisation. Journal of Occupational and Organisational Psychology, In Press. DOI: 10.1348/096317906X99371.
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Of cats and basketball players - how we're better at recognising the emotions of those we identify with

Just as we’re better at recognising people who share our ethnicity, we are also better at interpreting the emotional facial expressions of people from the same ethnic, national, or regional group as ourselves. Pascal Thibault and colleagues at the University of Quebec at Montreal think this has to do with motivation. We identify more with people in the same group as us – that in turn leads us to be more motivated to imagine things from their perspective, thus aiding our ability to interpret their emotions.

To test this idea, they showed 88 participants video stills (see examples above and below) of cats that were showing either aggression, fear, disgust or interest. Regardless of how much experience they had of cats, the participants who said they identified closely with cats were better able to recognise whether the felines were showing fear, disgust or interest.

In a second experiment, 60 participants were asked to interpret the facial expressions of men who were randomly labelled either as basketball players or non-players. For half the participants, the labels were switched, to be sure the crucial factor was how the faces were labelled rather than how they looked. Remarkably, participants who played basketball themselves were better than non-players at recognising the emotional expressions of the men labelled as players. Simply being told that another person was a fellow basketball player enhanced their ability to interpret that person’s emotions.

According to the researchers, the findings suggest motivation plays a big part in our ability to understand other people’s emotions, with practical implications: “…[T]he misunderstanding that sometimes occurs between members of different ethnic groups could be explained in part by the lack of motivation that members of a given group display when trying to decode the emotions of members of the other group”, they said.

Thibault, P., Bourgeois, P. & Hess, U. (2006). The effect of group-identification on emotion recognition: The case of cats and basketball players. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 42, 676-683.
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The effect of war on soldiers' brains

American soldiers deployed in the recent Iraq war have returned confused, with impaired concentration, and a reduced ability to remember new information. But they’ve also come back with speeded reflexes and heightened behavioural reactivity, presumably a consequence of their prolonged exposure to life-threatening situations.

That’s according to Jennifer Vasterling and colleagues, who administered a raft of neuropsychological tests to 654 soldiers before and after they were deployed to Operation Iraqi Freedom. Changes in their test performance were compared with changes in performance among 307 soldiers who were not deployed, but who were tested at similar time points.

Ninety-eight per cent of the deployed soldiers reported being fired on while on active duty, while over half had witnessed allies or enemies being seriously wounded or killed. Just under half the sample said they had participated in daily combat missions. The researchers said that the neuropsychological changes they observed in these troops were subtle but that they could “lead to problems in everyday life” and could also “represent a prodrome or surrogate for disease”.

In light of these findings, the researchers recommended the implementation of “neuropsychological screening among military personnel returning from war-zone deployment” and “attention to the cognitive complaints of military personnel returning from deployment”.

Vasterling, J.J., Proctor, S.P., Amoroso, P., Kane, R., Heeren, T. & White, R.F. (2006). Neuropsychological outcomes of army personnel following deployment to the Iraq war. Journal of the American Medical Association, 296, 519-529.

Via Vaughan at Mind Hacks.
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Other interesting papers that didn't make the final cut this fortnight:

Adults with autistic spectrum disorder have reduced grey matter in the area of the brain thought to contain mirror neurons - brain cells that are active both when someone performs an action, and when they see that action performed by someone else. Open access.

A neuropsychological test for finding out whether someone is faking a memory problem (after head injury) to support a fraudulent compensation claim.

Babies' brains respond differently when they watch the same action performed on TV compared with when they see it performed live.

Two contrasting forms of fighting in judo (free fight versus kata) have a different effect on plasma cortisol, testosterone, and interleukin levels in male participants.

Reading the word 'cinnamon' activates regions of the brain involved in our sense of smell.

When healthy people distinguished between real and imagined information, it activated brain regions thought to be affected by schizophrenia.
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The Special Issue Spotter

Probabilistic models of cognition. (Trends in Cognitive Sciences).

Action perspectives in clinical psychology. Action theory is the notion that individuals affect the environment around them. (Journal of Clinical Psychology).

Where does the law stand on the issue of delusions?: An international perspective. (Behavioural Sciences and the Law).

If you're aware of a forthcoming psychology journal special issue, please let me know.
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Eyes closed shut, mind wide open

There always seems to be a story in the news about the latest findings showing this or that brain area is activated when someone’s jealous, embarrassed or solving a crossword. But activated relative to what resting baseline? After all, unless you’re testing a group of Buddhist monks, it’s probably unrealistic to expect participants to think of absolutely nothing as they lie in the brain scanner.

Now Martin Wiesmann and colleagues have shown that another complicating issue, even in the complete pitch dark, is whether participants have their eyes open or shut.

They found that when participants closed their eyes in the dark, brain areas related to vision, touch, hearing, balance, smell and taste were all activated relative to when they lay in the dark with their eyes open. By contrast, lying in the dark with their eyes open, activated participants’ brain areas related to attention and eye movement.

The researchers said the findings point to the there being two kinds of mental activity: “…with the eyes closed, an ‘interoceptive’ state characterised by imagination and multisensory activity, in contrast to an ‘exteroceptive’ state, with the eyes open, characterised by attention and oculomotor activity”.

“It therefore seems critical that subjects do not change the state of their eyes during an experiment”, they added.

Wiesmann and his colleagues said more research was needed to test whether the increased sensory activity observed in the brain when someone closes their eyes in the dark is also accompanied by an enhancement of their sensory acuity.

Wiesmann, M., Kopietz, R., Albrecht, J., Linn, J., Reime, U., Kara, E., Pollatos, O., Sakar, V., Anzinger, A., Fest, G., Bruckmann, H., Kobal, G. & Stephan, T. (2006). Eye closure in darkness animates olfactory and gustatory cortical areas. NeuroImage, 32, 293-300.

Link to critique of functional brain imaging by Paul Bloom, writing in Seed Magazine. Open access.
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Pick a doctor, any doctor

Some countries are worried that so many of their doctors are coming to work in the UK. Now Adrian Furnham and colleagues have highlighted another concern regarding the NHS’ increasing dependence on foreign doctors. They report that white British people have a strong preference to be treated by a doctor trained here in the UK.

Presented with a list of eight general practitioners, including their names, age and place of training, 395 white British men and women showed a strong preference for doctors trained in the UK rather than in Asia. Presented with a list of consultants, this preference remained, but to a lesser extent, perhaps because patients realise they have less choice when it comes to consultants.

In contrast to early research in this area, men showed a stronger preference than women to be seen by a doctor of the same sex, perhaps reflecting the fact so many more doctors are female now. The participants didn’t show any preference for older versus younger doctors if they were trained in the UK, but if they were trained in Asia, they showed a preference for an older doctor.

“It is important to establish the extent and nature of any adverse effects resulting from a patient being unable to see a doctor of his or her choice”, the researchers concluded.

Furnham, A., Petrides, K.V. & Temple, J. (2006). Patient preferences for medical doctors. British Journal of Health Psychology, 11, 439-449.

We can help you pick a doctor. Come to our
medical search engine to find the best medical websites on the Internet. You can find medical information on diabetes and cholesterol at
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A case of hyperlexia in an autistic boy

Researchers at the University of London’s School of Languages have observed a four-year-old boy with autistic spectrum disorder who rarely speaks spontaneously and shows little evidence of verbal comprehension but who can read aloud precociously – a phenomenon that’s known as hyperlexia.

On psychological tests, the boy is found to have a mental age of just one and half years and yet he can correctly pronounce irregular words not normally encountered by children before the age of nine. Irregular words like ‘yacht’ don’t follow the usual letter-to-sound rules and his correct pronunciation of them betrays a level of linguistic development far beyond that predicted by his mental age.

Even when presented with novel Greek letters, he attempts to read them as English letters and numbers. “This behaviour is possibly indicative of the type of driven, compulsive, and indiscriminate reading behaviour associated with hyperlexia”, the researchers said. Indeed, the boy’s mother recalled that her son looked through newspapers with an unusual intensity before he was even two years old.

Because the boy doesn’t communicate it is difficult to gauge his actual comprehension of the words he can read. Nonetheless it remains remarkable that his reading ability “just happened”, as his mother put it, and the researchers concluded “Existing cognitive accounts are inadequate to account for the development of literacy in this child”.

Atkin, K. & Lorch, M.P. (2006). Hyperlexia in a 4-year-old boy with Autistic Spectrum Disorder. Journal of Neurolinguistics, 19, 253-269.
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The pursuit of power

Everyone knows that power is seductive, but is it power over others that we crave or power over our own actions and decisions?

To find out, Marius Van Dijke and Matthijs Poppe devised a financial game in which hundreds of undergrads took turns with a ‘partner’ to make share investment decisions. The students didn’t know this, but they actually played the game with a computer.

When the participants chose how much to invest, as well as using a share’s performance history, their decision was constrained within a recommended upper and lower limit set by their ‘partner’. In turn, the participants were able to set the upper and lower limits for what they thought was their partner. The researchers made it so that some participants had more control over their partner than their partner had over them, some participants had less control, and the remainder had equal control.

When quizzed afterwards, the participants consistently said they would like in the future to have more control over their own investment decisions, but they didn’t wish to have more control over their partner’s decisions. In fact, if they’d previously had more power over their partner’s decisions than their partner had had over theirs, many of the participants actually said they’d like in the future to have less power over their partner. This general pattern remained the same regardless of how much agreement or conflict there appeared to have been between their own and their partner’s investment decisions.

The researchers said this showed people are more motivated to decrease their dependence on other people’s power than they are to increase their power over others. In other words, they believe we’re driven to increase our ‘personal power’ over ourselves, but not necessarily our ‘social power’ over others.

“We believe we have advanced our understanding of the complexities involved in strivings for personal power”, they said.

Van Dijke, M. & Poppe, M. (2006). Striving for personal power as a basis for social power dynamics. European Journal of Social Psychology, 36, 537-556.
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Psychopaths unmoved by words

Imagine I show you the word “love” and I ask you to classify it as positive or negative. You’ll classify it far quicker as positive, if just beforehand I had showed you another positive word such as “honesty” – a phenomenon that’s known as affective priming. Now James Blair and colleagues at the National Institute for Mental Health in America have shown that affective priming is greatly reduced in callous people who score high on psychopathy.

Blair’s team think psychopaths show reduced affective priming because positive and negative words don’t trigger activity in their brains’ fear and reward hub, the amygdala, in the same way as happens in healthy people. In healthy people, it’s this amygdala activity, triggered by the sight of one positive/negative word that is thought to speed the response to a subsequent positive/negative word.

The researchers made these observations by testing affective priming in thirty people resident in a high security institution in England, 15 of whom were psychopathic and 15 of whom weren’t, based on their scores on an established measure of psychopathy.

It’s not that psychopathic people have some kind of general language or priming problem because the researchers found psychopaths showed normal semantic priming. Similar to affective priming, semantic priming is when we’re quicker to categorise a word when it follows a preceding word that had a related meaning.

The researchers said their observations fit with the idea that “…individuals with psychopathy do represent the lexical meaning of emotions, but they do not experience their affective value; they ‘know the words but not the music’”.

Blair, K.S., Richell, R.A., Mitchell, D.G.V., Leonard, A., Morton, J. & Blair, R.J.R. (2006). They know the words, but not the music: Affective and semantic priming in individuals with psychopathy. Biological Psychology, 73, 114-123.

Link to complete PDF download of Hervey Cleckley's classic text on psychopathy - 'The Mask of Sanity'. Thanks to Vaughan at MindHacks for the heads up.
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Sound aids visual learning

The use of sound during visual training can enhance later performance on a purely visual task, a finding that demonstrates just how much multisensory interaction occurs in brain areas that before now were thought to be dedicated solely to vision.

Aaron Seitz and colleagues tested two groups of participants on a task that required them to view a screen full of moving dots. Most of the dots were moving randomly but sometimes a subset moved coherently either to the left of right. The participants’ task was to detect when this minority of dots moved coherently and which direction they moved in.

Training for half the participants involved practice on the task as described above. Crucially, however, the other half of the participants were trained on a version in which the coherently moving dots were accompanied by the sound of something moving leftwards or rightwards.

When the participants were tested on the purely visual task, the performance of the participants who were trained with sound improved faster than the vision-only participants, both within an individual session, and from one session to the next. For example, the participants trained with sound reached peak performance by the third testing session, whereas the participants trained without sound didn’t reach peak performance until the seventh session.

“Our results show that multisensory interactions can be exploited to yield more efficient learning of sensory information and suggest that multisensory training programmes would be most effective for the acquisition of new skills”, the researchers concluded.

Seitz, A.R., Kim, R. & Shams, L. (2006). Sound facilitates visual learning. Current Biology, 16, 1422-1427.
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The Special Issue Spotter

Social power (European Journal of Social Psychology).

How children learn the names for colours. (Journal of Experimental Child Psychology).

Boundaryless and protean careers. (Journal of Vocational Behaviour).

Pathologies of consciousness and awareness, bridging the gap between theory and practice. (Neuropsychological Rehabilitation).

If you're aware of a forthcoming psychology journal special issue, please let me know.
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Other eye-catching studies that didn't make the final cut this fortnight:

Different monetary currencies affect our perception of how expensive things are.

Does psychological therapy for bulimia work when it's delivered remotely, over a video link?

Opportunities and challenges in the collaboration between psychiatry, epidemiology and neuroscience in studying gene–environment interactions. Open access. (thanks Vaughan).

How lack of sleep affects your posture.

What effect do pro-anorexia websites have on people who read them?

Investigating how the police interview children who may have been sexually abused.

Is autism a personality dimension like extraversion and neuroticism?
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