The brain's great connector

Pick two people off the street at random, put them in a brain scanner, and look at the thickness of their corpus callosums – that’s the massive bundle of nerve fibres that connects the two halves of the brain. In all likelihood, you’ll find it’s much thicker in one person than the other. Indeed, some people can have up to three times as many nerve fibres in their corpus callosum compared with the next person.

According to Bruce Morton and Stein Rafto, psychologists used to think callosum thickness was largely explained by gender and left or right handedness. For example, one theory had it that men have a thinner connection between their hemispheres, thus causing them to have more specialised brains suitable for maths and the like. But literally hundreds of papers have now been published on the topic and the results have been completely inconsistent – some showing men have thinner hemispheric connectivity, others showing the opposite.

Morton and Rafto think these inconsistent findings are due to the fact callosum thickness is related to hemisphericity – which side of a person’s brain is dominant – irrespective of sex or handedness. To test this, they scanned the brains of 113 participants who also completed several tests of hemisphericity. These look not at handedness, but rather at which side of the brain is dominant. For example, one test measures whether a participant is more accurate at marking the exact mid-point of a line with their left or their right hand.

Morton And Rafto found the thickness of the callosum varied little between the sexes or between the left and right-handers (less than 3 per cent difference in each case), but varied significantly according hemisphericity, with right-brain dominant participants having a 10 per cent thicker callosum on average.

Thickness of the callosum was also independently related to something called ‘dichotic deafness’, a common characteristic of people with a left-hemisphere dominant brain . This is the inability of some people to hear two sounds presented simultaneously, when one sound is played to one ear and the other sound to the other ear. Such people can only hear the sound played to their ‘dominant’ ear, and Morton and Rafto found they too tended to have a thinner corpus callosum.

The results suggest that men and women with a left-hemisphere dominant brain have a thinner corpus callosum and so have less cross-talk between their two hemispheres. Besides dichotic deafness, the practical implications of a thin callosum are unknown. However, it doesn’t seem associated with intelligence – the two participants in this study with the thinnest corpus callosums and the two with the thickest, were all university professors with doctoral degrees.

Morton, B.E. & Rafto, S.E. (2006). Corpus callosum size is linked to dichotic deafness and hemisphericity, not sex or handedness. Brain and Cognition, 62, 1-8.
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Are mental disorders real?

How do the public view mental disorders? Do they see them as real entities with some kind of essence, or do they see them as the invention of human culture? And how does their take differ from that of mental health professionals?

To find out, Woo-kyoung Ahn and colleagues asked 30 university undergrads and 30 experts to answer questions about the nature of a selection of familiar and unfamiliar psychiatric diagnoses, such as ADHD and undifferentiated somatoform disorder, as well as about familiar and unfamiliar medical/physical disorders, such as high blood pressure and nephritic syndrome.

In general, the students and experts believed mental disorders were less ‘real’ than medical disorders. For example, most of the participants agreed that you either have a medical disorder or you don’t, but that this isn’t true for mental disorders (although a third of the experts felt it was). The experts and students also believed more strongly that medical disorders exist ‘naturally’ in the world, than do mental disorders. The familiarity of conditions didn’t make any difference to the participants’ views.

There were also differences between the groups. The students believed both medical and mental disorders have causal features that have to be removed for successful treatment, but the experts only felt this way about medical disorders. Perhaps, the researchers said, “experts’ knowledge about symptom-oriented treatment plans or the lack of agreed upon aetiology [i.e. causes] might have made them more sceptical about mental disorders”.

Ahn and colleagues concluded that these issues could have practical implications: “patients, unlike therapists, may believe a single thing can be changed to cure their mental disorders and therefore might not follow multifaceted treatment plans developed by clinicians believing in complexly caused mental disorders”.

The findings come after a group of mental health professionals in the UK recently called for the abolition of the term ‘schizophrenia’, arguing that it is scientifically meaningless.

Ahn, W-K., Flanagan, E.H., Marsh, J.K. & Sanislow, C.A. (2006). Beliefs about essences and the reality of mental disorders. Psychological Science, 17, 759-766.
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They didn't even say thank you

You sacrificed your Saturday afternoon, you faced the high-street crowds, but after unwrapping the present you so generously bought for them, they didn’t even say thank you.

According to Catherine Roster of the University of New Mexico, when it comes to the future of your relationship with them, that’s the worst thing an unhappy gift recipient can do.

Roster interviewed 186 people who were able to recall a recent occasion when they gave someone a present that they clearly didn’t like. From frowns and false smiles, to never seeing the gift again, Roster identified several means by which participants recognised their gift had been unsuccessful. But of these indicators, a failure to say thank you was the only one that was reliably associated with how detrimental participants said the incident would be to the future of their relationship. Moreover, in an open-ended part of the interview, when participants were asked how the ungrateful friend or relative could have made things better, over half said expressing thanks would have done the trick, even if it clearly wasn’t genuine.
“She could’ve done what the entire family does when opening gifts – acted disgustingly gracious and forget about it”, said one participant.
Roster also found that more distant relationships – such as between work colleagues as opposed to relatives – and relationships that participants said were already of poorer quality, were the more likely to be harmed by the unsuccessful gift exchange.

Roster, C.A. (2006). Moments of truth in gift exchanges: A critical analysis of communication indicators used to detect gift failure. Psychology and marketing, 23, 885-903.
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Reading novels linked with increased empathy

"'Oh! it is only a novel!' or, in short, only some work in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusion of wit and humour are to be conveyed to the world in the best chosen language." From Northanger Abbey (1818) by Jane Austen.
The more fiction a person reads, the more empathy they have and the better they perform on tests of social understanding and awareness. By contrast, reading more non-fiction, fact-based books shows the opposite association. That’s according to Raymond Mar and colleagues who say their finding could have implications for educating children and adults about understanding others.

Finding out how much people read is always difficult because it’s socially desirable for people to report that they read a lot. Mar and colleagues avoided this by asking 94 participants to identify the names of fiction and non-fiction authors embedded in a long list of names that also included non-authors. Prior research has shown this test correlates well with how much people actually read. Among the authors listed were Matt Ridley, Naomi Wolf (non-fiction), Toni Morrison and PD James (fiction).

The more authors of fiction that a participant recognised, the higher they tended to score on measures of social awareness and tests of empathy – for example being able to recognise a person’s emotions from a picture showing their eyes only, or being able to take another person’s perspective. Recognising more non-fiction authors showed the opposite association.

The researchers surmised that reading fiction could improve people’s social awareness via at least two routes – by exposing them to concrete social knowledge concerning the way people behave, and by allowing them to practise inferring people’s intentions and monitoring people’s relationships. Non-fiction readers, by contrast, “fail to simulate such experiences, and may accrue a social deficit in social skills as a result of removing themselves from the actual social world”.

However, a weakness of the study is that the direction of causation has not been established – it might simply be that more empathic people prefer reading novels.

Mar, R.A., Oatley, K., Hirsh, J., dela Paz, J. & Peterson, J.B. (2006). Bookworms versus nerds: exposure to fiction versus non-fiction, divergent associations with social ability, and the simulation of fictional social worlds. Journal of Research in Personality, 40, 694-712.
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Skydiving used to mimic effect of trauma on memory

Following a traumatic experience, people often have a persistent, yet strangely incomplete, memory for what happened to them. One explanation is that in times of hyper-arousal, such as during trauma, our attention becomes extremely focused on the most relevant details of what’s happening, thus impairing our memory for more peripheral aspects.

To test this idea, Tamara Cavenett and Reginald Nixon recruited a group of 70 skydivers. Half of them learned a list of words in the relative calm of the waiting room prior to a later jump, whereas the other half learned the words while 10,000 feet up in the plane, just before making their skydive. Some of the words were related to skydiving (e.g. parachute), others weren’t (e.g. lamp). The rationale was that the hyper-arousal experienced by the latter group would serve as simulation of the extreme arousal experienced during trauma.

As the researchers expected, at a test later in the day, the participants in the plane subsequently remembered just as many words as the participants in the waiting room. However, crucially, there was a difference in the kind of words most often remembered by the two groups. Compared with the participants who studied the word list in the waiting room, the participants who studied the list in the plane tended to recall fewer of the words that had nothing to do with skydiving, but they remembered more of the words related to skydiving. Recordings of the participants’ heartbeat confirmed the participants in the plane had experienced increased arousal while learning the words, whereas the other participants hadn’t.

The researchers said the findings could help explain the experiences of people who suffer trauma. “Selective processing of relevant details may explain the high incidence of vivid flashbacks and re-experiencing of the traumatic event. Additionally, the inattention to the irrelevant details may account for the overall incomplete and fragmented memory of the trauma often associated with the disorder [PTSD]”.

Cavenett, T. & Nixon, R.D.V. (2006). The effect of arousal on memory for emotionally-relevant information: A study of skydivers. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 44, 1461-1469.
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Is low intelligence to blame for short life expectancy in poor countries?

People in countries with a large gap between the rich and poor have short life expectancies, not because of the economic inequality and lack of resources, but rather because they are unintelligent. That’s the controversial claim of Satoshi Kanazawa of the London School of Economics, who has used data from the UN and World Bank to look at the associations between average life expectancy, prosperity and economic inequality within over 120 countries around the world.

The economic historian Richard Wilkinson has argued that economic inequality leads to shorter life expectancy because being at the bottom of the social pile puts people under prolonged stress. But Kanazawa rejects this hypothesis. He argues his data show that once population IQ is taken into account, a country’s average life expectancy is no longer related to economic development and inequality. Indeed, he found IQ was between seven and eight times more strongly related to life-expectancy than were measures of income inequality.

Kanazawa’s theory is that what we refer to as IQ is effectively a measure of people’s ability to adapt to evolutionarily new threats and demands. Populations with a higher IQ are, he argues, better able to deal with contemporary hazards like guns, cars, sedentary lifestyles (by having the sense to exercise), and drugs and alcohol – thus living longer. And he rejects the notion that IQ is simply an indirect measure of economic wealth via improved education. Intelligence, he argues, is largely genetically determined.

To support his case further, Kanazawa also focused on 29 sub-Saharan countries which have changed little since ancient times. In these countries where modern threats are absent, Kanazawa found IQ is not related to life-expectancy whereas income inequality is.

Kanazawa’s findings come after a recent Scottish study reported a positive association between intelligence and longevity, and another study that found less obese men were more intelligent than their obese peers.

“These results point to the need for epidemiologists and health psychologists to pay closer attention to the role of general intelligence in health and longevity. General intelligence may be the key that allows individuals in evolutionarily novel contemporary society to recognise health risks and deal with them appropriately”, he concluded.

Kanazawa, S. (2006). Mind the gap…in intelligence: Re-examining the relationship between inequality and health. British Journal of Health Psychology, 11, 623-642.

Link to related review paper.
Link to the IQ data used by Kanazawa.

Update: After reading this Digest item, Observer journalist Denis Campbell has investigated further.
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For when you've had enough of reading journal articles:

The sleeping pill that is awakening coma patients.

The lady who changed her husband's behaviour using animal training techniques (free registration required).

Does neuroscience hold the key to the placebo effect?

What happened when the psychiatrist went for psychoanalysis?
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Eye-catching studies that didn't make the final cut this fortnight:

The role of auditory 'mirror neurons' in human empathy. In monkeys, these cells are activated both when a certain action is performed and when the sound of that action is heard.

Counsellors need to find ways to get clients to talk about difficult experiences they've had with therapy.

How the presence of an audience changes participants' brain response to stories of social or moral transgressions.

What factors affect how much interest and involvement people have in the arts?

Have you spotted a particularly noteworthy psychology paper? - email christian[@]
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The Special Issue Spotter

Childhood development disorders. (Nature Neuroscience).

Judgment and decision-making in sport and exercise. (Psychology of Sport and Exercise).

Race, ethnicity and culture in child development. (Child Development).

Integration of cognitive assessment and response to intervention - Part II. (Psychology in the Schools).

Music and the brain. (Brain).

Malingering. (Behavioural Sciences and the Law).

Chronic pain. (Journal of Clinical Psychology).

Modelling the mind. (Science).

If you're aware of a forthcoming journal special issue in psychology, please let me know on christian[@]
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The best psychology article from the last 3 years?

To mark three years since the birth of the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest as a free email newsletter, I’ve asked some of the world’s best psychology bloggers to discuss a psychology journal article from the last three years which they found inspiring or that changed the way they think. Here’s what they chose:
What do you think of their choices? Which inspiring articles did they miss? Comments welcome.
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Just how good are police officers at detecting liars?

By Emma Barrett, of Psychology and Crime News and the Deception Blog.

We had just sat through a presentation by a proponent of the Reid Technique, a potentially psychologically coercive method of persuading a suspect to confess, used widely in North America (although not in the UK). The North American police officers, in the majority at this international conference a couple of years ago, loved it. British police delegates and we psychologists shifted uncomfortably in our seats.

Next up, an esteemed American psychology professor, who gave a tour de force of his specialist subject: false confessions. In the Reid Technique, once an officer is convinced that a suspect is guilty, the psychological coercion begins. The professor argued that this might cause a vulnerable and innocent suspect to make a false confession: much depends on whether the officer is right when they believe that a suspect claiming innocence is lying. The speaker cited a recent meta-analysis (DePaulo et al., 2003) to make the point that, according to psychological research, there are no reliable cues to deception, and added that other research implies that police officers are not very good at spotting liars. The Brits and psychologists smiled again.

But I was still uncomfortable. DePaulo’s review is great, but if you take a look at the list of studies included, you’ll find that the evidence is almost wholly from studies of how Western students behave when deceiving in relatively low-stakes situations. Research on whether
law enforcement officers can detect deception usually involves them sitting in front of video clips of, you guessed it, Western students. So, satisfying as it might be to trounce the Reid guys, shouldn’t we wait for more ecologically valid studies before we tell officers they are no good at detecting deception?

This is why I’ve chosen a recent paper from Aldert Vrij, Samantha Mann and their colleagues at Portsmouth University, published earlier this year in Applied Cognitive Psychology. Not because it’s the best paper of the last three years in forensic psychology, but because it’s the latest in a series of studies that are becoming increasingly ecologically valid and relevant to law enforcement concerns. An issue that I think is crucially important.

In this study, the materials were clips from real suspect interviews where ground truth was known, the stakes were high, and the participants were experienced police officers. A welcome step forward from the usual student-based studies.

The officers’ task was to judge four sets of clips of liars / truth tellers on four different occasions. Their total accuracy (four tests combined) was 72 per cent. This is an improvement on the usual 50-60 per cent hit rate typically found in deception studies (e.g., Vrij, 2000). Officers were equally good at detecting truth (70 per cent accuracy) and lies (73 per cent). However, on average officers believed that they had only performed at chance level, and were “overly modest about, rather than overconfident in, their performance”.

So perhaps police officers aren’t as bad at detecting deception as some might have you believe. We’ve a long way to go yet – for instance, there’s plenty of evidence that would-be lie catchers often rely on rigid cues, including signs of nervousness, which could be displayed by an innocent person who is anxious about being believed (Ekman, 2002). We need to know more about the circumstances under which this occurs – and how to stop it. But the sorts of studies that Vrij et al. are now conducting are, I think, the right way to go. Conducting such research is more challenging than doing experiments with students, but it’s a crucial step towards really helping law enforcement deal with deception. Finally, I’d like to give a big cheer to Kent Police who facilitated the research. Collaboration between academics and practitioners is by far the best – perhaps the only – way to go forward here.

DePaulo, B.M., Lindsay, J.J., Malone, B.E., Muhlenbruck, L., Charlton, K. & Cooper, H. (2003). Cues to Deception. Psychological Bulletin, 129, 74–118.

Vrij, A., Mann, S., Robbins, E. & Robinson, M. (2006) Police officers ability to detect deception in high stakes situations and in repeated lie detection tests. Applied Cognitive Psychology 20, 741–755.

Vrij, A. (2000). Detecting lies and deceit: The psychology of lying and its implications for professional practice. Chichester: John Wiley and Sons.
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Nice therapist, shame about the symptoms

By Dryden Badenoch, of The Relaxed Therapist.

Medical outcome research tends to focus upon finding the best drug to treat a given disease. The patient's role is often no more than the repository of the disease and the recipient of the drug: their personal characteristics are rarely considered, except where these support the diagnosis (e.g. Type A personality in cardiac care) or impede treatment (e.g. non-adherence to medication).

Psychological outcome research tends to follow the same model, matching therapy to diagnosis. The client is again little more than the holder of the diagnosis and the subject of the therapy: their individual decisions and personality are rarely considered (again, except where these are part of the diagnosis or lead to non-compliance).

Contrary to notions of the 'miracle therapy' or 'super-shrink', recent research suggests that the client contributes as much to the chances of a successful outcome in therapy as either the therapist or their technique. In fact, client factors may predict more of the outcome than therapeutic rapport and technique combined.

Anne Hook and Bernice Andrews (2005) surveyed people who had received psychological therapy for depression. Half of the current clients and a third of ex-clients reported withholding some information about their depressive symptoms (e.g. low self worth, suicidal thoughts) and behaviour (e.g. substance abuse, aggression) from their therapist.

The main reason given for withholding information was shame. People who had concealed symptoms were more depressed on completion of therapy than those who had 'revealed all'.

As their previous research had linked a tendency to feel shame to higher levels of depression, this seems a fairly obvious result: shame and related non-disclosure are simply part of the clinical picture of depression.

After accounting for variables such as age, gender, education, time spent in therapy, time since therapy and worst ever level of depression, they found that the decision to withhold information predicted 8 per cent of the variation in current level of depression, overriding the effect of any tendency to feel shame. Again, this seems obvious: therapists can't treat symptoms they don't know about.

Taken together, however, the message is that, while a client's traits may influence both their presentation and recovery, the outcome of therapy is strongly influenced by decisions the client makes without the awareness of the therapist. These will in turn be influenced by events in and out therapy (e.g. the approachability of the therapist, discussions with friends, etc.).

This result has implications at three levels: first, by identifying shame as underlying most non-disclosure in therapy, Hook and Andrews have given a lead to therapists seeking to engage their clients: creating a non-judgemental environment and highlighting and addressing issues of shame can promote a better outcome.

Second, by illustrating the effect of individual client decisions on therapeutic outcome, Hook and Andrews have furthered the argument for routinely considering the client's contribution to the effectiveness of psychological therapies, rather than treating the client as a passive recipient of the 'miracle therapy' or the attentions of the 'super-shrink'.

Finally, by linking shame and non-disclosure of symptoms, Hook and Andrews have raised doubts about the model of medical treatment studies. Is it likely that patients with physical symptoms are unashamed and disclose them fully to their doctor? Perhaps there is as much of a role for explicit consideration of client factors in medical outcome studies as in studies of psychological therapies?

Following Hook and Andrews' findings, I decided a website for like-minded therapists would be one way I could support the move towards engaging with clients not as diagnoses or even sets of traits, but as individuals interacting uniquely with us.

Hook, A. & Andrews, B. (2005). The relationship of non-disclosure in therapy to shame and depression. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 44, 425-438.

Dryden Badenoch is an NHS Consultant Clinical Psychologist.
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Psychology defined and unified

By Jeremy Dean, of PsyBlog.
"Is psychology a coherent scientific discipline and can its existence be effectively defined?" Henriques (2004:1218).
Neither defining terms, nor unity of knowledge have ever been strong points of psychological science. Many psychologists, faced with bringing order to psychology's diversity, or even offering a definition of psychology, have excused themselves and gone for a lie down. So, my choice for the most inspirational study in the last three years is Gregg Henriques' (2004) 'Psychology Defined', which spearheads a bold move to both unify and define the discipline.

Henriques (2004) argues that psychology's epistemological fissures can be healed by accepting that psychology has two main subject matters: psychological formalism and human psychology. Psychological formalism is the science of mind and includes the cognitive, behavioural and neuro- sciences. Henriques thinks 'mind' can be conceptualized as the set of 'mental behaviours' in a manner that unites and bridges the schisms between the behavioural and cognitive sciences.

Human psychology is a sub-discipline of psychological formalism essentially dealing with how humans differ from other animals. To explain the separation, Henriques puts forward the 'Justification Hypothesis', which holds that humans are marked out from other animals by a capacity to justify their own behaviour.

The 'Justification Hypothesis' also forms an important part of Henriques' attempt to place psychology in the broader context of scientific knowledge. The 'Tree of Knowledge System', developed earlier (Henriques, 2003), posits four fundamental dimensions of complexity: matter, life, mind and culture. These directly relate to four fundamental domains of science: physical, biological, psychological and social. The 'Justification Hypothesis', therefore, links mind 'upwards' to culture and the science of psychology to the social sciences. In the opposite direction, 'Behavioural Investment Theory', links mind 'downwards' to life and theoretically unifies the psychological and biological sciences.

What, then, is achieved by the Tree of Knowledge System and creating two broad, logically consistent fields of psychology? Henriques (2004) argues that ideas will no longer be defined against each other, as has become common practice in psychology. Moreover, unifying structures do not just provide aesthetic pleasure or relief from theoretical uncertainty, but a motor for the generation of effective practice in both lab and clinic.

These ideas inspired two special issues of the Journal of Clinical Psychology (1 & 2). Some of the articles replying and responding are reviewed and discussed on my blog in a series of posts starting here.

Henriques, G. R. (2003). The tree of knowledge system and the theoretical unification of psychology. Review of General Psychology, 7, 150-182.

Henriques, G. R. (2004) Psychology Defined. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 60(12), 1207-1221.

Jeremy Dean is currently studying for an MSc in Research Methods in Psychology at University College London.
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Unusual experiences in everyday life

By Vaughan Bell, of Mind Hacks.

To generalise, most psychiatrists see themselves as applied neuroscientists, while most clinical psychologists explain psychopathology in terms of mental processes and social relationships, and make little reference to the brain. This rift is partly fuelled by a lack of research that examines how biological and psychological factors interact to cause mental ill health. One 2005 study was a notable and refreshing exception, and has provided a compelling glimpse into how stress and the dopamine system interact to predict the presence of unusual experiences in everyday life.

Dr Inez Myin-Germeys and her team recruited 50 people who had close relatives with psychosis, as well as 50 control participants who had no family history of psychosis. Relatives of people with psychosis are more likely to have slight or fleeting psychosis-like experiences, even if they never become mentally ill themselves. This makes them an interesting and important group to study, because these experiences seem to react in a similar way to full blown psychosis, but the participants are otherwise healthy and do not take medication, both of which can muddy research findings.

The research team first gave the participants a harmless infusion of 2-deoxyglucose, a substance known to cause a temporary but measurable response in the dopamine system, to see which participants would demonstrate the most dopamine reactivity. Although the neurobiology of psychosis is complex, research has shown that dopamine function (particularly in the mesolimbic pathway of the brain) plays an important role.

Many studies that examine brain function and psychosis take place in the lab, which can make it difficult to generalise the results to everyday life. Crucially, Myin-Germeys and her colleagues used a technique called ‘experience sampling’ where participants are given a watch that beeps randomly throughout the day. When the alarm sounded, the participants were asked to note their current situation, rate their levels of stress and rate the intensity of any psychosis-like experiences.

The results showed that for the relatives, those with the most reactive dopamine systems had unusual experiences (such as hearing voices or feeling unreal) in response to everyday stresses. In contrast, stress wasn’t linked to unusual experiences in any of the other participants. In other words, the presence of psychotic experiences could only be accounted for by examining a combination of genetic risk, dopamine reactivity and stress in everyday life.

This is an important finding in itself but the study has deeper implications. One of the most heated debates in science concerns whether psychiatric conditions are mainly caused by lifelong brain dysfunction or are largely the result of stress and trauma. This study is one of a growing number that are important because they suggest that a narrow view of human distress is counter-productive, and that we need to understand both the lived experience and the biology of the brain to fully comprehend it.

Myin-Germeys, I., Marcelis, M., Krabbendam, L., Delespaul, P. & van Os, J. (2005) Subtle fluctuations in psychotic phenomena as functional states of abnormal dopamine reactivity in individuals at risk. Biological Psychiatry, 58, 105-110.

Dr. Vaughan Bell is a clinical psychologist in training, working and studying between the Institute of Psychiatry and the South London and Maudsley (SLaM) NHS Trust. He is also a researcher, interested in understanding brain injury, mental distress and psychological impairment.
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Fusing psychology and neuroscience

By Chris Chatham, of Developing Intelligence.

Psychology is appealing to me partly because it requires so much stealthiness. We can't directly observe mental events, but must instead use indirect methods to test our hypotheses. We must cleverly misdirect the suspicions of our subjects, to ensure they don't guess the hypotheses being tested and thus affect our results. And, as if by magic, psychologically-informed visual illusions can reveal the mind's inner mechanisms right before our eyes.

For those who particularly admire psychology's furtive manner, neuroscience's focus on direct measurement of our mental hardware might seem crude and ordinary, at least in comparison to the artful techniques of experimental psychology. What can neuroscience add, beyond telling us that cognition happens in the brain? One answer to that question comes from a study by Vogel and Machizawa on a topic of perennial debate: the question of how much information people can hold in their short-term ‘working’ memory.

In just three pages, the authors describe how they were able to use electroencephalography (EEG) to identify waves of electrical activity on the surface of the brain that predicted how much visual information someone could hold in their working memory. Subjects first donned an elastic electrode cap, and were then asked to remember just one side (either the left or right) of a display of coloured squares. After a one second delay, subjects were asked to judge whether a second display was the same as or different from the first display.

For analysis, the authors subtracted EEG activity in the cerebral hemisphere on the same side of space (ipsilateral) as the part of the display the participants had tried to remember, from activity in the hemisphere on the opposite side (contralateral). Using this subtraction method, Vogel and Machizawa were able to isolate activity related to effortful memory processes from activity related to passive visual processing. Their results showed a wave of electrical activity over contralateral posterior parietal and lateral occipital electrodes, whose amplitude increased both with the accuracy of the subjects' response, and with the number of items that had been presented.

At first glance, this methodology might seem overly simplistic - what if the amplitude increased merely because of increases in difficulty, and/or changes in executive processing? To those who favour the more nuanced methods of psychology, these shortcomings might reflect a lack of theoretical sophistication in much of cognitive neuroscience.

And yet, a closer look reveals that some alternative explanations could potentially be ruled out: as the number of items to be remembered increases beyond an individual's capacity, one would expect a measure of executive- or difficulty-related activity to continue increasing. However, if this measure truly isolates capacity from difficulty and executive demands, it should level out at an individual's memory capacity limit.

Accordingly, Vogel and Machizawa determined that the observed wave of electrical activity did not increase as display set size increased beyond an individual's capacity, despite the fact that accuracy continued to decrease, suggesting that the EEG wave in question does indeed index the number of items maintained in visual working memory. Going even farther, the authors showed that the magnitude of amplitude increase between set-sizes could be used as an alternate measure of visual working memory capacity, because low-capacity individuals tend to "max out" their capacity sooner, and thus show less increase between supra-capacity set-sizes than higher-capacity individuals.

Some might interpret these results to mean that visual working memory capacity limits can be independent of executive functions, and given the location of the wave, that these limits arise from modality-specific processes. Others might disagree. Perhaps most inspiring, however, is the way these authors integrated the methods of neuroscience with traditional psychology: consider the use of bilateral displays and subtractive logic to equate for visual processing across both hemispheres, or the elimination of alternative explanations with careful quantitative analysis. This study exemplifies how an intelligent fusion of methods from both psychology and neuroscience can help to address questions of central importance – even those that have been hotly debated for nearly a century, such as this one.

Vogel, E.K. & Machizawa, M.G. (2004). Neural activity predicts individual differences in visual working memory capacity. Nature, 15, 428, 748-51.

Christopher H. Chatham is pursuing a PhD in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Colorado.
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The route to happiness

By Will Meek, of Vancouver Psychologist.

One of the biggest questions being tackled in the subjective well-being/happiness literature is whether we can achieve sustainable change to our happiness level, or whether we can only achieve momentary departures from our baseline disposition. The answer to this question has been different (yes, no, maybe) depending on the angles and variables employed by each researcher in attempting to answer it.

In 2005, a team of U.S. researchers developed a comprehensive model of sustainable happiness change that integrated the major lines of the subjective well-being literature. The result was a theory which proposed that up to 50 per cent of one’s happiness was rooted in a genetically determined set-point, 10 per cent was related to circumstantial factors (nation of residence, demographics, culture, income, etc), and the remaining 40 per cent was determined by intentional activities such as pursuing goals, looking at things optimistically, and being physically active. The keys to sustainable happiness change rest in these activities, and the first direct empirical validation for the theory is my favourite article from the past 3 years.

Kennon Sheldon (Cal-San Diego) and Sonja Lyubomirsky (Cal-Riverside) creatively examined differences in well-being for university students over the course of several months, capturing real life changes in life circumstances and happiness related intentional activities. The main conclusions drawn from the three studies were that changing circumstances and engaging in happiness related activities both offer a boost to one’s happiness, but that people habituate to circumstantial changes whereas continuing the activities sustained increases in happiness, subjective well-being, and psychological well-being.

“In other words, our data suggest that effort and hard work offer the most promising route to happiness. In contrast, simply altering one’s superficial circumstances (assuming they are already reasonably good) may have little lasting effect on well-being. (p.82-83).”

As a clinician who works with people trying to become happier in one way or another, this theory and research created a level of excitement and optimism about the ability of individuals to create meaningful change that few other studies have. For me, that implication combined with the creative methodology and the comprehensiveness of the theoretical model made this a standout piece of work.

Sheldon, K.M. & Lyubomirsky, S. (2006). Achieving sustainable gains in happiness: change your actions not your circumstances. Journal of Happiness Studies, 7, 55-86.

William D. Meek is a doctoral candidate in counselling psychology at the University of Missouri - Kansas City, and current pre-doctoral intern at the University of Delaware Centre for Counselling and Student Development.
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Expanding representations

By Dave and Greta Munger of Cognitive Daily.

Greta and I always have a tough time deciding on a "best" or "favorite" study. For both of us, generally, it's typically more of a yes / no distinction: either we like a study enough to write about it on Cognitive Daily, or we don't. We're both surprised when one of our posts gets noticed by a high-traffic blog or web site, and suddenly thousands of readers stop by to read it. Other studies that we like just as much rate hardly a blip in our site statistics.

That said, the work of Helene Intraub has been extremely important both in how it influences my writing in Cognitive Daily and other venues, and how it affects Greta's research and teaching. Intraub and Michael Richardson were the first researchers to identify the phenomenon of boundary extension. In boundary extension, when you see a scene such as a photograph or even a three-dimensional representation with a clear border, then your memory of that scene tends to extend beyond the original boundary: you remember the scene as larger than it actually was, sometimes even just a few seconds after seeing it. As we discussed in our March 2005 post, Intraub explains the phenomenon in this way:
Boundary extension may be due to the active creation of a mental representation of a scene. Since our mind constructs a "scene" based on scant available information (the area visible by the fovea as the eye looks at different parts of the scene), it makes sense that it might also construct a representation of parts beyond the boundary of what is actually viewable. If we "fill in the blanks" between places we've actively looked at, why not extend our representation beyond the boundaries of what we've seen as well?
Intraub's 2004 Cognition paper (ref. below) is the one we'd like to nominate as our favourite of the past three years. In a remarkable set of experiments, Intraub extends the phenomenon of boundary extension to a new modality: touch. Here's the description we wrote of the study last year:
She showed participants six different "scenes" composed of real, physical objects (groups of ordinary things like toys, books, and toiletries), each demarcated by a "boundary" of black cloth. She then had an assistant remove the boundaries and asked the participants to mark where the boundaries had been. As expected, they placed the borders well beyond where they had been in the original scenes.

Next, she blindfolded another set of participants and showed them the same scenes, with an easily detectable three-inch-tall wooden "boundary" replacing the original cloth border. When they returned later to the same scenes with the border removed (and still blindfolded), they were asked to place wooden blocks where the borders had been.

Finally, she repeated the "blindfolded" condition with a volunteer who had been deaf and blind from early childhood. Intraub calls this participant (named only by her initials, KC) a "haptic expert" because she has spent her entire life negotiating the world by the sense of touch. At the age of 25, KC was a successful college student who could easily identify the objects in the experiment by touch (the only difficulty was reminding her to use the entire 30 seconds allotted for each scene, so as to match the blindfolded group).

As you might guess now, the results for KC were the same as those from the blindfolded group: She extends boundaries in the same way sighted people do. There was one difference between the blindfolded and the vision group: the vision group showed more boundary extension than the blindfolded group, suggesting that the modalities of sight and touch are not precisely analogous.

Nonetheless, the study does raise some provocative questions about the relation between the senses and the perceptual systems that we use to understand them. Do we represent tactile regions and visual areas using the same neurological systems? Do blind people "see" the world the same way others do? Or are visual representations analogous, but separate from tactile ones? It's the type of study that makes you want to roll up your sleeves and try to understand even more. That's what the best science is all about.

The study also inspired Greta to see if other phenomena are related to boundary extension. The result was a paper coauthored with Ryan Owens and John Conway in Visual Cognition, "Are boundary extension and representational momentum related?" The experiment supported the notion that boundary extension and representational momentum are actually separate cognitive processes, even though they are both distortions of memory for a scene.

Intraub, H. (2004). Anticipatory spatial representation of 3D regions explored by sighted observers and a deaf-and-blind observer. Cognition, 94, 19-37.

Munger, M.P., Owens, T.R. & Conway, J. (2005). Are boundary extension and representational momentum related? Visual Cognition, 12, 1041-1056.

Dave Munger is a writer whose works include Researching Online and The Pocket Reader. Greta Munger is Associate Professor of psychology at Davidson College.
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Get out of my cyberspace!

If you thought online virtual worlds would be an easy-going utopia where players cast aside their awkward real-world inhibitions, think again. Online games like Second Life allow people to adopt an alternative identity and interact with other players in a vast three-dimensional world. But far from producing their own social rules, Nick Yee and colleagues at Stanford University found behavioural patterns relating to personal space and eye contact were observed in Second Life just as they are in the real world.

Over seven weeks, the researchers recorded details of 835 unique two-person interactions in Second Life, including the distance between players’ digital characters and whether they were directly facing each other. The gender of the actual players was not taken into account – only that of their digital characters. Mirroring findings in the real world, they found two characters of the same gender tended to keep a greater distance between each other than two characters of the opposite gender. Moreover, the closer two characters were, the less likely they were to be directly facing each other – reflecting a real-world phenomenon, in which people tend to make less eye-contact the closer together they are. Two men close together in an indoor environment were the least likely to make eye contact.

The researchers said their findings suggested “social interactions in online virtual environments, such as Second Life, are governed by the same social norms as social interactions in the physical world”. They added this equivalence between worlds was great news for investigators seeking to use online games as a route to researching social psychology more generally. “These online gaming environments are both a goldmine of longitudinal social interaction data as well as experimental research platforms that have a far larger population and broader demographic than the typical undergraduate pool”, they said.

Yee, N., Bailenson, J.N. & Urbanek, M. (2006). The unbearable likeness of being digital: The persistence of nonverbal social norms in online virtual environments. Cyberspace and Behaviour, In Press.
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Shadow illusion casts light on psychotic experience

A 22-year-old epilepsy sufferer with no known psychiatric problems has described the eerie feeling that a shadow-like person is mimicking her actions, when really no-one is there. She had the experience when, prior to surgery, Swiss researchers applied electrical probes to the left temperoparietal junction region of her brain. This area is known to be involved in multisensory integration and in distinguishing the self from others.

When the patient was lying down and the probe was applied, she felt as though a figure was behind her. “He is behind me, almost at my body, but I do not feel it”, she said. When she sat upright and embraced her knees, she described the unpleasant sensation that the shadow-like man was now also sitting and was clasping her arms. During a language-task in which she was asked to read out words on cards, she said “He wants to take the card; he doesn’t want me to read”.

The woman’s perceptions resemble those reported by some psychiatric and neurological patients – in particular she didn’t realise the figure was an illusion of her own body – and Shahar Arzy and colleagues concluded their findings may help understand the mechanisms behind experiences like paranoia and alien control. “It is notable that hyperactivity in the temporoparietal junction of patients with schizophrenia may lead to the misattribution of their own actions to other people”, they said.

Incidentally, the practice of exploring brain function in epilepsy sufferers prior to surgery is hardly new – the celebrated Canadian neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield famously charted some of the first somatosensory maps by observing patients’ responses when he stimulated parts of their exposed brain with an electric probe.

Arzy, S., Seeck, M., Ortigue, S., Spinelli, L. & Blanke, O. (2006). Induction of an illusory shadow person. Nature, 443, 287.

Link to related Digest item.
Link to discussion of issues raised by this research.
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Why do people use complementary medicine?

image by eggybird on flickrFrom acupuncture to homeopathy, complementary medicine is increasingly popular despite continuing doubts about its effectiveness. Now Felicity Bishop and colleagues have used an internet survey to see if people who use complementary medicine tend to think about health and illness in a distinct way.

Of 247 participants who reported having a health problem, 62 per cent said they were currently using a form of complementary medicine. Those who said they believed in holistic health (e.g. by agreeing with statements like “treatments should focus on people’s overall well-being”) were more likely to be currently using complementary medicine. So too were those participants who believed that emotional factors can cause illness, those who had a strong understanding of their illness, and those who believed it had serious consequences.

“Having a strong understanding of one’s illness relates to the emphasis found in a range of complementary and alternative medicine modalities on the importance of the individual in health, illness and treatment, and the concept of the illness as an opportunity for personal development and learning”, the researchers said.

Using complementary medicine wasn’t necessarily associated with a rejection of orthodox medicine. Participants who evaluated their GP more positively were actually more likely to use ‘mind-body’ interventions like meditation.

However, as acknowledged by the researchers, the results of this study should be treated with caution – the sample were largely well-educated women who clearly had an interest in attitudes to complementary medicine otherwise they wouldn’t have volunteered. Moreover, the study is cross-sectional in design, meaning it’s possible the health-related attitudes of the participants currently using complementary medicine could have been caused by their use of those interventions rather than the other way around.

Bishop, F.L., Yardley, L. & Lewith, G.T. (2006). Why do people use different forms of complementary medicine? Multivariate associations between treatment and illness beliefs and complementary medicine use. Psychology and Health, 21, 683-698.
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How much money to make you happy?

Who says money can’t buy you happiness? Economists Jonathan Gardner and Andrew Oswald report that winners of a medium-sized prize of between £1000 and £120,000 on Britain’s National Lottery subsequently enjoyed a significant improvement in their psychological well-being compared with others who had only a small win, or no win at all. However, the benefit wasn’t instantaneous, rather it took approximately two years to kick in – probably, the researchers surmised, because it was the act of spending the winnings, rather than the winning itself, that had a positive effect.

Gardner and Oswald made these observations after studying data collected as part of the British Household Panel Survey, a project based on yearly interviews with the same sample of over 10,000 people, conducted since 1991. The researchers had access to the participants’ lottery winnings and to their annual scores on a measure of psychological well-being called the ‘General Health Questionnaire’, which features items like “Have you recently felt under constant strain?” or “Have you recently been feeling unhappy and depressed?”.

One hundred and sixteen participants had had a win of over £1000, and changes in their psychological well-being were compared with 2943 winners of prizes smaller than £1000, and with 9677 people who had no win at all.

There were no well-being differences between groups in the year after a win. But two years after a win, those participants who’d won a medium-sized prize showed a positive change in psychological well-being of 1.22 points compared with two years prior to their win. The small prize winners and non-winners, by contrast, actually showed a drop in psychological well-being of 0.18 points over the same time period, so there was a relative difference between the groups of 1.4 points.

But what do these point differences mean in real life? Gardner and Oswald said earlier research had found being widowed was associated with an average drop in well-being of 5 points on the same measure, leading them to conclude the 1.4 point positive change enjoyed by medium-sized winners was worth writing home about – or in their words: “economically significant and not merely statistically significant”.

Gardner, J. & Oswald, A.J. (2006). Money and mental well-being: A longitudinal study of medium-sized lottery wins. Journal of Health Economics, In Press.

Link to related study by Nobel-prize winner Daniel Kahneman.
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Musical training changes children's brains

Psychologists have discovered that musical training not only changes the way young children’s brains respond to sounds – it also boosts their memory performance.

Takako Fujioka and colleagues looked at how the brains of 12 children aged between 4 and 6 years responded to two sounds – a violin tone and a burst of white noise. The children were tested on four occasions over the course of a year, during which time half of them received Suzuki music tuition.

Our brains show a characteristic wave of activity in the auditory cortex when we hear a sound. Using magnetoencephalography, the researchers found that in the children’s brains, this pattern of activity changed over the course of a year, probably reflecting the maturation of their brains. But crucially, there was an aspect of this changing brain response – between 100 and 400ms after hearing a sound – that distinguished between the groups. In the untrained children the altered response was observed in both cerebral hemispheres and after hearing either the white noise or violin. But in the musically trained children, the change was localised to the left hemisphere and was specific to the violin.

“Musical training resulted in specific changes in the responses to musical sounds but not to responses to noise stimuli, probably reflecting the development of neuronal networks specialised for important sounds experienced in the environment”, the researchers said.

Moreover, from the beginning of the year to the end, the musically trained children, but not the untrained children, showed an improvement in their memory span for numbers. “It suggests that musical training is having an effect on how the brain gets wired for general cognitive functioning related to memory and attention” said co-researcher Laurel Trainor. “It is clear that music is good for children's cognitive development and that music should be part of the pre-school and primary school curriculum” Takako Fujioka added.

Fujioka, T., Ross, B., Kakigi, R., Pantev, C. & Trainor, L.J. (2006). One year of musical training affects development of auditory cortical-evoked fields in young children. Brain, 129, 2593-2608. Open acess.
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'Senior moments' could be an early warning sign

They are often jokingly dismissed as ‘senior moments’, but older people’s concerns about their memory should perhaps be taken more seriously.

Andrew Saykin and colleagues scanned the brains of 40 people who complained about their memory, but who scored normally on neuropsychological tests – all were aged 60 or over. The imaging revealed they had reduced brain cell density in their frontal and temporal lobes when compared with 40 healthy controls with no memory complaints. Moreover, their cell loss was very similar to that observed in 40 people diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment – a condition that is associated with poor scores on neuropsychological tests, and with increased risk of full-blown dementia.

“These findings highlight the importance of cognitive complaints in the clinical evaluation of older adults and suggest that those who present with significant cognitive complaints warrant evaluation and close monitoring over time”, the researchers said.

However, the researchers noted that their sample mostly consisted of highly educated participants who had above average baseline abilities, so it’s possible that not everyone will go through a phase of feeling their memory is worsening, even while performing normally on tests. “High baseline functioning or cognitive reserve may buffer the effects of brain pathology on cognition”, they said.

Saykin, A.J., Wishart, H.A., Rabin, L.A., Santulli, R.B., Flashman, L.A., West, J.D., McHugh, T.L. & Mamourian, A.C. (2006). Older adults with cognitive complaints show brain atrophy similar to that of amnestic MCI. Neurology, 67, 834-842.

Editor's note: Don't be overly alarmed by this study - memory difficulties can be caused by a range of factors, including stress and tiredness. However, if you're worried about your memory, you should consult your doctor.
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Other eye-catching papers that didn't make the final cut this fortnight:

Suicidal young people often believe professional psychological help will be useless. Could films that feature suicidal or mentally disturbed characters reinforce this belief?

The political psychology of leadership successions. PS. No experiments here, just discussion.

The legal implications of the link between antidepressant use and violence.

If you've seen a particularly interesting looking psychology journal article, please let me know - christian[@]
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The Special Issue Spotter

How people's performance on neuropsychological tests varies around the world. (International Journal of Psychology).

Disrupting the Dynamics of Oppression in Intercultural Research and Practice. (Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology).

Research inspired by Thomas C. Schelling, who won the Nobel Prize for Economics last year "for having enhanced our understanding of conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis". (Journal of Economic Psychology).

If you're aware of a forthcoming psychology journal special issue, please let me know - email christian[@]
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