For when you've had enough of journal articles.

Are we all conspiracy theorists at heart?

A special report on neuroscience and psychology research at McGill University in Canada.

Understanding paedophilia.

People's use of deception in online dating.

Can psychoanalysis help physical illness?

The woman haunted by tragic anniversaries.

UK psychology undergrads - you could win £100 of Amazon vouchers by completing this questionnaire.
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Other studies that caught our eye this fortnight:

The concept of psychological safety.

Motherly love may have a beneficial effect on gene expression, leading to reduced susceptibility to stress in later life. (In rats, at least).

Treatment of bulimia nervosa - where are we, and where are we going?

How and when do infants learn to climb stairs.

People with poor working memory are more likely to have false memories.

Please send us links to eye-catching psychology journal articles you've spotted.
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The Special Issue Spotter

Cognitive Psychology and Survey Methodology: Nurturing the Continuing Dialogue between Disciplines. (Applied Cognitive Psychology).

Motor Development and Learning in Infancy. Emergent Family Systems. (Both are special sections in Infant Behaviour and Development).

Psychiatric Predictors of Early Drug Use and Abuse.(Drug and Alcohol Dependence).

Language and Communication. (Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Research Reviews).

Please click here to send us links to forthcoming psychology journal special issues.
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The childhood we have can affect our risk of developing PTSD later in life

Why does a life-threatening experience lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in some people but not others? According to Karestan Koenen and colleagues, at least part of the answer lies in the kind of childhood they had.

The researchers have assessed the same group of 980 people every few years since they were born in New Zealand between 1972-73. When the participants were aged 32, the researchers asked them if they'd had a terrible or frightening experience since they were aged 26 (239 had), and whether they subsequently developed symptoms indicative of PTSD (35 of them had).

Participants who had low IQ as children, who exhibited childhood antisocial behaviour, and who were from poorer families, were more likely to have developed PTSD after a traumatic experience in adulthood. These factors had a cumulative effect, so those who had more than one of the childhood risk factors were even more likely to have developed PTSD after a trauma.

The researchers believe participants who had a lower childhood IQ may have lacked the cognitive resources as adults needed to translate their traumatic event into a narrative. Meanwhile, the participants who showed antisocial behaviour in childhood may have had poor self-regulation, and so lacked the emotional tolerance necessary for processing the traumatic event. Finally, a poorer family background could indicate a less stable childhood environment, which from animal research is known to have an effect on hormone and neurotransmitter regulation in the brain, thus increasing susceptibility to PTSD.

The researchers said clinicians could benefit from taking their clients' childhood cognitive and temperamental characteristics into account. “In fact”, they wrote, “psychotherapy that combines a developmentally informed approach...with more traditional trauma-focused treatment has been shown to be highly effective in treating adult PTSD”.

Koenen, K.C., Moffitt, T.E., Poulton, R., Martin, J. & Caspi, A. (2007). Early childhood factors associated with the development of post-traumatic stress disorder: results from a longitudinal birth cohort. Psychological Medicine, 37, 181-192.
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Your personality written in your eyes

The eyes are a window to the soul, so the proverb goes. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised then that psychologists have reported characteristics of the human iris, the coloured part of the eye, correlate with aspects of personality.

Mats Larsson and colleagues compared the thickness and density of the iris in 428 participants with aspects of their personality as measured by questionnaire. They found participants who had more features called Fuchs' crypts on the surface layers of their iris (reflecting thicker tissue) tended to form warmer and more trustful attachments to other people, and experienced more positive emotions. Meanwhile, participants with more 'contraction furrows', another indicator of tissue density, tended to have more impulsive personalities. No association between eye colour and personality was found.

The researchers think the basis of the association between the iris and personality lies with the Pax6 gene, which is linked with tissue growth both in the iris and the brain. Specifically, Pax6 is implicated in development of the anterior cingulate cortex, a brain region involved in positive emotion and self-control.

“These findings support the notion that people with different iris configurations tend to develop along different trajectories in regards to their personalities”, the researchers said.

Larsson, M., Pederson, N.L. & Stattin, H. (2007). Associations between iris characteristics and personality in adulthood. Biological Psychology, In Press.
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Inspired by those who make us feel bad about ourselves

It sounds paradoxical, but people we find threatening and who make us feel bad about ourselves can have a positive effect on our performance. The key factor is whether or not their strengths match the challenge before us.

Dozens of students performed a verbal ability test after reading one of four versions of a passage about a prize-winning student called Hans. Hans was portrayed as either younger or older than the participants – the younger version was intended to be more demoralising (and pilot work confirmed a younger Hans was indeed perceived as more threatening). Secondly, Hans was said to have been awarded his prestigious prize either for his astonishing verbal ability, or for his analytical skills.

Among the students who read about an older Hans, it didn't matter whether Hans had won his prize for logic or verbal skills - all performed equally well at their own verbal task.

The crucial finding concerned the students who read about a younger, more threatening Hans. Among these students, those who read that Hans was an analytical wizard tended to outperform not just those who read about a young verbally-adept Hans, but the students who read about an older Hans too. So although he was threatening, reading about a young Hans whose strengths didn't match the verbal task acted as a spur rather than a hindrance. The message is that superior others can inspire us to try harder at tasks outside of their strengths.

The researchers, Camille Johnson and Diederik Stapel, concluded: “This research suggests that those who make us feel best about ourselves...may not be the ones that lead us to perform our best. Ironically, it appears that those colleagues that most demoralise us, and are not in our specific field may provide the greatest long-term benefit”.

Johnson, C.S. & Stapel, D.A. (2007). When different is better: Performance following upward comparison. European Journal of Social Psychology, 37, 258-275.
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Addicts underestimate the power of their own craving

Sated drug addicts who have just had a hit, underestimate the influence their craving will have on them in the future, researchers have shown. The finding echoes similar research showing that when we're in a satisfied state we underestimate the motivational force of hunger, thirst and sexual desire.

For eight weeks, George Loewenstein and colleagues studied 13 abstinent heroin addicts who were supported by a carefully controlled regimen of the heroin substitute Buprenorphine. During that time the participants were asked to make a number of real choices regarding whether in five days' time (when their next dose of Buprenorphine would be overdue) they would rather receive various cash amounts versus an extra dose of Buprenorphine (on top of the one they would get anyway).

The participants were asked to make these decisions either straight before or straight after they'd received their latest due dose of Buprenorphine. Crucially, when the participants were currently in a satisfied state, they valued an extra dose of Buprenorphine five days later at just $35, compared to $60 when they were currently in a state of craving (these are median values).

During another stage of the study, participants chose between an immediate extra dose of Buprenorphine versus cash. In this case, participants in a state of craving actually valued an extra dose of Buprenorphine at $75.

“Our results suggest that addicts under-appreciate the effects of deprivation when they are not actually deprived”, the researchers said. This tendency to underestimate the power of craving could help explain why people start to take drugs which they've been warned will be highly addictive.

Badger, G.J., Bickel, W.K., Giordano, L.A., Jacobs, E.A., Loewenstein, G. & Marsch, L. (2007). Altered states: The impact of immediate craving on the valuation of current and future opioids. Journal of Health Economics, In Press.
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It's thanks to Dad that girls are more cautious than boys

Part of the reason boys tear around recklessly having more accidents while girls are more cautious is no doubt due to their biological differences. But it could also have to do with parents treating young boys and girls differently. Now Lisa Hagan and Janet Kuebli have found tentative evidence that it is principally fathers, as opposed to mothers, who are responsible for treating girls and boys differently.

The researchers filmed 80 young children (average age 4 years) completing a mini obstacle course. The children were accompanied by one of their parents: there were 27 mothers and sons; 22 mothers and daughters; 13 fathers and sons; and 18 fathers and daughters. The researchers focused on how the parents behaved during their children's completion of two key obstacles: a five foot long beam suspended 1 and ½ feet off the ground; and a bridge (with safety railings) linking two ladders. The parents were told the study was investigating motor development in children.

In terms of how close they stayed to the children, and whether they shadowed their actions, the mothers' behaviour appeared similar whether they were with a son or daughter. By contrast, fathers with daughters tended to stand closer and shadowed their daughters' actions more closely, than did fathers with sons.

The researchers said: “The results from this study support the role of fathers as important gender socialising agents, in that it was fathers, not mothers, who differentially monitored their sons and daughters during risky situations”. In other words, Dads mollycoddle their daughters.

Hagan, L.K. & Kuebli, J. (2007). Mothers' and fathers' socialisation of preschoolers' physical risk taking. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 28, 2-14.
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How your mindset can cause a traffic accident

There's a storm of sensory information out there in the world but your brain can only process so much at once. To cope, it's armed with an attentional spotlight that allows you to focus on what you're interested in and ignore the rest.

This metaphorical spotlight is a clever piece of kit – its beam needn't be restricted like a torch to one region of space at time. It's rather more like a highlighter pen on a page – flagging up any objects that match the features, such as size and colour, that you've decided you're interested in. This is your mindset, or 'attentional set' as psychologists call it. The trouble is, what happens when a threat appears outside of your attentional set? When it comes to driving, Steven Most and Robert Astur report the consequences can be disastrous.

Fifty-six participants navigated an urban route on a driving simulator. At each cross-roads there was a sign featuring blue and yellow arrows, and the participants were told to always follow the blue arrows or always follow the yellow arrows. This instruction fixed their 'attentional set'. Then suddenly at the tenth cross-roads, a blue or yellow motorbike swerved into their path.

Crucially, for half the drivers, the bike was blue when they'd been instructed to follow yellow arrows, or vice versa. That is, the bike was inconsistent with their attentional set. These drivers braked 186ms slower than the drivers for whom the bike colour and relevant arrow colour matched. Moreover, 36 per cent of them collided with the bike compared with just 7 per cent of the drivers for whom the bike and arrows matched.

“Had this been a real situation instead of a simulation, the consequences of these collisions could have been life-threatening”, the researchers said. “It appears that attentional set wields substantial power even when the behavioural urgency of a stimulus might be predicted to override, or 'short-circuit', top-down attentional control”.

Most, S.B. & Astur, R.S. (2007). Feature-based attentional set as a cause of traffic accidents. Visual Cognition, 15, 125-132.

Link to more detail via university press release.
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The Special Issue Spotter

Is metaphor unique? Neural correlates of nonliteral language. (Brain and Language).

Universal screening for enhanced educational and mental health Outcomes. (Journal of School Psychology).

Current directions in behavioural sciences and the law. (Behavioural Sciences and the Law).

Structural equation modelling. (Personality and Individual Differences).

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

Loneliness increases the risk of Alzheimer's disease.

Women prefer men with average jobs rather than high-fliers.

Investigating the research productivity of clinical psychology trainees.

Once baseline self-esteem is taken into account, orthodontic dental treatment (correcting alignment etc) is of little positive psychological benefit.

If you've come across a fascinating piece of new psychology research, please let me know.
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For when you've had your fill of journal articles...

Free access:

The last two issues of Wellcome Science mag are packed with psychology, including articles on altruism; the brain and music; and hearing and language in babies.

The increasingly bizarre selection strategies used by employers.

Was there such a thing as repressed memory before the year 1800?

Watch how a psychology essay evolves.

Cultural anthropologist Jean Smith discusses the science of flirting (Guardian podcast).

It's better to praise children's effort rather than their intelligence (via Mind Hacks).

Your brain and how to use it: a month of neural circuit training from The Sunday Times.

Subscriptions required:

The man with a silicon brain.

Mind to mind - how brain scanning is being used to investigate communication using the power of thought alone (March issue of BBC Focus magazine).
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Valentine's special: Good news for those who've recently ended a relationship!

Valentine's day can be a lonely time for people who have recently ended a romantic relationship. But they might find solace in new research showing the huge positive impact that relationship break-up can have on a person's life.

Gary Lewandowski and Nicole Bizzoco surveyed 155 people (aged 18 to 32) who had experienced a relationship break-up in the last 11 weeks; for 25 per cent of them, it was their partner who had chosen to initiate the break up.

Fifty-eight per cent of the sample reported high levels of positive emotions following the relationship break-up, such as feeling energised and hopeful, while 71 per cent reported high levels of growth, agreeing with statements like “I have learned a lot about myself” (importantly, growth was not related to who had initiated the break-up). By contrast, just 31 per cent reported high levels of negative emotions like feeling traumatised.

“The present results indicate that growth and positive emotions may be a larger part of the relationship dissolution experience than previously thought”, the researchers said.

Key to a break-up having a positive impact was the quality of the prior relationship. The ending of a relationship that provided little opportunity for self-expansion (measured by questions like “How did knowing your partner make you into a better person?”) was more likely to be followed by positive emotions and re-discovery of the self (as measured by agreement with statements like “I have done things I once enjoyed that I could not do while I was in my relationship”).

“Rather than focusing on the negative consequences of dissolution as a reason to stay in a bad relationship, people could use the present results as a motivation for leaving the bad relationship. In fact...leaving a bad relationship is likely to result in personal growth and positive emotions”, the researchers said.

Lewandowski, G.W. & Bizzoco, N.M. (2007). Addition through subtraction: Growth following the dissolution of a low quality relationship. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 2, 40-54.
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Students: it's time to ditch the pre-exam all-nighter

Lack of sleep impairs the human brain's ability to store new information in memory, researchers have found. Past research has already shown that sleep is vital for consolidating recently-learned material but now Matthew Walker and colleagues have shown that sleep prior to learning is just as important.

“The implications of our findings have never been more relevant than in the present day, when sleep hygiene and total sleep time are declining across all age ranges”, the researchers said, pointing to the “all-nighter” before exams as the “quintessential example” of how we deliberately deprive ourselves of sleep.

The researchers scanned the brains of 28 participants who attempted to remember a series of pictures of people, landscapes, scenes and objects. Half the participants had slept the previous night as usual and acted as controls; the other participants had been kept awake, meaning they'd gone about 36 hours without sleep (the learning task was in the evening). Two days later, after everyone had two nights of normal sleep, the participants were shown more pictures and asked to identify those they'd been shown earlier in the week. Compared with the controls, the previously sleep deprived participants recognised 19 per cent fewer pictures.

Brain scans taken at the time the participants learned the pictures provided some clues as to how sleep deprivation had affected learning-related activity in the brain. Compared with the controls, the sleep deprived participants showed less activity in the hippocampus, the brain area associated with the laying down of episodic memories. Moreover, whereas the hippocampi of the controls was functionally connected with the frontal and parietal lobes, in the sleep deprived participants it was connected with basic alertness networks in the brain-stem - what the researchers said was “potentially a cooperative mechanism attempting to elevate levels of alertness during memory encoding”.

Why does lack of sleep have this effect on memory? The researchers aren't sure, but it's possible that lack of sleep denies the brain the opportunity to transfer episodic memories in the hippocampus into long term storage, so that the capacity of the hippocampus effectively becomes filled the longer we're awake.

Jyoo, S-S., Hu, P.T., Gujar, N., Jolesz, F.A. & Walker, M.P. (2007). A deficit in the ability to form new human memories without sleep. Nature Neuroscience, Advance Online Publication.

Link to related Digest item.
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We continue to blame rape victims

Researchers in Israel have found people, including psychologists, continue to allocate some blame to rape victims. The reason, they say, is that blaming rape victims allows us to maintain our belief in a just world, and to preserve our sense of control over our own lives.

Sixty male and female participants, including university students, and 24 psychotherapists (including clinical psychologists) who work with sexual offenders, were presented with a number of fictitious rape scenarios. The scenarios varied according to the sex of the victim and whether or not the rapist was a stranger, but all generally involved a victim hitching a lift from a male driver who would later rape them.

On a blame scale from one to ten, the participants held the victims responsible with an average score of 2.14. “This trend is moderate, but it exists among all subjects regardless of gender or occupation”, the researchers said.

Female participants tended to allocate less blame to a female victim than male participants did, while the opposite was true for male victims. However, overall, female victims were blamed more. The participants also blamed the victim more when the rapist was a stranger. Therapists allocated just as much blame as the student participants.

Overall, the more a participant held the victim to be responsible, the less severe they judged the rape to be, and the less serious punishment they said was deserved by the rapist.

Yael Ididis and colleagues concluded: “Despite growing public awareness of the problem of rape, this study shows that even among educated subjects, assumed to be free of prejudice, there is still a tendency to blame the victim”.

Idisis, Y., Ben-David, S. & Ben-Nachum, E. (2007). Attribution of blame to rape victims among therapists and non-therapists. Behavioural Sciences and the Law, 25, 103-120.
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Why psychologists study twins

In the second of our on-going series of guest features for psychology students, Dr. Angelica Ronald of London's Institute of Psychiatry describes the use of twin studies in psychology.

Psychologists are often trying to control one thing to look at its effect on something else. This results in the plethora of artificial experiments and carefully-matched control groups in psychological studies. The beauty of twin studies is that they provide psychologists with a natural experimental design – there’s no need for any additional control groups.

This natural design comes about because there are two types of twins: those who share all their genes (because they were formed from the same egg which split early on in development), called identical or monozygotic twins, and those who, just like non-twin siblings, share on average half their genes (they are formed from two separate eggs), called fraternal or dizygotic twins.

Twin designs address the nature-nurture question. Behaviour geneticists compare how alike one twin is with the other twin on whatever variable they are interested in; in my case this is autistic behaviours. If genes influence variation in autistic behaviours, identical twin pairs who share all their genes will be highly similar in their degree of autistic behaviours whereas fraternal twins will be much less similar. This is what we have found.

It’s the same for a diagnosis of autism: when one identical twin has autism, in 60 per cent of cases their co-twin also has autism. With fraternal twins there is a different pattern: most of the time when one twin has autism, the other does not have a diagnosis.

Just as much as twin studies have told us about genetics, they have been paramount in revealing the importance of the environment. For example, it is true that about 60 per cent of identical twins have the same autism diagnosis i.e. if one is autistic, the other is too. But in the other 40 per cent or so of identical twins, if one has autism, the other does not. This is sound proof that autism is not completely genetically determined – because if it were, both identical twins in a pair would always show the same degree of autistic problems. Genes play a role in risk but there must be some influence of the environment on the child’s outcome as well.

This example represents just the tip of the iceberg of how twin studies can contribute to psychology and our understanding of the causes of human behaviour. Of course no study design is perfect: like most research designs, the twin design has a number of assumptions, and even though it’s a natural experiment and we don’t have to control any variables, behavioural geneticists have to collect huge samples of twins (usually in the 1000’s) to be able to be certain about their findings.


Further reading:

Plomin, R., DeFries, J.C., McClearn, G.E. & McGuffin P. (2001). Behavioral Genetics (4th edn). New York: Worth Publishers.

Ronald, A., Happé, F., & Plomin, R. (2005). The genetic relationship between individual differences in social and nonsocial behaviours characteristic of autism. Developmental Science, 8, 444-458.

Ronald, A., Happé, F., Bolton, P., Butcher, L. M., Price, T. S., Wheelwright, S., Baron-Cohen, S., & Plomin, R. (2006). Genetic Heterogeneity Between the Three Components of the Autism Spectrum: A Twin Study. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 45, 691-99.

If you'd like to write a mini-feature about your area of research, please get in touch.

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Protection from the stress of being a long-term carer

Chronic disease doesn't just affect the person suffering from the illness, it can also be hugely stressful for their partner whose role becomes one of long-term carer. A key factor that can protect carers against the stress involved, according to Hoda Badr and colleagues, is for them to perceive their relationship with their ill spouse as an entity in itself, rather than seeing only two individuals.

Ninety-two people who cared for a chronically ill husband or wife answered questions about their mental health, the stress they experienced, and how they viewed their relationship. The participants' partners had been ill an average of six years, with 24 per cent suffering from cancer and 11 per cent suffering heart disease.

Those participants who said being ‘part of a couple’ was central to the way they saw themselves, appeared to be protected from the effects of stressors such as: loss of companionship, feeling unable to cope, and wishing they were free to run away. That is, among these participants with a strong 'couple identity', such stressors appeared to have a far weaker effect on their mental health. Moreover, feeling part of a couple appeared to accentuate the positive aspects of being a carer, such as having high self-esteem and feeling competent.

“Viewing the relationship as an extension of oneself may help foster a positive mindset about the caregiving experience. This in turn may help to minimize the association between the negative aspects of caregiving and poor mental health and maximize the mental health benefits of positive caregiving experiences”, the researchers concluded. However, a weakness of the study, acknowledged by the researchers, is its cross-sectional design – it's possible the carers' response to stress affected how they saw their relationship.

Badr, H., Acitelli, L.K., Taylor, C.L.C. (2007). Does couple identity mediate the stress experienced by caregiving spouses? Psychology and Health, 22, 211–229.

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Who doesn't suffer from paranoia?

Can you honestly say that alone on a dimly lit street you've never wondered if those footsteps behind are the sound of someone following you?

Increasingly, psychologists are recognising that many of the thoughts and experiences, such as paranoia, that we associate with schizophrenia are widespread among the general population.

Now Michelle Campbell and Anthony Morrison have used interviews to compare the experience of paranoia among six 'healthy' Manchester University staff and students with the paranoia experienced by six patients diagnosed with psychosis.

Many aspects of paranoia were similar across the two groups – for example, all the participants reported finding their paranoid thoughts anxiety-provoking, and they all linked their paranoia with earlier negative life experiences.

But there were also some clear differences. The staff and students had a sense of control (e.g. “I think sometimes that other people might think that I am being a bit funny but I have got to protect myself”), whereas the patients did not feel in control (e.g. “Well it is a feeling that you are not really in control of your life when people are sort of plotting against you...”). Also, the staff and students' paranoid beliefs tended to be more mundane whereas the patients' were more outlandish, for example believing that their quiz answers were being passed to an intelligence agency.

Campbell and Morrison said their findings could have clinical implications: “Negative metacognitive beliefs concerning paranoia should be challenged, particularly those relating to the uncontrollable nature of paranoia, to reduce emotional distress.”

Campbell, M.L.C. & Morrison, A.P. (2007). The subjective experience of paranoia: Comparing the experiences of patients with psychosis and individuals with psychiatric history. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 14, 63-77.
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Boredom comes from not knowing ourselves

The next time you find yourself lost in a fog of boredom during an endless, rainy Sunday afternoon, consider this new research by John Eastwood and colleagues, showing boredom has little to do with lack of external stimulation and everything to do with being out of touch with our emotions.

Two hundred and four undergrads completed questionnaires about their susceptibility to boredom, and about their emotions, including questions on describing feelings and being externally focused.

The students who said they suffered from more boredom were also more externally focused and reported difficulty identifying their emotions. Eastwood and colleagues
said this shows our natural tendency to seek outside stimulations and distractions
when we're bored is the wrong solution.

“Like the trap of quicksand, such thrashing only serves to strengthen the grip of boredom by further alienating us from our desire and passion, which provide compass points for satisfying engagement with life”, they said. Instead the researchers suggest treating boredom as an opportunity to “discover the possibility and content of one’s desires”.

Eastwood, J.D., Cavaliere, C., Fahlman, S.A. & Eastwood, A.E. (2007). A desire for desires: Boredom and its relation to alexithymia. Personality and Individual Differences, 42, 1035-1045.
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For when you've had enough of academic journals...

Does the language we speak affect the colours we see?

Why children should be taught to sing.

The mystery of consciousness (via Mind Hacks).

Shocking people into stopping smoking.

We're infected with affluenza. No we're not.
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