Expanding the frontiers of human cognition

Chris Chatham: "The goal of developmental cognitive neuroscience is to uncover those mechanisms of change which allow the mature mind to emerge from the brain. The term encompasses a wide spectrum of research with one common fundamental assumption: the point of reference for this 'mature mind' is the healthy human adult, considered the apex of cognitive development.

Consideration of this assumption inspires a fascinating question. Are such mechanisms merely a kind of one-time developmental programme which self-terminates in the mature adult? Or, more likely, are they an emergent property of young neural networks? In other words, perhaps these developmental mechanisms are no more than a cascading reduction in entropy from the "blooming, buzzing confusion" of young, uncommitted networks to the specialized and entrenched patterns of connectivity in trained networks.

Current theories of lifespan trends in intelligence converge nicely with this idea. This work has shown that while measures of both fact knowledge and problem-solving trend together in early life, problem-solving and other forms of 'fluid' intelligence mysteriously plateau by early adulthood although fact knowledge continues its upward ascent. This apparent 'crystallization' of previously fluid intelligence may be a cognitive consequence of neuronal specialization. Perhaps, then, the adult mind is an artificial end point in the developmental process, enforced by limitations in neuronal real estate.

Imagine if these limitations were not present - what new vistas might the human mind reach? High-density intracranial electrode arrays, an invasive brain-computer interface technology, may someday progress to the point where they are not so quickly rejected by the body, but are rather greeted with the same axonal-dendritic kiss by which neurons embrace each other. And rather than interfacing the brain with simple computer programmes, as this technology is often used now, it might be used to interface the brain with massive biologically accurate computational models of the cortex.

Such a 'computational extension system' could conceivably be connected to nearly any cortical region, and become functional with exposure to adequately complex input. Extensions to sensory cortices might allow for more detailed perception of auditory or visual stimuli, improved spatial processing, or an exquisitely detailed kinaesthetic sense. The system might have its most extreme effects after bidirectional connection with prefrontal cortex and midbrain neuromodulatory systems, a network known to have undergone rapid expansion since homo sapiens diverged from other primates. Might a computational extension of prefrontal cortex affect cognition as profoundly as the evolutionary expansion of prefrontal cortex?

Though clearly plagued by ethical and practical issues, such an effort could have far-reaching consequences for our understanding of the mind. First, it would suggest that cognitive development is a process that unfolds naturally within uncommitted neuronal tissue. Second, it would allow unprecedented observation of the activity of such networks throughout their developmental cycle. Third, it may broaden our understanding of exactly how expansion of the brain - whether cultural, developmental, evolutionary, or computational - influences the emergence of mind."

Christopher H Chatham is pursuing a PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He is also the author of the blog Developing Intelligence.

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Switching the parents around

Judith Rich Harris: "In a 1995 paper in Psychological Review, I proposed a new theory of child development, based on the idea that children's personalities are shaped, not by their parents, but by the environment they encounter outside the home. This proposition, I said, doesn't imply that children can get along without parents. What it does imply is "that children would develop into the same sort of adults if we left them in their homes, their schools, their neighbourhoods, and their cultural or subcultural groups, but switched all the parents around."

It was a thought experiment - I wasn't suggesting that parents should actually be switched around. What I was saying was that, given a child's genetic makeup, and given the child's environment outside the home, the environment provided by the parents inside the home would not have any noticeable impact on the child's adult personality.

The experiment is an important one but it cannot be done, and not only for practical and ethical reasons. For one thing, there's no control group. We'd need two identical universes so that we could switch the parents around in one and leave them in place in the other. Then we could compare the children in the two universes. We'd have to compare them one by one, because my prediction wasn't about group averages - it was about individual differences. But that wouldn't work either, because we already know that two children with identical genes and essentially identical outside-the-home environments - namely, reared-together identical twins - don't end up with the same adult personalities. (The personality differences between reared-together identical twins is a mystery I address in my 2006 book, No Two Alike.)

There are ways to work around these problems and show that, given a child's genetic makeup, and given the child's outside-the-home environment, the environment provided by the parents inside the home makes no noticeable difference in the long run. But it involves putting together evidence from many different sources. This evidence already exists. For example, evidence exists that identical twins reared by different parents are (on average) as similar in personality as those reared by the same parents, and that adoptive siblings reared by the same parents are as dissimilar as those reared by different parents. Evidence exists that children reared by immigrant parents have the personality characteristics of the country they were reared in, rather than those of their parents' native land. Evidence exists that environmental differences within the family, such as those associated with birth order, leave no long-term marks on children's personalities. Even in childhood, firstborns do not behave differently from laterborns when they are outside the home, playing with their agemates.

Is it less convincing to put together many little bits of evidence (as I did in The Nurture Assumption and No Two Alike) than to point to a single grand experiment that proves one's thesis conclusively? It certainly requires more patience from one's audience. But sometimes the piecemeal approach is all that is possible."

Judith Rich Harris is the author of The Nurture Assumption and No Two Alike. She is an independent investigator and theoretician.
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Can psychology save the world?

Scott Lilienfeld: "The most important psychology experiment that’s never been done would determine whether psychology can save the world.

Yes, that statement is admittedly more than a bit hyperbolic. And this experiment will probably never be conducted, at least not in our lifetimes or even our great-grandchildren’s lifetimes. But it is at least worth pondering as a Gedanken experiment. This experiment rests on three premises for which, I contend, there is substantial, although not yet definitive, support.

Premise #1: The greatest threat to the world is ideological fanaticism. By ideological fanaticism, I mean the unshakeable conviction that one’s belief system and that of other in-group members is always right and righteous, and that others’ belief systems are always wrong and wrongheaded – even to the point that others who hold them must be eliminated. Contra Hitchens (2007), religion per se is not a threat to the world, although certain religious beliefs can provide the scaffolding for ideological fanaticism, as we can see in the contemporary wave of Islamic extremism. As many historians have observed, the three most deadly political movements of the 20th century - Hitler’s Nazism, Mao Tse-Tung’s cultural revolution, and Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge - were largely or entirely secular. What unites all of these movements, including Islamic extremism, is the deeply entrenched belief that one’s enemies are not merely misguided, but so profoundly misguided that they are wicked and must be liquidated.

Premise # 2. Biased thinking is a necessary, although not sufficient, condition for ideological fanaticism. Among the most malignant biases, and those most relevant to ideological fanaticism, are: (1) Naïve realism: the erroneous belief that the world is precisely as we
see it (Ross & Ward, 1996). Naïve realism in turn often leads to the assumption that “because I perceive reality objectively, others who disagree with me must be foolish, irrational, or evil” (see Pronin, Puccio, & Ross, 2002); (2) Bias blind spot (“not me” bias): the erroneous belief that we are not biased, although others are (Pronin, Gilovich, & Ross, 2004); and (3) Confirmation bias: the tendency to selectively seek out information consistent with one’s beliefs and to ignore, minimize, or distort information that that is not (Nickerson, 1998).

Premise # 3: Critical thinking is the most effective (partial) antidote against ideological fanaticism. By critical thinking, I mean thinking designed to overcome one’s biases, especially the three aforementioned biases.

Regrettably, malignant biases in thinking are virtually never addressed explicitly or even implicitly in educational curricula, which is troubling given that so much of everyday life - left-wing political blogs, right-wing political talk radio, political book buying habits (Krebs, 2007), ad infinitum - reinforce them. Moreover, our selection of friends can generate not only communal reinforcement for our biases (Carroll, 2003), but the erroneous belief that our views are shared by most or all other reasonable people (i.e., a false consensus effect; Ross, Greene, & House, 1977). In some Islamic countries, of course, much of the educational curriculum comprises indoctrination into a cultural and religious worldview that implies that one’s enemies are mistaken, blasphemous, and despicable. In the United States, some social critics (e.g., Bloom, 1987; Horowitz, 2007) have charged that the higher educational system typically engenders an insidious indoctrination into left-wing ideology. The merits of these arguments aside, it is undeniable that even among highly educated individuals (a group that includes many or most terrorists; Sageman, 2004), the capacity to appreciate views other than one’s own is hardly normative.

So, the most important psychological experiment never done would (1) begin with the construction of a comprehensive evidence-based educational programme of debiasing children and adolescents in multiple countries against malignant biases, (2) randomly assign some students to receive this program and others to receive standard educational curricula, and (3) measure the long-term effects of this debiasing program on well-validated attitudinal and behavioural measures of ideological fanaticism. To some extent, the goal of this program would be to inculcate not merely knowledge but wisdom (Sternberg, 2001), particularly aspects of wisdom that necessitate an awareness of one’s biases and limitations, and the capacity to recognize the merits of differing viewpoints (e.g., Meacham, 1990 see p.181-211 here).

The greatest obstacle to conducting this experiment, aside from the sheer pragmatic difficulty of administering a large scale curriculum across multiple countries, is the surprising paucity of research on effective debiasing strategies. Nevertheless, at least some controlled research suggests that encouraging individuals to seriously entertain viewpoints other than their own (e.g., “considering the opposite”) can partly immunize them against confirmation bias and related biases (Kray & Galinsky, 2003; Wilson, Centerbar, & Brekke, 2002). Whether such educational debiasing efforts, implemented on a massive scale, would help to inoculate future generations against ideological fanaticism, is unknown. But launching such an endeavour by conducting small-scale pilot studies would seem to be a worthwhile starting point."

Dr Scott O Lilienfeld is Professor of Psychology, Emory University, Atlanta.

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Why is learning slow?

Richard Gregory: "Why is learning slow? Is it set by physiological (hardware) limitations, or is it due to cognitive (software) strategy?

As learning can be single-trial, in dangerous situations, the general slowness may well be a cognitive strategy - following Mill's Methods for induction. Many instances are needed to establish that A is related to B. The more the noise (and other possibilities etc.), the more instances are needed, so learning should be slower.

The experiment would control environment 'noise', to see whether learning is generally faster in a simpler, more easily predictable world.

I tried this 50 years ago on Guppy fish, but they died! (The tank had metal sheets with many regular holes, giving moire patterns, which moved more or less consistently with the movements of the fish.)

If children are brought up in a simpler, more regular environment - do they learn faster, with fewer trials? Would this extend to any learning? How generally is the inductive strategy applied?"

Professor Richard L. Gregory CBE FRS is Emeritus Professor of Neuropsychology at the University of Bristol.

Photo credit: Martin Haswell.

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Caring for psychotic patients with maximum kindness and minimum medication

Richard Bentall: "It is difficult to decide on the most important psychology experiment that has never been conducted, but the most important one in psychiatry is not hard to identify. Since Haenri Laborit discovered the psychological effects of chlorpromazine in the late 1940s, anti-psychotic medication has been the first-line (and often only) treatment offered to psychotic patients throughout the world. The evidence from clinical trials in favour of this approach appears impressive at first sight, but the drugs have terrible side effects, and their continued use at high doses is associated with a demonstrable reduction in life expectancy (Waddington et al. 1998). Because they are so unpleasant to take, often causing dysphoria and loss of motivation, many patients discontinue them, and this is true of the new atypical anti-psychotics despite their alleged kinder side effect profiles (Lieberman et al. 2005). Although patients who stop their medication in this way have a high probability of relapse, some of the exacerbations of symptoms that are observed are probably a rebound effect caused by the treatment rather than a return of a pre-existing illness – there is evidence that long-term anti-psychotic use leads to a proliferation of dopamine D2 receptors, thereby increasing the sensitivity of the dopamine system and exacerbating the very physiological dysfunction that the drugs are designed to treat. Hence patients who withdraw gradually are less likely to relapse than those who stop their medication suddenly (Moncrieff, 2006).

Bola (2006) recently reported a meta-analysis of clinical trials in which the majority of patients were experiencing their first episode of illness, in which some patients were unmedicated, and in which the follow-up period was at least one year. Amazingly he could identify only six studies that met these criteria and the evidence suggested that unmedicated patients did at least as well and possibly better than medicated patients in the long-term. One of the studies was the controversial Setoria project devised by Leon Mosher (1999), who devised a system of caring for acutely distressed psychotic patients with maximum kindness and minimum medication. No formal psychotherapy was provided, and the patients were looked after by untrained graduates who dealt with their difficulties with acceptance and emotional support. Despite evidence that Setoria patients did as well as first-episode patients treated in conventional psychiatric services, and the fact that Mosher was director of schizophrenia research for the US National Institute of Mental Health, NIMH closed down the project, probably because of pressure from the pharmaceutical industry (Whitaker, 2002).

In Britain, over the last decade, clinical psychologists have pioneered the development of cognitive-behavioural interventions for patients with psychosis, with promising results (Tarrier & Wykes, 2004). However, CBT has always been offered in combination with conventional antipsychotic drugs. Even though Soteria and CBT come from different philosophical roots, close examination of the two approaches reveals many common features, including acceptance and the normalization of symptoms. Psychiatric patients need to know the results of a clinical trial in which a CBT version of Soteria is compared to treatment as usual. Unfortunately, given the corrupting influence of the pharmaceutical industry (Angell, 2004) they are likely to have to wait for a very long time."

Professor Richard Bentall is at the University of Wales, Bangor, and is the author of several books on the topic of mental illness, including 'Madness explained; psychosis and human nature'.

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Personal psychology experiments

Will Meek: "When asked to share my thoughts on the most important psychology experiment that has never been done, my mind went wild. Could it be a more intensive follow-up to the famous Milgram or Zimbardo studies that would be completely unethical? Could it be something more practical but visionary like a gigantic international clinical trial testing the efficacy of non-directive insight-oriented psychotherapy for depression? Could it be something completely impossible, which hypothetically-speaking would be the most important experiment of all time? Like determining the effect of culture on personality?

Instead, when I really think about “psychology”, the study of the mind and behaviour, I think about individuals and the personal science we all utilize to understand our unique lives. We experiment constantly to explain, grow, create meaning, and move toward fulfilment, wholeness, aliveness, self-actualization, or whatever other word you can use to describe this process.

Based on this, the greatest psychology experiment never (not yet) done is the next experience, challenge, or adventure that You have yet to attempt that will take you to the next level of your life. It may be something that will test your strength, identity, and spirit; it may take place individually or interpersonally; and it may be pleasant or painful, but ultimately it will be something to advance You.

We all may have personal “important experiments” that we decided not to conduct (e.g. moving against the Zeitgeist of our industry, or expressing a complicated feeling to a partner for the first time) and an infinite amount more that are on our radar screens or just beyond. Most of these experiments are never discussed or shared, they aren’t written about or published in journals, and some are even conducted outside of our awareness, but this experimental process is an essential part of our existence."

Dr Will Meek is a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Delaware Centre for Counselling & Student Development (USA), and writes weekly at staffpsychologist.com.

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Watching death

Susan Blackmore: "What happens when we die? Surely everyone wonders about this very human question, and it’s certainly caused much dissent between religion and science. While most scientists think that death must be the end of personal consciousness, most religious believers expect their soul or spirit to survive.

How can we find out the truth?

We know that roughly ten per cent of people who come close to death have “near-death experiences” (NDEs) in which they seem to travel down a dark tunnel towards a bright, warm light; see their body from above; experience vivid memories; and even enter another world or meet gods, angels or spirits. A few have mystical experiences of oneness with the universe, or experience the dissolution of the illusory self.

All these experiences can be accounted for, in principle, by disorganised activity in the dying brain. Yet this argument does not convince believers who argue that after all the brain activity stops, the soul or spirit still carries on.

Then there are claims that NDEers have observed details of the accident scene, hospital ward, or medical apparatus that they could not have seen with their physical eyes because they were unconscious at the time. These claims depend critically on timing, with believers saying the experiences happen during unconsciousness or clinical death, while sceptics argue they occur just before or afterwards. But without any means of timing the experiences this cannot be tested.

Some experimenters have placed concealed targets in cardiac care units, hoping that patients close to death may be able to see them, so proving they have really left their body, but no positive results have been obtained. This is what the sceptics would expect but is no proof that they are right.

So the impasse remains.

The most important experiment that’s never been done is to take fMRI or PET scans of people as they die; either those who really do go on to die, or those who suffer clinical death but are resuscitated. If this were done we would be able to test theories about how NDEs and mystical experiences are generated in the dying brain, and answer questions about the timing of the experiences. Perhaps even this would not resolve the final question once and for all, but it would certainly bring us a lot closer to knowing what happens when we die.

And why has it not been done? Because when someone is dying it is far more important to try to save their life than to do a scientific experiment. Nevertheless it could be done, and I hope that one day the technology will be so unobtrusive and easy to use that the ethical problem will disappear and we will be able to watch the dying brain as easily as we can now watch the living brain.

I think it would help us face death with more equanimity."

Dr Susan Blackmore is a freelance writer, lecturer and broadcaster, and a Visiting Lecturer at the University of the West of England, Bristol. (Photo credit: Jolyon Troscianko).

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A 2 x 3 x 3 x 2 x 2 x 3 x 2 x 3...experiment on the effects of contact on reducing prejudice and discriminatory behaviour

Pam Maras: "Social Identity Theory (SIT, Tajfel and Turner 1979) has been dominant in social psychological research for nearly 30 years, initially in Britain but now more widely. It has evolved and nuanced but is essentially still based on fundamental principles that we categorise ourselves and others and this affects the way that we think about other people and affects our own social lives. SIT has been suggested as a basis for reducing prejudice (Hewstone and Brown, 2005) in conjunction with Contact Theory (Allport, 1954). However, although supported by a wealth of experimental studies and increasingly complicated experimental designs, SIT has rarely, if ever, managed to achieve Tajfel's main aim to explain large-scale human discriminatory behaviour such as found in WW2.

For me, the most important experiment that was never done would be on contact, and would include independent variables to meet all of Allport's criteria: equal status, valued differences, cooperation and institutional support (at the highest level) for the contact situation. Dependent measures would be specific and generalised attitudes and behaviour towards a stigmatised group, as well as levels of anxiety about the contact.

Will my experiment ever be carried out? Probably not in a lab, and there lies a dilemma for experimental social psychology. My most important experiment would have an infinite number of cells, be ethically unsuitable and those factors essential to Allport’s theory would be impossible to manipulate as they are embedded in history and culture and not the increasingly sophisticated tool-kit of experimental psychology and intergroup relations. However, my experiment is already happening in the day-to-day lives of people and communities across the world. So the only way to run my experiment meaningfully would be in a real life context in specific real life situations (e.g. see Maras & Brown, 1996; 2000) or in large-scale applied studies in collaboration with scientists from other disciplines such as economics, anthropology, social welfare and political sciences (e.g. see Silbereisen's 2005 study with sociologists and economists on adolescent development in the wake of German unification). Will my real life experiment ever be unnecessary? Personally, I hope so, but there is the conundrum because if Allport's criteria are correct and met what would we have left to research?"

Professor Pam Maras is President of the British Psychological Society.

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Portsmouth University claims T-shirt will make your baby smarter

The University of Portsmouth have launched a "clever baby" t-shirt for breast-feeding mothers (pictured, right), which they claim could make nursing babies "become smarter".

The University's press release says studies show "high contrast colours, especially black and white, register powerfully on a baby’s retina and send strong visual signals to the brain - the equivalent of a visual workout for the baby. It increases neurological connections in the brain and aids crucial cognitive development."

I'm not aware of any published research suggesting that babies' cognitive development is enhanced by them spending an unusual amount of time staring at swirly black lines against a white background, and the university's press release is not forthcoming in providing any references to properly controlled trials of this new t-shirt.

Of course development of the visual cortex is a dynamic, interactive process that depends on exposure to rich visual inputs. Indeed, David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel won the Nobel prize for Physiology in 1981 for their discovery of how the visual cortex of cats was shaped by their early visual experiences.

But crucially, with the world around us already full of so much visual variety - so many colours, shades and shapes, lines, corners, movement and shadows - it seems risible to suggest that a few black swirls on a t-shirt will make any beneficial difference at all to a baby's maturing cortex. I will gladly stand corrected (email me) if a properly controlled study has shown this t-shirt brings the benefits it claims.

Link to Portsmouth University press relesase.
Link to Nobel press release on 1981 prize for physiology (scroll down, Sperry also won the prize that year and an account of his work comes first).

Disclaimer: the views expressed here are mine, not the British Psychological Society's.
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The Special Issue Spotter

We trawl the world's journals so you don't have to:

Learning from experience (Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry).

Can neuroimaging help us in understanding the biological causes of schizophrenia? (International Review of Psychiatry).

Advances in Self-Determination Theory research in sport and exercise (Psychology of Sport and Exercise).

Encephalitis: Assessment and rehabilitation across the lifespan (Neurorehabilitation).

Current directions (Behavioural Sciences and the Law).
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Brain scanning the fruit fly

Scientists have published staggering new images of the fruit fly using a new technique called 'optical projection tomography' - check out the movie below which shows optical sections through the frontal plane of an adult fly. The fluorescent channel (green) delineates the anatomy, and the brightfield channel (red) marks out the exoskeleton.

The technique means scientists no longer have to dissect the flies by hand to observe how genetic changes influence the loss of brain cells.

According to Dr Mary O’Connell of the MRC Human Genetics Unit, who led the research, the brain cell loss that affects humans in conditions like Alzheimer's, also affects insects. "In the autumn, bees and wasps often develop erratic behaviour before they die," she said.

Now with this new imaging technique the researchers will be able to look at how changes in gene activity are related to brain changes in the fly. And because fruit flies share many of the same genes as humans, the research will help us understand disease processes in humans too. The findings are published in the open-access journal PLoS One.

Link PLoS journal article.
Link to MRC press release.
Hat tip: Guardian Science.
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Eye-catching studies that I didn't get a chance to report on in full:

See here for Wikipedia on DBT.
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Behind the news

Connecting you with the psychological science behind the news:

1. Stressed mothers hold baby on the right (the Telegraph).
Cradling linked to depression in new mothers (the Guardian).

Here is the journal source. Here is the lead author.

2. Brain type may dictate politics (the Guardian).
Brainwave clue to political persuasion (the Telegraph).

Here is the journal source. Here is the lead author.

3. Parents warned of additives link (BBC News online).
Additives can make any child 'hyperactive' (the Scotsman).

Here is the journal source. Here is the lead author.

4. Depression 'is worse for your health than asthma or diabetes' (Daily Mail).
Depression more harmful than angina, says study (the Guardian).

Here is the journal source. Here is one of the authors.
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What are the long-term effects of weed? Three experts provide their view.

TV is good for you. Article discusses research showing cable TV is having an empowering effect on women in rural India.

Stop this idiocy now. Opinion piece attacks the worth of research comparing men and women's colour preferences.

Interview with intuition expert Gerd Gigerenzer, who has a new book out: 'Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious' (free registration required).

Child psychologist Tanya Byron explains why she won't be making any more TV parenting programmes.

The nocebo effect: how expecting something will make you sick, can make you sick.

The effect of video games on cognition.

Is it possible to have too much ambition at work?

We have become a more vengeful and punitive society (opinion piece).

How to write effective emails (book review).

The effect on a couple's relationship when one person develops a mental illness (podcast).

Steve Pinker is on tour promoting his new book, The Stuff of Thought, and in Oct will be in several towns in the UK.

The sanity of hiring the mentally ill - how Hire-Ability in San Francisco helps poor people with mental illness into employment.
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How do people change during psychotherapy - the clients' perspective

Presumably the goal of psychotherapy is some kind of psychological change for the better, but what is that change and how does it happen? Psychological models refer to such things as 'stages of change' and assimilation, but few researchers have sought the views of clients who have undergone therapy.

Tim Carey and colleagues conducted loosely structured, hour-long interviews with 18 women and 9 men who had completed an average of six sessions of cognitive-based psychotherapy (either Method of Levels or CBT) for conditions like depression, anxiety or addiction.

The 22 participants who said they had changed during therapy were unable to come up with a definition of psychological change, but they described their experience in terms of acceptance, behavioural changes, new beginnings and a return to positive emotional states.

Accounts of when change occurred tended to be paradoxical – the participants talked of a gradual process that occurred at an identifiable moment. “It was gradual but the realisation was sudden,' one client said.

Many of the participants could remember the exact moment they became aware a change had occurred: “I could actually hear it,” one participant said; others spoke of their surroundings: “I was in the pool with my husband.”

The clients' descriptions of how change occurred fell into six themes: motivation and readiness (“I was desperate to get back to my old self”); tools and strategies (“It's the changes in behaviour that I learned”); learning (“I would take a lot of stuff home to read about assertiveness”); interaction with therapist (“...they don’t judge your character or think they know you”); perceived aspects of self (“I am a strong person mentally”); and the relief of talking (“Let me get everything out, let me relieve myself of everything”).

The researchers said that while many of these insights are not new – for example they point to factors identified as crucial by psychologists like the importance of the therapeutic alliance and readiness to change – what is new is that “these descriptions have come from the people experiencing the change rather than other sources, and the descriptions were not guided by assumptions about any particular stages of change model.”

Carey, T.A., Carey, M., Stalker, K., Mullan, R.J., Murray, L.K. & Spratt, M.B. (2007). Psychological change from the inside looking out: A qualitative investigation. Counselling and Psychotherapy Research, 7, 178-187.
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The evolution of memory in a paragraph

"Energy fell on an ancient cell; the cell registered. Some prodding set off a chemical cascade that incised the cell and changed its structure, forming a cast of the signals that fell on it. Eons later, two cells clasped, signalling each other, squaring the number of states they might inscribe. The link between them altered. The cells fired easier with each fire, their changing connections remembering a trace of the outside. A few dozen such cells slung together in a slowly moving slug: already an infinitely reshaping machine, halfway to knowing. Matter that mapped other matter, a plastic record of light and sound, place and motion, change and resistance. Some billions of years and hundreds of billions of neurons later, and these webbed cells wired up a grammar - a notion of nouns and verbs and even propositions. Those recording synapses, bent back onto themselves - brain piggy-backing and reading itself as it read the world - exploded into hopes and dreams, memories more elaborate than the experience that chiseled them, theories of other mind, invented places as real and detailed as anything material, themselves matter, microscopic electro-etched worlds within the world, a shape for every shape out there, with infinite shapes left over: all dimensions springing from this thing the universe floats in. But never hot or cold, solid or soft, left or right, high or low, but only the image, the store. Only the play of likeness cut by chemical cascades, always undoing the state that did the storing. Semaphores at night, cobbling up even the cliff they signaled from."

From The Echo Maker by Richard Powers, a novel about a Capgras sufferer; the hazy boundary between representation and reality; the limits of biological accounts of psychological phenomena; and the disintegration of an Oliver Sacks-like neurologist who made his name telling curious tales of brain-damaged patients. All set against the backdrop of the spectacular spring migrations of American Sandhill cranes.
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Biting on pen impairs people's emotion recognition

Have you ever noticed how, when two people are talking, they seem to mimic each other's facial expressions?

Some psychologists say this is simply a case of emotions being contagious. However, others go further, arguing this mimicry plays a functional role; that by copying someone else's facial expression it helps us to better understand how they are feeling.

Now Lindsay Oberman and colleagues have tested the idea that if mimicry really does play a functional role, then disrupting our ability to mimic should interfere with our recognition of other people's facial expressions.

And that's exactly what they found when twelve students were asked to categorise morphed photographs of people's faces showing varying degrees of happiness, sadness, fear or disgust.

To disrupt their ability to mimic, the students clenched a pen between their teeth, an act that exercises many of the muscles needed to perform facial expressions. This significantly impaired the students' ability to correctly identify happiness, and to some extent also their ability to identify disgust. The identification of sadness and fear was unaffected, perhaps because these emotions are expressed less through the facial musculature and more through body posture and tone of voice. By contrast a happy expression is known to involve many facial muscles.

A control condition in which the students held a pen lightly between their lips (no use of face muscles) did not interfere with recognition of facial expression. Neither did chewing gum, which involves the facial muscles only intermittently.

“Our findings are consistent with the proposal that people's ability to understand emotions in others involves simulating their states,” the researchers said.

Oberman, L.M., Winkielman, P. & Ramachandran, V.S. (2007). Face to face: Blocking facial mimicry can selectively impair recognition of emotional expressions. Social Neuroscience, 2, 167-178.

More on emotion and face recognition from the Digest:

Link to related Digest item showing violent video games slow our recognition of happy faces.
Link to related Digest item showing cryptic crosswords impair face recognition.
Link to related Digest item showing we're better at recognising the emotions of people we identify with.
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Investigating the role of genes in boys' and girls' science ability

Former Harvard president Larry Summers caused a storm in 2005 when he suggested part of the reason women are under-represented in science is because of innate, biological differences between the sexes.

Now, for the first time, researchers in London have looked at the amount of genetic and environmental influence on girls' and boys' science ability. Their finding: nine-year-old girls are just as good at science as nine-year-old boys, and genes and environment affect the science ability of both sexes in just the same way, and to just the same extent.

Claire Haworth and colleagues looked at the science ability (as assessed by teachers) of a sample of 2,602 pairs of 9-year-old twins. Some of the twins were identical, meaning they shared all the same genes; the other twins were non-identical, meaning they shared 50 per cent of their genes, on average, just like non-twin siblings.

The bigger the role played by genes in nine-year-olds' science ability, the more similar (to each other) pairs of identical twins should be in science ability, relative to non-identical twins. And if genes are more important to the science ability of girls than boys, then this difference between identical and non-identical twins, in terms of similarity of science ability, should be greater among female twins than among male twins.

In fact, the researchers found the boys and girls were equally good at science on average, and that genes accounted for about 60 per cent of variation in science ability in both sexes. The remaining variation in science ability was explained, for both sexes, by non-shared features of the environment. These are experiences that have uniquely affected one twin but not the other, even though both siblings have mostly been raised and taught together.

The researchers said their findings “may be useful at a practical level for teachers to recognise that differences among children in their science performance are not just due to differences in effort - genetic sources of differences are also important.”

Moreover, the researchers said that, in the future, specific genes that account for the heritability of science ability may be discovered, thus allowing scientifically weaker children to be helped before problems occur.

Haworth, C.M.A., Dale, P.S. & Plomin, R. (In Press). A twin study into the genetic and environmental influences on academic performance in science in nine-year-old boys and girls. International Journal of Science Education.

Link to related Digest item on enticing more girls into science.
Link to related Digest item on the importance of female role-models.
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The psychology of saving

Instead of saving, we're spending money like there's no tomorrow. In the UK, between 2000-2002, the average amount of household income saved had fallen to 5.9 per cent from an average of 9 per cent between 1990-1999.

Before now psychologists have examined differences between people who plan to save and those who don't. They haven't looked at whether those intending to save actually do. Now Anna Rabinovich and Paul Webley have done just that.

The researchers used data collected over several years as part of the the Dutch DNB Household Survey. This included 1360 people who said they planned to save over the next two years and did, and 89 people who also said they planned to save over that time period, but failed.

The successful savers differed from the failed savers in what the researchers called their 'time horizon' – that is, the time they said was most important to them tended to be further in the future.

The successful savers also used effective techniques to control their spending, such as setting up an automatic transfer of funds into a savings account every month. This and other techniques used by the successful savers all had one thing in common – they made the saving process partly automatic and so less dependent on willpower. By contrast, the failed savers used ineffective techniques like keeping only small amounts of cash on them when they went out.

The researchers also predicted that people who thought saving would be easy, would turn out to be more successful at saving (they assumed their confidence stemmed from having good self-control), but actually, perceived easiness of saving was not related to saving success or failure.

To test the generalisability of their findings to people from a developing country, the researchers also looked at data from 153 people sampled in Belarus, and found broadly similar results.

Rabinovich, A. & Webley, P. (2007). Filling the gap between planning and doing: Psychological factors involved in the successful implementation of saving intention. Journal of Economic Psychology, 28, 444-461.

Link to related Digest item on credit card choice.
Link to related Digest item on how much money to make you happy.
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Children with autism are immune to contagious yawning

Have you ever noticed that yawning is so contagious it can spread round a room like a Mexican wave? Scientists still aren't in agreement as to why this happens but one idea is that the phenomenon depends on our capacity for empathy. This finds support in a new study showing for the first time that children with Autistic Spectrum Disorder, in whom empathy is believed to be impaired, are immune to the contagious effects of yawning.

Twenty-four children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder - mostly boys aged between 7 and 15 years - and twenty-five age-matched non-autistic children, watched a series of 7-second videos showing people yawning. Control videos showed people opening their mouths but not yawning. Between each video, one-minute long silent cartoons kept the children's attention.

Footage of the children taken while they were watching the videos showed, as expected, that the non-autistic children yawned more during and after seeing a video of a person yawning, than after watching a control video. By contrast, the children with autism yawned no more after seeing a yawn video than after a control video – they appeared to be immune to the contagious effects of yawning. This remained true even after the researchers controlled for the effects of age and intelligence.

Past research has found that seeing the eye region of someone yawn is key to the yawn's contagious effects. So perhaps the fact that people with autism are known to focus more on the mouth region of people's faces, rather than the eyes, could partly explain the current findings.

Atsushi Senju and colleagues said their results “support the claim that contagious yawning and the capacity of empathy share common neural and cognitive mechanisms.” They added it would be interesting for future research to look at whether contagious yawning is impaired in other conditions in which empathy is compromised, such as psychopathy or frontal-temporal dementia.

Senju, A., Maeda, M., Kikuchi, Y., Hasegawa, T., Tojo, Y. & Osanai, H. (In Press). Absence of contagious yawning in children with autistic spectrum disorder. Biological Letters.

Link to full-text pdf.
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Woman hears speech-impaired voices

The case of a woman who started hearing speech-impaired voices after a bike accident, has lent support to the idea that auditory hallucinations can be caused by people misidentifying their own inner voice as not belonging to them.

The 63-year-old woman was unconscious for a week and was only able to communicate in short phrases after coming around, probably because of the extensive damage she suffered to the left-hand side of her brain (a condition known as aphasia).

A few months later she developed signs of epilepsy and started hearing voices that weren't there – at first the voices sounded like her own but from the outside, then she heard the voices of hospital staff. In both cases, these hallucinatory voices spoke in very simple and short sentences mirroring her own real-life speech deficit. When her seizures were controlled with drugs, her auditory hallucinations stopped, suggesting epilepsy was the underlying physiological cause of her hearing voices.

The fact the woman heard voices that shared her speech impairment provides unique support for the popular hypothesis that people with psychosis who hear voices do so because they are misidentifying their own inner speech as coming from outside the self.

Hubl, D., Hauf, M., van Swam, C., Muri, R., Dierks, T. & Strik, W. (2007). Hearing dysphasic voices. The Lancet, 370, 538.
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Psychology on Newsnight

Following the sad death of Jane Tomlinson who devoted years of her life to charity work, last night's edition of Newsnight on BBC 2 featured an item on altruism, involving Blair's former spinmeister Alistair Campbell (who is also known for his charity efforts) and psychologist Dr Aric Sigman. Paxman asks "What is the mental alchemy that takes the capacity for despair and turns it into something positive?". Among his contributions, Sigman explains the little known fact that caring and sharing - being altruistic - is one of the best forms of medicine and has been shown to have immunological benefits. (The item begins 37.49 mins into the programme).

Also on the Newsnight website is a recent video about the Flynn effect - the rise in IQ scores that has been observed around the world's developing nations over the last 50 years or so. The effect's discoverer Professor Jim Flynn features, as does Steven Johnson, author of 'Everything that's bad is good for you', and intelligence expert Nicholoas Macintosh. Flynn thinks we've become better at categorising the world (rather than seeing things in purely utilitarian terms as our ancestors did). Johnson thinks we should thank computer games and popular culture. Macintosh cautions that IQ tests are limited in what they measure.

Link to Newsnight programme featuring altruism feature (forward to 37.49 mins).
Link to Newsnight video on the Flynn effect and popular culture.
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Eye-catching new studies I didn't get round to covering in full:

How looking at naughty pictures can lead to transient blindness (no, not for the traditional reason you might think).

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Free full-text access to Sage neuroscience journals

Following their free access promotion to their psychology journals (ongoing to the end of this month), the academic publisher Sage is now offering free full-text access to its range of neuroscience and neurology journals, including: the American Journal of Alzheimer's Disease and Other Dementias; the Journal of Biological Rhythms; the Journal of Child Neurology; the Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry and Neurology; Multiple Sclerosis; Neurorehabilitation and Neural Repair; and The Neuroscientist. The only catch is that you have to register and the free trial runs out at the end of October.

Link to Sage neuroscience and neurology free access promotion.
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Behind the news

Connecting you with the science behind the news:

1. At last, science discovers why blue is for boys but girls really do prefer pink (The Times).
Girls really do prefer pink, study shows (The Telegraph).
And check out Bad Science's critique.

Here is the lead author. Here is the journal source.

2. Why kissing means more to women (BBC).
Fate of a couple is sealed with first kiss (The Times).

Here is the lead author. Here is the journal source (free full-text access).

3. Chocoholics like drug addicts, scientists say (The Telegraph).
Brain scans pinpoint how chocoholics are hooked (The Guardian).

Here is the lead author. Here is the journal source.

4. Cradling linked to depression in new mothers (The Guardian).
'Stressed' mothers hold baby on the right (The Telegraph).

Here is the lead author. Here is the journal source.
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Children with Tourette's show superior grammatical ability

Children with Tourette's syndrome, the motor disorder characterised by involuntary tics, are more skilled than healthy control children at processing certain forms of grammar. That's according to Matthew Walenski at the Brain and Behaviour Lab at Georgetown University and colleagues, writing in Neuropsychologia.

The researchers presented eight children with Tourette's and eight control children with sentences containing a verb in the present tense. The children's task was to produce the correct past tense form of the verb as accurately and quickly as possible. The children were also asked to name pictures of objects that are either 'manipulable' (e.g. a hammer) or not (an elephant).

The children with Tourette's responded more quickly than the controls on those aspects of the tasks that were considered to depend on procedural memory – such as when producing past tenses of regular verbs and naming objects that can be manipulated, but they responded with similar speed to the controls when performance depended on declarative memory – such as when giving the past tense of irregular verbs or naming non-manipulable objects.

Procedural memory is rooted in the frontal/basal ganglia circuits of the brain and these areas are known to be structurally abnormal in people with Tourette's. The researchers said it was likely this association explained the superior performance of the children with Tourette's.

Past studies involving children and adults with Tourette's have tended to focus on their involuntary verbal tics, rather than investigating their actual language abilities. Co-researcher professor Michael Ullman said: 'These children were particularly fast, as well as largely accurate, in certain language tasks. This tells us that their cognitive processing may be altered in ways we have only begun to explore, and moreover in a manner that may provide them with performance that is actually enhanced compared to that of typically-developing children.'

The new findings follow a study published last year that showed people with Tourette's have enhanced cognitive control relative to healthy participants, as shown by their ability to switch task sets without the usual reaction time cost.

This item is taken from the news section of The Psychologist magazine, another serving from the table of the British Psychological Society.
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The Special Issue Spotter

We trawl the world's journals so you don't have to:

The baby's place in the world (Infant Mental Health Journal). According to the editorial, this collection aims to "truly consider 'the baby’s place in the world,' and to rethink our understanding of the impact of the many problematic experiences that the developing infant encounters—both within the context of the immediate rearing environment and the broader social and geopolitical influences on family functioning."

Power in community psychology research and practice (Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology). "...we should, and usually do, understand that it is power differentials that are causative factors in so many of the health and mental health issues with which we deal. To understand and then harness power can be a stronger and more effective way of working."

Social neuroscience approaches to interpersonal sensitivity (Social Neuroscience). "This special issue brings together new research findings from empirical studies, including work with adults and children, genetics, functional neuroimaging, individual differences, and behavioral measures, which examine how we process and respond to information about our fellow individuals. By combining biological and psychological approaches, social neuroscience sheds new light on the complex and multi-faceted phenomenon of interpersonal sensitivity, including empathy."

Bridging Cognitive Science and Education: Learning, Memory, and Metacognition (European Journal of Cognitive Psychology). To help bridge the two disciplines of cognitive science and education, "we have organised and integrated some of the recent cognitive data that can provide some new insights on the complexities of learning in the classroom."
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