The woman with no sense of personal space

If I step aboard a crowded train and see that the only free space is a cramped mid-seat gap, sandwiched between two tired-looking commuters, then I will invariably choose to stand. By seizing the free spot, the unavoidable encroachment into my personal space would soon spoil any comfort that might be derived from resting my legs.

A new study suggests my amygdala could be responsible for this aversion. This is the walnut-shaped brain structure, housed deep in the temporal lobe of each hemisphere, that's previously been associated with emotional processing, especially fear. In a new case report, Daniel Kennedy and colleagues have documented a woman, known in the clinical literature as S.M., who has damage to the amygdala on both sides of her brain, and who appears to have no sense of personal space.

When asked to indicate the interpersonal distance at which she felt most comfortable as a female experimenter walked towards her, S.M. chose a gap of 34cm - smaller than any of twenty control participants, whose average preferred distance was 64cm. Moreover, when asked to rate her comfort (from one, "perfectly comfortable", to ten, "extremely uncomfortable") when an experimenter stood in her face, nose-to-nose with direct eye contact, she scored the situation a "one". It was a similar story when an accomplice of the researchers stood unnaturally close to S.M. in a situation that she couldn't have known was part of the experiment. By contrast, the accomplice himself told researchers that he found his proximity to S.M. uncomfortable. S.M. does, however, understand the concept of personal space, and is aware that other people prefer more space than she needs.

Kennedy's team said their finding suggests the amygdala may be involved in the strong emotional reaction that underlies personal space violations. To support their case, they scanned the brains of healthy participants and tested what happened to amygdala activation when the participants were told that a researcher was standing nearer or further away from them in the scanning lab. Crucially, when the participants were told that the researcher was nearer to them, their amygdala activation was increased.

An interesting question for future research is how a sense of personal space develops. "It is possible that the amygdala is necessary for learning the association between close distances and aversive outcomes," the researchers said, "rather than triggering innate emotional responses to close others."

ResearchBlogging.orgKennedy, D.P., Glascher, J., Tyszka, J.M., & Adolphs, R. (2009). Personal space regulation by the human amygdala. Nature Neuroscience : 10.1038/nn.2381

Further reading: A companion study published in the same issue of Nature Neuroscience and involving the same patient, S.M., suggests, contrary to prior research, that the amygdala is not needed for the rapid detection of fearful faces.
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Talking about art can alter our appreciation of it

A few months back I was challenged by a friend to explain why I think The Wire is the best TV series ever. Pointing to its critical acclaim wouldn't do - I needed to articulate my own reasons. I soon realised that translating my appreciation into words wasn't a straightforward task. What's more, a new study suggests that any reasons I came up with could well have fed back and influenced my subsequent experience of the programme.

The new research was conducted in relation to paintings, where the challenge of verbalising one's preferences is even trickier than for a TV show. Ayumi Yamada asked half of 129 students to either verbalise their reasons for liking two paintings - one abstract, one representational (Piet Mondrian's Woods near Oele, shown right, and his New York City, respectively) - or to verbalise their reasons for not liking the paintings. The remaining participants acted as controls and just viewed the paintings without saying anything. Afterwards, all the participants had to say which was their favoured painting.

Representational paintings are realistic, with content that can be easily talked about. Abstract art, by contrast, is less grounded in reality and more tricky to talk about.

The results showed that verbalising their responses to the paintings appeared to distort the participants' subsequent preferences. Those participants in the verbalisation condition who'd been challenged to say why they liked the paintings were subsequently biased towards choosing the representational painting as their favourite. By contrast, participants in the verbalisation condition who'd been challenged to articulate their reasons for disliking the paintings were subsequently biased towards choosing the abstract painting as their favourite.

What was going on? Yamada thinks that the apparent ease with which we can verbalise our feelings affects our later judgements. Because participants found it easier to talk about why they liked the representational painting compared with the abstract one, this biased them in favour of the representational painting. Similarly, participants who had to talk about their dislike for the art, found this easier for the representational painting, which subsequently biased them against it.

The finding is consistent with past research showing that attempting to verbalise our feelings can distort our later choices. For example, a prior study showed that participants who attempted to explain their preferences for different jams subsequently showed less agreement with expert ratings than did control participants.

"When lacking access to the exact determinants of their preferences, people with abundant vocabulary [such as when judging representational art] are more likely to generate plausible, yet specious, reasons and still be prevented from appreciating art to its fullest," Yamada said.

ResearchBlogging.orgYamada, A. (2009). Appreciating art verbally: Verbalization can make a work of art be both undeservedly loved and unjustly maligned. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45 (5), 1140-1143 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2009.06.016

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Emergencies inspire crowd cooperation, not panic

Crowd plus emergency equals mass panic, or so urban myths and Hollywood films would have us believe. The reality, recognised by social psychology for some time, is that people in crowds often behave in remarkably cooperative and selfless ways. A new study by John Drury and colleagues suggests that this kind of collaborative behaviour emerges when people in a crowd acquire a shared identity. And contrary to the "mass panic" perspective, an emergency can be the very catalyst that brings people together.

If you've ever been on an underground train that gets stranded mid-tunnel, or on an aeroplane that's overstayed its welcome on a runway, you might have glimpsed a mild version of this feeling of a shared fate. With the temperature rising and information lacking, you and your fellow passengers stop feeling like strangers and start to feel united in your predicament.

Drury and his colleagues asked 21 survivors of mass emergencies about these feelings of unity and about how much helping behaviour and orderliness they'd witnessed. Between them, the participants had been caught up in eleven emergency situations including the crush at Hillsborough, the Harrods bomb of 1983, and the over-crowding at the Fatboy Slim beach party in 2002.

Twelve of the disaster victims described feelings of unity among the crowd, whereas nine of them said it was more a case of everyone for themselves. In turn, the participants who said their crowd was united reported experiencing a sense of a shared fate; reported seeing and experiencing more examples of people helping others, including strangers; and they also reported more signs of orderliness such as queuing to escape.

"An aggregate of individuals becomes and acts as a psychological crowd when there is a cognitive redefinition of the self from a personal to a social identity," the researchers said. "...[W]e would suggest that in liberating us from the restrictions of individuality the psychological crowd is a crucial adaptive resource for survival in mass emergencies and disasters."

The authors did also caution that their study has a number of serious limitations. Other survivors, less willing to talk than the current participants, might have had a different story to tell. Also, we know that human memory is extremely unreliable at the best of times, and some of the events described here had happened over two decades earlier.

ResearchBlogging.orgDrury, J., Cocking, C., & Reicher, S. (2009). Everyone for themselves? A comparative study of crowd solidarity among emergency survivors. British Journal of Social Psychology, 48 (3), 487-506 DOI: 10.1348/014466608X357893
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The Special Issue Spotter

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

Impulsivity and Frontal Lobes: Roles in Psychopathology and Addiction (Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behaviour).

Outcomes of Integrated Working with Children and Young People (Children and Society).

Alcohol Genetics (Genes and Behaviour).

Obesity in the Schools (Psychology in the Schools).

The Psychotherapy Profession in Europe (European Journal of Psychotherapy and Counselling).

Eye Guidance in Natural Scenes (Visual Cognition).

The Contribution of TMS to Structure-Function Mapping in the Human Brain. Action, Perception and Higher Functions (Cortex).

Physical Activity in Young People: Assessment and Methodological Issues (Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport).
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Second language changes the way bilinguals read in their native tongue

Do bilinguals have an internal switch that stops their two languages from interfering with each other, or are both languages always "on"? The fact that bilinguals aren't forever spurting out words from the wrong language implies there's some kind of switch. Moreover, in 2007, brain surgeons reported evidence for a language switch when their cortical prodding with an electrode caused two bilingual patients to switch languages suddenly and involuntarily.

On the other hand, there's good evidence that languages are integrated in the bilingual mind. For example, bilinguals are faster at naming an object when the word for that object is similar or the same in the two languages they speak (e.g. ship/schip in English and Dutch).

Now Eva Van Assche and colleagues have provided further evidence for the idea of bilingual language integration by showing that a person's second language affects the way that they read in their native language.

The researchers recorded the eye movements of 45 bilingual Belgian students as they read sentences in their native Dutch tongue. The key finding was that they read Dutch words faster when the equivalent word in their second language, English, was similar or the same as the Dutch word. Specifically, they spent less time fixating on words like "piloot" ("pilot" in English) than on control words like "eend" (that's "duck" in English).

Van Aassche and her colleagues said this shows that even when bilinguals read sentence after sentence in their native tongue, access to words in their second language remains open, rather than switched off, thus having an effect on the way the native language is processed.

"Becoming a bilingual means one will never read the newspaper again in the same way," they concluded. "It changes one of people's seemingly most automatic skills, namely, reading in one's native language."

ResearchBlogging.orgVan Assche E, Duyck W, Hartsuiker RJ, & Diependaele K (2009). Does Bilingualism Change Native-Language Reading? Cognate Effects in a Sentence Context. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS PMID: 19549082

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Teenage boy exhibits inverted face-inversion effect ...

There's a war going on in the face processing literature, fought not with bullets but with case studies and journal publications. The bone of contention is whether there's something unique about our face processing ability, or if face processing is just like any other form of expertise.

Supporting the expertise account are brain imaging findings showing, for example, that the so-called fusiform face processing region of the brain (seen by some as a dedicated face processing module) is also activated by other forms of expertise, such as when bird watchers view pictures of birds.

On the other hand, there's ample evidence that face processing really is unique. For example, brain damaged patients have been described who have lost their ability to process objects for which they previously had expertise (e.g. toy soldiers), but whose face processing abilities have remained intact.

A key issue in this debate revolves around the so-called face-inversion effect. This is the finding that our ability to process faces, but not other objects, is seriously impaired when they are turned upside down. One explanation is that our specialised ability for processing faces is based on a global or "configural" approach, which breaks down when a face is inverted. Infants as young as four to five months - too young to have built up much face "expertise" - show signs of the face-inversion effect, providing further evidence that face processing has an innate component and is different from other forms of acquired expertise.

Now Laura Schmalzl and colleagues have joined the battle by describing an unusual case of a teenager, born with brain abnormalities, who showed superior ability at processing inverted faces compared with upright faces. In other words, he showed an inverted face-inversion effect!

The boy, known as J.M., was born with hydrocephalus (too much cerebrospinal fluid in the brain) and epilepsy, and among his impairments he's always had a deficit processing faces - a condition known as prosopagnosia.

Schmalzl's team had J.M. complete a wide-ranging battery of neuropsychological tests and a key pattern to emerge was his bias towards local processing at the expense of global processing. For example, he could identify line drawings of objects when local detail was visible, but he failed when he was forced to rely on silhouettes.

When it came to faces, J.M. was generally impaired as the researchers expected. For example, he struggled to recognise photos of people he knew. However, with specific facial features like noses and mouths, some strange patterns of performance emerged. Consistent with his local-processing bias, J.M. could distinguish between various noses and mouths when they were shown in isolation. He could also do this when they were embedded in inverted faces, yet crucially, and somewhat bizarrely, he couldn't distinguish between facial features in upright faces.

This inverted face-inversion effect is the opposite of what you'd expect in a healthy person. The researchers aren't entirely sure what's going on but they think the case may be a rare example of a faulty face-processing module being activated automatically by the sight of an upright face, thus hindering J.M.'s ability to process the local facial features. This is very much an argument from the camp that sees face-processing as a unique, innate ability. They're saying it's possible that J.M.'s innate face processing module still has some uses - for example, it may aid the perception of eye gaze or speech perception - but that in other situations it's dysfunction actually impairs performance.

"In future studies it would be of great interest to formally test cases such as J.M. from early infancy, and longitudinally, in order to shed further light on how innate versus experience-based factors influence the development course of face-processing abilities," Schmalzl's team concluded.

ResearchBlogging.orgSchmalzl L, Palermo R, Harris IM, & Coltheart M (2009). Face inversion superiority in a case of prosopagnosia following congenital brain abnormalities: what can it tell us about the specificity and origin of face-processing mechanisms? Cognitive neuropsychology, 26 (3), 286-306 PMID: 19657795
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How to turn a liberal into a conservative

For people who feel psychologically all at sea, the conservative values of authority, order and tradition provide a comforting anchor. That's according to psychologists who further argue that a psychological threat, for example in the form of injustice or reminders of mortality, can even turn a liberal-minded person temporarily into a conservative - a response they call "defensive conservatism".

Across three studies, Paul Nail and colleagues tested the conservatism and liberalism of students before and after subjecting them to a threat. Their consistent finding was that a threat turned liberal students into conservatives.

In the first study, 68 students were categorised as liberal or conservative based on their political attitudes. Next they read about a fraudulent senior executive at Enron who was either jailed (the control condition) or who escaped punishment due to a legal loophole (the injustice condition). Afterwards, the students gave their opinion of an anti-USA essay written by a foreign exchange student. As expected, conservative students in the control condition rated the essay more harshly than liberal students. In the injustice condition, by contrast, the liberal students rated the essay just as harshly as the conservative students - that is, they'd started to think like a conservative.

As well as being measured politically, conservatism and liberalism can also be measured psychologically, for example, by gauging people's "preference for consistency" (as indicated by agreement with a series of statements like "I typically prefer to do things the same way").

A second study with 58 undergrad students involved them thinking about their own death or, as a control condition, thinking about TV. As expected, psychologically conservative students in the control condition held beliefs about issues such as capital punishment and abortion with more conviction than liberal-minded students. By contrast, of the students in the death condition, those who were identified as psychologically liberal subsequently expressed just as much conviction as their conservative minded peers. Once again, threat had made the liberal students resemble their conservative class mates.

A third and final study used a measure that captured both political and psychological conservatism. This time, liberally minded students who were asked to think about their own death, subsequently took a homophobic stance in relation to an employment issue (rights for a gay employee's partner) and said they thought there would be widespread consensus for this opinion. In other words, they behaved liked the conservative minded students from the control and threat conditions.

A key feature of these studies was that the outcome measures of conservative thinking were not directly linked to the threats, so it's not the case that the liberal students were simply responding to the threats in a pragmatic fashion.

"We believe that political conservatism has psychological properties that make it particularly appealing when vulnerability is dispositionally or situationally salient," the researchers said. "Moreover, defensive conservatism appears to be a general psychological response to vulnerability that is not necessarily strategically linked to the eliciting threats."

ResearchBlogging.orgNail, P., McGregor, I., Drinkwater, A., Steele, G., & Thompson, A. (2009). Threat causes liberals to think like conservatives. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45 (4), 901-907 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2009.04.013

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Eye-catching studies that didn't make the final cut:

Children's understanding of transfer of ownership.

Using the implicit association test to change, rather than simply measure, people's attitudes.

Baby-faced politicians deemed to be less competent.

The use of psychiatric and psychological evidence in the assessment of terrorist offenders.

Violations described in easier to read font are judged to be less morally wrong.

Differences in Japanese and American descriptions of happiness. (Hat Tip: Mind Hacks).

A new objective measure of anhedonia (a loss of motivation for reward).
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Facial emotional expressions are not universal

From the Bushmen of the Kalahari to the Kalaallit of Greenland, you'll find that people everywhere frown in frustration and smile in delight. Or will you? The universality of human emotions and their expression in the face has become widely accepted in psychology. At the vanguard of this perspective is pioneering psychologist Paul Ekman, the co-creator of the facial action coding system (FACS) - a way of categorising and interpreting facial expressions according to which muscles are tensed. But a new study casts doubt on the idea that facial expressions are culturally universal, showing instead that people from East Asia have trouble distinguishing fear and disgust from surprise and anger, respectively, as conveyed through faces conforming to the FACS system of expression.

Rachael Jack and colleagues asked 13 Western Caucasian participants and 13 East Asian participants to look at photographs of dozens of White and Chinese faces, and to categorise them into the six core emotional expressions of happy, surprise, fear, disgust, anger and sadness, as determined by the FACS system.

The first key finding was that East Asian participants made significantly more errors when categorising disgust and fear compared with the Western participants. Records of the participants' eye movements also showed differences between the groups. The East Asians tended to focus more exclusively on the eye regions of the faces, whereas the Westerners focused on the nose and mouth region just as much as the eyes. A computer model similarly confused fear and surprise for anger and disgust, respectively, when it was programmed to disproportionately sample from the eye and eye brow region.

In other words, in faces categorised according to Ekman's FACS system, observers need to look at the nose and mouth regions to accurately distinguish between fear, surprise, anger and disgust, but the East Asian participants focused on the eyes, thus leading them to make errors. When in doubt, the East Asian participants tended to bias their answers towards the less threatening emotions such as surprise.

The findings suggest that certain emotions are expressed slightly differently in East Asia, such that people from that culture have learned to focus on different facial regions.

"From here on, examining how the different facets of cultural ideologies and concepts have diversified these basic skills [of communication by facial expression] will elevate knowledge of human emotion processing from a reductionist to a more authentic representation," the researchers said. "Otherwise when it comes to communicating emotions across cultures, Easterners and Westerners will continue to find themselves lost in translation."

If you're interested in this field, you should check out the new hit US TV series "Lie To Me" (available on iTunes in the UK). The lead character, Cal Lightman, is based on Paul Ekman, and Ekman has acted as a consultant to the series.

ResearchBlogging.orgJack, R., Blais, C., Scheepers, C., Schyns, P., & Caldara, R. (2009). Cultural Confusions Show that Facial Expressions Are Not Universal Current Biology DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2009.07.051

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Intervention helps reduce homophobia

A problem with interventions that use role-playing to beat prejudice is that bigots usually aren't motivated to take the perspective of the groups that they discriminate against. In a new study, Gordon Hodson and colleagues have tested the effectiveness of an unusual alien-themed intervention for reducing homophobia that involves participants taking the perspective of a homosexual person, without really realising that that is what they're doing.

Hodson's team tested the homophobic tendencies of 101 heterosexual students and then had 79 of them complete the so-called "Alien-Nation" simulation, whilst the remainder acted as controls and attended a lecture on homophobia. For the Alien-Nation task, the students formed groups of four to five members and imagined landing on an alien planet that's populated by aliens who look exactly like humans, but who don't allow any public displays of affection, and live in same-sex housing and reproduce by artificial insemination.

The participants answered questions about how they would cope with life on the planet and maintain their lifestyles. They also shared plans for how to behave romantically in secret and how to identify other humans. Research assistants then asked the participants whether the situation applied to any real-life groups. The participants failed to recognise the parallel with homosexuality, but the research assistants pointed out the comparison and drew attention to ways that people who are homosexual deal with the constraints of an intolerant society.

A re-test of the participants' attitudes towards homosexuality showed that those in the Alien-Nation group were more able to take the perspective of homosexuals, than were the control participants, and this in turn was associated with more empathy towards people who are homosexual, a greater tendency to think of homosexuals and heterosexuals as all belonging to the same category (being human) and ultimately to more positive attitudes towards people who are homosexual. The Alien condition participants' attitudes also remained more positive compared with controls at one week follow-up.

"The Alien-Nation simulation is easily administered, requires no extensive training, and reduces prejudice," the researchers said.

The intervention used in this study is reminiscent of a prize-winning educational DVD called "Homoworld" that was created by the British psychologists Neil Rees and Catherine Butler in 2008. The film depicts a heterosexual couple as they struggle to live in a world dominated by homosexuality.

ResearchBlogging.orgHodson, G., Choma, B., & Costello, K. (2009). Experiencing Alien-Nation: Effects of a simulation intervention on attitudes toward homosexuals. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45 (4), 974-978 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2009.02.010
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Logic and language are not the same thing

It's difficult for us to imagine what our mental lives would be like without language. Some theorists have even gone so far as to argue that language and logical thought are one and the same thing. A new brain imaging study challenges this notion by showing that logical inferences based on simple "not", "or", "if", "then" terms activate a separate, though overlapping, network of brain regions compared with logical inferences based on grammatical judgements.

Martin Monti and colleagues scanned the brains of fifteen participants while they judged the accuracy of conclusions flowing from two kinds of logical argument. One kind was a more pure form of logic, such as "If both X and Z then not Y", whilst the other kind was based on grammatical rules, such as "It was X that Y saw Z take". The two types of inference were intended to be of comparable difficulty and to be equally valid (or invalid) but crucially only the grammatical version involved the interpretation of language-related roles such as "object" and "subject".

As expected, inferences drawn from the grammar-based logic activated a swathe of brain regions usually associated with language functioning, including the Wernicke-Broca circuit, as well as other regions associated with working memory and executive functioning. Judgements about the purer logical arguments also activated regions associated with memory and mental effort, but did not activate the core language areas of the brain. Instead, the grammar-free logical problems triggered activity in prefrontal regions previously associated with logical reasoning.

Monti's team said their findings were hard to reconcile "with the claim that language and logic are a unitary phenomenon". Rather, they argued their results are consistent with language and logic being separate processes. The grammar-based statements appeared to be solvable using language networks of the brain, whilst purer logic was dealt with by a distinct neural network not dependent on language. The researchers concluded that their work supports earlier findings by others. For example, it's been shown that it is possible to have numerical concepts without the words for those concepts . The new and old findings together show that "much of thought is not embedded in language", they said.

ResearchBlogging.orgMonti MM, Parsons LM, & Osherson DN (2009). The boundaries of language and thought in deductive inference. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America PMID: 19617569
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The Special Issue Spotter

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

Aggression, Science, and the Law: New Insights from Neuroscience (International Journal of Law and Psychiatry).

Genes, Cognition & Neuropsychiatry (Cognitive Neuropsychiatry).

Eating Disorders and Emotions (Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy).

Brain Body Medicine (NeuroImage). From the editorial "Brain–Body Medicine focuses on interactions between the brain, peripheral pathways and bodily end-organs. Bi-directional brain–body pathways can be thought of as the mechanistic substrate that mediates the relationship between psychological and social factors and physical health. As such, Brain–Body Medicine adds a new dimension to research in the fields of mind–body, behavioral, psychosomatic, and integrative medicine. It also creates linkages, by virtue of the focus on the brain, to newer fields such as psychoneuroimmunology, neuro-cardiology and brain–gut research that have as of yet made relatively little use of neuroimaging technology."

Here boy! Canine Behaviour and Cognition (Behavioural Processes).

fMRI: Advances, problems, and the future (International Journal of Psychophysiology).

Neurobiology of Habituation (Neurobiology of Learning and Memory).

Episodic Memory and the Brain (Neuropsychologia).
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The surprising links between anger and time perception

The way we think about abstract concepts like time is grounded in physical metaphors. For example, we talk about re-arranged events being moved from one day to another, as if through space. Similarly, there is a metaphorical, embodied aspect to our emotions - fear is associated with physical withdrawal, for example, whilst anger is associated with approach and confrontation. An intriguing new study shows that this shared way of thinking about time and emotion can lead to some surprising effects.

David Hauser and colleagues first showed that people with an angrier temperament are more likely to think of themselves as moving through time, than to think of time as moving towards them. You can test this on yourself by considering which day of the week a meeting has changed to, if it was originally planned for Wednesday but has been moved forward two days. If you think it's now changed to Friday, then you're someone who thinks of themselves as moving through time, whilst if you think the meeting is now on Monday, then you're more passive, and you think about time passing you by.

In a second study, Hauser's team asked 62 student participants a version of this question but they made it so the re-arranged event was either anger-provoking or neutral. On average, more students presented with the angry version said the event had been moved to Friday (as if they themselves were moving through time) than students presented with the neutral version. Moreover, the angry-version students were more likely (than the neutral students) to say that they felt as though they were approaching the event, rather than that the event was approaching them. In other words, it seems that angry thoughts can change the way we think about time.

A final study turned this on its head and showed that thinking about moving through time can induce anger. The researchers presented 87 students with a computer screen flat on a desk, facing the ceiling. On it were the days of the week, in a vertical line with Saturday at the top, then Friday, Thursday, all the way down to Sunday at the bottom, nearest the participant. Commands were given that either provoked thoughts about moving through time, away from the participant (e.g. a meeting has moved forward two days from Sunday to Wednesday - please highlight the new day on the screen), or thoughts about time moving towards the participant (e.g. a shift down the screen, towards the participant from Wednesday to Sunday). Participants primed to think about their movement through time subsequently rated themselves as feeling angrier than participants in the "time moving towards them" condition.

"These studies support theories of embodied cognition by showing that abstract concepts that share a perceptual domain can influence each other in a novel but predictable manner," the researchers said.

ResearchBlogging.orgHauser, D., Carter, M., & Meier, B. (2009). Mellow Monday and furious Friday: The approach-related link between anger and time representation. Cognition & Emotion, 23 (6), 1166-1180 DOI: 10.1080/02699930802358424

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Listener's facial expression alters speaker's language

Audiences differ. Talk to one person and your words are welcomed by a smile and nod of acknowledgment. Speak to another, less winsome listener and your words are confronted by a frown and folded arms. According to Camiel Beukeboom, these different responses systematically alter your use of language. Speak to a positive listener and you'll likely use more abstractions and subjective impressions, whilst if you talk to a negative listener you'll probably find yourself sheltering in the security of objective facts and concrete details.

Beukeboom had 57 undergrad students watch an eight minute film about a kiosk owner, and then asked them to take their time and describe the film as fully as possible to two other participants. In actuality, these listeners were research assistants and for half the participants they assumed a positive listening style - smiling, nodding and maintaining an open bodily position - whilst for the other participants they assumed a negative listening style - frowning and unsmiling.

Participants describing the film to positive listeners used more abstractions, describing aspects of the film that can't be seen, such as a character's thoughts and emotions, and also included more of their own opinions. Beukeboom said this is because we interpret the smiles and nods of a positive listener as a sign of agreement and understanding, encouraging us to provide a more interpretative account. By contrast, negative listeners provoke in the speaker a more cautious and descriptive thinking style.

"Consider what this means," Beukeboom said. "By merely smiling or frowning a listener could influence how a speaker reports information and how it is subsequently remembered, and possibly passed on. In, for instance, witness interrogations, job interviews, politics, or psychotherapy, a simple smile or frown could potentially have a large impact."

ResearchBlogging.orgBeukeboom, C. (2009). When words feel right: How affective expressions of listeners change a speaker's language use. European Journal of Social Psychology, 39 (5), 747-756 DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.572
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Kids with invisible friends have superior narrative skills

The company of an imaginary friend used to be interpreted as a sign of a child's deficient character. Writing in a 1934, for example, M. Svendsen said of those children in his sample with an imaginary friend that "personality difficulties were present in most", with "timidity being most common".

Times have changed. It depends on the precise definition of "imaginary friend", but by some modern estimates, nearly half of all young children have an imaginary companion at some point. Moreover, children with imaginary friends have been found to be just as sociable and popular as those without an imaginary friend. Now Gabriel Trionfi and Elaine Reese have presented some preliminary evidence that having an imaginary friend could even be beneficial, tending to go hand in hand with superior narrative skills. In turn, past research has shown that superior narrative skills tend to predict later reading success and school achievement.

Trionfi and Reese interviewed 48 mothers and their five-and-a-half year-old children (half of whom were girls) about whether the children had an imaginary friend now, or had had one in the past. The key finding is that the 23 children with a past or present imaginary friend performed significantly better on average at a narrative skills task. Whether re-telling a short fictional story ("A perfect father's day") to a puppet, or telling a story about a real experience they'd had in the last year, the children with a past or present imaginary friend tended to use more dialogue, and to provide more information about time, place and causal relations, thus providing richer stories.

The researchers aren't sure exactly how imaginary companions and narrative skills are linked, but one possibility is that children with an unseen companion get practice at telling stories whenever they are asked by parents or others about their invisible friend. Of course another possibility, which the design of the current study can't rule out, is that having better narrative skills somehow makes it more likely that a child will develop an imaginary friend.

The researchers say their evidence is too tentative and preliminary for it to be advisable to encourage children to develop an imaginary friend. "Rather, if a child has already created an imaginary companion, parents and teachers could allow this play to flourish."

ResearchBlogging.orgTrionfi G, & Reese E (2009). A good story: children with imaginary companions create richer narratives. Child development, 80 (4), 1301-13 PMID: 19630910
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Gentlemen, caution: interacting with a lady could impair your cognitive faculties

It's a scenario that's repeated up and down the land. The man knows he is supposed to be focused on discussing last month's sales projections, or some other task, but instead finds himself preoccupied by his female colleague. Now Johan Karremans and colleagues have shown that men are left cognitively impaired by such situations, an effect that seems to be related to the diversion of cognitive resources towards the challenge of creating the best possible impression.

Forty male heterosexual undergrads performed a memory test, called the 2-back task, both before and after chatting for seven minutes with a female or male experimenter. The task required them to observe a stream of letters and indicate as fast as possible for each one whether it was the same as the letter that appeared two letters ago. Participants who conversed with a female experimenter showed a deterioration in performance. By contrast, participants who chatted with a male experimenter showed no deterioration. For the participants who chatted with a female, their impairment increased in line with how attractive they perceived the experimenter to be. Participants in a relationship were impaired by talking to a woman just as much as participants who were single.

A second experiment was similar to the first, except female students were also tested. Also, a more demanding task was used (a version of the Simon task, which involved categorising a word if it was printed in white or indicating its colour if it appeared in blue or green). Between tests, participants chatted with another participant, either male or female.

Once again, male participants showed a decline in cognitive performance after chatting for a few minutes with a female. They were slower by an average of about 40ms - a small, but statistically significant impairment. Male participants who said they were more concerned by creating a good impression were the ones who were most impaired. Female participants, by contrast, were unaffected, whether they chatted between tests to a man or woman.

That men, but not women, were affected by a brief mixed-sex encounter is consistent with research in evolutionary psychology (and with received wisdom) showing that men are more motivated by mating goals. For example, men are more likely to look for sexual interest in the behaviour of the opposite sex, and tend to overestimate women's sexual interest. More generally, the current findings tally with research in other contexts showing that impression management can deplete cognitive resources - such as when a racially prejudiced person interacts with a person of different ethnicity (pdf).

Karremans' team said their findings could have important real-life implications, for example in relation to whether schooling should be single or mixed-sex. "Part of boys' valuable cognitive resources may be spent on impressing their female class members," they said.

ResearchBlogging.orgKarremans, J., Verwijmeren, T., Pronk, T., & Reitsma, M. (2009). Interacting with women can impair men’s cognitive functioning. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45 (4), 1041-1044 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2009.05.004
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Inside the brain of a woman with conversion paralysis

A new brain imaging study shows the difference, in terms of brain activity, between a person feigning having a paralysed arm and a patient with conversion paralysis - that is, paralysis with no clinically identifiable neurological cause.

Conversion paralysis is one manifestation of conversion disorder, previously known as hysteria, which was made famous by the nineteenth century French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot (pictured) and later, by his students Pierre Janet and Sigmund Freud. The label "conversion" disorder comes from the idea that an emotional complaint is somehow converted into a physical symptom.

In the current study, Yann Cojan and colleagues scanned the brain of a 36-year-old woman with conversion paralysis, as she completed a version of the Go / No Go task. Trials began with a signal telling her which hand to respond with, followed, after a delay, by a green or red signal (Go / No Go), which indicated whether the response should be made or withheld (it was green on 75 per cent of trials).

The woman, divorced with two children, had recently recovered from a physical illness and had suffered a stressful relationship break up. Her complaint was of paralysis in her left hand, despite no identifiable neurological cause. The woman's brain activity during the task was compared with that of several healthy controls, a minority of whom were asked to feign having paralysis in their left hand.

As expected, the researchers found suppressed activity in the right primary motor cortex of the female patient when she attempted to move her "paralysed" hand (you'll remember that the right hemisphere controls the left side of the body). A similar suppression was observed in the controls who were feigning paralysis.

However, unlike in the controls, the researchers also observed in the patient's brain increased connectivity between the right motor cortex and midline structures, including the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the precuneus, which is found in the parietal lobe. These brain regions have previously been associated with self-monitoring, mental imagery and autobiographical memory, thus raising the intriguing possibility that this anomalous activity could represent the brain basis for emotional interference with motor control.

Two other key findings emerged. The brain region normally associated with consciously inhibiting a prepared response - the inferior frontal gyrus - was not activated when the woman failed to move her "paralysed" hand (but it was activated when the controls feigned paralysis on "Go" trials). Moreover, there was evidence of preparatory motor activity in the woman's brain during Go trials with her "paralysed" hand, thus supporting her claim to be willing a movement to occur.

"Taken together, our results may help better understand the brain pathways by which self-awareness becomes distorted in these patients [with conversion disorder] and how the mind may take control over the body during conversion," the researchers said.

ResearchBlogging.orgCojan, Y., Waber, L., Carruzzo, A., & Vuilleumier, P. (2009). Motor inhibition in hysterical conversion paralysis. NeuroImage, 47 (3), 1026-1037 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2009.05.023
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