Spontaneous panic attack caught on brain imaging scan

Researchers from Germany, Scotland and Switzerland have notched up a brain imaging first by capturing a participant in the full throes of a spontaneous panic attack, whilst also having a concurrent recording of her heart rate.

Kai Spiegelhalder and colleagues were able to use the woman's elevated heart rate to provide an objective marker for the course of her panic attack. The 59-year-old was unmedicated and had no prior history of panic attacks. She did have restless legs syndrome - a condition characterised by an comfortable urge to move the legs.

Inspection of the woman's brain activity during the panic episode showed that her heart-rate was positively correlated with activity in her left amygdala - the walnut-shaped brain structure known to be involved in emotional learning. There was also some association between panic and activity in the woman's left insula. This brain region is involved in the detection and processing of bodily states. These observations are consistent with research conducted with panic disorder patients who have been provoked into having an attack with the use of drugs. "It appears likely that the insula may be involved early in the onset of panic, acting as an 'internal alarm'," the researchers said.

Another observation was that as the woman's heart rate increased, activity decreased in her left middle temporal gyrus - a bulge in the part of the cortex near the ear. Some previous studies have actually made the opposite observation with panic disorder patients. "...[D]ecreased temporal lobe activity is perhaps specific to healthy individuals experiencing their first attack," the researchers said.

Spiegelhalder's team warned their results should be treated with caution, especially since they involved a single case study. However, they said their data "do suggest, to some extent, that the neural mechanisms involved in a spontaneous panic attack share some similarity with those proposed to play a role in patients with panic-related disorder."

ResearchBlogging.orgSpiegelhalder, K., Hornyak, M., Kyle, S., Paul, D., Blechert, J., Seifritz, E., Hennig, J., Tebartz van Elst, L., Riemann, D., & Feige, B. (2009). Cerebral correlates of heart rate variations during a spontaneous panic attack in the fMRI scanner. Neurocase, 15 (6), 527-534 DOI: 10.1080/13554790903066909

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

Wooah ... how babies learn to walk down slopes.

They may have come in for some recent criticism regarding their carbon pawprints, but elsewhere yet another previously untapped canine skill has been revealed - the ability to understand that iconic replicas stand for real objects.

In the psychiatrist's chair: in-depth interviews reveal how 22 neurologists understand conversion disorder.

Psychoanalysis for kids - does it work?

Neuroculture: neuroscientific knowledge is not solely constrained within laboratories, but readily captures the attention of the public at large.

People's attitudes explain their willingness, or not, to seek help for depression.

Rethinking NIMBYism: The role of place attachment and place identity in explaining place-protective action.

What ever became of Little Albert?

What does having a fertility problem mean for couples?

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What happens to neurology patients with symptoms "unexplained"?

To be told that your symptoms have no identifiable physical cause can be at once both a relief and a curse. In one sense the doctor is giving you a clean bill of health. But there's the chance they have made a mistake. What's more, if the symptoms persist without explanation, you face the stigma and frustration of people suspecting your problems are "merely" psychological or, worse still, made up. A new study has investigated neurology patients who were told that their symptoms had no identifiable physical cause, following them for a year and a half to see if and how their diagnoses changed.

Jon Stone and his colleagues recruited the help of 36 consultant neurologists working in Scotland's main neurology clinics. Besides a minority of patients who were excluded for being too young or ill, records were kept from nearly all new neurology cases in Scotland between December 2002 and February 2004.

Of the 3781 available patients, around a third were diagnosed as having symptoms that were either "somewhat" or "not at all" explained by physical disease, as opposed to being "largely" or "completely" explained. Of these unexplained cases, the majority were told by their neurologists either simply that their symptoms were unexplained or that they had a headache or that they had conversion symptoms (the physical manifestation of an emotional problem). In a minority of cases, patients were given vague diagnoses such as "pain symptoms" or "fatigue".

Had the story changed much 19 months later? Through contact with the patients' GPs (their primary physicians), Stone's team found just four cases where the neurologist had confidently declared the patient's symptoms as unexplainable, but where an organic illness had subsequently been diagnosed - these were multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer's Disease and two forms of brain lesion.

About 100 other patients had also subsequently received a change of diagnosis, but in most of these cases it was simply that an organic cause that had previously been identified as "somewhat explaining" the symptoms was now seen as the sole cause. In other cases, the initial neurological diagnosis had allowed for the possibility that a physical diagnosis might later be found; a genuinely new condition had emerged; or in some cases, the first neurologist still disputed the subsequent organic diagnosis made by another doctor. There were also five deaths, although these were apparently unrelated to the patients' earlier symptoms.

"New diagnoses that explained the original symptoms rarely emerged over the following 18 months in this study," the researchers said. "Whilst the diagnoses of 'symptoms unexplained by organic disease' must continue to be made with care, the data presented here suggest that serious diagnostic change after an initial clinical assessment by a consultant neurologist is unusual."

ResearchBlogging.orgStone J, Carson A, Duncan R, Coleman R, Roberts R, Warlow C, Hibberd C, Murray G, Cull R, Pelosi A, Cavanagh J, Matthews K, Goldbeck R, Smyth R, Walker J, Macmahon AD, & Sharpe M (2009). Symptoms 'unexplained by organic disease' in 1144 new neurology out-patients: how often does the diagnosis change at follow-up? Brain : a journal of neurology, 132 (Pt 10), 2878-88 PMID: 19737842

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Young children's moral understanding more sophisticated than previously thought

When her Daily Mail column about Stephen Gately's death provoked an avalanche of complaints, the disgraced Jan Moir issued a press statement in which she said "it was never [her] intention" to upset people. Defensively speaking, Moir's choice of words was astute. In judging moral responsibility, we adults focus almost exclusively on intention rather than outcome. Stated starkly, the person who deliberately attempts to kill an innocent, but fails, is judged as more evil than the person who accidentally kills an innocent. Now researchers have a taken a fresh look at how these moral processes develop in children. Classic studies by Piaget and others claimed to show that, in contrast to adults, young children focus on outcomes, not intentions. However, in their new work, Gavin Nobes and colleagues argue that children do focus on intentions, and that Piaget and others failed to take account of the influence of perceived negligence - that is, unintended actions that really ought to have been foreseen.

Dozens of children aged between three and eight years, as well as adults, were presented with short, illustrated stories in which intentions and outcomes were systematically varied, being either positive or negative. To give you an idea, the stories involved bicycle crashes, dropped cups, and games of catch. Crucially, half the participants were told that the key protagonist had taken great care, whereas the other half were told that he or she had been careless - for example, stacking cups in one hand and not paying attention.

When judging the acceptability of a protagonist's actions and the punishment they deserved, both children and adults were principally influenced by the person's intention. Intentions to commit bad actions were judged harshly regardless of the outcome. This contradicts Piaget's classic work, which claimed to show that children focus on outcomes.

Nobes team think the reason for the conflicting results has to do with negligence. They found that children tended to interpret bad outcomes as betraying negligence even when they'd been told that a person had been careful. It's as if young children haven't yet fully grasped that accidents can happen even when a person has been careful (the researchers point out this is an issue of the children's practical, not moral, understanding). Therefore, when a bad outcome was combined with what they assumed was perceived negligence, the children tended to judge a person harshly, just as adults do when they think a person has failed to take due care. In Piaget's and other earlier work there was no measure of negligence so such patterns would have just appeared as though the children were focusing on outcomes and ignoring intentions.

"The findings indicate that the moral judgements of young children are influenced neither principally by outcome (as Piaget claimed) nor only by outcome and intention (as many subsequent researchers have assumed)," Nobes team concluded. "The intention-outcome dichotomy should be expanded at least to the intention-negligence-outcome trichotomy."

"Children demonstrate surprisingly sophisticated and differentiated moral reasoning," they added.

ResearchBlogging.orgNobes G, Panagiotaki G, & Pawson C (2009). The influence of negligence, intention, and outcome on children's moral judgments. Journal of experimental child psychology, 104 (4), 382-97 PMID: 19740483

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A warm room makes people feel socially closer

Last year, the psychologists Lawrence Williams and John Bargh gave participants a cup of coffee to hold and showed that the temperature of the coffee affected the way those participants rated a stranger's character. A hot coffee led them to rate him as more good natured and generous, whilst holding an iced coffee had the opposite effect. The finding was touted as an example of embodied cognition - the idea that the way we think about the world is grounded in, and affected by, physical metaphors. Now Hans Ijzerman and Gun Semin have built on this work, showing not only that the ambient temperature of a room affects how socially close people feel to another, but also the type of language they use and the way they see relations between shapes.

Fifty-two participants were shown an animated film featuring chess pieces. Crucially, half the participants were seated in a cool room (15 to 18 degrees Celsius) whereas the others sat in a warm room (22 to 24 degrees Celsius). Afterwards participants in the warm room used more concrete, physical language to describe the film and reported feeling socially closer to the experimenter than did the participants in a cold room.

Another experiment looked at the effect of room temperature on the way participants perceived similarities between arrays of shapes - particularly whether they would focus on the way the shapes were arranged in relation to each other, as opposed to focusing on their actual shape. This time, participants in a warm room were more likely to recognise the "relational similarity" between objects. For example, when presented with three triangles arranged in a triangular formation, participants in a warm room were more likely to say this arrangement was similar to an array of squares arranged in a triangular formation, rather than to a square formation of triangles.

Taken altogether the findings support the idea that the way we think about relations, whether between people or shapes, is grounded in, and therefore affected by, temperature. It suggests that if you want to encourage a team of people to bond, you should make sure everyone is feeling warm.

These ideas about the embodiment of our thoughts and language have been most powerfully advocated by George Lakoff, the author of Metaphors We Live By. However, before we swallow these ideas hook, line and sinker, so to speak, it's worth mentioning some reservations spelt out by Steve Pinker in The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature.

Pinker points out that whilst metaphors clearly play an important role in language and thought, they are based ultimately on a separate conceptual foundation. This is revealed graphically by our ability to "see through" metaphors (the source of wit as in Steven Wright's "If the world's a stage, where is the audience sitting") and, in the case of the "time-as-space" metaphor, by the existence of brain damaged patients who no longer understand prepositions for space (as in "she's at her desk") but do still understand prepositions for time (as in "he daydreamed through the meeting").

ResearchBlogging.orgIjzerman H, & Semin GR (2009). The Thermometer of Social Relations: Mapping Social Proximity on Temperature. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS PMID: 19732385

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Psychology X-factor

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Young girls particularly prone to getting stuck in role of bullying victim

Young girls are far more prone than boys to getting stuck in the role of bullying victim. That's according to a new investigation by psychologists who studied hundreds of children at 17 primary schools in Hertfordshire and North London.

Dieter Wolke and his colleagues interviewed the children when they were aged between six and nine years and then surveyed them again two or four years later once the children had reached year six. The researchers were interested in the individual and situational factors predictive of whether a child would remain or become a bulling victim.

Of the 663 children who initially took part, 432 were available at the follow-up session. Among the girls, the 44 who were victims of so-called "direct bullying" (physical and verbal abuse) at baseline, were two and a half times more likely than their classmates to also be a victim of direct bullying at follow up. By contrast, boys who were victims of direct bullying at baseline were no more likely than their classmates to be a victim at follow up. In other words, young girls seem particularly prone to getting stuck in the victim role. The researchers said that girls' "tightly knit" friendship networks could make it difficult for them to "escape the victimisation role". Unsurprisingly perhaps, boys and girls with fewer friends were also at greater risk of direct bullying.

Wolke's team also looked at so-called "relational bullying", when children deliberately outcast a class mate. Although rates of relational bullying had increased by the follow up session (probably reflecting the children's growing skills of manipulation), neither boys nor girls who were victims of this kind of bullying at baseline were more likely than their peers to still be a victim at follow up. The researchers said this could be because friendship groups are still in flux at primary school, thus making it possible to escape earlier social exclusion. However, caution is needed here because the children who dropped out of the study, mostly because they had changed schools, were disproportionately likely to have been the victim of relational bullying at baseline, so it's possible their absence skewed the results. Overall, children with emotional problems and children in classes with rigid social hierarchies were at greater risk of relational bullying.

Whilst cautioning that their reliance on children's self-report was a weakness of the study, Wolke's team said their findings had important implications for teachers and other professionals. "These findings call for the development and implementation of intervention programmes that tackle victimisation at an early age in primary school," they said.

ResearchBlogging.orgWolke, D., Woods, S., & Samara, M. (2009). Who escapes or remains a victim of bullying in primary school? British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 27 (4), 835-851 DOI: 10.1348/026151008X383003

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Competition between nostrils

Show one image exclusively to one eye and a different image exclusively to the other eye and rather than experiencing a merging of the images, an observer's percept will flit backwards and forwards randomly and endlessly between the two. This "binocular rivalry", as it's known, has been of particular interest to psychologists because it shows how the same incoming sensory information can give rise to two very different conscious experiences. Now, in a research first, psychologists have shown that a similar process occurs with our sense of smell. If one odour is presented to one nostril and another odour is presented to the other nostril, a person will experience "binaral rivalry" - sensing one smell and then the other, backwards and forwards, rather than a blending of the two.

Wen Zhou and Denise Chen presented twelve participants with the smell of rose to one of their nostrils and the smell of a marker pen to their other nostril. The odours were presented intermittently, every twenty to thirty seconds, to prevent "adaptation", which is the tendency for brain cells to gradually reduce their response to a continuous stimulus. After each break in the smells, the participants indicated on a visual scale whether they had detected the scent of rose or of marker pen. Just as with binocular rivalry, the participants' perceptual experience fluctuated back and forth randomly between the two scents.

The researchers believe this nostril rivalry is related in some way to the process of adaptation, both in the receptor cells in the nose and in the part of the brain that processes smells. For example, when repeatedly presented with a balanced mix of both smells, the participants' sensory experience fluctuated between rose and marker pen, presumably because of adaptation in the brain: as central neurons tired of one odour, their response to the other became more dominant and back again. The researchers also showed that adaptation occurs in the nose: swapping the bottles of odour around from one nostril to the other reinstated participants' experience of a given smell after it had previously faded through continuous sniffing.

"Our work sets the stage for future studies of this phenomenon," the researchers said.

ResearchBlogging.orgZhou, W., & Chen, D. (2009). Binaral Rivalry between the Nostrils and in the Cortex. Current Biology, 19 (18), 1561-1565 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2009.07.052

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The Special Issue Spotter

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

Burnout and Health (Stress and Health).

Baddeley Revisited: The Functional Approach to Autobiographical Memory (Applied Cognitive Psychology).

Interviewing Behaviour (Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling).

Cognitive Hearing Science: the view from hearing impairment and deafness (Scandinavian Journal of Psychology).

Evidentiality: A Window Into Language and Cognitive Development (New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development).

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The speed of free will

Crudely speaking, our actions can be divided into those that are automatic and driven by the environment and those that are initiated volitionally, as an act of will. In an intriguing new study, Todd Horowitz and colleagues claim to have recorded the relatively sluggish time taken for free will to be enacted. Their finding could help explain our natural tendency to search visual scenes via apparently random, haphazard attentional shifts, rather than using our conscious will to search more strategically. The fact is, our volitional control is simply too slow, rendering a deliberate, ordered approach ineffective.

In one experiment, Horowitz's team presented ten participants with a display rather like a clock face, but with capital letters in the positions where numbers would usually be. The display was visible for just a brief flash (53ms) before disappearing and re-appearing again, which it did twelve times.

In the condition that tested the speed of free will, the participants' task was to shift their gaze in time with the flashes of the display, so that they focused on each successive letter position on the clock face, starting at the 12 o'clock position and going clockwise.

The participants' aim was to look out for the letter "Y" and note its colour. Crucially, the letters changed each time the clock face returned and the "Y" only appeared during one flash of the display, in a specific position. If a participant hadn't shifted their attention around the display in time with the clock face flashes, they wouldn't be attending in the right place at the right time to see the "Y".

By varying the duration of the lulls between each flash of the clock face, the researchers were able to test the top speed at which participants were able to volitionally shift their attention from one letter position to the next. It turned out the participants needed an average of about 274ms (about quarter of a second) to make these attentional shifts successfully.

This volitional condition was contrasted with a control task in which participants could attend to any letter position on the clock face that they wanted. As before, the clock face flashed on and off and the participants had to spot the "Y" and note its colour. However, if the lulls between each flash were too quick, there wouldn't be time for the participants' automatic attentional system to shift between letter positions in search of the "Y". In this mode, with their attentional system free to operate on auto (the researchers dubbed this the "anarchy" condition), the participants needed just 85ms to shift attention from one letter position to another. Four further experiments with different parameters supported this finding.

Past research in this field has tended to use symbolic cues, such as arrows, to direct participants' volitional shifts of attention. A short-coming of these studies is that the time taken to interpret and process these cues likely contaminated estimates of the time taken to wilfully shift attention. The current research avoids this problem.

"It is substantially faster to 'delegate authority'" when searching a visual scene the researchers said. "If you tell yourself to find the letter 'P' or red verticals or your coffee mug, selective attention will shift around the visual world at a rate at least four times faster, in our estimation, than it would if you insisted on commanding each deployment of attention with an individual act of will."

ResearchBlogging.orgHorowitz TS, Wolfe JM, Alvarez GA, Cohen MA, & Kuzmova YI (2009). The speed of free will. Quarterly journal of experimental psychology (2006), 62 (11), 2262-88 PMID: 19255946

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Self-doubt turns bosses into bullies

Power corrupts, or so they say. But it doesn't corrupt everyone. Not all bosses are bullies. What is it about some people in power that leads them to turn nasty? The psychologists Nathanael Fast and Serena Chen have performed four new studies testing one possible answer and the popular and scientific press have fallen over each other to report on the findings.

New Scientist wrote on Twitter: "It's official: Your bullying boss really is an idiot". But the truth of the research is more nuanced. Fast and Chen actually showed that it is self-perceived incompetence, not actual incompetence, that can provoke a person in power to abuse their authority.

The basis for the new research was the idea that people who are in a position of power, but who believe they are incompetent, are likely to feel threatened. Cornered managers, like trapped animals, lash out.

The logic may be sound, but the evidence presented is preliminary. Fast and Chen spent no time undercover in high-octane office environments waiting to interview managers post temper tantrum.

However, in an initial survey of ninety participants, they did find particularly high rates of self-reported aggression in workers who claimed to be in positions of power and who also described themselves as chronic worriers of what other people thought of them.

A second study with 98 participants further showed that those who were primed to think about a time they'd been in a position of power, and to think about a time they'd felt incompetent, then went on to choose a particularly loud noise for students to be blasted by when answering incorrectly in a hypothetical quiz.

Importantly, these first two studies showed power was only linked to increased aggression when paired with feelings, prompted or otherwise, of incompetence. Next, Fast and Chen tested a possible aggression cure hinted at by these initial findings.

The researchers placed 59 students in a position of power over another imaginary student, who they were told would be performing intelligence tests for prizes. This time, consistent with the earlier findings, the student participants who perceived themselves as lacking in influence, and who were also given fake, "average" feedback on a leadership questionnaire, subsequently showed increased aggression - that is, they were particularly likely to choose an extra difficult intelligence test for the imaginary student. But crucially, this tendency toward raised aggression among the self-declared low influence students was eradicated if they were given excellent feedback on that fixed leadership questionnaire. A little ego massage can help calm the bullying boss.

A final, toying study that drove participants' minds one way and then the other, showed a similar pattern. Participants in real-life positions of power, who wrote about a time they'd been incompetent, subsequently described themselves as highly aggressive, but not if they'd also completed a self-affirming writing task about a value of personal importance to them (thus restoring their threatened ego to safety).

"Power holders who do not feel personally competent are more likely than those who feel competent to lash out against other people," Fast and Chen concluded. "Additionally, the finding that self-worth boosts assuage the aggressive tendencies of such power holders implies the effectiveness of a strategy commonly employed by underlings: excessive flattery."

ResearchBlogging.orgFast NJ, & Chen S (2009). When the Boss Feels Inadequate: Power, Incompetence, and Aggression. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS PMID: 19818043

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The latest verdict on using brain imaging for lie detection

Excitable tabloids, technophile lawyers and gullible entrepreneurs have all spent the last few years salivating over the prospect of functional brain imaging delivering us the first form of truly scientific, objective lie detection. Not so fast.

Most research that's tested the potential of functional brain scanning for lie detection has compared brain activity between lying and honest conditions by averaging signals across whole groups of participants - no use for real life. Now George Monteleone and colleauges have taken a representative paper from this literature and thoroughly examined its potential for spotting individual liars.

The paper they examine was by Lhan Phan and colleagues in 2005 and involved fourteen participants having their brains scanned whilst they either told the truth or lied about playing cards in their possession. Consistent with several other similar papers, Phan's study showed differential activity in a raft of brain areas when people lied versus told the truth, especially frontal regions involved in working memory and deliberate effort.

Monteleone's team took the brain activity of each individual in Phan's study and compared it with the averaged activity of the other 13 participants to see if the "lying areas" identified at the group level were also extra active when that specific participant was lying.

At the group level, 16 brain regions showed differential activity when lying compared with telling the truth. The brain area that most resembled a true "neural signature" for lying was the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC). Seventy-one per cent of participants showed heightened activity in this region when they were lying compared with telling the truth. This is better than chance, but far from perfect - really no different from the classic polygraph.

Also, just like the polygraph, brain imaging suffers from the problem of balancing specificity with sensitivity. For example, if the threshold for significant mPFC activity is lowered, then the number of participants showing notable lying-related activity in this region increases, but so too do the number of false alarms - that is, participants who show activity in this region when they're telling the truth. In real life legal settings, these "false positives" could mean innocent people going to jail or worse.

What's more, Monteleone's team warn that it's highly unlikely mPFC activity is a true neural signature for lying. Just as there are many reasons why our pulse might race and our palms get sweaty (thus triggering a polygraph), there are many potential excitors of mPFC activity, including self-consciousness and thinking about other people's mental states.

This also raises the problem of cunning criminals devising simple ways to foil the brain scanner. A participant who performed complex mental arithmetic during truth and lying conditions, or who concentrated on the examiner's mental state throughout a scan, would likely spoil any neat comparison of truth and lying conditions.

The problems don't end there. Monteleone's group further showed that for some lying participants, specific brain regions that appeared to be activated by lying were in fact really part of a far larger spread of brain activation that probably had nothing to do with lying at all. There's also the fact that the playing card lying paradigm is so simple and insipid compared with real-life lying. Also, the researchers observed that a minority of participants showed idiosyncratic brain responses to lying, out of keeping with the general group-level patterns. And finally, there are socio-cultural issues. Problems with language and the cultural appropriateness of deception could both massively distort a person's brain response to lying versus truth-telling.

"...[A]lthough fMRI may permit investigation of the neural correlates of lying," the researchers said, "at the moment it does not appear to provide a very accurate marker of lying that can be generalised across individuals or even perhaps across types of lies by the same individuals."

ResearchBlogging.orgMonteleone, G., Phan, K., Nusbaum, H., Fitzgerald, D., Irick, J., Fienberg, S., & Cacioppo, J. (2009). Detection of deception using fMRI: Better than chance, but well below perfection. Social Neuroscience, 4 (6), 528-538 DOI: 10.1080/17470910801903530

Link to related Wired news story: Evidence from fMRI lie-detection was used in a courtroom for the first time earlier this year.

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Mimicry improves women's speed-dating success

Women hoping to appeal to speed-dating partners should try subtly mimicking the words and body-language of their dates. That's according to Nicholas Gueguen whose new study shows that women who mimic are rated by men as more sexually attractive.

Gueguen recruited three female participants who were taking part in real-life, heterosexual speed-dating sessions and coached them to mimic some of their 66 male dates but not others. In the mimicking condition, the female assistants were instructed to mimic their partner's utterances approximately five times during a five-minute date and to mimic his body language five times. For example, if a date said "You really do this?", the woman would respond "Yes I really do this" in the mimicry condition, but say only "Yes" in the non-mimicry condition. Similarly, if a man scratched his face, a mimicking assistant was instructed to wait two to three seconds and then scratch her face.

The standard procedure at the end of these speed-dating sessions was for everyone to provide a list of those dates they would most like to give their contact details to. Guegen found that, on average, when a woman mimicked a dating partner, he was more likely, compared with non-mimicked dates, to want to give her his contact information, to say that the speed-date had gone well, and to rate her as more sexually attractive.

Further analysis showed that in the mimicry condition only, a woman's perceived sexual attractiveness was linked to how much a partner subsequently wanted to share his contact information with her, even after factoring out the general influence of how well the man felt the date had gone. In other words, mimicry seemed to increase the influence of a woman's sexual attractiveness.

"By using an experimental approach in a real context it was found that mimicry is associated with greater preference and liking for a female in a courtship situation," Gueguen said. "This aspect [of mimicry] has never been examined previously".

For extra appeal, the Digest blog archive suggests speed-daters could try combining mimicry with a light touch of their partner's arm. Guegen's previous research has shown that this can improve the success of romantic requests for a dance or phone number. Oh and for good measure, this earlier research suggests you should ask your opposite-sex friends to smile at you!

ResearchBlogging.orgGueguen, N. (2009). Mimicry and seduction: An evaluation in a courtship context. Social Influence, 4 (4), 249-255 DOI: 10.1080/15534510802628173

Link to related Digest item: mimicry the best form of flattery for computers too.

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"Never drink on an empty stomach" may not be such wise advice after all

Teenagers get a bad press these days. One complaint is that they're forever lurking about getting drunk. Now Erling Moxnes and Lene Jensen have come up with a rather radical proposal based on the idea that teenagers often don't mean to get as drunk as they do. According to the researchers, teenagers frequently over-inebriate because they fail to take account of the stomach delay - the fact that alcohol continues to enter the blood-steam long after a person stops drinking.

Moxnes and Jensen challenged fifty-five 16 and 17-year-olds to achieve a specific blood alcohol concentration level using a personalised computer simulation of the drinking process. The programme asked the teenagers to choose how many bottles of beer to consume each fifteen minutes, whilst giving them periodic feedback on their current blood alcohol level. The simulation had a built in stomach delay of either 22.5 minutes (fairly average for a typical person) or 4.5 minutes.

As the researchers expected, the teenagers massively over-shot the required blood alcohol level, especially when using the simulator with a longer stomach delay. Just as they likely do in real life, the teenagers merely used current feedback of blood alcohol level to inform their decision about how much more to drink. They completely failed to take into account that the blood alcohol level would continue to rise for some time without further intake.

So can youngsters be taught to take account of the stomach delay? A group of students given an advance explanation of the stomach delay performed no better than their peers. However, information about the delay plus the chance to see an advance simulation of the stomach delay (based on a drinking mouse!) did significantly improve the performance of another group, such that they over-shot far less when they completed the simulator challenge.

Moxnes and Jensen said their approach holds great promise - many of their teenage participants reported occasions when they'd gotten far more drunk than they intended, 98 per cent said they found the experiment interesting and 87 per cent said it would make a great teaching tool.

Another implication of these findings it that the folk advice to never go out drinking on an empty stomach may not be so wise after all. It's sensible for people who intend to drink a fixed amount but not for people intending to drink until they reach a desired level of inebriation. "Here we show that it may not be sound advice for inexperienced juveniles that drink according to a simple feedback strategy," the researchers said. "Drinking on a full stomach massively extends the stomach delay, thereby making it much harder to manage one's blood alcohol level."

ResearchBlogging.orgMoxnes E, & Jensen L (2009). Drunker than intended: misperceptions and information treatments. Drug and alcohol dependence, 105 (1-2), 63-70 PMID: 19625144

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One nagging thing you still don't understand about yourself

The email edition of the British Psychological Society's Research Digest has reached the milestone of its 150th issue. That's over 900 quality, peer-reviewed psychology journal articles digested since 2003. To mark the occasion, the Digest editor has invited some of the world's leading psychologists to look inwards and share, in 150 words, one nagging thing they still don't understand about themselves. Their responses are by turns candid, witty and thought-provoking. Here's what they had to say:

Susan Blackmore: Consciousnessimage by jcoterhals
Paul Broks: What should I do?
David Buss: Overcoming irrationality
Robert Cialdini: Over-commitment
Marilyn Davidson: Lost opportunities
Elizabeth Loftus: Nightmares
Paul Ekman: Death and forgiveness
Sue Gardner: Dark places
Alison Gopnik: Parenthood
Jerome Kagan: Methodological flaws
Stephen Kosslyn: Satiators and addicts
Ellen Langer: Optimism
David Lavallee: Sporting rituals
Chris McManus: Beauty
Robert Plomin: Nature, nurture
Mike Posner: Learning difficulties
Stephen Reicher: Who am I?
Steven Rose: The explanatory gap
Paul Rozin: Time management
Norbert Schwarz: Incidental feelings
Martin Seligman: Self-control
Robert Sternberg: Career masochism
Richard Wiseman: Wit

I'd like to extend my sincere thanks to the contributors for baring their psyches and sacrificing their time. Thanks also to The Independent for helping spread the word. Here's to the next 150 issues of the Research Digest!

This special Research Digest feature was brought to you by the the British Psychological Society, the representative body for psychology and psychologists since 1901.

-Join the British Psychological Society.
-Read the latest Psychologist magazine.

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Paul Broks: What should I do?

There’s plenty I don’t understand about myself, but nothing nags. Paradoxically, the deeper I got into neuropsychology the less interested I became in the details of my own inner workings. I’m not sure why. It certainly is not because I arrived at any great insight or understanding. I still experience the almost visceral sense of puzzlement over matters of brain, mind and selfhood that first drew me to the field. What happened, I think, was a shift – let’s imagine a neural switch somewhere in the frontolimbic circuitry - from one preoccupying question, What am I? to another, What should I do? It left me less inclined to bother about self-understanding than to consider the value of things, moral and aesthetic. How best to live? But here’s a nagging thought: might those two preoccupying questions turn out to be one and the same, like the evening star and the morning star?

Dr Paul Broks is a clinical neuropsychologist at the University of Plymouth and a popular science writer. "On Emotion", the first of a planned trilogy of plays by Broks and Mick Gordon, about emotion and magical thinking, was shown in the West End last December.

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Susan Blackmore: My own consciousness

I believe (although I’ve never seen it for myself) that inside my skull is a brain containing billions of neurons connected to each other in trillions of ways, with signals zooming about, setting off other signals, and generally creating massively complicated loops, coalitions, sustained patterns, and multiple parallel organised streams of information that combined together control the behaviour of this – my body. And that’s it. So how come I feel as though there is a conscious “me” as well? The oh-so-tempting idea that I am something else – a soul, a spirit, a mystical entity – is rubbish, although I once believed in it. This question nags at me so much that I have devoted most of my life to it – through research, writing, and thirty years of daily meditation. But I still don’t understand. And the more I look, the less substantial my own self seems to be. What is consciousness? And who is conscious? I really don’t know.

Dr Sue Blackmore is a freelance writer, lecturer and broadcaster, and a Visiting Professor at the University of Plymouth. Her latest book is Ten Zen Questions.

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David Buss: Overcoming irrationality

One nagging thing that I still don’t understand about myself is why I often succumb to well-documented psychological biases, even though I’m acutely aware of these biases. One example is my failure at affective forecasting, such as believing that I will be happy for a long time after some accomplishment (e.g. publishing a new book), when in fact the happiness dissipates more quickly than anticipated. Another is succumbing to the male sexual overperception bias, misperceiving a woman’s friendliness as sexual interest. A third is undue optimism about how quickly I can complete work projects, despite many years of experience in underestimating the time actually required. One would think that explicit knowledge of these well-documented psychological biases and years of experience with them would allow a person to cognitively override the biases. But they don’t.

David Buss is Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas where he heads the Individual Differences and Evolutionary Psychology Area. Among the world's most highly cited evolutionary psychologists, his latest book is Why Women Have Sex.

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Robert Cialdini: Taking on too much

Over the stretch of my professional years, I'd say my most nagging error has involved an inability to gauge correctly the point at which the next possible undertaking - or even golden opportunity - should be firmly rejected. Whenever I've allowed one-too-many responsibilities onto my plate, everything - including the new item - has suffered from the overcrowding. With that threshold crossed, I've no longer had the time or patience to plan, think, or toil hard enough to be proud of the resultant work. If I had a single piece of advice for young researchers, it would be to create and follow a rule for avoiding this state of affairs. The rule could involve something objective (e.g., never exceeding a specific quota of research involvements) or subjective (e.g., avoiding the feeling of rushing to, from, and through all of one's commitments). The key is to apply the rule ruthlessly. Anything less would be another form of error.

Dr Robert Cialdini, a social psychologist at Arizona State University, is the most widely cited expert on influence and persuasion alive today. His most recent book is Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways To Be Persuasive.

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Marilyn Davidson: Lost opportunities

One nagging thing I still don’t understand about myself is why I didn’t ask my grandparents before they died, more about their childhoods?

“Grandpa (R), you’re 100 now but what was it like being born in 1900 into a world where man couldn’t fly and an abacus was the closest thing to a computer?”

"Grandpa (E), did it hurt when grandma burnt the leaches off your back on your return from the war trenches, as you sat in the tin bath in front of the fire?”

“Nana (R), did you enjoy being one of the first families in Sunderland to own an ‘automobile’ and having to eat 'below stairs' with the cooks and the scullery maids?”

“Nana (E), how did you cope as the youngest of twelve in a poor, Derbyshire, farming family , gaining a scholarship to grammar school, but being forced to go away into service at thirteen to become a scullery maid?”

Marilyn Davidson is Professor of Work Psychology at Manchester Business School and the author of over 150 academic articles and 19 books, including Women in Management Worldwide.

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Paul Ekman: Death and forgiveness

In my recent conversations with the Dalai Lama (which eventuated into a book – Emotional Awareness) we disagreed about two matters. One was fear of death, which I claim not to feel and he claims everyone has. The evidence is in his favor since all religions promise life of some kind after death, and they would not do so if people didn’t need it. I fear a painful death, but not death itself. Can’t comprehend why people do; which doesn’t mean I don’t wish to continue living, but as time progresses and body parts and the mind wears out I expect death will be welcome. Our other disagreement was about forgiveness. I believe there are unforgivable actions – child abuse, rape, holocausts, torture are examples. The Dalai Lama says he forgives but does not forget. In my view, since he believes such people will be reincarnated in an undesirable form, he doesn’t need to forgive them.

Dr Paul Ekman is Manager of the Paul Ekman Group, LLC (PEG), a small company that produces training devices relevant to emotional skills, and is initiating new research relevant to national security and law enforcement. He was listed as one of the 100 most influential psychologists of the twentieth century by the Review of General Psychology in 2002, and was among Time magazine's most influential people of 2009.

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Elizabeth Loftus: Nightmares

After struggling mightily, and not particularly successfully, to have a thought about this, I broached a Friday after-work happy hour group and asked them what they would say about themselves. To a person, each looked uncomfortable with the mere question. They asked me whether I had anything in mind. Well maybe one thing: I don’t understand why I have nightmares almost every night. Nightmares of frustration. Obstacles in my way that keep me from catching an airplane trip on time. Obstacles that keep me from getting where I’m supposed to be. I wake up almost every morning with a sense of relief – “Thank goodness it was just a dream.” None of my colleagues seemed to spend their nights this way. What possible reason is there for this mental behaviour, night after night, that is clearly so uncomfortable? One happy hour colleague, a developmental psychologist, said: “that’s it - the happy relief you feel at the end. There’s your reinforcement.“ And thus she took away my one idea, by explaining it. It is now one nagging thing that I only partly understand. Or do I?

Elizabeth Loftus is Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Irvine. Among her numerous accolades, she received the 2005 Grawemeyer Award for Psychology and in 2002 was named among the 100 most influential psychologists of the twentieth century by the Review of General Psychology.

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Sue Gardner: Dark places

I can’t believe I accepted this assignment. Surely any admission undermines my credibility as a psychologist? Or does failure to reveal something denote arrogance, lack of insight or self consciousness with the same implications for reputation and self esteem?

I’m cautious about excessive introspection without some trusted person to offer perspective and balance. I have a dark place inside which at various stages of my life has been occupied by ghosts, daleks and negative emotions.
Somehow I need this place though, to connect me to others especially those who want support with change and containment. In working with people who have mental health needs and substance misuse I use their desire to escape their own dark place to form a connection which, together with the research evidence, best practice guidelines and clinical tools, can accelerate their journey to recovery. Perhaps if I understood myself fully my own journey would be over.

Sue Gardner is a Chartered clinical psychologist and President of the British Psychological Society.

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