Feeling hungry? Better let your subconscious make the decisions

For optimal decision making, some studies have suggested it's best not to think too hard, that it's advantageous to let your subconscious do the creative heavy lifting. However, other studies have failed to find that unconscious thought leads to superior decisions. To begin solving this contradiction, Maarten Bos and his team have investigated one factor that could make a difference to the effectiveness of unconscious thought - a person's sugar levels. Their rationale is that conscious thought may require high levels of sugar, whereas unconscious thought might be able to operate effectively on low energy.

One hundred and fifty-six students (35 men) abstained from food and drink (except water) for three hours prior to the study. On arrival half of them enjoyed a can of the sugary drink 7-up. The others had a sweet tasting, sugar-free drink. To allow the sugar to reach the brains of those who had 7-up, all the students then watched a nine-minute wildlife film.

Next the students were presented with details about either four cars or four jobs. The items differed on 12 key aspects, which made them either more or less appealing. Whether viewing cars or jobs, there was always one optimal choice that ticked 75 per cent of the boxes; two choices that ticked half the boxes; and one choice that ticked just 25 per cent of the choices.

Finally, half the participants in each drink group then spent four minutes thinking about the jobs or cars before rating the four options in terms of preference - this was the conscious thought condition. The other half of the participants watched a second wildlife film for the same duration of time (to prevent conscious thought about the cars or jobs) before rating the various options - this was the unconscious thought condition.

For the participants with low sugar, their ratings were more astute if they were in the unconscious thought condition, distracted by the second nature film. By contrast, the participants who'd had the benefit of the sugar hit showed more astute ratings if they were in the conscious thought condition and had had the chance to think deliberately for four minutes. "We found that when we have enough energy, conscious deliberation enables us to make good decisions," the researchers said. "The unconscious on the other hand seems to operate fine with low energy."

The study has some shortcomings as the researchers acknowledged. For example, the decision-making was artificial - the participants weren't really choosing a car or job; they were merely rating the various choices in a contrived task. Another thing is that it's far from certain that the participants who watched the second nature film weren't thinking about the cars or jobs at the same time. Nonetheless, the researchers concluded: "Our data show that when we are low on energy we can employ another decision strategy than thinking consciously: we can trust our unconscious."

 _________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Bos, M., Dijksterhuis, A., and van Baaren, R. (2012). Food for Thought? Trust Your Unconscious When Energy Is Low. Journal of Neuroscience, Psychology, and Economics DOI: 10.1037/a0027388

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What do kids know about wisdom?

A wise person once said that intelligence is knowing that tomatoes are a fruit; wisdom is knowing not to put them in fruit salad. You might have a different idea about what constitutes wisdom. When adults are asked what wisdom is, their answers tend to fall into five recurring categories: a cognitive component based around intelligence; insight (the ability to find original solutions); a reflective attitude; concern for others; and real-world problem-solving skills.

But before now, no-one has investigated what children understand by wisdom and how this changes as they get older. Judith Glück and her colleagues have surveyed 461 children (aged six to ten years) at two schools in rural Austria. Ideas about wisdom are obviously prone to cultural variation, but these new findings provide us with some useful initial clues as to how children think about this slippery concept.

The children were asked a mixture of closed and open-ended questions. For example, they were asked to write a few lines on what a wise person is like and they also read a list of 23 adjectives, indicating which ones applied to a typical wise person.

Overall, just over 70 per cent of the kids said they knew the term "wisdom", rising from 43 per cent of the youngest to 92 per cent of the oldest year group. The majority of the children said they'd encountered the term in books, in conversations at home and in TV shows or films.

In contrast to adults, these children tended to focus mostly on the outward aspects of wisdom - especially cleverness (fluid intelligence, rather than concrete knowledge), and concern for others. There was an association with age here - all the children tended to mention the social aspect of wisdom, but a far greater proportion of the older than younger children mentioned the intelligent aspect. Older children were also more likely to link wisdom with older-age. Unfortunately the paper provides few examples of the kind of open-ended answers given by the children, despite the teasing title of the article.

More internal or abstract aspects of wisdom were apparently rarely mentioned by the children, including: having a reflective attitude, solving problems with original insight; having real-world problem-solving skills; and perspective taking. "Presumably such aspects are not yet part of the spontaneous 'psychological repertoire' of children at this age," the researchers said.

Unsurprisingly, given that it prompted them, the children's understanding of wisdom was more precocious when using the adjective list, with the children tending to tick items like "pensive" and "sensitive", as well as terms like "friendly" and "clever", which they'd mentioned in their open-ended answers.

Asked to name a wise person, the children were extremely generous, most often mentioning a grand-parent or a parent. Religious figures or figures from the media were rarely mentioned. The children showed a gender bias in their nominations, with boys being more likely to name male figures and girls being more likely to name females. Boys were also more likely to identify wise people as "astute" and girls to identify them as "beautiful" - perhaps a consequence of gender-stereotypes in the kind of media they were exposed to.

"We conclude from our findings that a basic understanding of the concept of wisdom is developed in and even before the elementary school years," the researchers said. "However, especially the more complex aspects of the concept get much more differentiated in subsequent development."

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Glück, J., Bischof, B., and Siebenhüner, L. (2012). “Knows what is good and bad”, “Can teach you things”, “Does lots of crosswords”: Children's knowledge about wisdom. European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 1-18 DOI: 10.1080/17405629.2011.631376

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Tuck into our round-up of the latest and best psych and neuro links:

Does psychological and neuroscience knowledge change how we understand and think about ourselves? Charles Fernyhough explores this very issue in his second novel A Box of Birds. He provides some background for the School of Life blog.

The psychology of online influence - podcast / video.

The March issue of The Psychologist has published. British Psychological Society members can access it here. Non-members check out this free preview.

Nature published a series of articles (some open access) celebrating Alan Turing, who would have turned 100 this year.

Welcome to the world of the hyperglot - speakers of many languages.

Author Will Self is to lecture on urban psychosis.

What kind of personality helps you engage with work? Our sister blog The Occupational Digest investigates.

Jonah Lehrer investigates memory erasure for Wired magazine.

Apparently we used to sleep in two separate phases with a wakeful period in between, rather than all night through. Could explain why it's so common for people to wake in the middle of the night.

A new psychotherapy App called Buddy is being rolled-out nationwide after successful trial in London.

RIP Ulric Neisser, one of the founding fathers of cognitive psychology, who died last week.

Several free journal issues published this week: Think,  Psychology & Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & PracticeJournal of Occupational and Organisational Psychology.

The US military is researching ways to make the enemy hallucinate.

Four-time World Iron Man champion Chrissie Wellington tells the Guardian that she once had bulimia and anorexia. Coincidentally, I learned this week that Loughborough University recently opened a new clinic dedicated to treating and studying eating disorders in athletes.

If you liked the HBO series In Treatment, the Israeli original BeTipul starts on Sky Arts 1 HD this Sunday in the UK.

Check it out: Scientific American Mind magazine has a new page on Facebook.
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Bursting balloons and anxious faces

You're at the newsagents on a Saturday afternoon about to buy ten pounds worth of lottery tickets, but your friend's look of alarm makes you think again - the risk of losing all that money for no gain, just isn't worth it. This ability for other people's emotional expressions to affect our own risk taking - a form of "social referencing" - is surprisingly under researched in psychology. There's some developmental research on the topic (babies are more likely to crawl across a raised, transparent surface - a visual cliff - when their mother is smiling at them from the other side), but not so much with adults.

For this new study, Brian Parkinson and his team at Oxford University used a computer game that simulated the inflation of a balloon. Twenty pairs of male friends and 20 pairs of female friends took part. One member of each pair inflated an on-screen balloon with successive presses of a keyboard key. Meanwhile their partner's face was visible as they watched events via a silent, live videolink. The balloon inflater and his or her partner earned points (or avoided losing them) for each successive inflation. They could choose to bank their points after each puff. But if the balloon was inflated too much, it burst and no points were earned (or all points were lost). This process was repeated several times with new balloons. Points could later be exchanged for a cash reward. Another twist was that the partner who was doing the watching was either free to express their facial expressions of anxiety or they were instructed to keep a sraight face.

When the participants were playing the balloon game to win points (rather than to avoid losing them), the expression of anxiety by their partner made a significant difference. That is, the balloon inflaters tended to be more careful about over-inflating the balloon if they could see the look of anxiety on their partner's face, as compared with when he or she was keeping a straight face. Moreover, balloon inflaters with more emotionally expressive partners (regardless of whether they'd been instructed to keep a straight face or not) tended to take fewer risks, whether they were playing to win points, or avoid losing them. Partners' emotional expressivity had been assessed earlier with a questionnaire with items like "When I feel positive, people can see exactly how I'm feeling."

The researchers said they'd shown that a person's risk taking is increased when a watching friend suppresses their facial expression of anxiety. "Such a finding has obvious implications for the interpersonal emotion regulation of advisors or counsellors intervening in real world decision making situations," the researchers concluded.

Parkinson, B., Phiri, N., and Simons, G. (2012). Bursting with anxiety: Adult social referencing in an interpersonal Balloon Analogue Risk Task (BART). Emotion DOI: 10.1037/a0026434

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The particular pleasure of scratching an itch on the ankle

It's only in recent times that scientists have discovered there are dedicated nerve pathways for communicating the sensation of itch. This troublesome skin signal provides us with a mixed experience. The prickly discomfort of an itch can be agonising. Yet to scratch an itch is one of life's great pleasures. In fact, it often seems that the more intense the itch, the more unreachable its source, then the greater the ultimate pleasure that's derived from finally reaching and clawing at it.

Now the aptly named Gil Yosipovitch and his colleagues have performed one of the first comparisons to see if itches are itchier on some body parts than others. They also investigated whether scratching itches in some places brings more satisfaction than others.

The researchers used cowhage spicules to induce itchiness on either the forearm, ankle or the back of 18 healthy volunteers (10 women; mean age 34). After the spicules were applied, each volunteer indicated from one to ten the intensity of the itch every 30 seconds for five minutes. The itch was then scratched by an experimenter using a cytology brush (a brush with stiff bristles and an elongated handle). The participants again indicated every 30 seconds the intensity of the itch and the pleasure derived from the scratching.

The main findings were that itches were perceived as more intense on the ankle and back, as compared with the forearm. Similarly, scratching was more pleasurable on the ankle and the back than on the forearm. The greater the itch intensity on the forearm and ankle, the more pleasure came from the scratching. Meanwhile, for the back and forearm, as the itch subsided, the pleasure from scratching faded. By contrast, scratching an ankle itch continued to provide pleasure even after the itch had been relieved. "The pleasurability of scratching the ankle appears to be longer lived compared to the other two sites," the researchers said.

"The present study uncovers a topographical relationship between itch attenuation by scratching and the accompanying pleasurability in healthy individuals," they concluded. "Future studies should also examine the scratching pleasurability associated with other itchy areas such as the scalp ...".

Why should itches and scratches be experienced differently on different parts of the body? Yosipovitch and his colleagues discussed a number of potential mechanisms, including differences in nerve density between body regions and regional variations in levels of neuropeptides known to be involved in itch induction. Prior research suggests the pleasure derived from scratching is associated with deactivation in brain areas - such as the anterior cingulate cortex - that are involved in the unpleasantness of itch, and the concomitant activation of other areas - such as the putamen - involved in the anticipation of reward.

How do these findings match your own experience? Do you find ankle itches particularly satisfying to scratch?

  ResearchBlogging.orgbin Saif, G., Papoiu, A., Banari, L., McGlone, F., Kwatra, S., Chan, Y., and Yosipovitch, G. (2012). The Pleasurability of Scratching an Itch: A Psychophysical and Topographical Assessment. British Journal of Dermatology DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2133.2012.10826.x [h/t @mocost]. 

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The Special Issue Spotter

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

Developmental psychology - putting research into practice (Virtual Special Issue from Wiley).

Empathy (Emotion Review).

A developmental psychopathology perspective on emotional availability research (Development and Psychopathology).

Verbal aggression: understanding the psychological antecedents and social consequences (Journal of Language and Social Psychology).

The process and products of publishing in school psychology journals (Journal of School Psychology).

Primary care today (Psychodynamic Practice Individuals, Groups and Organisations).

Evidence-based parent education programmes to promote positive parenting (European Journal of Developmental Psychology).

Psychological tests (Australian Psychologist).

Addressing response to intervention implementation: Questions from the field (Psychology in The Schools).

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The stroke patient for whom strangers look normal whilst family look strange

Neuropsychologists in The Netherlands and the UK have documented the curious case of a 62-year-old stroke patient whose brain damage affected her perception of familiar faces whilst leaving her perception of unfamiliar faces intact

The woman, referred to as J.S., struggled to recognise family, fared slightly better with celebrities, whilst having no problems correctly categorising as unfamiliar the faces of complete strangers. When the woman's daughters came to visit her in hospital, she had no trouble recognising the daughter she hadn't seen for eight years, but struggled to identify her other daughter who visited daily.

Joost Heutink and his team confirmed this pattern of deficits by comparing J.S.'s performance against three age-matched women in a series of face recognition tasks. As well as having impaired recognition of her family (and to a lesser extent celebrities), J.S. also reported that the appearance of her family members was distorted. For example, she said her grandchildren looked grossly overweight and that they were a deep tanned colour. J.S. also had a general problem recognising emotional facial expressions.

Further details came from recordings of J.S.'s skin conductance (a measure of physiological arousal) when she looked at various faces. This showed that she experienced more arousal after looking at family members' faces as opposed to strangers and celebrities. This is normal, although the peak and latency of this arousal was delayed relative to the control participants.

So what explains J.S.'s pattern of deficits? Those familiar with neuropsychology may be reminded of Capgras Syndrome, in which the patient claims that one or more close relations have been replaced by an imposter. But J.S. does not have this syndrome. People with Capgras say that the imposter is a perfect likeness to the real relation. By contrast, J.S. does not think her relations are imposters, she just struggles to identify them and thinks their appearance has been distorted.

J.S.'s condition also bears some resemblance to prosopagnosia - a specific deficit affecting face recognition. Again, this doesn't really match J.S.'s neuropsychological profile. After all, her recognition of strangers' faces as unfamiliar was near perfect. Moreover, the brain region that's normally damaged in proposopagnosia - the fusiform face area - was unaffected in J.S.'s brain.

Joost Heutink and his colleagues think part of the answer may lie with a rare condition known as prosopometamorphopsia - in which other people's faces are perceived as being warped or distorted. The researchers suggest J.S. may have a form of this condition that interacts in some way with the emotional meaning of faces. So, if a face affects her emotionally (as happens with family), she perceives their face as distorted, which also has the side-effect of affecting her conscious recognition. This account fits with the distribution of brain damage in J.S.'s brain. In particular she suffered damage to the posterior superior temporal sulcus, which it's been suggested is involved in merging information about face identity with emotional context and meaning.

This account also helps explain two exceptions to J.S.'s relatively superior performance in recognising celebrity faces vs. family members. When it came to images of Hitler and Bin Laden (characters likely to trigger an emotional response), she believed they actually depicted imposters, and poor ones at that.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Heutink, J., Brouwer, W., Kums, E., Young, A., and Bouma, A. (2012). When family looks strange and strangers look normal: A case of impaired face perception and recognition after stroke. Neurocase, 18 (1), 39-49 DOI: 10.1080/13554794.2010.547510

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Tuck into our round-up of the latest and best psych and neuro links:

It's never too late to become a musician. Brain Pickings highlights a new book by neuroscientist Gary Marcus: Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning.

Free introductory US video lectures in psychology (102 of them).

The latest issue of the American Psychological Association's monthly Monitor magazine is online with a cover-feature on a successful psychologist-led school programme for at-risk pupils.

Worth a look? New William Boyd novel "Waiting for Sunrise" set in 1913 Vienna - plenty of psychoanalysis and spies.

One for the diary: a panel of experts discuss consciousness at the Royal Institution on March 7.

Psychologist Richard Wiseman shares a car illusion that makes your head hurt.

Computer programme analyses brain scans of adolescents to predict who will suffer mental illness in the future (BBC Radio 4 audio).

Life coaches are getting younger.

Free virtual special issue "Putting developmental psychology research into practice".

Struggling with information overload and the need to be constantly connected? Don't unplug, says the Atlantic, there are ways to plug in better.

Help psychologists develop brand new experiment to test performance under pressure. Takes no more than 10 mins.

Intriguing insights into the helping behaviour of chimps, from the Thoughtful Animal blog.

Why do some songs make us cry?

Are you interested in Lego and in psychology? There's a new twitter feed just for you: @legopsych

LSE podcast - panel discussion of neuroscience and the law.

Worth a look? New book explores the psychology of whistle-blowers. (New Scientist review)

"What You Need to Know about Willpower: The Psychological Science of Self-Control". New report from American Psychological Association.

The amount of tweets about a scientific journal article in the days after its release are predictive of its ultimate scientific impact.

The New York Times describes a new wave of psychotherapy Apps.

The Boston Globe reviews the case against there being universal facial expressions of emotion.

One for the Diary: Mind Hacks blog flags up a conference on March 23 at the Institute of Psychiatry on revelatory experiences.

Free online course in Mindfulness based cognitive therapy.

First ever issue of Journal of Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders just published and is free to access.

One for the diary: Maudsley debate March 7 "Psychoanalytic therapy essential part of any modern mental health service".

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Could sportsmen and women benefit from "vision training"?

Researchers at the University of Cincinnati have reported dramatic improvements in their baseball team after enrolling the players in "vision training", designed to strengthen and speed the eye muscles and enhance visual processing. Based on their findings, Joseph Clark and his colleagues (including Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench) said "there are few sports that could not benefit from some form of vision training."

Thrice weekly 30-minute training sessions began six weeks prior to the 2011 season, becoming twice weekly during the season. There were eight different training exercises, which escalated in difficulty over time.

Here's a flavour of what was involved. With the "Brock string", balls were suspended on an 8-foot string extending from an athlete's nose, parallel to the ground. His task was to switch his focus from near balls to farther balls, thus training convergent movements of the eyes. Another exercise with strobe glasses had the effect of intermittently blinding the athlete as he tracked incoming balls ("the brain is forced to visualise where the pitch is going by processing the information it gets from the eye faster," the researchers said). The "rotary" task required that the athlete track letters and numbers that were spinning round at increasing speed (training smooth pursuit eye movements). The Dynavision exercise involved the athlete tapping targets as quickly as possible as they appeared on a large touch-screen.

Clark and his colleagues stressed that this was an observational study. They had no control group as such. To gauge the success of their training intervention they compared changes in their team's batting performance from the 2010 to 2011 season with changes recorded for other teams in the Big East league. The difference was striking. The batting average of the Cincinnati team showed a substantial improvement, whereas the average for all other teams actually deteriorated slightly, perhaps because of the introduction to the league of new aluminium bats designed to simulate wooden equipment.

The Cincinnati team's "slugging percentage" (a measure of batting power) also increased after the introduction of the vision training, whereas the slugging percentage of all other teams declined over the same period. "On-base percentage", another statistic related to batting performance, also improved in the Cincinnati team while falling in their rivals. The Cincinnati team's final league position was fourth for the 2011 season, up from seventh at the end of the prior season.

The researchers conceded that these batting improvements could in theory have had many causes, including maturation of existing players and the arrival of superior newcomers. However, they argued that there was no reason why these factors should improve performance for the Cincinnati team but not do so for any of their rivals.

"The muscles in the eyes can be trained and conditioned to perform better and faster in focusing and tracking objects such as baseballs," the researchers said - an idea they believe was corroborated by reports of eye muscle soreness among their players.

The time-frame for responding to a baseball pitch is so short, the researchers further explained, that the vision training likely provides batters with "a competitive edge ... a millisecond advantage." There was also some evidence of fielding improvements among the Cincinnati team and here the researchers speculated that "action on the field may appear slower and easier to follow for the vision trained athlete."

So, should other teams in baseball and related sports (the England cricket team, perhaps?) start their own vision training programmes, if they haven't already? Maybe not. These findings do imply that the vision training was beneficial, but there's no evidence here whatsoever that the benefits were mediated by improvements in visual function or enhanced eye movements. No data were presented for changes in the athletes' performance on the training tasks over time, and there was no analysis linking any such changes to the observed improvements in batting performances. For that reason, combined with the lack of a control group or control intervention, it's impossible to rule out the possibility that the observed benefits arose from anything other than a placebo effect.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Clark, J., Ellis, J., Bench, J., Khoury, J., and Graman, P. (2012). High-Performance Vision Training Improves Batting Statistics for University of Cincinnati Baseball Players. PLoS ONE, 7 (1) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0029109

Further reading. According to a 2008 Guardian report, the British Olympics Team employ the services of a vision training coach.

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Mental health problems worsen after cosmetic surgery

Are people who opt for medically unnecessary, cosmetic surgery psychologically vulnerable? Does having such surgery bring them psychological relief?

These are tricky questions. There's actually evidence of increased mental health problems among people who've undergone cosmetic surgery. But whether that's a harmful side-effect of the surgery, or a hangover from pre-operative problems, it's difficult to say.

Randomly controlled trials would help, but of course that's not possible in this situation for ethical reasons. What's needed is a large-scale prospective study that follows thousands of people up over many years. Hopefully a sub-set will opt for cosmetic surgery during that time and then it should be possible to look for any psychological vulnerabilities preceding the surgery and any changes post-surgery.

That's exactly what a team of Norwegian researchers have done. Tilmann von Soest and his colleagues began in 1992 with a sample of over 12,000 school students aged 12 to 19 years, and then surveyed them periodically for several years. Attrition of the sample left 2,890 participants at the final survey in 2005 (many participants were lost early in the study, in 1994, because they changed schools). By 2005, 106 of the participants had had at least one cosmetic surgery procedure. This included 78 women - that's 4.9 per cent of women in the sample; and 28 men - 2.2 per cent of the men in the sample.

Because of the lack of men, the researchers focused only on the women. The majority of their operations were for breast augmentation (26.8 per cent) or reduction (19.5 per cent), with other procedures including liposuctions, ear and nose modifications.

There was strong evidence that women with psychological problems were more likely to opt for surgery. The female participants who went on to have cosmetic surgery were more likely to have a history of poorer mental health, including more depression and anxiety, more illicit drug use, self-harm and suicide attempts. Unsurprisingly, the women who had breast surgery more often had a history of less satisfaction with that part of their body (although general appearance satisfaction wasn't related to undertaking surgery). By contrast, sociodemographic factors were not related to who had surgery and who didn't.

Did the surgeon's scalpel benefit the psychological health of these women? With one specific exception, it seems the answer is a categorical "no". Breast surgery was associated with increased satisfaction with that part of the body, but having cosmetic surgery of any kind was associated with increases in anxiety and depression, eating disorders, more alcohol use and more suicide attempts. Surgery didn't boost general appearance satisfaction.

The study isn't without its shortcomings, as the authors acknowledge. For instance, the apparent adverse effects of cosmetic surgery may not be specific to cosmetic procedures but could apply to having surgery of any kind. The study also relied on participants reporting their own mental health.

This study provides "no evidence that cosmetic surgery should be used to alleviate mental health problems in women dissatisfied with their appearance," the researchers concluded. "Nor do the results support the notion that cosmetic operations in exceptional cases should be covered by the public health-care system due to a potential psychotherapeutic effect for the patient."

  ResearchBlogging.orgvon Soest, T., Kvalem, I., and Wichstrøm, L. (2012). Predictors of cosmetic surgery and its effects on psychological factors and mental health: a population-based follow-up study among Norwegian females. Psychological Medicine, 42 (03), 617-626 DOI: 10.1017/S0033291711001267

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

Cultural differences in athlete attributions for success and failure: The sports pages revisited.

"Jointly, the two studies show an overlap in the content of convicted rapists’ talk and the contents of contemporary lads’ mags ... "

American psych textbooks ignore Russian psychologists.

Becoming an expert in the layout of London's streets (i.e. learning The Knowledge) enlarges the posterior  of the hippocampus.

Home teams still enjoy an advantage even when the stadium is empty.

Learning Words through Listening to Hip-Hop.

Are systemizing and autistic traits related to talent and interest in mathematics and engineering? Testing some of the central claims of the empathizing–systemizing theory.

Insights into psychopathy garnered from brain imaging.

"... our results suggest that self-motion perception and numerical cognition can mutually influence each other."

50 years of pupillometry in psychology - the measurement of the diameter of the pupil and factors that influence it.

The joy of seeing your football team win lasts longer than the pain caused by seeing them lose.

Why individuals in larger teams perform worse.

Humble people are more helpful.

Small scale study finds generalised benefit of brain training games for the elderly.

You're more likely to regret making a material purchase (than an experiential purchase), and more likely to regret NOT making an experiential purchase.

People with high status perceive the applause after their performance as louder and more favourable.

EEG of a man's brain whilst he met with imaginary friends.

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A cautionary tale about using psychology to boost your Valentine's chances

As he prepared for his blind date, Kevin was determined to leave nothing to chance. For starters, his date for Valentine's evening thought his name was Jake. You see, Kevin was a shrewd chap who'd decided he was going to use all the latest psychological science to boost his romantic chances. A recent paper showed that unfashionable names could put people off. He'd even made a name badge with Jake written in bold, and pinned it to his (carefully chosen) bright red shirt.

That was one of the easier lessons to implement. The fake scar, a long, jagged line down his right cheek, was trickier to get hold off. Of course, he was also wearing his boots with the chunky heels. He'd also been listening to Barry White tapes to help practise speaking with a more manly voice than usual. Attention to detail, that was key, Kevin kept telling himself, attention to detail. And so he slid onto his ring finger a rubber witch's finger (he'd spotted that at the shop that sold the scar make-up) - he reasoned this should help him achieve the ideal digit-ratio.

Time was ticking, she was due to arrive soon. Kevin suppressed his nerves and pressed play on his stereo. "Je l’aime à mourir" by French songwriter Francis Cabrel filled his apartment - this was the very song they'd used in another pertinent research paper he'd read. "Ha! The lyrics are perfect," Kevin thought to himself as he implemented another of his strategies, leaning near the front door a coffin he'd borrowed from a theatrical friend.

Oh dear, you can't control everything ... Kevin cursed his rumbling stomach - was it the nerves or his recent (carefully selected) vegetable-only diet? Kevin wasn't sure. "Never-mind, nearly there," he thought as he pulled on his Porsche cap and pinned an RSPCA badge to his lapel. Now, fingers crossed his neighbour and her friend would do their part just as he'd asked.

Lisa, a French student at the local university, climbed the stairs, nervously excited about the evening that lay ahead. A mutual friend had said that Jake was interested in psychology, which sounded promising. Lisa knocked gently on the white, scuffed door. To this day, she will never forget what happened next.

The door opened revealing a tall man, a livid scar running down his face, a baseball cap atop his head. This was obviously Jake - a badge on his bright shirt said as much. The words "I love her to death" (in French) blasted out from the apartment's interior. Over the man's shoulder Lisa could see a large, cardboard coffin leaning against the wall. Suddenly two young women burst forth from the neighbouring apartment. They drew nearer and began gazing at the man silently, big smiles on their faces. Awkwardness hung in the air.

"Hi, erm, I'm Lisa," Lisa managed to mutter, just about controlling her urge to run. "Hi, I'm Lisa," the man echoed her words with a gravelly voice and a nervous chuckle. "Please come in," he said, reaching out and touching her on the arm, a wrinkly witch's finger protruding from his hand.

Lisa turned and ran, and ran.

If this hasn't put you off, here's a list of evidence-based Valentine's advice I put together earlier.

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest, with apologies to people called Kevin.
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At what age do babies enter the uncanny valley?

In the 1970s, the roboticist Masahiro Mori noticed a curious phenomenon. As robots became more human-like, their appeal increased but only up to a point. When their human likeness became too realistic (but still not perfect), their appeal plunged. Mori nicknamed this abrupt aversion "the uncanny valley", in reference to the shape of the graph mapping human-likeness and appeal. Are we born with this aversion to the almost-real or does it emerge later?

To find out, David Lewkowicz and Asif Ghazanfar presented nearly a hundred infants (aged between 6 to 12 months) with pairs of faces, to see which they would look at for longer. In the first study, the babies were shown a human face alongside a cartoon face (an "avatar") with enlarged goggle-eyes. The researchers said adults would find the avatar uncanny and would avoid looking at. The key finding here was that six-month-olds spent more time looking at the uncanny avatar, whereas the twelve-month-olds, like adults, spent more time looking at the human face. Based on this dramatic contrast in preference, Lewkowicz and Ghazanfar said the uncanny valley effect emerges gradually between six and twelve months of age.

What was it about the faces that provoked this change in preference in the older babies? In two further studies, the researchers presented the babies with either a goggle-eyed uncanny avatar alongside a more realistic avatar face with normal-sized eyes, or with a human face alongside the realistic avatar. In the first case, all the babies, from 6 to 12 months, spent more time looking at the realistic avatar. In the second case, the babies of all ages spent equal amounts of time looking at the two faces.

These results suggest that none of the babies could distinguish between the realistic avatar and a real human face, and that the older babies in the first study, and all the babies in the second study, must therefore have been using the enlarged eyes to distinguish the goggle-eyed avatar from a human face or realistic avatar face, respectively.

Lewkowicz and Ghazanfar said that the aversion to the goggle-eyed uncanny avatar likely emerged in the older babies as a consequence of their growing expertise with processing human faces, and their association of human faces with positive consequences. However, the older babies' expertise was obviously far from complete because they were unable to tell a realistic avatar from a human face. By 12 months, they can spot uncanny features, it seems, but not a synthetic face. "This limitation, particularly at the end of the first year of life, is interesting," the researchers said, "because infants of this age have already become sufficiently specialised for human faces that they no longer discriminate the faces of other species and of other races [a process known as perceptual narrowing]".

This study builds on recent research showing evidence of the uncanny valley effect in monkeys. From an evolutionary perspective, the researchers said their results were consistent with the idea that the uncanny valley effect emerges as a result of early developmental experience and was "a useful behavioural adaptation because it enables observers to quickly detect anomalies (e.g. disease) and/or aesthetic value (i.e. beauty) of a face."

Critics of this research may feel that it is rather a leap to assume that the uncanny feeling experienced by adults is felt by babies in any way, just because they look at a face more or less. Moreover, the classic uncanny valley effect is about almost-real robots and faces. This study arguably complicates the issue somewhat by introducing specific abnormal features onto synthetic faces, therefore making them look unreal. Whilst it's been shown that abnormal features, such as enlarged eyes, are perceived as uncanny by adults, this could be a different effect from the discomfort caused by not-quite-perfect hyper-realistic entities.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Lewkowicz, D., and Ghazanfar, A. (2012). The development of the uncanny valley in infants Developmental Psychobiology, 54 (2), 124-132 DOI: 10.1002/dev.20583

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Tuck into our round-up of the latest and best psych and neuro links:

A Dangerous Method: David Cronenberg's film about the relationship between Freud, Jung and Spielrein, opens across the UK this weekend. The Guardian calls it "a cool, measured, loquacious film".

This week, BBC One broadcast two episodes of Super Smart Animals about animal intelligence - both are now available on iPlayer for the next 6 days.

The Atlantic published a fascinating in-depth interview with bioethicist Allen Buchanan (author of Better Than Human) about the potential pros and cons of cognitive enhancement technologies.

A new report from the Kings Fund claims that the NHS is losing billions of pounds by failing to address the mental health needs of people with long-term illness.

Nature Neuroscience has published an obituary and suite of free-to-access Jon Driver articles in memory of the great cognitive neuroscientist, who died late last year.

The UK government's Behavioural Insight Team has published a new report into psychologically-informed ways to reduce fraud, error and debt.

The Royal Society has published its latest Brainwaves report, this one examines possible applications of neuroscience for military and civilian law enforcement.

One to watch: The newly launched PsyCh Journal claims to be China's first international journal.

The Chronicle had a super overview and ethical discussion of the work of Adrian Raine, who studies developmental brain markers of later criminality.

Guardian blogger Mo Costandi reported on a new study that compared the way human and monkey brains responded to the experience of watching The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.

The Guardian published a summary of the widespread concerns about psychiatry's revision of its diagnostic code.

Prime Minister Cameron said this week that we need more women in the country's boardrooms. Our sister blog, the Occupational Digest published an overview of research into the Glass Cliff - the tendency for women to be appointed to leadership positions when an organisation is in crisis.

PLoS Blogger Steve Silberman published an interview with synaesthete Perry Hall. Hall has created an App called Sonified that allows the less-synaesthetic among us to experience a morphing of the senses. In related news, veteran Times columnist Matthew Parris wrote in the paper this week that he's experienced synaesthesia all his life, but only just discovered that the condition has a name, and that his experiences aren't shared by everyone.

Starting tomorrow at 2.30pm and continuing on Sunday, BBC Radio 4 is broadcasting dramatisations of two of Freud's classic case studies - Dora and the Wolfman.

That's all, have a mindful weekend!

Post compiled by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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Doubts cast on the influential dual-stream theory of visual processing

Psychologists in Germany have challenged one of the most influential theories in neuropsychology - the dual stream model of visual processing proposed by Mel Goodale and David Milner. This model proposes that visual information entering the brain splits down two parallel paths: the dorsal path heads to the top and rear of the brain where the information is used for guiding actions; the ventral path reaches the temporal lobes where it is used for conscious perception and recognition. The model is hugely influential and will be familiar to all contemporary psychology graduates. The three seminal papers proposing and supporting the model have been cited over 930 times.

Much of the supporting evidence came from studies of the brain-damaged patient known in the literature as D.F. This woman's damage to her occipital and parietal lobes from carbon monoxide poisoning appeared to have left her with a rare form of "visual agnosia" - she was unable to recognise everyday objects but was perfectly able to grasp and use them. In other words, she appeared to have an impaired ventral stream but a preserved dorsal stream.

Marc Himmelbach and his team at Eberhard Karls University say that D.F. has become one of the most influential brain-damaged patients in neuropsychology, comparable to Paul Broca's aphasic patient Leborgne and Phineas Gage - the nineteenth century railway worker who survived an iron rod passing through his brain. However, as is the case with Leborgne and Gage, the German team believe that standards of testing have become more stringent since the seminal work with D.F. was published back in the 90s. In particular, conclusions were drawn about D.F. without comparing her performance and behaviour to age-matched controls.

For their paper, Himmelbach and his team have replicated the three main tests performed on D.F. with 20 female, age-matched healthy controls (mean age 36.5 years). These tests included indicating the size of various rectangular wooden blocks using the thumb and forefinger; actually reaching and picking up the blocks; indicating the orientation of a narrow slot in a disc; posting a card through that slot; and indicating the size and shape of odd-regular shapes and then actually picking up those shapes. Results from the original work with D.F. was compared against the results from these new healthy controls.

Himmelbach and his colleagues don't dispute that D.F.'s performance was far more impaired for recognition tasks compared with the reaching and grasping tasks. However, compared against their new control data, they say it's clear that D.F. was also severely impaired in her reaching and grasping performance, seemingly undermining the neat interpretation that she had a preserved dorsal stream. The German group also point to more recent tests of D.F. showing that she has obvious motor deficits when the task is more complicated - for example, she was unable to grasp a disc through three holes in its surface using her thumb, index and middle fingers.

Other evidence highlighted by Himmelbach and co concerns a more recently identified patient "J.S." who has a similar pattern of brain damage to D.F. and who is more impaired on recognition than motor tasks, but who nonetheless is clearly severely impaired on motor tasks compared with healthy controls. Based on a scan of J.S., the researchers also doubt that the pattern of brain damage suffered by D.F is as circumscribed as previously claimed. Finally, the researchers are critical of the lack of "kinematic data" from the original tests of D.F. - things like reaction times, peak velocity of movements and so forth. Such data, they say, would show whether her movements were really normal, or if she were, for example, taking longer than normal to compensate for her difficulties.

"In conclusion," the researchers said, "the behaviour and anatomy of D.F. on its own does not provide firm grounds for the perception vs. action interpretation of dorsal and ventral stream areas." They added that other sources of support for the dual stream model "do not provide unequivocal evidence in favour of or against [the model] without reference to D.F. and could also be integrated by alternative models that do not explicitly state an action-perception dissociation."

ResearchBlogging.orgHimmelbach, M., Boehme, R. and Karnath, H. (2012). 20 years later: A second look on DF's motor behaviour. Neuropsychologia, 50 (1), 139-144 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2011.11.011

Further reading: One brain two visual systems.

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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When depressed mothers give birth to thriving babies

Shelves of evidence show the long-term, adverse consequences for an embryo of having a mother who is stressed or malnourished during pregnancy. For instance, there's medical data showing that underweight newborn babies are more at risk of heart diseases and other illnesses in adulthood.

According to the "thrifty phenotype" hypothesis, this is because the child is born with a body that's primed for malnutrition. When the baby instead encounters plentiful resources, its metabolism suffers as a result, leading to a long-term increased risk of stroke, heart disease and diabetes.

But what if the prenatal environment were a reliable predictor of the world that's to come? A surprising new study shows that adverse prenatal circumstances, in the form of having a depressed mother, are actually beneficial if that same context endures after birth. The finding is consistent with the "predictive-adaptive response model", which says that adversity in-utero can have adaptive advantages if adversity is also encountered after birth.

Curt Sandman and his team measured the depression levels of 221 healthy women during their pregnancy and for twelve months after their children were born. The babies were subsequently categorised into four groups. There were two "concordant" groups, for whom the environment was the same prenatally and post-natally, as in their mother was either depression-free in both phases or she had depression in both phases. And there were two "discrepant" groups, for whom the prenatal and postnatal environments were different, as in their mother had depression in one phase but not the other.

Here's the take-home finding: babies in the concordant groups exhibited superior scores on mental development at 3 and 6 months of age, and superior psychomotor development at 6 months, compared with the discrepant babies. Crucially, this was the case for both concordant groups. In other words, for babies whose mothers were depressed postnatally, it was those whose mothers were also depressed during pregnancy who fared better. This counterintuitive finding appears to contradict the received wisdom that adversity during pregnancy is only ever associated with adverse outcomes.

Zeroing in on the timings, it was specifically the consistency or not between a mother's depression state at 25 weeks' gestation and her depression state postnatally that had associations with the babies' developmental outcomes. This makes sense because past research has found mothers' depression at 25 weeks' gestation (as opposed to at other times) to be most strongly related with their emotional state postnatally. The researchers said it's as if the unborn child is "most sensitive to maternal signals of adversity when those signals are the most predictive of future outcomes."

  ResearchBlogging.orgSandman, C., Davis, E., and Glynn, L. (2012). Prescient Human Fetuses Thrive. Psychological Science, 23 (1), 93-100 DOI: 10.1177/0956797611422073

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Having superior working memory capacity can make time go faster

Working memory is like a neural memo-pad. People with higher working memory capacity can hold more items in mind whilst solving a concurrent problem or performing a distracting task. There's been some excitement lately about the possibility that working memory can be improved through training, with knock-on benefits for IQ and academic attainment. A new study suggests such training should come with a footnote: "Improving your working memory could affect your perception of time".

James Woehrle and Joseph Magliano divided 99 students into two groups according to whether they had high or low working memory capacity. Next, the students solved subtraction problems in their heads. They were told the maths was their primary task but an extra challenge was to solve the problems for a certain duration, as judged by their own internal sense of time: either two minutes or four minutes.

The intriguing finding is that time went faster for the students with higher working memory capacity. When tasked with doing the maths for four minutes, they tended to work for longer, estimating that the time was up later than the low working memory participants.

What was going on? Why should having more working memory speed up the passage of time? Woehrle and Magliano said the finding was consistent with a popular account of time estimation, which posits that pulses are released by an internal pacemaker and accumulate in a counter. More pulses in the counter suggests more time has passed. Crucially, this process is gated by attention. When we pay attention to time, each pulse makes it into the counter and the passage of time feels slower. By contrast, if our attention is focused elsewhere, fewer pulses make it into the counter, as if less time has passed than really has (i.e. giving the subjective feeling of time having flown).

According to Woehrle and Magliano's Working Memory Capacity Hypothesis - the students in the current study with more working memory were able to allocate their attention almost entirely on the primary maths task. This benefited their maths performance but meant they were less vigilant of pulses accumulating in their internal clock. By contrast, the low working memory students couldn't help but allocate some attention to the secondary time-keeping task, making them more aware of the passage of time. As a consequence the low working memory students' time perception was actually more accurate but their maths performance suffered. The researchers said this evidence could have "profound implications in academic situations ... low working memory students may 'think' too much about how much time they put into their school work."

The new findings complement previous research showing that greater working memory capacity is associated with more accurate time perception, when time perception is the primary task. In this case, having more working memory allows for greater vigilance of the internal pacemaker and counter. Indeed, in the current study, the time perception of the higher working memory group was superior in a control condition in which they only had to estimate the passage of time.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Woehrle, J., and Magliano, J. (2012). Time flies faster if a person has a high working-memory capacity. Acta Psychologica, 139 (2), 314-319 DOI: 10.1016/j.actpsy.2011.12.006

Previously on the DigestDoubt cast on the maxim that time goes faster as you get older.
The surprising links between anger and time perception

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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