Faces covered by a niqab are seen as less happy and expressing more shame

The wearing of face veils (the niqab) by Muslim women has become a politically sensitive issue in recent years. The practice is banned in France and similar laws are planned, or already in place, in many other Western European countries including Belgium, The Netherlands and Austria. In the UK, in 2006 the then Government Minister Jack Straw caused controversy when he suggested that wearing the niqab interferes with face-to-face communication and he'd prefer it if the practice were dropped. Now for the first time psychologists have tested the effects of the niqab on the facial communication of emotion.

A team led by Agneta Fischer at the University of Amsterdam showed four short videos to 58 Dutch students (23 had previously had contact with a niqab-wearer; 25 had Muslims among their family and friends). The silent videos showed a woman (one of three actresses) telling a story that was either emotionally neutral, happy, made her angry or made her feel shame. Crucially, some of the participants viewed videos in which the woman was wearing a niqab; others viewed a woman with horizontal black bars on the screen concealing the top of her head and her lower face; and others viewed a version in which the woman's head and face were uncovered (see picture). The participants' task was to rate the intensity of emotions expressed by the woman in each clip.

The niqab seemed to change the facial communication of emotion. Participants who viewed the woman wearing a niqab rated her expression of happiness as less intense than participants who viewed the other two videos. Moreover, participants who viewed videos of a woman with her face covered (be that with the niqab or the horizontal bars) rated her expression of shame as more intense, compared with participants who viewed a woman with an uncovered face. The perception of anger in the videos was unaffected by face covering, probably because anger is expressed principally via furrowing of the brow, which was visible regardless of face covering.

After viewing the video clips, the participants were asked about their attitudes toward the niqab. Those who'd seen clips showing a woman with a covered face (the niqab or the horizontal bars) expressed more negative attitudes toward the niqab, and this was mediated by the amount of negative emotion they perceived in the video clips. In other words, the researchers said, "we may conclude that the attempt to decode emotions in covered faces leads one to perceive more negative emotions, which in turn influences how one feels about covering one's face."

There is a weakness in the study methodology. The clips featuring the horizontal bars were created by using software to overlay the bars on the footage of the women filmed without their heads covered. The niqab videos, by contrast, were filmed separately with the women actually wearing the niqabs, so it's possible the actresses may have behaved differently whilst wearing the veils. However, this doesn't diminish the main point that both forms of face covering affected the communication of emotion.

Fischer and her colleagues concluded that the niqab may have the effect of exaggerating the perceived amount of negative emotion expressed by a wearer, whilst diminishing the perceived amount of positive emotion. "The present research thus supports some of the concerns that have been expressed in political debates concerning the negative effects of wearing niqabs in social settings," they said.

 _________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Fischer, A., Gillebaart, M., Rotteveel, M., Becker, D., and Vliek, M. (2012). Veiled Emotions: The Effect of Covered Faces on Emotion Perception and Attitudes. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3 (3), 266-273 DOI: 10.1177/1948550611418534

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Introducing "therapy genetics" - genes can predict whether therapy will help

Psychotherapy, like other forms of treatment, doesn't work for everyone and there would be huge advantages to knowing in advance who's likely to benefit. In the case of drugs, there's a thriving research field - pharmacogenetics - looking at whether a person's genetic profile can predict their chances of responding to treatment. Can the same approach be applied to therapy? A team of researchers at the Institute of Psychiatry in London believes so.

In one of the first papers published on "therapy genetics", Kathryn Lester and her colleagues, including Thalia Eley, took swabs from hundreds of white children with anxiety, aged 6 to 13. The researchers were specifically interested in the genes the children had that code for Nerve Growth Factor (NGF) and Brain Derived-Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) - proteins involved in the survival and development of neurons. The children, some based in the UK and some in Australia, then underwent a CBT programme designed for helping anxious children. The key question was whether the children's genetic profile would be associated with how well they responded to the treatment.

There were no genetic associations with the children's immediate response to the treatment. However, at follow up (assessed at 3, 6 or 12 months), the children's particular NGF genotype was related to their therapeutic responsiveness. We each have two copies of the NGF gene, rs6330, which can come in two versions, known as the T allele or the C allele. Lester and her team found that among children with two copies of the T allele version, 76.7 per cent were free of their primary anxiety diagnosis at follow up, compared with 63.5 per cent of children with one C version and one T version, and just 53.2 per cent of children with two copies of the C allele. These associations held, even after controlling for other clinically relevant factors such as age, gender and geographical location.

Why should the children's particular form of NGF gene affect the way they respond to CBT? Definite answers will only come from more research, but Lester and her colleagues argued that the finding makes sense based on what we already know about NGF being involved in the growth of new neurons and in changing connections between existing neurones - known as "neuroplastic changes" in the scientific jargon. "Significant learning experiences of the kind undertaken during CBT may very well be underpinned by neuroplastic modifications in brain activity and function," they said.

This new result complements another recent paper published by the same research group, in which anxious children responded more successfully to CBT if they had a particular version of a gene involved in the activity of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Again, the association was found at follow-up rather than immediately after therapy.

Lester and her team said they believed the association they documented in this new research is "clinically meaningful", but that "clinically significant prediction by genetic markers is likely to be best achieved by combining multiple genetic markers (perhaps in combination with clinical predictors) into predictive indices or algorithms."

The research has some shortcomings. For example, without a no-treatment control group of anxious children, it's not possible to say for sure that NGF genotype is specifically associated with therapeutic responsiveness rather than an advantageous tendency to recover regardless of treatment. "These findings should be considered preliminary," the researchers said.

 _________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Lester, K., Hudson, J., Tropeano, M., Creswell, C., Collier, D., Farmer, A., Lyneham, H., Rapee, R., and Eley, T. (2012). Neurotrophic gene polymorphisms and response to psychological therapy. Translational Psychiatry, 2 (5) DOI: 10.1038/tp.2012.33

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5 chances to win a copy of Rethinking Madness

This competition is now closed and the winners have been contacted.

We have 5 copies of Rethinking Madness by psychologist Paris Williams to give away. From the publishers:
"In Rethinking Madness, Dr. Paris Williams takes the reader step by step on a highly engaging journey of discovery, exploring how the mainstream understanding of schizophrenia has become so profoundly misguided, while crafting a much more accurate and hopeful vision of madness. As this vision unfolds, we discover a deeper sense of appreciation for the profound wisdom and resilience that lies within our beings while also coming to the unsettling realization of just how thin the boundary is between so called madness and so called sanity."
For your chance to win a copy, simply post a comment to this blog entry stating why this is a topic that interests you. The winners will be chosen at random on Friday (make sure you leave an email address).
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Eye-catching studies that didn't make the final cut:

A replication of the finding that positive psychology exercises boost happiness.

The first documented case of congenital amusia in childhood.

The idea of the "hot-hand" in sports is that after hitting the target twice or more, a player is more likely to hit their target again. Previous studies, many conducted in the context of basketball, have suggested that there's no such phenomenon, but a new paper says that the hot hand exists in volleyball: "coaches and playmakers are able to detect it, and playmakers tend to use it 'adaptively,' which results in more hits for a team."

We have a bias for fearing high-speed threats, even if their chance of happening is low.

How the brain "talks over" boring quotes.

Some so-called "dark-side" personality traits are associated with work success.

A study into students' tendency to mind-wander and links with academic success and working memory.

When Prisoners Take Over the Prison, A Social Psychology of Resistance.

Useful review paper: "Training the brain: Fact and fad in cognitive and behavioural remediation".

When do people actually prefer to have lower status?

Testing the limits of the rubber hand illusion.

It's a phrase that's used a lot in psychology, but what exactly is "theory of mind"?


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What your Facebook picture says about your cultural background

What kind of profile picture do you have on Facebook? Is it a close-up shot of your lovely face with little background visible? Or is it zoomed out, so that you appear against a wider context? The answer, according to a new study by psychologists in the USA, likely depends in part on your cultural ancestry.

Chih-Mao Huang and Denise Park first analysed 200 Facebook profiles of users based at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the National Taiwan University in Taipei. Half the users in Taiwan were actually US citizens, and half those in Illinois were Taiwanese. Regardless of their current location, there was a significant association between cultural background and style of Facebook picture. Facebook users originally hailing from Taiwan were more likely to have a zoomed-out picture in which they were seen against a background context. Users from the USA, by contrast, were more likely to have a close-up picture in which their face filled up more of the frame.

There was a trend for the students' to adapt to their adopted culture because current location was also associated with picture style (e.g. Taiwanese based in the USA had pictures more focused on their faces, as compared with Taiwanese based in Taiwan), but this effect wasn't statistically significant.

A second study was similar but involved 312 Facebook users at three American universities (University of California, San Diego; University of Texas at Austin; and University of California-Berkekely) and three Asian universities (Chinese University of Hong Kong; National University of Singapore; and National Taiwan University). These locations were selected to be comparable in terms of having a warm climate. Again, Facebook users in America tended to have a profile picture in which their face filled up more of the frame; Asian users, by contrast, showed more background context in their pictures. Americans were also less likely Asians to display other parts of their body, besides their face. And the Americans' smile intensity tended to be greater.

"We believe this may be the first demonstration that culture influences self-presentation on Facebook, the most popular worldwide online social network site," the researchers said.

The new findings complement an existing literature showing cultural associations with attentional and aesthetic habits. For example, a 2008 study (pdf) showed that portrait photographs taken by East Asians tended to show more background (and that participants from that culture preferred pictures of that style), whilst those taken by Westerners were more focused on the target's face (and Americans said they preferred that style). Similarly, eye-movement research has shown that Westerners looking at a scene tend to focus more on embedded central objects, whilst Chinese look more often at the background.

"Our findings further extend previous evidence of systematic cultural differences in the offline world to cyberspace, supporting the extended real-life hypothesis," the researchers said, "which suggests that individuals express and communicate their self-representation at online social network sites as a product of extended social cognitions and behaviours."
 _________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Huang, C., and Park, D. (2012). Cultural influences on Facebook photographs. International Journal of Psychology, 1-10 DOI: 10.1080/00207594.2011.649285

Previously on the Research Digest: Asian Americans and European Americans differ in how they see themselves in the world.

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

You've heard of chic-lit, welcome to neuro-lit ... Charles Fernyhough, Jonah Lehrer and Claudia Hammond discuss neuroscience and novels on the latest issue of BBC Radio 4's All in the Mind (now on iPlayer).

How Google are introducing a new search function that works more like the human brain.

How smartphone apps based on Skinnerian principles are helping people change their lives.

Channel 4 broadcast the latest episode of Hidden Talent, which featured a search for an expert multi-tasker and a super face-recogniser (now available on 4oD).

Psychotherapist struck off by BACP for offering "conversion therapy" for homosexuality loses her appeal. Meanwhile prominent US psychiatrist Robert Spitzer has apologised for a paper he published in 2001, which suggested that such therapy works.

What is the point of psychiatric diagnosis?

Why your body jerks before you fall asleep. And ... how much people sleep on average.

One for the diary - Public lecture, May 28 in London "Do we need friends?"

Check out the latest posts on our sister blog The Occupational Digest on burnout and mavericks.

David Eagleman was on BBC Radio 3 discussing the ethical implications of neuroscience findings (streaming or podcast now available).

Another for the diary - "In conversation with Daniel Kahneman", LSE, London, 1 June.

Worth a look, new book The Moral Molecule, The New Science of What Makes Us Good or Evil.

A history of the British stiff upper lip - how social rules around the expression of emotion have changed through the ages (BBC Radio 4 programme now on iPlayer).

Disappearing Hand Trick has won this year's prize for best illusion.

Pork brains with milk gravy, anyone? Or what about a made-to-order knitted brain hat?

That's all for now, have a great weekend!
Post compiled by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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ADHD Summer Camp

For harassed doctors and stressed-out parents, it can be tempting to treat a challenging child with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) with pills and leave it at that. After all, early results from the one of the largest trials of its kind in the United States - the Multimodal Treatment Study of Children with ADHD (MTA) - showed that behavioural outcomes were better for children given the psychostimulant Ritalin, than for those given psychological treatment. However, follow-up data over several years has shown that the advantages of drug treatment aren't sustained over the longer term. The position of the UK's independent health advisory body, NICE, is that drug treatments for ADHD should only ever be part of a broader treatment package, including psycho-educational sessions for parents (pdf). The hunt continues for the most effective treatment or mix of treatments.

It's in this context that a team of German psychologists, led by Wolf-Dieter Gerber at the University of Kiel, has published a new report looking at the benefits of combining drug treatment for ADHD with an intensive Summer Camp.

Eighteen children with an ADHD diagnosis (aged 9 to 17 years), all on medication, spent 12 days at one such camp, which included social skills training conducted in a playful manner, attention training and sports. Crucially, the camp also incorporated "response cost token-based behaviour training" - that is, the children earned or lost tokens according to whether they followed or broke the camp rules. They were encouraged to compare their token totals each evening and a winner was declared for each day following an "Olympics style" format. At the end of the camp, the tokens could be exchanged for prizes.

A control group of 19 age-matched children with ADHD, also on medication, didn't go to camp, but their parents received a one-and-a-half hour-long psycho-educational session in which they were taught, amongst other things, about using a token strategy in the home.

Six months later, the children from both groups were tested on a range of neuropsychological measures and their outcomes compared with their pre-intervention test performance.

The key finding is that only the Summer Camp kids showed a reduction in the variability of their reaction times. This is significant because highly sporadic reaction times are a hallmark of ADHD, indicative of reduced self control. Moreover, only the Summer Camp group showed significant improvements in selective and sustained attention and the capacity to integrate information. It's likely these cognitive changes were clinically significant. Only those children who received higher ratings from their teachers (in terms of improved impulsivity, hyperactivity and inattention) showed positive changes in the variability of their reaction time scores on the neuropsych tests.

"We believe this study has merit" the researchers said, "as the ADHD Summer Camp can be regarded as a novelty in ADHD treatment. We could find no comparable intervention programmes that included stringent ... [token reward and punishment] techniques."

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Gerber, W., Gerber-von Müller, G., Andrasik, F., Niederberger, U., Siniatchkin, M., Kowalski, J., Petermann, U., and Petermann, F. (2012). The impact of a multimodal Summer Camp Training on neuropsychological functioning in children and adolescents with ADHD: An exploratory study. Child Neuropsychology, 18 (3), 242-255 DOI: 10.1080/09297049.2011.599115

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Neuroscience still haunted by Phineas Gage

From Van Horn et al 2012
Seven years after his death, Phineas Gage's body was dug out of the ground and his skull passed to a doctor, John Harlow, who'd treated him in life. Although Gage's brain had long-since decayed, his skull remained intact and was of particular medical interest because in 1848, in an explosives accident, Gage had survived a three and a half foot long iron rod shooting straight into his face, through his brain, and out the top of his head. Although he died in 1860, Gage has lived on as one of psychology's foundation myths - a classic example of frontal brain damage affecting personality.

Traditional accounts have it that Gage was permanently changed by his injury, becoming a drunken, aggressive waster. But in recent years a reappraisal of Gage's activities during the remainder of his life suggests he underwent an impressive social recovery. For example, he worked as a stagecoach driver along a 100-mile route in Chile, a job that would have required significant psychosocial competence.

If we could ever find out exactly the brain damage that Gage suffered it would help inform the debates surrounding how much he did or didn't recover and provide intriguing insights about neurorehabilitation. That's what Harlow hoped to do back in the nineteenth century. From inspecting Gage's skull he concluded that the left frontal and middle lobes must have been destroyed and that the partial recovery made by Gage was likely due to compensation by the right hemisphere.

Housed in a museum together with the rod that made him famous, Gage's skull was then left untouched for nearly a hundred years. However, beginning in the 1980s, each new generation of scientists has used the technology of the day to make another attempt to recreate Gage's injury.

In 1982, using CT scans of the skull, Rick and Ken Tyler concluded that although the left side of the brain suffered the most damage, the right hemisphere was probably damaged too. In the nineties, Hanna Damasio and her colleagues performed a 3D reconstruction of Gage's injury and they too concluded the damage was bilateral (pdf). Another ten years went by and then another simulation. In the most sophisticated analysis to date, Peter Ratiu and his colleagues overlaid a 3D representation of a brain within a 3D reconstruction of Gage's skull and simulated the path of the iron rod (pdf). They concluded that the damage was only to the left, just as Harlow had said, which would make the new claims about Gage's recovery more explicable.

Now Gage's skull has been analysed yet again. A team of experts, led by John Van Horn, based at the University of California and Harvard Medical School, has used diffusion imaging data, together with anatomical MRI, to try to find out how Gage's injury affected the connective tissues of his brain. As they explain: "while many authors have focused on the gross damage done by the iron to Gage's frontal cortical grey matter, little consideration has been given to the degree of damage to and destruction of major connections between discretely affected regions and the rest of his brain."

Van Horn's team scanned the brains of 110 right-handed men (Gage was right-handed) of a similar age to Gage at the time of his injury (the range was 25 to 36; Gage was aged 25 when the rod entered his head). The scans used diffusion tensor imaging to map the connective white-matter tracts of the men's brains in intricate detail. Next, these scans were averaged and integrated with the 3D reconstruction of Gage's skull that was created by Ratiu's team back in 2004. The trajectory of the rod was simulated and an estimate was made of the damage the rod would have done to the connective tissues of Gage's brain, based on it resembling the average of the 110 healthy men's brains.

Is it reasonable to suppose that the connective networks of Gage's brain were akin to the averaged networks of 110 healthy men scanned in the twenty-first century? "Such a supposition may have its limitations and could be open to debate," the researchers conceded. "Nevertheless, ours represents the best current estimation as to the extent of brain damage likely to have occurred at the level of both cortex and white matter fiber pathways."

So what damage do they think Gage incurred? Van Horn's team think that 4 per cent of Gage's cortical grey matter was damaged in the left hemisphere and 11 per cent of his cortical white matter. Among the important connective bundles that were damaged, they said, are the uncinate fasciculus (which connects the frontal lobes with the limbic system), the cingulum bundle (connecting parts of the limbic system with each other), and the superior longitudinal fasciculus (long-distance fibres linking the front and back of the brain). Abnormalities in the uncinate fasciculus, they explained, have previously been associated with mental illness and related to cognitive deficits in traumatic brain injury. This spread of damage to Gage's white matter tracts would have affected not only the left frontal lobe, the researchers explained, but indirectly would have affected the functioning of the right hemisphere too.

The pattern of damage Gage suffered would be expected to have a profound effect, the researchers said, having "a considerable impact on executive as well as emotional functions," and "likely combined to give rise to the behavioural and cognitive symptomatology originally reported by Harlow." However, they stressed that it could have been a lot worse. A simulation of 500 random similarly-sized lesions showed the damage caused by the iron rod was below the average you'd expect by chance. Gage was lucky not to have been left blinded or dead.

The researchers concluded that "consideration of white matter damage and connectivity loss is ... an essential consideration when interpreting and discussing this famous case study and its role in the history of neuroscience." But how useful is this new analysis really? In particular, does it shed any light on the re-appraisal of the Gage myth that's emerged over the last decade or so, in which Gage is considered to have made an impressive psychosocial recovery?

This photo of Gage was discovered in 2009
The man responsible for much of this reassessment is the historian Malcolm Macmillan, the author of An Odd Kind of Fame: Stories of Phineas Gage, and several subsequent articles. He told the Digest that the results were "very interesting" and that it was "particularly gratifying" that the new analysis had confirmed the earlier conclusions of Ratiu's team that Gage's damage was left frontal. However, Macmillan has some reservations - for example he pointed out the limitations in the method of averaging from multiple brains to estimate the structure of Gage's brain.

Moreover, whilst the inferred damaged to Gage's connective pathways might explain the changes to his behaviour in the first two to three years post-accident, Macmillan and his colleague Matthew Lena, "are most interested in what happened in the last five or six years of Phineas' life. If Lena and I are right about the post-accident Phineas gradually changing from the commonly portrayed impulsive and uninhibited person into one who made a reasonable 'social recovery,'" Macmillan said, "we need to know if and how changes in the tracts contributed. As I see it, and unfortunately, it seems unlikely that we will ever be able to reconstruct those long-term changes."

But there's always room for hope. Macmillan added: "From people who use tractography to map the changes in the connections following traumatic brain injury, I understand there is evidence that damaged tracts may re-establish their original connections or build alternative pathways as the brain recovers from oedema. In the short-term, some of the original functions may thus recover. It would be truly wonderful if were we able to confirm that possibility in Phineas' case."

ResearchBlogging.orgVan Horn, J., Irimia, A., Torgerson, C., Chambers, M., Kikinis, R., and Toga, A. (2012). Mapping Connectivity Damage in the Case of Phineas Gage. PLoS ONE, 7 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0037454

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Total recall: The man who can remember every day of his life in detail

For most of us, it's tricky enough to remember what we were doing this time last week, let alone on some random day years ago. But for a blind 20-year-old man referred to by researchers as HK, every day of his life since the age of about eleven is recorded in his memory in detail. HK has a rare condition known as hyperthymesia and his is only the second case ever documented in the scientific literature (the first, a woman known as AJ, was reported in 2006; pdf).

Brandon Ally and his team have completed comprehensive tests with HK and they've scanned his brain and compared its structure with 30 age-matched controls. They found that HK has normal intelligence, that he performs normally on standard desktop tests of short and long-term recall, and that he has normal verbal learning skills. It's specifically his autobiographical memory that's phenomenal.

The researchers assessed HK's autobiographical memory by choosing four dates from each year of his life since his first memory (that was from 1993 when he was aged three and half), making 80 dates in total. For each of these dates, they gathered at least three facts from HK's family, medical records and the historical records for his neighbourhood in Nashville. HK was then interviewed about each of these 80 dates - for example, he was asked "Can you tell me what happened during your day on January 2nd, 2001". His answers, often detailed, were transcribed and fact-checked.

HK's recollection of days from his life between the ages of 9 and 12 grew dramatically more accurate and detailed, reaching nearly 90 per cent accuracy for memories at age 11, rising to near perfect accuracy thereafter. For some dates, HK was quizzed again at a second session - the consistency of his answers was 100 per cent.

What's it like to have hyperthymesia? HK told the researchers that his autobiographical memories are rich in sensory and emotional details and feel just as vivid regardless of whether they're from years ago or from yesterday. Ninety per cent of the time he experiences these memories in the first-person, compared with rates of approximately 66 per cent in the general population. HK said autobiographical memories frequently enter his consciousness, triggered by news, smells, sounds and emotions. Most days he wakes up thinking about what he's done on that day in previous years. Bad memories come to mind just as often as positive ones, but he is able to choose to focus more on the positive.

In terms of brain structure, overall HK's brain was smaller than average (likely related to his having been born prematurely at 27 weeks). By contrast, his right amygdala was larger, by about 20 per cent, than in the controls. He also has enhanced functional connectivity between his right amygdala and hippocampus and in other regions. The amygdala is a small subcortical structure and part of the limbic system, which is involved in emotional processing. The researchers think that HK's enlarged amygdala and its enhanced connectivity lends a deeper personal salience to his experiences than is normal, thus making them more memorable.

Ally and his team acknowledged that "unique case studies such as HK are not easily translated or generalisable to the normal population", and so should be interpreted with caution. That said, they argued their results provide further evidence for the role of the amygdala in autobiographical memory. "Further, perhaps the present findings can help guide future regions of brain stimulation in memory-disordered populations, with the goal of improving memory function," they speculated. "Indeed, brain stimulation to deep, subcortical memory-related structures has shown very early promise in patients with Alzheimer's Disease."
 _________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Ally, B., Hussey, E., and Donahue, M. (2012). A case of hyperthymesia: rethinking the role of the amygdala in autobiographical memory. Neurocase, 1-16 DOI: 10.1080/13554794.2011.654225

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

Will they ever let him rest? Researchers in the USA attempt to simulate the damage suffered by Phineas Gage to the white-matter tracts of his brain (no easy feat given that Gage's brain was never preserved). Mo Costandi provides some quality coverage for The Guardian. Look out for my own report coming soon.

Everything you ever wanted to know about the brain - the Society for Neuroscience and its friends have clubbed together to create a new website of brain facts.

Ed Yong wrote an excellent Nature news feature on the recent controversies in psychology around replication, and possible solutions. Sadly no mention in there of the recent (open access) Psychologist magazine opinion special on the same subject.

BBC World Service broadcast a programme on the neuroscience and psychology of morality - you can listen to it on iPlayer.

Brain-machine interfacing has taken another step forward - this time paralysed human participants controlled a robotic arm using their thoughts alone.

Are you following our sister blog, The Occupational Digest? Check out recent posts from Alex Fradera on perfectionists and guilt-prone leaders.

How the most famous bet in the history of neuroscience was won and lost - my first Brain Myths blog post for Psychology Today.

This is the only known recording of Freud's voice.

This year's Loebner prize (chatbot competition) at Bletchley Park was a bit of a let down - maybe the competition looks at AI in the wrong way?

The APA hosted a Mental Health Month Blog Party - the Digest chipped in with a mental health links round up.

The latest edition on BBC Radio 4's All in the Mind delved into the world of Street Therapy for gang members.

Psychologist Christopher Chabris wrote a highly negative review of Jonah Lehrer's new book on creativity. Jonah defended himself and then Chabris came back for another go. Tom Bartlett looks at what we can learn from their exchange.

Can you call a 9-year-old a psychopath?

The latest episode of Hidden Talent included a search for people with extraordinary navigational skills. You can watch it on 4oD and check out blog posts from the psychologists Hugo Spiers and Tom Hartley about their work for the programme. 

What is sleep for? A great overview from Neuroskeptic.

This week's Guardian Science Weekly podcast featured Claudia Hammond talking about her new book on time perception (congrats to the Guardian podcast team on their recent award).

Electroconvulsive therapy isn't brutal, it's a beneficial treatment, says one experienced patient.

Check out this new podcast series - Social Science Bites - Pinker, Kosslyn, Reicher et al lined up for future episodes.

How to remember loads ... memory champ and science journalist Joshua Foer's TED talk is now live.

That's all for now, have a great weekend!

Post compiled by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
You have read this article Feast with the title May 2012. You can bookmark this page URL http://psychiatryfun.blogspot.com/2012/05/feast_18.html. Thanks!

Smile your way to a vegetable-loving child

Maybe you've tried giving them names - Sally Sprout or Brian the Broccoli. Or perhaps you've made noises of gastronomic delight, "hmm, yummy!" Yet still your young child refuses to eat their greens. Maybe it's because of that slight, but all too visible, sneer on your face. After all, you're not wild about veggies either. Well, it's time for you to become a better actor. A new study suggests that young children are particularly sensitive to the emotional expressions of other eaters, and that these emotions are likely to affect their eating habits.

Laetitia Barthomeuf and her team presented 43 5-year-olds, 38 8-year-olds and 42 adults with photographs of two women eating various foods. As they ate, the women either looked happy, disgusted or just had a neutral expression. There were six different foods - three that the participants had earlier said they liked (chocolate, bread and cream cake) and three that they said they disliked (kidney, black pudding, cooked sausage with vegetables). Twenty-seven additional participants had been excluded earlier because their preferences didn't fit this pattern.

As they looked at each photo, the child and adult participants were asked to say how much, on a scale of 1 to 10, they desired to eat the food that the woman in the photo was eating. The take home finding - the children, especially the five-year-olds, were influenced much more by the facial expressions of the women, than were the adults.

If the woman in the photo had a look of disgust, this reduced the children's, and to a lesser extent, the adults', desire to eat foods that they liked. In contrast, if the woman had a look of pleasure on her face, this  increased the children's, and to a lesser extent, the adults', desire to eat foods they didn't like (for five-year-olds only, it also increased their desire to eat foods they liked). Even a neutral facial expression in the eating women made a difference - increasing and decreasing the participants' desire for liked and disliked foods, respectively, especially in the children.

The researchers speculated that the influence of the women's facial expressions occurred because seeing their expressions led to simulations of those same emotions in the minds of the participants. They further suggested that this process is accentuated in younger children because of the immaturity of their prefrontal cortex.

The study has some obvious weaknesses, acknowledged by the researchers - they didn't measure actual eating behaviour, and the stimuli were photos, as opposed to a real-life dining situation. Nonetheless, they predicted the effects of other people's emotional expressions might be even larger in a more realistic situation and that the results therefore have important implications for the encouragement of children's healthy eating habits. "Adults may unconsciously influence children's food preferences via their facial expressions of pleasure or disgust," they said.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Barthomeuf, L., Droit-Volet, S., and Rousset, S. (2012). How emotions expressed by adults’ faces affect the desire to eat liked and disliked foods in children compared to adults. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 30 (2), 253-266 DOI: 10.1111/j.2044-835X.2011.02033.x

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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Blogging for mental health

To coincide with the Mental Health Month Blog Party organised by the APA, I've collated some highlights from our coverage of mental health issues here at the BPS Research Digest.

What is mental illness? In 2010 I reported on a Psychological Medicine editorial that dissected the definition used by the fourth edition of US psychiatry's diagnostic manualAnother post from 2006 explored differences in the way the public and experts view mental disorders.  How we conceive of mental illness isn't only of theoretical interest, it can have an impact on people's lives. For example, this post showed that biological accounts of mental illness may dent patients’ hope and increase stigma.

Mental illness is normal. Several studies I've covered have illustrated just how common mental health problems are. One paper suggested that one in two of us will experience mental difficulties in our life-times. Another asked Who doesn't suffer from paranoia? Other research has shown that psychotic symptoms aren't always pathological and tried to find out how non-problematic symptoms differ from those experienced by patients. Another paper had a similar aim: The same voices, heard differently?

Drug-free treatment is often helpful. Despite widespread beliefs to the contrary, there are drug-free ways to help people with schizophrenia, including using CBT. In fact, psychotherapy has a drug-like effect on the brain. In a guest post, Richard Bentall described the treatment of schizophrenia with maximum kindness and minimum medication. Elsewhere, I covered new research showing that fears could be unlearned without the use of drugs. I reported on a computer game that holds promise in helping prevent traumatic flashbacks. I've also uncovered some novel and straightforward approaches to improving mental health, including floral arrangement as a cognitive training tool for schizophrenia and Grab it, bag it, bin it - a new approach to psychological problem solving.

Self-help strategies sometimes backfire. But we shouldn't assume that all interventions, however well-intentioned, will be beneficial. Popular strategies or tools for being happier or more successful can sometimes be harmful, as these posts demonstrate: CBT-based self-help books can do more harm than goodPositive psychology exercises can be harmful for some Why positive fantasies make your dreams less likely to come true. A related feature article in The Psychologist magazine delved into the world of unscrupulous therapies: When therapy causes harm.

Research into the therapeutic process. Lots of research in psychology tries to get to the bottom of the factors that make therapy effective. For example, this paper put cognitive therapy on the couch. Another found that therapy is more effective when psychologists focus on their clients' strengths (yet another showed that successful therapists focus on their clients' strengths). This paper examined those times when clients in therapy show sudden, dramatic improvements. Other papers I've covered have asked some awkward and tricky questions about therapy - for example, is it really true that therapists don't improve with experience? Can therapists tell when their clients have deteriorated? What happens when therapists have the hots for their clients? And what should a therapist do if a client confesses to murder? Other studies looked at therapy from the clients' perspective, for example What do clients think CBT will be like and how is it really?

Mental health research isn't easy. Because mental health problems are so widespread, it's not always easy to conduct properly controlled experiments, as these posts show: Just how non-clinical are so-called non-clinical community samples? and Beware the "super well" - why the controls in psychology research are often too healthy.

Intriguing case studies. I've covered a few of these, such as the boy who thought 9/11 was his fault and the time that a spontaneous panic attack was caught during a brain imaging scan.

Be happy. There's reason for hope. Sometimes mental health problems can have an upside, for example this post suggested that anxiety has benefits. Remember too that most people with a mental disorder are happy If you want to be happier than you are, this study suggested that frequent, mundane positive activities will make you happier, rather than rare, profound events.

Post compiled by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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When are two heads better than one?

The Challenger disaster, the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the botched invasion of Iraq ... all these historical calamities have in common that they've been blamed on dud group decision making. Bang heads together, it seems, and you dull people's minds. And yet there's the almost-magic "Wisdom of Crowds" effect - average people's verdicts together and you'll arrive at a more accurate answer than any one person would have achieved on their own. How to solve this paradox? A new series of intriguing studies by Asher Koriat provides part of the answer, highlighting the roles played by people's confidence and the type of problem they're tackling.

Across five studies Koriat tasked dozens of participants with answering a mix of forced-choice questions - some were to do with visual attention (e.g. which of two displays of patterns includes an odd-one-out?); others were general knowledge (e.g. which of two European cities has the larger population?); and there were visual judgement questions (e.g. which of two squiggly lines is longer?). The participants were asked to say how how confident they were in each of their answers.

For each round of questions, Koriat paired up the participants "virtually". That is, the partners in a pair didn't have anything to do with each other. But for each pair, Koriat followed the same rule, always taking the answer from the partner who was more confident.

Over a series of questions, Koriat found that always taking the answer from the most confident partner in a pair led to superior performance for that series (69.88 per cent correct on average in one study) compared with always taking the answer from whichever individual had the most impressive overall performance (67.82 per cent correct). In other words, the more confident of two heads working together nearly always outperformed the most proficient individual working on their own. In the first study using visual patterns, this was true for 18 of the 19 dyads. In further analysis, taking the most confident answer from a virtual group of three led to even more impressive performance.

The strategy even worked for people working alone if they were given two chances, a week apart, to provide answers to a series of questions, as well as rating their confidence. Always taking the more confident of their answers led to superior performance overall and was more effective than simply averaging their two answers (see earlier Digest item: Unleash the crowd within).

But here's the all-important caveat. This strategy of taking the answer of the most confident partner only worked for questions for which most people, "the crowd", tend to get the answer right. When the questions were tricky and wrong-footed most people, then the rule was reversed. Take the example of "Which city has the larger population - Zurich or Bern?". Most people get this question wrong - they think it's Bern because that's the capital city, but the correct answer is Zurich. For questions like this, the most effective strategy is actually to always take the answer of the dyad partner who is least confident (doing so beats the average score of the individual with the overall best performance).

Reflecting on these new results, Ralph Hertwig at the University of Basel said there were two important, tantalising questions for future research - is it possible to categorise problems somehow into those that tend to wrong-foot the crowd, and those that don't?  Similarly, are there any cues that can be used to recognise in advance whether a problem is of the kind that the crowd gets right (in which case it's best to go with the most confident team member) or wrong (if so, go with the least confident member)?

 _________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Koriat, A. (2012). When Are Two Heads Better than One and Why? Science, 336 (6079), 360-362 DOI: 10.1126/science.1216549

Further reading: The much maligned group brainstorm can aid the combining of ideas.
Three-person groups best for problem-solving.

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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The Special Issue Spotter

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

Focus on social neuroscience (Nature Neuroscience).

Complexities of mild traumatic brain injury and posttraumatic stress disorder (virtual issue of Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society).

Spatial neglect and attention (Neuropsychologia).

Neuropsychiatric disorders (Trends in Neurosciences).

Neuropsychiatric disorders (Trends in Cognitive Sciences).

World Autism Awareness Day (virtual special issue from Wiley).

Metacognition: computation, neurobiology and function (Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B).

Why has the neuroscientific revolution been so popular? (Australian Journal of Psychology)

Social technologies (Theory and Psychology).

Personality and information processing (European Journal of Personality).

The social signal value of emotions (Cognition and Emotion).

Post compiled by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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Skilled liars make great lie detectors

Abagnale runs a security consultancy
Frank Abagnale Jr, the confidence trickster whose escapades inspired the hit film "Catch Me If You Can", later became a security consultant for the FBI. There's intuitive logic to the agency's recruitment strategy - if you want to catch con artists, who better to spot them than a master con artist. But does this logic apply at a more basic level? Do skilled liars really make skilled lie detectors?

Surprisingly, psychologists haven't investigated this idea before. Dozens of studies have shown that most people are very poor at detecting lies, and other research has shown that the propensity to lie is partly inherited, but no-one's looked to see if good liars make good lie spotters.

Now Gordon Wright and his colleagues have done just that, recruiting 51 participants (27 women; mean age 25) to take part in a competitive group task. None of them had met before. Arranged in groups of 5 or 6, the participants took turns to spend about 20 seconds telling the group their position on a social issue, such as whether smoking should be allowed in public places or whether they were in favour of reality TV. Their true opinions had been reported in private to the researchers earlier. On each round, cards handed to the participants told them which opinion to share with the group and whether to tell the truth or lie. The task of the rest of the group was to judge whether the speaker was lying or not. Fifty pounds was up for grabs for the best liar and the best lie spotter.

The key finding was that participants whose lies were harder to spot tended to do better at spotting whether other participants were lying (the correlation was -0.35, with an effect size of 0.7, which is usually considered large). "As far as we are aware," the researchers said, "this study is the first to provide evidence that the capacity to detect lies and the ability to deceive others are associated."

This result begs the question - what underlying psychological processes grant a person skill at lying and lie spotting? It wasn't IQ or emotional intelligence - the researchers tested for that, but they don't yet know much more. "It is clear," they said, "that identification of the precise nature of the proposed 'deception-general' ability is an important aim for deception research, and that further research should be devoted to this question."

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Wright, G., Berry, C., and Bird, G. (2012). “You can't kid a kidder”: association between production and detection of deception in an interactive deception task. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6 DOI: 10.3389/fnhum.2012.00087

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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Be careful when comforting struggling students

Previous research tells us that students who see intelligence and ability as fixed will tend to give up when confronted by a difficult problem, whereas those who see intelligence as growable will persevere. But how do teachers' beliefs about ability affect the way they perceive and respond to their students' performance?

A new investigation led by Aneeta Rattan, together with Carol Dweck, the doyenne of this area, and Catherine Good, began by asking 41 undergrads about their beliefs regarding maths ability (e.g. did they agree that "You have a certain amount of math intelligence and you can't really do much to change it"?). Asked to imagine they were a maths teacher responding to a student's initial poor maths exam result, those undergrads who endorsed this fixed "entity" theory of maths ability tended to jump to conclusions - assuming that their student had struggled because he or she lacked maths ability.

A second study was similar but went further and showed that undergrad participants who believed ability is fixed were more likely to say that they'd comfort their student for his or her poor maths ability (e.g. they said they'd "explain that not everyone has maths talent"), and that they'd pursue strategies such as setting the student less maths homework.

A third study elevated the realism levels a little by recruiting postgrads who worked as teachers or research demonstrators in their university departments. The same findings emerged - participants who saw maths ability as fixed were more likely (than those who saw ability as malleable) to make premature, ability-based assumptions about the reasons why a student was struggling, and they were more likely to respond by comforting the student for their poor ability and by pursuing counter-productive teaching strategies, such as encouraging the student's withdrawal from the subject.

So, what's it like for a struggling student to receive this kind of treatment from their teacher? A final study with 54 students asked them to imagine they'd struggled at an initial maths test. Some of them then received comforting feedback ("I want to assure you that I know you're a talented student in general, it's just the case that not everyone is a maths person. I'm going to give you some easier tasks ... etc"); others received constructive strategy tips (e.g "I'm going to call on you more in class and I want you to work with a maths tutor"); and others received neutral, control feedback. The key finding here was that the students who received the comforting feedback felt their teacher had low expectations for them and felt less encouraged and optimistic about their future prospects in the subject.

Rattan and her colleagues said their findings pointed to some important real-world implications. University teachers who form fixed-ability judgements about their students and who provide comfort may be well-intentioned, but they risk derailing their students' chances before they've even had the opportunity to get going. "As upsetting as poor performance may be to a student," the researchers concluded, "receiving comfort that is oriented toward helping them to accept their presumed lack of ability (rather than comfort that is oriented toward helping them to improve) may be even more disturbing."

Rattan, A., Good, C., and Dweck, C. (2012). “It's ok — Not everyone can be good at math”: Instructors with an entity theory comfort (and demotivate) students. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48 (3), 731-737 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2011.12.012

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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