Rapping in the brain scanner

In seeking to understand the brain processes underlying creative performance, researchers have already scanned opera singers and actors. Now they've invited rappers to undergo the same treatment. Siyuan Liu and her colleagues were specifically interested in the difference between freestyle rap, which requires the spontaneous generation of rhyming lyrics, and rehearsed rapping.

Twelve male professional rappers had their brains scanned while they engaged in freestyle rap and while they performed raps they'd learned earlier. Rappers usually like to gesticulate energetically as they perform, but this would have distorted the brain images so they had to keep still. No worry - "... debriefing indicated that participants' performance was not affected by the motion restraints," the researchers said. The fMRI brain scanner is effectively a powerful magnet so it would also have been imperative that the rappers remove all of their bling before the scan began.

The main finding was that freestyle rapping versus rehearsed rapping was associated with increased activation in medial (inner) areas at the front of the brain, especially on the left-hand side, and concomitant reductions in activity in dorsolateral frontal areas, especially on the right-hand side. These patterns of activation were ante-correlated - the greater the increases in left-medial areas, the more the reductions on the right lateral areas. Liu and her team think this reflects a kind of disinhibition, whereby supervisory attentional systems allowed creative areas of the brain to have free reign. The researchers said this fitted the possibility that the creative process of freestyle rap is experienced as largely occurring outside of conscious awareness. "This is is not inconsistent with the experience of many artists who describe the creative process as seemingly guided by an outside agency," they added.

Freestyle rapping also exercised language areas more powerfully than rehearsed rapping, likely indicative of the need to find appropriate rhyming words. The researchers also looked for other connectivity patterns by seeing how activity levels correlated across the brain. The medial frontal areas engaged by freestyle rap appeared to be connected to activity in prefrontal motor regions, the left amygdala and on to the right inferior frontal gyrus and inferior parietal lobes - what the researchers called a network integrating "motivation, language, emotion and motor function" and which they proposed could reflect the psychological state of "flow". Critics will likely wince at the excesses of reverse inference in this study - making assumptions about the role played by different brain areas during rapping based on the activity of those regions in other studies.

"We speculate that the neural mechanisms illustrated here could be generalised to explain the cognitive processes of other spontaneous artistic forms," the researchers concluded. Eminem was unavailable for comment.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Liu, S., Chow, H., Xu, Y., Erkkinen, M., Swett, K., Eagle, M., Rizik-Baer, D., and Braun, A. (2012). Neural Correlates of Lyrical Improvisation: An fMRI Study of Freestyle Rap. Scientific Reports, 2 DOI: 10.1038/srep00834

--Further reading--
Opera singing in the brain scanner

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How the threat of violence can make us nice to each other

Under threat of violence, we have a natural instinct to stick together. Researchers say this basic urge explains their seemingly odd observation that feeling threatened, rather than making people bristle, can actually increase their agreeableness.

Andrew White and his colleagues conducted five studies in all. First off, they analysed data from 54 nations around the world showing that the higher a country's spend on their military (a proxy for feeling threatened), the higher their citizens' average score on the personality dimension of agreeableness. The association held even after controlling for a host of potential confounds including a nation's wealth and population density.

Second, White's team surveyed 54 undergrads and found that those who generally felt more threatened in life also tended to report being more agreeable and extravert (scores on conscientiousness, openness to experience and neuroticism were not associated with feeling threatened).

Next, the researchers prompted some of a new group of participants to feel threatened by having them read a story about an intruder entering their house. The remaining participants acted as controls and read a story about losing keys. The threatened participants scored higher in agreeableness (not other traits), but only when they thought about their personality in the context of how they act with people they know well. Moreover, this apparent effect of threat on agreeableness was larger for people who'd grown up in a big family.

Taken together these initial findings support the idea that we have an evolved adaptive response to threat of violence that leads us to affiliate to family and friends, especially if we grow up in a context where this would be useful. This idea complements previous research that suggests we have an evolved instinct to avoid other people when we're under threat of contamination.

A fourth study took things further by testing real-world behaviour. Two kinds of poster were pinned up around campus - one was a threatening reminder about the issue of guns on campus and it featured a pistol pointing out at the reader; the other was about construction on campus. Next to these posters were one of two fund-raising requests, either framed as being for local students or for an out-group of Ethiopian students. The fund-raising notices had pull-off tabs for people to take contact details away. The result here - the gun poster increased students' interest in helping their fellow students, but not outsiders.

Finally, the researchers returned to international data and found that countries that spent more on their military tended to have citizens who score more highly in trusting their family and neighbours, and lower in trusting members of other religions.

"These findings help develop a deeper understanding of one of the ways in which humans respond to threats of violence from others," the researchers said. "Although disagreeableness and mistrust may often seem to arise from violence, it is not always the case. Sometimes nasty breeds nice."

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

White, A., Kenrick, D., Li, Y., Mortensen, C., Neuberg, S., and Cohen, A. (2012). When nasty breeds nice: Threats of violence amplify agreeableness at national, individual, and situational levels. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103 (4), 622-634 DOI: 10.1037/a0029140

--Further reading--
Reminder of disease primes the body and mind to repel other people.

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Link feast

In case you missed them - 10 of the best psychology links from the past week:

"Our minds are made up just as much by the people and tools around us as they are by the brain cells inside our skull" - Fascinating article by Tom Stafford on interactive intelligence.

New TED talk: "video games, even action-packed shooter games, can help us learn, focus and, fascinatingly, multitask".

Gary Marcus pours cold water on the notion that we're getting anywhere near building an artificial brain.

Pete Etchells with a moving account of why he hates neurons and how he was inspired to become a scientist.

The current series of BBC Radio 4's All in the Mind continued with an episode (now on iPlayer) that included a look at "mad doctors" in the nineteenth century, and the boredom threshold of drone operators.

"Researchers have turned human mental activity into music, and it sounds uncannily like free-form jazz piano."

Your brain in numbers - awesome poster.

"We're probably not getting dumber," says Neuroskeptic, contradicting the recent claims made by a geneticist and lapped up by the media.

A fascinating account of Hikikomori - the worrying phenomenon in Japan whereby youths (usually male) shut themselves away from society.

Alarm at unpaid posts in clinical psychology. On a related note, check out this new study covered by our sister blog The Occupational Digest - employers valued candidates' voluntary experience just as much as previous paid employment.
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The unscientific thinking that forever lingers in the minds of physics professors

Young children are inclined to see purpose in the natural world. Ask them why we have rivers, and they'll likely tell you that we have rivers so that boats can travel on them (an example of a "teleological explanation"). Cute, but maybe not that surprising. Well, consider this - a new study with 80 physical scientists finds that they too have a latent tendency to endorse similar teleological explanations for why nature is the way it is. Oh yes, they label those explanations as false most of the time, but put them under time pressure, and their child-like, quasi-religious beliefs shine through.

Deborah Kelemen and her colleagues presented 80 scientists (including physicists, chemists and geographers) with 100 one-sentence statements and their task was to say if each one was true or false. Among the items were teleological statements about nature, such as "Trees produce oxygen so that animals can breathe". Crucially, half the scientists had to answer under time pressure - just over 3 seconds for each statement - while the others had as long as they liked. There were also control groups of college students and the general public.

Overall, the scientists endorsed fewer of the teleological statements than the control groups (22 per cent vs. 50 per cent approx). No surprise there, given that mainstream science rejects the idea that inanimate objects have purpose, or that there is purposeful design in the natural world. But look at what happened under time pressure. When they were rushed, the scientists endorsed 29 per cent of teleological statements compared with 15 per cent endorsed by the un-rushed scientists. This is consistent with the idea that a tendency to endorse teleological beliefs lingers in the scientists' minds. This unscientific thinking is usually suppressed, but time pressure undermines that conscious suppression.

The scientists' greater inclination to endorse teleological explanation under time pressure wasn't a non-specific effect of being rushed. Time pressure barely affected their judgments about other erroneous statements (i.e. simple false facts). Moreover, scientists who admitted having religious beliefs, or beliefs about Mother Nature being one big organism, were more prone than most to endorsing teleological explanation under time pressure, thus suggesting their latent unscientific thinking fed into their belief systems.

"A broad teleological tendency therefore appears to be a robust, resilient, and developmentally enduring feature of the human mind," the researchers concluded, "that arises early in life and gets masked rather than replaced, even in those whose scientific expertise and explicit metaphysical commitments seem most likely to counteract it."

In a follow-up study, humanities academics showed the same tendency to endorse more teleological statements under time pressure. Intriguingly, their levels of endorsement were lower than college students but no greater than the physical scientists. This suggests that further education of any kind leads to a greater masking of teleological belief, but only up to a point. "The [scientists'] specialised scientific training and substantial knowledge base does no more to ameliorate their unwarranted teleological ideas than an extended humanities education," the researchers said.

  ResearchBlogging.orgKelemen, D., Rottman, J., and Seston, R. (2012). Professional Physical Scientists Display Tenacious Teleological Tendencies: Purpose-Based Reasoning as a Cognitive Default. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General DOI: 10.1037/a0030399

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What's it like to have OCD?

Research with people who have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is often impersonal. Participants' thoughts, feelings and behaviours are reduced to ticked boxes on a questionnaire. There's a risk the real story of what it's like to have OCD doesn't get told. Helen Murphy and Ramesh Perera-Delcourt have taken a different approach. They interviewed 9 people (one woman) with OCD, face-to-face, for about an hour each, to hear how these people felt about their condition and about any treatment they'd received.

The researchers transcribed the interviews and highlighted key themes. Regarding the experience of OCD, the main themes were "wanting to be normal and fit in", "failing at life", and "loving and hating OCD."

Participants found comfort in meeting other OCD support-group members. They also spoke of caring too much about what other people are thinking of them. OCD can interfere with education, relationships and careers and frequently, participants compared their own stalled life trajectories against what they perceived as the societal norm. "I feel like I've got to make up for lost time in a way," one man said. There were in-depth descriptions of the painful situations created by OCD - one man who house-shared had to scrub the entire bathroom with powerful cleaning product for an hour every day before he could use it. But at the same time, there was a fear of losing the crutch that the condition provides. "I wish I could do that [stop checking], I wish I could stop," another man said, adding: "Well, not totally."

In relation to therapy, the main themes were "wanting therapy", "finding the roots", and "a better self". Participants spoke of the relief that came from having their problems recognised and listened to. The importance of rapport between participants and their therapists was mentioned repeatedly, consistent with what's known about the importance of the therapeutic relationship. Although aspects of CBT were found useful by many ("it helped me focus on what is important to me in life," said one), others commented on the lack of interest in the roots of the condition. "There's been a 'stuff the past' sort of thing but it's like cutting a plant above the soil - the roots are still there," said another participant. CBT helped participants with self-esteem issues. "... reanalysing things ... has made me realise that I wasn't to blame for all kinds of things," one person said.

Murphy and Perera-Delcourt concluded that examining people's narratives can help to "understand the lived experience and lessen public and self stigma". Given the way their participants emphasised the value of rapport in therapy, the researchers questioned claims that computerised CBT is a valid substitute. They also highlighted the apparent importance to people with OCD of understanding its origins. "Developmental issues in the maintenance of the disorder have been generally neglected and our findings suggest that understanding and talking through the origins of OCD may lessen treatment resistance," they said.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Murphy, H. and Perera-Delcourt, R. (2012). ‘Learning to live with OCD is a little mantra I often repeat’: Understanding the lived experience of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) in the contemporary therapeutic context. Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice DOI: 10.1111/j.2044-8341.2012.02076.x

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The advantage of having an anxiously attached person on your team

Psychologists talk about different attachment styles, such as secure, anxious and avoidant. The secure style is usually the one we're supposed to aspire to. They're the calm people who find it easy to get close to others, but not in a clingy way. By contrast, those with an anxious or avoidant attachment style are often seen in a pathological light - being either too needy or too aloof, respectively. They might sound like the kind of people you want to steer clear of, but now Tsachi Ein-Dor and Orgad Tal have published new research showing the upside to having an anxiously attached person on your team.

Eighty undergrads (28 women) completed attachment style and personality questionnaires. High scorers in anxious attachment agreed with statements like "My desire to be very close sometimes scares people away". Two weeks later they returned for what they thought was a study into artistic preferences. Each participant sat down at a computer and was left to rate a series of paintings that appeared on-screen. After the third piece of art, an error message popped up and the next thing, after the participant clicked OK, the computer started running a virus that wiped the whole hard-drive. The experimenter - a trained actress - came back in the room, feigned horror, and asked the participant to take the flash-drive out of the computer and head to the Dean's assistant manager for help.

Over the next few minutes, four obstacles were thrown in the way of the participants, potentially diverting them from the aim of seeking help. Outside in the corridor a person asked them to complete a short survey; the Dean's assistant manager, when they got there, directed them to the lab manager, but asked them to do some photocopying first; the lab manager's door had a sign on it asking visitors to wait; and finally, after being directed to the lab technicians' room, the participants passed a student who dropped a load of papers on the floor.

The higher that participants scored on anxious attachment, the more likely they were to seek help about the virus with single-minded focus. They more often than others refused to do the survey, shrugged off the photo-copying request, sought help rather than waiting outside the lab manager's office, and left the student to pick up their own papers from the floor. In contrast, the personality variables of extraversion and neuroticism were not related to this single-mindedness.

Ein-Dor and Tal have nicknamed anxiously attached people "sentinels". In past research they've shown that they, like people of a generally anxious disposition, are quicker to detect threats (e.g. smoke in the room). This new result confirms the researchers' further prediction that anxiously attached people are also particularly motivated to seek help from others, to raise the alarm - a tendency that "in many real world situations, might save others from a serious threat". Concluding, Ein-Dor and Tal said their study offered "a new perspective on the strengths of individuals who have long been viewed as deficient and poorly adapted."

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Ein-Dor, T., and Tal, O. (2012). Scared saviors: Evidence that people high in attachment anxiety are more effective in alerting others to threat. European Journal of Social Psychology, 42 (6), 667-671 DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.1895

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Link feast

In case you missed them - 10 of the best psychology links from the past week: 

1. The US government needs a "Council of Psychological Advisors" to complement the existing Council of Economic Advisors. So argues Barry Schwartz in an essay for The Atlantic, in which he reviews ways that psychological insights can inform policy, from educational practices to combating climate change. Schwartz also gives a nod of approval to the UK government's own Behavioural Insight Team (check out my interview with the head of that Team, David Halpern). Also related - this article claims that Obama's election campaign was aided by a "dream team" of psychologists!

2. Gary Marcus for the New Yorker reviews Ray Kurzweil's bold new book: How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed. It's a story of intellectual hubris: "Kurzweil doesn’t know neuroscience as well as he knows artificial intelligence, and doesn’t understand psychology as well as either."

3. BBC's Panorama programme this week, now on iPlayer, was about the work of British neuroscientist Adrian Owen, using fMRI to communicate with patients in a persistent vegetative state. We've covered Owen's work several times in The Psychologist and the Research Digest.

4. One I missed last week - In a NYT op-ed, David Brooks describes the heart-warming results from a longitudinal study that began in 1938. Is emotional intelligence on the increase?

5. The Schizophrenia Commission published the results of its year-long investigation into the state of care for patients with schizophrenia in England, finding them to be "badly let down". The commission chair, Robin Murray, said on the BBC's Today programme that there's an urgent need for more psychologists.

6. The New York Times published a wonderful, moving long-read about a girl with congenital pain insensitivity. (see also). Oh, and check out this new game about pain from the Science Museum.

7. When they're allowed out into the real world, a question that psychologists are asked frequently is "So, do you know what I'm thinking?". In this amusing video, psychologists at the University of Manchester give you their answer.

8. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of the Black Swan, took aim at psychology super-scholar Steven Pinker this week, publishing a withering critique (pdf) of Pinker's book about the decline of violence. Pinker hit back (pdf; winning the argument hands down in my opinion). Taleb then published an odd 3-line rebuttal, after which one can only imagine he inserted his fingers in his ears whilst blurting "I'm right, not listening, can't hear you."

9. How I learned a language in 22 hours - Joshua Foer reveals all in the Guardian.

10. The Effect, a play about depression and the inadequacy of neuropharmacological explanations, is on at the Cottesloe Theatre, London, and receiving rave reviews.

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The jokes that toddlers make

Few sounds can be as heart-warming as a chuckling toddler. Often they're laughing at a joke you or someone else has performed, but what about their own attempts at humour? To find out, Elena Hoicka and Nameera Akhtar filmed 47 parent-child pairs (just five involved dads) playing for ten minutes with various toys. The kids were English-speaking and aged between 2 and 3 years.

Coding of the videos revealed 7 forms of humour performed by the toddlers: using objects in an unconventional way (e.g. brushing a pot); deliberately mislabelling things (e.g. holding a cat but saying "here's a fish"); making deliberate category errors (e.g. making a pig go "moo"); breaching taboos (e.g. spitting and saying "that's disgusting"); performing funny bodily actions (e.g. falling back and putting their legs in the air); tickling and chasing; and playing peekaboo.

There were signs of maturing humour abilities. The three-year-olds more often made conceptual humour than the two-year-olds, and they showed a trend towards more label-based humour. Two-year-olds depended predominantly on object-based humour. Moreover, whereas the two-year-olds were just as likely to copy or riff off their parent's jokes as to make their own original attempts at humour, the three-year-olds most often came up with original jokes.

There was also good evidence that the toddlers were being deliberately humorous and not just making mistakes. When engaged in a funny behaviour versus an unfunny act, they were four times as likely to look and laugh at their parent, twice as likely to laugh without looking, and three times as likely to smile and look. "Children only increased smiling in combination with looks to parents, indicating parents should share their humour," the researchers said.

An online survey of 113 British parents (9 dads) about their children's humour largely supported the observational data. The children in this sample included infants and so an extended timeline of humour-production was possible. Before one year, infants mainly produced humour through peekaboo; from one year they graduated onto chasing and tickling and funny body movements; from two years they started object-based, conceptual and taboo-based jokes; and from age three they started label-based jokes.

The researchers said their results showed: "toddlers produce novel and imitated humour, cue their humour, and produce a variety of humour types."

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Hoicka, E., and Akhtar, N. (2012). Early humour production. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 30 (4), 586-603 DOI: 10.1111/j.2044-835X.2011.02075.x

--Further reading--
Little comedians.

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The new psychology of awkward moments

The fascination of socially awkward moments certainly hasn't been missed by comedy writers. Millions of us have cringed our way through series like Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Office. In contrast, psychology before now has largely neglected to study this fundamental part of social life.

In a new exploratory study, Johsua Clegg proposes a model. Social awkwardness, he posits, is what we feel when the situation threatens our goal of being accepted by others. The feeling prompts us to direct our attention inwards, to monitor our behaviour and attempt to behave in a way that will improve our chances of achieving acceptance. There's been a lot of research before on embarrassment, but that's tended to focus on embarrassed individuals, their feelings and dispositions. This new study is less personal, being more about the situations that reliably trigger everyday feelings of social awkwardness in most people.

Clegg invited 30 undergrad participants (13 men) into a carefully prepared room in groups of three. Each trio sat facing each other on chairs arranged in a triangle. They knew they were being filmed through a two-way mirror. There was also a table with a microphone and five cookies on it.

For the first three minutes, the participants were given no instructions. Then another participant (actually a stooge working for Clegg) arrived with a chair and sat down with them. Three more minutes passed, a researcher appeared and instructed the trio to begin an ice-breaker task (the stooge exited at this point). After three minutes discussion he would ask each of them to introduce each other to the group. Once this was done, the participants left the room and moved to another where they watched back the footage of themselves. They used a slider box, like the kind used in audience research, to indicate how awkward they were feeling during the social interactions on a moment by moment basis.

Clegg noted those moments that participants recorded a dramatic increase in social awkwardness and he cross-checked with the videos to see what was happening at the time. Moments of feeling awkward fell into distinct situational categories, which we can probably all relate to. These included times when participants didn't know what was expected of them or what the social rules were (such as when they first sat down in the room without instructions); when a social norm was broken (e.g. one person interrupted another; someone infringed on another's personal space); a social standard wasn't obtained (e.g. a person stumbled with their speech, there was a long silence); norms around eating were broken (e.g. spilling food from mouth while eating); negative social judgements were made by one person towards another, either explicitly or implicitly (e.g. by pulling a face); when names were forgotten or people weren't recognised; and when social processes were made explicit, such as during the ice-breaker task.

There were also five kinds of moment when social awkwardness plunged. This included: when people were sharing common interests, when one person helped another, when one person was positive about another, and humour. It's notable that a lot of the humour was actually about social awkwardness - joking about it seemed to make it go away.

The study is a tentative first step towards cataloguing when and why people feel socially awkward. It has obvious limitations, foremost that the participants were being filmed and the study is US-centric. But as Clegg argues, it raises all sorts of interesting avenues for future investigation. Perhaps most significant is the similarity of participants'  descriptions of social awkwardness to typical accounts of full-blown social anxiety - they talked about feeling "pressured", "anxious", "nervous" and "crazy". In attempting to understand problematic social anxiety, Clegg said psychology has tended to focus on the individual, on traits like shyness and attention to the self. His new psychology of awkward moments focuses attention on the situations that trigger social discomfort in all of us. Understanding more about everyday social awkwardness, and how people deal with it, could provide new insight into why and how socially anxious people come to feel awkward nearly all of the time.

How often do you experience social awkwardness? Are there any specific social situations that trigger the feeling for you?

  ResearchBlogging.orgClegg, J. (2012). Stranger situations: Examining a self-regulatory model of socially awkward encounters. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 15 (6), 693-712 DOI: 10.1177/1368430212441637

--Further reading--
The new science of "Phew!"
The new psychology of everyday playing cards

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Most people can fake a genuine "Duchenne" smile

For years, the literature on the psychology of smiling has claimed that fake smiles can be easily and reliably distinguished from genuine smiles by the absence of crinkling around the eyes. The eye crinkling of a supposedly real "Duchenne smile" (named after a Dutch physician with a fondness for electrodes) is caused by activation of the orbicularis oculi muscles, which raises the cheeks. The traditional view is that this muscle is not within voluntary control, unlike the zygomatic major muscle that bends the mouth upwards into a smile. Fake smiles therefore feature the upturned mouth but there's something missing in the eyes, or so it was long claimed.

Doubts first emerged in a 2009 paper, in which Duchenne smiles were produced just as often when participants pretended to be amused, as when they were genuinely amused. Now a research team led by Sarah Gunnery has provided more evidence that undermines the old beliefs about Duchenne smiles being a reliable sign of true positive emotion.

Gunnery and her colleagues had 96 student participants (49 men) pull smiling faces into a camera while role-playing genuine positive emotion (e.g. pleasure at a good exam grade) or while role-playing fake positive emotion (e.g. smiling in response to a gift that's not really liked).

Overall, 28 per cent of the smiles were rated by two experienced coders as Duchenne smiles, with the characteristic crinkling around the eyes. This broke down as 31 per cent for positive situations and 24 per cent in the fake positive situations. When naive viewers rated these smiles, they tended to say the Duchenne smiles were more genuine, but this was largely because eye crinkling tended to go hand in hand with more expressive smiling around the mouth.

Next, the participants were presented with a photograph of a person pulling a Duchenne smile and another showing a "fake" smile with no eye crinkling, and their task was to imitate both. Seventy-one per cent successfully imitated the Duchenne smile, and 69 per cent successfully imitated the fake smile.

These results explode the myth that it's not possible to fake a "genuine" Duchenne smile. They also hint at this being a skill that varies from person to person. It was the same participants who tended to display Duchenne smiles in the various conditions of the experiment. Moreover, these Duchenne participants reported feeling that they'd done a good job in the tasks, and they said they were able to pull fake expressions in their daily lives, all of which suggests they have good insight into their facial abilities.

A weakness of the study is its reliance throughout on staged emotion. While the evidence is clear that many people can fake the Duchenne in neutral conditions (albeit while imagining emotional scenarios), we don't know how easy it is for people to do this under conditions in which they truly are experiencing negative emotion. On the other hand, because there were no explicit instructions in the role-playing tasks to pull a Duchenne smile, nor were there any consequential outcomes to provide extra motivation, the prevalence of the ability to fake Duchenne smiles in neutral conditions may actually have been underestimated.

"Findings from the present study strengthen the argument that people can volitionally activate their cheek raiser muscle and put on a Duchenne smile," Gunnery and her team concluded. "Future research will further investigate individual differences, and will use behavioural outcomes to measure similarities in people who deliberately produce the Duchenne smile."

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Gunnery, S., Hall, J., and Ruben, M. (2012). The Deliberate Duchenne Smile: Individual Differences in Expressive Control Journal of Nonverbal Behavior DOI: 10.1007/s10919-012-0139-4

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Link feast

In case you missed them - 10 of the best psychology links from the past week:

1. Sarah DeWeerdt for Nature takes a look at how cultural differences in social conventions affect the diagnosis of, and attitudes towards, people with autism.

2. The latest Neuropod podcast is a good'un with items on hallucinations and the replicability crisis in psychology. (see also the new special issue on replicability from Perspectives in Psychological Science; and for more on hallucinations, check out Oliver Sacks' new book. Sacks was also profiled recently in New York magazine).

3. More concerns have been raised about cognitive enhancing drugs and other forms of human enhancement, particularly in the workplace. (this is an issue that keeps coming up. For example, check out this poll by Nature from 2008).

4. How neuroscience is making its way into the courtroom (see also).

5. BBC Radio 4's All in the Mind continued this week, including discussion of an important new CBT trial for patients with psychosis (see also, and here).

6. Nate Silver ignored any hunches and used sophisticated number-crunching to predict the outcome of the US election with great accuracy. Over at 99U, I asked the question - Are there any judgments for which it's actually better to go with your gut instinct?

7. Brain region found that does absolutely nothing - can't beat psychology in-jokes.

8. Neuroskeptic reports on a fascinating study that caught up with adults who'd claimed as kids to have past-life memories.

9. Neurobonkers reports on a story about a US psychologist who is seeking to patent a basic method for treating anxiety. The case raises a number of ethical issues, says NB, including: "What are the effects of patents on scientific progress? Should a researcher be able to patent a method that they were not the first to develop?"

10. I love this topic - Pacific Standard has a story about when architecture meets neuroscience. (if you too are interested in this field, check out my Psychologist magazine article from 2006 "Is there a psychologist in the building?" and this new interview in the magazine with a psychologist who researches optimising work spaces.).
Post compiled by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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Labs worldwide report converging evidence that undermines the low-sugar theory of depleted willpower

One of the main findings in willpower research is that it's a limited resource. Use self-control up in one situation and you have less left over afterwards - an effect known as "ego-depletion". This discovery led to a search for the underlying physiological mechanism. In 2007, Roy Baumeister, a pioneer in the field, and his colleagues reported that the physiological correlate of ego-depletion is low glucose. Self-control leads the brain to metabolise more glucose, so the theory goes, and when glucose gets too low, we're left with less willpower.

The breakthrough 2007 study showed that ego-depleted participants had low blood glucose levels, but those who subsequently consumed a glucose drink were able to sustain their self-control on a second task. In the intervening years the finding has been replicated and the glucose-willpower link has come to be stated as fact.

"No glucose, no willpower," wrote Baumeister and his journalist co-author John Tierney in their best-selling popular psychology book Willpower: Rediscovering Our Greatest Strength (Allen Lane, 2012). The claim was also endorsed in a guide to willpower published by the American Psychological Association earlier this year. "Maintaining steady blood-glucose levels, such as by eating regular healthy meals and snacks, may help prevent the effects of willpower depletion," the report claims.

But now two studies have come along at once (following another published earlier in the year) that together cast doubt on the idea that depleted willpower is caused by a lack of glucose availability in the brain. In the first, Matthew Sanders and his colleagues in the US report what they call the "Gargle effect". They had dozens of students look through a stats book and cross out just the Es, a tiresome task designed to tax their self-control levels. Next, they completed the famous Stroop task - naming the ink colour of words while ignoring their meaning. Crucially, half the participants completed the Stroop challenge while gargling sugary lemonade, the others while gargling lemonade sweetened artificially with Splenda. The participants who gargled, but did not swallow, the sugary (i.e. glucose-containing) lemonade performed much better on the Stroop task.

The participants in the glucose condition didn't consume the glucose and even if they had, there was no time for it to be metabolised. So this effect can't be about restoring low glucose levels. Rather, Sanders' team think glucose binds to receptors in the mouth, which has the effect of activating brain regions involved in reward and self-control - the anterior cingulate cortex and striatum.

The other study that's just come out was conducted by Martin Hagger and Nikos Chatzisarantis based in Australia and the UK. Their approach was similar to Sanders' except that participants gargled and spat out a glucose or artificially sweetened solution prior to performing a second taxing task, rather than during. Also, this research involved a series of 5 experiments involving many different ways of testing people's self-control, including: resisting delicious cookies; reading boring text in an expressive style; unsolvable puzzles; and squeezing hand-grips. But the take-home finding was the same - participants who gargled, but did not swallow, a glucose drink performed better on a subsequent test of their willpower; participants who gargled an artificially sweetened drink did not. So again, willpower was restored without topping up glucose levels. Moreover, the benefit of gargling glucose was displayed only by participants who'd had their self-control taxed in an initial task. It made no difference to participants who were already in an untaxed state.

Hagger and Chatzisarantis agree with the interpretation of the Sanders' group, except they make a distinction. The effect of glucose binding to receptors in the mouth could either stimulate activity in brain regions like the anterior cingulate that tend to show fatigue after a taxing task. Or they say that glucose in the mouth could trigger reward-related activity that prompts participants to interpret a task as more rewarding, thus boosting their motivation. The explanations are complementary and need not be mutually exclusive.

The key point is the new results suggest depleted willpower is about motivation and the allocation of glucose resources, not about a lack of glucose. These findings don't prove that consuming glucose has no benefit for restoring willpower, but they suggest strongly that it's not the principle mechanism. It's notable that the new findings complement previous research in the sports science literature showing that gargling (without ingesting) glucose can boost cycling performance.

"While our findings are consistent with the predictions of the resource-depletion account, they also contribute to an increasing literature that glucose may not be a candidate physiological analog for self-control resources," write Hagger and Chatzisarantis. "Instead ego-depletion may be due to problems of self-control resource allocation rather than availability." An important next step is to conduct brain-imaging and related studies to observe the physiological effects of gargling glucose on the brain, and on motivational beliefs. There are also tantalising applications from the new research - for example, could the gargle effect (perhaps in the form of glucose-infused chewing gum) be used as a willpower aid for dieters and people trying to give up smoking?

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Hagger, M., and Chatzisarantis, N. (2012). The Sweet Taste of Success: The Presence of Glucose in the Oral Cavity Moderates the Depletion of Self-Control Resources. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin DOI: 10.1177/0146167212459912

Sanders, M., Shirk, S., Burgin, C., and Martin, L. (2012). The Gargle Effect: Rinsing the Mouth With Glucose Enhances Self-Control. Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797612450034

--Further reading--
From The Psychologist: Roy F. Baumeister outlines intriguing and important research into willpower and ego depletion.

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:

Clinicians respond to their clients' technology (Journal of Clinical Psychology). From the editorial: "Taken as a whole, these papers suggest that while technology can certainly contribute to and help create pathology, it can also contribute to growth, and that in either case technology interacts with fundamental human needs and developmental processes."

Time perspective in learning, developmental, and interpersonal contexts (Japanese Psychological Research).

Remembering the Future: The Influence of Past Experience on Future Behaviour (Learning and Motivation).

Contemporary Research on Youth Gangs (Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice).

The Neuroendocrine-Immune Axis in Health and Disease (Hormones and Behaviour).

Recent advances in EMDR research and practice (Revue Européenne de Psychologie Appliquée).

Youth, Internet, and Wellbeing (Computers in Human Behaviour, special section).

On Defining Emotion (Emotion Review, special section).

Experimental contributions to cognitive neuroscience theories of memory. Special Issue in recognition of the contribution of Andrew Mayes (Neuropsychologia).

Celebrating JOOP's 85th Birthday (Journal of Occupational and Organisational Psychology, virtual special issue).

Violent and Aggressive Behaviors in Women: Part II (Behavioural Sciences and the Law).

ADHD (Child and Adolescent Mental Health, virtual special issue).
Post compiled by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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Are 3D films more psychologically powerful than 2D?

The revival of 3D movies in recent years has prompted much debate among fans and critics. Some say it's gimmicky and too expensive. Others have heralded the return of the technology as the industry's saviour. A key claim in favour of 3D technology is that it makes for a more realistic, immersive experience. But does it really?

Brendan Rooney and his colleagues at University College Dublin showed 8 different movie clips (ranging from 13 to 68 seconds in length) to 27 participants (13 males; average age 27). The gory clips were chosen deliberately for their disgusting content and were taken from Bugs 3D, Friday 13th, Jaws 3-D and Frankenstein.

Each participant watched the clips alone in a mini-cinema on campus featuring a 2.5m x 2.5m screen. Crucially, half the participants viewed the clips in 3D, the others in 2D. To ensure any effects of the 3D format were not due to novelty, all the participants watched an abridged version of Journey to the Centre of the Earth in 3D, at least 24 hours prior to the study proper.

Participants in the 3D condition reported finding the film clips more realistic. They also had a higher heart rate whilst watching the clips compared with participants in the 2D condition. However, there was no difference in amount of skin conductance (another measure of arousal) between the two groups, and no difference in how much they said they enjoyed the clips.

Rooney and his colleagues explain that skin conductance - that is, the skin's sweatiness - is influenced only by the sympathetic nervous system (which triggers the fight or flight response) and not by the parasympathetic nervous system (which calms us down). By contrast, heart rate is influenced by both. This suggests to them that the calming parasympathetic nervous system is less active in viewers of 3D. Why? Well, one theory for how we calm our emotions during films is by reminding ourselves that they're not real. The 3D viewers said they found the viewing experience more realistic and it's possible that this made it more difficult for them to step outside of the experience, leaving their emotional response relatively unchecked. The researchers concede that the causal direction could also run the other way - the 3D viewers raised heart rate could cause them to perceive the experience as more realistic. Most likely the influences are bi-directional.

Is it a good thing that the 3D clips were rated as more realistic and triggered more physiological arousal? The 3D viewers didn't rate the clips as any more enjoyable, but then they only gave these ratings afterwards, which means they were relying on their memory of the experience. Also, they had no baseline to measure their ratings against. Finally, perhaps "enjoyment" is the wrong word when it comes to disgusting movie clips. If the study were repeated with a different genre, perhaps 3D viewers would give higher enjoyment ratings.

Rooney's team stressed that this was an exploratory study and that more research is clearly needed. For now they concluded the "suspension of disbelief is ... assisted by stereoscopic depth, with associated increases in reported perceived apparent reality and in heart-rate ... ".

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Rooney, B., Benson, C., and Hennessy, E. (2012). The apparent reality of movies and emotional arousal: A study using physiological and self-report measures Poetics, 40 (5), 405-422 DOI: 10.1016/j.poetic.2012.07.004

--Further reading--
Right-handers sit to the right of the movie screen to optimise neural processing of the film.

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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You think your first name is rarer than other people do

You think you're so special, you probably think this post is about you. And maybe it is, if you too succumb to what US researcher John Kulig calls the "name uniqueness effect" - believing that your first name is more unusual than other people do.

Kulig asked 153 female students and 94 male students to rate how common their first name was on a scale from 0 to 100. The scale featured nine "anchor" names placed at the appropriate places as a guide, based on actual name frequencies obtained from the university's registrar.

For comparison, a control group of the same number of men and women each provided an estimate of the popularity of one of the names from the first group (women rated a female name, and men rated one of the male names).

Participants consistently rated their own first name as rarer than the estimates provided by participants in the control group (and as rarer than they really were, although this wasn't tested statistically). This was the case for names that were common and rare, according to university records, although slightly exaggerated for rare names. "People are motivated to be different from others," Kulig said. The phenomenon wasn't explained by the fact that some people spell their names in unusual ways.

A follow-up study was similar with 86 women and 57 men rating the frequency of their own first names, and a control group of men and women rating the names that belonged to that first group. As before, the participants estimated their names to be rarer than members of the control group did.

A clue as to the cause of the effect came from the fact that participants with (genuinely) rarer names tended to be happier with their names, consistent with Kulig's idea that we have a subconscious motivation to feel special. Also, of those who'd contemplated changing their names, the most popular reason was to obtain a rarer name. Finally, participants seemed completely unaware of "the name uniqueness effect". When participants were asked to estimate how rare other people would rate their (i.e. the participant's) name, they guessed that other people would come up with just the same rating as they had.

The new results complement a study from 2004, in which Danny Oppenheimer found that people underestimate the frequency of their own and famous people's last names. He put this down to a "discounting heuristic". Usually we overestimate the frequency of phenomena that we're familiar with (known as the availability heuristic), but Oppenheimer thinks we cancel out this bias when we're aware of a single, obvious cause of the familiarity, as we are with our own names or famous names. It's over-compensation by this process that he suggested leads us to an underestimation of the frequency of our last names.

The way we overestimate the prevalence of our names actually represents an anomaly when considered against findings showing that we tend to assume other people indulge in behaviours with a similar frequency as we do - known as "the false consensus effect." Kulig said more research is needed to find out if the "name uniqueness effect is itself a unique finding."

More generally, these new findings add to a growing literature on the psychology of our names. For example, past research has shown that we have a bias towards liking our own name and initials, and related to that, there's evidence for "nominative determinism", whereby our names influence our life opportunities and choices. A study published earlier this year, for example, claimed that people with unpopular names suffer life-long prejudice.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Kulig, J. (2012). What's in a name? Our false uniqueness! British Journal of Social Psychology DOI: 10.1111/bjso.12001

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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