Cultivated Perception

Lots of psychology isn’t rocket science – it’s not exactly stuff you couldn’t have figured out yourself if you’d have thought about it for long enough. Often the conclusions from some area of investigation are explained to you and you think ‘Well, hey, that’s obvious’. And of course there’s an argument that true answers often should be obvious, once you’ve been told them.

One of the the things I hoped we could do with Mind Hacks was give people framworks for looking at how our minds work, and how we interact with the environment, so that it becomes easier to spot the obvious in advance. After all, we all have minds, so we all have access to the raw data to draw the conclusions – it’s just that there are many things you don’t notice until you’ve learnt to see them. (Until someone stops me i’m going to call this ‘cultivated perception’).

So, I should be working on designed a questionnaire (a sign that I committed grevious sins in a past life?) and I noticed how I could improve it with a little lesson from Chapter 8 of the book.

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The Social Yawn

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All animals yawn (see animalyawns.com) and in humans yawning seems to be contagious. Seeing another person yawn, or even just reading about yawning can make you yawn. (We talk about unconscious immitation in chapter 10 of the book). James Anderson from the University of Stirling gave a lecture in Sheffield last week about yawning – in the introduction he told us that when he lectures on yawning lots of people in the audience, well, yawn. But his talk was only yawn-inducing in the social-contaigon sense.

Yawning, it seems to me, may provide us with paradigm case of an automatic behaviour that, moving along the phylogenetic scale, has become co-opted into a quasi-voluntary social signal.

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Hallucinations in macular degeneration

The Fortean Times has an online article about the unusual experiences that can occur in a condition called macular degeneration, where light sensing cells in the part of the eye called the macular cease to work. As well as blindness in the central part of vision, hallucinations can occur.

“Hallucinations? What do you mean?” I asked, totally nonplussed. He outlined several forms of hallucination that were plaguing him. The first one to manifest was what Don described as looking like “a ball of string or basketwork, a globular shape with an aperture on one side”. He would see this image as if projected onto walls or other surfaces. He could sometimes make out a small face inside the aperture, and on the occasions when this became particularly evident the basket-like effect would adjust around it like a bizarre headdress.

This hallucinatory state is known as Charles Bonnet syndrome, after the 18th century philosopher who noticed the condition in his father.

Link to full article on http://www.forteantimes.com

Scientific American ‘Mind’ launches

Scientific American has launched a quarterly magazine on psychology and neuroscience called Scientific American Mind. I have the first issue in front of me which I just bought from the newsagent. It seems to be well put together and mercifully short on adverts, although isn’t cheap at 3.75ukp.

There’s some sample articles in full on the website and various bits and pieces that are worth checking out.

Link to SciAm Mind website.

Finding Geschwind’s territory

A new connection has been found between two of most important language areas in the brain. Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area have been linked to speech production and language comprehension respectively. They were some of the first discoveries that linked particular brain areas to specific mental abilities and are known to be joined by a bundle of neural fibres called the arcuate fasciculus.

Reseachers from London have now discovered that another parallel pathway connects the two areas, although it does not develop until about 5-7 years of age, suggesting that even quite major connections in the brain do not develop until well into childhood.

The pathway runs through an area they have named Geschwind’s territory after Norman Geshwind, the famous American neurologist who theorised that such a connection might exist.

Understanding the connectivity of the language areas is the brain is essential to the understanding and treatment of language problems after brain damage. These sorts of impairments are a common result of serious stroke or traumatic brain injury.

Link to story on newscientist.com.
Link to abstract from the Annals of Neurology.

The face, the brain and Marilyn Monroe

Researchers from London and Italy have just published a study on the brain areas involved in perceiving and understanding faces. They created an elegant experiment where they used morphing to compare how brain activity changes as a photograph is gradually blended from one person to another, for example, from Marilyn Monroe to Margaret Thatcher.

They found that the brain did not respond in the same gradual manner, and that activation shifted to specific areas at certain points in the blending process. When the blending was in its early stages, participants perceived the picture as the same person with physical changes to their face, an experience which caused activation in the inferior occipital gyrus. When the level of blending affected recognition of the pictured person, the right fusiform gyrus was activated, an area thought to be involved with judgements of familiarity for faces. When a participant was already familiar with the people in the pictures, the temporal lobes became active when the final face became clear. These areas have been linked to semantic memory and naming.

This study is important as it shows specialised areas of activation for different stages in the face perception process in a single experiment.

These stages have been hypothesised to exist for quite some time in a model developed by psychologists Vicki Bruce and Andy Young, largely from studies on people with prosopagnosia, a condition where face recognition can be impaired, usually after brain damage.

Link to BBC News story.
Link to story in The Guardian.
Link to abstract from Nature Neuroscience.

Hack #102 : Alter Input With Expectations

This is a hack which never made it into the book, but we thought it worth sharing. At this point, to get the most out of this hack, look at this figure (in a pop-up window) quickly before reading on. It’s not important to try and work out what it is, but have a good look. Seen it? Now, without further ado…

Hack #102: Alter Input With Expectation

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The balance between feed-forward and feed-back connections in the brain gives a clue to the balance between raw sensation and expectations in constructing experience.

Feedback is ubiquitous in the brain. The brain is not just massively parallel [Hack #52], it is also massively interconnected- an awesomely complex cybernetic system.

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