People hacking for women

A research team led by Simon Chu from the University of Central Lancashire have found that a woman’s height can significantly effect how they are perceived by others.

The researchers found that taller women are perceived by both men and women as more intelligent, assertive, independent, ambitious, richer and more successful, regardless of how the person really is.

In contrast, shorter women are perceived as more considerate and nurturing, but only by men.

Unfortunately, the scientific paper isn’t out yet, as it would be interesting to calculate the strength of the effect per inch or centimetre lost or gained.

However, women should be able to encourage people to form particular first impressions by influencing the height they are perceived to be, either by the use of heels, meeting on uneven surfaces, or even carefully selecting the surrounding environment to fool our brain’s size-estimation process.

This process is known as size constancy and allows us to understand that objects tend not to expand when they come towards us, even though they take up more room on our retina.

Size constancy can be easily fooled though, as the Ames room demonstrates, although standing next to shorter people (to seem taller) or taller people (to seem shorter) is likely to have some effect, as the system partly works by relative comparisons.

Link to summary of research via


Since we’ve been hitting lie detection recently, I thought I’d point out that according to a brief communication in a 2000 volume of Nature (May, vol 405, abstract here, full text here if you can access it), people who have acquired aphasia (an impairment in the processing of others speech, leading to difficulties in comprehending spoken language) are better at detecting lies. The case the authors make is that the brain redresses damage to the circuitry that underpins language ability by boosting the recognition of non-verbal behaviour. This more sensitive detection (which isn’t merely better processing of the information in the voice, but depends on using facial cue information) allows a superior level of ‘lie-detection’ – which in this study was confined to recognising emotions that models (the people being viewed – effectively the stimuli for this kind of study) are trying to conceal.

Using patients as some kind of high-falutin sniffer dog isn’t particularly appealing. But the finding lends itself to some great hard-boiled noir…

“I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about. But this guy’s a liar.”

It’s also a fun conundrum for philosophers of semantics, no? An entity that can evaluate whether something is true or false without accessing its content. And they’re a bit more real than zombies.

The Noonday Demon

Andrew Solomon, author of the award winning book on depression, ‘The Noonday Demon‘, is interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Taking A Stand‘.

Solomon wrote the book after suffering from an intense clinical depression and managed to convey not only his own personal experiences, but much of the science and history of the disorder as well.

Approaches to depression vary, but Solomon believes that both medication and psychotherapy are worthwhile approaches.

He occupies the middle ground between Lewis Wolpert, the Nobel Prize winning biologist who wrote of his own depression in the book Malignant Sadness, and Pulitzer Prize winning novelist William Styron who recounted his experiences in Darkness Visible.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Wolpert tends towards an almost exclusively biological view of depression and treatment with anti-depressants, whereas Styron is less convinced by the physical explanations and medical treatments. Solomon however, maintains a strong belief in the biological reality of depression, but does not suggest that life events and emotional turmoil are unimportant either as a cause or a focus for treatment.

Either way, it’s an important debate which is shaping both how society understands depression and the most appropriate forms of care for people with mental illness.

All three books come highly recommended and Solomon is always worth listening to, as he is an articulate and knowledgable part of an ongoing discussion.

Link to ‘Taking a Stand’ webpage and audio archive (looks like the audio will be available until Tue 1st Feb)

Other links:

Realaudio stream or transcript of ABC Radio ‘All in the Mind’ show on evolutionary approaches to depression.
Link to excerpt of Malignant Sadness.
Link to review of little known but excellent book on depression called ‘Speaking of Sadness’ by David Karp.
Link to Mind factsheet on depression.

2005-01-28 Spike activity

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:


A study finds significant differences in the structure of male and female brains related to IQ. However, an insightful article from the NYT seems to cut through a lot of the crap and looks at the implications and (mis)interpretation of such findings in the age old debate about male-female psychological differences.

‘Bad driving’ may be related to hormones. Best read with the previous link in mind.

Developments in ‘gene chip‘ technology look likely to push forward the understanding of genetic influences on brain development.

Recent brain scanning work has examined the brain functions responsible for looking someone in the eye. Studying this simple action may result in a better understanding of how volutary actions are controlled by the brain.

More research on the contentious area of the genetic contribution to homosexuality has just been published. Don’t be fooled by the title of the article though. Anything which claims that the “gene(s) for x have been identified”, where x is a complex behaviour, is almost certainly marketing or bad journalism rather than informed scientific conclusion.

New Scientist on sensation

The 29th September issue of New Scientist is a particularly good one if you’re interested in the mind and brain.


It has a number of articles on sensation and the senses, and particularly challenges the idea that there are five ‘classical’ senses. Recent research suggests this may be a fairly artificial division, and more subtle distinctions, as well as cross-overs are common.

Unfortunately, New Scientist have been steadily making less and less of their content freely accessible, but there is an outline of the issue at the link below.

Nevertheless, it’s well worth a read, either if you grab a copy at the newsagents or pop into your local library for a browse.

Link to contents for 29th September issue of New Scientist.

UPDATE: One of the articles from the current edition (“The art of seeing without sight”) has appeared online.

Blind people can use the visual cortex to locate sounds

A study just published in the open access journal PLoS Biology has reported that blind people might be able to use parts of the brain for locating sounds that sighted people normally use for vision.

Frédéric Gougoux and colleagues asked participants who had been blind from early life and who had previously demonstrated superior listening skills to try and judge the source of certain sounds while they were being brain scanned.


Unlike the normally-sighted participants, they showed activity in the occipital lobe, an area of the brain usually dedicated to processing visual information.

This suggests the brain of the blind participants had reorganised, or had organised differently, demonstrating how the brain can alter its structure depending on the demands placed on it.

This is a process known as neural plasticity and is known to be important in both early brain development and ongoing adult learning.

In fact, this isn’t the first study to show that the brain of blind people might be organised differently. Research published in 1993 showed that braile reading abilities can be impaired by using magnetic stimulation to disrupt the activity of the occipital lobe.

The researchers suggested that this area had been recruited for touch and language skills, rather than vision.

Synopsis or full text from PLoS Biology.
Link to story on

On orgasms, epilepsy and the lack of sexual neuroscience


Recently published results report the first reliable link between brain activity and levels of sexual desire. Yoram Vardi from Rambam Hospital in Israel has reported an association between an electrical brain signal (known as P300) and libido.

The fact that such a straightforward link is both important and newsworthy may be surprising for people who aren’t aware of the state of scientific research into the neuroscience of sex.

Considering that sex is one of the most important human activities, and the current findings have been thrilling to say the least, why is it that we know so little about how the brain handles sex ?

Continue reading “On orgasms, epilepsy and the lack of sexual neuroscience”