Research Digest blog

Mind Hacks contributor Christian Jarrett [Hacks #18, #62, #66] has started a blog for the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest. Writes the BPS:

Each fortnight we send out an email full of fun, engaging accounts of the most exciting new research, together with invaluable syllabus advice. This unmissable service is aimed primarily at undergraduate and A-level students, but academics have been signing up too, either to help with their teaching or simply to keep abreast of the best research outside of their specialist area.

So now you can get via blog rather than via email – and contribute comments back on papers Christian has summarised.

The science and curiosities of psychology

Professor Anthony Walsh has compiled a comprehensive guide to psychology, full of curiosities, images and tutorials.

Some of my favourites include images of trepanning devices from the middle ages, a case study of Mollie Fancher, a curious patient from the 19th century and a Dr Walsh’s own guide to classroom decorum!

This is one of the most comprehensive online psychology resources I’ve discovered as yet, and certainly one of the most fun to browse through.

Good starting points are his pages on:
* Introduction to Psychology
* Abnormal psychology
* Statistical methods in behavioural science

better to light a candle?

She says: It’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness

He says: I wouldn’t be so sure, maybe a candle would destroy your night-vision – without the candle your eyes could adjust to the lowered light levels (a process called adaptation, [Hack #26])

She says: But if you’re in total darkness, there’s no light at all to adjust to seeing

He says: Good point, so maybe it should be “It’s better to wait for a bit, then, if your eyes don’t adjust, you should light a candle rather than curse the darkness”

She says: How long do you have to wait until you know?

He says: Ah well, the cone receptors in the eye – which let you see colour – adapt fully after about 5 minutes. But it takes about 30 minutes for the rod receptors to fully adapt. These are the important ones for night vision, since they are specialised in detecting light or dark – which is presumably the fundamental information you are interested in.

She says: Okay. So it should be “It’s better to sit in the dark for up to 30 minutes doing nothing, then light a candle rather than curse the darkness”?!

He says: Oh, you don’t have to do nothing. Adaptation happens at the retina. You can prove this to yourself by adapting to the dark and then looking at a light with only one eye. One eye will adjust to the light, and the other (which you kept closed) will keep it’s dark adaptation. Now if you go back to darkness you can switch between being blind (in your light adapted eye) and being able to see (in your other eye), just by openning and closing your eyes alternately. So, you can do anything you want with the rest of your brain, it shouldn’t matter.

She says: So talking would be okay?

He says: Talking would be fine. Or whistling.

She says: So “It’s better to wait in the dark to see if your eyes dark adapt (you can do anything you want while you’re waiting) and only then, if they don’t, light a candle rather than curse the darkness”

He says: You could even curse the darkness while you’re waiting and get it out of the way. And really a red light would be better than a candle, because red spectrum light doesn’t affect your dark adaptation (which is why cabin lights in aeroplanes and ships are red).

She says: “It’s better to wait in the dark to see if your eyes dark adapt (you can do anything you want while you’re waiting) and only then, if they don’t, light a candle rather than curse the darkness. But it would be better if you had a red light rather than a candle for preference”

He says: That’s it

She says: Snappy. I like it

He says: Someone should tell Amnesty

2005-02-25 Spike activity

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


An area of the brain may be responsible for warning us of risky outcomes and the possibility of making future mistakes.

New Scientist publishes a lead article on the use of psychedelic drugs for treating mental distress online.

Recent evidence suggests that some migraines may be linked to heart minor heart problems.

The relationship between distance and clarity of vision in face recognition research leads to important evidence for a murder trial.

Research shows that men are more committed to ‘e-relationships’ than women and internet dating relationships are generally more successful than previously thought.

A detailed diary kept by a mother of an autistic child leads to important insights into the development of play and social skill in autism. Other research shows that autistic people may have better visual skills than others.

Researchers measure the change to visual perception in a particular area of space when we focus our attention without moving our eyes.

New series of BBC ‘All in the Mind’ online

‘All in the Mind’, BBC Radio 4’s programme on the mind, brain and mental health starts a new season this week.

Each week’s edition is archived on the programme’s website, so you can listen in to the latest. The website also has a comprehensive archive of previous shows, so you can revisit any programme from the last few years.

Link to BBC ‘All in the Mind’ website

‘Mirror neurons’ track thoughts and intentions

In research published in PLoS Biology, scientists led by Marco Iacoboni discovered that the brain’s “mirror neurons” are active when we are trying to work out other people’s thoughts and intentions.


‘Mirror neurons’ are a set of cells in the frontal lobe of the brain, named because as well as being active when we execute actions, they are also active when we observe the actions of someone else.

Iacoboni and his colleagues asked participants to watch various movie clips of actions and related scenes in a fMRI scanner. In their analysis, they contrasted the brain activity from actions where their was an obvious intention (like picking up a sandwich) with actions where no obvious intention was implied.

They discovered that part of the activity in the ‘mirror neuron’ system was specifically related to perceiving intentions, rather than watching actions in general.

The ability to understand other people’s intentions is known as “theory of mind” and is considered one of the building blocks of social interaction. This is the first study to show how the ‘mirror neuron’ system may be involved in reading others’ intentions and desires, and is an important step in understanding how the brain supports social functioning.

This is part of an increasingly popular area of science known as social cognitive neuroscience, which aims to understand the psychology and neuroscience of person-to-person interaction.

Synopsis of study, and a news story discussing it.
Full text of the study from PLoS Biology.

The one hundred most influential works in cognitive science

The Cognitive Science society has voted on The one hundred most influential works in cognitive science from the 20th century. Although we have tended to refer to the contents of Mind Hacks as ‘cognitive neuroscience’, much of what we’ve written about is classic cognitive science material. It was this discipline that first aimed to use a information processing view of mind to synthesise work in linguistics, artifical intelligence, ethology, biology and experimental psychology (and I’m sure a few others). The relevance to the more recent ‘cognitive neuroscience’, and to the spirit of ‘Mind Hacks’, should be obvious. So have a browse of the top 100. There’s quite a few that get cited here and there in the book, and lots of other gems that might catch your interest.