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.

How to open the brain to everyone

The development of science needs the free flow of information, so scientists can both build on and test the work of others, and so the public can make informed democratic decisions about the role of science in society.

Most scientific journals are run by publishing companies that own the articles they publish. In fact, the results from the majority of publically funded science appears in these journals.

Why is so much science owned by private companies ? Part of the reason is that scientists jobs often depend on how many publications they produce, and there is a hierarchy of journals, so publishing in some journals (typically the more established and privately owned ones) counts for more in a scientist’s career.

Many scientists would like to publish in open access journals but don’t want their careers to suffer or to be out of a job.

The following suggests some ways in which you can support open access journals to boost their value in the science community, prevent career dilemmas, and help open up scientific research for the benefit of all.

Continue reading “How to open the brain to everyone”

History of neuropsychology: Guaranteed safe!

Professor Derek J. Smith has a detailed and comprehensively annotated neuropsychology timeline on his website.

For those of you who are worried that this thorough review of the history of brain science is just a honeypot, filled with fake links to gambling and porn sites, you may be rest assured that:

The remote hyperlinks have been selected for the academic appropriacy of their contents; they were free of offensive and litigious content when selected, and will be periodically checked to have remained so.

There’s other excellent writing and reviews by Professor Smith linked from his homepage. Explore in safety!

‘A Genius Explains’

There was an interesting piece in last weekend’s Guardian (A Genius Explains) about a high-functioning autistic who is also a savant (i.e. he’s got amazingly intellectual abilities – he can recall pi to 22,514 decimal places for example). Autistic savants are more common than non-autistic savants, but usually they aren’t able to quite so lucidly explain how they manage to do the things they do.

The article left me curious, and a little jealous (“It’s mental imagery”, he said “It’s like maths without having to think.”) and makes me feel like we’re in for some interesting times ahead as research into savantism, synthesia, developmental cognitive neuroscience and mental imagery converges.

2005-02-18 Spike activity

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


A recent study shows that the preference for side of body used to cradle infants is linked to the dominant hemisphere of the mother’s brain. Another example of how observing simple behaviours (like kissing) can show underlying brain structure.

Alphabets and writing may have been shaped by the constraints of our visual system.

For those who consistently over-commit themselves, research suggests it maybe because we are excessively optimistic about time for future tasks.

An article from Scientific American on what we do and don’t know about how anesthetics work.

Research challenges the idea that the visual system must separate objects from background before they are classified (PDF of full article).

Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips discusses his new book on sanity. A sign of the growing trend for a focus on positive psychology?

A gene known as ApoE, known to be involved in Alzheimer’s disease, has been linked to poorer memory even in healthy individuals. Part of ongoing push to understand the genetics of psychological abilities.

What you lookin’ at?

The eyes are the primary social signal. It’s the eyes we spend most of the time looking (“To See, Act” [Hack #15]). Even when the other person is talking, we look most at the eyes, not the mouth. We use them to signal turn-taking in conversation, to read emotions from, like fear…and we use them to work out what another person is looking at.

It’s this – gaze perception – that I’ve been getting interested in. How accurately can we tell where someone is looking? How accurately can we tell if someone is looking at us, or not? I’ve been looking out for some actual figures here, basic parameters on how small a difference we can detect in where someone is looking, either when they are looking at us, or at someone else.

Obviously, to be able to answer this question with actual parameters would have all sorts of implications. For, say, the design & manipulation of pictures showing people looking at things, for VR interfaces and, also, I guess it might give a better idea of when someone can tell i’m looking at them, and when they just can’t know I am for sure. You know, just as a sort of side benefit…

Continue reading “What you lookin’ at?”

D√©j√† vu: Overdrawn at the memory bank

Déjà vu is one of the most fascinating of experiences and, until recently, was thought of as an interesting anomaly but virtually impossible to study scientifically.

This has recently begun to change. Psychologist Alan Brown is one of a number of scientists who have begun making considerable headway in researching this curious but fleeting state.

In Brown’s recent book (The Deja Vu Experience; ISBN 1841690759) he notes some interesting facts gleaned from research in this area, for example:

About two thirds of people experience it. It is more likely to occur indoors, while relaxing and in the company of friends. It occurs more often in the afternoon or evening, and towards the end of the week. It is more common in those who travel and remember their dreams. It is less common in people with conservative politics and fundamental religiosity. It decreases with age.

Exactly why the experience is linked to these things is not altogether clear, although research has made some progress in understanding which brain areas might be involved.

One clue has been from temporal lobe epilepsy, in which people can have intense feelings of d√©j√† vu, either as the main part of the seizure, or as a pre-seizure experience (called an ‘aura’). These studies have suggested that an area of the brain called the hippocampus and nearby area known as the parahippocampal gyrus (both strongly linked to the temporal lobes) are a likely source.

These areas are strong candidates for the source of déjà vu, as they have also been identified as involved in recognition and producing feelings of familiarity by previous research into memory function in healthy volunteers.

Link to excellent article on the science of déjà vu from The Chronical.
Link to NYT article on déjà vu.
Link to transcript of ABC Radio National programme on déjà vu.
Link to list of different types of déjà vu.

Abstract structure need not be based on language

Grammar-impaired patients with problems in parsing sentences can parse sums. This weighs against the argument that language underpins our capacity for abstract thought: these individuals have problems with telling “dog bites man” from “man bites dog” but no similar problems with 112-45 vs 45-112.

Aphasia and other language problems stemming from brain damage can indeed lead to calculation problems, but this study suggests that they are not necessarily intertwined. As the authors put it, the performance of their subjects is “incompatible with a claim that mathematical expressions are translated into a language format to gain access to syntactic mechanisms specialized for language.”

Continue reading “Abstract structure need not be based on language”