Uncovering hidden motives

saf_frame.jpgTV programme Scientific American Frontiers has made online video available from a programme on the psychology and neuroscience of hidden motives.

The first segment explores the brain’s reaction to ‘cool’ and ‘uncool’ products, a new field, christened neuromarketing.

Other segments explore the Implicit Association Test, a relatively new technique for measuring unconconsious associations and biases, and an exploration of the neural basis of moral reasoning.

Link to Frontiers webpage with video feeds (via PsyBlog)
Try the Implicit Association Test for yourself.

2005-04-15 Spike activity

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


Brain scanning study shows people with synaesthesia who experience colours from letters or numbers, show activation in the ‘colour cortex’ during the experience.

A study finds that parents are more likely to give attention to good looking children.

Researchers study interaction between psychological and physiological factors in premature ejaculation “by measuring average times to ejaculation with stopwatches”.

Paper from journal Science discovers how sound can be transmitted to the brain with such precise timing.

Love is better than dieting for losing weight, says Italian news story that is suspiciously vague on where the findings come from.

American Scientist interviews philosopher and cognitive scientist William Hirstein.


Research suggests men who take risks and like danger sports are not more attractive to women.

ABC Radio’s All in the Mind discusses the historical relationships between ‘neurology and the novel’ in classics such as Dracula and Jekyll and Hyde (transcript, realaudio).

Neuroprosthetics on BBC Frontiers

Yesterday’s BBC Radio 4 science programme Frontiers discusses the developing science of neuroprosthetics, the science of controlling electronic devices by cortical implants or taking readings from the brain.

The programme discusses the research involved in developing this technology, and has some interesting speculations from the scientists involved. This is from Miguel Nicolelis:

Our hypothesis is that the brain fine-tunes its cells, or a group of cells, to find the optimal solution on how to control a device, and I don’t think that happens only for prosthetic limbs. I think it happens to any tool that we learn to use; a pen, a football, a car… We can readily incorporate them as extensions of our own body.

Link to Frontiers Neuroprosthetics edition web page.
Link to realaudio archive of programme.

A Dancer Without A Body

A reader sent in a link to this piece of Flash artwork, Drift. The globes dance and drift, moving together in such a way as to suggest a person. The science behind this is discussed in Hack #77 ‘See A Person In Moving Lights’.


The short story is that the way our brains pick out the principle components of moving people allows us to project a really powerful illusion of personhood onto lights that move in just the right way (the right way being the way lights would move if they are put on someone’s joints). It is moving together in time that creates the illusion, which is why this screenshot won’t convey any of the power of the illusion and you’ll need to watch the movies if you want to see exactly what i’m talking about.

The interesting thing about the Drift animation, I think, is that although it is elegant and at times evocative it isn’t quite convincing. Two reasons for this are, I think, that a) the balls are quite large and so do not precisely indicate a point on the body and b) this is an animation of how someone thinks someone’s joints should move, not a recording from real joints. Compare with these Dancing Lights which are done with real people in darkness with lights attached to their joints. Although, in some senses, there is less information here, the illusion is so much, so much, more convincing. There is a shock of recognition that you just cannot deny “Yes”, my brain says, “These are definitely real people, not just a collection of lights”. But you are not seeing real people, you are seeing a collection of moving lights. It is impossible to perceive it any other way that as people thought- every nuance of motion and timing is rendolent of personhood. The illusion in the animation suffers because it doesn’t capture these small things and the brain knows the difference.

And, finally, my favourite link : The BioMotion Lab Point Light Walker of Prof. Nikolaus Troje. This demo, constructed using recordings from scores of real people, allows you to adjust the gender, build, and mood (both nervous-relaxed and happy-sad) of a set of walking lights. Playing with this you can see just how much information we can get out of this abstracted-kind of motion.

Edge debate on sex, autism and engineering

baron-cohen.jpgThe latest issue of online science and technnology magazine Edge interviews Simon Baron-Cohen, author of the book The Essential Difference, on autism, engineering and sex differences.

The debate continues with contributions from eminent psychologists such as Stephen Pinker and Elizabeth Spelke.

Baron-Cohen is proposing his ‘Assortive Mating Theory’. He argues that ‘systemizing’, a tendancy to think in terms of rules, laws and systems, is more prevalent in some, particularly males, and is expressed as autism or Asperger’s syndrome in its extreme form.

The child of two systemizers is more likely to have this trait, both due to genetic and parental influences, and is therefore more likely to be on the autistic spectrum.

‘Systemizing’ is, unsurprisingly, associated with professions such as science and engineering. It is argued that this is more prevalent in males due to the biology of inheritance and fetal development.

An alternative trait is ’empathizing’, supposedly more prevalent in females, which is a tendency to empathise with people’s feeling and intentions, and enjoy and understand the nuances of social situations.

Link to debate with Simon Baron-Cohen from edge.org
Link to article on Baron-Cohen’s work from wired.com
Link to online test to measure empathizing and systematizing.

Classic case: Psychiatric treatment of ghost possession

flo_katie.jpg In 1994 a curious case-report was published in the British Journal of Psychiatry. It described a man who believed he was possessed by a spirit and was successfully treated by medication. Unusually however, the article mentioned that other people had seen the ghost.

Belief in possession is not uncommon in psychosis, the mental state that can sometimes accompany severe mental illness and typically involves delusions and hallucinations.

Psychiatry usually assumes all such experiences to be tricks of the mind, rather than the result of other-worldly powers.

The case-report by Anthony Hale and Narsimha Pinninti (summary) is almost unique however, in that it suggests that the authors are unsure whether the possession was mental illness or spiritual intervention.

As well as making for a gripping read, it reveals some of the assumptions and difficulties of contemporary psychiatry.

Continue reading “Classic case: Psychiatric treatment of ghost possession”

Sony patents direct brain input

electrodes.jpgIn what could be more marketing ploy than innovation, Sony has patented a method for directly manipulating parts of the brain to allow computers to simulate sensory experiences.

Sony’s idea is to use beams of ultrasound to penetrate the skull and stimulate specific brain areas involved in receiving or processing sensory information.

If appropriate parts of the brain could be targeted, and if the way in which the neurons process and code conscious experience could be understood, the technology is, in principle, feasible.

These are two very big ‘ifs’ however, and each describe two of the biggest problems in contemporary neuroscience. Indeed, some doubt whether the latter is possible at all.

So, this is probably not something you might find attached to your games console in the near future.

Link to story from newscientist.com
Link to story from timesonline.co.uk

Subliminal mesages in music


Here we go. I’m no expert on subliminal messages, but I did some research on it a few years ago, and again recently for the book. The title of the section in Mind Hacks should give you a good clue as to scientific opinion “Hack #82: Subliminal Messages Are Weak and Simple”. Even that may be an exaggeration.

Continue reading “Subliminal mesages in music”

2005-04-08 Spike activity

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


A brain imaging study suggest an area of the brain a particular area of the brain is active when deciding whether to trust someone.

An article considers the link between blood sugar, mental performance and brain function.

Attention is an important aspect of effective memory. Also contains tips for optimising tasks to reduce load on memory and attention to increase performance.

A psychologist investigating polyamory notes the unique feelings and language required by these unorthdox relationships.

Research shows that children who watch more television are more likely to become bullies.

Dementia can be slowed by sex, crosswords and a run says tired researcher.

Zoomquilt and the MAE

So one of the things that didn’t work so well at the Foyles talk was the demonstration of the Motion After Effect (or MAE to those of us who know and love it). Mick Porter has pointed out this animation zoomquilt which will definitely give you a good after-effect (thanks mick!). Zoom through the animation for a few cycles- you don’t need to focus on anything in particular, just look at the center- and then stop it. When stopped everything should swirl back in the opposite direction for a bit: the motion aftereffect.

Why interesting? Well, it shows that motion has dedicated represention in the brain, aside from just being computed from just location and time (which is all you theoretically need to calculate). The after-effect – a percept of motion without anything changing location – shows that motion is specifically represented somewhere in the brain (in area MT in the visual cortex as it happens) and can be fooled.

Also, you can show that the effect is occuring in your brain, rather than in your eyes, by looking at the animation with one eye and then looking at it stopped with the other. You should get the effect transfering across.

Poetry requires more brain power than prose

quill.jpgA collaboration between the English department of St Andrews University and psychologists from Dundee has discovered that reading poetry involves deeper thought than prose.

Psychologist Martin Fischer led a team that used an infra-red eyetracking device to measure how often the eyes moved across the page and within sentences, when people were reading poetry or prose.

The poems were in their original format, and the prose was created by taking the poems and removing the line breaks and formatting, while leaving the words intact. This was so any differences could not be attributed to the words themselves.

Among the poems were Shelley’s Ozymandias and parts of Lord Byron’s Beppo.

The team found that the poems took more time to read, involved far more recapping of words and sentences, and less jumping forward, suggesting poetry had to be analysed and considered more deeply than prose to be understood.

The team plan to use brain imaging to discover which areas of the brain are involved in understanding different these different forms of text.

Link to write-up of research from Scotland on Sunday.

Neuroethics and Law Blog

Adam Kolber, Professor at the University of San Diego School of Law, has started a Neuroethics and Law Blog. I’m a big fan of specialist blogs; i think they play an important part in the knowledge economy of the net. So, welcome, Adam! Anyone who thinks they may be interested in the legal and ethical issues related to the brain and cognition is invited to take a look, here: http://kolber.typepad.com

Science of the psychic

Zener CardsA surprisingly level-headed article from the Sunday Herald discusses the history of Edinburgh University’s Koestler Parapsychology Unit, and its research into the unknown depths of the mind.

The article gives a concise overview of research into ‘psi phenomenon’, such as precognition, clarevoyance and thought transference and considers many of the controversies in the field, with opinions from both ‘believers’ and ‘skeptics’.

The Koestler Unit is unique, as it is the only parapsychology unit in a UK university, having been established by a large sum of money left after the death of the controversial novelist Arthur Koestler.

If you want to help out with their research, you can even take part in some psi experiments online. Just visit the the Koestler Unit’s website and click ‘Research’, then ‘Online’ for a list of experiments.

The site also has summaries of the various theories of psi abilities and the results of past scientific experiments.

Link to article Parapsychology: Fact of séance fiction? from the Sunday Herald.
Link to Koestler Parapsychology Unit website.

Since I’m here in the cafe at Foyles

I just have to send a big appreciative Thanks! to the folks at Foyles, not just for hosting our talk the other week (and suggesting it!), but for making Foyles the store in London to buy Mind Hacks, and being great fun with it too. There are three people in particular: Anna, Dominic and Michael in the computer books dept. So if you’re passing (it’s just outside the cafe), give them a fright and go say Hello from us 🙂


Historian Anne Harrington discusses the public fascination with the lives of people with injured brains, recounted in books such as Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.

Alexander LuriaInterviewed on ABC Radio National’s All in the Mind, Harrington considers how these detailed case studies have influenced neuroscience, from early description by Russian neuropsychologist A. R. Luria, to the variety of similar books available today.

These literary accounts have been christened ‘neuroanthropology’ by some, highlighting their focus on the effects of brain injury on day-to-day reality and human existence.

One of my favourites is a recent book by Paul Broks entitled Into the Silent Land (first chapter) that combines case studies, neuropsychology, philosophy of mind and a sometimes hallucinatory style.

Realaudio or transcript for All in the Mind interview with Ann Harrington.

Link to interview with Paul Broks from amercianscientist.org
Link to A.R. Luria archive, with audio and video.