On female intuition

woman_eye.jpgA study conducted at the Edinburgh Science Festival has suggested that female intuition may be a myth, although this is contrary to speculation in a landmark paper in cognitive neuroscience.

Psychologist Matthew Lieberman published a paper in 2000, entited “Intuition: a social cognitive neuroscience approach”, and discussed a possible biological basis for female intuition:

A review on intuition would be incomplete without reference to women’s intuition, the colloquial notion that women have a sixth sense or a more able intuition faculty than men. Like intuition itself, women’s intuition is often shrugged off as an urban myth. No strong antedote is offered here, but there are some interesting leads that fit within the scope of this article.

There is strong and consistent evidence that women are better encoders and decoders of nonverbal communication (Hall, 1984), and this evidence has frequently been cited as possible evidence of women’s intuition (Graham & Ickes, 1997). Additionally, the hormone estrogen, present in greater quantities in women than men, directly affects the amount of DA [dopamine] released into the striatum (Becker, 1990; McDermott, Liu, & Dluzen, 1994; Mermelstein & Becker, 1995; Van Hartesveldt & Joyce, 1986).

Greater DA release into the striatum in conjunction with reward should lead to the development of stronger representations of P [Predictor] -> R [Response] relationships that form more quickly, thus resulting in women’s intuition. Along these lines, Jennings, Janowsky, and Orwoll (1998) found that estrogen levels in women correlated with performance speed on a sequential learning task.

Link to story on female intuition from BBC news.
PDF of Lieberman’s paper “Intuition: a social cognitive neuroscience approach”.

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.