A man walks into a bar…

heart.gifAs Tom said, Valentine’s is fast approaching. Just in time, Christopher Bale and colleagues have published a study in Personality and Individual Differences on what 142 female and 63 male undergraduates thought of 40 different chat up lines as featured in mini stories about a man attempting to woo a woman.

It was thumbs down to jokes, empty compliments and sexual references (“Well hey there, I may not be Fred Flintstone, but I bet I can make your Bed Rock!”) and thumbs up to lines revealing helpfulness, generosity, athleticism, culture (“It’s a fine instrument wouldn’t you say? A Steinway concert grand if I’m not mistaken”, he said pointing to a nearby piano) and wealth (“Hi, my name’s William, I’m one of the owners here, would you like to dance?”).

The student participants gave their verdicts by saying how likely the woman was to continue the conversation.

Surprisingly perhaps, the male and female participants tended to agree on which lines were likely to be successful.

The poor ratings for jokey chat up lines were unexpected but the researchers said that could be due to their failing to give different categories to wit – “spontaneous jokes that fit the context exactly, are genuinely funny, and require intelligence” and humour – “the pre-planned jokes and one-liners which were ineffective and do not demonstrate intelligence”.

Link to abstract.
Link to Christopher Bale talking about the work (last five minutes or so of the recording).

Cajal and the history of the synapse

Cajal.jpgAmerican Scientist reviews two new books on the scientific history of the synapse and the early work on neural communication, particularly focusing on the life and work of pioneering Spanish neuroscientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal.

In his Nobel Prize winning work, Cajal discovered the synapse and first argued that the neuron was the fundamental unit of the nervous system. Although this is now accepted as fact, at the time it was highly controversial.

The review is more than simply an opinion on the two books, but is actually a fantastic summary of his life and times, and the scientific discoveries which changed the world.

Link to review entitled ‘A Lot of Nerve’.

Revolutionary child brain database launches


A database of MRI scans of normally developing children has been launched that could revolutionalise the understanding of childhood brain function, injury and disease. It includes brain scans of 500 children from 7 days to 18 years-old and aims to be representative of the population at large.

The understanding of child brain function is still a grey area, despite the fact that the young brain can show remarkable properties.

For example, a 2001 book by Antonio Battro (sample chapter: pdf) describes a three year old boy named ‘Nico’ who had the whole of his right hemisphere removed to control life-threatening epilepsy.

Nevertheless, he has developed with very little impairment and has turned out to be a bright and engaging child, despite the fact that a similar operation in adults would be profoundly disabling.

One difficulty with many current studies of brain development in children is there is no precise reference for what constitutes ‘normal’ development.

The database will provide a wealth of data for clinicians and researchers to make accurate comparisons, rather than relying on detecting the presence of abnormalities by eye, or by comparison with small or ad-hoc control groups.

The journal NeuroImage just published a early-release copy of the article describing the development and potential uses of the data. The project has been realised by a huge list of individuals, listed as the ‘Brain Development Cooperative Group’, and by neuroscientist Alan Evans.

Link to NeuroImage abstract ‘The NIH MRI study of normal brain development’.
Link to summary from NIH.

Polish Mind Hacks – 100 sposob√≥w na zg≈ǃôbienie tajemnic umys≈Çu

polish_cover.jpgMind Hacks has been published in Polish as 100 sposobów na zgłębienie tajemnic umysłu. You can order it here, and at kognitywistyka.net, the polish cognitive science website, you can read an interview Matt and I did. The interview is available in English and in Polish and is part of a series of three (the next two will shortly be available in the same place).

And so, to any polish readers – welcome to mindhacks.com!

The details of the new translation, in Polish, below the fold

Continue reading “Polish Mind Hacks – 100 sposob√≥w na zg≈ǃôbienie tajemnic umys≈Çu”

Imagination as torch bearer


“It is singular how soon we lose the impression of what ceases to be constantly before us. A year impairs, a luster obliterates. There is little distinct left without an effort of memory, then indeed the lights are rekindled for a moment – but who can be sure that the Imagination is not the torch-bearer?”

Lord Byron in the Ravenna Journal, 1821-22.

Cracking the neural code

phrenology_head.jpgThere’s a piece in this month’s Adbusters magazine on ‘cracking the neural code‘ as part of a feature on ‘Big Ideas of 2006’:

Chances are you have never heard of the neural code. And yet, from both a practical and philosophical perspective, the neural code is the most important remaining scientific mystery. Analogous to the machine code of a digital computer, the neural code is the software, set of rules, syntax, that transforms electrical pulses in the brain into perceptions, memories, decisions. A solution to the neural code could – in principle – give us almost unlimited power over our psyches, because we could monitor and manipulate brain cells with exquisite precision by speaking to them in their own private language.

The article is full of sci-fi speculation, but notes that it is grounded in current scientific developments and particularly the developing field of neuroprosthetics.

Link to ‘We’re Cracking the Neural Code, the Brain’s Secret Language’.

Zero wings

red_bull_can.jpgA recent news story has noted the consequences of drinking popular energy drink Red Bull in excess as a UK driver was booked for dangerous driving after drinking 20 cans (20 cans!) of the product.

Interestingly, the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry published a case report in 2001 suggesting that excessive intake triggered a manic episode in a gentleman with bipolar disorder.

Red Bull has had several papers published on it in scientific journals. It is often not referred to by brand, but often by the euphamism of ‘energy drink [with taurine and caffeine]’ or ‘functional energy drink’.

Despite the marketing hype, it has been genuinely shown to improve mental performance for a short duration, and particularly usefully, to counteract dangerous driver sleepiness during tests with a driving simulator.

…when taken in sensible doses, of course.

2006-01-27 Spike activity

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


Researchers find gene linked to the chance of being diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

The Telegraph talk up psychology and neuroscience, arguing that ‘The Future is All in Your Head‘.

The evolution and function of laughter is discussed in Seed Magazine.

Brainscan Blog hails the opening of a new fMRI lab to study the neuroscience of sign language.

Behind every great genius – is another great genuis, claim Live Science.

Philosopher Daniel Dennett in a fairly content-free interview in the New York Times discusses his forthcoming book on the biology of religious belief.

Members of a remote Amazon tribe can solve basic problems in geometry, despite never having seen a math book, suggesting geometric ability may be innate.

The New York Times article ‘This Is Your Brain on Schadenfreude‘ discusses the neural response to others’ displeasure.

“None of the circuits involved in conscious reasoning were particularly engaged”. No big surprises from studies of the neuropsychology of political affiliation.

A gene which regulates the enzyme CYP2A6 – known to be involved in the metabolism of nicotine – may be key to understanding the genetics of cigarette addiction.

With our thoughts, we make our world

monk_eeg.jpgWired magazine examines the recent interest in the neural basis of meditation and the political storm caused by the Dalai Lama’s speech at the last Society for Neuroscience conference, in a recently published online article.

The Tibetan Buddhist leader’s presentation was the subject of much protest and counter-protest even before it began, which guaranteed that it would be one of the hottest tickets at SfN 2005.

One accusation levelled at some of the scientists involved in this research is that they are being unduly influenced by the religious aspects of Buddhism and are losing their scientific objectivity.

The Wired article looks at both the research on meditation and the Dalai Lama’s enthusiam for science and considers whether the science is indeed being affected.

Link to ‘Buddha on the Brain’.

neuroscience & the media

The recent column from Ben Bad Science Goldacre is on the widely reported, and improbable, neuroscience of why the novels of Agatha Christie are so successful (column here). The neurobabble used to obfuscate the fact that she wrote quite well is astounding. No, her books did not directly alter your brain chemistry to make the novels ‘literally unputdownable’ – except in the boring everyday sense that everything you do and think alters your brain chemisty. The best bit is the man who originated the misleading reports claims that it was all some sort of post-modern in-joke with readers and viewers (who were supposed to know they were being lied to). Goldacre’s strongly worded conclusion:

So I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the public are confused about science, for the simple reason that the media is full of grandiose humanities graduates, acting as self-appointed experts and science communicators, who construct their own parody of what they think science is: and then, to compound their crime, they go on to critique science, as if their parody was the reality
… Can we have some science on telly, please.

And on that note, I’ve heard good reports for this programme, on BBC2; a short series looking at claims for alternative medicine like acupuncture and faith healing. Any science broadcast that takes in the need for experimental trials, control groups, placebo effects (Hack #73 incidentally) and the dangers of overgeneralising findings is good by me. Although the BBC News report is disappointingly titled Acupuncture ‘deactivates brain’ and subtitled ‘Acupuncture works by deactivating the area of the brain governing pain, a TV show will claim’. Oh well, at least they used the scare quotes.

Is that a brain charm in your pocket?

brain_cap.jpgI’ve just discovered Brain Mart, an online shop for everything (and I mean everything) brain-related. They sell a great deal of educational material as well as a range of ‘brain novelties’.

These stretch from the classic (a phrenonology bust) to the anatomically correct ‘brain cap’ (“Flip up the brim and expose the words, Think, think, think…”) to the slightly worrying ‘Brain Charms’, for adding to a necklace or bracelet.

Link to Brain Mart.

Gallagher on action, body image and psychosis


Philosopher and cognitive scientist Shaun Gallagher sits in the hot seat and is interviewed by Science and Consciousness Review who quiz him about how the body and its actions shape our thoughts, and how this can break down to produce bizarre experiences of being controlled by outside forces.

Gallagher draws on the neuroscience of action and the philosophy of consciousness in his interview, in line with much of his previous work.

I think these experiences of ownership and agency [of actions] are manifested at the level of the level of first-order, pre-reflective, phenomenal consciousness. That is, I don’t need to reflect on what I’m doing to generate these experiences. Rather, they are part of and implicit in what my movement feels like.

Link to ‘An Interview with Shaun Gallagher’.
Link to Shaun Gallagher’s homepage.

Foxtrot on ad hoc psychological testing

foxtrot_panel.jpgA recent edition of Bill Amend’s FoxTrot comic strip has a nice twist on the notional glass half-full / glass half-empty psychological ‘test’. The test also features in a Gary Larson Far Side strip entitled ‘The Four Basic Personality Types‘ that adorns the doors of hundreds of psychologists across the globe.

(Thanks Nathan!)

Men, women and ghosts

ghost_woman.jpgOpen-access science journal PLoS Biology has published an article by biologist Peter Lawrence where he suggests that the under-representation of women in science is not because they are biologically unsuited to scientific thinking (as some have controversially suggested), but because employers undervalue those attributes more likely, but not exclusively, to be present in female researchers.

Here I will argue, as others have many times before, that men and women are born different. Yet even we scientists deny this, allowing us to identify the “best” candidates for jobs and promotions by subjecting men and women to the same tests. But since these tests favour predominantly male characteristics, such as self-confidence and aggression, we choose more men and we discourage women. Science would be better served if we gave more opportunity and power to the gentle, the reflective, and the creative individuals of both sexes.

Link to ‘Men, Women, and Ghosts in Science’.

Ajatus (Finnish Mind Hacks)


The translations come thick and fast! Ajatus (which means “Thought”, I understand) has now been released by publishers readme.fi in Finland, in hardback no less. Many thanks to Chris Heathcote for picking a copy up for me in Helsinki. He took a photo of the book too, if you’d like to see.

Grab Ajatus at readme’s website if you fancy it, and I’ve put the blurb (in Finnish) below the fold.

I’ll stop with the hard sell now, sorry! I just get excited about these things.

Continue reading “Ajatus (Finnish Mind Hacks)”

start the week with neuroscience

radio.jpgToday’s ‘Start the Week’ on BBC Radio 4 features Steve Rose discussing advances in neuroscience, in drug treatments (for illnesses or mind-enhancement) and the ethical issues that the public will have to increasingly deal with.

Andrew Marr, the presenter, uses this lovely metaphor for brain scanning. It is like, he said (i paraphrase), looking at the outside of a darkened house at night, a house which contains someone moving from room to room turning on and off lights as they do. So when we look at an fMRI scan we might know which neural and/or mental ‘room’ they are in, but we’ve no idea what they’re doing there. Steve Rose agreed: “I don’t believe we’ll ever be able to tell what a person is thinking from a brain scan” (although he added that some of his colleagues would disagree with him).

If you’d like to hear the show, you can listen again here