Scientists to study speed dating (again)

speed_dating_cartoon.jpgProfessor Richard Wiseman talks about an upcoming study on speed dating in a BBC news story and is quoted as saying “This is the first time that speed dating has been used to assess the psychology of compatibility”.

It seems Professor Wiseman has a short memory, as several studies have been published on speed dating, including a paper published last year in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior that was quite widely discussed (funnily enough, just around the time of last year’s Valentine’s Day).

Wiseman’s experiment is to be carried out at the Edinburgh International Science Festival in April and reflects a trend for using speed dating in science education events. It even featured (rather unsuccessfully) in the tepid BBC series Secrets of the Sexes and, in a slightly more informed format, as a segment on Radio 4’s All in the Mind.

Link to ‘Scientists to study speed dating’ from BBC News.

Brain pin

brain_pin_large.jpgOnline badge retailer Lapel Pin Planet have designed a handcrafted pewter pin in the shape of the brain. It’s stylish and sure to be a conversation piece.

Although, I suspect many of the conversations will start something like “Hey, nice badge, hang on, where’s the middle temporal gyrus?”.

Hopefully though, if anyone notices that the badge isn’t anatomically correct in its finer details, you’ve got a good excuse to kick-back with some neuroscience chit-chat.

Link to handcrafted brain pin.

On lighting fires

If you’re not already tired of Valentine themed stories in the news, LiveScience have an interesting article discussing some of the recent developments in understanding the psychology and neuroscience of love and attraction.

It’s not the most critical article in the world, taking most of the results from the studies as given, but does provide some useful pointers for the current state of work in this area.

Link to article ‘The Rules of Attraction in the Game of Love’.

Sweet nothings for your neuroscience honey

rose_girl.jpgInteresting fact for Valentine’s Day: The retina is the only part of the central nervous system that is visible from outside the body.

So when you’re looking deep into the eyes of your true love, you can say…

“Darling, you have the most beautiful central nervous system I have ever seen.”

And if that doesn’t send shivers down their spine, Ode to Psyche by John Keats is possibly one of the most beautiful love poems to feature the mind and brain, as this excerpt shows:

And in the midst of this wide quietness
A rosy sanctuary will I dress
With the wreath’d trellis of a working brain,
  With buds, and bells, and stars without a name,
With all the gardener Fancy e’er could feign,
  Who breeding flowers, will never breed the same;
And there shall be for thee all soft delight
  That shadowy thought can win,
A bright torch, and a casement ope at night,
  To let the warm Love in!

Link to full text of Ode to Psyche by John Keats.

Preventing nuclear war

jervis.gifNow here’s an achievement that definitely deserves recognition, I’d say. Robert Jervis, the Adlai E. Stevenson Professor of International Affairs at Columbia University, is set to be awarded $20,000 by the National Academy of Sciences in America for carrying out psychological research that has helped prevent nuclear war.

There must be a few people working towards such ends because apparently this award is made every three years! A press release says Jervis earned this year’s prize “for showing, scientifically and in policy terms, how cognitive psychology, politically contextualized, can illuminate strategies for the avoidance of nuclear war”. He’ll receive the award at a ceremony in Washington on April 23rd.

Link to the National Academy of Sciences.
Link to interview with Jervis.

neuroscience and advertising

As well as semiotics and cognitive psychology there is another tool for understanding advertising – neuroscience! Enter neuromarketing [1]. Neuromarketing promises to tell you how your brain responds to branding, or which adverts during the superbowl are most effective (Vaughan did a great job on this one, here, and here), or how alert people are during normal television adverts (“there may well need to be more ads created.” concludes the executive who commissioned the study!)

Neuromarketing leaves people saying things like

But the brain doesn’t lie, and the ad industry is just waking up to the potential of neuroscience. The brain’s seven defined regions – each affecting a different aspect of brain function – literally light up the screen if stimulated. Each one contributes to different cognitive activities; reasoning, analysis, long or short-term memory, high or low involvement processing, emotion, meaning etc.
(Tess Alps, in the Guardian)

The appeal of neuromarketing is the illusion of being able to access some more fundamental explanatory basis for our actions. People may lie to market researchers, or may even deceive themselves, but – we hope – ‘the brain doesn’t lie’. As psychologist and marketing guru Gerald Zaltman said existing methods don’t go nearly far enough in helping [advertisers] move to a closer understanding of their customers [2]

Sadly for marketing science, a straight description of what the brain is doing is of limited use – the marketing implications crucially depend on how you interpret that activity. And the interpretation depends on your theories and assumptions about the mind. If your assumptions are dubious (see the superbowl study) or just wrong (see the Tess Alps quote above) then you’re not going to get anything more than a pseudo-scientific smokescreen.

Perhaps the real appeal of neuromarketing to advertisers is betrayed by this quote from Jonathan Harries, the creative director at advertising agency FCB:

It is very hard for our clients to buy gut feel because every time they approach [a campaign], their jobs are on the line. Neuroscience promises to measure the gut feel, and that is exciting for us. It makes it easier for us to sell what we believe is right [2]


[1] Enjoy the marketing of neuromarketing first hand at

[2] Inside the Consumer Mind : What neuroscience can tell us about marketing, Wendy Melillo, Adweek; Jan 16, 2006; 47, 3

Internet mind control and the diagnosis of delusions

transmitter_sunset.jpgA recent paper in the medical journal Psychopathology has analysed the links between websites of likely-delusional people who publish their experiences of ‘mind control’ on the internet, and has concluded that they challenge the psychiatric criteria for the diagnosis of delusions.

One of the defining features of a delusion is that it should not be a belief “ordinarily accepted by other members of the person’s culture or subculture”. Nevertheless, some researchers have noted that there is no clear measure of what is ‘ordinarily accepted’.

It is also possible that cultures or subcultures could be based around beliefs that would otherwise be diagnosed as delusional. Until now, however, there have been no obvious examples of such subcultures identified.

In the Psychopathology paper, ten websites reporting psychosis-like ‘mind control’ experiences were identified. The reports were anonymised and independently blind-rated by three psychiatrists who confirmed that they reflect experiences stemming from psychosis.

The links between the websites were then analysed using a technique called social network analysis that allows the social network of the authors to be inferred.

This analysis suggested that the authors of the reports were part of a ‘small world‘ social network, based around the content of likely-delusional beliefs (click here to see the network structure in a popup window).

This contradicts the current definition of a delusion, suggesting that it is becoming increasing redundant as technology shapes and re-shapes social networks.

It also suggests that, according to the current definition, anyone can ‘cure’ themselves of a delusion by using the internet to find or form a community of others who share the same belief!

Importantly, however, the researchers make clear that this research does not imply that all of the internet ‘mind control’ community are psychotic, as reports were chosen to specifically reflect psychosis-like experiences.

It is interesting, however, that the identified authors are also likely to be an active part of a wider, non-psychotic community, who may have similar, although differently motivated, concerns.

Link to abstract of study.
PDF of paper.

Disclaimer: This paper is from my own research group.

Johnny panic and the bible of dreams


Every day from nine to five I sit at my desk facing the door of the office and type up other people’s dreams. Not just dreams. That wouldn’t be practical enough for my bosses. I type up also people’s daytime complaints: trouble with mother, trouble with father, trouble with the bottle, the bed, the headache that bangs home and blacks out the sweet world for no known reason. Nobody comes to our office unless they have troubles. Troubles that can’t be pinpointed by Wassermanns or Wechsler-Bellvues alone.

Maybe a mouse gets to thinking pretty early on how the whole world is run by these enormous feet. Well, from where I sit, I figure the world is run by one thing and this one thing only. Panic with a dog-face, devil-face, hag-face, whore-face, panic in capital letters with no face at all-it’s the same Johnny Panic, awake or asleep.

When people ask me where I work, I tell them I’m Assistant to the Secretary in one of the Out-Patient Departments of the Clinics’ Building of the City Hospital. This sounds so be-all end-all they seldom get around to asking me more than what I do, and what I do is mainly type up records. On my own hook though, and completely under cover, I am pursuing a vocation that would set these doctors on their ears. In the privacy of my one-room apartment I call myself secretary to none other than Johnny Panic himself.

Dream by dream I am educating myself to become that rare character, rarer, in truth, than any member of the Psycho-analytic Institute, a dream connoisseur. Not a dream-stopper, a dream-explainer, an exploiter of dreams for the crass practical ends of health and happiness, but an unsordid collector of dreams for themselves alone. A lover of dreams for Johnny Panic’s sake, the Maker of them all.

There isn’t a dream I’ve typed up in our record books that I don’t know by heart. There isn’t a dream I haven’t copied out at home into Johnny Panic’s Bible of Dreams.

This is my real calling.

Excerpt from Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams by poet and author Sylvia Plath. Plath suffered from severe depression throughout her life, and this piece was based upon her experiences of being in a psychiatric hospital.

A century of intelligence

yellow_light_bulb.jpgABC Radio’s science show Ockham’s Razor marks the 100th anniversary of the creation of the intelligence test by examining its history and impact on modern psychology.

The programme traces the development of the modern IQ test from the initial efforts of psychologist Alfred Binet and its roots in educational testing, to its controversial involvement in social and political debates.

mp3 or realaudio of programme audio.
Link to programme transcript.

2006-02-10 Spike activity

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


PLoS Medicine have a review article on the links between cannabis and psychosis.

Psychologist Petra Boyton casts a critical eye on media reports that ‘sexual chemistry lasts just two years’.

The Royal College of Nursing debate ‘harm minimisation‘ measures for people who self-harm.

Beta-blocker drug propranolol could reduce the impact of painful memories if taken after severe trauma.

Wired magazine discuss recent research into developing an eye test for Alzheimer’s disease.

The touch of a loved one’s hand can induce in measurable stress-reducing responses in the brain during tense times.

BBC Radio 4’s health issues show ‘Case Notes’ has a half-hour special on the neuroscience and treatment of stroke.

The brain continues with significant development after the age of 18 (via /.).

New Scientist on research that shows that the brain only has to send a movement command to create the sensation of movement.

The New York Times has an insightful article on the media obsession with pretty brain images and what they actually tell us.

Article in Wired on an inventor of retinal implants (via BoingBoing).

when choice is demotivating

Here’s a way to make people buy more of your stuff – give them fewer options. Douglas Coupland called the bewilderment induced by there being too many choices ‘option paralysis’ (‘Generation X’, 1991). Now social psychologists have caught on (‘When choice is demotivating’, 2000, [1]). Offer shoppers a choice of 24 jams and they are less likely to buy a jar than if offered a choice of 6 jams. Offer students a choice of 6 essays, rather than 30 essays, for extra-credit and more will take up the opportunity if there is less choice of essay titles – and, what is more, they write better essays. Students given a similar choice of free chocolates (a restricted choice compared to an extensive choice) made quicker choices (not too suprising) and were happier with the choices they did make once they had made them.


[1] Iyengar, S. S., & Lepper, M. R. 2000. <a href="
“>When choice is demotivating: Can one desire too much of a good thing? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 995-1006.

Augmenting the mind with high technology

microchip.jpgA couple of news stories have discussed the ‘Better Humans?’ report featured earlier on Mind Hacks:

One article from The Guardian (actually an excerpt from the full report) on potential abuses of technology as ‘mind control’ by neuroscientist Steven Rose; and another on Radio 4’s Today Programme that interviewed Steven Rose and philosopher Nick Bostrom (realaudio here) about using biotech to extend life and optimise the brain.

If you want to read the report in full, it has now been published and is available for free download at the Demos site.

I’ve not read it yet, but I’m hoping that it will provide a bit of balance to the somewhat wide-eyed and uncritical acceptance of neuroscience stories that tend to make the media.

Link to article ‘We are moving ever closer to the era of mind control’.
Realaudio of interview with Rose and Bostrom on Radio 4.
Link to ‘Better Humans?’ report.

SciAmMind on ‘Halle Berry’ neurons and neurofeedback

sci_am_mind_2006-02.jpgA new edition of Scientific American Mind has been released and includes two web-published articles: one on recent research on grandmother cells (or ‘Halle Berry neurons’ as they’re becoming known) and another on the use of neurofeedback as a therapy and cognitive enhancer.

‘Halle Berry neurons’ are brain cells that supposedly activate in response to a single face, and are so named because a photo of Ms Berry was used in a recent experiment experiment that seemed to support this “one neuron – one face idea”, that was previously derided as being unrealistic.

The jury is still out on whether they exist or not, but the article considers evidence for and against the hypothesis.

Neurofeedback is a technique where brain activity is measured and shown to the subject, who can then attempt to control it by altering their mental state.

The brain activity can be measured from areas that could be linked to problems a person has (such as poor attention or concentration) and so the technique can be supposedly used to ‘train the brain’ to work more efficiently.

The article considers the evidence that it can be effective, although it is still not a mainstream treatment, partly because there are no widely agreed standards for how it should be administered.

Link to artice ‘One Person, One Neuron?’.
Link to article ‘Train Your Brain’.

advertising influences familiarity induces preference

We probably like to think that we’re too smart to be seduced by such “branding,” but we aren’t. If you ask test participants in a study to explain their preferences in music or art, they’ll come up with some account based on the qualities of the pieces themselves. Yet several studies have demonstrated that “familiarity breeds liking.” If you play snippets of music for people or show them slides of paintings and vary the number of times they hear or see the music and art, on the whole people will rate the familiar things more positively than the unfamiliar ones. The people doing the ratings don’t know that they like one bit of music more than another
because its more familiar. Nonetheless, when products are essentially equivalent, people go with what’s familiar, even if it’s only familiar because they know its name from advertising

Barry Schwartz. ‘The Paradox of Choice’ (2004)

I think the essential point is correct, but there is a sort of sneaking condescension here: All of you people (the ‘test participants’) only like the things you like because you’re familiar with them, not because of any rational or emotional affection for them (that’s just ‘some account’). What’s more – we (the psychologists) have done experiments which show (admittedly only in some circumstances) that familiarity leads to liking; and from this we’re prepared to generalise to all other circumstances you’re involved in. I parody, but I’m sure you see what I mean.

The fact that we tend to like the familiar isn’t too surprising. There’s even a good evolutionary reason for preferring what worked before – if it didn’t kill you last time, why risk doing something else this time? The single most useful thing you can measure to predict what someone will do in the future is not what they want to do, nor is it what they say they’ll probably do, nor what their friends and family will do, but simply what they did last time – such is the power of habit (For more on this see Hack #74 in Mind Hacks).

But the interesting thing about advertising and branding is the process of it making something familiar to us and us taking this as an indication of preference. In other words, we don’t properly take into account that the brand is not familiar to us for any good reason.

Psychologically it’s not too surprising that this should happen. The study [1] which revived the subliminal perception field involved this mere exposure effect. Participants were shown meaningless shapes for time-spans below the perceptual threshold and subsequently they preferred those shapes to other not previously displayed shapes – even though they had not consciously perceived either set of shapes before.

However, is there any evidence that this kind of familiarity effect can be shown to compete with, or even over-ride, actual good reasons for liking or disliking a brand? Perhaps people are happy to use a fairly arbitrary guideline (familiarity) for unimportant decisions, or decisions where the choices are all pretty good, but when more is at stake familiarity is relegated down the table of influencing factors?


[1] Kunst-Wilson WR, Zajonc RB (1980). Affective discrimination of stimuli that cannot be recognized. Science, 207(4430):557-8.

Mindfulness-based therapy in Time Magazine

StevenHayes.jpgTime magazine talks to psychologist Steven Hayes in an article about the development of ‘Acceptance and Commitment Therapy’ – an increasingly popular treatment for mental disorder.

I’m not familiar with the name, but it seems to be a form of mindfulness-based therapy, originally developed by a team at Cambridge University, inspired by Buddhist meditation techniques, and known to be highly effective in treating depression.

The article contains a summary of both ACT and the current most popular and most evaluated form of psychological therapy: cognitive behaviour therapy or CBT.

The Time article is a little overzealous in its enthusiasm, suggesting that ACT outperformed CBT when applied to a wide range of mental disorders, when, in fact, Hayes himself wrote an encouraging but balanced review article in which he stated “there are not enough well-controlled studies to conclude that ACT is generally more effective than other active treatments”.

Nevertheless, the article is an interesting insight into Hayes himself, and a good account of some of the core principles behind modern psychological treatments for mental illness.

Link to article ‘Happiness isn’t normal’.
Link to information on mindfulness-baded therapy from Oxford University.