Psychology art gallery

face_town.jpgPsychology lecturer and author Gerard Keegan has created a fascinating website of psychology curios, including a ‘psychology art gallery‘ that contains a number of visual illusions or images that play with the limits of our visual perception.

Keegan is the author of Higher Psychology a textbook for 16-18 year-old psychology students and his site shows a similar passion for communicating psychology in a straightforward and accessible manner.

Link to psychology art gallery.

Thin – the documentary

LG-Thin-002.jpgThin is a photo essay and award-winning documentary by photographer Lauren Greenfield that charts the lives of patients at the Renfrew Center, a residential centre for the treatment of women with eating disorders.

Although the photo essay is available online, the full documentary is not. However, an extended preview of the documentary is available which is quite moving even in its abbreviated form, showing the emotional turmoil experienced by young women with anorexia and bulimia.

Greenfield is interviewed about the film and gives some of her motivations for pursuing the project:

After some thought, I came to the conclusion that eating disorders were an extremely dramatic and poignant example of the way girls use their bodies instead of their voices to express themselves. I thought this subject could be particularly interesting in film because there are few mental illnesses that have a physical manifestation that can be seen visually.

Link to Thin documentary website (via MeFi).
Link to extended preview.
Link to online photo essay.
Link to information and resources on eating disorders.

Science of Sleep t-shirt competition

science_of_sleep_candidate_t.jpgOnline t-shirt shop and design free-for-all Threadless just ran a competition to design a t-shirt for the upcoming Michel Gondry film ‘The Science of Sleep‘.

The film is about a man whose life is constantly invaded by his dreams.

Unfortunately, the competition passed me by and has just closed. However, you can vote for the best design and the winning design will get turned into a t-shirt you can buy online.

There seems to be a lack of the sort of psychology and neuroscience t-shirts that you’d actually want to wear out of the house, but several of the designs look very promising.

Link to Science of Sleep t-shirt candidates.

Older antipsychotics give better quality of life?

609408_pills.jpgAn independently-funded study on the impact of older and newer antipsychotic drugs, published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, has found that the older and cheaper drugs seem to lead to a better an equal quality of life.

Antipsychotics are generally used to treat delusions and hallucinations in a number of mental disorders, but are most used by people diagnosed with schizophrenia.

The study has caused barely a whisper in the mainstream media but is interesting for a number of reasons.

The first is that it was not funded by a drug company. Studies funded by the pharmaceutical industray are more likely to report favourable results, so independent studies, although rare, are valued in the literature.

Also, it was a well-designed study, running as a randomised controlled trial – the ‘gold standard’ for evaluating treatment effects.

Finally, it produced some surprising findings.

Even psychiatrists who are typically suspicious of drug-company claims that the newer drugs have ‘less side-effects’ (the evidence suggests they just tend to have different ones) will admit that the older generation of antipsychotic drugs produced permanent and unpleasant undesired consequences, including uncontrollable facial contortions and movement problems (something called tardive dyskinesia).

The presence of these might be thought to lead to a worse quality of life than the side-effect of the newer antipsychotics, which, although serious (typically an increased risk of diabetes, heart problems and obesity) can be at least partly dealt with by diet and exercise changes.

There’s a ongoing discussion at the British Medical Journal website, with lots of ‘damn the data, I know my experience’ type comments, but what this study suggests is perhaps that we need a better understanding of what people value in their lives, the impact of these drugs on how people live, and how to most appropriately measure life ‘quality’.

It’s also worth noting that these older drugs are now barely-profitable compared to the newer ones. The fact that independently funded studies tend not to produce as much supporting evidence for the most marketed medications suggests that a healthy skepticism about drug company marketing is a must.

UPDATE: Neuroshrink has added a fantastic commentary on this post, including some clarifications on things I missed and misinterpreted from this study. See the comments for more.

Link to study abstract.
Link to BMJ discussion.

Society for Neuroscience 2006 conference in full swing

sfnlogo_beige.jpgSfN 2006, the Society for Neuroscience’s yearly tribal gathering, has kicked off in Atlanta and several bloggers are keeping tabs on the proceedings.

Jake from Pure Pedantry, Shelley from Retrospectacle, the Neurocontrarian and Neurotopia are all bringing you some of the latest scientific developments from the floor.

They’re also bringing you some of the news that isn’t appearing in the mainstream news feeds:

…Jake and Shelley and I had dinner last night and went clubbing, and poor Neurocontrarian ended up crashing on our floor after making out with some hottie.

You may wish to compare with the recently risen-from-the-ashes Nature Neuroscience Action Potential blog:

Nature Publishing threw a very classy party at the Sundial Restaurant, slowly rotating high above downtown. I was astonished to hear Morgan Sheng, Moses Chao and Bartlett Mel all speak (some) German! Very good, guys, keep it up 🙂

I’ve not been able to find any relevant feeds on Flickr yet, so if anyone is uploading any photos, or is blogging the conference and hasn’t been mentioned, do get in touch.

Link to SfN 2006 website with searchable abstracts.

Cognitive scientists on the future of science

future_of_science_logo.jpgEdge reports that several cognitive scientists were at the recent Future of Science conference in Venice in Italy.

Some of the talks are available as online video for those wanting to catch up on what was discussed:

* Stephen Pinker on The Cognitive Niche [wmv]
* Marc Hauser on Evolution of a Universal Moral Grammar [wmv]
* Michael Gazzaniga on Are Human Brains Unique? [wmv]
* Antonio Damasio on The Emotions in Evolution: a Neurobiological Perspective [wmv]
* Daniel Dennett on The Domestication of the Wild Memes of Religion [wmv]

The psychology of snacks

green_apple_bite.jpgThe New York Times has just published an article on the work on Prof Brian Wansink who investigates the psychology of snacking and eating behaviour.

Although, at first, this seems quite a mundane topic, his research team has produced some fascinating results that suggest that the amount we eat is governed as much by the perception of how much we should eat, rather than purely on how hungry we seem.

“We don’t have any idea what the normal amount to eat is, so we look around for clues or signals,” he said. “When all you see is that big portions of food cost less than small ones, it can be confusing.”

Although people think they make 15 food decisions a day on average, his research shows the number is well over 200. Some are obvious, some are subtle. The bigger the plate, the larger the spoon, the deeper the bag, the more we eat. But sometimes we decide how much to eat based on how much the person next to us is eating, sometimes moderating our intake by more than 20 percent up or down to match our dining companion.

His experiments even include a soup bowl that has been specially modified to slowly fill itself back up without the participants noticing. It seems the participants eat much more soup as a result, again without noticing.

This sort of research is used by food companies to try and get us to eat more, but could also be used by those concerned with healthy eating to promote certain sorts of foods and reduce the intake of others.

Link to NYT article ‘Seduced by Snacks? No, Not You’.


neurobotics_image.jpgLondon’s Science Museum has just opened a new exhibition and website entitled NEURObotics that investigates how medical technology could boost our brains‚Äö read our thoughts or give us mind control over machines.

The exhibition tackles topics such as brain-scan lie detectors, enhancing brain function with TMS (magnetic pulses) and even has the Braingate ‘brain interface chip’ as one of the exhibits.

This sort of technology, sometimes called neuroprosthetics, was recently profiled in an open-access Nature special and has allowed people to operate simple computer controls via their thoughts in experimental set-ups.

The exhibition is free and runs until April 2007.

Link to Science Museum NEURObotics website.
Link to list of exhibits.
Link to BBC News story on the exhibition.

Near ovulation, women dress to impress

chapps_natalia.jpgA forthcoming article (pdf) in the journal Hormones and Behaviour suggests that as women approach the fertile phase of the menstrual cycle, they are more likely to dress to look most attractive.

The research was led by Prof Martie Haselton who asked 30 women in committed romantic relationships to have a hormone tests to determine where they were in their monthly menstrual cycle, and have their photograph taken on two occasions.

One photograph was taken when the women were most fertile (the follicular phase) and another when they were least fertile (luteal phase).

The photographs were then shown to a panel of people (17 men and 25 women) who were asked “In which photo is the person trying to look more attractive?”.

The panel, who did not know what the rest of the study was about, tended to pick out photographs taken during the women’s most fertile time.

Importantly, the women who volunteered to have their photographs taken, did not know the exact purpose of the study either, so had no reason to dress especially differently for each of the two photographs.

Haselman and her colleagues suggest this may be a human version of an outward display that is common in female animals that signals to potential mates when they are most fertile.

Haselman has done a huge amount of research on sexuality, attraction and evolutionary psychology, most of which is freely available from her website.

pdf of full-text research paper.
Link to coverage from The Guardian.
Link to Prof Martie Haselman’s website.

2006-10-13 Spike activity

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


ABC Radio’s All in the Mind has a fascinating discussion on the psychology and philosophy of pain.

American Scientist takes a look at the psychology of scientific reasoning and progress.

ABC Radio’s In Conversation interviews Rupert Sheldrake, ex-biologist, now turned parapsychologist.

The psychology and clinical treatment of compulsive shopping is tackled by Science News.

Can social psychology tackle terrorism, international conflict and guerilla warfare? Scott Atran’s presentation to the The National Security Council At The White House is online.

Another great article with an appalling headline. The Times examines Martha Farah’s work on the cognitive neuroscience of poverty.

Is there a correlation between BMI and cognitive decline? Retrospectacle considers a touch-paper debate.

Spacetime and Linguistic Relativity. Enough said.

LSD and experimental psychoses

experimental_psychoses_image.jpgLiving Tech has scanned a 1955 article on ‘Experimental Psychoses‘ that discusses the use of LSD to simulate psychotic states.

When LSD was first discovered, it was thought that the profound alteration of reality that it causes could be used as a ‘model’ for psychosis in psychiatric research.

However, as a recent Canadian Journal of Psychiatry article noted, this idea quickly faded, owing to the fact that the LSD experience and the psychotic experience are typically quite different.

For example, in psychosis ‘hearing voices’ and paranoia are common, whereas after taking LSD visual hallucinations and elation are more common.

Nevertheless, the 1955 article published in Scientific American (ominously only attributed to ‘Six Staff Members of Boston Psychopathic Hospital’), is fascinating glimpse into both the pre-1960s days of LSD research and the early days of trying to understand the neurobiology of psychosis.

Link to article ‘Experimental Psychoses’.
Link to ‘Flashback: Psychiatric Experimentation With LSD in Historical Perspective’ from CJP.

Time to give up on a single explanation for autism

Hans_Aspergersmall.jpgThis month’s Nature Neuroscience has published an opinion piece by three leading autism researchers arguing that we should abandon any theory that claims to explain all of the experiences and behaviours that are classified under the banner of ‘autism’.

This includes both simple psychological and neurobiological theories, and instead, the authors claim, we should focus on how a number of different processes could contribute to the range of thinking styles associated with autism and Asperger syndrome.

Similar patterns of behaviour and thought were independently described in children by Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger (pictured on the right) in the early 20th century, later to be turned into the current diagnoses.

This was largely due to the work of Lorna Wing who became interested in the condition after having an autistic daughter herself.

The ‘autism spectrum‘ is associated with difficulties in social interaction and communication, difficulties with certain types of abstract thinking and a restricted or repetitive range of interests or behaviours.

In the Nature Neuroscience article Dr Francesca Happé and her colleagues argue that the evidence now shows that there are non-overlapping genetic influences on these skills, and that they are too diverse to be explained by a single psychological theory.

The authors conclude by suggesting why these traits tend to appear together, despite being potentially explained by separate mechanisms:

In light of the above research, we suggest that it is time to give up on the search for a monolithic cause or explanation for the three core aspects of autism, at the genetic, neural and cognitive levels. Clearly a question remains of why these three features co-occur at above-chance rates. At the genetic level, although the majority of genes appear to be symptom specific, there is evidence for a minority of overlapping genes between domains. At the cognitive level, impairments in more than one domain may interact; compensatory strategies may be reduced in the face of multiple impairments.

Link to full-text of Nature Neuroscience article ‘Time to give up on a single explanation for autism’.

Science special on ‘Modelling the Mind’

Science_Modelingthemind.jpgScience has a special online collection on computational neuroscience – the science of creating computer models of the mind and brain to test theories and develop treatments.

The collection is a mixture of freely available and closed access articles, but all the summaries are freely available so you can get a taster of this exciting field just by skimming the abstracts.

If you can’t get access through a college or subscription, your local library might subscribe to Science as it is one of the most widely read science journals.

Link to Science special issue ‘Modeling the Mind’.
Link to introduction to special collection.

Average girls are hot

average_face_girl.jpgSeed Magazine has an article on recent research published in Psychological Science that suggests that average faces are more attractive because they are easier for the brain to process.

The image on the right (go to the article for a bigger version) is a composite of a number of different female faces rated as attractive.

However, an average of all sorts of faces also tends to be attractive, as demonstrated by a page at the University of Regensburg (which also has an image of an hot average man as well).

In the Psychological Science article (pdf) the research team, led by Prof Piotr Winkielman, asked people to judge the attractiveness of shapes and dot patterns. Participants were more likely to judge the most average patterns as attractive.

In a further experiment, they used the same technique for faces and found the same result.

The researchers argue that the reason we prefer average faces is because the brain creates an idea of a ‘prototype’ face, based on the average of all the faces we have seen. Attractive faces are the ones that best match this prototype because they require less processing to match and recognise.

Link to Seed Magazine article.
Link to facial beauty research lab of Uni Regensburg (great examples).
pdf of research paper.

i must be fine because my heart’s still beating

white_stripes_shout.jpgThe White Stripes consider the different roles of the cortical hemispheres in processing and understanding emotion in the lyrics of their song Fell in Love With a Girl. As far as I know, this is the first discussion of asymmetry in cortical processing in punk music. Rock on.

“can’t keep away from the girl
these two sides of my brain
need to have a meeting

can’t think of anything to do yeah
my left brain knows that all love is fleeting”

Link to video of song on You Tube.