Love unlimited

New Scientist has a fascinating news report on the psychology of polyamory – the practice of having multiple partners with the full consent of everyone involved.

Most Western societies have a focus on exclusively committed couples as the main family unit.

In contrast, people who are polyamorous feel themselves capable of more than one loving relationship and are often a part of a network of intimate lovers.

Crucially, lovers may not simply be sexual partners, and someone may be involved in several long-term committed relationships.

The dynamics of these relationships are bound to be different from traditional couples-based relationships, and psychologists are now starting to research how this affects the individuals and the social group.

Opinion is still divided on how successful these relationships might be in different spheres of life, although the field is really lacking in any systematic long-term studies.

So is poly more sustainable than monogamy? “Infidelity in monogamous relationships is estimated at 60 to 70 per cent, so it seems that attraction to more than one person is normal. The question is how we deal with that,” says Meg Barker, a professor of psychology at London South Bank University who presented her research into poly at the 2005 meeting of The British Psychological Society. “The evidence is overwhelming that monogamy isn’t natural,” says evolutionary biologist David Barash of the University of Washington, Seattle. “Lots of people believe that once they find ‘the one’, they’ll never want anyone else. Then they’re blindsided by their own inclinations to desire other attractive individuals. So it’s useful to know that this behaviour is natural.”

But as a mating strategy, poly may not be any better than monogamy; a person’s reproductive success may diminish if there is less pressure to be exclusive. “Jealousy is probably fitness enhancing,” Barash says. A more jealous male is likely to stick closer to his mate and prevent her from getting impregnated by other males. “A good look at human biology does not support polyamory any more than it supports monogamy,” he says. Biologist Joan Roughgarden, at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, goes further. “Polyamory won’t last. The likelihood of being able to successfully raise children in that context is very limited. My guess is that it’s not an evolutionary advance, but a liability.”

Link to NewSci article ‘Love Unlimited: The polyamorists’.

The iris is the window to the soul

A fascinating paper just released online suggests that patterns in the iris of the eye can give an indication of personality.

The research has been led by psychologist Mats Larsson and looks at relationship between measures of personality and the ‘crypts, pigment dots, and contraction furrows’ of the iris.

BBC News covers the research, as does a post on the Living the Scientific Life blog. There’s also some excellent background material to the research on a page from Larsson himself.

The paper itself is only available to subscribers to Biological Psychology. It seems the free summary isn’t available online yet, but this is an interesting excerpt from the introduction of the paper on previous studies:

The idea that personality differences are related to iris characteristics is not new. In 1965, Cattell observed differences in cognitive styles between blue and brown eyed subjects (Cattell, 1965) and since then eye color has been found to be related to a great variety of physiological and behavioral characteristics. Dark eyed people have on average higher scores on extraversion, neuroticism (Gentry et al., 1985), ease of emotional arousal (Markle, 1976) and sociability (Gary and Glover, 1976). However, there are a number of studies that fail to replicate the personality findings, typically because the effect tends to fade after early childhood. For instance, Rubin and Both (1989) found that blue-eyed children in kindergarten and Grade 2 were overrepresented in groups of extremely withdrawn youngsters, whereas no association could be found in Grade 4 or between eye color and extreme sociability in any grade.

According to Larsson’s more recent research, a gene called Pax6 is involved in both the development of the eye, and the development of an area of the frontal lobe called the anterior cingulate cortex or ACC.

The ACC is known to be involved in attention and inhibiting automatic responses, and there’s plenty of evidence to link it to personality-relevant traits like empathy and self-control.

Larsson found that ‘crypts’ were significantly associated with five personality characteristics (Feelings, Tendermindedness, Warmth, Trust and Positive Emotions) whereas ‘contraction furrows’ were associated with Impulsiveness.

I can’t say I’m entirely clear what ‘crypts’ and ‘contraction furrows’ look like, but there’s a description on Wikipedia and you can click here to see the diagram from Larsson’s paper in a popup window.

If it comes as a surprise that the same gene could influence both the eye and brain development, it’s actually not that strange an idea based on what we already know.

The retina, like the brain, is part of the central nervous system, so genes that code for the eye could also be associated with brain development.

Furthermore, the face develops from some of the same cells as the brain during the early stages of embryo growth.

This is why disorders that cause learning disabilities are sometimes associated with distinctive facial features (e.g. Down syndrome, Williams syndrome).

One other recent development worthy of note is that governments and businesses are now set on storing iris information to use as ID.

For example, the UK government wants to encode iris information on passports and keep copies on database to use in iris recognition systems in a system that is being trialled at the moment.

This might mean that personality profiles could be generated from biometric data.

How accurate they might be remains another question, but as with any centralised population sample, the concern is that those with unusual results may be scrutinised more closely using other methods, or deemed to be ‘risky’.

Link to BBC News story “How irises ‘reveal personalities'”.
Link to Living the Scientific Life post.
Link to Larsson’s page on his research.

Virtual reality to treat combat trauma

BBC News is reporting on a AAAS presentation on how virtual reality is being used to treat soldiers who have suffered post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after combat.

Symptoms of PTSD include intrusive memories, pathological avoidance of things related or loosely-related to the trauma, and persistent arousal.

Cognitive behaviour therapy or CBT is one of the most effective treatments for PTSD.

Among its key methods is to slowly reintroduce the person to things associated with the trauma, while dealing with the negative thoughts that are triggered by the situation.

This is relatively straightforward if the person was traumatised by a car crash, as cars, roads and traffic are readily available.

If the person was traumatised by war, however, it is not always feasible to expose the person to ‘low level’ combat conditions as it may be too dangerous, or the person may have been taken out of the combat zone already.

Virtual reality is a possible way of doing this without putting the soldier at risk, while being realistic enough to treat the condition.

This research is part of a project led by Dr Albert Rizzo, which was the subject of a 2005 NPR radio programme which explored the treatment and its benefits.

While the project has been running for a while, the AAAS presentation contained the latest results, which reportedly suggest a promising outcome for soldiers treated with this method.

Link to BBC News story ‘Virtual treatment for US troops’.
Link to NPR programme ‘Virtual Reality Therapy for Combat Stress’ (with audio and video).

Greetings cards for mental illness

Greetings card manufacturer Hallmark have released a new line of cards especially for the person in your life experiencing mental illness, such as depression or an eating disorder, or other traumatic and difficult times.

ABC News has a report on the cards which are designed with colours to reflect the mood of the situation and pithy messages to match:

For eating disorders: “All I want is for you to be healthy and happy with yourself. Please take it one day at a time until you are.”

For depression: “When the world gets heavy, remember, I’m here to help carry it with you.”

There’s no word on cards for psychosis or paranoia (maybe “Like you, I never trusted those neighbours and their infernal thought stealing machines”) or people detained under the mental health act (“Kafkaesque doesn’t begin to describe the situation. Have a successful tribunal”).

Perhaps I’ve found a gap in the market?

Link to Journeys cards on Hallmark website.
Link to ABC News story (via Trouble with Spikol).

Top ten psychology studies

Jeremy Dean of PsyBlog is currently doing a run down of his top ten psychology studies and will conclude the series by asking for a vote for the reader’s favourite.

He’s writing up each one as a separate article, so you get a flavour of what the study involved and how it changed our knowledge of psychology.

So far, five out of the ten have been covered and include influential studies such as the one that laid the foundations for cognitive behavioural therapy and another where euphoria was induced by experimental trickery.

The full list will be released and written-up over the coming weeks, and a vote will decide the winner!

Link to PsyBlog’s “Top Ten Psychology Studies”.

SciAm Mind Matters

Scientific American have launched a new weekly blog seminar on the mind and brain where they target a particular study and get leading psychologists and neuroscientists give their take on it.

The editors give a quick run down of the study itself, while the invited commentators pull out the crucial issues or points of controversy.

So far they’ve looked at PTSD, navigation, environmental enrichment and the science of decision making, and there’s a new focus every week.

Link to SciAm Mind Matters.

Five minutes with Howard Dully

howard_dully.jpgDave Isay, Piya Kochhar and Howard Dully produced one of the most powerful radio documentaries of 2005 where Howard told the story of his own lobotomy and the quest to make sense of the experience.

A lobotomy is a type of brain surgery to disconnect parts of the frontal lobes from the rest of the brain.

It was originally devised by Egas Moniz as a treatment for psychiatric illness because it seemed to have a ‘calming’ effect.

Howard was given the operation when only 12 years old by Walter Freeman – the world’s most enthusiastic evangelist for this procedure.

The procedure is now almost entirely disused, owing to the poor outcomes and dangers of the procedure, but it has left a legacy of people with permanently altered lives.

Howard wanted to understand how this dangerous procedure came to be so widely used and how it came to be performed on him as a child. He has also been kind enough to talk to Mind Hacks about his experiences.

Continue reading “Five minutes with Howard Dully”

The human is the only animal that…

Psychologist Daniel Gilbert on the unwritten vow taken by psychologists. From p3 of Stumbling on Happiness (ISBN 9780007183135).

Few people realise that psychologists also take a vow, promising that at some point in their professional lives they will publish a book, a chapter or at least an article that contains the sentence: ‘The human being is the only animal that…’ We are allowed to finish the sentence any way we like, but it has to start with those eight words.

Most of us wait to relatively late in our careers to fulfil this solemn obligation because we know that successive generations of psychologists will ignore all the other words that we managed to pack into a lifetime of well-intentioned scholarship and remember us mainly for how we finished The Sentence.

We also know that the worse we do, the better we will be remembered. For instance, those psychologists who finished The Sentence with ‘can use language’ were particularly well remembered when chimpanzees were taught to communicate with hand signs.

And when researchers discovered that chimps in the wild used sticks to extract tasty termites from their mounds (and to bash each other over the head now and again), the world suddenly remembered the full name and mailing address of every psychologist who ever finished The Sentence with the words ‘uses tools’.

So it is with good reason that most psychologists put off completing The Sentence for as long as they can, hoping that if they wait long enough, they might just die in time to avoid being publicly humiliated by a monkey.

Why psychologists study twins

The BPS Research Digest has a concise article on a key way of determining how much genetics influences the expression of a psychological trait – the twin study.

The article is part of a new series where professional researchers are asked to write short articles on key topics.

This one is by Dr Angelica Ronald from London’s Institute of Psychiatry who researches the autism spectrum.

Twin designs address the nature-nurture question. Behaviour geneticists compare how alike one twin is with the other twin on whatever variable they are interested in; in my case this is autistic behaviours. If genes influence variation in autistic behaviours, identical twin pairs who share all their genes will be highly similar in their degree of autistic behaviours whereas fraternal twins will be much less similar. This is what we have found.

Twin studies have been essential in understanding the effects of genetics but are controversial with some researchers as there are various ways of determining the outcome which may not always be in agreement.

Link to BPSRD article ‘Why psychologists study twins’.

This is your brain on Britney

Wendy, Stephanie and Marie, three high school psychology students, have voiced over Britney’s Baby One More Time video with lyrics about the occipital lobe.

It is, dare I say, a work of genius (and very funny to boot).

And if you’re interested in reading a study on the cognitive neuroscience of Britney’s brain, one was recently published by the Mackledoodle Institute of Radioscopy.

The findings are, er… unique.

Link to Britney Occipital Lobe video on YouTube.
Link to article ‘A Default mode of the brain function of Britney Spears’.

The light and dark of attraction in SciAmMind

A new edition of Scientific American Mind has been published and, as is customary, two of their feature articles are online, each on a different end of the human attraction spectrum.

The first looks at online dating and how the psychology of relationships is altered by perusing your potential partners on a website.

One of the most significant differences stems from how the internet allows people to have quite a fine-grained control over how they present themselves online – even to the point where being ‘economical with the truth’ is a fairly standard tactic.

For men, the major areas of deception are educational level, income, height, age and marital status; at least 13 percent of online male suitors are thought to be married. For women, the major areas of deception are weight, physical appearance and age. All of the relevant research shows the importance of physical appearance for both sexes, and online daters interpret the absence of photos negatively. According to one recent survey, men’s profiles without photos draw one fourth the response of those with photos, and women’s profiles without photos draw only one sixth the response of those with photos.

The second article examines the psychology and treatment of paedophilia – sexual attraction to children.

Often paedophiles are described as ‘evil’ by the media, as if this was an explanation rather than a label that describes the gravity of their acts.

Knowing how best to protect children, through both the legal and medical system, need a deeper understanding. The SciAmMind article looks both at current theories and how they’re applied in practice.

Link to article on online dating.
Link to article on paedophilia.

The science of happiness

The Harvard Magazine has an in-depth article on the psychology of happiness and personal growth.

Whereas this was previously the domain of pop psychology and self-help books, the development of ‘positive psychology’ in the last decade has attracted serious researchers determined to understand how the mind and brain support positive attributes and emotions.

We covered this topic before when The New York Times published a very well researched article on the field.

Positive psychology was initially treated with scepticism but now seems to be largely in the mainstream of psychology research and is gathering significant public attention.

Link to ‘The Science of Happiness’ from Harvard Magazine.
Link to NYT article ‘Happiness 101’.

2007-02-16 Spike activity

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

Could it be magic? Extreme apparent mental causation. Mixing Memory investigates the psychology of magical thinking.

The presence of genes for the immune system can go a little way to predicting how likely couples are to remain faithful.

Corpus Callosum on a study showing that psychotherapy can reduce the adverse effects of psychiatric drugs.

PsyBlog examines the psychology of self-disclosure in the formation of relationships.

A computer system based on the cognitive science of perception can make sense of street scenes. Full paper is online as a pdf.

A fifteen-minute exercise may help overcome a lifetime of racial stereotyping. Cognitive Daily reports on a surprising study.

Researchers have been able to use a brain scan to read people’s intentions, albeit in very restricted circumstances.

Trailer for documentary about suicides from the Golden Gate Bridge is online.

Developing Intelligence has a fantastic introduction to the neuroscience of dopamine.

Chronic Brian damage

Another in the occasional series of PubMed typos. This time from the Scandanavian Journal of Social Medicine.

The last line accidentally describes the effect of exposure to solvents on one unfortunate individual:

A cohort study of disability pension and death among painters with special regard to disabling presenile dementia as an occupational disease.

Scand J Soc Med Suppl. 1980;16:34-43.

Mikkelsen S.

In the last decade several investigations have demonstrated an association between impaired cerebral function in employed workers and occupational exposure to organic solvents. Many case-histories and two case-referent studies indicate, that such an impairment might develop into disabling irreversible neuropsychiatric disease. The main purpose of this study was to further investigate the risk of chronic brain damage in solvent exposed workers. A cohort of 2601 male painters and 1790 male bricklayers from the Copenhagen area was identified retrospectively and followed Jan. 1,71-Dec. 31,75. For this period the incidence of disability pensioning and mortality was examined for the two occupational groups and for a “‘normal” population of Copenhagen men. Using bricklayers and Copenhagen men as referents, the painters had a relative risk of approximately 3.5 of being awarded a disability pension due to a state of being awarded a disability pension due to a state of cryptogenic presenile dementia. When indications of alcohol abuse, cerebral concussions or other etiologic factors were present, the relative risk was approximately 2. No excess risk was found for neuropsychiatric diseases other than presenile dementia. Other differences between the groups were found, but they were inconsistent and difficult to interpret. In the light of the findings of this and other studies, it seems likely, that chronic brian damage may result from industrial exposure to organic solvents.

Link to PubMed entry.

Faces, faces everywhere

The New York Times has a brief article on why we have a tendency to see faces in chaotic or almost random visual scenes.

The tendency to see meaning in essentially random data is variously known as apophenia or pareidolia, and statistically would be known as a Type I error – a false positive.

Although it is controversial as to whether it is specifically dedicated to recognising faces, an area of the brain known as the fusiform gyrus is certainly heavily involved in perceiving faces.

The fact that this area is so specialised for faces might lead us to detect faces even when they are only suggested by a few dots, the position of clouds or the markings on just about anything.

“The information faces convey is so rich ‚Äî not just regarding another person’s identity, but also their mental state, health and other factors,” he said. “It’s extremely beneficial for the brain to become good at the task of face recognition and not to be very strict in its inclusion criteria. The cost of missing a face is higher than the cost of declaring a nonface to be a face.”

There’s a great web page with pictures of ‘cloud faces‘ if you want to see how spectacular some of these effects can be.

Link to NYT article ‘Faces, faces everywhere’.

Cardiac arrest

Quick links from this year’s Valentine’s psychology stories:

Early social experiences can influence adult behavior in romantic relationships. More on the same from the San Francisco Chronicle.

Love activates the same brain areas as cocaine, reports the The New York Sun. It also activates the same brain areas as chess, but apparently that isn’t worthy of a mention.

Smells like man. A component of male sweat can boost arousal in heterosexual women.

Thinking Meat (excuse the innuendo) has a round up a several studies on love published in the APA’s monthly journal. My favourite is an article that looks at the psychology of how romantic love and sexual desire are related.

Sex and relationship psychologist Dr Petra Boyton suggests ways to celebrate.

Psychologist explains the neurochemistry behind romance. Really, this is all there is to this news story. No event, purely a press release.

The award for the most tenuously linked news story: neuroscience of tasting sweetness “fueled [sic] by some powerful biology”.

Relationship studies are popular with university researchers. Is this news?