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’.