Face contributes most to overall attractiveness

New Scientist has a short report suggesting that the face contributes more to the overall impression of attractiveness than the body.

The research was led by biologist Marianne Peters who asked participants to rate the attractiveness of a number of people, presented as photographs of either the whole person, the face only or the body only.

They found that faces account for more of the variation among ratings than do bodies; in other words, faces are more important. For women rating men, 52 per cent of the attractiveness score was made up by the face rating, while for bodies it was 24 per cent. The trend was similar when men rated women, with 47 per cent of a woman’s overall attractiveness accounted for by her face, and 32 per cent by her body.

Interestingly, the face and body affected the overall attractiveness independently and there was no interaction.

For example, there was no ‘double whammy’ effect for having a face and body that were both rated either high or low on the attractiveness scale.

Link to NewSci report ‘The face, not the body, attracts a mate’.
Link to abstract of scientific paper.

Bioterrorism and the brain

ABC Radio National’s All in the Mind has a compelling discussion about the development and dangers of weapons designed to target the brain and nervous system.

The guests on the programme are Prof Malcom Dando and Dr Mark Wheelis, who have recently written a paper for the International Red Cross entitled ‘Neurobiology: A Case Study of the Imminent Militarization of Biology’ [pdf].

The programme largely focuses on what we known about the secret development of nerve agents, based on the glimpses we see of them in action – for example, during the Moscow theatre siege of 2002, where Russian special forces used an opiate-based ‘knock out gas’ that resulted in the death of 129 hostages.

Interestingly, one of the guests notes that although these sorts of compounds are banned for use in war under international treaties, these regulations can have specific exemptions that allow them to be used in civilian ‘crowd control’ operations.

So while it would be illegal to use some drugs as weapons against soldiers, governments are, in some cases, allowed to use them on their own population.

It’s fascinating and somewhat troubling coverage of a too-rarely discussed topic.

Link to AITM on ‘Bioterrorism and Your Brain’.
Link to full-text of ‘Neurobiology: A case study of the imminent militarization of biology’.

Weird world of the Psychological Atlas

Archive.org has a copy of a 1948 book entitled the Psychological Atlas that is full of weird and wonderful things from the world of 1940s psychology and beyond.

It’s got some serious psychology in there, mixed in with the paranormal, weird and curious stuff, probably reflecting the public understanding of the field at the time.

The Second World War was a critical time for psychology as many influential psychologists (like Gordon Allport and JJ Gibson) were employed to help select recruits and design better functioning equipment.

This helped significantly with psychology being taken seriously as a science, and this slightly post-war volume probably still has some of the hangovers from the pre-war years.

A fascinating read nonetheless.

Link to Psychological Atlas (via BoingBoing).

Brain scan lie detection still truth or dare

The Scientist has an article on the latest developments in the world of fMRI lie detection, looking at how accurate and reliable the technology really is.

This is a particularly hot topic because a commercial company, No Lie MRI, are marketing a brain scan lie detection service.

This is despite the fact that neuroscientists and the legal system are still unconvinced that it is accurate enough to be useful.

Interestingly, the company was partly funded by the US Government, and you can bet that they’ll be trying the system, even with the low accuracy rates, in case it proves useful for the secret services.

Probably the main advantage for most buyers is that is looks intimidating and high-tech.

Like with the polygraph test, many people put through the system will undoubtedly be more truthful because they believe that they will be caught if they lie.

In terms of its ability to catch genuine lies made by an individual, it’s still fairly limited though.

Not least because most brain imaging research is done as group studies. The results are usually based on average brain activity across all participants, rather than on any one individual.

Also, the studies don’t really resemble real-world conditions:

And in the real world, lying is verbal and carried out in defiance of instruction, and the stakes are incomparably higher. Rather than missing out on a $20 study reward, being caught in a lie could mean life in prison. Lying under these circumstances comes with an emotional component that is poorly elicited by a playing card, she argues.

“Applied fMRI studies of the kinds done so far have similar limitations to those of typical laboratory polygraph research,” according to a 2003 National Academy of Sciences report. “Real deception in real life circumstances is almost impossible to explore experimentally. You can’t randomly assign people to go do crimes. I do think that’s an inherent limit,” says Gabrieli, a professor of cognitive neuroscience. Others worry about the level of nuance that fMRI-posed questions can accommodate.

Still, researchers are hoping further studies will help improve the system, until, maybe, it will be the most accurate lie detection system in existence.

Until then, it’s an interesting field, but I wouldn’t bet your life on it.

Link to Scientist article ‘Watching the Brain Lie’.

2007-05-11 Spike activity

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

One I missed a while ago: Developing Intelligence looks at a paper that actually attempts to define consciousness (rather than relying on the usual “we all know what we’re talking about, don’t we?” definition).

The Toronto Globe and Mail reports on research suggesting that doing good deeds improves our health.

Marriages are slightly more likely to end in divorce when the couple have daughters, according to research covered by Slate.

The Globe and Mail investigates the effect of the higher rates of Alzheimer’s disease in people with Down Syndrome.

Amateur boxers have higher levels of neurofilament light in their cerebrospinal fluid after fights, suggesting they suffer some level of brain damage despite the protective head gear.

Study shows greater amygdala activity in response to fearful faces in people who were closer to the 9/11 disaster.

Another study on the psychological benefits of meditation: it may fine-tune control over attention.

The LA Times reports that some US states still happy to execute people with intellectual disabilities.

InQuisitive Mind, a new online social psychology magazine has been launched.

The art of non-verbal attraction

PsyBlog has just published a couple of short articles on non-verbal communication, one examining a common myth, and the other looking at how it indicates attraction between people who’ve just met.

The first article is on the research that debunks the myth that ‘93% of communication is nonverbal’.

Just the precision of those sorts of statements make me suspicious. To quote the wise words of comedian Vic Reeves “88.2% of statistics are made up on the spot”.

The second article examines a study that looked at the dynamic patterns of non-verbal communication when men and women met for the first time, and looked at how these patterns were related to attraction.

Contrary to many previous findings, attraction was predicted by patterns of synchronisation and not simple mirroring of body language. What emerged were rhythmic structures of movement synchrony – patterns of bodily movement people adopted. In common with previous research, Grammer et al. (1998) found it was women who tended to start and control these patterns. Indeed, the more interested a woman was in a man, the more complicated these patterns became.

There’s more on this impressive study in the PsyBlog article.

Link to article on myth of non-verbal communication.
Link to article ‘The Nonverbal Symphony of Attraction’.

Treating children, pushing drugs

The New York Times has another investigative article on the pharmaceutical industry, this time looking at how promotions aimed at psychiatrists encourage the prescription of antipsychotic drugs to children.

As far as I know, none of the newer ‘atypical’ antipsychotics are licensed for children (actually, I’d be interested to hear otherwise).

This doesn’t mean doctors can’t prescribe them, as they have the freedom to prescribe ‘off-label’ whatever they feel would help the individual, but it does mean that the drug companies can’t advertise them for this purpose.

‘Off-label’ drug promotion is illegal, but it is an open secret that it occurs widely.

Notably, the number of children prescribed atypical antipsychotics has soared in recent years, and in the only US state that keeps records of drug company promotional spending, promotional money seems to be a key factor:

From 2000 to 2005, drug maker payments to Minnesota psychiatrists rose more than sixfold, to $1.6 million. During those same years, prescriptions of antipsychotics for children in Minnesota’s Medicaid program rose more than ninefold.

Those who took the most money from makers of atypicals tended to prescribe the drugs to children the most often, the data suggest. On average, Minnesota psychiatrists who received at least $5,000 from atypical makers from 2000 to 2005 appear to have written three times as many atypical prescriptions for children as psychiatrists who received less or no money.

It seems that these drugs are increasingly being prescribed for a whole range of different disorders in children, despite limited evidence for their effectiveness in some conditions and a shocking lack of studies on the long-term effects.

The fact is, psychiatric drugs have an important and useful part to play in treating mental illness, sometimes even in children.

Unfortunately, this sort of underhand marketing and out-of-control prescribing puts some parents off when their children would genuinely benefit, and unnecessarily gives powerful and potentially dangerous drugs to some children when they could be helped in other ways.

The answer? Stick to the science when prescribing – just say no to drug promotion.

Link to article ‘Psychiatrists, Children and Drug Industry‚Äôs Role’

It’s not a quirk, it’s a feature

Prof Richard Wiseman tackles some of the quirkier findings in the psychological literature in a New Scientist article which has been made freely available online.

The article accompanies the launch of Wiseman’s new book, Quirkology, which apparently looks at these sorts of curious research studies in more detail.

He’s also created a very impressive inattentional blindness demonstration video on YouTube. Simple but very cool.

Presumably the gorilla in the background is a nod to Daniel Simons and Chris Chabris’ classic study of the effect, published, rather brilliantly, under the name ‘Gorillas in Our Midst’ [pdf].

It’s the only psychology experiment I’ve ever come across that used a man in a gorilla suit. Unsurprisingly, it won an IgNobel prize, but is actually a valuable contribution to our understanding of the mind.

Link to NewSci article ‘A quirky look at our quirky species’.
Link to cool inattentional blindness demo.

Five minutes with Petra Boynton

Dr Petra Boynton is a social psychologist, researcher, author, broadcaster, blogger, and award winning sex educator.

She’s an advocate for evidence-based sex education, amid the largely sensationalist media coverage of the subject, and a tireless campaigner for sexual equality, having worked to improve media sex coverage both in the UK and internationally.

As well as conducting extensive research into sexual attitudes and behaviours, she also promotes the public understanding of social and health science research through her teaching, writing and broadcasting.

Petra has kindly agreed to talk to Mind Hacks about her work, motivations and current interests in the world of sex research.

Continue reading “Five minutes with Petra Boynton”

Encephalon 22 hits the virtual shelves

Issue 22 of the Encephalon psychology and neuroscience writing carnival has just arrived, this time hosted by anthropologist John Hawks.

A couple of my favourites include a compelling article from Madam Fathom on the evolution of the nervous system and another by Pure Pedantry on the complex considerations needed to answer the question ‘Do autistic people have a deficit in reading faces?’.

There are many more great articles in the rest of issue 22.

Link to Encephalon 22.

A brief history of neuroscience

There’s been a wonderful series of posts at neuroscience blog Neuroevolution which have charted the history of cognitive neuroscience from ancient Greece to the age of the brain scanner.

There’s been 26 posts in all, each of them a beautifully illustrated snapshot of a groundbreaking discovery.

The series tells the story of how we’ve come to understand more and more about the workings of the mind and brain, with each discovery building on the lessons of history.

Highly recommended.

Link to “History‚Äôs Top Insights Into Brain Computation”.

Understanding wisdom

You would think they’d be lots of good psychological theories of wisdom, as it’s something we talk about all the time in everyday life, but there just isn’t.

Psychologists have traditionally avoided the subject, although, thankfully, this is now starting to change and the New York Times has an in-depth article looking at some of the recent findings.

The article also looks at why the subject has been ignored, partly, of course, because it’s quite hard to define.

Nevertheless, one person who has pioneered the study of wisdom is neuropsychologist Dr Vivian Clayton who began studying this most valued of human traits in the 1970s.

Between 1976, when she finished her dissertation, and 1982, Clayton published several groundbreaking papers that are now generally acknowledged as the first to suggest that researchers could study wisdom empirically. She identified three general aspects of human activity that were central to wisdom — the acquisition of knowledge (cognitive) and the analysis of that information (reflective) filtered through the emotions (affective). Then she assembled a battery of existing psychological tests to measure it.

Clayton laid several important markers on the field at its inception. She realized that “neither were the old always wise, nor the young lacking in wisdom.” She also argued that while intelligence represented a nonsocial and impersonal domain of knowledge that might diminish in value over the course of a lifetime, wisdom represented a social, interpersonal form of knowledge about human nature that resisted erosion and might increase with age. Clayton’s early work was “a big deal,” Sternberg says. “It was a breakthrough to say wisdom is something you could study.” Jacqui Smith, who has conducted wisdom research since the 1980s, says it “was seminal work that really triggered subsequent studies.”

The article discusses some of Clayton’s early groundbreaking work in the field and goes on to look at what modern psychology and neuroscience is telling us about how we understand wisdom and act wisely, particularly in terms of emotion and maturity through the later years.

Link to NYT article ‘The Older-and-Wiser Hypothesis’.

Submarine psychology

I just found this interesting snippet in a BBC News story about the development and imminent launch of the new Astute class Navy submarine:

It may be one of the most sophisticated submarines ever built, but the project has been beset with problems. The three submarines are £900m ($1.8bn) over budget and four years behind the original schedule.

But a new boss at Barrow, Murray Easton, introduced big changes when he arrived a few years back.

A team of psychologists was brought into the yard to improve management effectiveness, and to create better ways of communication. Even now a psychologist is present at every board meeting.

I could write everything I know about organisational psychology (psychology applied to business, team work and organisations) on the back of napkin but I’m curious as to what role a psychologist would play at board meetings.

However, while trying to find out (and failing) I found two short articles (one and two) on ‘submarine psychologists’ who work for the Navy researching life on board underwater vessels.

Link to BBC News story ‘Alien submarine breaks technical barriers’.
Link 1 and link 2 to articles on ‘submarine psychologists’.

Criminal violence and the brain

Open-access science journal PLoS Biology has another fantastic article that investigates what neuroscience tells about about the causes of antisocial behaviour and how damage to the brain can, in rare cases, lead someone to become violent.

The article looks at research on the neuropsychology of violent criminals, as well as ‘forensic neurology’ – the science of understanding how brain injury can remove the normal inhibitions for aggression.

Some striking case studies are covered as well as possible ways of understanding and managing criminality.

Criminality and violence is a difficult area, as personal motivations and influences are complex. The paper notes that:

To be clear, there is at present no reason to believe that all criminal behaviours, or indeed even all violent criminal behaviours, are the result of organically dysfunctional brains. However, there is ample evidence to suggest that some kinds of dysfunction are likely to increase the probability of some kinds of behaviours that society labels as criminal.

The discussion also covers how the legal system might make sense of these new brain discoveries, in light of neuroscience evidence being increasingly used in court cases as a way of determining if someone is telling the truth, and as a way of arguing for reduced responsibility for a criminal act.

Link to PLoS Biology article ‘Law, Responsibility, and the Brain’.

Leyla, darling won’t you ease my worried mind

While looking for neuroscience videos we’ve found some pretty weird stuff on YouTube before, but despite their quirkiness, at least they made sense. This one’s just completely baffling.

It seems to be a sort of love letter, presented as a brain diagram, with a disco backing track. Apparently it’s dedicated to someone called Leyla, and it’s from a teddy bear.

I’m assuming it makes sense to someone out there.

Link to YouTube video ‘Neuroscience with Patchy’.

Don’t stand so close to me

NPR has a short video report on how social conventions, like keeping personal space, transfer into virtual worlds like Second Life.

The report focuses on the work of psychologist Nick Yee who we interviewed last November about his research into the social psychology of virtual worlds.

Yee and the NPR reporter go and field test some of his findings in Second Life, demonstrating that we use the same rules of social psychology taken from physical space to moderate online interactions.

As an aside, Yee’s has recently written a fascinating article on the psychology of how players develop superstitions in virtual worlds.

Link to NPR report with video and podcast.