Read this, you sex machine: the birth of PR

I’ve just found a concise piece from NPR radio on Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, who used his uncle’s ideas on the unconscious to transform advertising into its current form.

Bernays pretty much invented the idea that you can sell products, not by making their practical advantages known, but by associating them with the satisfaction of desires – to be sexy, successful, a good husband or wife, the need to feel safe, well-regarded and so on.

Every time you see razors sold as babe magnets, or perfume sold as booty dust, that’s Bernays’ ideas at work.

He also invented the idea that marketing was more than just adverts. It could also be presented as ‘education’ that had no direct connection with a product but made people more receptive to other marketing.

Almost any sponsored survey or research you see in press, especially if masquerading as science, is based on this idea.

For example, Pfizer fund a survey that says people over 40 are having the best sex. People over 40 not having great sex wonder what they could do about it.

Hey, that’s my favourite B-list celebrity! And he’s telling me that Pfizer sell a pill aimed at the over-40s that claims to improve my sex life. My problem solved, through the power of science!

Of course, it’s not just hard-on pills [note to self: that’s not a phrase I get to use often enough]. It’s now a tried and tested technique that has been used for selling everything from igloos to ideologies.

Indeed, Bernays was personally involved in selling political ideas as well as commercial products. Notably, in his book Propoganda, he argues that this form of manipulation is essential for managing the inherent chaos and destructive forces of society.

Film-maker Adam Curtis cited Bernays as one of the most influential people of the 20th century in his persuasive, if not slightly polemic, four-part series Century of the Self (available online: 1, 2, 3, 4). It contains many more examples of Bernays’ often ingenious PR campaigns.

The NPR piece is a short 10 minute introduction to Bernays’ life and work, and the site has a some additional audio clips of Bernays himself discussing his ideas.

Link to ‘Freud’s Nephew and the Origins of Public Relations’.
Parts one, two, three, four of Century of the Self.
Link to online Bernays exhibit from the Museum of Public Relations.

Pink slip, feeling blue

Ben Goldacre over at Bad Science has written a great analysis of a recent study that suggested we have the traditional ‘pink for girls, blue for boys’ because of evolutionary differences in colour preference.

However, it seems not only are the study’s findings not strong enough to make an evolutionary claim, but that the ‘pink for girls, blue for boys’ idea is relatively recent and hardly as traditional as we like to think.

The data itself is interesting if not a little unspectacular. Men and women from the UK showed different colour preference curves with men showing a preference for bluer shades over women.

In a sample of Chinese participants the preference was much less pronounced and peaked at more redder shades overall.

One of the curses of evolutionary psychology, the science that attempts to work out whether any of our psychological preferences are the result of natural or sexual selection, is that any sex difference is fodder for an evolutionary explanation.

Actually, we know there are definite differences in colour perception between men and women. There’s a great paper that summarises the scientific evidence which available online as a pdf.

There are sex-linked differences in specific genes that are linked to colour perception, which is why men are more likely to be colour blind and perhaps 1% of women may have four, rather than three, colour receptors in the retina.

But as Ben points out, simply finding a sex difference in colour preference really doesn’t tell us anything about genetics or evolution. It could easily just be an effect of culture or fashion.

Link to Bad Science on pink-blue study.
pdf of paper on genetics, sex differences and colour perception.

Dennett on chess and artificial intelligence

Technology Review has published an article by philosopher Daniel Dennett looking at what the development of computer chess tells us about the quest for artificial intelligence.

AI and chess have an interesting and intertwined conceptual history.

It used to be said that if computers could play chess, it would be a genuine example of artificial intelligence, because chess seemed to be a uniquely human game of strategy and tactics.

As soon as computers became good at chess, it was dismissed as a valid example because, ironically, computers could do it. A classic example of moving the goalposts.

Similarly, I’ve recently heard a few people say “If computers could beat us at poker, that would be a genuine example of artificial intelligence”. Recently, a poker playing computer narrowly lost to two pros.

Presumably, ‘genuine intelligence’ is just whatever computers can’t do yet.

Dennett is a big proponent of the “if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck” school of behaviour.

In other words, if something can perform a certain task (like playing chess), then objections about it not using the same mechanism as humans to do the task are irrelevant as to whether its doing the task ‘genuinely’ or not.

One of his related ideas is the intentional stance. It says that things like belief, intention and intelligence are not properties of a creature, computer or human, they’re just theories we use to understand how it works.

So if it makes sense for us to interpret a chess computer as having the belief that “taking the queen will give an advantage”, then that’s a good theory for us to work on, but it doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about how that behaviour is implemented in the system.

Link to TechReview article ‘Higher Games’ (via BoingBoing).

Ancient Egyptian post-mortem neurosurgery

Retrospectacle has a great post that describes how the Ancient Egyptians removed the brains of the dead before mummification and notes some of their neurological knowledge.

The Ancient Egyptians described a range of neurological and psychiatric disorders in their writing that would be recognisable today.

One major source is the Edwin Smith papyrus, another is the Ebers papyrus which has quite a significant section on psychiatric disorders, including what we would now class as depression, dementia and psychosis.

Needless to say, the remedies were often magical in nature, but the observation of the clinical features can be quite astute.

The article on Retrospectacle has some great brain scan images and a link to a video of how embalmers would remove the brain through the nose, using a metal tool to go up into the frontal lobes.

Link to Retrospectacle article.

2007-08-24 Spike activity

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

Why are visual memories so vivid when visual memory is so limited? Cognitive Daily has another fantastic breakdown.

Science and Consciousness Review has a new feature article on whether language is necessary for self-awareness.

The New York Times has an article on the potential of physical exercise to boost memory and cognitive processing speed. Pure Pedantry picks up on its off-kilter interpretation.

The BPS Research Digest looks at why we’re rubbish at predicting how what happens will affect us emotionally.

Read the latest and ‘in progress’ research on cognitive training and brain fitness at Sharp Brains.

Apparently, we have taste receptors in the gut!

Drug company AstraZenenca have been whitewashing the entries for their drugs on Wikipedia. Bears still shitting in woods.

PsyBlog notes that pessimists have good reason to be pessimistic. People prefer optimists and realists!

The New York Times discusses the importance of getting a therapist you click with to get the most out of psychological treatment.

Mr. Freeze, the Iced-Time Demon. A thought-provoking thought experiment from philosopher Pete Mandik

Is there anything good about men? Psychologist Roy Baumeister’s speech notes that males are much less likely to reproduce than females, and wonders what evolutionary effect this has had on gender psychology.

Jose Padilla’s conviction raises questions about whether detainees who undergo extreme isolation can be given fair trials, according to In These Times.

More on the wonderful ACHOO syndrome that won our AAICS competition.

Induced out-of-body experiences: Do try this at home

Science has just published two short papers where researchers induced a touch sensation that that seemed to be felt in a ‘fake’ body that appeared to be several metres in front – similar to an ‘out-of-body-experience’.

The two studies were developed independently but both involved the same idea. In one study, the person was filmed from behind while they had their back stroked. They also wore a special head-mounted display that showed them what the video camera saw.

In other words, they saw their back being stroked as if they were sitting behind themselves and their body was in front of them. After a while, the sensation seemed to be move from their own back to be located in the projected body in front.

Neurophilosopher has found a fantastic video of Prof Olaf Blanke explaining the experiment, which is a wonderful introduction.

The other study did something very similar but used touches to the chest.

While these two studies have demonstrated the effect in a most striking way, the effect isn’t new, as it’s often been demonstrated with the ‘rubber hand illusion‘.

In fact, you can do something similar at home, and make touch sensations seem as if they are located in inanimate objects:

This is taken from Hack #64 (‘Mold your Body Schema’ [pdf]) from the Mind Hacks book, but was originally inspired by a similar exercise in Ramanchandran and Blakesee’s book Phantoms in the Brain:

Sit at a table with a friend at your side. Put one hand on your knee, out of sight under the table. Your friend‚Äôs job is to tap, touch, and stoke your hidden hand and‚Äîwith identical movements using her other hand‚Äîto tap the top of the table directly above. Do this for a couple of minutes. It helps if you concentrate on the table where your friend is touching, and it’s important you don’t get hints of how your friend is touching your hidden hand. The more irregular the pattern and the better synchronized the movements on your hand and on the table, the greater the chance this will work for you. About 50% of people begin to feel as if the tapping sensation is arising from the table, where they can see the tapping happening before their very eyes. If you’re lucky, the simultaneous touching and visual input have led the table to be incorporated into your body image.

All of these experiments synchronise the touch with visual movement, but put these perceptions in conflict with visual information about where the synchronisation is happening.

The brain attempts to resolve this conflict by prioritising the visual system, which is relatively information rich in comparison to our other senses.

Notably, these new studies are the first to demonstrate something akin to an ‘out-of-body-experience’.

It’s not really the same as the classic experience where you see your body in front of you, perhaps as you float above it, something known as autoscopy or heautoscopy in the medical literature.

However, as we reported last year, Prof Olaf Blanke’s team have studied various types of ‘out-of-body’ and ‘projected self’ experiences, either caused by direct brain stimulation, or after neurological disorder.

The lab’s publications page has many of their papers available as full-text articles if you want more detail.

Link to video interview and explanation of experiment.
Link to New Scientist write-up.
Link to previous Mind Hacks article on Blanke’s and colleagues studies.
pdf to Hack #64 ‘Mold your Body Schema’.

Drug testing whole cities

USA Today is reporting that a toxicology team have developed a method for drug testing a city’s water supply, indicating the level at which certain drugs are being used by the population.

The study was reportedly led by environmental toxicologist Prof Jennifer Field and was presented at the 2006 American Chemical Society conference.

The technique apparently involves taking a sample of water from the city’s sewer plant, and so doesn’t identify individuals, but can estimate the proportions of different drugs in the water to give a guide to which drugs are being used in what quantities.

The science behind the testing is simple. Nearly every drug — legal and illicit — that people take leaves the body. That waste goes into toilets and then into wastewater treatment plants.

“Wastewater facilities are wonderful places to understand what humans consume and excrete,” Field said.

In the study presented Tuesday, one teaspoon of untreated sewage water from each of the cities was tested for 15 different drugs. Field said researchers can’t calculate how many people in a town are using drugs.

She said that one fairly affluent community scored low for illicit drugs except for cocaine. Cocaine and ecstasy tended to peak on weekends and drop on weekdays, she said, while methamphetamine and prescription drugs were steady throughout the week.

Field said her study suggests that a key tool currently used by drug abuse researchers — self-reported drug questionnaires — underestimates drug use.

“We have so few indicators of current use,” said Jane Maxwell of the Addiction Research Institute at the University of Texas, who wasn’t part of the study. “This could be a very interesting new indicator.”

Unfortunately, it seems the American Chemical Society charge for access to the summaries of their conference presentations, but Scientific American has a little more detail on the procedure.

The news is reminiscent of a 2004 Environmental Agency study that found Prozac in UK sewage (incorrectly reported as the ‘Prozac found in drinking water’ story).

Link to USA Today article (via AADT).
Link to SciAm write-up.