The psychological hazards of war journalism

Harvard journalism magazine Nieman Reports has a brief 2004 article (pdf) by psychiatrist Anthony Feinstein on how war journalists respond to what they witness and why they return to cover traumatic situations.

The article briefly summarises some of Feinstein’s research on war journalists, and also notes the results on an interesting study that looked at differences between final year journalism students who wanted to become war journalists, and those who did not.

Given the dangers confronted, the high mortality, and increased risk of developing PTSD and depression, what motivates journalists to return repeatedly to war zones?

The journalists in my study spent, on average, 15 years covering war. Those I interviewed spoke of factors such as the importance of bearing witness, keeping the public informed of important events, having a ringside seat as history unfolded, and personal ambition. Yet there seems to be another pivotal factor that may override all of these. There is evidence that individuals who are attracted to risky and dangerous professions are to a high degree biologically primed for this type of activity…

Preliminary data from a recently completed study in my laboratory demonstrate that final year Canadian journalism students who propose following a career in foreign lands not only have a fundamentally different personality profile from their peers who wish to remain at home, but also possess different cognitive attributes. This last point refers to a certain pattern of thinking and approach to problem solving that correlates with well-defined neural networks.

Feinstein has written a book on the subject called Dangerous Lives that apparently explains his work in more detail.

pdf of ‘The Psychological Hazards of War Journalism’.

Philosophy and cognitive science archive launches

Two important new cognitive science resources have just been launched: Online Papers on Consciousness is a huge database of full-text papers and articles on consciousness and the philosophy of mind, and MindPapers is a much larger index that contains entries for both open and closed access work.

The impressive project has been a joint venture between two tech-savvy philosophers: David Bourget, who is both a computer scientist and a philosopher of mind, and David Chalmers, who has been a beacon of philosophy information on the net for many years, alongside his notable achievements in consciousness studies.

The site also uses an interesting mechanism to classify papers:

…entries are categorized along two dimensions. First, all newly harvested entries are evaluated for their relevance to MindPapers. Second, those entries which have a sufficiently high likelihood of being relevant are assigned categories from the directory. Both of these steps make use of a specially developed Bayesian categorization program. In a nutshell, this program assigns probabilities to entry-category pairs based on heuristics and statistics drawn from training sets. The training set for the first categorization step was derived from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy… The training set for the second categorization stage is MindPapers itself.

It’s a lovely computational approach to making sense of huge amounts of work in this area. Perhaps this is the birth of a new field – computational philosophy?

Either way, both sites are going to be hugely valuable resources for philosophy and cognitive science alike.


Link to Online Papers on Consciousness (thanks Katerina!).
Link to MindPapers.
Link to more from Neurophilosophy.

The beauty of false depth

The image is one of many beautiful street art images from artist and architect Kurt Wenner who uses false perspective to give the images an impression of a 3D structure when viewed from a certain angle.

Wenner uses the same optical manipulation as Julian Beever, whose work we covered previously on Mind Hacks.

It takes advantage of the fact that we use visual features such as relative sizes to infer the depths of objects in the visual field.

When this is manipulated, we can be fooled into thinking that a depth is present in spatial dimensions where it can’t possibly exist – like in this case, where it seems as if the paintings represent ‘holes’ in the floor.

However, because in reality, these are flat images, the effect is lost when viewed from an alternative angle.

There are many more stunning images on Wenner’s website.

Link to Kurt Wenner’s street art portfolio (thanks Ceny!).
Link to previous post on Julian Beever’s optical street art.

Strobing numbers show saccadic vision

This week’s New Scientist has a brief letter which describes an elegant demonstration of visual processing during eye movements.

When you move your eyes (known as a saccade), visual input is suppressed, so less information is processed by the brain during the move.

This can be easily demonstrated, as described in one of the hacks in the Mind Hacks book (pdf).

An earlier article in New Scientist suggested that visual perception shuts down completely during the move, and someone wrote in with an elegant demonstration to show that this isn’t the case.

It is not strictly true that your visual perception mechanism shuts down completely during a rapid eye movement (22 September, p 34). This can easily be confirmed by flicking your eyes across a digital clock running off an alternating-current power supply, whose figures are luminous and flash at 100 or 120 hertz. You may see a line of images of the numbers, spaced out in proportion to the speed of your eye movement.

The same applies to a TV image: flicking your eyes to the right or left produces a succession of lozenge-shaped images, whereas flicking up or down results in a series of images respectively drawn out or squashed. If you flick your eyes down fast enough you can reduce the picture to a single bar, and if you flick your head down at the same time you can even manage to invert the picture, though you have to be very quick. Do not attempt this, however, if anyone is watching you.

Link to NewSci letter ‘Saccade effects’.
pdf of hack to demonstrate visual suppression during saccade.

Hypermemory and amnesia in National Geographic

Neurophilosophy has alerted me to the fact that National Geographic magazine has a fantastic cover feature on memory, forgetting, amnesia and hyper-recall in this month’s issue. It’s both freely available online and is accompanied by an interactive 3D brain map of the key memory structures.

The article discusses some of the extremes of memory that have been reported in the neuropsychology literature and describes an encounter both with EP, a patient with profound amnesia after suffering an HSE infection, and AJ, a woman who seemingly has an almost ‘perfect’ memory for her past.

As well as tackling some of the neuroscience of memory, the piece does an excellent job of communicating the characters and frustrations of the people with these remarkable memories

It also contains some wonderful asides about the place memory has in our society, and how that has changed significantly since the advent of technologies such as disposable writing tools that have allowed us to artificially ‘extend’ our memories.

Before that time, the act of remembering was, in itself, a hugely significant skill and quite literally in some cases, the stuff of legend.

It’s hard for us to imagine what it must have been like to live in a culture before the advent of printed books or before you could carry around a ballpoint pen and paper to jot notes. “In a world of few books, and those mostly in communal libraries, one’s education had to be remembered, for one could never depend on having continuing access to specific material,” writes Mary Carruthers, author of The Book of Memory, a study of the role of memory techniques in medieval culture. “Ancient and medieval people reserved their awe for memory. Their greatest geniuses they describe as people of superior memories.”

Thirteenth-century theologian Thomas Aquinas, for example, was celebrated for composing his Summa Theologica entirely in his head and dictating it from memory with no more than a few notes. The Roman philosopher Seneca the Elder could repeat 2,000 names in the order they’d been given to him. A Roman named Simplicius could recite Virgil by heart‚Äîbackward. A strong memory was seen as the greatest of virtues since it represented the internalization of a universe of external knowledge. Indeed, a common theme in the lives of the saints was that they had extraordinary memories.

After Simonides’ discovery, the art of memory was codified with an extensive set of rules and instructions by the likes of Cicero and Quintilian and in countless medieval memory treatises. Students were taught not only what to remember but also techniques for how to remember it. In fact, there are long traditions of memory training in many cultures. The Jewish Talmud, embedded with mnemonics‚Äîtechniques for preserving memories‚Äîwas passed down orally for centuries. Koranic memorization is still considered a supreme achievement among devout Muslims. Traditional West African griots and South Slavic bards recount colossal epics entirely from memory.

Link to National Geographic article ‘Remember This’.
Link to interactive 3D brain map of the key memory structures.

I ask you a question, I wanna know why

Dr Lolita Shant√© Gooden is New York-based psychologist with a block rockin’ background. Under the stage name Roxanne Shant√© she revolutionised hip-hop at the age of 14 when she recorded a direct reply to a popular hip-hop track which became a hit in its own right.

This was one of the first rounds in an avalanche of subsequent musical responses, dis records, and on-air replies – a phenomenon now known as the Roxanne Wars.

She was famously dissed in Boogie Down Production’s track The Bridge is Over but she always gave as good as she got and, over the next decade, defined herself as one of the strongest female MCs in rap music.

Nevertheless, at the age of 25 she decided to go to college and study psychology. She describes in a video how she was funded by a clause in an early record contract that promised to pay for her education.

The record company obviously didn’t think that the young MC, who was already a teenage mother, would amount to much at school.

However, she used the contract to her advantage, applied herself with enthusiasm to her studies, and eventually earned a PhD in psychology.

She now practices in Queens, New York.

Link to Wikipedia page on Roxanne Shanté.
Link to video of Roxanne Shanté explaining how she got her PhD (via MeFi).
Link to MySpace page with audio of key tracks.

Psychic studies may be influenced by suggestion

The BPS Research Digest has discussed a recent study that analysed recordings of parapsychology experiments and has found that some of the positive findings may be due to experimenters unconsciously prompting the participants as they gave their answers.

The experiments used the Ganzfeld technique where one participant has diffuse white light and auditory noise played to them, effectively blocking the key senses, while another tries to ‘send’ images to them through mental projection.

Afterwards, the ‘receiver’ tells the experimenter what images came to mind and the research team see if it matches what the ‘sender’ was trying to transmit.

Taken as a whole, these sorts of experiments show a weak but positive evidence for extra-sensory perception (ESP), but it’s not clear whether this isn’t just due to a tendency for some negative trials not being reported.

In this new study, psychologist Robin Woofit analysed the tapes of Ganzfeld experiments from the mid-1990s and found that experimenters were more likely to respond decisively to correct responses but give subtle cues (such as saying ‘mm hm’) to give more information when the response wasn’t initially accurate.

This suggests that some of the positive findings may be due to this subtle prompting which is known as the Clever Hans effect, after a horse who was thought to be able to do amazing calculations, until it was later discovered that he was simply clopping his hoof until his trainer responded in a positive way.

However, this also highlights another aspects of parapsychology – they do some of the most thorough experiments in psychology.

This new study was only possible because the researchers keep archived audio recordings of every experimental session, something that almost never happens for other psychology studies.

It could be that other experimental findings in psychology are influenced by the Clever Hans effect, but we’ll never know, because few labs keep such thorough records.

Try asking for the audio recordings of decade-old experimental sessions from other areas of psychology if you’re not convinced.

It sometimes strikes me as ironic that some scientists consider academic parapsychologists to be unscientific when they do often some of the most carefully designed studies in the literature.

The fact that these studies typically find no evidence of ESP doesn’t mean they’re not doing science, and in fact, they’re provided some of the best evidence against airy fairy notions of ‘psychic powers’.

UPDATE: This is an important clarification on the study from Christian, which puts a different spin on it:

The observed interaction effect occurred during the review phase, where the researcher goes through the images the receiver spoke out loud earlier as the the ‘sender’ watched the video clip. This is prior to the receiver’s attempt to choose the correct video clip from a few distractors.

The review generally follows the pattern of the researcher saying ‘you said you saw x’, the receiver say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or maybe elaborates. It was those times the receiver elaborated, that experimenters appeared to have an influence – if they said ‘okay’ and moved onto the next item, then that was that, but if they went ‘hmm mm’ with an enquiring tone, then the receiver tended to ramble on a bit more and lose confidence in their imagery.

I don’t think it is clear that this would make positive results more likely, and could even make a negative result more likely. Remember too that these were double blind experiments, so it is not a case of the experimenters directing the receivers towards the correct imagery. It is possible though that a sceptical researcher could be more prone to the ‘hmm mm’ noises, and therefore would make their receivers less confident.

Link to BPSRD on parapsychology and suggestion.
Link to abstract of scientific study.