Black humour perks up the inevitable

Time magazine has a short article on an interesting finding: after thinking about their own death, participants in a psychology study were more likely to respond unconsciously in ways that suggested a boost in mood.

The study was led by psychologist Nathan DeWall and asked one group of students to think about a painful dental procedure, and another about their own death.

The participants were then asked to complete questionnaires that rated their mood. In terms of their conscious reporting, there was no difference between the groups.

However, when asked to do some simple tasks that are known to be affected by unconscious emotional biases, the group who had thought about death showed a consistently positive effect:

Students in the death-and-dying group, it turns out, had all gone to their happy place ‚Äî at least in their unconscious. There was no difference in scores between the groups on the explicit tests of emotion and affect. But in the implicit tests of nonconscious emotion ‚Äî the wordplay ‚Äî researchers found that the students who were preoccupied with death tended to generate significantly more positive-emotion words and word matches than the dental-pain group. DeWall thinks this mental coping response kicks in immediately when confronted with a serious psychological threat. In subsequent research, he has analyzed the content of the volunteers’ death essays and found that they’re sprinkled with positive words. “When you ask people, ‘Describe the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you,'” says DeWall, “people will report fear and contempt, but also happiness that ‘I’m going to see my grandmother’ and joy that ‘I’m going to be with God.'”

I would like to think that this will come as welcome news to the people who protested against a funeral parlour being built near their homes because of concerns about a ‘negative psychological impact’, although, I suspect it will be of little comfort.

Experimental evidence is remarkably unconvincing to some.

It reminds me of when Tom Gilovich did an analysis of the ‘hot hand’ in professional basketball (where players who have scored several points are supposedly ‘on a run’). His study [pdf], published in the journal Cognitive Psychology, found that the effect was just the misperception of random variation.

When asked about the research, Red Auerbach, coach of the Boston Celtics, reportedly responded “Who is this guy? So he makes a study. I couldn’t care less”.

Another example of the fly of empirical evidence being crushed against the windscreen of self-confidence. Well, at least Stephen Colbert would be proud.

Link to Time article ‘Are We Happier Facing Death?’.

Any good direction

I found this quote from Charles Dickens on the first page of Samuel Barondes’ book Mood Genes. It is both sage advice and reassuringly optimistic.

To lighten the affliction of insanity by all human means is not to restore the greatest of divine gifts; and those who devote themselves to the task do not pretend that it is… Nevertheless, reader, if you can do a little in any good direction – do it. It will be much, some day.

Dickens himself was no stranger to mental distress. Despite being recognised as one of the greatest writers of his generation, he reportedly suffered severe bouts of depression.

Unfortunately, Barondes’ book doesn’t mention the source of the quote, so if anyone knows which of Dickens’ works it comes from, do let me know.

UPDATE: An answer gratefully received from crabbydad. Grabbed from the comments:

Apparently, the quote is from “A Curious Dance Round a Curious Tree,” an essay written by Dickens after a visit to St. Luke’s hospital, a hospital for the “impoverished mentally ill.” You can find more info here.

As well as the commentary linked to above, the full text of Dickens’ article is also available online.

2007-11-02 Spike activity

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

The Holy Grail of memory: researchers identify brain waves that distinguish false memories from real ones. The downside, you need to have your skull opened and electrodes implanted into your brain. Full paper: pdf.

ABC Radio has science teacher Dr Berry Billingsley discussing her life with Harry, her nine-year-old son who has Asperger’s syndrome.

PsyBlog tackles a bizarre but charming experiment on tickling.

The NYT reviews Sacks’s new book Musicophilia.

Brain Dynamics Underlying the Nonlinear Threshold for Access to Consciousness. Rooaaarrrr!! Hardcore consciousness research in PLoS Biology.

Wired go inside the world’s only plant-intelligence lab. [Roll your own George Bush joke here].

Video of some of the most fundamental (and smallest) aspects of learning in the brain are captured on video and explained by Pure Pedantry.

A couple on fear:
* Neurophilosophy examines the neurobiology of fear.
* That Nearly Scared Me to Death! Let’s Do It Again. Wired looks at why we can enjoy being frightened.

Salon discusses what psychology tells us about our seemingly inbuilt prejudices and how to overcome them.

A cool new visual illusion is discovered by Mixing Memory.

Can you use your ‘gut instinct‘ to find things faster? Cognitive Daily investigates and sports the spiffy new ‘blogging on peer review research’ icon.

Eric Schwitzgebel has a short, sweet and endearingly appropriate epitaph for a philosopher.

Psychosis in David Lynch’s Inland Empire

The Psychologist has just made an article available that looks at the parallels between the most recent David Lynch film, Inland Empire, and what we know of the psychology of psychosis.

The article looks at some of the proposed pathologies of psychosis, drawn from cognitive science, and suggests how these are represented in Lynch’s latest movie.

Paranoia comes with an inherent sense of personal threat and concomitant fear. Inland Empire’s dark and chilling world is produced in part by David Lynch’s use of story. While fear is generated with genuinely unsettling imagery and dark shadowy lighting, it also comes from the carefully managed attrition of any recognisable storyline. The audience, who have been led through the early stages of the plot with some of the conventional devices of storytelling (coherent dialogue, linear chronology) are suddenly thrown into a world of unfamiliar film cuts, unexplained locations and wordless acting. We are forced to jump to our own conclusions and build what narrative we will from scant concrete evidence as to events. Our sense of sense itself forces us to put something together and, given the presence of ominous emotions and apparent malice, what we put together is a paranoid and terrifying vision of the intentions of the characters in the film and even the world we inhabit.

Lynch’s hallucinatory style certainly suggests altered realities and this is not the first time that it has been linked with mind-being reality distortion, as countless interpretations of Mulholland Drive testify.

Link to article ‘David Lynch and psychosis’.