Griefer madness

You know it’s a bad day when it starts raining penises during a media interview. Wired has an article on the ‘griefer’ subculture, sociopaths of the virtual world.

Essentially, they are virtual world vandals, or online versions of those local kids on the street who love shouting abuse and messing the place up.

Like most other aspects of human behaviour, antisocial behaviour transfers from the offline to the online world.

But like many subcultures on the internet, it is a new phenomenon in that people who would never normally get a chance to meet many others who share their socially unpopular beliefs, suddenly have access to a huge, distributed community of such people.

One of the most notorious ‘griefer’ attacks, before the term was even conceived, was described in the landmark article ‘A Rape in Cyberspace’, and describes an antisocial user taking over a text-based environment

It was one of the first pieces to convince people that internet interactions could have serious emotional effects, and is widely cited in the internet psychology literature.

The Wired article discusses the motivations (and even, the ‘philosophy’) behind these groups, as well as their impact on the increasingly commercial virtual worlds.

Link to Wired article on ‘griefer subculture’.

2008-01-25 Spike activity

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

The fantastic Claudia Hammond explores the curious psychology of disgust on BBC Radio 4’s science programme Frontiers.

Advances in the History of Psychology notes the passing of Paul D McLean, creator the the “Triune Brain Theory“. Every time you hear the phrase ‘reptilian brain’, that’s McLean at work.

AI learns to play Ms Pac Man. Presumably, it will soon by driven insane by the annoying music.

To the bunkers! Charmingly wide-eyed transhumanists discuss the ‘singularity‘ – supposedly when computers will overtake the abilities of the human mind.

No really, to the bunkers! Israel intend to deploy an AI-controlled missile system that “could take over completely” from humans. Not that anyone would notice if it went bezerk I guess.

Neurophilosophy looks at a case of epilepsy triggered by hip-hop. As we noted back in October, the Beastie Boys created hip-hop triggered by epilepsy.

Dave Munger of the mighty Cognitive Daily reviews the new book by the Blakeslees on embodied cognition over at The Quarterly Conversation.

Which self-help books for depression do psychologists recommend for depression? PsyBlog looks at an interesting study on the most effective bibliotherapists.

A link between walking speed and mental quickness in the elderly is reported in an intriguing study covered by the BPS Research Digest.

The philosophy of friendship is discussed in a podcast from Philosophy Bites

Cognitive Daily examines the ‘remember / know‘ distinction, one of the most important ideas in long-term memory research.

The myth of the mid-life crisis? An article in The New York Times questions one of our most persistent cultural clichés.

The Frontal Cortex has an interesting meta-piece on whether neuroscience is being overly popularised.

Dr Pascale Michelon writes her first article as one of Sharp Brains expert contributors on neuroimaging and the ‘<a href="
“>cognitive reserve‘.

Scientific American’s Mind Matters blog discusses how to create out of body experiences in the lab.

Immanuel Kant, or can he? Fragments of Consciousness has a great post on philosophy teams.

So long, and thanks for all the fish, suckers

SciAm’s Mind Matters blog has a completely fascinating post on the common assumption that humans have the the most complex brain of all the animals. Compared to a whale, however, our brain is smaller and has even less cortical folds. Does that mean they’re smarter?

The article is by neuroscientist R. Douglas Fields and takes a comparative look at brain size, relation to body size, and function across the species.

It turns out, we’re perhaps not quite so special as we like to believe. Even on the ratio of brain to body size, humans are beaten by the humble tree shrew.

We humans pride ourselves on our big brains. We never seem to tire of bragging about how our supreme intelligence empowers us to lord over all other animals on the planet. Yet the biological facts don’t quite square with Homo sapiens’ arrogance. The fact is, people do not have the largest brains on the planet, either in absolute size or in proportion to body size. Whales, not people, have the biggest brains of any animal on earth.

Just how smart are whales? Why do they have such big brains? Bigger is not always better; maybe the inflated whale brain is not very sophisticated on a cellular level. We’re closer to answering such questions now, for a couple of recent papers address them squarely. What they find is helping separate fact from fiction.

It turns out that while whales have bigger brains, humans have more neurons. Nevertheless, whales have more glial cells.

Glial cells were traditionally thought to do nothing more than support and insulate the neurons, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that they’re actually part of the brain’s processing system (although they’re exact role is far from clear).

So maybe there’s a lot more to the whale brain that it first appears.

Link to ‘Are Whales Smarter Than We Are?’.

The resistence of memory in hypnotic amnesia

Research just published in neuroscience journal Neuron has discovered some of the brain networks behind post-hypnotic amnesia. Importantly, the study might give us an insight into how memories are repressed from consciousness.

Psychogenic amnesia is a type of memory disorder where there is no brain damage to explain the memory loss. Unlike amnesia after brain injury, which usually causes an inability to form new memories, psychogenic amnesia typically results in the person being unable to remember past events.

Most memory research involves comparing how well people recognise or recall information that they’ve been shown earlier.

One of the difficulties in studying psychogenic amnesia is that you’re never sure whether the memories you’re asking about were taken in, but are inaccessible, or whether the person simply didn’t register the information in the first place.

Amnesia caused by hypnosis is remarkably similar to psychogenic amnesia in many ways, but has the advantage of being temporary and reversible.

This is important because it allows researchers to show people information, then induce hypnotic amnesia and check memory, and then reverse the effects and check memory again.

The final memory check shows that the person genuinely took the information in to start with, so you know that the amnesia was for memories that were definitely there already.

Post-hypnotic amnesia is where a suggestion is given during hypnosis that the person won’t remember a specific event after the hypnosis is over. Because hypnotisability varies between individuals, it doesn’t work for everybody, but for those who experience this type of temporary memory loss, the effect can be quite dramatic.

In an initial session, researchers showed high and low hypnotisable participants a 45 minute film which they were told to remember.

A week later, they were put in an fMRI scanner, hypnotised and told to forget the film when the hypnosis was over. Crucially, they were told that their memories would return when given a specific command.

They were then scanned while being asked “yes/no” questions about both the film itself and other details about the initial session (such as whether the door to the testing room was open).

Unlike facts about the film, the participants were never told to forget these other details, allowing the researchers to test how specific the amnesia was.

The ‘hypnosis resistant’ low hypnotisable participants were equally good at recalling facts about the film and the testing session.

For high hypnotisable participants, although they were good at remembering session details, they were no better than chance at answering the questions about the film. In other words, they would have got the same number of questions right if they flipped a coin – suggesting their memory was quite impaired.

When given the command to remove the amnesia, the high hypnotisable participants could then recall the film as well as the others.

(Partly owing to the scepticism about hypnosis, the researchers also tested another group of people who were told just to pretend to be hypnotised. They performed quite differently – vastly exaggerating their memory difficulties – indicating that the high hypnotisable participants weren’t faking or ‘conforming’).

When trying to recall information when post-hypnotic amnesia was in effect, activity in the temporal lobes and occipital lobes was reduced, while activity in part of the frontal lobes increased.

The areas of the temporal and occipital lobes are known to be involved in dealing with factual and visual information, while the frontal lobes are known to be involved in coordinating other brain areas.

In this case, they seem to be inhibiting the function of other areas, perhaps preventing recall and explaining the amnesia.

Interestingly, when the amnesia was reversed, brain circuits involved in long-term memories became more active as the participants were able to answer questions.

This study might explain how psychogenic amnesia works. Perhaps this syndrome results from the same brain mechanism being ‘locked’ in place, persistently ‘repressing’ memories.

In fact, there’s a whole range of apparently neurological problems but where the person has no recognisable brain damage. These usually get diagnosed as conversion disorder and can involve everything from blindness to paralysis.

Two studies have just come out which point in the same direction as this hypnosis study.

In one, several patients with structurally normal brains were found to have under-activation in certain areas corresponding to their conversion disorder paralysis.

In another, when a patient with conversion disorder was asked to recall the traumatic event which triggered her paralysis, brain activation suddenly dropped in the brain areas that controlled movement in her immobile limbs.

What these studies are suggesting is that problems can arise in the operation of seemingly intact brains that can lead to what appear to be neurological problems.

An analogy might be that while the roads are intact, traffic jams can still bring a city to a standstill. The trick, of course, is to get the traffic flowing again.

The more we understand about how the flow gets disturbed, the more likely we are to help patients get things running smoothly again.

Link to abstract of post-hypnotic amnesia study.
Link to write-up of study from Science News.

Why we love (and flirt)

Time magazine has a couple of articles on the psychology of love, sex and attraction. The first looks at the science of love, from thoughts to hormones, and the second at what we know about flirting.

The love article is a more in-depth look at the topic of the two articles, and touches on studies that have taken place everywhere from the delivery room to the brain scanner.

It’s a little basic in places (e.g. it uses the dopamine = reward line a little uncritically), but is otherwise an interesting read.

A deep voice, also testosterone driven, can have similarly seductive power. Psychology professor David Feinberg of McMaster University in Ontario studied [pdf] Tanzania’s Hadza tribesmen, one of the world’s last hunter-gatherer communities, and found that the richer and lower a man’s voice, the more children he had. Researchers at the University of Albany recently conducted related research [pdf] in which they had a sample group of 149 volunteers listen to recordings of men’s and women’s voices and then rate the way they sound on a scale from “very unattractive” to “very attractive.” On the whole, the people whose voices scored high on attractiveness also had physical features considered sexually appealing, such as broad shoulders in men and a low waist-to-hip ratio in women.

This suggests either that an alluring voice is part of a suite of sexual qualities that come bundled together or that simply knowing you look appealing encourages you to develop a voice to match. Causation and mere correlation often get muddied in studies like this, but either way, a sexy voice at least appears to sell the goods. “It might convey subtle information about body configuration and sexual behavior,” says psychologist Gordon Gallup, who co-authored the study.

The flirting article is, rather predictably, a bit more light-hearted and largely talks about theories rather than evidence.

You’re probably better off trying your luck with the guide to flirting from the Social Issues Research Centre that looks at what sociology can tell us about being playfully alluring.

Link to Time article ‘Why we love’.
Link to Time article ‘Why we flirt’.
Link to Social Issues Research Centre guide to flirting.

Sensory Processing and Neurotopographics

While we’re on the subject of art and neuroscience I recently discovered a couple of pieces that caught my interest.

The picture is a piece by Sandra Dawson called ‘Sensory Processing’ which has combined a cap used for EEG recordings of the brain with comforting objects and materials.

I recycled two EEG caps, cut up pyjama bottoms which were freeform crocheted with the leads and black yarn, with iPod headphones
symbolizing synaesthesia with output from the eye going to the ear.

It’s called “Sensory Processing” and is meant to evoke sensual comforts (music, flannel) that are perceived and processed by the brain; only with my hat, it’s abstracted and externalized into fashionable form so that viewers ponder connections.

It’s part of a show currently on at the Femina Potens gallery in San Francisco until January 28.

The other piece is one I saw at the weekend called Neurotopographics and is a collaboration between artist Antoni Malinowski, architect Bettina Vismann and neuroscientist Hugo Spiers.

It takes inspiration from the recent discovery of three types of neurons that seem specialised for spatial awareness and navigation.

Place cells provide a ‘you are here’ signal; grid cells signal information about distances travelled and head direction cells provide a sort of internal compass.

So far, these have only been discovered in rats, but Spiers and his collaborators have created a film of how they might operate in humans.

In fact, they’ve created three films which run simultaneously:

The resulting artwork – which will be on show at the Gimpel Fils Gallery from 18–21 January – follows the journey of a person through space, in this case the gallery itself. The actor is filmed from two camera viewpoints: a static wide angle position, which records movement and spatial position, similar to a surveillance camera; and from a dynamic point of view, filmed out of the perspective of the actor’s eyes, recording the subjective impressions of the space and his journey through it. The films will be simultaneously projected onto the gallery walls and combined with a two-dimensional animation displayed on the floor representing assumed brain cell activity patterns.

Rather annoying, the website only works properly in Explorer, but the film from the observational point of view and the firing of the cells can be experienced online.

Link to Femina Potens gallery.
Link to Neurotopographics website.