Expensive advice more likely to be followed

Hot on the heels of a study that found that simply describing a wine as more expensive made it taste better comes the discovery that the same advice is more likely to be followed if it costs more.

The study was led by organisational psychologist Francesca Gino and is covered by the BPS Research Digest:

Dozens of students were asked questions about American history and received small cash prizes for correct answers. The students were either given the option of receiving advice on the correct answers, or advice was imposed on them. Sometimes this advice was free; other times it was paid for out of the students’ winnings.

Crucially, the advice always came from the same source – in the form of the answer that a student from a pilot session had given to the same question – so the quality of advice was held constant regardless of whether it was free or paid for.

Throughout the study, the participants took more account of advice they had paid for than advice they were given free, even though it was made clear to them that the advice was of the same quality. A final study showed the students took even more account of advice if it was made more expensive.

The full text of the study is freely available online as a pdf, although if you’re not convinced of the findings I’m sure Dr Gino would be happy to supply an additional copy for a small fee.

Link to BPSRD on the behavioural value of expensive advice.

2008-05-16 Spike activity

Frontal lobe damage changes performance on the ‘Pepsi challenge‘. Isn’t the world a better place now we know that?

Philosophy Now reviews ‘Freedom and Neurobiology’ by John Searle.

In an article for Salon, our recent interviewee neurologist Robert Burton gets stuck into a high-tech huckster promoting expensive SPECT scans to diagnose Alzheimer’s and herbal supplements to treat the brain disorder.

Channel N discovers a video lecture by Antonio Damasio on the neuroscience of emotion.

Psychologist Charles Fernyhough turned every moment of the first three years of his daughter’s life into a research project notes The Telegraph as they review the resulting book.

Treatment Online on research that has found that variations in serotinergic neuroreceptors may indicate severity of depression.

13 ways to quickly improve your decision-making are discussed by PsyBlog.

The Age has a fantastic article on the psychology of risk and why we’re so bad at judging it.

“The Change You Deserve”. The slogan for antidepressant drug Effexor, and now, the slogan for the US Republican party!

Furious Seasons notes that a recent study on bipolar disorder being overdiagnosed is being supported by leading bipolar researchers.

APA psychology magazine Monitor has an excellent article on how research with deaf people who can’t sign might shed light on the fundamentals of cognition.

Burgeoning research on the neuroscience of mystical experiences is discussed in the The New York Times.

Pictures of brain tumours!

BBC News reports that music can enhance the taste of wine. If only it could do the same for brussel sprouts.

The brain is not modular: what fMRI really tells us. An article in Scientific American Mind discusses limitations of brain scanning.

Deric Bownds covers a study that finds our facial touch sensitivity is enhanced by viewing a touch.

The excellent ABC Radio National’s All in the Mind discusses the neurobiology of nicotine addiction and concerns about new anti-smoking drugs.

Developing Intelligence covers a fascinating study on time distortion due to visual flicker.

The Wall Street Journal on the possibility of the US Goverment awarding Purple Hearts, a medal for soldiers wounded in battle, for cases of PTSD (thanks Kyle!).

The secret family life of a false memory

Thanks to Aaron and Frontal Cortex for simultaneously alerting us to this fantastic animation that recounts a charming real life case of a false memory.

Families are like incubators for false memories because each family has its favourite stories, anecdotes and foundational myths that get passed on, retold and molded in the retelling, like an intergeneration game of Chinese whispers.

I have many early memories that I simply don’t know whether I genuinely remember, or I just think I do, because I’ve heard stories or seen the photos so many times.

I love listening to families talk about memories, because its fascinating to hear how recollections can vary, each highlighting a different aspect, as well as how they resolve conflicting accounts.

The animation shows exactly this process in action, showing us that remembering is more than just an individual process, it’s often a group activity.

Link to This American Life animation on memory.

Orgasm and brain

Scientific American Mind tackles the neuroscience of orgasm in a feature article which has just been released online.

One of the merits of the article is that it avoids the ‘men are simple, women are complex’ stereotype and presents results from scientific studies that suggest there are both subtle similarities and differences in sexual response.

One problem with the area of sexual neuroscience is that it largely relies on brain scanning studies in humans.

You’ll see from the article that there’s lots of speculation as to what the changes in orgasm-related brain activity mean. It’s largely blue sky thinking though, because it’s always difficult to decide what is happening in the mind from the activity of particular brain areas. Take these paragraphs for example:

But when a woman reached orgasm, something unexpected happened: much of her brain went silent. Some of the most muted neurons sat in the left lateral orbitofrontal cortex, which may govern self-control over basic desires such as sex. Decreased activity there, the researchers suggest, might correspond to a release of tension and inhibition. The scientists also saw a dip in excitation in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, which has an apparent role in moral reasoning and social judgment—a change that may be tied to a suspension of judgment and reflection.

Brain activity fell in the amygdala, too, suggesting a depression of vigilance similar to that seen in men, who generally showed far less deactivation in their brain during orgasm than their female counterparts did. “Fear and anxiety need to be avoided at all costs if a woman wishes to have an orgasm; we knew that, but now we can see it happening in the depths of the brain,” Holstege says. He went so far as to declare at the 2005 meeting of the European Society for Human Reproduction and Development: “At the moment of orgasm, women do not have any emotional feelings.”

It’s like trying to guess what’s happening in a city just by looking at changes in traffic flow. The upsurge in traffic on the high street could mean it’s a busy shopping day, but it could also mean there’s a carnival, or a riot, or funeral, or any other strange or unusual occurrence you might never have predicted.

Brain scanning just finds associations, but to find out whether an area is causally involved in a particular function, or whether it is necessary for the function, research with brain injured patients is one of the most powerful methods.

For example, if you think a brain area is necessary for orgasm, or a certain component of orgasm, a person with damage to that area should not experience what you’ve predicted.

We know that sexual problems are common after brain injury, but virtually no research has been done to see how damage to specific brain areas affects orgasm.

This would be important, both to help us understand the neuroscience of orgasm beyond general speculation, but also to begin to understand how we can help brain injured people regain satisfying sex lives.

Link to SciAmMind article ‘The Orgasmic Mind’.

Undercover genetics and the function of the brain

Science News has an article on one of the most important future topics in neuroscience – epigenetics, the science of how information coded in the genes is used when the brain does its work.

Almost every cell in the body has a copy of the DNA, and therefore has the capability to express any protein.

But you wouldn’t want proteins that are used for digesting food produced in the brain, so the body has various ways of regulating which proteins get expressed at any one time. This is epigenetics.

If DNA is like a blueprint, epigenetics is the committee of civil engineers that coordinate the construction site.

We’ve known from twin studies and molecular genetic research that genes and the environment both influence cognition and behaviour, but these studies only give statistical associations. What they don’t tell us is how this happens.

In a sense, epigenetics is the scientific glue that allows us to understand how genes influence learning and behaviour, but also how learning and behaviour influences the expression of genes.

In other words, its goal is to explain how the environment combines with genetic information in the brain.

Needless to say, much epigenetic research is focusing on mental illness, the classic example of how genetic risk, experience and environment combine with sometimes disastrous consequences.

One of the most interesting aspects is that there is growing evidence that epigenetic information can be inherited. So your experiences may actually cause changes to gene regulation that are then passed on to offspring.

Link to Science New article on epigenetics.
Link to abstract of good review article on epigenetics and cognition.

Brain surgery in ancient Incan society

Neurophilosophy has a fascinating article on the recent archaeological discovery of numerous ancient Incan skulls of which over 1 in 6 showed signs of trepanation – an ancient form of brain surgery where a hole was drilled in the skull.

What’s surprising is just how common it was. 66 skulls from Incan burial sites had a total of 109 trepanation holes. Some, like the one pictured, obviously needed a significant amount of skill and practice to complete.

And with this many examples, the archaeologists could make some fascinating inferences about the purpose and success of these operations:

Andrushko and Verano argue that the Incas performed trepanation primarily to treat head injuries incurred during battle, because the holes are most often found at the front of the skull to the left, consistent with injuries caused by a right-handed opponent during face-to-face combat, and because adult males are overrepresented in the sample. The procedure was evidently used to treat mastoiditis (an infection of the region of the temporal bone behind the ear) as well.

The authors also show that the success rate of the procedure improved with time, as the Inca empire progressed and made advances in medicine. The earliest specimens, dated to around 1,000 A.D., showed no signs of bone growth around the perforations, suggesting that the procedure was often fatal. But specimens dating to around 400 years later suggest a survival rate of around 90%.

Link to Neurophilosophy article on prehistoric Inca neurosurgery.

The complete Husband and Wife rating scales

Our post on the 1930’s ‘wife rating scale’ was picked up by Boing Boing and one of their readers realised she had a copy of the full scale – including the rating scale for husbands – and posted the whole questionnaire online.

You may be interested to hear that husbands could earn a demerit for “Smokes in bed”, but 5 merits for “Tries to keep wife equipped with modern labor saving devices”. A whopping 20 merits could be awarded for being an “Ardent lover – sees that wife has an orgasm in marital congress”.

My favourite is getting a demerit for calling “Where is….? without first hunting the object”.

With the full husband and wife scales now online you can rate each other all the way to marital bliss. Or not.

Link to ‘Tests for Husbands and Wives’.

Phantom extra limbs

Phantom limbs are a well-known phenomenon where sensations and feelings are still experienced from a missing limb. In rare cases after brain injury, an additional phantom limb can appear – causing the sensation of a phantom third hand, arm or leg.

The drawings on the left are from two case studies of people with these ‘supernumerary phantom limbs’ recently published in the journal Neurology. They show an artist’s impression of the body sensations of two patients who suffered brain stem strokes.

Both patients had the experience of having a third arm and a third leg, although the male patients had the leg ‘appear’ along the midline of the body, while the female patient seemed to experience it ‘superimposed’ upon an existing leg.

One distressing element for the female patient was that although the patient could ‘move’ the phantom arm voluntarily, “she described occasional loss of control and feeling strangulated by the phantom arm around the neck”.

Two earlier case studies from neuropsychologist Peter Halligan and colleagues reported similarly disembodied extra limbs, but this time after damage to the right hemisphere of the brain.

As is more common after right hemisphere damage, these tended to have a delusional quality, so they weren’t just sensations – the patients genuinely believe their additional limbs existed.

One gentleman believed that he had a third arm in the middle of his body, and another believed that he had a third hand.

In this last case, the patient reported actually ‘seeing’ the additional limb, similar to this case study of a gentleman who believed he had a third leg protruding from his left knee after suffering a stroke that affected the thalamus:

He consistently maintained that the phantom leg was attached to his knee with a “bone plate” that “had no flesh on it”. However, he reported that the phantom limb itself looked normal and had a shinbone and a foot. It usually “appeared” in the morning when he was helped to put on his trousers. The patient stated that the phantom limb prevented him from turning over in bed, but did not adversely affect him otherwise.

When asked about how he knew about this leg he said that he could see it (despite his severe visual impairment) and feel it with his hand. He believed that the phantom limb belonged to him, although he readily accepted that it was not “normal” to have three legs. Initially he reported that the “leg” was growing from his own knee, but then reasoned that (given its size) he would have noticed it before the stroke.

At other times he believed the leg was attached to him by the nursing staff, but could not explain why. The patient was aware of phantom limb phenomena as his wife was an amputee. He was also aware that a stroke may affect perception and cognition. He did not believe either issue applied in his case.

The experience of a ‘supernumerary phantom limb’ is usually the result of a brain injury and typically resolves over time.

Phantom limbs are thought to arise because the somatosensory cortex, the part of the brain that represents the body’s sensations and feelings, reorganises so that the area previously used to represent the limb is partially ‘re-used’ for other functions, meaning the sensations sometimes get activated when these other functions are active.

Nevertheless, supernumerary phantom limbs are still mysterious, largely due to the small number of cases and diverse brain areas involved.

There is some suspicion that they might be caused because of disrupted communication between parietal lobes, which are known to represent body image, and the sensory feedback from the nerves in the body.

Link to abstract of Neurology case studies.
Link to full text of 1993 case study.
Link to full text of 1995 study.

Lord of the ring artefacts

I’m thoroughly digging the brain section of the Radiology Picture of the Day website. As you might expect, it’s a wonderfully geeky place where radiologists post an image every day, often brain CTs or MRIs, with a little gem of wisdom with each one.

One of the most interesting is the pictured CT scan with a ‘ring artefact’. I’ve contrast enhanced the image so you can see the circle or ring near the centre a little more clearly.

It’s a known imaging problem caused by poor calibration of the scanner.

However, the Radiology Picture of the Day entry notes that these were given special significance by the quacktastic German physician Ryke Geerd Hamer who claimed that his ‘New Medicine’ could cure 98% of all cancers.

He gave these rings the rather immodest name ‘Hamer Foci’ and if they appeared in the brain, apparently this meant cancer was elsewhere in the body.

For Hamer, cancer was simply the body’s reaction to a psychological conflict, and presumably this was what he thought the CT scanner was picking up.

This is despite the fact that CT scans only picture large scale structure on which psychological changes make no recognisable impact.

A curious case of neuroimaging apophenia.

Link to ‘Ring Artefact with Pseudomedical Interpretation’.

The gift of pure hypomania?

A forthcoming study from the Journal of Affective Disorders looked at people who seem to have the ‘ups’ of manic depression but none of the ‘downs’. While people with pure hypomania were more likely to have had legal troubles and be impulsive, they were also more likely to earn more and be married.

The study looked at people who had never been diagnosed with a mood disorder but, during a general population survey, seem to have experiences akin to hypomania – an upswing in activity and energy that falls short of the extremes that can lead to psychosis in full blown mania.

This is normally only classified when it accompanies depression, which could lead to one of the bipolar disorder diagnoses.

In contrast, the study found ‘pure hypomania’ was generally not distressing, had its benefits, but could lead to complications.

Pure hypomanics were characterised by physical and social overactivity, elevated and irritable mood, as well as increases in extraversion, sexual interest, and risk-taking behaviors.

They had higher monthly incomes and were more often married than controls. Subjective distress due to hypomanic symptoms was virtually absent.

Quality of life and treatment rates for mood and anxiety were not different from controls, although sleep disturbances, substance abuse and binge eating were more frequent.

The absence of subjective distress is interesting, as it is part of a realisation that psychiatry has traditionally based its ideas about psychopathology on a sample bias – it’s only studied people who are treated by psychiatrists.

This means that classifications have often based on people who are either distressed or impaired. People who experience similar symptoms but who didn’t become significantly disabled by them were not considered.

In the last 20 years, efforts have been made to survey the community and discover who has benign ‘symptoms’. For example, a ground breaking study by Romme and Escher found that only one third of people who hear voices had ever needed psychiatric help, despite the fact is traditionally considered a tell-tale sign of mental illness.

Link to abstract of ‘pure hypomania’ study.

A wife rating scale from the 1930s

This month’s edition of the psychology magazine Monitor has an amusing article about a psychometric scale designed in the 1930s for rating the quality of your wife.

It was designed by Dr George W. Crane in an attempt to give couples feedback on their marriages. But although husbands or wives could fill in the scale to rate the wife’s ‘quality’, there is no mention of a similar rating scale that rated the husband’s performance.

Apparently, the full scale had 50 merits and 50 demerits of differing value which were subtracted from each other to give the final score.

The Monitor has the first 12 items which are hugely amusing, although I note that an item mentioned in the article – “reacts with pleasure and delight to marital congress” – is not among them, but was apparently worth 10 ‘merits’. This is equal in value to “Religious – sends children to Sunday school and goes herself”.

Personally, I can’t believe that “Puts her cold feet on husband at night to warm them” is worth only one ‘demerit’. Surely this grievous violation of the sacred bond of marriage should have been looked on more strictly.

UPDATE: The full scale is now available online, include one for husbands!

Link to APA article (scroll down for image of rating scale).

The battle over infants with cross-gender desires

NPR Radio’s All Things Considered just had an interesting feature on two six-year old boys who identify with and want to be girls. It’s something that might be diagnosed as gender identity disorder or GID and the programme looks at how the two psychologists dealt with the issue in very different ways.

One psychologist, Ken Zucker, suggested that the family encourage their son to only associate with traditionally male toys and activities to encourage him to be more comfortable with his born sex, while the other, Diane Ehrensaft encouraged the family to allow their son to explore his cross-gender interests.

Whatever your immediate reaction to these approaches the psychologists in the programme make interesting points on both sides of the debate:

Ehrensaft sees transgenderism as akin to homosexuality, she says, she thinks Zucker’s therapy ‚Äî which seeks to condition children out of a transgender identity ‚Äî is unethical.

But that isn’t how Zucker sees it. Zucker says the homosexuality metaphor is wrong. He proposes another metaphor: racial identity disorder.

“Suppose you were a clinician and a 4-year-old black kid came into your office and said he wanted to be white. Would you go with that? … I don’t think we would,” Zucker says.

If a black kid walked into a therapist’s office saying he was really white, the goal of pretty much any therapist out there would be to make him try to feel more comfortable being black.

Gender identity disorder is a controversial area. The diagnosis requires “a strong and persistent cross-gender identification” and significant distress related to the birth gender.

Some cross-gender people feel they are being labelled as mentally ill for having atypical gender desires and suggest that any associated distress is because they have to live in a society that marginalises their life choices.

There are some proponents that maintain that any cross-gender identification is an illness, although these are often the same people that think that being gay is a disorder and run ‘treatment centres’ for homosexuality.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it seems Zucker’s work is quoted rather favourably by many of these organisations – something that has given him a bad name amongst some parts of the the LGBT community. Although, from what I can make out, he’s never associated himself with any of these views or organisations.

The mainstream professionals who defend the GID diagnosis usually suggest that the distress, rather than the desire itself, is key and this legitimises its classification and treatment. From this point of view, happy and adjusted transgender people would not be considered to have a disorder.

The program is well worth listening to as it tackles many of these thorny issues of gender politics.

Incidentally, the producer is Alix Spiegel, who produced 81 words, one of the finest documentaries on the history of psychiatry I’ve ever heard.

It looks at the how homosexuality was de-listed as a mental illness, but is more than that, it’s also a moving story from Spiegel’s family. The remarkable thing was that the the two were inextricably linked.

I’ve mentioned it before on Mind Hacks, but I highly recommend it if you’ve not encountered it before.

Link to NPR programme on cross-gender desires in children.
Link to audio archive of 81 words (click ‘Full Episode’ for free stream).

Encephalon 45 glides into your mind with a sunny hello

Edition 45 of the Encephalon psychology and neuroscience writing carnival has just arrived online, this time ably hosted at PodBlack Blog.

A couple of my favourites include a poem inspired by a new stereoscopic atlas of the body and brain, and an excellent post on the neuropsychology of stalking (with a great bonus Death Cab for Cutie track!).

Coincidentally, the stalking article appears courtesy of Neurocritic where the the next edition of Encephalon is due to appear in two weeks.

Link to Encephalon 45.

Five minutes with Robert Burton

Robert Burton is a neurologist and novelist who has recently turned his attentions to the complexities of belief and the brain.

Unlike the recent trend for focusing exclusively on religious belief and the neuroscience of mystical experience, Burton explores something much more essential – how do we have beliefs, any beliefs, at all?

His recent book, On Being Certain, tackles the neuropsychology of belief, certainty and conviction and has garnered some excellent reviews along the way, including one in this month’s Scientific American Mind.

As well as wrestling with the fundamentals of human cognition, he’s also been kind enough to share his beliefs about belief with Mind Hacks.

Continue reading “Five minutes with Robert Burton”

Mad pride and prejudice

An article in today’s New York Times looks at the ‘mad pride’ movement and meets many of the people who aim to destigmatise mental illness by being upfront about their experience of altered states of mind.

The article features journalist Liz Spikol, who we interviewed back in 2006, and professor of law Elyn Saks, who we featured last year, among a host of others who are associated with what might loosely be termed as ‘mad pride’.

‘Loosely’ is certainly an apt description, because, apart from fighting stigma, views within the mad pride movement vary widely.

There are a few lingering Marxists who see all psychiatry as part of the capitalist system to oppress the working class, but most simply want better care for mental distress and society to be more accepting of differing states of mind.

Mad Pride is often rather clumsily related to ‘antipsychiatry’ but they are often at the forefront of campaigns when essential services are threatened.

In London, the campaign against the shutting of the Maudsley Hospital psychiatric emergency clinic was spearheaded by several ‘mad pride’ organisations – who had a mischievous and witty banner at one demo saying “We must be mad! We want the emergency clinic kept open!”.

I do share Phil Dawdy’s bemusement at being overlooked, as he’s surely one of the most thorough and effective of campaigning writers, but good to see the NYT continue its tradition of high quality mental health journalism.

Link to NYT article ‘Mad Pride Fights a Stigma’.

Addiction to addiction: the horrifying reality

Cracked has an amusing article satirising the increasing tendency to portray any repetitive behaviour as an ‘addiction’. It discusses the horrifying reality of six things you didn’t know you could get addicted to and helpfully lists the warning signs.

The first on the list is the scourge of book addiction. We know that reading can affect mood, interfere with sleep, cause arguments, lead to financial difficulties and, in some instances, has caused violence and even revolutions.

Book junkies are thought to be driven by a need to repeatedly experience literary pleasure, a desire to escape from the unpleasant realities of everyday life or a profound insecurity about not fully understanding themselves and the world.

Luckily, Cracked has outlined the warning signs for you to look out for:

Technology has obviously made books unnecessary, so the sight of even one book in a friend’s home should be cause for concern. If the person has gone as far as to purchase an entire special shelf to hold all of his books, it’s probably time for an intervention.

I’m still a bit baffled as to why ‘addiction’ seems to be such a popular explanation for perceived negative behaviour in ourselves or others. It has strayed so far from its original concept of a drug affecting brain function that it can now apply to almost anything.

I suspect it’s because the concept has now been so heavily medicalised that it brings with it a concept of loss of personal control or reduction in responsibility without regard for the context or even the validity of what it applies to.

Of course, as soon as something is medicalised, there’s a big disincentive to question the concept because people assume you’re doubting the problem (i.e. the human suffering the behaviour causes) rather than the explanation.

I was struck by how Josef Fritzl, the man at the centre of the appalling ‘daughter in the dungeon’ case, explained his behaviour as an ‘addiction’. Presumably, that will be the well-known underground cellar, false imprisonment and incest addiction that appears in all the diagnostic manuals.

Returning to a somewhat lighter theme, the Cracked article has a few great lines and attempts to poke fun at the whole idea. Apart from water addiction, of course, which is genuinely serious.

I’ve heard some people hide bottles of water in their desk at work so they can have a drink when they get the ‘urge’. Sad.

Link to Cracked on things you didn’t know you could be addicted to.