Brain scans and buyer beware

Jonah Lehrer reviews new popular neuromarketing book Buy-ology in the Washington Post and notes that the book itself is a shining example of marketing but without a good grasp of what the neuroscience studies actually show.

If one of the greatest ironies of public relations is that it has an image problem, one of the greatest achievements of neuromarketing has been the self-promotion without having demonstrating any material benefit to the approach.

That’s not to say there’s some respectable science being undertaken to understand the neural basis of commercial reasoning and buyer decision-making, but so far, no-one has demonstrated that any of these approaches actually provide a more effective way of marketing.

In other words, we’re still waiting for a single study that shows that any measure of neural activity predicts actual purchases or sales better than existing methods.

It’s quite amazing to think that there are now numerous multi-million dollar ‘neuromarketing’ companies that are providing services without having any evidence for their effectiveness.

Their success is likely because, as we know from recent studies, attaching bogus references to the brain or irrelevant images of brain scans, make explanation of behaviour seem more credible to non-neuroscientists.

One irony is that commercial neuromarketing has been a marketing success story, but not on the basis of the neuroscience which is largely just used as another form of traditional branding.

In fact, it’s just a form of marketing first developed by Edward Bernays, the nephew of Freud, back in the 1920s. The secret, Bernays said, was not to appeal to what people need, but to what they desire – in this case, to seem cutting edge.

UPDATE: I really recommend reading the two comments below in full, but this snippet from Neuroskeptic is a particular gem:

“One irony is that commercial neuromarketing has been a marketing success story, but not on the basis of the neuroscience which is largely just used as another form of traditional branding.”

It’s not just ironic, it’s fascinating. It shows that marketing people – who you might expect to be “immune to their poison” – are vulnerable to marketing gimmicks too.

Link to WashPost review of ‘Buy-ology’.

2008-10-31 Spike activity

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

Mind Apples is a site that aims to share and develop ways of maintaining mental health in innovative ways. A community-based knowledge sharing community focused on mental well-being. Yay!

To the bunkers! Scientific America has a piece on how one research team are trying to personify evil in an AI programme.

Technology Review has some beautiful diffusion spectrum imaging pictures of the brain that illustrates the white matter tracts in glorious technicolor.

Men were better than women at judging infidelity, but are more likely to guess at cheating when there is none, according to research reported by New Scientist. The old high sensitivity, low specificity problem.

The New York Times follows up with an interesting piece asking whether these sorts of studies that rely on people honestly reporting their infidelities are reliable and looking at the changing rates of infidelity.

Guest blogger Becca Trabin writes an interesting piece about body dysmorphic disorder on The Trouble With Spikol.

The BPS Research Digest has a thought-provoking piece questioning whether brain-injured patients who confabulate, who seemingly produce false memories without intending to deliberately lie, are actually attempting to remember at all.

A brief tour through the comedic history of the US military’s attempts to create an ‘amnesia beam‘ is provided by Wired.

Neuroanthropology has an interesting piece on the influence of psychologists on the political messages of the belligerents in the US presidential election.

The recent study on the cognitive neuroscience of hate is dryly dissected by The Neurocritic.

The Boston Globe has an interesting piece on the neuroscience of self-control and describes the cool 4-year-olds and marshmallows experiment.

“Eunoia is the shortest word in English containing all five vowels – and it means “beautiful thinking”. It is also the title of Canadian poet Christian Bok’s book of fiction in which each chapter uses only one vowel.” BBC Radio 4 has a sample of each chapter. Reminds me of Gadsby, a whole novel written without the letter e.

Psychology Today bloggers are asked which psychological tests they’d give the US presidential candidates. Strangely, no one mentioned the Stanford Prison Experiment.

Another good BPS Research Digest piece on research showing older people are less optimistic but more realistic.

Neuropod focuses on the autistic spectrum

I’m not sure if Nature’s Neuroscience podcast Neuropod is slightly irregularly timed or I am, but either way the October edition is available online and covers cyber-monkeys, steroids, Alzheimer’s disease and autism.

The stand-out feature is the piece on autism where researchers, including the well-known Temple Grandin, are interviewed.

One of the most interesting bits is where Neuropod talks to clinical psychologist Kathrin Hippler about her research where she followed up some of the children who Hans Asperger observed during the development of the syndrome diagnosis.

Asperger’s Syndrome wasn’t so named until some time later, and at the time, the children were diagnosed as ‘autistic psychopaths’. Psychopath didn’t mean violent or dangerous in this context, it just implied emotionally disconnected.

Hippler’s study analysed the case records of ‘autistic psychopaths’ diagnosed by Hans Asperger and his team at the University Children’s Hospital, Vienna.

In a more recent study (which doesn’t seem to have been published yet) she followed up the children to see how they’re doing not, and it turns out that they’re actually doing pretty well.

She mentions about half are in relationships and many are in jobs that matched the ‘special interests’ they had as children.

If you’re interesting in reading more about contemporary kids with on the spectrum The New York Times had an excellent piece on the experiences of autistic teenagers.

Link to Neuropod homepage with streamed audio.
mp3 of October edition.

A slight return, again

I’ve just found another curious case report of complex movements in a brain dead patient, following on from our recent piece on the Lazurus Sign.

These reports are fascinating and bizarre in equal measure, not least when you try and imagine what was happening in the room at the time.

Uncommon reflex automatisms after brain death

Rev Neurol (Paris). 1995 Oct;151(10):586-8.

Awada A.

Two cases of unusual complex movements observed in brain dead patients are described. Rapid and sustained flexion of the neck induced slow abduction of the arms with flexion of the elbows, wrists and fingers over 5 to 10 seconds. These movements have been rarely described and although they have similar clinical patterns, they are pathophysiologically different from the Lazarus sign which is observed few minutes after respiratory support cessation. While Lazarus sign is supposed to be due to an agonal discharge of anoxic spinal neurons, the movements described in this article result probably from complex reflexes generated in a disinhibited spinal cord. It is however surprising that they have never been described in patients with high cervical spinal injuries.

For those of you not familiar with the medical terms for movement, I shall briefly translate. When the doctors rocked the dead person’s head side to side forward in a ‘rapid and sustained’ fashion, the body extended its arms to the side and waved them about.

I have two thoughts.

Firstly, isn’t it fascinating that such complex movements can be triggered solely by the spinal cord?

Secondly, what the bloody hell were they doing with that dead body?

Normally, these reports are of spontaneous movements in isolated brain dead patients, but on this occasion the medical team seem to have been rather more involved.

Unfortunately, the full text of the article is in French, so the exact turn of events (e.g. “hey looks what happens when I do this!”) shall have to remain a mystery.

UPDATE: Neuroshrink has added a fantastic correction and comment to this post that suggests what might have been happening and recounts his own experience of observing the Lazurus sign.

Link to PubMed entry for article.
Link to Mind Hacks on the Lazurus Sign.
Link to another Mind Hacks article on the moving dead.

Drug addiction and factory pharming

Scientific American has a slide show of classic photos from converted prison in 1950s Kentucky which was used as a massive addiction rehabilitation and research centre.

The pictures have a slightly surreal B-movie quality to them and I can’t help thinking of Philip K. Dick’s book A Scanner Darkly.

If that reference makes no sense to you, check out the book, or see the film, and you can see the sort of institution pictured by SciAm could have inspired the… well, you’ll just have to see.

According to the blurb the building “was a temporary home for thousands, including Sonny Rollins, Peter Lorre and William S. Burroughs as well as a lab for addiction treatments such as LSD”. The set even includes a picture of a jazz band consisting of patients.

Owing to the popularity of heroin in the 1950s jazz scene, it was probably a fairly impressive line-up.

Link to SciAm 1950s narcotics farm slide show.

In the age of paranoia, my MTV wants me

Psychotic delusions change with the times and a new study looking back over almost 120 years of hospital records has found that it’s possible to track how cultural upheavals are reflected in the themes of madness. Changes in politics, technology and psychiatry all seem to colour the preoccupations of the deluded as reported in the patient records.

A Slovenian research team, led by psychiatrist Borut Skodlar, discovered that the Ljubljana psychiatric hospital had patient records going as far back as 1881. They randomly selected 10 records from every 10 year period to see how delusions matched up to the society of the time.

One key finding was that paranoid and persecutory delusions seem much more common now, with a big jump after the 1960s, in line with other studies that have found that paranoia is much more common in the modern age.

Another interesting finding concerned the widespread availability of radio and television:

A very interesting finding was a significant increase in outside influence and control delusions with technical themes following the spread of radio and television in Slovenia. To the best of our knowledge, no such studies exist with which to compare our results.

Both of these new technical devices, which served as a means to powerfully and quickly disseminate information, apparently became appropriate for ‘serving’ as a means of influence and control in the eyes of schizophrenia patients.

We found this change much more expressed in the case of television, where the increase of delusions of outside influence and control was dramatic. Perhaps an accumulation of both television together stimulated the increase. Or perhaps the two-dimensional auditory and visual nature of television opened up more opportunities to perceive it as a possible source of influence.

One aspect of the study looked not at how wider cultural changes altered the theme of delusions, but how changes in the culture of psychiatry did the same.

Psychiatrist Kurt Schneider listed a number of symptoms which he argued were characteristic of schizophrenia and still form the basis of modern schizophrenia diagnoses.

They include audible thoughts, hearing voices arguing, voices commenting on your actions, feeling that your body, mind or emotions are being controlled by outside forces, thought insertion and withdrawal, thought broadcasting, or delusional interpretations of everyday perceptions.

Interestingly, these ‘first rank symptoms’ were reported much more commonly after they had become widely known in the psychiatric community.

This is one of the key issues in the epidemiology of psychiatry: when the rate of reported symptoms changes over time, is it because they’re just being noticed more, because psychiatrists have moved the goalposts, because patients are learning to report symptoms in the language that doctors use, or that the experiences are more common in the population with all things being equal.

Of course, it can be a mixture of all or some of the above, as culture is one of the key influences on how we experience and express our distress – both physical and psychological.

Link to paper on cultural influences on delusions.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

Money on the brain

Tim Harford, who blogs as the Undercover Economist, presents a rollercoaster ride through the field of neuroeconomics, <a href=""'Money on the Brain' for Radio 4. The documentary is available via Radio 4’s Listen Again site for the next week, and reportedly via a podcast (which I unfortunately can’t find). This whistle-stop tour covers neuromarketing, behavioural economics and the possible effects of hormone levels on risk tasking among stockmarket brokers. The programme features great interviews with some top researchers, such as Paul Glimcher and, Glimcher aside, many of these researchers have an almost relgious optimism about the potential for fMRI-scanning, believing it will eventually tell us how economic decisions are made, why we follow crowds, what we’re thinking at any point in time, what age we should be able to vote and how much we value things like clean air. Admist this heady atmosphere the psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer brings us back to earth again: “You can’t read the mind. We understand quite little about the brain.” he begins. And then,

A former chairman of the Harvard Psychology deptartment once asked me “Gerd, do you know why they love those pictures [the fMRI activity maps]? It is because they are like women: they are beautiful, they are expensive and you don’t understand them”

If you read a classical article on neuroeconomics what you will find is mostly results which have been already known and recycled, and very little new insight.


Link to Radio 4 documentary ‘Money on the Brain’
Also on The fMRI smackdown cometh
Also on Don’t believe the neurohype
Also on Is Banking on Neuroscience a false economy?

Online opium museum

The Opium Museum is a fascinating website by the author of a book called The Art of Opium Antiques that tracks the forgotten history of a hugely popular recreational drug of the early 1900s.

It has images of some remarkably intricate opium smoking paraphenalia, but probably the most interesting part is the sections with photos of opium smokers from the late 1800s to early 1900s.

It was a habit largely associated with the Orient and also prevalent among immigrant communities around the world.

The collection illustrates that opium smoking was common in all classes of society and until the crackdowns in the 1930s onwards, it was not considered to be necessarily seedy or degenerate.

It’s an interesting contrast to a photo collection on the current Afghan Drug War, also over opium, although the Afghan crops are largely destined for the heroin trade. Opium wars have been a traditional pastime of the British, and this is the most recent in one of many.

The Afghan photo collection is by photographer Aaron Huey, but are hidden behind some god awful Flash wrapping meaning you can’t link to it directly. So you’ll need to go to the website, click on ‘Features 1’ and then on ‘Afghanistan Drug War’.

Link to the Opium Museum.
Link to photographer website (via BoingBoing).

Encephalon 57 on Mind Hacks

Welcome to the 57th edition of the Encephalon psychology and neuroscience writing carnival, where we have the honour of hosting the best in the last fortnight’s mind and brain writing, here on Mind Hacks.

We start off with two great interviews. The first is a video interview with pioneering neuroscientist Rodolfo Llin√°s, known for his radical ideas on consciousness, picked up by Channel N. One of the great names in cognitive science makes an appearance on Sharp Brains as Michael Posner is the subject of a recent interview.

One of Posner’s great achievements, along with Marcus Raichle was to invent the subtraction method for the analysis of brain imaging data to allow us to make inferences about how the mind is working. The Neurocritic has an excellent piece on some of the state-of-the-art work which is attempting to advance this technology, almost 30 years after the original breakthrough, by looking at links between electrical activity in the cortex and spontaneous fluctuations in signals from fMRI scanner.

Also on a neuroimaging tip, Pure Pedantry covers a recent study on the neuroscience of hypothesis generation, or how we think up possible explanations to explain causality in our booming, buzzing confusion of a world.

The masters of making sense of out of confusion are, of course, children, and a couple of great articles look at some of the latest research showing how the developing brain seems to work its magic. Looking at the remarkable development of language, the consistently excellent Cognitive Daily discuss a child’s use of gesture to communicate and whether it slows language learning. Songs from the Wood has a great piece on infantile amnesia – that curiosity of development where we typically cannot remember anything that happened before the age of 3-4 years.

But if you want to learn more about what makes memories stick, Physiology Physics looks at long-term potentiation – one of the most important neuroscience discoveries in the last fifty years and one of the cornerstones of remembering.

If you’re interested in where all this childhood experience ends up, one destination is our personality or personal style of interacting with each other and the world. The Mouse Trap looks at some of the most influential of these theories in <a href="”>three great posts that discuss character traits, emotional maturity and emotional intelligence.

Obviously, if you’ve been reading the same dodgy research that Dr Shock has, you’ll know that one part of emotional maturity is saying no to computer games because THEY BURN YOUR SOUL. Or, maybe they don’t and the researchers are trying to spin a positive result into a negative one to get their unsupported point across. Ah, the joys of science.

Entering more unusual territories, Brain Blogger has a brief guide to the syndrome where people lose control of their hands after brain injury, carious known as anarchic or alien hand syndrome. PodBlack stays with the uncanny in a post about sex differences in superstitions and paranormal beliefs. It’s actually the last part of the four part series looking at superstitions and all are well worth a read.

Equally mysterious and no less controversial is the placebo effect and Brain Health Hacks has an interesting piece on what the the science of placebo might tell us about the neuroscience of hope. I’m sure there’s an election joke in their somewhere but I’ll leave that as a exercise for the reader.

Talking of culture in a more general sense, the newly launched Culture and Cognition blog has an interesting piece that discusses a recent Nature paper on culture and the brain and another on what can only be described as culture hacking.

From culture hacking to baseball hacking as sports psychology blog 80 Percent Mental looks at the cognitive science of baseball including some illustrative videos and perfect timing for the World Series.

From the best in baseball, to the best in online writing about Bipolar Disorder (calling Liz Spikol…) as PsychCentral ranks its Top 10 Bipolar Blogs for 2008. Keeping with the positivity, Brain Blogger looks at tetrabenazine, a drug which shows promise in treating Huntingdon’s disease.

Finally, we finish with some articles about our animal friends. The always thought-provoking Neuroanthropology which provides two posts with video footage of cooperative hunting in chimpanzees. As they say – “The videos raise questions about our own animal nature, as well as what is the dividing line between our own minds and the minds of some of our closest relatives.”

Obviously, none of those chimpanzees have robotic cyber-implants, unlike the monkey discussed in a Pure Pendantry piece on a recent Nature Neuroscience article. But it’s not just cyber-monkeys, it’s also radioactive mice! Neurotopia has the low-down on the effects of exercise on hippocampal cell proliferation in irradiated mice. I’m sure there’s a Marvel comic that starts like that but I dread to think which one.

Along the same lines of a science-fiction plotline become reality, Neurophilosophy looks at recent research on how individual memories were erased in mice. And if your hero needs a daring getaway, there’s more from the same source on staggering escape mechanism of the crayfish.

Synaesthesia induced by hypnosis

Wired Science has an interesting preview of an upcoming study that used hypnosis to induce colour-number synaesthesia in highly hypnotisable participants.

Synaesthesia is where the senses merge, and in colour-number synaesthesia, the affected people experience colours associated with specific numbers.

This new study used hypnosis to induce exactly this experience in people who didn’t have it before:

The researchers, led by Roi Kadosh of University College, London and Luis Fuentes of Spain’s University of Murcia, put three women and one man under hypnosis, then instructed them to perceive digits in color: one as red, two as yellow, three as green, and so on.

Upon waking, the subjects found it difficult to find numbers printed in black ink against correspondingly colored backgrounds. The numbers seemed to blend in — a telltale sign of synesthesia. When the hypnosis was removed, the ability vanished.

How the synesthesia formed so suddenly isn’t clear, but the researchers said that new neural connections are probably not responsible. “Such new anatomical connections could not arise, become functional, and suddenly degenerate in the short time scale provided by the current experiment,” they wrote.

Instead they suggest that hypnosis broke down neurological barriers between sensory regions. Marks agreed, but cautioned against extrapolating the findings too broadly: Many different varieties of synesthesia exist, from seeing emotions to tasting sounds, and may have different neurological and psychological origins.

Hypnosis has been studied before for it’s ability to induce anomalous colour experiences.

In a study published in 2000, the researchers used hypnosis to induce the experience of colour when the participants were viewing a black and white image, as well as the reverse.

What was most fascinating about this particular study was that it was run in a PET scanner and the researchers discovered that the colour-based focused hypnotic suggestions actually altered the function the colour perception areas in the visual cortex, which is known to be involved in the perception of colour.

In other words, it is likely that hypnosis was not simply leading the people to make false claims, but was actually affecting what they perceived.

Link to ‘Hypnosis Lets Regular People See Numbers as Colors’.
Link to PubMed entry for colour study (with full-text link).

I am a committee, chaired by a hedonist

Psychologist Paul Bloom has written a wonderfully eclectic article for The Atlantic magazine about the psychology of pleasure and why it suggests that we have multiple situation-specific selves.

The piece is a little disjointed in places but it is packed full of information and if nothing else you get a good sense of the enthusiasm for this developing field.

One area of pleasure research not mentioned in Bloom’s piece is the fascinating work of Michel Cabanac, who has a theory that pleasure is the decision-making currency of the brain.

New Scientist had an excellent article on Cabanac’s work which you can read online, and makes an excellent complement to The Atlantic piece.

However, Bloom is more concerned with how we resist the temptation of pleasure using ‘self-binding’ – in other words, doing things that will reduce the chances of us succumbing to temptation later on. Like getting someone to hide your cigarettes if you’re trying to give up.

For adult humans, though, the problem is that the self you are trying to bind has resources of its own. Fighting your Bad Self is serious business; whole sections of bookstores are devoted to it. We bribe and threaten and cajole, just as if we were dealing with an addicted friend. Vague commitments like “I promise to drink only on special occasions” often fail, because the Bad Self can weasel out of them, rationalizing that it’s always a special occasion. Bright-line rules like “I will never play video games again” are also vulnerable, because the Bad Self can argue that these are unreasonable—and, worse, once you slip, it can argue that the plan is unworkable.

For every argument made by the dieting self—“This diet is really working” or “I really need to lose weight”—the cake eater can respond with another—“This will never work” or “I’m too vain” or “You only live once.” Your long-term self reads voraciously about the benefits of regular exercise and healthy eating; the cake eater prefers articles showing that obesity isn’t really such a problem. It’s not that the flesh is weak; sometimes the flesh is pretty damn smart.

Link to Atlantic article ‘First Person Plural’.
Link to NewSci piece ‘The Pleasure Seekers’.

Milgram’s culture shock

ABC Radio National’s Radio Eye has one of the best documentaries on Milgram’s conformity experiments that I’ve ever heard. It follows up several of the people who took part in the original experiment and weaves their stories into the audio from the original and chilling tapes of the actual sessions.

You’ll have to be quick because the audio is only online for another week or two and it’s a 50-minute must-listen programme that is wonderfully produced.

The tapes of the actual sessions are remarkable and you can feel the psychological tension as the study progresses.

As well as being a detailed guide to the study, it’s a fascinating look at the experience of taking part in a process that had as much impact for the ethical changes that it triggered as for the implications for what we know about conformity and social pressure.

Link to Radio Eye ‘Beyond the Shock Machine’ (via AITM Blog).

Creationists unaware of past, doomed to repeat it

New Scientist has an article on a group of creationists who are attempting to argue that we have a soul based on the difficulty of reducing mental events to neurobiology. The article makes out that this is a new front on the ‘war on science’ but I wouldn’t be manning the barricades quite yet, as the issue has been around as long as neuroscience itself.

The creationist-affiliated researchers suggest that the ‘mind-body problem‘ – the difficulty in explaining subjective mind states in terms of objective biological processes – means that the mind must be partly non-material and, therefore, have some spiritual aspect to it (i.e. the soul).

What’s interesting in this debate as many scientists respond by simply denying there is a problem and suggesting that this is just a issue of progress and eventually we will be able to explain every mind state in terms of brain function.

This is unlikely, however, owing to the fact that the mind and brain are described with different properties and so cannot be entirely equivalent. Therefore, one will never be completely reduced to the other.

This does not imply that there must be a soul or non-material mind at work. If this doesn’t seem obvious to you, try this example.

Why does Elvis not want you to step on his blue suede shoes? You buy a copy of the track on CD but analysing the physics of the sound waves in the song will not fully answer your question.

You might find out that the volume or pitch increases at specific points to highlight certain key phrases, but you can’t fully understand why Elvis is so protective of his new shoes through physics alone.

In other words, you can’t explain everything about the song through objective scientific methods. This does not mean your CD, or the sound waves, have a soul.

The same goes for the mind and brain. There are some things we talk about in terms of experience, mental events and thoughts that will not be adequately explained at the level of objective biological measures. Similarly, this does not imply the existence of a soul.

Importantly, it doesn’t disprove the existence of a soul either, because unless you make specific falsifiable statements about what a soul actually does in the brain in an empirically testable way, science can’t test it one way or another. It can only make inferences.

On the basis of the fact that no proposed ‘soul effect’ has ever been detected, most neuroscientists think that a non-material aspects to the mind doesn’t exist. The mind, like Elvis songs, are just part of the world, even if we need to use different levels of meaning to fully explain them.

However, some neuroscientists think different, and have done for as long as neuroscience has been around, and this is why this ‘new’ development is unlikely to be a big threat.

In fact, Nobel-prize winning neuroscientist Sir John Eccles believed until his dying day that there was a non-material aspect to the mind. Dana Magazine has a great article on Eccles’ dualism which is well worth reading if you want a summary of his views.

But this just illustrates the point that the recent claims by creationist-affiliated researchers are neither new nor particularly threatening. Neuroscience has not come crashing to the ground, and science seems remarkably untroubled.

UPDATE: The Neurologica Blog also has some great coverage of the NewSci piece and has more of an in-depth analysis.

Link to NewSci piece ‘Creationists declare war over the brain’.
Link to Dana article on Eccles’ dualism.

2008-10-24 Spike activity

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

Being altruistic makes you hot, finds new research covered by Medical News Today.

Neuronarrative is a high-quality new mind and brain blog. Highly recommended.

The San Franciso Chronicle has an excellent piece on the place of brain scans in the courtroom.

In light of the recent controversy over a murder conviction in India where ‘brain scan lie detection’ was admitted as evidence, Wired covers the aftermath and the protest of Indian scientists.

BBC News has a video on research looking at the link between dancing style, attractiveness and ‘fitness’ as a potential mate.

Hypnosis, memory and amnesia are discussed by one of the leading hypnosis research groups in the Scientific American Mind Matters blog. This see post for our own coverage of the this fascinating study.

BBC News covers new research that finds mentally demanding jobs may protect against Alzheimer’s. More evidence that staying active keeps the brain healthy.

Creationist ‘fossilised brain‘ ridiculousness is covered by Pharyngula. Looks more like a cauliflower to me.

But wait, brain found inside watermelon. The final nail in the coffin for evolutionary theory.

Alternet has an extended article on the Johns Hopkins research into the medical benefits of the hallucinogenic drug psilocybin (thanks Sandy!).

Neuroanthropology previews an upcoming conference on the ‘encultured brain‘.

The Top 10 Bipolar Blogs of 2008 are presented by PsychCentral.

Being a <a href="”>daddy makes you kinder and smarter, reports the Times. Presumably, this helps make up for the sleep deprivation.

New Scientist reports that a computer circuit has been built from brain cells. NetBSD port to follow shortly.

Paul Bloom is interviewed by The Boston Globe about the psychology of believing in the soul. Presumably it refers to the eternal soul rather than Marvin Gaye.

The BPS Research Digest covers an interesting study on social norm violations in fans queuing for a U2 gig.

A funky guide to all things dopamine is provided by Neurotopia.

Submit your entries for Encephalon, this Monday

The next edition of the Encephalon psychology and neuroscience writing carnival will be hosted here on Monday 27th October, so submit your best mind and brain writing from the last fortnight if you’d like it featured.

You can email me directly via this web form or you can email your links to [at sign]

Please put the word ‘Encephalon’ in the subject line. I look forward to reading all the submissions!

False advertising statistics effective, say 9 out of 10 cats

Ars Technica has a fantastic article on a recent study that found that numerical specifications in adverts have a huge effect on our choices, even when they’re meaningless.

The numbers can be ratings, technical details, supposed representations of quality – it doesn’t seem to matter. In general, bigger is better and the study found that we tend to be swayed by the numbers even when it directly contradicts our experience.

The first test involved megapixels. The authors took a single image, and used Photoshop to create a sharper version, and one with more vivid colors; they told the students that the two versions came from different cameras. When told nothing about the cameras, about 25 percent of the students chose the one that had made the sharper image. But providing a specification reversed that. When told that the other model captured more pixels using a figure based on the diagonal of the sensor, more than half now picked it. When it comes to specs, bigger is better, too, even if the underlying property is the same. Given the value in terms of the total number of pixels captured, the preference for the supposedly high-resolution camera shot up to 75 percent.

The researchers thought this might be a problem with the fact that not everyone is technically minded, so they tried various other experiments with everything from scented oil to ice-cream – all with the same effect.

To quote the researchers “even when consumers can directly experience the relevant products and the specifications carry little or no new information, their preference is still influenced by specifications, including specifications that are self-generated and by definition spurious and specifications that the respondents themselves deem uninformative.”

Link to Ars Technica write-up of study.
Link to study paper.
Link to DOI.