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.

Pentagon requests robot packs to hunt humans

New Scientist reports on a new Pentagon request to develop a pack of robots “to search for and detect a non-cooperative human”.

I am a strong believer in the fact that everyone who takes a course in artificial intelligence should be made to watch post-apocalyptic film The Terminator as a stark warning, in the same way that everyone who works with MRI scanners is made to watch serious videos about ‘what can go tragically wrong and how you can prevent it’.

I also suspect though, that the students who come out of those lectures rooting for the robots are recruited into military research teams.

From the Pentagon document:

Typical robots for this type of activity are expected to weigh less than 100 Kg and the team would have three to five robots.

PHASE I: Develop the system design and determine the required capabilities of the platforms and sensors. Perform initial feasibility experiments, either in simulation or with existing hardware. Documentation of design tradeoffs and feasibility analysis shall be required in the final report.

PHASE II: Implement the software and hardware into a sensor package, integrate the package with a generic mobile robot, and demonstrate the system‚Äôs performance in a suitable indoor environment. Deliverables shall include the prototype system and a final report, which shall contain documentation of all activities in this project and a user’s guide and technical specifications for the prototype system.

PHASE III: Robots that can intelligently and autonomously search for objects have potential commercialization within search and rescue, fire fighting, reconnaissance, and automated biological, chemical and radiation sensing with mobile platforms.

PHASE IV: Die puny humans die!

PHASE V: To the bunkers! Run for your lives! Arggghhhhh!

PHASE VI: Sarah Connor, we’re going to send you back in time to make a movie to warn everybody about the coming annihilation of the human race. Recruit a political leader so people will take it seriously – like Governor Schwarzenegger, for example.

Earlier this year, Israel announced that they want to develop an AI-controlled missile system that “could take over completely” from humans. If you’re still chucking, the UK military satellite system is called Skynet.

Link to NewSci on Pentagon opening Pandora’s box.
Link to Pentagon solicitation request.

Towards a neuropsychology of religion

This week’s Nature has a fascinating essay by anthropologist Pascal Boyer discussing the quirks of spiritual belief and how they may result from the evolution of our mind and brain.

Boyer is best known for his book Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought where he argued that religion can be understood as where the cognitive abilities we’ve developed through evolution are applied to things like group identity, ritual, or the explanation of otherwise mysterious things, such as weather or disease.

Essentially, Boyer argues that there are cognitive restraints on religious practice and belief, which he illustrates by pointing out some interesting inconsistencies in our intuitive ideas about spiritual agents. According to Boyer, this suggests that our mental capacities define what are supposed to be all-powerful or all-knowing entities.

This clip of Boyer being interview by Jonathan Miller is fascinating because he points out, contrary to popular belief, what most religions are concerned with. He notes most religions do not concern themselves with the creation of the world or the afterlife, while the presence of unseen agents is almost universal.

There is now a growing interest in the cognitive science of religion and one of my favourite articles is by psychiatrist Quinton Deeley who discusses how different form of religious ritual may influence specific cognitive functions to pass on religious teachings and commitments (full disclosure: Deeley is a friend and research collaborator).

Deeley argues that the well-known distinction between ‘doctrinal’ rituals which are frequent and low intensity (such as everyday prayers or practices), and ‘imagistic’ high-intensity, less-frequent rituals (such as exuberant religious celebrations) serve different psychological purposes.

‘Doctrinal’ rituals help create semantic memories of key concepts and emotional response through associative learning, while ‘imagistic’ rituals help create episodic memories of specific situations that may involve altered states of consciousness and the experience of other realities.

Deeley also did a fascinating talk on ‘Ritual, Possession Trance, and Amnesia’ where he discusses some of the neuropsycholgical mechanisms that might underlie trance and possessions states.

Link to Boyer’s Nature essay ‘Religion: Bound to believe?’.
Link to brief interview with Boyer on religion.
Link to Deeley’s article ‘The Religious Brain’.
Link to video of talk ‘Ritual, Possession Trance, and Amnesia’.

Neuropsychiatry in Venezuela

Apologies for the lack of posts, but I’ve just arrived in Punto Fijo in Venezuela, as I’ve kindly been invited to be a guest of the Venezuelan Psychiatric Society at their annual conference, where I shall be talking about the cognitive neuropsychiatry of psychosis later in the week.

Unfortunately it’s dark and I’ve been travelling since yesterday, so all I know about Punto Fijo is that it is supposed to be remarkably beautiful and it’s incredibly humid.

However, I spent a fantastic day in Caracas with Jorge, a superb colleague from Medellín, and Jose and Claudia, a Venezuelan psychiatrist and psychologist couple who graciously toured us through the city and showed two weary travellers some warm Venezuelan Hospitality.

Updates to follow shortly (after some well deserved sleep).

Monochrome dreaming

Watching black and white television as a child may explain why older people are less likely to dream in colour than younger people, according to new study reported in New Scientist.

The study is from psychologist Ewa Murzyn, who was interested in how early experience could affect our dream life.

She first asked 60 subjects – half of whom were under 25 and half of whom were over 55 – to answer a questionnaire on the colour of their dreams and their childhood exposure to film and TV. The subjects then recorded different aspects of their dreams in a diary every morning.

Murzyn found there was no significant difference between results drawn from the questionnaires and the dream diaries – suggesting that the previous studies were comparable.

She then analysed her own data to find out whether an early exposure to black-and-white TV could still have a lasting effect on her subjects dreams, 40 years later.

Only 4.4% of the under-25s’ dreams were black and white. The over-55s who’d had access to colour TV and film during their childhood also reported a very low proportion of just 7.3%.

But the over-55s who had only had access to black-and-white media reported dreaming in black and white roughly a quarter of the time.

It’s an interesting study because, as we recently discussed, philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel argued that exposure to TV was an unlikely explanation for the effect where we’ve tended to report more coloured dreams in modern times and suggested this actually showed we’re not very good at introspecting into our own minds.

This study provides some evidences that the effect may be more reliable than we think.

However, I’m still puzzled by why television would seem to have such a big influence so many years later when most of the visual experience the person would have received as a child, even if a heavy TV watcher, would be from the ‘real’ coloured world.


Link to NewSci on black and white dreams study (thanks Laurie!).
Link to scientific paper.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

Colombian Congress of Psychiatry report

I recently got back from the Colombian Congress of Psychiatry and was incredibly impressed both by the high standard of scientific work and the wonderfully welcoming people I met.

I have to say, I didn’t see quite as much of the conference as I normally would owing to the rather relentless pace of partying that seems to occur in Bogot√° (things I haven’t seen at UK psychiatry conferences: the president of the national psychiatric association stood atop a table getting everyone to wave their hands in the air like they just don’t care).

For me, one of the academic highlights was actually from a Spaniard, Julio Sanju√°n, who talked about some innovative research he’s doing on auditory hallucinations.

In one elegant study, Sanju√°n and his team decided to look at what sort of brain activation is triggered by neutral and emotional words in patients with schizophrenia who hear voices.

It’s remarkably how many studies in schizophrenia have been done of changes in visual perception when one of the major problems for many people with the diagnosis is that they hear intrusive and unpleasant hallucinated voices.

Sanju√°n came up with the idea of simply looking at how the brains of people with schizophrenia react to hearing emotional words (such as swear words) compared to neutral words – matched for word type and frequency.

The image on the right shows the remarkable difference, whereby emotional words cause a much larger response in the brain. In fact, they found they triggered much greater frontal lobe, temporal cortex, insula, cingulate, and amygdala activity, largely on the right.

It’s a ‘why didn’t I think of that’ study that might help explain why people with schizophrenia often find their voices so disabling when other people in the population can hear voices and remain undisturbed.

In terms of drug company ridiculousness that often appears as part of the ‘educational effort’ in European Conferences (i.e. models on bikes), it was remarkably muted in comparison.

However, one particular lowlight was finding out the session I was speaking at was being used by Janssen to advertise their ‘new’ antipsychotic paliperidone – which is actually little more than a repackaged risperidone.

Did I mention risperidone has just gone out of patent and can now be produced much more cheaply by other drug companies? Obviously nothing at all to do with Janssen having a newly patented drug to sell I’m sure.

Wave your hands in the air like you just don’t care.

Link to Sanju√°n study on emotional word reactivity.
Link to PubMed entry for same.