Humour as social bargaining

3QuarksDaily has an interesting piece on the psychology of humour and how it is used to negotiate and establish social hierarchies.

The article looks at two theories of humour that try understand what makes something funny. A common explanation is the ‘incongruity’ idea, that suggests when something is suddenly out of context it is more likely to seem funny.

But as the article notes, these theories “fail to explain why we are amused by certain instances of incongruity ‚Äì a man showing up to his job at a real-estate agency with a ‚Äúkick me‚Äù sign on his back ‚Äì but not others ‚Äì a man showing up to his job at a real-estate agency with a cure for cancer”.

The other approach is the ‘superiority’ theory, that suggests that humour is used to establish social hierarchies – those considered objects of humour are further down the social ranking.

But it’s also the case that we seem to use it as a form of flattery for our superiors – various studies (nicely summarised in this NYT article) find that we are much more likely to laugh at the jokes of people higher up the social hierarchy.

The 3QD piece considers the role, development, and rather intriguingly the morality of humour. It’s a little short on links to actual studies which is a little frustrating but it otherwise an interesting and informative exploration.

Link to 3QuarksDaily article ‘Is Humor Immoral?’.

Neuropod on HM, brain banking and 2008 highlights

The latest Nature Neuropod podcast has just hit the wires and as is fitting for the December edition it contains a great roundup of the year’s neuroscience highlights.

There’s also a tribute to recently departed HM from neuropsychologist Susan Corkin, a visit to the UCL brain bank (check the wonderfully appropriate Hammer Horror German accent) and some interesting updates from the world of molecular neuroscience.

In the final section, Nature Neuroscience editor Charvy Narain discusses her highlights of the year in new discoveries and what better way to end the year.

Link to Neurpod page and streaming.
mp3 of December podcast.

Out of sight but not out of mind

Not Exactly Rocket Science discusses the case of a man who experiences the world as a blind man, but who is able to navigate through rooms despite having no conscious visual experience.

TN was a doctor before two successive strokes destroyed his ability to see. The first one severely damaged the occipital lobe on the left side of his brain, which contains the visual cortex. About a month later, a second stroke took out the equivalent area on the right hemisphere [see MRI scan image on the left]. TN is one-of-a-kind, the only known patient with damage like this in the entire medical literature. The fibres that connect the occipital lobes on the right and left halves of the brain have also been severely damaged and tests reveal that no blood flows between these disconnected areas.

Alan Pegna from the University of Bangor in Wales was the first to study TN’s abilities after he was recovering from this second stroke in a Swiss hospital. Pegna was the first to discover TN has an ability called blindsight, that allows him to unconsciously detect things in his environment without any awareness of doing so. He could correctly guess the emotions playing across the faces of other people. And as he did so, his right amygdala – an area of the brain involved in processing emotions – became active.

Blindsight is a condition where, after brain injury, patients lack conscious visual experience but can perform some visual tasks successfully despite thinking they are just guessing.

The first case of blindsight was reported in 1974 by neuropsychologist Larry Weiskrantz, although as with the majority of blindsight cases the patient wasn’t completely blind – in this case it was only for vision on the left hand side.

However, the patient was still able to reliably point to the locations of lights flashed up in the area, despite having no conscious experience of seeing them.

Despite damage to the cortical visual areas in the occipital lobe, it is likely that the earlier subcortical areas, such as the lateral geniculate nucleus (LGN) and the superior colliculus, allow for decision making on the basis of unconscious visual information.

In the new study, the patient is able to use this to avoid obstacles in his path, despite not being conscious of ‘seeing’ them.

This patient has a complete blindness and can complete relatively complex visual tasks without conscious awareness, making him one of the most interesting cases to come to light.

As well as being brilliantly written, the post is illustrated with a video of him avoiding obstacles in a room while walking. Impressive stuff.

Link to NERS post on blindsight case.
Link to study.
Link to DOI entry for same.

Encephalon 61 jingles in

The 61st edition of the Encephalon psychology and neuroscience writing carnival has just made a seasonal entrance and has some quality holiday reading from the last fortnights mind and brain blogging.

A couple of my favourites include Cognitive Daily’s post on an interesting visual imagery experiment that addresses whether it is sexist to think men are angrier than women, and an awesome (and I mean awesome) visual illusion posted on the excellent Illusion Sciences blog.

This edition has a remarkable number of high quality article, so do wander over and have a look.

Link to Encephalon 61.

Triggering the dreamy state

The great British neurologist John Hughlings-Jackson famously described the ‘dreamy state’ reported by some epileptic patients during seizures where they experienced complex hallucinations – sometimes of scenes and faces, feelings of false familiarity and a feeling of ‘weirdness’ or ‘strangeness’.

A study published last year in neurology journal Brain re-examined these experiences by deliberately triggering them by electrically stimulating the brain.

The participants were all patients with epilepsy who were having neurosurgery to treat their otherwise untreatable seizures and the researchers, led by neurologist Jean-Pierre Vignal, specifically stimulated areas in the mesial [inner] temporal lobes.

The feelings of false familiarity are what we normally called d√©j√† vu, but actually we tend to misapply this term as it means ‘already seen’ and refers specifically to a false familiarity for visual perception.

However, it can also occur for anything we experience, such as hearing other people say things, and is more correctly called d√©j√† v√©cu (‘already experienced’) in the literature.

Here are a few of the triggered experiences:

D√©j√† v√©cu (3 volts, right amygdala) – “It’s like yesterday evening … I have the impression that everything around me has been here before, that it has already happened, I feel as if I am going backwards in time”

Scene: reliving a parachute jump (3.5 volts, right hippocampus)

Familiar television advertisement (4 volts, right amygdala)

Impression of being elsewhere (3 volts, right hippocampus)

Scene from childhood (2 milliamps, right amygdala) – “Vision of a bald man dressed in black, coming towards her from behind; associated with a feeling of imminent death; she is pale, with piloerection. She is re-experiencing an experience of anaesthesia by facemask during a tonsillectomy at the age of 14 years”

Impression of being someone else (2 milliamps, left amygdala)

Impression of leaving his body (2.5 milliamps, left amygdala)

Night-time scene (1.2 milliamps, left hippocampus) – “I’m starting to see lots of things, loads of people … it’s still vague and strange. I’ve got an initial picture, a memory … I feel locked in again, something to do with the evening, the night … it’s strange … . like after a party, sad things … there is a mixture of last night and this morning … ‚Äô These remarks were peri-ictal [during the seizure]. After the end of the discharge, there was complete amnesia.”

Scene (4 milliamps, right hippocampus) – “It’s starting, it’s rising up to my eyes … I’m always frightened of something … I feel something, like in dreams, I always see people, loads of people, people that I see in the hospital…”

Familiar character from a film (1.5 millamps, left amygdala)

Ill-defined, unpleasant vision (1.5 milliamps, left hippocampus)

Familiar vision that he is unable to describe (1.5 milliamps, left parahippocampal gyrus)

Vision of a familiar person (1.5 milliamps, left parahippocampal gyrus)

Recent scene (1.5 milliamps, right hippocampus) – “I see myself playing the drums, with people from my family listening to me”

The technique of electrically stimulating the brain to trigger certain experiences was pioneered by Canadian neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield and there’s an excellent account of his life and work on Neurophilosophy if you’d like some background.

This new study is open-access and completely fascinating, so is definitely worth a read.

Link to ‘The dreamy state: hallucinations of autobiographic memory evoked by temporal lobe stimulations and seizures’.

Understanding the world through perception

ABC Radio National’s excellent The Philosopher’s Zone recently broadcast a great programme on one of the most influential philosophers in cognitive science – the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

The first part of the programme deals with a broad overview of his life and ideas while the second section discusses his most famous work where analysed concepts behind the psychology of perception.

Merleau-Ponty was a phenomenologist, a philosophical tradition that aims to understand the structure of the mind through the analysis of conscious experience.

Introspection and subjective judgements about the mind get a bad rap in modern psychology but actually form the basis upon which much cognitive science rests.

To study something scientifically, it needs to be distinguished from other things – so we need to decide what sorts of things there are before we can apply science. As philosophy is essentially ‘conceptual engineering’, one of its most important roles is to make sure that these distinctions are based on sound concepts.

Many of the phenomenologists were interested in how we generate these concepts and looked to the structure of the human mind for clues. They came to the conclusion that there may be certain aspects of the mind that lead us to understand the world in specific ways.

Merleau-Ponty strongly argued that perception, including the whole experience of the body, was one of the most important influences and that if we rely solely on an objective and abstract science we will never understand lived-experience itself.

Link to the Philosopher’s Zone on Merleau-Ponty.

First they came for the children

Brian the Brain is a wise-cracking interactive AI toy that talks, plays songs, makes calls, answers general knowledge questions, helps the kids with their homework and plays games. In other words, it’s an AI-powered baby sitter.

Billed as the world’s first digital room-mate, it has a slick promotional video that belies its function as propaganda device for the coming robot war.

If you’re still not convinced, this other video of stacks of animated Brian the Brain’s in a toy store should send you running to the bunkers.

Lest we forget: “The machines rose from the ashes of the nuclear fire, their war to exterminate mankind has raged for decades, but the final battle would not be fought in the future. It would be fought here, in our present.”

In the toy shops.

Link to Brian the Brain website.

Dreams and the Fear of the Dead

Neuroanthropology has an excellent piece riffing on my recent article on grief hallucinations where I wondered about cultural differences in re-experiencing the dead.

The post discusses work by the evocatively-named anthropologist Donald Tuzin who studied the Ilahita Arapesh of northeastern Papua New Guinea and how they mesh their beliefs and practices of death and afterlife with everyday experience.

Some of Tuzin’s work in this area is published in a wonderful article entitled ‘The Breath of a Ghost: Dreams and the Fear of the Dead’.

It gets a bit spuriously psychoanalytic in places but has some wonderful descriptions of how funeral practices are linked to beliefs about ghosts and their influences. Crucially he argues that it is the demands of everyday life that shape these beliefs, and not vice versa.

At Neuroanthropology Daniel discusses it in light of more up-to-date work and the wider perspective from Tuzin’s long career.

It’s certainly an interesting area, but although re-experiencing of the dead is so common, I didn’t realise quite what a touchy subject it could be. All hell broke loose (excuse the pun) in the comments to the original article.

This is my favourite:

Mr. Vaughn [sic] Bell might find himself in court for libel after accusing everyone who has seen or felt a presence of being a drug addict, alcoholic or ill in some way. His one-sided argument could be the result of stupidity or perhaps some mental defect that prevents him from being intelligent enough to know the difference between a hallucination and an actual ghost/spirit/spectre/haunt. Next he will tell us that the earth is flat, and anyone who thinks it is round is a heretic, and that big yellow thing we call the sun is just an illusion.

Sir, I grew up in Britain. We know the sun is an illusion.

Link to Neuroanthropology on ‘Donald Tuzin and the Breath of a Ghost’.

2008-12-19 Spike activity

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

The visually unappealing but fascinating Culture and Cognition blog has a fantastic piece on new research showing it’s possible to predict hot topics before they become hot, based on an analysis of YouTube videos.

Cognitive dissonance in action: Scientific American reports on a study finding that soldiers who have taken a life more likely to defend Iraq war.

New Scientist has more psychology of soldiering news, reporting that higher IQ WWII soldiers were less likely to survive the war – although the IQ difference is pretty minimal.

An interesting publication in Neuropsychological Rehabilitation on amnesic patient Clive Wearing, discussing whether his persistent experience that he has “awoken for the very first time” is a delusion or coping strategy.

The New York Times has an obituary of Nobel-prize winning neuroscientist and sex offender, D. Carleton Gajdusek.

New technology to monitor the brain could be used to assist fighter pilots, reports Wired.

PLoS One has an interesting paper entitled ‘Losing the Big Picture: How Religion May Control Visual Attention’.

If you’ve not caught the latest Neuropod yet, it’s a special report with highlights from the Society for Neuroscience conference.

Neurophilosophy and Ars Technica have two of the best articles on the recent research on images reconstructed from brain activity. Black mark for any one of the news outlets that drivelled-on about brain scans displaying dreams.

The Neurocritic casts a sarcastic eye over recent research on the cognitive neuroscience of crime and punishment. I’m not entirely sure whether ‘sarcastic eye’ makes sense, but you get the picture.

The ’12 laws’ of emotions are discussed on PsyBlog.

An interesting article on the cultural construction of disease is published on BBC News as they cover the curiously French diagnosis of ‘heavy legs‘.

The Wall Street Journal has an op-ed arguing we should end drug prohibition based on the US’s previous disastrous experiment with prohibition.

Dr Petra takes down the latest in the long line of fake formula nonsense.

The year in mental health is <a href="”>reviewed by Psych Central.

My Mind in Books previews upcoming philosophy of mind books for 2009.

Antidepressants may damage more sex lives than previously thought, reports The Boston Globe.

Scientific American has an interesting article on visual problems caused by brain damage that has a confusing title that spuriously uses the word ‘mind’.

Lyrical and level-headed cognitive science writer Jonah Lehrer is interviewed by The New York Times about his forthcoming book on how we choose.

New Scientist has an online experiment you can take part in as part of a research project being conducted with psychologist Richard Wiseman.

Manipulating customers’ credit card repayment behaviour and profit through the use of ‘anchoring’ to set the minimum repayment. An interesting piece on the NYT’s Freakanomics Blog.

Furious Seasons reports how under-fire pharma researcher Charles Nemeroff wrote himself a letter as editor of a psychiatry journal to request an academic article praising a specific antidepressant produced by a drug company he took money from and offering himself $3,000 for his efforts. You couldn’t make it up.

Under-fire pharma researcher Fred Goodwin writes to the Trouble with Spikol blog and makes some good points in his defence.

Neuronarrative has an interesting piece on how older people may be better at filtering out negative memories than younger people.

Aren’t Spike Activity posts long these days? Compare with the first edition.

Between a rock and a hard bass

The British Medical Journal has just published one of the greatest and funniest research articles ever to grace the pages of the medical literature with a paper on the potential neurological consequences of headbanging to heavy metal.

As someone who once caused himself concussion and several hours of puking from head banging to Metallica at the age of 14, I feel this is important and invaluable research.

The researchers, Australian rockers Declan Patton and Andrew McIntosh, attended a number of heavy metal concerts to observe the most common forms of headbanging (the ‘up-down style’ apparently), and then did a biomechanical analysis to estimate the forces operating on the head and brain.

They also convened a focus group of local rockers to list their favourite headbanging classics, and modelled the physical stresses based on the tempo of the tracks.

They discovered that headbanging to songs with a tempo above 146 beats per minute when the head motion was more than 75 degrees was the point at which brain injury was likely to occur.

It’s traditional that the Christmas edition of the BMJ has a more light-hearted article. This study is a little different in that the science is completely bona fide, but the scientific paper is a very funny read.

Their public health recommendations are a particular gem:

Though exposure to head banging is enormous, opportunities are present to control this risk‚Äîfor example, encouraging bands such as AC/DC to play songs like “Moon River” as a substitute for “Highway to Hell”; public awareness campaigns with influential and youth focused musicians, such as Sir Cliff Richard; labelling of music packaging with anti-head banging warnings, like the strategies used with cigarettes; training; and personal protective equipment.

Great article, fantastic title, and completely open access.

Rock on!

Link to ‘Head and neck injury risks in heavy metal’.

Exploring the extended mind

The Philosopher’s Magazine has an interesting interview with David Chalmers on the extended mind hypothesis – the idea that the mind exists not only in ourselves but is extended out to the technology we use.

However, the technology does not have to be computers and digital technology, something as simply as a notebook is enough:

‚ÄúThe central example in our original paper was an Alzheimer‚Äôs patient. We called him Otto. Like a lot of Alzheimer‚Äôs patients, to get around, he uses external tools to manage his life. In particular, he carries a notebook around everywhere with relevant information and consults it whenever he needs it. So, when a normal person thinks, ‘I want to go to the museum,’ they recall, ‘OK, the museum‚Äôs on 53rd Street’ and off they go. When Otto wants to go to the museum, he looks it up in his notebook, reads the museum is on 53rd Street and off he goes.

“We argue this is part of his memory all along. We would say that even before the ordinary person recalled the information, they believed the museum was on 53rd Street. Why? Because that stuff was there in their memory, available, so to speak, for them. Exactly the same is true of Otto: that information was there in his memory, in the notebook, available for him there when he wants it. So we argue even before he read the information from the notebook, he believed that the museum was on 53rd Street.”

It’s interesting to note that language, is, of course, a technology, despite the fact we tend to think of it as something largely internal.

Chalmers also goes on to discuss the limitations of the theory and discusses what the idea implies for our concepts of the mind as they relate to the brain and the material world.

Link to Philosopher’s Magazine interview ‘A Piece of iMe’.
Link to original Clark and Chalmers extended mind paper.

The brand new book of human troubles

With three years still left until publication, the fights over the new version of the psychiatric diagnostic manual, the DSM-V, are hotting up and The New York Times has a concise article that covers most of the main point of contention.

“What you have in the end,” Mr. Shorter said, “is this process of sorting the deck of symptoms into syndromes, and the outcome all depends on how the cards fall.”

Psychiatrists involved in preparing the new manual contend that it is too early to say for sure which cards will be added and which dropped.

Although I doubt the DSM committee are using that exact metaphor, it certainly illustrates the point that the process requires a certain degree of value-judgement.

It’s interesting, however, that the public debate is currently focused on whether certain diagnoses should be included or not, rather than whether diagnosis itself is useful for psychiatry.

We’ve had psychometrics for a good 100 years that allow us to measure dimensions of human experience and performance with a much greater degree of accuracy than clinical diagnosis allows.

The slightly obsessive need to classify everything is both an inheritance from the infection model of disease, where one either has the pathogen or does not, and is encouraged by the US health care system, where insurance companies will only pay for treatment if it is diagnosed with an ‘official’ diagnosis.

Nevertheless, it is perfectly possible to treat someone based on continuous measures of distress, impairment and functioning using evidence-based cut-off points to judge whether a particular treatment should be applied.

In fact, many physical diseases are treated in exactly this way. The definitions of obesity, hypertension, diabetes and many others rely on an evidence-based cut-off point on a continuous scale of weight, blood pressure and blood glucose level.

There is no qualitatively different cut-and-dry distinction between just below the cut-off and just above it – it’s just the point at which outcome studies predict that other things get much worse.

So rather than questioning the process, we need also to question the system, because diagnoses are tools and we need to know when and where they are most useful.

Link to NYT ‘Psychiatrists Revise the Book of Human Troubles’.

You have 12 months to comply

If you’re waiting for the singularity, you may want a way to tick off the days until the ultimate destiny of the technohuman, or the imminent destruction of the world by AI killing machines, depending on your point of view.

If you’re more persuaded by the second scenario, wouldn’t it be great to have a calendar illustrated with prototypes of our future robot masters?

Of course it would, and QinetiQ North America have obliged with a 2009 calendar showcasing the best of their hi-tech combat robots.

Yes, that is a picture of the TALON combat unit wearing a Santa hat, standing next to a reindeer.

Wired have some of the best pages from the calendar, and the other months are equally as amusing.

Laugh while you can!

Link to Wired on ‘Warbot Pinup Calendar’.

Excessive and highly structured daydreaming

An article in press for Consciousness and Cognition reports the case of a 36 year-old woman with a long history of excessive daydreaming where she’d spent long periods of time wrapped up in a fantasy world.

Importantly, the patient has no significant signs of mental illness and can easily distinguish fantasy from reality but just gets caught up in her internal reveries.

The subject of this case report is a professionally accomplished 36-year-old female presenting with a long history of excessive and highly structured daydreaming which she states has contributed to considerable distress during periods of her life. The patient is single, does not smoke, drink or use illegal drugs, and comes from a supportive and healthy family, reporting no abuse or trauma in her history.

Her distress, though subjectively reported as significant enough to seek and continue psychiatric treatment, remains difficult for us to diagnose. The imaginative episodes and their content are experienced as neither dysphoric nor intrusive, and the patient has been rigorously assessed for contributing or comorbid symptoms of mood, anxiety, personality, schizotypal, dissociative, and attentional disorders; indeed we have monitored her for over ten years, and have employed all clinical psychiatric measures available to consistently rule out comorbidity or mental status change in her case.

We have tenuously viewed her symptoms as indicating possible features of obsessive-compulsive behavior, reflected in the prescription of 50 mg/day of fluvoxamine, an antidepressant believed to influence obsessiveness and/or compulsivity. The medication has been continued for 10 years, as the patient affirms this treatment has made her daydreaming much easier to control. She reports that occasionally the amount of time spent daydreaming will rise and she will increase her dosage of fluvoxamine briefly until it subsides…

Recently, the patient discovered a website containing a surprising number of anonymous postings on the topic of excessive or uncontrolled daydreaming. Numerous posters described patterns and tendencies that appeared remarkably consistent with the patient’s experience (including the original pacing behavior) and emphasized the stress of concealing their imaginary lives and the attendant shame, confusion, and difficulty in controlling their divided realities.

Link to case study.
Link to DOI entry for same.

Cajal on my shirt

For reasons that escape me, most student psychology and neuroscience t-shirts are pretty dreadful, but this one’s actually had some thought put into it and looks pretty cool.

It’s an antidote to the ‘neuroscientists do it on impulse’ or ‘yes I’m analyzing you’ shirts that seem to be the staple of university associations.

It’s from Canada’s Undergraduate Neuroscience Society and uses one of Ramon y Cajal’s drawings of neurons for the front design and a simple and unobtrusive UNS logo for the backprint.

Abstract enough to be hip and obscure enough to be in the know.

The photo is the male / unisex t-shirt but they also do a girlie T for those wanting a sexier fit.

Link to boys / unisex UNS t-shirt.
Link to girlie fit UNS t-shirt.

Robert Zajonc has left the building

The New York Times has an obituary to psychologist Robert Zajonc, who made some of the most significant discoveries in cognitive science. What I didn’t know is that he’d also been bombed, captured by the Nazi’s, made his escape, joined the French resistance and acted as a translator for the Allied forces during the War.

Zajonc was one of those unsung heroes of psychology who you probably know through his discoveries, even if you don’t recognise the name.

He discovered the ‘mere exposure effect‘, the effect of birth order on IQ, the interaction between audience and expertise, and that smiles can lift the mood as well as be triggered by happiness.

Professor Zajonc was perhaps best known for discovering what he called the “mere exposure” effect. In a seminal experiment, published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1968, he showed subjects a series of random shapes in rapid succession. The shapes appeared and disappeared so quickly that it was impossible to discern that some of them were actually repeated. Nevertheless, when subjects were later asked which shapes they found most pleasing, they reliably chose the ones to which they had been exposed the most often, though they had no conscious awareness of the fact.

I had the experience of reading through the piece thinking, ‘wow, I didn’t realise all these discoveries were from the same guy’.

Link to NYT obituary for psychologist Robert Zajonc (via AHP).