Match maker’s intuition

Photo by Flickr user just.K. Click for sourceThe BPS Research Digest covers an intriguing study finding that observers can reliably tell within 10 seconds whether a girl and a guy who have just met fancy each other.

The research was based on a speed dating study, which, to be honest, immediately put me off as they typically just correlate features of the individuals with their date choices – but this study is a little different.

The speed dating was used just to record videos of the daters meeting and interacting with each other, and the participants in the study were just asked to watch the videos and rate when they thought the chemistry was flowing between any particular couple.

From the BPS Research Digest write-up:

Skyler Place and colleagues made their finding using footage of couples on speed-dates. Fifty-four students observed dozens of 10-, 20- or 30-second clips of real speed dating interactions and attempted to say in each case whether each person was romantically interested in the other.

The researchers had access to the daters’ real decisions about whether they were interested in any of their speed dates, and were able to compare these with the students’ judgements.

The students performed more accurately than would be expected had they simply been guessing. They judged the interest of the male daters with 61 per cent accuracy and the female daters with 58 per cent accuracy. Their accuracy was unaffected by the length of each clip, but was higher when the clip was taken from the middle or the end of a dating interaction. Students currently in a romantic relationship outperformed those who weren’t.

I was particularly interested in the results described in the last sentence.

In the scientific paper, the researchers suggest that this “could stem in part from learning through relationship experiences. Alternatively, it is possible that the social skills necessary to succeed in finding and maintaining a relationship also support the ability to correctly perceive romantic interest.”

Link to BPSRD on perceiving the hots study.
Link to DOI entry for scientific article.

Love is ye drug

Today’s Nature has a fascinating letter from ecologist Joan Ehrenfeld who notes that Shakespeare describes how potions made from certain psychoactive plants were used to encourage reluctant lovers in one of his most famous plays.

Ehrenfeld is riffing on a recent Nature feature article that discussed the neuroscience of love, which seems to have been made open-access.

In his Essay ‘Love: neuroscience reveals all’ (Nature 457, 148; 2009), Larry Young claims that the biochemical understanding of love is not poetry. But at least one poet, namely William Shakespeare, foretold the application of drugs to manipulate the brain systems associated with pair bonding.

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Oberon maintains that topical applications of the juice of the wild pansy (Viola tricolor, called ‘love-in-idleness’ in the play) “Will make or man or woman madly dote Upon the next live creature that it sees” (Act 2, Scene 1). The potion proves highly effective, supplying much of the humour in the play as Titania falls in love with the donkey-headed Bottom. Shakespeare also suggests that other substances from “Dian’s bud” ‚Äî variously identified as a species of wormwood (Artemisia spp.) or chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus, a species not native to England but long known for its anti-libidinal properties) ‚Äî could reverse the neurobiological results of the pansy. Perhaps poets have something to teach us about neurobiology and love after all.

Link to letter in Nature.
Link to Nature article ‘Being Human: Love: Neuroscience reveals all’.

Think of the children, not the evidence

The BBC’s flagship news analysis programme Newsnight featured a hefty segment on the ‘Facebook causes cancer / the end of the world as we know it’ nonsense that recently hit the headlines. The Beeb invited alarmist psychologist Aric Sigman on the show but, God bless ’em, they also invited Bad Science author Ben Goldacre who did a great job of countering the drivel. And due to wonders of the internet you can see the whole interview on YouTube.

The segment also features neuroscientist Susan Greenfield who has recently taken to warning everybody (including in the House of Lords believe it or not) about the ‘neurological dangers’ of children using the internet – based entirely on her own prejudices and in the absence of any good evidence.

She is featured in the TV report where, rather bizarrely, she admits there is no evidence but then goes on to warn of the dangers.

The debate between Goldacre and Sigman is pure TV gold, not least for watching Goldacre’s facial expressions.

Ben has also written-up the episode and put load of links and background material on Bad Science.

Link to Newsnight interview and debate.
Link to Bad Science with more on the debate.

Reigning in the extended mind

Philosopher Jerry Fodor has written a sceptical and entertaining review of a new book on the extended mind hypothesis – the idea that that we use technology to offload our mental processes and that such tools can be thought of as extensions of the mind itself.

The book in question is by fellow philosopher Andy Clark and is entitled Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action and Cognitive Extension.

It’s a development of the original idea, described in Clark and Chalmer’s 1998 article called ‘The Extended Mind’, and it’s clear that Jerry Fodor is not a fan.

However, it’s probably true to say that Fodor starts from a definition of the mind which already excludes any form of information recording technology, be it a computer or a notepad, whereas the extended mind argument argues that we should rethink exactly these sorts of definitions.

The review gets a bit muddy in the middle as Fodor tries unsuccessfully to explain the difference between the confusingly similar but subtly different philosophical concepts of intentionality and intensionality in a paragraph but the article remains enormously good fun throughout.

Link to London Review of Books article ‘Where is my mind?’ (thanks Paul!)

Key to neurosurgery success

I’ve just found this remarkable CT scan in a 1997 article entitled ‘Trans-orbital penetrating head injury with a door key’.

The paper reports that “A 71-year-old-female was answering the door when she misjudged the step and fell forward impaling herself on the large key protruding from the lock.”

She was found with the key still embedded in her head and was transferred to neurosurgery where the key was removed.

Thankfully, the patient recovered with no neurological impairment and only slight difficulties with her vision.

Link to PubMed entry for the case report.

Engraved brains

Neurophilosophy has just found some beautiful neuroanatomical engravings from an 1823 book called The Anatomy of the Brain, Explained in a Series of Engravings by the pioneering brain researcher Sir Charles Bell.

Those with a slightly medical tendency may know his name from Bell’s palsy, a facial muscle paralysis that usually affects one side, and is caused by damage to cranial nerve VII.

We have discussed Bell before on Mind Hacks, when we noted that he learnt his anatomy at a London strip club – although strictly speaking, he studied at a London anatomy school which is now one of the most famous strip clubs in London.

Neurophilosophy has some more of the fantastic engravings and recounts some of the background to the book and Bell’s work.

And if you’ve seen all of them, you may want to check out another great Neurophilosophy post on a intriguing brain scanning study that suggests that the visual cortex is used as storage during working memory for visual images.

Link to Neurophilosophy on antique brain engravings.

Social influences on the drug hit

Photo by Flickr user Victor Bezrukov. Click for sourceBBC Radio 4’s eclectic sociology programme Thinking Allowed recently had a fascinating discussion on how drug users learn to experience the effects of a substance and how society has an influence on the personal drug experience.

We tend to assume that drugs have fairly fixed effects but sociology has a long history of studying how users learn to manage and steer the effects of particular drugs.

The programme touches on Becker’s classic study [pdf] ‘Becoming a Marihuana User’ where he charted the informal social initiation into dope smoking in 1960s America.

Importantly, it wasn’t just the rituals that accompanied the smoking that were socially acquired, but also knowledge about what ‘counted’ as the enjoyable aspects of the drug, how to steer the effects and so on.

This is known to be particularly important for psychedelic drugs, with the so-called set and setting having a big influence over the likelihood of having an enjoyable trip.

However, the same applies to drugs such as alcohol, where the effects of having a drink varies between cultures, largely ascribed to the beliefs each culture instils about what are the likely and permissible effects of drunkenness.

This was tackled in another sociological classic, David Mandelbaum’s 1965 paper ‘Alcohol and culture’ where he described the different effects of alcohol in cultures around the world.

However, if you’re looking for a punchy overview of the field, the Social Issues Research Centre has a great page on the social and cultural aspects of drinking which I highly recommend.

These situation or culture specific effects have been tackled on the cognitive and neural level, but unfortunately I can’t access one of the key papers in the field [update: pdf], although the abstract has the main punchline:

In situations involving inter-neuronal events, these processes of adjustment may take the form of learned modifications that can be re-evoked on future occasions by events that co-occurred at the time of the original modifications.

Sensitization, defined as the enhancement of a directly elicited drug effect, though adaptive, appears to represent facilitation within a system, making the effect easier to elicit on future occasions.

Like tolerance, sensitization of a drug effect can become linked to the events that co-occurred when the effect was originally elicited, making it possible for sensitization to come under selective event control.

In other words, the article argues that learned associations have an effect on the overall experience of repeat drug taking. Of course culture can create learned associations, but changing the context can also mean certain associations are no longer triggered, leaving a great deal of room for situation specific effects.

UPDATE: Thanks to commenter dangermusic for finding a copy of the ‘key paper’ noted above. I’ve added a link into the text above or you can just grab it here as a pdf.

Link to Thinking Allowed on the sociology of drug effects.
pdf of ‘Becoming a Marihuana User’.
Link to excellent SIRC page on ‘Social and Cultural Aspects of Drinking’.