The cognitive neuroscience of eye contact

Image by Flickr user feastoffools. Click for sourceThe latest Trends in Cognitive Sciences has a fantastic review article on the cognitive neuroscience of eye contact, demonstrating how this fleeting social connection has a powerful impact on the mind and brain.

Past research has shown that making eye contact has an impact on social perception and subsequent behaviour.

The article notes that eye contact has been found to increase the likelihood of recognising someone and helps work out whether someone is male or female.

It also seems to increase general arousal and fixes attention – we’re less likely to notice things happening on the periphery of our vision if we’re staring at a face with eye contact than at a face where the eyes are diverted to the side.

In neuroimaging studies eye contact has been found to increase activity in a group of areas (medial prefrontal cortex, superior temporal gyrus, fusiform gyrus) that have often been associated with social interaction across a wide range of studies.

Interestingly, the authors suggest that basic eye contact information might be detected by a specific subcortical mechanism that quickly detects simple light/dark differences, presumably to pick out the direction of the pupil, which then triggers more complex social processing to make sense of its social meaning.

It’s an interesting field, not least because recognising eye contact and following the gaze direction of others are thought to be some of the most fundamental building blocks on which social communication develops in babies.

Children with autism have been found to show radically different patterns of eye contact recognition and gaze direction, and the authors suggest that one cause could be a problem with the these eye contact neural circuits which leads to slow or impaired social understanding.

Link to article on eye contact.
Link to DOI entry for same.

The cognitive fallacy of East is East and West is West

New Scientist has an excellent article on East-West psychological differences and why they may be more to do with local lifestyle than broad cultural generalisations.

Experiments that compare the responses of, for example, Americans and East Asians, are often used to support theories that Westerners have an analytical, individualistic world-view, while Easterners have a holistic, collectivist outlook.

This has been reported in studies that have compared how Westerners and Easterners categorise objects (shared features vs functional relationships), reasoning about causes for people’s behaviour (individual state of mind vs social situation) and, most famously in recent years, how people view visual scenes (focus on objects vs focus on background).

However, the NewSci article discusses a number of studies suggesting that these differences may not be to be with broad cultural definitions but to do with the lifestyle of the local population. In fact, these exact same differences can be found within both Eastern and Western cultures.

So it’s not all that surprising, perhaps, that other studies find that local and current social factors rather than the broad sweeps of history or geography tend to shape the way a particular society thinks. For example, Nisbett’s group recently compared three communities living in Turkey’s Black Sea region who share the same language, ethnicity and geography but have different social lives: farmers and fishers live in fixed communities and their trades require extensive cooperation, while herders are more mobile and independent.

He found that the farmers and fishers were more holistic in their psychology than herders, being more likely to group objects based on their relationships rather than their categories: they preferred to link gloves with hands rather than with scarves, for instance (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 105, p 8552). A similar mosaic pattern of thought can be found in the east. “Hokkaido is seen as the Wild West of Japan,” says Nisbett. “The citizens are regarded as cowboys – highly independent and individualistic – and sure enough, they’re more analytic in their cognitive style than mainland Japanese.”

Even more surprisingly, the article describes how these same cognitive tendencies are malleable – they can be changed in individuals by simply priming them with individualistic or collectivist concepts.

The article is a thought-provoking challenge to the East – West psychological stereotypes common in both the popular press and the scientific literature and discusses some intriguing studies I was completely unaware of.

By the way, the author is Ed Yong, who writes the Not Exactly Rocket Science blog we often link to.

An excellent article that is highly recommended.

Link to ‘Beyond east and west: How the brain unites us all’.

Finding a Twitter flock

I’m interesting in creating a list of people on Twitter that Mind Hacks readers might be interested in: psychologists, neuroscientists, psychiatrists, AI hackers, anthropologists, sociologists, science writers, philosophers – you know the sort.

However, it seems quite hard to track down people by their interests.

So if you follow, or are, someone who posts lots of interesting mind and brain stuff on Twitter, leave a comment on this post, or email me using this web form with Twitter in the title.

My only caveat is I’m not particularly interested in, for example, a psychologist who mostly twitters about their cat, the news, sport or whatever. They need to be a good source of mind and brain insights.

I’ll filter the list and post it up here.

GABA gimmick in a can

Jones GABA a slickly advertised new energy drink that contains the neurotransmitter GABA, described as enhancing “focus + clarity” and putting you “in the zone”. It is backed by ‘one of the world’s leading authorities on natural medicine’ Dr Michael Murray, who seems completely unaware that GABA doesn’t cross the blood-brain barrier and so drinking it is unlikely to have any effect.

The active ingredient in the drink is called ‘Pharma GABA’, which, despite the ‘Pharma’ prefix is just powdered GABA, commercially sold, normally as a ‘nutritional supplement’.

This has actually been subject to research, albeit in a poorly controlled trial of 13 people in one experiment, and two groups of four people in another. It used surrogate outcomes (measuring saliva and EEG) rather than actually measuring stress or focus and was completed by the company that sells the product.

But even without this experimmercial, we can be pretty sure that swallowing GABA doesn’t work, because, despite various experiments that have investigated the neurotransmitter, it has never been found to cross the blood-brain barrier in any significant way.

However, this isn’t the first junk food product to include neurotransmitters as a gimmick. We found some Japanese GABA sweets for sale last year.

I have to say, I love the geekiness of having neurotransmitter junk food, but it would be infinitely better if it wasn’t packaged with junk science.

It would also be infinitely better if it was highly caffeinated, but that’s just a personal opinion.

Link to GABA in a can spoilt by the pseudoscience (thanks Sara!)

Psychology and advertising

Here are links to some old posts about psychology and advertising. About three years ago I was writing a lot about this, and I just thought I’d collect them here:

Longer posts:

Is there a science of advertising?
Decoding adverisements
Cognitive psychology & advertising
Music wine and will
advertising influences familiarity induces preference
neuroscience and advertising
where do implicit associations come from?
Book review: Influence (by Robert Cialdini)
Does advertising erode free will?

‘Briefly noted’ and links

the price is right regardless of the cost
When choice is demotivating
Experimental psychology of advertising resources
Why can’t we choose what makes us happy
The Endowment effect and marketing
A quick and miscellaneous list of advertising links

Update: Book review of Ad Nausam, Sir Humphrey teaches questionnaire design

Uncannily beautiful

Below are a couple of strangely beautiful delusions described in a 1993 paper on ‘The reliability of three definitions of bizarre delusions’ published in the American Journal of Psychiatry:

A 22-year-old woman had the delusion that thoughts and feelings emanating from her mother’s unconscious were being carried in raindrops that fell on her air conditioner. When the raindrops hit the air conditioner they made a noise, and simultaneously these thoughts and feelings merged with her own unconscious. This merging had resulted in her own mental illness.

A 27-year-old man had the delusion that the voice he heard throughout the day was that of an invisible girlfriend. His girlfriend gave him advice and told him to do things. At night she would come to him, although still invisible, and they would make love.

Link to PubMed entry for paper.

Rewiring the brain for fun and profit

Wired has just published an excellent two part article on neuroengineering, the practice of altering the brain with electronics or optics.

It looks at a number of interesting projects, from light controlled neurons to magnetic brain stimulation, and focuses on the work of talented neuroengineer Ed Boyden who I had the pleasure of doing a joint talk with at a SciFoo conference.

In fact, TMS gets electricity into the brain peacefully, without either cutting it open or shocking it with millions of volts.

The target area of the brain is treated like the coil in a generator, subjected to rapidly changing magnetic fields until electricity begins to dance across its neurons. Unlike the optical switch developed by Boyden and Stanford’s Dr. Karl Deisseroth, TMS doesn’t reach the deeper regions of the brain, but there are a lot of important and interesting areas in the cortex where TMS delivers its current. It’s also far less precise than the optical switch, although TMS seems positively surgical when compared to the imprecisions of the pharmaceuticals we pump into our bodies.

The second part is probably the highlight, discussing the possibilities of having these technologies more widely available so your average garage hacker can tinker with them (and themselves), and what ethical dilemmas this might cause.

Link to ‘Inside the New Science of Neuroengineering’.
Link to ‘How Neuroengineering May Change Your Brain.

Memory loss at the movies

Neurophilosophy has a great post about how amnesia is represented in cinema, concluding that there’s only three movies that accurately represent memory loss.

The post is based on an article from the British Medical Journal by clinical neuropsychologist Sallie Baxendale who has written a number of excellent articles on topics such as epilepsy in music, at movies, and in the saints.

The three films mentioned as accurate depictions of amnesia are the masterpiece Memento, Spanish language film Sé Quién Eres, and, surprisingly, the Disney animated feature Finding Nemo.

The Neurophilosophy article is also illustrated with video clips so you can see some of the films under discussion.

Link to Neurophilosophy on ‘Amnesia at the movies’.

Where is my mind?

Fora.TV has a great video discussion with science writer Jonah Lehrer where he gives a wonderfully engaging talk on the on decision making, meta-cognition and the paradox of choice.

The discussion is an hour long and well worth the time, although for those with pathological impatience or only five minutes to spare, the section on metacognition is a particular highlight.

I also notice from his blog that he’s also just reviewed a recent book on consciousness and embodied cognition called ‘Out of Our Heads’ by philosopher Alva No√´ for the San Francisco Chronicle which is also worth checking out.

Link to Fora.TV interview with Lehrer (thanks Rich!)

Junk food marketers rediscover the Crockus

The following is from a recent New York Times article on how snack food company Frito-Lay have based their latest women-focused campaign on ‘neuromarketing’. Parts of the article nearly made with weep with despair.

[Advertising agency] Juniper Park used neuromarketing in a slightly different way. Ms. Nykoliation began by researching how women’s brains compared with men’s, so the firm could adjust the marketing accordingly. Her research suggested that the communication center in women’s brains was more developed, leading her to infer that women could process ads with more complexity and more pieces of information.

Hang on a minute. Communication centre larger in women? She doesn’t mean… the crockus by any chance?

A memory and emotional center, the hippocampus, was proportionally larger in women, so Ms. Nykoliation concluded that women would look for characters they could empathize with.

Stop sniffing the TipEx.

And research Ms. Nykoliation read linked the anterior cingulate cortex, which processes decision-making and was larger in women, to feelings of guilt. (Experts differ on how directly functions or feelings are associated with various parts of the brain.) Ms. Nykoliation then asked NeuroFocus to review her assumptions and, as Juniper Park developed ads, to test the ads to verify that women liked them.

We should have guessed a ‘neuromarketing’ company would be involved.

Neuromarketing is an interesting research field looking at the neuroscience of buyer decisions but so far there is not a single scrap of data that shows neuroscience can better predict buyer decisions that plain old ‘marketing’.

In other words, if you’re wanting to actually market a product, it’s a huge waste of money. However, that hasn’t stopped various ‘neuromarketing’ companies from springing up and selling their sweet nothings to large corporations for hard cash.

I say a huge waste of money, but it did get them a feature in The New York Times who also posted their commercial online, so maybe it’s not such a daft move after all.

Link to NYT article.