It’s just a booty call

Photo by Flickr user millylillyrose. Click for sourceI’ve recently discovered the NCBI ROFL blog which collects funny and unusual studies from the PubMed medical research database. The latest post is an academic study on the booty call as an ‘adaptive mating strategy’:

The “Booty Call”: A Compromise Between Men’s and Women’s Ideal Mating Strategies.

J Sex Res. 2009 Feb 27:1-11. [Epub ahead of print]

Jonason PK, Li NP, Cason MJ.

Traditionally, research on romantic and sexual relationships has focused on 1-night stands and monogamous pairs. However, as the result of men and women pursuing their ideal relationship types, various compromise relationships may emerge. One such compromise is explored here: the “booty call.” The results of an act-nomination and frequency study of college students provided an initial definition and exploration of this type of relationship. Booty calls tend to utilize various communication mediums to facilitate sexual contact among friends who, for men, may represent low-investment, attractive sexual partners and, for women, may represent attractive test-mates. The relationship is discussed as a compromise between men’s and women’s ideal mating strategies that allows men greater sexual access and women an ongoing opportunity to evaluate potential long-term mates.

I suspect this study was completed just to allow the world’s most awesome chat-up line to come into existence: “Hi, my name’s Dr Jonason and I’m researching booty calls. Would you be interested in taking part in my study?”

Actually, where’s that grant application form…

Link to NCBI ROFL blog.
Link to PubMed entry for booty call study.

I know where you are secretly attending!

A remarkable study has just been published in the cognitive science journal Vision Research which may be the first genuine demonstration of brain scan ‘mind reading’.

The study focuses on visual attention and particularly what is called ‘covert visual attention’ – the ability to mentally focus on something without moving your eyes.

For example, take the phrase ‘cat x dog’. I want you to fix your eyes on the ‘x’ and keep them there, but then alter your concentration so you mentally focus on ‘cat’ and then ‘dog’ and back again.

Your eyes aren’t moving but you can concentrate on different things in the scene you’re looking at just by shifting your attention. This is called ‘covert’ visual attention because there is no obvious (‘overt’) bodily movement associated with it, it’s a hidden (‘covert’) mental process.

Since the time of William James, attention has been thought of like a spotlight in that you just ‘shine’ it on an area to make it mentally clearer.

The authors of this new study wondered whether attention was really this selective and decided to use a nifty brain imaging method to test this out.

They relied on the fact that every point in your retina is literally mapped in the brain. Each point in the visual scene has a corresponding area of the visual cortex which is laid out in the same way – in something called a retinotopic map

We know that visual attention selectively boosts activity in the visual cortex, so when you switch between ‘cat’ and ‘dog’ in our example above, the brain increases activity in the visual areas that corresponds to each word.

In other words, it’s possible to measure the effect of visual attention by looking at where changes in visual cortex activity occur.

After doing some tests to make sure they’d verified the exact layout of each of the participant’s retinotopic map, the researchers asked participants in the scanner to systematically focus on specific parts of a circular area cut into segments, with inner, middle and outer rings – all while keeping their eyes fixed in the centre.

They then mapped activity from the visual cortex back into the visual scene to create a ‘heat map’ of where attention was spread.

You can see an example in the image on the right. The ‘x’ never appeared in the actual experiment, I just added those to make the diagram clearer, but they illustrate where the participants were instructed to concentrate.

Overall, the results showed that attention was not tightly focussed like a spotlight. In fact, when we direct our concentration to the outer ring of vision, large areas of the visual scene are flooded with activity.

This happened to a lesser extent with the very inner ring of vision, with visual scene enhancement typically extending outwards as well.

But with the middle ring of vision, the enhancement was pretty tight, being restricted to just that area.

This is an amazing finding in itself, but the ‘mind reading’ part is quite a finale.

The researchers also had a section of their study where they asked the participants to randomly focus on parts of the circle. Remember, they weren’t moving their eyes (and this was checked with a monitor), just changing their internal focus of concentration.

By solely looking at the patterns of brain activation, the researchers worked out where the participants were concentrating with 87% accuracy.

In many previous ‘mind reading’ experiments, researchers have shown people different sorts of pictures and then worked out which ones they were looking at by analysing brain activity.

It’s a largely passive process and relies on distinguishing different physiological reactions. If you measured blood flow to the penis you could probably distinguish whether men were looking at pictures of furniture or people having sex – but you probably wouldn’t call this ‘mind reading’. These previous studies just measured the brain to do something similar.

While such studies are often over-hyped, this new experiment does take the process a step further.

It’s still a very limited task but the participants are voluntarily engaging in a purely internal mental process and the brain scans tell us where their focus of concentration is.

The researchers had no knowledge of where this was beforehand and the same thing couldn’t have been worked out through watching participants’ behaviour.

Link to study.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

2009-06-26 Spike activity

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

The Wall Street Journal vaguely thinks about the benefits of daydreaming and a wandering mind for creativity.

There’s more video of Philip Zimbardo discussing the psychology of time over at

The Independent reveals that some people use drugs to enhance the mind because they’ve never been used in this way, ever, in history and we are being challenged with a dilemma so new it can barely be conceived by the human mind.

Is it acceptable for people to take methylphenidate to enhance performance? asks the British Medical Journal. A two part debate.

The Boston Globe has an interesting piece on how American college students choice of major is influenced by what their friends have chosen.

Sleeping on a complex decision may be a bad choice, reports New Scientist covering new research aiming to rehabilitate conscious decision-making.

Cognitive Daily covers a rare instance where single language speakers perform better than bilinguals – in spatial negative priming experiments. A chat-up line for a million Italian exchange students is born.

Metafilter collects a bunch of evidence on domestic violence by women suggesting that it happens at an equal rate to domestic violence by men,

Unconscious science stereotype associations predict size of science gender gap across 34 countries, according to a study covered by Not Exactly Rocket Science.

The Atlantic has an article on technology and the brain which doesn’t suck. It’s not great – it just assumes that we suffer from information overload without any evidence and doesn’t mention a single study in the area – but it doesn’t pretend to be anything different.

People are more likely to comply with requests into the right ear, suggests a study in a night club covered by Wired Science. Sadly, the researchers were just asking for cigarettes.

New Scientist reports on a study of business communication that found email exchange patterns can predict impending doom.

Who do senior psychiatrists go to for psychological help? asks The New York Times. To Boston, it seems, where apparently they’re all still psychoanalysts.

Is it me, or did this study find that breast implants cure depression? Should make for an interesting randomized controlled trial. I’m trying to imagine the placebo condition.

Somatosphere has a thought-provoking post about why psychiatry researchers are reluctant to reveal their own use of medication.

Language may be key to developing the ability to understand other people’s minds, says research on deaf signers covered by New Scientist. There’s actually much previous research on this. A great 1999 study on this is available as a pdf.

Bad Astronomy has a fully <a href="Optical illusion”>awesome visual illusion!

ABC Radio National’s Late Night Live has a <a href="
“>discussion on mind enhancing drugs in universities. Has a funny informal style and a question that starts “If you were trying to become a big swinging dick at Harvard…”

New Scientist discusses a study on how celebrities stay famous regardless of talent. Illustrated with a picture of Paris Hilton, which is more ironic than they realise.

Innovative social psychologist John Bargh is interviewed over at Edge.

Talking of which, Bargh fires the first salvo in a Psychology Today debate on free will. Uber social psychologist Roy Baumesiter takes up the challenge.

Rock Stars of Science PR stunt pairs up biomedical scientists with rock legends for awkward photo shoots. Get me Porn Stars of Science and I might raise an eyebrow.

To the bunkers! Domestic robots built to have a taste for flesh according to New Scientist.

The Smithsonian Magazine discusses whether the cross-species von Economo neurons are specially tuned for social interaction.

US seniors are ‘smarter’ than their UK counterparts, finds new study reported by New Scientist. Ours make better tea though, and I know what I prefer.

Scientific American has an article on the science of economic bubbles and busts.

Mind Hacks’ Tom has a excellent looking article in this month’s Prospect Magazine on the links between improvisation and post-brain injury confabulation that been jailed behind a pay wall. Anyone seen a copy in the wild?

Ex psychiatric bible chief slams new secret committee

Photo by Flickr user mrtwism. Click for sourceThe forthcoming revision of the psychiatrists’ diagnostic manual, the DSM-V, is controversially being written behind closed doors and has already sparked criticisms for its lack of openness to outside scrutiny. So far, critics have managed to raise little more than smoke signals but the tinderbox may well have just been ignited by an article of scorching criticism penned by the head of the last DSM committee.

The article, by psychiatrist Allen Frances, is apparently due to be published in Psychiatric Times but a pre-publication version seems to have found its way online as a pdf and is already being widely circulated.

Frances slams the new chairman, the process, and the ethos of secrecy behind the new manual saying that “The work on DSM-5 has, so far, displayed an unhappy combination of soaring ambition and remarkably weak methodology.”

He also cites the openness of previous revisions as key to their acceptance and validity, and criticises the supposedly impending diagnostic creep that would make mild disturbances diagnosable mental illnesses.

Such heavyweight criticism in one of American psychiatry’s main news publications signals that the shit has really hit the fan for what was already a controversial project.

The article was posted online by psychiatrist Doug Brenner who also described being kicked off the authors list for an academic paper and denounced to members of a DSM sub-committee for criticising conflicts of interest in the committee in an earlier blog post.

This spurred well-known psychiatrist and blogger Daniel Carlat to recount his own experience of being denounced to the DSM committee for nothing more than a critical comment on his site, left by a reader.

If these reports are to be believed, it seems the committee members are already becoming hot under the collar and the apparently forthcoming Psychiatric Times piece can only turn up the heat.

pdf of Allen Frances article for Psychiatric Times.

neuro images

neuro images is a regularly updated website of beautiful neuroscience images run by Neurophilosophy blogger Mo Costandi.

It’s a Tumblr blog, so is a pretty no frills affair, but it’s the perfect platform just to let the pictures shine.

There are already some stunning images on there, from ancient illustrations to cutting edge scans, so keep an eye on it for more neural eye candy.

Link to neuro images.
Link to Neurophilosophy.

Race bias and the menstrual cycle

I’ve just found this surprising study in Psychological Science that found a link between the point in the menstrual cycle of 77 white women and various measures of race bias.

Race Bias Tracks Conception Risk Across the Menstrual Cycle.

Psychol Sci. 2009 May 4. [Epub ahead of print]

Navarrete CD, Fessler DM, Fleischman DS, Geyer J.

Although a considerable body of research explores alterations in women’s mating-relevant preferences across the menstrual cycle, investigators have yet to examine the potential for the menstrual cycle to influence intergroup attitudes. We examined the effects of changes in conception risk across the menstrual cycle on intergroup bias and found that increased conception risk was positively associated with several measures of race bias. This association was particularly strong when perceived vulnerability to sexual coercion was high. Our findings highlight the potential for hypotheses informed by an evolutionary perspective to generate new knowledge about current social problems-an avenue that may lead to new predictions in the study of intergroup relations.

The research paper is online as a pdf if you want the full details.

The authors explain the findings as suggesting that women show a preference to their ‘in group’, those who more closely match their own background and lifestyle, when most fertile.

Menstrual cycle has been found to influence numerous preferences in women in earlier studies, including dressing attractively, preference for the type of fanciable person, including a preference for more ‘masculine’ features.

Indeed, cycles in oestrogen are known to alter dopamine function in the striatum, a deep brain structure.

pdf of menstrual cycle and race bias study.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

Pressed for time perception

Photo by Flickr user ToniVC. Click for sourceEdge has an interesting article by neuroscientist David Eagleman on the perception of time that describes how we can experience temporal illusions just like we experience visual illusions.

I have to say, the piece is a little wordy, so it needs a bit of concentration, but it is well worth the effort.

This section has an interesting way of fooling ourselves into perceiving an event before you seem to have triggered it:

It has been shown that the brain constantly recalibrates its expectations about arrival times. And it does so by starting with a single, simple assumption: if it sends out a motor act (such as a clap of the hands), all the feedback should be assumed to be simultaneous and any delays should be adjusted until simultaneity is perceived.

In other words, the best way to predict the expected relative timing of incoming signals is to interact with the world: each time you kick or touch or knock on something, your brain makes the assumption that the sound, sight, and touch are simultaneous.

While this is a normally adaptive mechanism, we have discovered a strange consequence of it: Imagine that every time you press a key, you cause a brief flash of light. Now imagine we sneakily inject a tiny delay (say, two hundred milliseconds) between your key-press and the subsequent flash. You may not even be aware of the small, extra delay.

However, if we suddenly remove the delay, you will now believe that the flash occurred before your key-press, an illusory reversal of action and sensation. Your brain tells you this, of course, because it has adjusted to the timing of the delay.

If you’re wanting more on time perception, TED have just released an interesting lecture by Philip Zimbardo on how we reason about time.

And rather coincidentally, Eagleman is interviewed on ABC Radio National’s All in the Mind this week, about his synaesthesia research and fiction writing.

Link to Edge article on time perception.
Link to TED on reasoning about time (thanks Patricio!).
Link to AITM interview with David Eagleman.