Laughter the best medicine or a bitter pill to swallow

Photo by Flickr user lintmachine. Click for sourceScience News has a fascinating article on people with gelotophobia, a fear of being laughed at. It seems the phobia might be driven by a problem in perceiving the social meaning of laughter, so even light-hearted chuckles are perceived as scornful snickers.

The piece covers the surprising amount of research on the phobia, tracing the perceptual problems from possible learnt responses during childhood to difficulties in picking up visual cues from body language.

To scientists’ surprise, those that scored high for fear of being laughed at didn’t react more strongly to the sounds of negative laughter than did those with no fear. The gelotophobes did, however, perceive positive laughter, such as hearty or cheerful laughter, as unpleasant or spiteful.

The scientists also measured participants’ moods before and after the experiment. Those with no fear of laughter reported feeling more cheerful after hearing the sound tracks, while gelotophobes reported no change in mood, the researchers reported in the February Humor.

Laughter is a remarkably complex form of social communication that is still not well understood by cognitive scientists although one of the best accessible explorations of the topic was in an edition of RadioLab from last year.

Link to Science News on ‘When Humor Humiliates’.

2009-07-31 Spike activity

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

Polyamory or having relationships with multiple, mutually consenting partners, is discussed in a feature article in Newsweek.

Copenhagen Business School are running an online survey asking for your opinion on the use of neuroscience in business and marketing.

Experimental philosophy and our moral intuitions are tackled in an article for The Psychologist.

H+ Magazine has more on morality and impressing the rules of war on autonomous <a href="Teaching Robots the Rules of War”>soldier robots.

Malcolm Gladwell discusses the psychology of overconfidence in an article for The New Yorker.

Slate has a somewhat polemic article on the recent dust-ups over the DSM-V ‘new improved flavour’ diagnostic manual due out in 2012. The Psychiatric Times blog also joins the fray.

A quarter of teenage girls mentally ill? Mental Nurse examines a recent article by the statistically challenged psychologist Oliver James.

The Guardian has a review of British psychologist Richard Bentall’s new book on the trouble with psychiatry.

NPR Radio’s Science Friday has a programme on the science of decision-making.

Neuroskeptic has some excellent coverage of a new Cochrane review finding that common plant St John’s Wort is as effective as antidepressants, but seemingly, only if you’re German.

A good cry doesn’t always make you feel better. The not-always-cathartic process of crying is discussed by Jesse Bering in his great SciAm column.

The Boston Globe tackles the cognitive science of driving and how the ageing brain manages the mental demands of the road.

Sports psychology and the mental preparations of top class swimmers are covered by The New York Times.

Discover Magazine asks what urban sounds do to your brain, init?

Calendar calculating savants with autism – how do they do it? asks the brilliant BPS Research Digest.

The Guardian charts the rise of celebrity psychologists and quotes blogger Dr Petra.

Time-space synaesthesia – A cognitive advantage? Interesting new paper in Consciousness and Cognition.

Artist Kerry Tribe has some excellent photos from an exhibition on famous amnesic patient HM.

Time magazine has a piece on how family doctors can often miss <a href="Study: Doctors Don't Always Spot Depression,8599,1913312,00.html?xid=rss-health”>depression in their patients.

TV can reduce loneliness, says research covered by SciAm’s Mind Matters blog.

Cognitive Daily has some excellent coverage of an experiment that suggests we remember scenes by creating 3D models of them in our minds.

Psychologist Susan Blackmore has a thought-provoking if not somewhat speculative article in New Scientist on autonomous electronic machine memes.

Channel N finds a TED talk by Alain de Botton on the philosophy of tragedy and success.

The moral associations of colours are explored in research covered by The Economist.

Language Log finds a funny comic strip on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and Eskimos.

On the dead beat

Photo by Flickr user pareerica. Click for sourceAnyone who thinks science can’t be beautiful or profound should spend an hour in the audio headspace of the latest RadioLab as it tackles life, death and mortality.

It contemplates how death has moved from the heart to the brain, the attempt to weigh souls, delusions of non-existence, digital immortality, neuroimaging for flickers of life, and a man who survived a suicide plunge that has killed almost everyone else who made the leap.

One highlight is a reading of an amazing short story from a book by neuroscientist David Eagleman in which he imagines 40 versions of the afterlife.

In this particular story, people live in a limbo after death where they exist while their names are still remembered by the living. While some leave this realm when they fade the collective consciousness, others become famous and are trapped, slave to their recollected selves that warp slowly over time as the living distort their memories.

Eagleman notes that it was inspired by the neuroscience of memory, which information is kept alive by being constantly re-represented in the brain.

As always, it’s beautifully produced and hits. just. the. right. notes. for such a powerful subject.

There is probably no better way to spend an hour in the underworld.

Link to RadioLab edition ‘After Life’.

Where are our shrinking brain theories?

New Scientist has as article arguing that the expansion in hominid brain size that occurred about two million years ago was due to the ice age which allowed an energy burning, heat generating brain to develop with sufficient environmental cooling.

Actually, it’s worth a read as it’s not as odd as it sounds, but it joins an ever growing list of theories that attempt to explain how our forebears ‘suddenly’ seemed to experience evolutionary brain expansion.

These include:

A diet high in meat.

A diet high in starch.

Social competition.

The development of cooking.

Essential fatty acids and schizophrenia.

An unspecified “special event”.

The trouble with some of these theories is that they typically assume that brain size is always related to greater intelligence, which is not necessarily the case, and they don’t always take into account the ratio of brain to body size, which seems to be more important than just brain size alone.

Interestingly, almost all the interest is on brain expansion and no-one seems particularly interested in the fact that the brain has shrunk about 10% since the Late Pleistocene, about 30,000 years ago.

You can have a great deal of fun coming up with evolutionary theories for that one. Just pick a key human activity that emerged around the same time.

Personally, I blame language, religion and karaoke.

Link to NewSci on brain science and the ice age.

Out of sync

It’s an age old story. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. The trauma of the breakup affects his mind so badly he starts to believe he’s in a boy band. The whole band get admitted to an asylum and start hallucinating a long list of cheap clich√©s about mental illness. Yes, it’s the video for ‘N Sync’s 1999 track “I Drive Myself Crazy” which is wrong in just so many ways.

If I was their consulting psychologist, my first thought on observing their behaviour and mental state would be – what the feck happened to your hair?

Is this some sort of bizarre form of public self-harm? Or the result of an unknown type of psychosis?

Call the DSM-V committee.

This is an emergency.

Link to N Sync video ‘I Drive Myself Crazy’.

Rorschach and awe

The New York Times covers the recent flap over the internet publication of the ink blots used in the Rorschach test. While the images are out of copyright and can be legally uploaded, some American psychologists are furious that the validity of the test may be compromised.

The test has been controversial since it was created and partly because of what it symbolises. It is one of the few remaining tests that are drawn from the psychoanalytic tradition and so battles over the Rorschach are always partly battles over the validity of Freudian-ideas.

You can see the influence of these ideas in how it is used. It is a type of ‘projective’ test, where participants are shown the images and then asked to give their impressions. The psychologist writes down what they make of each image and then interprets what they say and do.

These interpretations supposedly give an insight into the person’s personality, loosely framed in Freudian concepts.

The original version of the Rorschach was quite clearly hokum, but over the years the ‘comprehensive system’ was developed by psychologist John Exner which allowed independent clinicians to come to similar conclusions when assessing the same responses.

Not everyone agrees on this and, on the basis of evidence reviews, some argue that the test’s reliability has been exaggerated. But the trouble is, even if it is reliable, it’s still a bit rubbish. It doesn’t seem to correlate well with other mental health measures and has a particular tendency to ‘diagnose’ schizophrenic tendencies in perfectly healthy people.

While the release of the ink blots onto the internet seems to have caused controversy among US psychologists, most European psychologists are likely to be rolling their eyes, as the test never caught on and is largely extinct.

However, the wider issue of test material being released online is of significant concern.

Almost every psychological test relies on the fact that the person being assessed has no foreknowledge of the material. In technology terms, they rely on security through obscurity for their validity.

Currently, this is enforced by the test companies only supplying tests to qualified professionals, charging excessively high prices for each one and enforcing copyright. This is backed up by professional organisations who come down like a ton of bricks on anyone seen to be promoting wider availability.

As anyone involved in security will tell you, this model is doomed to failure in the age of the internet as it only takes one significant breach for the test to be publicly available.

Psychologists need to start designing tests where knowledge of the test material does not have such a profound influence on performance, but unfortunately, this requires a significant shift in current thinking and a huge research effort to validate the tests. Hence inertia weds us to our current doomed methods.

Link to NYT ‘A Rorschach Cheat Sheet on Wikipedia?’

Brain box

Sometimes, it’s just harder to do it without the innuendo. HelmetsRUs have a multi-sport helmet that has a brain painted on the outside.

While we usually tell people to wear helmets to keep the rocks out of their brain, this is the first time you might have to avoid keeping your brain out of the rocks.

I have to say, it’s a bit of a weird product if you think about it. I mean, would you buy a jock strap with your balls painted on the outside?

Obviously, that was intended to be a rhetorical question, but I’ve come to realise that the internet has killed rhetorical questions because you can always find someone who has lived your figure of speech, no matter how bizarre you make it.

Really? You own several you say? Could I interest you in a brain helmet…

Link to brain helmet.