Headphone fruit

Music video director duo Terri Timely have created a beautifully shot and kaleidoscopic short film about synaesthesia.

It’s a visually striking piece that attempts to represent the effect of crossed senses conceptually, rather the the common approach of interpreting sounds as abstract visual impressions (probably best done in the video for Coldcut’s Music 4 No Musicians).

I also just like the idea. Music video directors are professional synaesthetes in many ways, so it’s interesting getting their take on the experience.

To see it in its full glory, I recommend the hi-definition QuickTime version.

Link to embedded YouTube version (via @willyumlu)
Link to hi-def QuickTime version.

The wisdom of crowds

Photo by Flickr user gaspi *your guide. Click for sourceNew Scientist has an excellent piece on how new research on the psychology of crowds is challenging the idea that people become an ‘unruly mob’ in large numbers. In fact, recent research shows that people tend to cooperate and quickly achieve an altruistic and bonded group identity when in large numbers.

This partly relies on the fact that our group identity is fluid, as demonstrated by an elegant experiment by crowd psychologist Mark Levine that the article touches on:

The fluidity of group psychology was also demonstrated in a 2005 experiment on English soccer fans by Mark Levine at the University of Lancaster, UK. He found that supporters of Manchester United who had been primed to think about how they felt about their team were significantly more likely to help an injured stranger if he was wearing a Manchester United shirt, rather than an unbranded shirt or one of rival team Liverpool.

However, fans who were primed to think about their experience of being a football fan in general were equally likely to help strangers in Liverpool shirts and Manchester United shirts, but far less likely to help someone wearing an unbranded one (Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, vol 31, p 443). This shows the potency of group membership, and also how fluid the boundaries can be.

The article mentions several studies of dangerous crowd situations where there seems to have been large scale spontaneous co-operation that seemed to have averted more serious problems.

We recently covered research that found that the more people present at a confrontation, the less likely there is to be a violence outcome, although there were specific turning points where violence could go either way.

As the piece mentions, this is particularly interesting in light of a tactic called ‘kettling’ commonly employed by UK police to control large crowds. It involves surrounding the crowd and letting individuals leave but not letting anyone back in.

The psychology of this tactic was discussed by Bob Hughes, the head of training at the Metropolitan Police’s Public Order Unit, on a 2004 edition of BBC All in the Mind.

Interestingly, he describes it in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, where eventually the need to protest will be overtaken by the need to eat, drink, rest and so on, and so people will slowly disperse.

This is a distinctly individualistic approach to crowd psychology. It assumes that the crowd will be violent and so needs to be contained but that it can be broken down on an individual basis.

One implication from this new research on crowd psychology is that the kettling process itself may trigger violence on the first place, because it sets up a confrontational situation and strengthens the crowds’ group identity at the same time.

Link to NewSci piece on the ‘wisdom of crowds’.

More real than real

An interesting aside from a 1983 study that describes how some elderly psychiatric patients experienced photos and TV images as real people with whom they could interact:

A new sub-type of perceptual disorder was identified in 7 patients who treated T.V. images and newspaper photographs (e.g. a nude calendar girl) as if they were real and existed in the three-dimensional space. These patients talked to the images, saw them moving freely and on occasions offered them food and drink. This disorder which the authors would like to term the “picture sign” can best be described as a “sensory delusion”; no significant association between this sign and sex, age, underlying pathology, impending death or cognitive score was identified.

I’ve often heard the clich√© that patients with dementia believe that people on television are in the room with them, but this is the nearest I’ve come to discovering any published research on the topic. If you know of any, do let me know.

However, if you’re a Spanish speaker, there was an interesting incident captured on a phone-in TV game show, where an elderly and presumably somewhat confused contestant calls the show, hears her own voice coming from the television and thinks it is someone else joining in the conversation.

Brilliantly, the exasperated game show host sticks with it and everything gets delightfully surreal.

Of manuals and madness, the fight rolls on

ABC Radio National’s Background Briefing has a good programme on the issues and debates about the new version of the DSM that is currently being prepared and causing much flailing of handbags in the process.

The radio show is not particularly focused but touches on some contentious diagnoses and the problems with defining mental illness.

But there is one surprising part where they ask Australian psychiatrist and DSM-V committee member Gavin Andrews to respond to criticisms by ex-committee chief Robert Spitzer over the lack of openness in the process.

His answer, like an earlier response from American Psychiatric Association to their critics, is remarkable for the fact it contains a personal attack:

Well, he was the guy that wrote DSM-III, and we all owe him a considerable debt because someone had to be strong-willed and very strongly opinionated to pull that off. He’s saying, something’s going on and no-one’s telling me everything. Well, there’s no need for him to be told everything day by day. I’m sure he probably hasn’t read all those books that we’ve already published, and he certainly hasn’t written to me about the research planning conference that I ran. So I presume it’s a sense of not being on the centre of the stage, as he once sensibly and gloriously was.

Believe it or not, it actually sounds more patronising when you hear the original audio. Either these ad hominem attacks are a sign of the committee being rattled or they are evidence for exactly what the critics accuse them of, and neither is particular promising.

And if anyone thinks that the squabbling was just a bit of internal politicking, you might be interested to know that it’s featured as one of the major news stories in this week’s Nature.

However, while the DSM is often described as the psychiatric ‘bible’, it’s probably more accurate to call it the American psychiatrists’ ‘bible’.

While it’s widely used in the US and Latin America, much of the rest of the world uses the slightly less barmy (pun intended) International Classification of Diseases (ICD) from the World Health Organisation.

The danger is not so much that the DSM will become ridiculous, but that it will become irrelevant.

Link to Background Briefing on ‘Expanding mental illness’.

Vision shift glasses alter time perception

There’s an intriguing study about to be published in Psychological Science finding that people wearing prism glasses that shift everything to the right overestimate the passage of time, while people wearing left-shift glasses underestimate it.

The researchers, led by psychologist Francesca Frassinetti, asked participants to watch a square appear on-screen for varying time periods, and then reproduce the duration or half the duration with a key press.

Glasses that skewed vision to the left seemed to shrink time, while glasses that skew everything to the right expanded it.

Apart from the interesting perceptual effect, it gives further evidence for the idea that our internals model of space and time are heavily linked, to the point where modifying one has a knock-on effect on the other.

In fact, there is increasing evidence that other abstract concepts are implicitly understood as having a spatial layout. Experiments on the SNARC effect have found that numbers seem to have a ‘location’, with larger numbers being on the right and smaller numbers on the left.

At least, that seems to be the case for native English-speakers, but for Arabic speakers, where text is written right-to-left, the reverse seems to be true.

It would be interesting to whether Arabic speakers show a reverse time alteration effect of if they wear prism glasses. Whatever the answer, it would raise lots of interesting questions about how much language influences our abstract ideas and whether it only applies to certain concepts.

Prism glasses have long been a tool in psychology and there is a mountain of research on how we adjust to living in the world even when everything is shifted through the lens.

Tom recently found a fantastic (1950s?) archive film called ‘Living in a Reversed World: Some Experiments on How We See the Directions of Things’ where several volunteers are asked to wear prism glasses for weeks on end.

Hilarity ensues, at least at first, but as co-ordination skills adapt the volunteers can go about their daily tasks, to the point of being able to ride bicycles, even when their vision has been flipped around.

Link to summary of prism and time perception study.
Link to Living in a Reversed World (via @tomstafford)

Human echolocation and blind mountain biking

Photo by Flickr user LeeBrimelow. Click for sourcePsychologist Lawrence Rosenblum has written an excellent short article about a remarkable group of blind mountain bikers who apparently use echolocation to avoid obstacles by making loud click sounds as they ride.

Rosenblum has studied human echolocation in the lab and has shown that we all have some ability to get an idea of the spatial layout of our environment from sound reflection.

But one of the most interesting bits is where he discusses the fact that while echolocation uses sound, we don’t always process it as a conscious hearing experience. It can seem to just be a ‘sense’ of where objects are.

To get a sense of how echolocation works, try this. Hold your hand up about one foot in front of your face with your palm facing your mouth. Put your front teeth together, open your lips, and make a continuous shhhhhh sound. As you make this sound, slowly bring your hand toward your mouth. You will hear the shhhh sound change. What you’re hearing is the sound reflecting from your hand colliding with the sound leaving your mouth. This interference turns out to be one of the most important types of sound dimensions we use to echolocate objects at close distances.

But this demonstration is exaggerated. The interference patterns used for echolocation are usually too subtle to be consciously heard. This highlights one of the most amazing aspects of echolocation: It’s rarely experienced as sound. Try using your shhhh sounds to walk slowly toward a wall with your eyes closed. As you come close to the wall, you’ll experience its presence as more of a feeling than a change in sound. It may feel as if there are air pressure changes on your face, an experience also reported by the blind (echolocation was once called “facial vision”). Echolocation is truly one of your implicit perceptual skills: It allows you to detect aspects of your environment without even knowing which sensory system you’re using.

Link to post of echolocation and blind mountain bikers.
pdf of Rosenblum study on human echolocation.
Link to DOI entry for same.

Written off more than they can chew

Good God there’s a lot of scientific research on chewing gum. And I mean a lot. Here’s just a few of the latest bulletins from the front line of chewing gum cognitive science.

Chewing gum does not induce context-dependent memory when flavor is held constant [link]

Effects of chewing gum on mood, learning, memory and performance of an intelligence test [link]

Effects of caffeine in chewing gum on mood and attention [link]

Chewing gum alleviates negative mood and reduces cortisol during acute laboratory psychological stress [link]

Chewing gum and context-dependent memory: the independent roles of chewing gum and mint flavour [link]

Chewing gum and context-dependent memory effects: a re-examination [link]

Chewing gum and cognitive performance: a case of a functional food with function but no food [link]

Role of glucose in chewing gum-related facilitation of cognitive function [link]

Chewing gum can produce context-dependent effects upon memory [link]

Chewing gum differentially affects aspects of attention in healthy subjects [link]

Chewing gum selectively improves aspects of memory in healthy volunteers [link]

Effects of three principal constituents in chewing gum on electroencephalographic activity [link]

Smell and taste of chewing gum affect frequency domain EEG source localizations [link]

And not one on whether chewing gum loses its flavour on the bedpost overnight.

Actually, those are just a sample of the cognitive science studies on chewing gum, and there are many more. If you count all scientific studies with ‘chewing gum’ in the title, you get more than 540 to date.

UPDATE: Grabbed from the comments, a great addition from historian of psychology Chris Green:

There is a long history of “scientific” (read: “industrial”) research into the effects of chewing gum. The Beech-Nut company hired Columbia U. psychologist Harry Hollingworth to do a study of the “psychodynamics” of gum-chewing in the mid-1930s. Philip Wrigley also commissioned research and used the “results” (mainly, that gum-chewing reduces tension and improves concentration) to convince to U.S. Army to include (his) gum in the rations of every American soldier who served in WWII. He also tried to convince a variety of businesses to supply gum to their workers, on the strength of the same basic argument.