Weight affects our perceptions of importance

We often use weight as a metaphor for importance, describing something as a ‘weighty issue’ or dismissing an argument as ‘not holding much weight’ but a new study suggests that this is not just a figure of speech.

A research team found that they could alter people’s judgement of importance just by getting them to answer questions using a heavier clipboard.

In a series of short elegant experiments, a research team led by psychologist Nils Jostmann found that people holding a heavy clipboard would, for example, value foreign currencies more highly than those using a lighter clipboard.

Of course, this might be because of the simple association that larger amounts of money weigh more, so they looked at whether more abstract judgements about value could be affected by weight.

Subsequent studies showed that heavier clipboards led to participants placing more importance on the university listening to student opinions, and that participants were more likely to link their opinion of whether Amsterdam was a great city to the competence of the mayor.

A final study found that visitors who were stopped in the street and asked their opinion on a controversial subway were more confident in their opinion and were more likely to agree with strong arguments for the plan.

The researchers link these findings with the growing field of embodied cognition that suggests that much of our experience of the world is actually mediated through how we interact with it.

Much of this research shows that altering the physical condition of the body affects how we perceive and understand, even for concepts that we think are nothing but metaphors.

Link to summary of ‘Weight as an Embodiment of Importance’.

2009-08-21 Spike activity

A slightly belated list of quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

Secrets of Hypnosis is a cheap-ass website hawking dodgy-looking hypnosis CDs that has completely ripped off Mind Hacks without attribution.

A four thousand year old violent attack is uncovered through the analysis of a neolithic grave reported in Science News.

The New York Times has an update on the recent episode over the public release of the Rorschach ink blot images on Wikipedia. Quick summary: the poo flinging continues with official complaints.

Neither begging for mercy nor sobbing will prevent a course on ‘NeuroPR‘ from going ahead in London.

The New York Times has a piece on how CBT-style brief training is going to be given to US Army personnel in a bid to prevent trauma. Best of luck with that.

To the bunkers! Wired reports on a group of artificially intelligent robots that evolved deception. No professor, he must have fallen into the incinerator by accident.

The BPS Research Digest covers a fascinating study finding that acquiring a second language affects how people read in their native tongue.

Ghostwriting scandal 1: Drug company Glaxo had a major ghostwriting project to offer authorship to doctors for scientific papers they hadn’t written to promote their leading antidepressant. Furious Seasons is on the case.

Ghostwriting scandal 2: Drug company Wyeth had a major ghostwriting project and PLoS Medicine recently had all their documents unsealed by court order and have put all 1500 online.

PsyBlog has an interesting piece on why brainstorming sessions don’t work very well and how they can be fixed.

The psychology and neuroscience of human navigation is discussed by New Scientist.

The New York Times has a powerful piece on palliative or end-of-life care for dying patients.

Neurofeminism has arrived and Experimental Philosophy has the announcement. Personally, I’m still waiting for neurovegetarianism.

ABC Science has a brief article on how ‘mind-reading’ headsets work that gets the basics right but seems to think “each of your thoughts has a particular signature” – even if we can’t understand it with our most sophisticated lab equipment.

Obama has bipolar disorder announces the White House via satirical news source The Onion.

New Scientist reports on a study that has found that people who are tone deaf have fewer brain connections in an area involved in language and speech.

A wonderful study on whether people lost in indistinct landscapes really walk round in circles is covered by Not Exactly Rocket Science.

Scientific American has a short piece on how language analysis programmes are finding links between our linguistic patterns and our personalities.

Emotions are still universal. Thank you Neuroskeptic for the most balanced coverage of the over-exaggerated ’emotion recognition isn’t universal’ story that hit the headlines this week.

Cognitive Daily has an excellent article on the attention grabbing properties of angry faces.

Brand new $300 a day clinic for ‘internet addiction’ has a Twitter stream. The irony, it burns!

The Neurocritic looks at a couple of studies that seem to have drawn different conclusions from the same findings depending on the context. Religion, students and neurotocism, oh my!

To the bunkers! Wired reports that the UK government is developing an AI system to detect ‘hostile intent‘ in humans.

The dark matter of the brain

Discover Magazine has an excellent Carl Zimmer article on glial cells. They make up the majority of the brain’s volume but they get relatively little attention from the neuroscience community who would rather focus on the seemingly more lively neurons.

There’s a traditional format for these stories, that says that we used to think that glial cells were just ‘scaffolding’ for the brain that gave protected padding for the neurons, but now we are on the verge of a breakthrough in understanding what they do.

Here’s one from New Scientist in 1994, and a pdf of another from Scientific American in 2004.

One difficulty has been integrating the action of glial cells into the popular cognitive model of the brain that suggests that it works as an information processing device.

While there have been various discoveries about the biological function of glia, this is the first article I’ve read which gives a clear idea of how one type of glial cell, the astrocyte, might be involved in information processing.

For some brain scientists, these discoveries are puzzle pieces that are slowly fitting together into an exciting new picture of the brain. Piece one: Astrocytes can sense incoming signals. Piece two: They can respond with calcium waves. Piece three: They can produce outputs—neurotransmitters and perhaps even calcium waves that spread to other astrocytes. In other words, they have at least some of the requirements for processing information the way neurons do. Alfonso Araque, a neuroscientist at the Cajal Institute in Spain, and his colleagues make a case for a fourth piece. They find that two different stimulus signals can produce two different patterns of calcium waves (that is, two different responses) in an astrocyte. When they gave astrocytes both signals at once, the waves they produced in the cells was not just the sum of the two patterns. Instead, the astrocytes produced an entirely new pattern in response. That’s what neurons—and computers, for that matter—do.

If astrocytes really do process information, that would be a major addition to the brain’s computing power. After all, there are many more astrocytes in the brain than there are neurons. Perhaps, some scientists have speculated, astrocytes carry out their own computing. Instead of the digital code of voltage spikes that neurons use, astrocytes may act more like an analog network, encoding information in slowly rising and falling waves of calcium. In his new book, The Root of Thought, neuroscientist Andrew Koob suggests that conversations among astrocytes may be responsible for “our creative and imaginative existence as human beings.”

Obviously this is based on the idea that we need to fit new biological findings into the computational model, rather than fitting our model of the mind into the biology, but that’s a whole different battle.

Link to Discover article ‘The Dark Matter of the Human Brain’.

Empty glass, empty promise

Photo by Flickr user DeeJayTee23. Click for sourceThere’s a neat study in the August edition of the Journal of Abnormal Psychology on how alcohol can make us feel fully committed to goals we know we have no chance of achieving.

Alcohol breeds empty goal commitments

J Abnorm Psychol. 2009 Aug;118(3):623-33.

Sevincer AT, Oettingen G.

According to alcohol-myopia theory (C. M. Steele & R. A. Josephs, 1990), alcohol leads individuals to disproportionally focus on the most salient aspects of a situation and to ignore peripheral information. The authors hypothesized that alcohol leads individuals to strongly commit to their goals without considering information about the probability of goal attainment. In Study 1, participants named their most important interpersonal goal, indicated their expectations of successfully attaining it, and then consumed either alcohol or a placebo. In contrast to participants who consumed a placebo, intoxicated participants felt strongly committed to their goals despite low expectations of attaining them. In Study 2, goal-directed actions were measured over time. Once sober again, intoxicated participants with low expectations did not follow up on their strong commitments. Apparently, when prospects are bleak, alcohol produces empty goal commitments, as commitments are not based on individuals’ expectations of attaining their goals and do not foster goal striving over time.

Link to PubMed entry for study.

Footage of neurosurgery from 1933

The Wellcome Trust is putting its archive of medical films online which includes some fascinating footage of some 1933 neurosurgery to remove a tumour from the frontal lobe.

The film says the tumour is a tuberculoma. While we typically link tumours to cancer, the name also refers to other types of abnormal growths.

In this case, it’s an abnormal growth caused when tuberculosis (TB) reaches the brain and leads to an infected mass that can have a similar effect – damaging the cortex by taking up space where the brain should be.

Because TB can be treated effectively with antibiotics, tuberculomas are now very rare in the West, but they are still unfortunately quite common in parts of the developing world where access to medical care is limited.

The Wellcome archive footage is from a time where TB was much more common and shows how surgeons of the days would have removed the mass and how the patient is left after recovery.

Link to Wellcome archive footage of 1933 brain surgery.

Weaponized drugs: armed and delirous

Today’s Nature has a fantastic article about how psychoactive drugs are being developed into a new generation of chemical weapons design to have specific psychological effects on the enemy.

This has long been part of military research (see the famous and unintentionally hilarious footage of British troops being given LSD presumably from the 1950s) but the effects of the mind altering weapons have generally been thought to be too unpredictable and largely restricted to the lab.

However, the Nature article argues that as our knowledge increases and specific biochemical pathways in the body are discovered, chemical and biological weapons are likely to be deployed that target highly selective biological mechanisms to incapacitate and disable.

Some researchers are actively facilitating the development of new chemical weapons. For example, a research group from Pennsylvania State University in University Park has identified several drug classes as potential non-lethal agents or ‘calmatives’, including benzodiazepines and alpha2-adrenoreceptor agonists, as well as individual drugs such as diazepam and dexmedetomidine…

Those who support the development of incapacitating agents often argue that using them in conflict situations stops people being killed. Historical evidence suggests otherwise. At the Nord-Ost [Moscow theatre] siege, for instance, terrorists exposed to the fentanyl mixture were shot dead rather than arrested. Likewise, in Vietnam, the US military used vast quantities of CS gas ‚Äî a ‘non-lethal’ riot-control agent ‚Äî to increase the effectiveness of conventional weapons by flushing the Viet Cong out of their hiding places.

The piece notes that the current international laws on chemical and biological weapons do not address this form of armament which are typically marketed under the ‘non-lethal weaponry’ banner.

From past experience, including the fact that the fentanyl-based ‘incapacitating’ gas seemed to have killed the majority of people during the Moscow theatre siege, it is likely that they will be used in anything but a non-lethal manner.

Link to Nature ‘Biologists napping while work militarized’.

The vibratory chair for Parkinson’s disease

There’s a curious historical snippet in the latest edition of Neurology about how the famous French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot designed a shaking chair for patients with Parkinson’s disease after they reported sleeping better after a train or carriage ride.

The most obvious symptom of Parkinson’s disease is tremor and name first given to the condition, by James Parkinson in his famous essay, was the ‘shaking palsy’.

While Charcot’s 19th century contemporaries had tried ‘vibration therapy’ here and there, he was the first to systematically apply it to patients with Parkinson’s and found it helped with stiffness, discomfort and poor sleep.

Later Gilles de la Tourette, a one-time student of Charcot, developed the treatment into a type of electrical vibrating hat to specifically apply a 600 rpm treatment ‘directly’ to the brain.

The treatment was seemingly forgotten for many years but recently it has been revived and studies have found modest benefits for vibration therapy in Parkinson’s disease.

Link to paper.
Link to PubMed entry for same.