Media cat and mouse game with brain simulations

Henry Markram, leader of the Blue Brain neural tissue simulation project, has sent an angry email to IBM following their widely-reported but misleading announcement that they’d created a simulation as complex as a cat brain.

This has come some months after similar headlines declared that an equivalent of a ‘mouse brain’ had been simulated by the IBM-affiliated Blue Brain project.

The initial claims were clearly false, as the project only aims to simulate cortical columns, a type of highly organised brain tissue that is common in the cortex, and the most recent simulation to make the headlines is even more simple.

Even the Blue Brain project, which is attempting realistic biological simulations, is not aiming to simulate the complexity or the function of a whole brain, in the same way that a simulation of muscle tissue, no matter how accurate, is clearly not going to produce an artificial human.

In an email which was copied to several leading science publications, project leader Henry Markram takes IBM’s PR department and one of their cognitive computing researchers to task for ‘stupid statements’ and ‘mass deception of the public’ – and those statements are some of the tamer ones. Here are points 1-3:

1. These are point neurons (missing 99.999% of the brain; no branches; no detailed ion channels; the simplest possible equation you can imagine to simulate a neuron, totally trivial synapses; and using the STDP learning rule I discovered in this way is also is a joke).

2. All these kinds of simulations are trivial and have been around for decades – simply called artificial neural network (ANN) simulations. We even stooped to doing these kinds of simulations as bench mark tests 4 years ago with 10’s of millions of such points before we bought the Blue Gene/L. If we (or anyone else) wanted to we could easily do this for a billion “points”, but we would certainly not call it a cat-scale simulation. It is really no big deal to simulate a billion points interacting if you have a big enough computer. The only step here is that they have at their disposal a big computer. For a grown up “researcher” to get excited because one can simulate billions of points interacting is ludicrous.

3. It is not even an innovation in simulation technology. You don’t need any special “C2 simulator”, this is just a hoax and a PR stunt. Most neural network simulators for parallel machines can can do this today. Nest, pNeuron, SPIKE, CSIM, etc, etc. all of them can do this! We could do the same simulation immediately, this very second by just loading up some network of points on such a machine, but it would just be a complete waste of time – and again, I would consider it shameful and unethical to call it a cat simulation.

It’s a stinging response from someone clearly annoyed at the misrepresentation of this sort of biological simulation work.

If you want to get a good handle on the aims of the Blue Brain project at least, Jonah Lehrer’s piece for Seed is the best you’re likely to read for a while.

Link to Markram’s email in IEEE Spectrum (via @Neurotechnology)

Spinning yarns

Originally published earlier this year in Prospect magazine, Tom has put a copy of his fantastic article online where he discusses our capacity for improvisation and how it links with a post-brain damage condition call confabulation where patients seem unable to stop themselves inventing unlikely stories.

Confabulation occurs most typically after frontal lobe damage and causes patients to give clearly false information either spontaneously or when they’re asked a question without any obvious intention to deceive the questioner.

It’s generally thought to be a problem with retrieving memories. The idea is that, initially, remembering activates a whole load of loosely associated information and then a filtering processes narrows it down to only the most relevant and likely memories.

Confabulation is thought to occur when brain damage impairs this filtering process so patients will recount incoherent information because they can’t easily distinguish between likely memories and other the contents of their mind.

Tom discusses how, in healthy people, the strength of this filtering process could be ‘turned down’ to allow theatrical improvisation and instant creativity.

In those patients with frontal damage who do confabulate, however, the brain injury makes them rely on their internal memories—their thoughts and wishes—rather than true memories. This is of course dysfunctional, but it is also creative in some of the ways that make improvisation so funny: producing an odd mix of the mundane and impossible. When a patient who claims to be 20 years old is asked why she looks about 50, she replies that she was pushed into a ditch by her brothers and landed on her face. Asked about his good mood, another patient called Harry explains that the president visited him at his office yesterday. The president wanted to talk politics, but Harry preferred to talk golf. They had a good chat.

Improvisers tap into these same creative powers, but in a controlled way. They learn to cultivate a “dual mind,” part of which doesn’t plan or discriminate and thus unleashes its inventive powers, while the other part maintains a higher level monitoring of the situation, looking out for opportunities to develop the narrative.

In fact, this is in line with work on Jazz musicians that we discussed last year.

This particular study found that activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) – a large chunk of the frontal lobes – reduces during Jazz improvisation, suggesting that the mental controls are eased up allowing a more free flowing mental style.

Link to Tom’s Prospect article ‘Tall Stories’.

Cold asylum

New Scientist has a gallery of striking photos taken from Christopher Payne’s book that details his photographic tour of abandoned asylums in the US.

In both the UK and the US, and, I suspect, in many other countries, there are numerous unused decaying mental asylums that have become obsolete as ‘care in the community’ has become the flag under which mental health services have been reformed or ignored.

The NewSci gallery captures the faded grandeur of some of these impressive buildings and has photographs of the devices and technology from a psychiatry of a bygone era.

As we discussed previously, many of the buildings are being converted into hotels, flats and the like with their past history hushed up, but what this photo set shows is that many more beautiful and architecturally unique buildings are simply being left to rot before they’re demolished.

By the way, the website of the book also has a fantastic slideshow with many more stunning photos – only hampered by the crippled flash interface. Look for the ‘Play Slideshow’ link at the bottom to kick it off.

Link to NewSci gallery of old asylum photos.
Link to website of Chris Payne’s ‘Asylum Book’.

Feliz Día Nacional del Psicólogo en Colombia

Colombia has an official Day of the Psychologist and you might be forgiven for thinking that it’s a self-declared promotional event by the psychology association here, but it isn’t, the day is established by law. Article 92 of Law 1090 establishes 20th November as the official celebration.

Psychology departments around the country usually celebrate the day with conferences and parties. I was kindly invited to give a talk on the ‘Neuropsicología de Alucinaciones’ at the four day conference (wow) at the University of Antioquia, so many thanks to everyone who attended.

Later on, there is a free concert at the university which will be broadcast live on radio station La Mega, so you can see the celebration is taken quite seriously.

It turns out that Colombia is not the only country with a ‘day of the psychologist’ as they also seem to happen in Argentina (13th October), Guatemala (23rd July), Uruguay (6th December), Mexico (22nd May) and Cuba (13th April).

I’m wondering whether this is purely a Latin American phenomenon, so if you know of any more, anywhere in the world, please let me know.

So, qué tengas un buen Día Nacional del Psicólogo and I’ll see you at the concert.

2009-11-20 Spike activity

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

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Neuroanthropology has an excellent piece on the late Lévi-Strauss and the development of the scientific study of cultural cognition and anthropology.

The Book of the Week in the Times Higher Education Supplement is ‘What Intelligence Tests Miss’.

Wired UK has a short but sensible piece on ‘how to tell if somebody is lying‘. In a nutshell, it’s more a statistical thing and there are no definite tell-tale signs.

There’s been some great posts on oxytocin during the last week or so over at Neurotopia.

New Scientist covers an interesting imaging study on the <a href="
“>differences between conscious and unconscious visual processing. As usual, ignore the headline.

Did a lake trigger a deadly disease? The Boston Globe discusses how the rare Lytico-Bodig disease might have emerged in New Hampshire. More on Metafilter.

Not Exactly Rocket Science covers an ingenious study on how sounds during sleep can improve previously learnt spatial associations.

Stupid title. Ridiculous picture. Interesting study. BBC News do a badly packaged write-up of a imaging study on the influence of hypnosis on the brain’s ‘default state’.

The Boston Globe covers some intriguing research on links between the economy and religious belief – particularly, believing in hell.

The BlueBrain project have created a computer simulation with as many neurons as a cat brain, according to The Times. The project is simulating cortical column neurons – almost no media outlets understand that ‘as many neurons’ does not mean ‘as complex as’. No matter how many ankles you simulate, you still haven’t created an artificial human.

PsyBlog has an interesting piece on whether ‘mirroring’ or copying other people’s body movements increases liking. Warning: dodgy hypnosis conclusion at the end.

There’s an excellent Car Zimmer piece in Discover Magazine on the ‘math instinct‘.

The Boston Review has an article on the clash between religion and PTSD treatment in the US military.

A study on how infants’ behaviour influences how their carers interact with them is covered by the ever-excellent BPS Research Digest.

Bloomberg reports, to paraphrase, that AstraZeneca are in the shit. Judge rules that claims about Seroquel increasing the risk of diabetes can be examined in court.

Lab based cognitive assessment, meet your nemesis – ecological validity. Yahoo! News reports on US military psychology experiments that will try and predict risk factors for PTSD – apart from being in a war that is – which has been concistently shown to be the biggest predictor of trauma in soldiers.

Cognitive Daily reports on a study finding that men are more tolerant of same-sex peers than women.

An artistic is to trigger an epileptic seizure in herself as part of an art show, according to The Independent

Time-space fusion

Neurophilosophy has an excellent piece on ‘time-space’ synaesthesia where affected individuals experience units of time – such as hours, days, or months – as occupying specific locations in space relative to their own body.

The image on the right is taken from a BBC News article on time-space synaesthesia and was drawn by one lady to illustrate how days of the week appear to her.

However, Neurophilosophy piece covers two new studies, one on a person with synaesthesia who experiences months in the space around her body in the form of a ‘7’ shape:

Michelle Jarick of the Synaesthesia Research Group at the University of Waterloo in Ontario and her colleagues describe the case of an individual whose time-space synaesthesia has a previously undescribed feature. Like other time-space synaesthetes, the 21-year-old individual, known as L, experiences the time of day and the months of the year as being represented in the space around her body. She experiences the hours of the day in the form of a large “clock face”, and her mental calender consists of a giant number “7”, which extends for approximately 1 meter around her waist, and on which the months of the year are arranged.

Both of the studies covered in the article demonstrate a crucial technique in synaesthesia research – in part, a demonstration that the effect is a genuine cross-over of the senses.

The general technique is the same no matter what form of synaesthesia you’re testing. It involves finding a task which will be changed by the triggered sense but not (or not so much) by the original perception.

For example, with the lady who drew the layout of her months in the image above, October appears on her right and July appears on her left.

So if you did a reaction task that involved indicating what side a word appeared on, you’d expect someone with this form of synaesthesia to do worse when October appeared on the left and July appeared on the right, owing to the confusion caused by the unfamiliar associations, or better when they appeared on the expected sides.

This form of study, where synaesthesia can be shown to improve or worsen performance on other tasks related mostly to the triggered perception is the basis of much research in this area, and the Neurophilosophy piece outlines how these two new studies have shown how time-space fusion is associated with better abilities in understanding time and space.

Link to Neurophilosophy on ‘The cognitive benefits of time-space synaesthesia’.
Link to BBC News on time-space synaesthesia.

Selecting for kuru resistant cannibals

New Scientist reports on a new study on how a gene that gives protection against the deadly brain disease kuru became more common in people exposed to the condition through their cannibalistic tradition of eating the bodies of dead relatives.

Kuru is a prion disease, meaning the damage is caused by a poorly arranged or folded protein molecule which can trigger the same damaging changes in other proteins it comes into contact with.

The condition is related to what we know as ‘mad cow disease’ and causes a distinctive form of shaking, brain degeneration and eventually leads to death. It was restricted to the South Fore people of Papua New Guinea who seemed to pass on the condition by their tradition of to eating deceased relatives at mortuary feasts.

This new study shows that over time a new variant of the PRNP gene emerged in the population which gave protection against kuru.

Because kuru is deadly and was widespread, the emergence of the gene shows evolution in action:

The mutation first arose about 200 years ago by accident in a single individual, who then passed it down to his or her descendants. “When the kuru epidemic peaked about 100 years back, there were maybe a couple of families who found that they and their children survived while all their neighbours were dying, and so on to today’s generation, who still carry the gene,” says Mead. “So it was a very sudden genetic change under intense selection pressure from the disease,” he says.

If you want some background on kuru and how prion diseases affect the brain, you can’t go far wrong with a fantastic Neurophilosophy article from last year.

Link to NewSci on ‘Gene change in cannibals reveals evolution in action’.
Link to abstract of study.
Link to excellent Neurophilosophy article on kuru.

Lady luck helps gamblers (lose not quite so badly)

A study on male gamblers just published in the Journal of Gambling Studies found that having a girl on your arm does bring ‘luck’ of sorts, as slot machine gamblers had fewer losses when accompanied by a female.

I am tempted to label this the ‘James Bond Effect’ but in gambling, good fortune is relative, so if you think good luck means pissing slightly less of your hard earned cash down the drain than you would have done anyway, may lady luck be your guiding light.

The study also found an interesting effect of slot machine gambling on mood: people feeling low beforehand cheered up, while those who felt happy or neutral felt worse afterwards.

Mood and Audience Effects on Video Lottery Terminal Gambling.

J Gambl Stud. 2009 Nov 17. [Epub ahead of print]

Mishra S, Morgan M, Lalumière ML, Williams RJ.

Little is known about the situational factors associated with gambling behavior. We induced 180 male participants (mean age: 21.6) into a positive, negative, or neutral mood prior to gambling on a video lottery terminal (VLT). While gambling, participants were observed by either a male peer, female peer, or no one. Induced mood had no effect on gambling behavior. Participants induced into a negative mood prior to gambling, however, reported more positive moods after gambling, whereas those with positive and neutral moods reported more negative moods after gambling. Participants observed by either a male or female peer spent less time gambling on the VLT compared to those not observed. Participants observed by a female peer lost less money relative to the other observer conditions. Degree of problem gambling in the last year had little influence on these effects. Some practical implications of these findings are discussed.

Link to summary of study on PubMed.

Do blind people hallucinate on LSD?

I’ve just found a remarkable 1963 study [pdf] from the Archives of Opthalmology in which 24 blind participants took LSD to see if they could experience visual hallucinations.

It turns out, they can, although this seems largely to be the case in blind people who had several years of sight to begin with, but who later lost their vision.

Those blind from a very early age (younger than two years-old) did not report visual hallucinations, probably because they never had enough visual experience to shape a fully-functioning visual system when their brain was still developing.

It is evident that a normal retina is not needed for the occurrence of LSD-induced visual experiences. These visual experiences do not seem to differ from the hallucinations reported by normal subjects after LSD.

Such phenomena occurred only in blind subjects who reported prior visual activity. The drug increased the frequency of visual events such as spots, lights, dots, and flickers. However, the complex visual experiences reported by 3 subjects after LSD did not occur after placebo or in ordinary experience.

It is interesting to note that duration of blindness was not related to the occurrence of visual hallucinations; nor was intelligence, acuity of visual memory, or use of visual imagery in speech.

I mentioned in an earlier post on auditory hallucinations in deaf people that I’d heard rumours of studies on LSD in blind people but never found any reports. This study is not the only one it seems. The paper reviews several other studies in the same area.

Three other reports deal with the effects of hallucinogenic drugs on blind subjects. Alema reported that 50 micrograms of orally administered LSD induced elaborate visual hallucinations in a subject with bilateral enucleations of the eyeball. However, the effects of 50 micrograms of LSD are stated to have persisted for the incredibly long period of 5 days (they usually last 6 hours). This subject was noted to have spontaneous visual activity.

Zador administered mescaline orally in doses of 0.05 to 0.4gm to 10 blind subjects. Elaborate visual hallucinations usually followed. Most of the subjects had prior spontaneous visual activity, but it is difficult to evaluate this activity because they also had central nervous system diseases. The presence or absence of light perception was not specified for this group, and no control studies were carried out.

Forrer and Goldnerr gave LSD, 1 microgram per kilogram to 2 blind volunteers, both of whom had suffered destruction of the optic nerves. Neither reported visual hallucinations, no mention was made of prior spontaneous hallucinations, and no mention was made of prior spontaneous visual activity.

pdf of full text of study.
Link to PubMed entry for study.

As I walk through the uncanny valley

Seed Magazine has an interesting piece on the ‘uncanny valley‘ effect, where humanoid figures become increasingly more attractive until they’re ‘a bit too lifelike’ and start seeming uncomfortably eerie.

It’s a fantastic piece because it discusses the development of the concept of ‘uncanniness’ – from the initial explanations by Freud to some tentative experimental studies that attempts to explain why some androids feel a bit creepy.

Disturbing experiences that feel both familiar and strange are instances of the “uncanny,” an intuitive concept, yet one that has defied simple explanation for more than a century. Interest in the particular occurrences of the uncanny, in which humans are bothered by interaction with human-like models, began as a psychological curiosity. But as our ability to design artificial life has increased—along with our dependence on it—getting to the heart of why people respond negatively to realistic models of themselves has taken on a new importance. Attempts to understand the origins of this reaction, known since the 1970s as the “uncanny valley response,” have drawn on everything from repressed fears of castration to an evolutionary mechanism for mate selection, but there has been little empirical evidence to assess the validity of these ideas.

I’ve always wondered whether people with robot fetishes, who get sexually aroused by android-like sex partners, are less susceptible to the uncanny valley effect.

Best of luck getting funding for that research project, I think to myself.

Link to Seed article ‘Into the Uncanny Valley’.

Chemo mainline to the brain

The New York Times has a fascinating article on how surgeons are attempting to treat aggressive and fatal brain tumours by injecting chemotherapy drugs directly into the brain.

One of the challenges for drug makers is that there are many substances that would otherwise have an effect in the brain, but it’s very hard to get them there from the bloodstream because the blood-brain barrier filters out all but the smallest molecules.

The NYT article discusses a technique borrowed from stroke treatment to deliver chemotherapy directly to the tumour or area from where the tumour has been removed.

In certain sorts of stroke a blood clot forms and blocks blood vessels, depriving the brain of oxygen. One important treatment is called thrombolysis where doctors can inject a clot dissolving enzyme through super fine flexible tubes called microcatheters.

They can insert these into a blood vessel in the lower body and then pass them through the the network of veins and arteries until they reach the affected blood vessel in the brain, delivering the ‘clot busting’ enzyme to exactly where it’s needed.

This new technique for brain cancer has apparently borrowed this technology to deliver chemotherapy to a specific area to treat one of the deadlist form of brain tumours – the glioblastoma.

The treatment is still in the research phase, so it’s not clear it has any benefits, but the article is an interesting take on a new approach to treating this condition with a life expectancy of little over a year:

The study, which began in August, is still in its earliest phase, meaning its main goal is to measure safety, not efficacy ‚Äî to find out if it is safe to spray Avastin directly into brain arteries and at what dose. Nonetheless, the doctors were pleased when M.R.I. scans of the first few patients showed that the treatment seemed to erase any sign of recurring glioblastomas. But how long the effect will last remains to be seen…

The complexity of a study like this goes beyond the science. Clinical trials are also a complicated pact, emotionally and ethically, between desperate patients and doctors who must balance their ambition as researchers against their duty as clinicians, and must walk a fine line between offering too much hope and not enough.

Link to NYT piece ‘Breaching a Barrier to Fight Brain Cancer’.

The Argentinian love affair with psychoanalysis

The Wall Street Journal has a revealing article on why Argentina has the largest concentration of psychologists anywhere in the world and why it has a long-standing cultural fascination with psychoanalysis.

Psychoanalysis is a set of psychological theories and form of psychotherapy based strongly on the ideas of Freud. Buenos Aires is one of the world centres of psychoanalysis and has been since the earliest days of Freud’s work.

Unlike in many countries, where psychoanalysis was, and remains, a psychology for the rich, the practice took off in Argentina during the 1960s to the point where is is common for everyday folk to see an analyst. The WSJ cites a recent survey suggesting that 32% of Argentinians have seen an analyst at some point in their lives.

Argentina is also known as a centre of Lacanian psychoanalysis, based on the work of French psychiatrist Jacques Lacan. If you can, imagine a French post-modern take on Freud. If you can’t, reading Lacan is unlikely to help because it’s an almost impenetrable reinterpretation of what was already a set of theories that was fairly loopy in places.

But psychoanalysis is more than a psychological practice in Argentina, it is a central part of the culture, and the WSJ article explores some of its social popularity.

Psychoanalysis is embedded in the geography of Buenos Aires, where many analysts are clustered in a neighborhood popularly known as Villa Freud.

Freudian thought colors political reporting. The newsweekly Noticias recently turned to a panel of 10 psychoanalysts to explain the behavior of ex-president Néstor Kirchner, who has been stealing the policymaking spotlight from his wife, Cristina, the current president.

One magazine query: What to make of Mrs. Kirchner’s statement that her husband sleeps in the fetal position?

Meanwhile, on TV, a drama series called “Tratame Bien,” (“Treat Me Well”), focuses on the travails of Jos√© and Sofia, a husband and wife, each of whom has an analyst. Facing midlife crises, the two make a momentous decision: retaining a third analyst they can see together for couples’ therapy.

Interestingly, lots of Latin America is still heavily influenced by psychoanalysis, probably due to the historical influences of the USA to the North and Argentina in the West.

However, since working here, I’ve realised that doing evidence-based empirical psychology and psychiatry is a lot more difficult in countries with limited resources.

Access to the evidence is expensive (thanks to the use of restrictive copyright and excessive pricing by scientific journals) and research is difficult when there is little free time and few funding opportunities.

However, this is much less of an issue with psychoanalysis because the major source of information is your own experience, insights and work with the patient, plus discussions in a limited set of journals.

In other words, it’s much easier to fulfil the requirements of what is expected of a well-informed competent psychoanalytic practitioner than what is expected of a scientifically-oriented evidence-based psychologist.

This, I suspect, is one of the many reasons that psychoanalysis remains popular in Latin America.

Link to WSJ piece on psychoanalysis in Argentina (via PCFTI).
Link to entry for Argentina in the International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis.

Dog eat dog

Writer Malcolm Gladwell recently published a collection of his essays in his new book What the Dog Saw. It was recently reviewed in The New York Times by cognitive scientist Stephen Pinker who complements Gladwell as “a writer of many gifts” but notes that “he is apt to offer generalizations that are banal, obtuse or flat wrong”.

Pinker cites several errors (including describing eigenvalues as ‘Igon values’) but cites one claim, over the link between IQ and American football players’ rankings, as “simply not true”.

Gladwell has just written a stinging response where he notes Pinker was using data from blog posts rather than the scientific article Gladwell was basing his claims on.

While the two writers spar over the details, the subtext is that Pinker is a proponent of IQ being a reliable predictor of success with a significant genetic influence (see The Blank Slate) whereas Gladwell has argued that success is largely a combination of practice plus being in the right place at the right time (see Outliers).

However, you may be interested to know that all of the essays collected in Gladwell’s new book are available for free on his website, so you can try before you buy.

Link to Pinker’s review in the NYT
Link to Gladwell’s reply (via @carlzimmer).

Like the colours of the prism

Image by Flickr user J. Weissmahr. Click for sourceHavelock Ellis is better known as a pioneering sexologist but I’ve just found this account of a young man with striking synaesthesia from a 1904 edition of the British Journal of Psychiatry

Ellis is apparently recounting a case from a Dr. Ulrich of the ‘Asylum for Epileptics at Zurich’, which I suspect is because he is summarising the original French report for the readers of the BJP.

The patient is described as acquiring epilepsy after catching measles at the age of three and having experiencing ongoing neurological impairment as a result, particularly with memory problems.

However, he does have a striking form of synaesthesia, where the senses become crossed, and the description is appropriately vivid:

From his earliest years voices have had colours to him, and he can hear nothing without a definite colour impression. The colours are very delicate, and transparent, like the colours of the prism; he does not actually see them before his eyes, but seems to hear them at the same time as he sees them. The vowel sounds have the most intense colours, which are here fully described, as well as the colours of musical instruments, cries of animals, etc. Colour hearing is, however, by no means the only form of synaesthesia presented by this subject. All the senses are affected. There is optical synaesthesia, whereby geometrical forms, etc., are coloured, and whereby also colours have faintly marked tastes.

There is, again, olfactory synaesthesia, by which odours produce colours; gustatory synaesthesia, by which tastes produce colours; and similarly tactile synaesthesia, and synaesthesia produced by painful impressions. There is finally a reciprocity of synaesthesia, by which colours recall the sensations with which they are associated. Among the points to be noted are that pains produce sensations of taste and also of temperature, while heat sensations produce sensations of vision and also of taste, and olfactory stimuli produce both visual and taste sensations…

The phenomena are most vivid after a quick succession of fits, and at such times it occasionally happens that there is some slight mental disturbance, and the patient fancies he is bewitched by the colours. Ulrich believes that all the synaesthesias so far known are combined in the person of his subject.

Although Ellis is one of the founders of sexology, he admitted in his autiobiography that he was impotent until the age of 60.

Link to entry in the British Journal of Psychiatry archive.

You are kind, strong willed, but can be self-critical

I’ve just found a classic study online where psychologist Bertram Forer gave a personality test to his students and then asked each person to rate how the accuracy of their ‘individual personality profile’. In reality, all the ‘individual profiles’ were identical but students tended to rate the descriptions as highly accurate.

In fact, on a scale of 1-5, students rated the accuracy of their profile, on average, as 4.2. This is the profile Forer used:

You have a great need for other people to like and admire you. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself. You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them. Your sexual adjustment has presented problems for you. Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic. Security is one of your major goals in life.

The tendency to see ourselves in vague or general statements has since been called the Forer effect or, alternatively, the Barnum effect, after the famous catchphrase attributed to the travelling circus impresario P.T. Barnum: “There’s a sucker born every minute!”

It has been cited as the basis for palm reading, fortune telling and the like, and in the original article, Forer notes that he was inspired to conduct the study because he was “accosted by a night-club graphologist who wished to ‘read’ his handwriting”.

Forer asked the graphologist what evidence he had for the accuracy of his readings and he replied that his clients usually confirmed that he was correct.

Forer felt this was rather poor evidence but decided on an interesting tack: rather than attempt to validate the test, he decided to study the psychology of agreeing with vague personality profiles.

Link to full text of Forer study (via Las penas del Agente Smith)

The illusion of a universe in our own back yard

Photo by by Idobi from Wikimedia commons. Click for sourceScience News covers a revealing new study on the Hadza people of Tanzania that has the potential shake up some of the rusty thinking in evolutionary psychology.

A common line of argument in this field is to suggest that sexual preferences for certain body types exist because we’ve evolved these desires to maximise our chances of mating with the most fertile or healthiest partner.

For example, studies have interpreted the fact that taller men are more likely to attract mates and reproduce in terms of evolutionary pressures on sexual desire. But most of these and similar studies have been completed on Western samples, while the authors draw conclusions about the ‘universal’ nature of these ‘evolutionary’ pressures.

To test how universal these body preferences really are, anthropologists Rebecca Sear and Frank Marlowe looked at whether similar preferences existed in the Hadza people, a hunter-gather tribe from Tanzania.

It turns out, these supposedly ‘universal preferences’ don’t exist in the Hadza. You can read the full text of the paper online as a pdf, but this is taken from the Science News write-up:

Hadza marriages don’t tend to consist of individuals with similar heights, weights, body mass indexes, body-fat percentages or grip strengths… Neither do Hadza couples feature a disproportionate percentage of husbands taller than their wives, as has been documented in some Western nations, the researchers report in the Oct. 23 Biology Letters.

Almost no Hadza individuals mention height or size when asked to explain what makes for an attractive mate, Sear and Marlowe add.

People everywhere seek healthy, fertile marriage partners, Sear proposes. “But I suspect there may not be a preference for one particular signal of health in mates across every population,” she says….

Sear and Marlowe criticize evolutionary psychologists who have argued that physical size influences mating decisions in all societies. That argument rests largely on self-reports of Western college students and analyses of personal advertisements in U.S. newspapers for dating partners, they say.

The problems with relying on Western college students as participants in psychology studies is also addressed by a new paper just released by Behavioural and Brain Sciences which you can read online as a pdf.

The article reviews data from psychology experiments and argues that not only are college students a very restricted subset of society, but they are actually wildly atypical in comparison to the rest of the world’s population.

In fact, the authors state that “The findings suggest that members of WEIRD [Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic] societies, including young children, are among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans”.

Link to Science News on Hadza study.
pdf of scientific paper on mating selection in the Hadza.
pdf of BBS article on WEIRD people and selection bias (thanks Tom!)