Super thinker

Superman in the pose of Rodin’s statue The Thinker outside the headquarters of Bancolombia in Medell√≠n.

I’m not quite sure about the intention of the statue as in the UK it would probably be considered an ironic take on the stereotype of the financial whiz kid and unfortunately I found it on the weekend so there was no-one around to ask.

However, popular culture is well represented in serious art here, in a large part due to the influence of Medell√≠n’s most famous artist, the painter and sculptor Fernando Botero.

The psychological effects of brain theories

The Frontal Cortex has an interesting piece on how giving people information suggesting that neuroscience undermines our everyday concept of free will can alter our ethical behaviour.

The post discusses two experiments where participants had been given information suggesting that free will was an illusion – one passage taken from Francis Crick’s book The Astonishing Hypothesis that argues against the everyday concept of free will on the basis of neurobiology.

It seems even these relatively brief encounters with information arguing against free-will had a noticeable effect on behaviour:

It turned out that students who had read the anti-free will quote were significantly more likely to cheat on the mental arithmetic test; their exposure to some basic scientific spin – your soul is a piece of meat – led to an increase in amorality. Of course, this is a relatively mild ethical lapse – as Schooler notes, “None of the participants exposed to the anti-free will message assaulted the experimenter or ran off with the payment kitty” – but it still demonstrates that even seemingly banal materialist concepts can alter our ethical behavior.

In another study, information on a “disbelief in free will” reduced people’s willingness to help others and increased the amount of unhelpful behaviour toward others.

The issue of free will in neuroscience is complex, but it is interesting that the information provided doesn’t bear directly on the issue of whether it is best to help other people or not.

Clearly though, biological explanations have an association with the idea that people are less in control of their actions, as we also know from other studies.

Science tends to assume that theories are not neutral in that they affect how we look at the world as researchers, but it is interesting to find out that this also happens on a personal psychological level as well.

Link to Frontal Cortex on ‘Free Will and Ethics’.

The addiction affliction

Slate has just published an article I’ve written on the over-selling of addiction. It discusses how difficulties with doing some things to excess – shopping, sex, internet use – are being increasingly described as addictions due to a perfect storm of pop medicine, pseudo-neuroscience, and misplaced sympathy for the miserable.

Like a compulsive crack user desperately sucking on a broken pipe, we can’t get enough of addiction. We got hooked on the concept a few centuries back, originally to describe the compulsive intake of alcohol and, later, the excessive use of drugs like heroin and cocaine. Now it seems like we’re using it every chance we can get‚Äîapplying the concept to any behavior that seems troublesome or ill-advised…

This creeping medicalization of everyday life means that almost any problem of excess can now be portrayed as an individual falling foul of a major mental illness. While drug addiction is a serious concern and a well-researched condition, many of the new behavioral addictions lack even the most basic foundations of scientific reliability.

Link to Slate article ‘The Addiction Habit’.

The stress of ancient Peru

Photo by Flickr user magnusvk. Click for sourceAn ingenious technique, just published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, was used to look at patterns of stress in their lives of long-dead people from Peru, some who lived more than a thousand years ago.

The study analysed strands of hair from bodies dug up from five archaeological sites for traces of the hormone cortisol – known to be released when we experience stress.

Hair grows about a centimetre a month and as the body creates the hair, it incorporates traces of chemicals that are present at the time. This means it is possible to look back over the length of a strand of hair and see which chemicals were affecting the person’s body at the time when that bit of hair was formed.

This is the basis of drugs tests that analyse hair for substances like heroin and cocaine, but a few years ago it was discovered that cortisol also left its mark.

A team of researchers, led by anthropologist Emily Webb, took this idea and applied it to the hair of long-dead people from ancient sites across Peru to see how stress affected their lives in the months and years before their deaths.

The researchers found that, in general, stress increased in the months leading up to death – perhaps suggesting death through chronic illness or maybe that the individuals were aware of their impending demise.

The results also showed that in some individuals, stress could suddenly drop for certain periods, perhaps for a month at a time, whereas for others the patterns of stress seemed to go in cycles.

What this does suggest is that then, as now, while there are clearly some things which tend to stress us all, many stress responses are highly changeable and probably quite individual.

Link to DOI entry and summary of study.
Link to write-up by ars technica (via Neuron Culture).

2009-12-18 Spike activity

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

The New York Times reports that antipsychotics are more likely to be prescribed to children from poorer families in the US.

There’s an excellent piece on Tiger Woods, the media, and the selling of sex addiction over at Dr Petra.

Time magazine reports on the climbing suicide rate in the US military with only a third happening in war zones.

UN advisor claims banks knowingly welcomed billions of laundered drug money into the system at the height of the financial crises to prevent collapse, according to a piece in The Guardian.

Wired Science reports on a study finding that geek stereotypes like Star Trek put women off an interest in technology careers. If you think that’s bad, Counsellor Deanna Troi nearly put me off a career in psychology.

A fascinating study on actually feeling pain through watching others’ discomfort is expertly covered by Neurophilosophy.

The Boston Globe covers the UK government’s recent fingers-in-ears la la la not listening firing of their top drugs advisor.

There’s a wonderfully in-depth analysis of the motivations of internet trolls over at Culture and Cognition.

New Scientist has an interesting piece on the psychology of saying the wrong thing despite deliberately trying to avoid it.

A fascinating if slightly baffling study on the cognitive effects of cuteness is covered by The Neurocritic.

CNN Money ranks clinical psychologist as the 23rd best job in America, psychiatrist as 24th.

Drug company Glaxo are said to have paid $1 billion to settle law suits over their Paxil antidepressant, according to Bloomberg.

Furious Season’s Phil Dawdy, the internet’s only crowd-funded investigative mental health journalist is having a fund-raiser and it’s been a bit slow. There’s still a chance to support his work.

Alzheimer’s risk linked to level of appetite hormone, reports BBC News.

Not Exactly Rocket Science covers an ingenious study find that even non-verbal hints in TV dramas can perpetuate racial biases.

There’s an interesting piece about important subtleties in the reporting of brain surgery for mental illness over at Neuroskeptic.

The Economist has a fascinating piece on a new study finding that stressed mothers are more likely to spontaneously miscarry male foetuses than female ones.

Information deluge will overload the brain, say numerous press stories based on a report funded by AT&T, Cisco, IBM, Intel, LSI, Oracle, and Seagate.

PsyBlog has an excellent summary of the fundamental attribution error and a brilliant study on trainee priests.

A Japanese department store is to sell two humanoid robots modelled on the purchaser, reports Wired UK.

Science Daily reports on a new study finding that a type of psychological treatment called Interpersonal Psychotherapy is useful in preventing obesity in ‘at risk’ teenage girls.

People really are happier in those US states identified as having better ‘quality of life’? asks the BPS Research Digest.

The Splintered Mind light-heartedly considers whether academics should try product placement.

Why do people dance? asks The Guardian covering some curious and intriguing research on the psychology of ‘dance confidence‘.

The Society for Neuroscience posts the video of a discussion between scientist and professionals magicians on consciousness, cognitive science and the art of magic.

Patricia Churchland on neuroscience

The BBC World Service recently hosted a discussion with philosopher Patricia Churchland, one of the pioneers of a type of philosophy of mind that directly engages with ongoing discoveries in cognitive and neuroscience.

The discussion starts of with the inevitable recap of Cartesian dualism, where mind and brain were thought to be completely separate entities, before launching into an interesting debate on how we can integrate our experience of the self and subjective experience with evidence from brain science.

The discussion took place at London’s Wellcome Collection who also have a brief interview with Churchland who discusses what she’s currently working on.

Churchland has become interested in oxytocin, which must rank alongside dopamine as one of the most misused bits of brain-behaviour evidence in popular discussion.

While she doesn’t entirely avoid the current over-excitement which portrays oxytocin as a form of ’empathy potion’ she tackles the science far more completely than you’ll find in your average mainstream media discussion.

Link to BBC World Service discussion with Patricia Churchland.
Link to brief interview at Wellcome.

The ancient mind was planning earlier than thought

Science News covers a fascinating new archaeological study that mapped the the remains of an 750,000 year-old settlement lived in by the ancestors of the human race and found evidence for tasks being organised in different areas, suggesting a degree of intelligence and problem solving that was not thought to have arisen until much later in evolution.

The study, just published in Science, analysed the pattern of artefacts in the Gesher Benot Ya’aqov site, located in what is now Northern Israel.

Previously, only modern humans, Homo sapiens, were thought to have developed the mental capacity to organise and separate their daily tasks. However, this site was settled by hominin ancestors of the human race and shows distinct signs of planned organisation:

Daily behaviors occurred in two main parts of a rectangular living area excavated at GBY, the researchers conclude. One area hosted primarily flint-tool making and preparation of fish for eating. In another area, situated around a large hearth, residents resharpened used stone tools, fashioned new tools out of basalt and limestone, ate fish and crabs, and cracked nuts after roasting them.

Roasting allowed the inedible shells of various nuts to be easily peeled off. It also reduced levels of bitter substances, called tannins, found in acorns.

‚ÄúHominids who were responsible for the organization of space at GBY had very advanced cognitive abilities that have generally been considered an important marker of human intelligence,” Goren-Inbar says.

Many researchers have thought that the mental capacity to plan and organize living spaces around different activity areas first arose among Homo sapiens roughly 100,000 years ago, well after the species originated around 200,000 years ago.

Until now, hominid sites from before 100,000 years ago had yielded stone tools and bones of various animals but no signs of separate activity spots in common living spaces.

Link to write-up from Science News.
Link to summary of scientific study in Science.