No dark sarcasm in the classroom

The Frontal Cortex reports on an interesting study that found that the personality characteristics teachers define as creative are the same ones that make their pupils least likeable in the classroom.

Eric Barker recently referred me to this interesting study, which looked at how elementary school teachers perceived creativity in their students. While the teachers said they wanted creative kids in their classroom, they actually didn’t. In fact, when they were asked to rate their students on a variety of personality measures – the list included everything from “individualistic” to “risk-seeking” to “accepting of authority” – the traits mostly closely aligned with creative thinking were also closely associated with their “least favorite” students. As the researchers note, “Judgments for the favorite student were negatively correlated with creativity; judgments for the least favorite student were positively correlated with creativity.”

This shouldn’t be too surprising: Would you really want a little Picasso in your class? How about a baby Gertrude Stein? Or a teenage Eminem? The point is that the classroom isn’t designed for impulsive expression – that’s called talking out of turn. Instead, it’s all about obeying group dynamics and exerting focused attention. Those are important life skills, of course, but decades of psychological research suggest that such skills have little to do with creativity.

This is a classic example of the conflict where an institution that imposes strict group standards of behaviour claims to promote individuality and self-expression.

A lovely study published last year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology demonstrated how people who don’t go along with a task for justifiable moral reasons are typically rejected by the group, even when the individuals in the group might otherwise agree with their moral stand.

In other words, we like rebels as long as they are not bothering us.

Link to Frontal Cortex on ‘Classroom Creativity’.

Heart breaker

Photo by Flickr user I am K.E.B. Click for sourceIt seems you’re more likely to die from a heart attack when having sex while having an affair, than during sex with your regular partner, although this seems largely to apply to men.

A case report in the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine reports on the death of a woman who had a heart attack during extra-marital sex, something unusual in women. This is not conclusive evidence for the link between heart attacks and affairs in itself, of course, but the article reviews some suggestive evidence about sex, risk of death, physical and psychological stress.

Recent studies dispute early popular belief that sexual activity necessitates extraordinary physical effort, by showing that in normal settings, healthy adults show only mild to moderate increases in heart rate and blood pressure. However, this is not the case in individuals suffering from cardiovascular pathologies [heart problems], in which the relative risk of myocardial infarction [heart attack] in the two hours following sex increases 2.5-fold over the baseline. Furthermore, all reported cardiac deaths surrounding sexual conducts involved extramarital sex, suggesting psychological stress as an added factor.

However, as there is no data about behaviour, it’s not clear that psychological stress is the primary thing that increases risk, or whether people are just doing more strenuous things in their extramarital trysts.

The paper does mention one study from Israel, however, that sets the scene, and largely rules out the fact that this may be due to taking Viagra, which can put a strain on the heart

Between the years 1999 and 2008, the National Center of Forensic Medicine in Israel (population of 7.4 millions) investigated at least one case annually of sudden death of a male engaged in sexual activity. All these events took place with substantially younger women, in extramarital settings… In only one instance the toxicological examination revealed traces of sildenafil [Viagra] in the blood.

In all of the cases in this study, the cause was sudden heart failure in men with coronary heart disease.

Link to case report on PubMed.

On the outer limits

Photo by Flickr user Marcel Tuit. Click for sourceThe latest edition of RadioLab discusses the limits of endurance, human memory and artificial intelligence in a particularly good programme from the top tier science show.

The section on human endurance looks at the competitors in the Race Across America, an 800km bicyle race where the cyclists sleep on an hour or two a night and eventually start hallucinating as they race.

The story of Mr S, a case of someone with a seemingly limitless memory who was documented in A.R. Luria’s book The Mind of a Mnemonist, is compared with modern day memory competitors. And an AI system that derived a mathematical law that we don’t understand tests the limits of science.

Not to be missed.

Link to RadioLab edition on ‘Limits’.

Psychosis podcast and the Mind Hacks recursion

Photo by Flickr user sparkieblues. Click for sourceAbout a year ago, we posted about a study at the University of Manchester who were evaluating the impact of podcast about psychosis on attitudes towards unusual mental states. Mind Hacks readers formed a large bulk of the participants and the paper has just been published in the journal Psychosis.

So, in possibly one of the most recursive posts you’re likely to read for a while, I’m going to write about a study you were part of because you read about it on Mind Hacks.

The research was motivated by the fact that although anomalous psychosis-like experiences are common (for example, about a third of people report naturally occurring hallucinations) those who end up in front of mental health professionals are more likely to have assumed that these psychological distortions are uncontrollable, unacceptable or dangerous.

Imagine if you started occasionally hearing voices. The majority of people who hear voices don’t become mentally ill, they’re absolutely fine. But if you didn’t know this you might automatically think you were ‘going mad’ or ‘losing your mind’ and become, understandably, very distressed.

Of course, voices can be a symptom of mental illness but headaches can be a symptom of a brain cancer and imagine how you’d feel if you assumed that every headache meant you had a tumour.

Importantly, there is evidence that distress from worry about unusual experiences can actually worsen the mental state, making it more likely that the person becomes mentally ill.

Ideally, we’d want everyone to know that unusual experiences, like headaches, can be normal but to go to the doctor if they are causing any sort of interference or difficulty.

Unfortunately, most people don’t know this and getting the word out is hard, so the team at Manchester decided to run a pilot study to see if a short podcast that gave good advice would help, so they set about evaluating it.

They asked people to complete some psychological questionnaires online that measured attitudes to hearing voices and attitudes to feeling paranoid, asked people to listen to the podcast, and then return to complete the questionnaires again afterwards.

I have to say, the podcast was not the most gripping and the sound quality could have been improved but despite this, after listening, participants were more likely to accurately rate how common unusual experiences are reported less negative and distressing attitudes towards voices and paranoid thoughts.

As the researchers note, to understand whether this was genuinely an effect of the psychosis podcast, rather than just spending 30 minutes relaxing with an mp3 player, they’d need to run a control group who listened to something else, but this is a promising start and they hope to take the project further to develop a useful mental health education tool.

This is also the first time Mind Hacks appears in the medical literature. The paper mentions Mind Hacks, quotes our entire post, and links to us:

The authors of a popular high-quality psychology blog (http://www.mindhacks.com) also kindly agreed to mention the study to their readers in a short internet post.

So forget your hit counts and blog rankings, the claim that Mind Hacks is a “popular high-quality psychology blog” is now SCIENTIFIC FACT! Although, largely of course, because of you. Researcher Paul Hutton also asked us to pass on his thanks to you all, and we can only do the same.

Link to DOI entry and summary for psychosis podcast study.

But I just think I’m free

From the track Bonkers by Dizzee Rascal, who turns out to be a remarkably insightful lyricist when he’s not rapping about working it with the ladies:

I wake up, every day is a daydream
Everything in my life isn’t what it seems
I wake up just to go back to sleep
I act real shallow but I’m in too deep
And all I care about is sex and violence
And a heavy bass line is my kind of silence
Everybody says that I got to get a grip
But I let sanity give me the slip

Link to video for Bonkers.

The superstar black hole

Photo by Flickr user itspaulkelly. Click for sourceThe Wall Street Journal has an excellent article on the ‘superstar effect’ where competition against someone who is perceived as far superior actually makes the other competitors perform worse due to a sort of ‘implicit intimidation’.

The piece, by science writer Jonah Lehrer, riffs on a study [pdf] by economist Jennifer Brown who looked at the effect of Tiger Woods presence in a tournament on other golfers’ performance:

Ms. Brown discovered the superstar effect by analyzing data from every player in every PGA Tour event from 1999 to 2006. She chose golf for several reasons, from the lack of “confounding team dynamics” to the immaculate statistics kept by the PGA. Most important, however, was the presence of Mr. Woods, who has dominated his sport in a way few others have.

Such domination appears to be deeply intimidating. Whenever Mr. Woods entered a tournament, every other golfer took, on average, 0.8 more strokes. This effect was even observable in the first round, with the presence of Mr. Woods leading to an additional 0.3 strokes among all golfers over the initial 18 holes. While this might sound like an insignificant difference, the average margin between first and second place in PGA Tour events is frequently just a single stroke. Interestingly, the superstar effect also varied depending on the player’s position on the leaderboard, with players closer to the lead showing a greater drop-off in performance.

The article lifts off from there and virtually every paragraph has an insight into how we internalise skills and how our performance is affected by our perceptions and mental activity.

Link to WSJ article ‘The Superstar Effect’.

Not exactly rocket surgery

There’s a great comedy sketch from British duo Mitchell and Webb about an egotistical brain surgeon on YouTube.

It’s sarcastic, cutting and you can see the punchline coming a mile off, but still good for laugh as it satirises the effect of the ego on typical British small talk.

The only similar joke I’ve ever tried was to say to a neurosurgeon in the pub “that’s lucky, I’ve got this thing in my temporal lobe that’s been playing up, I wonder if you wouldn’t mind having a quick look”.

Lead balloon.

Link to Mitchell and Webb brain surgeon sketch.

2010-04-09 Spike activity

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

New Scientist has an excellent piece on theories of how deep brain stimulation treats mental illness. Ignore the stupid title.

A study found by Barking Up the Wrong Tree finds higher intelligence is a “protective factor” against teenage sexual activity. Geek you say?

Slate has a fascinating article on cognitive distortions in how we think about geography and how they affect our judgements.

Noam Chomsky answers questions on cognitive science and anarchism on, er, reddit. Next week, Britney interviewed on PubMed.

NPR Morning Edition has a section on how ageing brains are slower but more shrewd.

There’s some excellent straight thinking coverage of the recent discovery of bones of an apparently new species of hominid over at Laelaps with Carl Zimmer using the opportunity to straighten out the ‘missing link’ fallacy.

The New York Times reports on how Google now return a crisis hotline when you do searches on how to commit suicide but only in English it seems. Half a billion Spanish speakers Рuna versión castellana por favor.

Spank me nanny, spank me! Not Exactly Rocket Science covers a study that explains how pain can be experienced as pleasurable. It’s all. about the. timing apparently.

The Guardian has a piece on an ‘anatomy of a media drug scare’ about the misreporting of UK drug deaths linked to currently legal drug mephedrone.

The New York Times visits a sanctuary for the exotic animals of dead drug lords in Colombia.

Supertaskers‘ or people who can multi-task without performance drop off are discussed in Time magazine.

Living the Scientific Life on What do Great Tits Reveal about the Genetics of Personality. Gutted.

There’s an excellent discussion of Allan Hobson’s neuroscientific theory of why we dream over at The Neuroskeptic.

Contemporary Psychotherapy magazine has just released it’s latest edition online.

There are some wonderful embroidered cellular scale neurobiology creations over at Bioemphemera.

The Neurocritic covers the American Academy of Neurology’s Neuro Film Festival which has some fantastic entries.

Is art the highest form of sanity? The Times has an intelligent discussion of the old ‘art and madness’ trope looking the misuse of the clich√© in recent writing.

The Guardian has a video interview with David Eagleman, neuroscientist and author of short stories about fantastic after-life possibilities. “We won’t die ‚Äì our consciousness will live forever on the internet”.

A new study on impulsivity, dopamine and addiction is covered by the splendid Addiction Inbox.

BBC News has an excellent piece by consistently excellent Mark Easton on the UK government’s failure to assess how effective their billions on drugs treatment services work.

Synthetic Neurobiology: Optically Engineering the Brain to Augment Its Function. A talk by MIT neural engineer Ed Boyden from The Singularity Summit 2009.

The Splintered Mind muses on people who come across as smart and how this relates to genuinely being smart. By the way, if you don’t read the blog, it is a public fountain of emerging philosophical thinking.

The New York Times discusses the ‘The Myth of Mean Girls‘ contrasting public concerns about the behaviour of girls and the fact that every major index of crime shows that violence by girls has been plummeting for years.

The mighty Language Log has an evolutionary psychology bingo card. Eyes down for a full house.

The Onion has a brilliant video report: DEA Official Announces Successful Drug Bust on Son.

The ever-awesome BPS Research Digest discusses a still not completely convincing study that reports to have found the direct evidence for mirror neurons in the human brain using depth electrodes, including in the, er, hippocampus.

The Frontal Cortex has been excellent lately.

Following up on our discussion of the ‘psychological typhoon eye’ phenomenon, the Extreme Fear blog discusses how a similar effect was found during the World War Two London Blitz.

Wonky Kong

Photo from Wikipedia. Click for sourceThere’s a bizarre case report in the latest edition of Psychological Medicine where some Australian psychiatrists who specialise in disorders of old age got called out to a zoo to assess an elderly gorilla who was behaving strangely.

Unfortunately, the case report is full of medical jargon although it becomes quite charming when you realise that the psychiatrists just went about assessing the gorilla, running their standard tests as best they could, as if it was just another patient.

The bit where the doctors test the gorilla’s eye-tracking by waving a date around in front of it is pure joy.

In July 2006, in response to a call from the Melbourne Zoo, a home visit was made to examine a 49-year-old female Western Lowland Gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla), who had recently developed a confusional state with the following observed behaviors:

being apparently lost in her enclosure, which she had occupied for 15 years; unable to find her food; defecating in her nest; unable to locate the entry to her night den after being outside in the enclosure; loss of her dominant role as the senior matriarch and being bullied by younger females; apparently unable to see things in certain areas of her enclosure; being less responsive to her favorite keeper, who had cared for her since 1980.

The staff of the Zoo raised the question: is she developing a dementing illness? A domiciliary consultation by a psychogeriatrician from the University of Melbourne was therefore requested to assess this.

Previous history
The female gorilla had a history of low-grade cardiac disease associated with hypertension, and a serious renal infection had resulted in surgical removal of one kidney in 2003.

Examination
She was enticed to the edge of her enclosure to accept her favorite snack of dates, walking with a slow but steady gait. Using offered dates as targets for an ocular [eye] movement examination, the presence of nystagmus was identified, together with bilateral upward gaze palsy. In a team discussion with her keepers and the veterinarian, an observation schedule was developed for use over the next three weeks to track her behavior. At follow-up review, one month later, the observation schedule revealed fluctuating but slow improvement in all domains. On further examination, her ocular signs had settled.

Diagnosis
A diagnosis of post-TIA delirium was made. Her behavior and general function steadily improved over the next two months. Cerebral infarction [damage due to blood supply blockage] has previously been reported in a 29-year old chimpanzee, Pan troglodytes (Fish et al., 2004).

Outcome
Her physical decline occurred during 2007, and she was euthanized in November 2007 at the age of 50 years.

Autopsy report
There were multifocal to coalescing often aggregated, multiple small soft, white plaques within the meninges over the middle and posterior dorsal midline surface of the cerebrum (consistent with prominent arachnoid granulations).

Discussion
Autopsy revealed cerebral hemorrhages at globus pallidus and internal capsule, thus confirming the clinical diagnosis. Examination of the heart confirmed chronic myocardial fibrosis, and a pancreatic islet cell carcinoma [cancer] had metastasized [spread] to lung and liver. We suggest that the observation schedule so developed may be of use in future to observe other primates in captivity which develop confusional states.

I was also delighted to read that the scientific name for a Western Lowland Gorilla is ‘gorilla gorilla gorilla’.

Link to PubMed entry for case report.

Rumour has it

As a follow-on from our recent post on the psychology of urban legends, I’ve just found a video interview with psychologist Nicholas DiFonzo, author of the book Rumor Psychology that we mentioned previously.

DiFonzo discusses some of the main conclusions of the research, including the major motivations for why people pass on hearsay, the most significant reasons for why people believe it, and the most effective ways of combating rumours.

A brief but interesting interview.

Link to interview on YouTube.

A hitchhiker’s guide to the inherited mind

New Scientist has a fantastic article on making sense of cognitive genetics studies, the science that links certain versions of genes to behaviour, by taking the use and abuse of the MAOA gene as an example. If the name doesn’t ring a bell you may remember it being dubbed ‘warrior gene’, which as well as being inaccurate, was one of its least embarrassing moments.

For many decades, genetics and psychology only really interacted with the twin study, which, by comparing the differences between identical and non-identical twins, can indicate how much of the difference in the twins you’ve studied is due to the environment and how much has been inherited.

As it became possible to identify individual genes, and more importantly, as automated ‘gene chip‘ technology made this economical, studies began looking at differences between groups of people distinguished by simply having different versions of the same gene.

The idea is to see how a single gene influences behaviour, but because the gene and the everyday effect are so distant (it’s like trying to detect the effect of a day of farm weather on the flavour of your lunch) the story often gets mangled in the retelling.

The New Scientist article, by Not Exactly Rocket Science’s Ed Yong, tells the story of MAOA and its headline-making link with aggression, but it also serves as an essential hitchhiker’s guide to the science and pitfalls of linking genetics with behaviour.

However, the clearest sign yet that the gene is no ruthless determinant of behaviour came in 2002 when Avshalom Caspi and Terrie Moffitt of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, published their findings about a sample of 442 men from New Zealand who they had followed from birth. A third of these men carried the MAOA-L variant. Now, aged 26, this group was indeed more likely than the others to have developed antisocial disorders and violent behaviour – but only if they had been poorly treated or abused as children. Moffitt and Caspi concluded that the so-called “warrior gene” affects a child’s sensitivity to stress and trauma at an early age. Childhood trauma “activates” bad behaviour, but in a caring environment its effect is quashed.

Since then, similar interactions between nature and nurture have become part and parcel of the MAOA story. Carriers of MAOA-L are more likely to show delinquent behaviour if they were physically disciplined as children. They are also more likely to be hyperactive in late childhood if their first three years were stressful, and to develop conduct disorders if their mothers smoked cigarettes while pregnant with them. The list goes on. Likewise, Beaver found that MAOA-H carriers were more likely to commit fraud, but only if they hung around with delinquent peers.

Link to NewSci article on MAOA, genes and behaviour.

Cultural differences in childhood amnesia

Photo by Flickr user Irregular Shed. Click for sourceChildhood amnesia is the phenomenon where we are generally unable to remember the earliest years of childhood. This is often assumed to be purely because the brain is too underdeveloped to successfully store and organise memories but an interesting study from 2000 reported that the extent of childhood amnesia differs between cultures and sexes.

Cross-cultural and gender differences in childhood amnesia

Memory. 2000 Nov;8(6):365-76.

MacDonald S, Uesiliana K, Hayne H.

In two experiments, we examined cross-cultural and gender differences in adults’ earliest memories. To do this, we asked male and female adults from three cultural backgrounds (New Zealand European, New Zealand Maori, and Asian) to describe and date their earliest personal memory. Consistent with past research, Asian adults reported significantly later memories than European adults, however this effect was due exclusively to the extremely late memories reported by Asian females. Maori adults, whose traditional culture includes a strong emphasis on the past, reported significantly earlier memories than adults from the other two cultural groups. Across all three cultures, the memories reported by women contained more information than the memories reported by men. These findings support the view that the age and content of our earliest memories are influenced by a wide range of factors including our culture and our gender. These factors must be incorporated into any comprehensive theory of autobiographical memory.

This doesn’t mean that brain development plays no role, of course, but it raises the question of how many of the things we recall from childhood are influenced by culture.

For example, memories that seem genuinely to be from the early years may appear that way due to us being brought up with the retelling of family stories or from seeing photographs and subsequently absorbing them as our own memories thanks to source amnesia.

It could be that this form of social remembering differs between cultures or is influenced by the sex of the child which may encourage people to report earlier or later memories, or alternatively, may actually strengthen genuine memories as they are re-told during our early years.

pdf of full text of culture and childhood amnesia study.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

In the eye of the storm

Wired magazine’s Haiti Rewired blog has an excellent piece on the ‘psychological typhoon eye’ phenomenon, discovered after studies of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake in China, where those closest to the centre of the devastation actually reported less concern about their safety and health.

The effect was initially reported shortly after the disaster and was found to still be present in a follow-up study one year later.

From the Wired piece:

Two suggestions have been provided to account for the psychological eye, namely “psychological immunization” or “cognitive dissonance”. The former seemed like a plausible explanation after the initial survey, since there is wide anecdotal documentation of “coping measures” adopted by those who experience significant personal trauma or hazards. However, the fact that subsequent surveys found relatives experiencing a variation of the psychological eye, suggests that the extent of personal experience, which strongly drives psychological immunization, is not sufficient to account for the observed effect.

Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance is defined as an uncomfortable psychological state in which two opposing cognitions are experienced and need to ultimately be reconciled. In the example of the psychological eye, the devastation of the area creates a sense of danger, yet the individual may have no choice but to remain close by, counter to the survival instinct. To reconcile these conflicting beliefs, the individual may unconsciously lower self-assessed risk to justify remaining in the area. Cognitive dissonance is very difficult (impossible?) to modify in the field, as noted by the authors, and thus, this proposal will remain more speculative until follow-up studies in a controlled fashion can be done.

The author, Nature’s Noah Gray, goes on to suggest that “Surveyors must maintain a cautious and healthy skepticism when interviewing survivors and assessing areas for aid because information provided and opinions given will not likely reflect the dire situations being experienced.”

One difficulty in these situations is that mental health workers usually hurriedly arrive from other countries and may not fully understand how trauma and psychological distress are experienced by the local population, or how they integrate with other sorts of decision-making.

We tend to assume that trauma is a universal reaction to a difficult situation but this singular concept is something of a mirage – common psychological reactions to devastation have differed over time and differ between cultures.

The model of trauma described as the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD simply doesn’t fit the common reactions of people from many cultures, despite the fact that this is the most common conceptual tool used by Western mental health workers.

In a 2001 article for the British Medical Journal psychiatrist Derek Summerfield noted:

Underpinning these constructs is the concept of “person” that is held by a particular culture at particular point in time. This embodies questions such as how much or what kind of adversity a person can face and still be “normal”; what is reasonable risk; when fatalism is appropriate and when a sense of grievance is; what is acceptable behaviour at a time of crisis including how distress should be expressed, how help should be sought, and whether restitution should be made.

In these cases, not understanding the local culture may mean that aid workers may assume that individuals don’t understand the risks of the situation, when, in fact, each may be basing their risk assessment on different priorities – as has been found in studies on cultural differences in risk perception.

Treating trauma seems like a no brainer. It intuitively seems like one of the most worthy and naturally important responses to a disaster, which is probably why disaster areas are now often flooded with ‘trauma counsellors’ after the event (Ethan Watters’s book Crazy Like Us charts the response to the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka where floods of well-meaning but poorly trained therapists arrived in the following weeks much to the bafflement of the locals and annoyance of the established relief organisations).

However, this is one of few areas where well meaning but poorly prepared therapists can actually do harm. Although experiencing extreme danger raises the risk of mental illness, contrary to popular belief, only a minority of people caught up in disasters will experience psychological trauma and immediate psychological treatment, either in single or multiple sessions has found to be useless or to make matters worse.

The psychological impact of devastation changes through time and space and we need to be careful to understand its local significance lest we inadvertently amplify the chaos.

Link to Haiti Rewired on the ‘psychological typhoon eye’.

Towards an aesthetics of urban legends

Photo by Flickr user quinn.anya. Click for sourceThe Point of Inquiry podcast has a great discussion with psychologist Scott Lilienfeld about his new book ’50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology’ and why scientific-sounding mental fairy tales persist, despite them having no good evidence to support them.

The most interesting bit is where Lilienfeld tackles why such myths have their psychological power, which to me is far the most interesting aspect of why certain stories perpetuate.

Some ideas seem to have properties that give them social currency. Here’s one of my favourite and you can try it out yourself – the usual format of the conversation goes something like this:

– Remember Bobby McFerrin, the ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’ guy?
– Yeah, I remember him.
– Killed himself.
– Huh, that figures.

This myth has no evidence for it whatsoever, Bobby McFerrrin is alive and well, but it became so widespread that Snopes created a page debunking the story.

What is it about this story that makes it so easily accepted? Or perhaps, we should ask, what is it about this story which makes it so attractive to pass on to others?

There has been a considerable amount of research on the psychology of rumours that attempts to explain why we are motivated to spread them. A fantastic book called Rumor Psychology reviews the research which indicates that uncertainty, importance or outcome-relevant involvement, lack of control, anxiety, and belief are crucial – but this doesn’t seem to apply to all such rumours (as an aside, it’s interesting that these principles seem rarely applied in military PsyOps campaigns e.g. see PsyWar.org Iraq war leaflet archive).

On a personal level, you can see how these principles might apply to trite ‘women are from mars, women are from venus’ pop relationship psychology, but it doesn’t seem to apply quite so well to the commonly repeated myth that we use only 10% of our brains.

And when we consider the ‘Bobby McFerrin topped himself’ story, none of it seems relevant. Perhaps this is better thought of as ‘gossip’, but unfortunately the psychology of gossip is much less developed and relies largely on pseudo-evolutionary ideas about social bonding and the like (Robin Dunbar’s book Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language is perhaps the most developed example of this).

I often wonder if we need an experimental aesthetics of information that helps us understand why such stories are inherently attractive, in the same way that studies have begun to focus on what makes certain tunes catchy.

Link to Point of Inquiry podcast on PopPsy myths.

At the yawn of time

The journal Frontiers of Neurology and Neuroscience has an paper that looks at how rates of yawning change throughout our life.

It has a slightly surreal feel to it, and I can’t help imaging yawn scientists carefully tracking the behaviour across the globe with overly complicated machines, like something out of a Roald Dahl book.

Yawning throughout Life.

Front Neurol Neurosci. 2010;28:26-31.

Giganti F, Salzarulo P.

Yawning is a behavior that begins in the first stages of life. It has not only been observed in infants and in newborns, but also in fetuses of 12-14 weeks’ gestational age. Yawning frequency changes over the life span. In preterm infants, the number of yawns decreases between 31 and 40 weeks’ postconceptional age, mainly during the day. In this period of life, yawning is an isolated behavior rarely occurring in bursts, and its frequency is quite low with respect to adults. The incidence of yawning seems to increase when children attend elementary school, whereas this is reduced in the elderly. Aged people yawn less than younger ones, mainly during morning and mid-afternoon. In adults, the time course of yawning is associated with the time course of sleepiness, except upon awakening when the high frequency of yawns is not associated with high sleepiness. In adults, yawning frequency increases in the early morning and in the late evening, whereas at the earliest stages of development (fetuses and preterm infants) yawning does not show diurnal variations. Yawning seems to be involved in the modulation of arousal process across the whole life span. In preterm infants, yawning is often followed by motor activation and it is more common during waking than sleep; in adults, yawning occurs mainly at sleep onset and upon awakening.

Link to PubMed entry for paper on ‘Yawning throughout Life’.

The personality of the Messiah

What is Jesus’ Myers-Briggs personality profile? Rather to my surprise, it turns out that lots of people have tried to answer this question.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) questionnaire was created as a systematic approach to classifying people’s personality based on categories originally proposed by Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung.

The Mormon Matters website has a completely charming article that attempts to analyse Jesus’ personality in terms of the Myers-Briggs types and concludes he’s an INFP – an Introverted, iNtuiting, Feeling, Perceiving type.

If this seems a little flippant for you – pay attention Anglican Vicars: the Sermons That Work website has a pre-written sermon that discusses Our Lord’s Myers-Briggs type and informs the flock that he’s likely a INFJ – an Introverted, iNtuiting, Feeling, Judging type.

Profiling Jesus seems to have become a minor passtime in some circles. In fact, Yahoo! Answers has a thread where people were discussing the possibilities. The thread is marked as a ‘Resolved Question’ (!) with the best answer being voted as ENFJ – an Extroverted, iNtuiting, Feeling, Judging type.

Anecdotal evidence! I hear you cry. Fear not, there is some peer-reviewed data on the personality of the Messiah.

The Journal of Psychology and Theology published a paper entitled “Students’ perceptions of Jesus’ personality as assessed by Jungian-type inventories” back in 2004. You can read the full text online, but the abstract alone is pure joy:

The present study was the first phase of an exploration of college students’ perceptions of the personality of Jesus Christ as assessed by two Jungian-type inventories, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (Myers, 1998) and the Keirsey Temperament Sorter II (Keirsey, 1998), which categorize personality along four dimensions: Extraversion/Introversion, Sensing/Intuition, Thinking/Feeling, and Judgment/Perception. Along with an overall exploration of students’ perceptions, the present study focused on whether students were likely to make self-based attributions in their perceptions of Jesus’ personality. Results indicated that students perceived Jesus to be an Extravert Feeler and made self-based attributions along the Sensing/Intuitive dimension, with 43% perceiving Him to be an Intuitive-Feeler and 37% perceiving Him to be a Sensing-Judger. Perceptions of Jesus as a Judger or Perceiver were divided, with those placing more importance on modeling Jesus more likely to see Him as a Judger, and those placing less importance on modeling Him perceiving Jesus as a Perceiver.

Since we’re already working on his Myers Briggs profile, I wonder if someone would hazard a guess at how he would score on the… oh stop it already. You’ll only give Dan Brown ideas.

Link to study on students’ MBTI profiles for Jesus.