A natural state of mind

ScienceLine has an excellent article on ecopsychology – a branch of cognitive science that looks at the impact of the environment on the mind.

Originally considered a bit wishy washy due to a lack of hard data and more than a touch of hippie chic, it’s proponents are now starting to collect good evidence on the mental benefits of the natural world.

Don’t be put off by the spectacularly bad headline (“Can a Stroll in the Park Replace the Psychiatrist’s Couch?” – what?) as the piece actually asks some tough questions about the ‘ecopsychology’ approach and discusses some of the first controlled studies, including this wonderful example:

In green spaces, for example, people’s heart rates decrease, their muscles relax, and they become calmer. It’s the difference you feel when you leave behind a busy city street for a peaceful park.

A recent study by Ruckert’s advisor Peter Kahn confirmed these findings. First, Kahn stressed out his participants by giving them a series of math tests. Then he placed some people in front of a window overlooking a grassy lawn with trees, others in front of a large plasma television screen displaying the lawn in real time, and still others in front of a blank wall.

As expected, those in front of the window experienced the quickest drop in stress levels, as measured by their decreasing heart rate. Participants also spent far more time looking out the window and at the plasma screen than at the blank wall. But the researchers found an unexpected result.

“Surprisingly, the blank wall and the plasma screen were no different in terms of stress reduction,” said Ruckert. Their study indicates that gazing at an authentic natural space reduces stress, whereas a digital replica of nature soothes only as well as a boring blank wall.


Link to ScienceLine on ecopsychology (via and by @ferrisjabr).

Falling out of love with e-dating

Marie Claire has a fascinating short interview with psychologist Mark Thompson who was apparently hired by a big name internet dating website to work on ‘scientific matchmaking’ – but recently jumped ship when he became disillusioned with the industry.

Buyer beware: the guy has just written his own book on sex and relationships, although his comments on dating sites don’t seem to directly bear on his book promotion efforts.

Regardless, it’s actually quite refreshing to hear someone give a sensible take on the limit of ‘scientific matchmaking’ as, since it has become popular, science news has regularly been bogged down by lots of poorly disguised PR fluff based on exaggerated findings or dodgy unpublished ‘statistics’.

MC: What made you leave e-dating?

MT: I hated the way we overpromised and underdelivered. Our studies showed that the odds of meeting someone online and dating him more than a month are roughly one in 10. So it’s great that all those people on the TV commercials met their spouses, but they are the exceptions, not the rule. No computer can accurately predict whom you should be with. The function of the math will make vastly more false predictions than accurate ones.

MC: But isn’t blind dating always hit or miss?

MT: Yes, but you don’t have to pay $30 a month to be set up by your friend. And you don’t go in believing that science is behind the match. There’s a different set of expectations. When diet companies show someone who lost a bunch of weight in six weeks, they have to say, “Results not typical.” I think eHarmony and other sites should do the same.

MC: Do you think online dating can be fixed?

MT: It really depends on people’s willingness to come back and tell us why each date didn’t work out so the system could get smarter. It would be like Netflix, which learns from your preferences to make better predictions for you.

Netflix for dates. Actually, it’s not such a bad idea. “If you liked this date, you might also like…” could actually come in useful you had the hots for the other person, but they weren’t so keen on you. Or just even if you’re not in it for the long-term thing perhaps.

Link to Marie Clarie interview with Mark Thompson (via @DrPetra).

A slow motion mind during extreme danger?

NPR has a fantastic short radio segment on whether we really do experience time more slowly when our life is in danger.

The piece riffs on a 2007 study called ‘Does Time Really Slow Down during a Frightening Event?’ led by neuroscientist David Eagleman who discusses the project on the show.

The experimenters wanted a way to find a way to test whether we suddenly start experiencing time in greater detail when in mortal danger, or whether it just seems that way when we look back on it.

Of course, genuinely putting people in life-threatening situations is a little unethical, so the team used something called SCAD diving, where people are dropped – free fall – into a net.

SCAD diving was just what David needed — it was definitely terrifying. But he also needed a way to judge whether his subjects’ brains really did go into turbo mode. So, he outfitted everybody with a small electronic device, called a perceptual chronometer, which is basically a clunky wristwatch. It flashes numbers just a little too fast to see. Under normal conditions — standing around on the ground, say — the numbers are just a blur. But David figured, if his subjects’ brains were in turbo mode, they would be able to read the numbers.

The falling experience was, just as David had hoped, enough to freak out all of his subjects. “We asked everyone how scary it was, on a scale from 1 to 10,” he reports, “and everyone said 10.” And all of the subjects reported a slow-motion effect while falling: they consistently over-estimated the time it took to fall. The numbers on the perceptual chronometer? They remained an unreadable blur.

“Turns out, when you’re falling you don’t actually see in slow motion. It’s not equivalent to the way a slow-motion camera would work,” David says. “It’s something more interesting than that.”

The NPR piece is only short but is put together by the fantastic RadioLab guys and is probably the best 7 min 46 sec you’ll spend all day.

Link to NPR on fear and slow motion perception.
Link to full text of study at PLoS One.

Dark restaurant alters appetite and eating

We often assume that our appetite depends on how much food we’ve eaten, but a new study conducted in a completely dark restaurant has demonstrated that we don’t feel any more full if secretly slipped extra large portions of food. What we see, it seems, plays a big role in how hungry we feel.

The research, led by psychologist Benjamin Scheibehenne and published in the journal Appetite, invited participants to have lunch in a restaurant in downtown Berlin.

While the entrance bar was lit, the restaurant itself was pitch black and the volunteer ‘customers’ were served by blind waiters and waitresses who were capable of working in the dark.

The ‘customers’ ate two main courses in the dark dining area, but what they didn’t know, was that half were served normal-sized portions while the other half were served super-size portions that were more than a third bigger.

Afterwards, the light was switched on and they were offered a dessert that they could serve themselves.

The researchers measured how much dessert each person ate and the diners were asked to fill in a questionnaire where they estimated how hungry they were, how much they ate and whether they liked the food.

Exactly the same experiment was run a few weeks later, with different volunteers, but with everyone eating in the light, as in a normal restaurant.

For those who could see what they were eating, the size of their main course had a big effect on how full the diners felt and how much dessert they ate afterwards. But for those who dined in the dark, portion size didn’t seem to make a difference.

In other words, people were experiencing fullness based as much on their visual estimation of how much food they were eating as their actual physical consumption. Eating without seeing means we unwittingly eat more and feel less hungry.

This chimes was a 2005 study, where a research team created soup bowls that secretly refilled for some of the diners to the point where they ate three quarters more soup than others.

Despite this, those diners with the ‘bottomless soup bowls’ did not believe they had eaten more, nor did they feel themselves as more full than those eating from regular bowls.

The researchers from the Berlin study note that these findings show the importance of context for healthy eating and make an interesting point about how something as common as eating in front of the TV may affect how much we eat, simply by affecting how much we focus on our food.

Link to PubMed entry for study.

A gut reaction to moral transgressions

The Boston Globe has an excellent article on whether ‘gut feeling’ emotions, particularly disgust, are the unrecognised basis of moral judgements and social customs.

It’s an in-depth feature article that gives a great overview of the idea that social judgements may have an emotional basis, and, more controversially, that this tendency may have developed as part of an evolved aversion to things thought likely to cause infection or disease.

Research has shown that people who are more easily disgusted by bugs are more likely to see gay marriage and abortion as wrong. Putting people in a foul-smelling room makes them stricter judges of a controversial film or of a person who doesn’t return a lost wallet. Washing their hands makes people feel less guilty about their own moral transgressions, and hypnotically priming them to feel disgust reliably induces them to see wrongdoing in utterly innocuous stories.

Today, psychologists and philosophers are piecing these findings together into a theory of disgust’s moral role and the evolutionary forces that determined it: Just as our teeth and tongue first evolved to process food, then were enlisted for complex communication, disgust first arose as an emotional response to ensure that our ancestors steered clear of rancid meat and contagion.

But over time, that response was co-opted by the social brain to help police the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. Today, some psychologists argue, we recoil at the wrong just as we do at the rancid, and when someone says that a politician’s chronic dishonesty makes her sick, she is feeling the same revulsion she might get from a brimming plate of cockroaches.

In psychology, there is lots of interest in people who have a selective problem with certain emotional reactions. ‘Psychopaths‘ are widely considered to have a selective lack of empathy, and I often wonder whether there are people who have a selective lack of disgust reactions.

There also seems to be little consideration of how disgust reactions are altered by context. For example, lots of common sexual acts seem quite unpalatable if done outside of a sexual context, despite the fact that this doesn’t change how hygienic they are.

The Boston Globe piece does a great job of covering the science in the area and it’s also worth mentioning that Edge recently posted videos and articles from a recent conference on ‘The New Science of Morality’ that has some great discussion from the leading researchers in the field.

Link to Boston Globe on ‘The surprising moral force of disgust’.
Link to Edge archives of the ‘The New Science of Morality’ conference.

Scientists go rafting

The New York Times has an odd feature article on how a group of cognitive scientists went into the ‘wilderness’ supposedly as part of a “quest to understand the impact on the brain of heavy technology use”.

As far as I can make out, though, the entire story is ‘scientists go rafting’. No research was conducted, or, in this situation, could have been usefully conducted to really test the impact of technology on the mind and brain. The main thrust of the piece is that the researchers discussed the topic among themselves.

I have no objection to scientists going rafting or heading off into the wilderness (I’m not averse to a bit of that myself) but I am baffled as to how such a weak story gets splashed as an insight into ‘technology and the brain’.

Scientifically, the trip is next to useless, as even if the team was doing research in the wild it tells us nothing specific about technology.

There is a whole host of studies that tell us contact with nature has psychological benefits, so any effects of being in the wilderness could be equally due to immersion in the natural world rather than lack of technology.

If you really wanted to see if there were any differences related to technology you’d want people to live their regular lives without the devices they usually rely on. Sending people on holiday just isn’t useful because you can’t tell whether any differences are due to changes in diet, sleeping patterns or sunset banjo playing.

The piece is also based on the bizarre premise that technology = multi-tasking and this is a new and ‘unnatural’ form of mental activity that may be ‘changing us’.

As we’ve mentioned before, this is an odd myth that ignores the fact that in the majority of the world, and for the majority of human history, we have multi-tasked without digital technology.

Anyone who thinks multi-tasking is novel should spend a day looking after four children, a small collection of animals and cooking on a stove at the same time (that, by the way, is an easy day).

So New York Times you can have that suggestion for free and I look forward to your forthcoming piece “Unplugged with Kids in a Brazilian Favela, Studying the Brain”.

I would volunteer but I can’t bear to be without my electric toothbrush.

Link to New York Times on scientists’ rafting holiday.

A series of famous cases

BBC Radio 4 have just started a new season of Case Study that looks at some of the most famous and important cases in the history of psychology.

The first is on HM, and although there’s nothing in the programme that’s particularly new about the science of memory, it does give a much fuller account of how the famous amnesic patient was as a person.

His recent death has allowed the shroud of anonymity to be lifted and the programme interviews his ex-carers and researchers who worked with him about his personality, personal history and general demeanour.

One of the most interesting parts is where HM’s alterations in emotion are discussed (likely owing to the removal of his amygdala along with most of his hippocampus) which is a topic largely ignored in the scientific studies on his memory.

The new series covers four cases but each is only available online for a week after it was broadcast (your license fee in action). The HM episode is only available until Wednesday so enjoy it while you can.

Link to HM episode of BBC Case Study series.