Want to come up and see my sketchings?

The Royal Society of Arts has an awesome video that animates one of Steven Pinker’s lectures on ‘Language as a Window into Human Nature’.

It covers how we use certain implicit properties of language to negotiate social relationships – discussing everything from the cult film Fargo to why we try and seduce people with indirect speech rather than coming out and saying “fancy a shag”.

Delightful to watch and definitely 10 minutes well spent.

Link to animated ”Language as a Window into Human Nature’.

2011-02-18 Spike activity

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

The Atlantic asks is it time to welcome our new computer overlords? – In light of the recent IBM Watson powered Jeopardy-pocalypse. Time? I’ve already slammed the bunker door.

The ‘boy without a cerebellum baffles doctors’ story is tackled by the not very baffled Neurological blog and the boy’s mother joins the discussion in the comments.

Law News Now reports on a news study finding that juries are less likely to convict defendants wearing glasses – nicknamed “the nerd defense”.

When a psychotherapist’s patient confesses to murder in the consulting room. The BPS Research Digest covers a fascinating study on this curious situation.

The Guardian reports on a second study finding that regular use of a second language during adulthood is associated with the later development of Alzheimer’s disease.

Prehistoric Brits made first pint glasses out of human skulls. Not Exactly Rocket Science calls time on the recently found craneo-vessels.

Wired Science reports on a study finding that the algorithms that describe the spread of an earthquake also describe how words spread through the political blogosphere.

Posterior Hippocampus and Sexual Frequency. The Neurocritic presents us with a great name for an Indie band and finds an interesting correlation. “The two outliers who had sex every day could be driving the correlation” – and if that isn’t a great lyric, I don’t know what is.

American Scientist has an engrossing piece arguing against the common idea that early humans were psychologically primitive.

The Curse of Mental Accounting. The Frontal Cortex has an excellent piece on hotel overcharging and the temptations of economics context.

Puzzle video games shown to treat anxiety and depression in a randomised controlled trial. The Rogue Neuron takes us one step further towards the day when patents are send to the Dungeon Master.

New Scientist asks whether Botox can really cure chronic migraine. Next week, can fake tits cure long-sightedness?

So, you say you’re pregnant sir? Wonderland on phantom pregnancy syndrome – in men.

The Guardian has a brief articles where a bunch of hype-weary neuroscientists give the brain stimulating ‘insight boosting’ thinking cap a scientific roughing up.

A concise summary of sexual psychology from Ionian Enchantment.

The California Report looks at brain surgery, while awake.

Is the ability to influence others by showing emotion a new aspect of emotional intelligence? The BPS Occupational Digest covers a fascinating new study.

Cerebrum has an interesting piece on the science of predicting aggression – although starts with an odd disclaimer about how “biological causes are difficult to identify and may be impossible to overcome” – which seems to miss the point that risk factors are additive not determinative.

History of psychology fans won’t want to miss the evolving list of key bibliographies over at Advances in the History of Psychology.

Psychiatric Times now has a monthly column by the history of psychiatry guys from the excellent h-madness blog.

A place downtown where the freaks all come around

Kellogg Insight has a fantastic article on how nightclub bouncers make instant status judgements to decide whether to let people into exclusive clubs.

It’s a curious insight into perception of social status that both relies on some social stereotypes and turns others completely on their head.

The article is based on the work of sociologist Lauren Rivera who got a job as a “coat-check girl” in a high class club to observe the selection process in action before revealing her true intentions and interviewing the doormen to work out how they made status judgements of hopeful clubbers.

Through conversations and observations, she found that bouncers ran through a hierarchical list of qualities to determine in seconds who would enhance the image of the club and encourage high spending. Social networks mattered more than social class, or anything else for that matter. Celebrities and other recognized elites slipped through the door. And people related to or befriended by this “in crowd” often made the cut, too.

Wealth is considered to be one of the strongest indicators of status, yet bouncers frowned upon bribes even though bribes are obvious displays of money. “New Faces,” as the bouncers called unrecognized club-goers, were selected on the basis of gender, dress, race, and nationality. Sometimes the final call boiled down to details as minor as the type of watch that adorned a man’s wrist.

As we’ve discussed before, Rivera is not the first sociologist to immerse herself in the swing of urban night life for her work.

Sociologist Simon Winlow actually got a job as a bouncer to get, er, hands on experience of the role of violence in the night time economy.

Link to Kellog Insight on status judgements in night clubs.
Link to previous Mind Hacks post on work of Simon Winlow.

A note on human behaviour

Enjoying the Natural History Museum yesterday, I came across this exhibit somewhere in the geology section:

The exhibit is a serious of columns, which you pass from right to left. The penultimate column is to illustrate the idea of ice, and you’re invited by a palm shape to put your palm to the column (which is indeed cold). The interesting thing is the final column, which is meant to illustrate gravity somehow (it was broken yesterday, so I don’t know how it is supposed to do this). Notice how the metal around the IVY of gravity is worn away. None of the other columns had this. Obviously hundreds of visitors a day are drawn to this exhibit, press their palms to the ICE column and then go on to touch, in exactly the same way, the GRAVITY column even though this isn’t part of the way they are supposed to interact with the exhibit.

Psychologists know that what people have done before is the best predictor of what they will do in the future. Whole industries are devoted to helping us establish, or break, habits. This exhibit on geological forces illustrates how easily some behavioural precedents can be set. We love touching things, and although we aren’t meant to, permission to do it once is all that is required to set off an immediate repetition of the behaviour.

The (cut price) Narrative Escape

My ebook The Narrative Escape is available at a reduced price for a limited time. Publishers 40kbooks have got a February special offer, meaning that you can read my 6000 or so words about dreams, stories and morality for less than a dollar. UK readers : that’s seventy-one pence!

As if the price wasn’t enough to convince you, you can read an interview with me by Livia Blackburne here, or you can consult the five star reviews on amazon (three of ’em, which gives me a higher average than The Communist Manifesto, the only book that amazon.co.uk has under “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought”. Sorry Karl!).

Amazon.co.uk link
Amazon.com link
Original mindhacks.com blog post

Brain area for empty news stories discovered

Satirical website Newsbiscuit has a cutting article making fun of the regular ‘brain scans show…’ news items that are a staple of the popular science pages.

Scientists are heralding a breakthrough in brain scan technology after a team at Oxford University produced full colour images of a human brain that shows nothing of any significance.

‘This is an amazing discovery’, said leading neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield, ‘the pictures tell us nothing about how the brain works, provide us with no insights into the nature of human consciousness, and all with such lovely colours.’…

The development, which has been widely reported around the world, is also significant because it allows journalists to publish big fancy pictures of the brain that look really impressive while having little or no explanatory value.

‘These scans are fantastic,’ said Lawrence McGinty, Science Editor for ITV News, ‘not only are they bright and colourful but the graphics department have even converted them into 3D and can make them spin around the screen while I stand in front waving my hands about. None of this helps to explain anything, but it does it so much better the old black and white pictures. They were rubbish.’


Link to ‘New brain scan reveals nothing at all’ (via @michaelmeadon).

A strangely effective video

Australian science reporter Professor Funk has made a fantastic animated video about the science of the placebo effect that’s three minutes of sheer joy even without an active ingredient.

It takes you through the remarkable ways in which the placebo effect differs between different types of pills, perceptions and places and is highly recommended.

Link to ‘The Strange Powers of the Placebo Effect’ on YouTube.