2011-03-19 Spike activity

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

The Boston Globe has a fascinating piece on the psychological benefits of solitude. “What we do better without other people around.” No smirking now.

The colour of depression. Neuroskeptic investigates its association with the colours black and blue.

The New York Times has an obituary for Owsley Stanley – one of the most prolific and discerning producers of LSD the world has ever seen.

Can people tell whether abstract art is by a child or a chimp? Not Exactly Rocket Science has the surprising answer.

Science News has a piece on the latest developments in the science of wiring computer chips with nerve cells. I think we’re at the dodgy 16k RAM pack stage.

There’s an excellent interview on addiction and substance use with ex-addict and writer James Brown over at Addiction Inbox.

Slate has an great piece on why it could be counter-productive to start fact-based education too early by developmental psychologist Alison Gopnick.

V.S. Ramachandran is challenged about his mirror neurons and autism theory and gets a bit crotchety in an interview with Neurophilosophy.

NeuroPod hits the wires with a new edition on gender and PTSD, prion disease and pain.

How to Build Hallucinogenic Goggles. We Alone On Earth has the plans.

Wired Science covers a study finding that robot nurses are less weird when they don’t talk. Robot nurse bed baths yet to be studied.

There’s a wonderful piece on one of the most influential books in the history of psychiatry, Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, over at Providentia.

The Guardian reports on the US military’s new social-media-centred PsyOps and propaganda campaign. Think weaponised RickRolls.

The psychology of homework. A new field dawns and the sunrise is captured by The BPS Research Digest.

Science News covers a study finding that stock traders can stay in the black just by following the crowd.

Heavier men get paid more, heavier women get paid less. The BPS Occupational Digest on the weight salary link.

The New York Times has a brief but informative piece on the biological basis of left-handedness.

A fascinating piece on the amplifying effect of cities – except for their effect on pro-social behaviour – over at The Frontal Cortex.

Court in the cross-fire

There are not enough quality forensic psychology blogs in the world, which I suspect is not a thought that passes through the mind of anyone except Mind Hacks readers.

However, if you’re after a punchy fast paced look at the world of criminal and legal psychology you’d do far worse than checking out the website of psyDoctor8.

It dips into everything from the neuroscience of murder to the science of false confessions with an eye on both the media and the academic literature.

And if you do Twitter @PsyDoctor8 is also a great source of links in the same vein.

It makes a wonderful complement to the more in-depth In the News blog, which has consistently been one of the best forensic psychology sources on the net.

And that’s about it. Criminal really.

Yes your honour, I’ll stop with the puns.

Link to psyDoctor8 blog.
Link to In the News blog.

The brain behind the lion heart

I’ve just read a completely fascinating New York Times article on the neuropsychology of courage – a core human attribute that curiously seems to be largely ignored by cognitive science.

The piece looks at how we define courage, it’s relation to fear and the sometimes wonderfully innovative research that has tackled the area.

In pioneering work from 1970s and beyond, Stanley J. Rachman of the University of British Columbia and others studied the physiology and behavior of paratroopers as they prepared for their first parachute jump.

The work revealed three basic groups: the preternaturally fearless, who displayed scant signs of the racing heart, sweaty palms, spike in blood pressure and other fight-or-flight responses associated with ordinary fear, and who jumped without hesitation; the handwringers, whose powerful fear response at the critical moment kept them from jumping; and finally, the ones who reacted physiologically like the handwringers but who acted like the fearless leapers, and, down the hatch.

These last Dr. Rachman deemed courageous, defining courage as “behavioral approach in spite of the experience of fear.” By that expansive definition, courage becomes democratized and demilitarized, the property of any wallflower who manages to give the convention speech, or the math phobe who decides to take calculus.

It is also a wonderfully written article, by the way, so well worth making the leap for.

Link to NYT article ‘Searching for the Source of a Fountain of Courage’.

To catch a thief and fool a scientist

If you only listen to one radio programme this month, make it this one. The BBC Radio 4 programme Fingerprints on Trial explores how identifying people at crime scenes by their prints is subject to serious psychological biases and is not the exact science that we, and ironically, the forensic fingerprint community, like to believe.

It covers some spectacular high-profile cases, the science behind how prior knowledge can bias the supposedly objective identification of prints, and the baffling fingers-in-the-ears lalalala response of some fingerprint experts who just completely deny it’s a problem.

The programme riffs on the work of psychologist Itel Dror who has shown that changing the ‘backstory’ to a case can alter what fingerprint matches experts find.

So here’s how these biases could work in practice. Fingerprint examiners in this country [the UK] generally know the type of crime their working on. Any murder is high profile, so the chances are they’d know quite a bit about the case. They might see crime scene photographs and might even have heard snippets from detectives working on the case. And then when they start to check the fingerprints from the murder scene, evidence from cognitive psychology shows that what they know, or think they know, can influence what they then see in the prints.

Combines gripping sad-but-true whodunits, cutting edge cognitive science and a pressing issues for forensic science.

Excellent stuff.

Link to BBC streamed version and programme info.
mp3 of podcast from BBC.

The myths of ‘post-disaster counselling’

After almost any large scale disaster, you’ll hear reports that rescue workers, supplies and counsellors are being sent to the area – as if mental health professionals were as vital as food and shelter.

Time has an excellent interview with psychologist Scott Lilienfeld on how our ideas about ‘post-disaster counselling’ are rapidly moving away from the ‘everyone needs to talk’ cliché due to a better understanding of mental health and resilience in the face of tragedy.

Although everyone might be shaken up after a disaster, the vast majority – between about 70% and 80% – will not have mental health problems and will not need the help of psychologists or psychiatrists.

It was initially thought that legions of counsellors were needed to work with everyone affected by the devastation to give sessions of ‘critical incident stress debriefings’ – where people are asked to describe everything that happened to them and vent their emotions – supposedly to help prevent problems developing in the long term.

Instead, studies suggested that this was at best useless and instead probably made mental disorders more likely – probably because it raises or extends the level of stress in already very stressed people.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, most disaster victims are not that interested in exploring their emotions but want to get to a safe place, find out how there friends and family are, and solve immediate practical problems. This in itself tends to make people feel better.

Consequently, new strategies involve only working with people who specifically ask for help and – instead of getting people to ‘vent’ – the focus is on reducing emotional arousal, assuring physical safety and putting people in contact with loved ones.

This strategy is often known as psychological first aid and was specifically designed to avoid the debriefing approach.

Time interviewee Lilienfeld has been key in challenging the idea that ‘everyone needs counselling’ after tragic events and has been a leader in making our disaster response a lot more effective. Highly recommended.

Link to Time interview on post-disaster counselling.

Unweaving the weavers

The Guardian has an excellent ongoing series called ‘Untangling the Web’ that examines the social psychology of the internet and how it affects our lives.

Written by social psychologist Aleks Krotoski it’s looked at everything from what effect the internet has had on out sex lives to how it has affected hate campaigns.

Rarely predicable and always informative the series is well worth keeping an eye on, with the latest column on disability being particularly good.

Link to ‘Untangling the Web’.

Cognitive Transtormation

The picture is detail from a stunning picture called ‘Cognitive Transformation’ by artist Ben Tolman. Click to see the full version.

I just discovered Tolman’s website earlier today where you can see his wonderfully intricate and beautifully mind-bending images.

If you want some on your wall or shelf, he also has an online store.

Link to Ben Tolman’s website.