Hungry judges less likely to grant parole

Not Exactly Rocket Science covers a study that is in equal parts delightful and terrifying: it found that judges are much less likely to grant parole when they’re hungry.

It’s the work of Shai Denzeger from Ben Gurion University of the Negev, and summarises the results of 1,112 parole board hearings in Israeli prisons, over a ten month period…

It shows that the odds that prisoners will be successfully paroled start off fairly high at around 65% and quickly plummet to nothing over a few hours… After the judges have returned from their breaks, the odds abruptly climb back up to 65%, before resuming their downward slide. A prisoner’s fate could hinge upon the point in the day when their case is heard.

Twinkie your honour?

Link to Not Exactly Rocket Science with the full story.

The Oscar for best neuroscience research goes to…

Both of this year’s lead Oscar winners have published scientific papers on neuroscience. We’ve covered Natalie Portman’s work on frontal lobe development in children before, but it turns out Colin Firth has also just co-authored a study on structural brain differences in people with differing political views.

An excellent post on The Neurocritic tells the intriguing story of how the study came about.

It turns out Firth was a guest editor on the daily BBC Radio 4 news programme Today and commissioned neuroscientist Geraint Rees to scan the brains of two prominent UK politicians – one staunchly liberal and the other a confirmed conservative – to look for differences.

The piece was clearly a piece of news fluff – as you can tell very little from scanning just two people – but it was motivated by a genuine interest in whether political opinions correlate with brain differences.

Rees decided to develop the idea into a more comprehensive study, using scans from 90 people, to see whether the density of the brain’s grey matter differed in line with differences in political views.

The study didn’t look at differences across the whole brain, just the anterior cingulate, a part of the frontal lobes, and the deep brain structure the amygdala.

The areas were chosen because previous studies have found that conservatives are more sensitive to fear-inducing prompts – a response linked to the amygdala, whereas liberals show more brain activity in the anterior cingulate when they have to hold back an automatic response.

It must be said that the link between these functions and brain areas is still quite preliminary, so the study is more of an exploration than a cast-iron test of a well-defined idea.

This new study, published in Current Biology and co-authored by Colin Firth, Geraint Rees along with neuroscientist Ryota Kanai and the producer of the Radio 4 programme, found distinct differences in these areas.

We found that greater liberalism was associated with increased gray matter volume in the anterior cingulate cortex, whereas greater conservatism was associated with increased volume of the right amygdala

This doesn’t tell us anything about whether conservatives or liberals are “born or made”. Despite the fact that the whole question is daft and over-simplified, a simple association between beliefs and brain areas doesn’t help us understand anything about cause and effect.

It could be that the brain areas differ because conservatives and liberals differ in how much they ‘practice’ alternative ways of thinking about the world, rather than brain structure ‘determining’ political orientation.

I really recommend the Neurocritic piece for more background, but the fact that the 2011 winners of the best actor and actress Oscar both have their name on neuroscience studies shows how fashionable the science has become.

And if, by chance, a certain Grammy award winning She Wolf would like to join the trend I would be more than willing to help out with the statistical analysis.

Yes, I realise my chat-up lines could do with a bit of work.

Link to The Neurocritic on Colin Firth’s neuroscience study.

Adler’s ashes rediscovered

The remains of Alfred Adler, the co-founder of psychoanalysis, have been found 70 years after they were lost in Edinburgh reports The Guardian.

Adler, a core figure with Sigmund Freud in the group that founded the psychoanalytic movement before the pair split in 1911, collapsed after a suspected heart attack in May 1937 while he was in Aberdeen for a three-week-long series of lectures and seminars at the university…

Later this month, however, his ashes will be returned to Vienna for a civic ceremony following a remarkable discovery by the honorary Austrian consul to Scotland, John Clifford.

Asked to trace Adler’s remains by the institute he founded in Vienna, Clifford traced the casket to a crematorium only a few hundred metres behind the consulate in Edinburgh. They had been stored there in a quiet, wood-panelled gallery rarely visited by the public, alongside dozens of other caskets and urns.

Somewhat ironically for someone whose remains were forgotten almost immediately after his death, Adler’s most significant contribution to psychoanalysis was the concept of the inferioty complex.

Link to Guardian piece on finding Adler’s ashes (via @PsychNews).

Layers of the revolution

Revolutionology is an excellent blog on the uprising in Libya written by a PhD sociology candidate who has embedded himself with the rebel forces.

It’s not an impartial view of the conflict, as it intends to document the views and perceptions of the rebels, but it is full of insightful observations that reflect Libyan society and the fluid culture of the insurgents.

It has both serious analysis and sometimes funny observations, all with the keen eye of a sociologist.

This is a lovely example posted yesterday:

It’s 2:15 pm on March 31. We’re in a car headed toward the front, which is west of Ajdabiyah.

Muhammad, our driver, slips a CD in the car stereo. Arab house music comes on.

Joao, a Portuguese photographer sitting behind me, starts pumping his fist in the air to the beat.

Muhammad (in Arabic, to me): “Tell him not to do that, man.”

Me: “Why not?”

Muhammad, laughing: “The rebels will launch a rocket at us.”

Me: “Huh?”

Muhammad: “The fist-pump in the air — that’s what Gaddafi and his guys do. The rebels do this [he puts two fingers up in a “V”]. Stick with the two fingers.”

(Muhammad changes the CD.)


Link to Revolutionology.

Reflecting on a psychopath

A psychologist’s personality may affect whether someone is diagnosed as a psychopath or not.

Forensic psychology blog In the News covers a preliminary study on how evaluators with different personality traits systematically differed in their ratings when using the ‘industry standard’ Hare Psychopathy Checklist.

The checklist is often referred to by the abbreviation PCL-R. It is designed to assess and measure psychopathy, a condition where people lack empathy, are impulsive, manipulative and anti-social.

Needless to say, it now features heavily in many legal cases.

The PCL-R is the most widely used measure of psychopathy in the world. But in real-world forensic settings, scores vary widely depending upon which side [of the legal case] retained the evaluator. This finding is called the “partisan allegiance” effect.

In a new twist, these same researchers that brought you partisan allegiance have found that an evaluator’s personality may impact her judgments of psychopathy. Evaluators low on compassion and thrill-seeking as measured by a widely used personality test, the NEO Personality Inventory-Revised, are more likely than others to rate criminals as psychopathic.

That’s ironic, because according to the theory of psychopathy, it’s supposed to be the psychopath — not the psychologist — who has a deficit in empathy.


Link to In the News on psychopathy tests and personality.
Link to DOI entry and summary of study.

Kids on speed and the birth of misbehaviour

Dr Charles Bradley first reported the effects of amphetamine on children with behavioural problems in 1937. An article in The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine takes a look at how this early study opened the door to treating ADHD with Ritalin and how it tied in with changing ideas about child misbehaviour.

Bradley was a psychiatrist and director of the Emma Pendleton Bradley Home for children with behavioural problems. In the days where ad-hoc experimentation was not considered out-of-the-ordinary, he decided to try administering Benzedrine sulfate, a type of amphetamine, to his young patients.

After only a week, he observed that “The most striking change in behavior occurred in the school activities of many of these patients. There appeared a definite ‘drive’ to accomplish as much as possible. Fifteen of the 30 children responded to Benzedrine by becoming distinctly subdued in their emotional responses. Clinically in all cases, this was an improvement from the social viewpoint.”

The paper appeared in a top psychiatry journal and echoes the now common idea that amphetamine, which includes Ritalin (known generically as methylphenidate), has the seemingly paradoxical effect of calming over-active or out-of-control children.

It turns out that Bradley’s experiment was carried out as the social significance of childhood was changing, as was the concept of what was considered to be ‘child misbehaviour’:

During the 19th and 20th centuries, a new conceptualization of childhood and how children ought to behave emerged in both popular culture and the medical world. A model child embodied the ideals necessary for the new industrial economy: self-regulated behavior and orderly social relations.

Childhood became the critical period for learning restraint and developing a proper social identity in order to grow up to be a successful adult. This prevailing characterization of a good child generated its opposite: the troublesome child. A broad range of social problems fell into this category of misbehavior and could include difficulty in schoolwork, fighting, and failure to obey authority.

That’s not to say that there wasn’t a concept of a misbehaving child before, but just that a lack of social self-regulation and focus was not considered to be as important in defining ‘doing wrong’.

The article describes how Bradley’s work was forgotten for 25 years, owing to the fact that the drug company who made Benzedrine felt they couldn’t market the drug, because it would be difficult to ‘sell’ the seemingly contradictory effects of a stimulant having a calming effect.

However, it opened the door for the first studies of treating hyperactive kids with Ritalin in the mid-1950s which exploded in the 1980s when the diagnosis of ADHD first emerged.

The article is a fascinating look at how social changes, drug tests and scientific understanding interact to influence our modern-day understanding of psychiatric disorder and even childhood.

Link to article on Bradley’s Benzedrine studies.

A history of psychology through objects

This is an early Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) machine, from 1945.

Note the incorporation of the telephone dial for controvoling the duration of the shock.

This is a brass observation hole from St. Audry’s Hospital, Suffolk, England, 1851-1900.

Mounted in a door, this peephole allowed doctors and warders to check on a patient locked in solitary confinement.

These, and hundreds of other fascinating objects from the history of psychology and psychiatry, can be seen at the Science Museum’s Brought To Life website. Scroll down to Themes -> Mental Health and Illness for these examples, but keep yours eyes open throughout the exhibit for artifacts which reflect our changing and complex understanding of the mind and its disorders.

While you’re there, don’t miss the interactive Three Psychiatric tests which gives you a chance to see how psychiatrists from the 1930s, 40s and 50s would have used classic psychometric tests to diagnose mental illnesses such as dementia or schizophrenia.

Thanks to Philip Loring, BPS Curator of Psychology at the Science Museum, who gave a talk about this digital exhibition Sheffield last night