The crowd dynamics of the city safari

The Economist has a fascinating article about the weird way that pedestrians behave as they walk through cities and how this knowledge is being applied to make city-living easier and safer.

IMAGINE that you are French. You are walking along a busy pavement in Paris and another pedestrian is approaching from the opposite direction. A collision will occur unless you each move out of the other’s way. Which way do you step?

The answer is almost certainly to the right. Replay the same scene in many parts of Asia, however, and you would probably move to the left. It is not obvious why. There is no instruction to head in a specific direction (South Korea, where there is a campaign to get people to walk on the right, is an exception). There is no simple correlation with the side of the road on which people drive: Londoners funnel to the right on pavements, for example.

Although seemingly a trivial difference, the impact could be quite significant when, for example, trying to design emergency exit routes for international sporting events when people from many cultures mix.

The article is full of curious culture observations about how people move in crowds and the science of how and why people select their peoplescape navigating strategies.

Fascinating stuff.

Link to Economist article ‘The wisdom of crowds’ (via @mocost).

Transplanted corneas are a window to the soul

A fascinating note on the social meaning of eyes and why people are much more reluctant to donate the cornea after death than other bodily organs.

From a recent article in the journal Transplanatation:

At the time that a patient is diagnosed as brain dead, a substantial proportion of families who give consent to heart and kidney donation specifically refuse eye donation. This in part may relate to the failure of those involved in transplantation medicine and public education to fully appreciate the different meanings attached to the body of a recently deceased person.

Medicine and science have long understood the body as a “machine.” This view has fitted with medical notions of transplantation, with donors being a source of biologic “goods.” However, even a cursory glance at the rituals surrounding death makes it apparent that there is more to a dead body than simply its biologic parts; in death, bodies continue as the physical substrate of relationships. Of all the organs, it is the eyes that are identified as the site of sentience, and there is a long tradition of visual primacy and visual symbolism in virtually all aspects of culture.

It therefore seems likely that of all the body parts, it is the eyes that are most central to social relationships. A request to donate the eyes therefore is unlikely to be heard simply in medical terms as a request to donate a “superfluous” body part for the benefit of another. That the eyes are not simply biologic provides one explanation for both the lower rates of corneal donation, compared with that of other organs, and the lack of adequate corneal donation to meet demand.

What’s interesting is that the operation to remove the cornea does no visible damage to the donor. It’s just the idea of the thing that puts people off.

Link to locked article on eyes, meaning and cornea transplants.

An unborn brain flowering connections

We’ve mentioned some amazing advances in brain scanning unborn babies before on Mind Hacks and this image is another step in that remarkable science.

The coloured fibres in the image are still-developing white matter circuits in the brain of an unborn baby at 36 weeks, picked out by a diffusion MRI scan.

The scan is from a paper just published in Topics in Magnetic Resonance Imaging.

Diffusion-tensor imaging or DTI can identify white matter connections, the brain’s ‘cabling’, by picking out which water molecules in the brain only move along restricted paths.

It’s a bit like having a tube in a beehive. Even if you had no idea where the tube was, you could work out its location if you had information on the bee’s movements, because bees inside the tube can only move in one direction.

The same principal applies and DWI looks for the white matter ‘tubes’ by looking for where the brain’s water molecules can only move in certain directions.

This relies on the brain being relatively still so these scans are difficult to do in unborn babies because of their tendency to move around in the womb.

Nevertheless, when they work, the results are spectacular, and we can see the unborn brain flowering into a neurally connected marvel.

Link to locked study on Fetal Diffusion Imaging.

Explore your blind spot (free ebook)

I’ve written an ebook called ‘Explore your blind spot’. It’s about, er, exploring your blind spot! In the best tradition of Mind Hacks I take you from the raw experience to the cutting edge of scientific theory. The blind spot is a simple phenomenon of our visual processing, but one we don’t notice day to day. In the ebook I talk about how it provides a great example of the way consciousness is constructed despite ‘missing’ information. Like the ebook subtitle says, the blind spot gives us an insight into the mind hides its own tracks.

The ebook is available in all major formats here and is creative commons licensed. That means it is free, not just to download but also to share. You can even edit it and pass on modified versions, as long as you keep it CC licensed.

I’ve written this book as an experiment in ebook publishing, and as a test-bed for what I think could be a good format for presenting open-source guides to the myriad interesting phenomena of psychology. If you’ve got feedback let me know.

Link to Explore your blind spot, a free ebook by Tom Stafford

Mixing up a decade of All in the Mind

The amazing ABC Radio National programme All in the Mind is ten years old and is celebrating by mixing up some specially themed editions from its extensive archives.

First up is the psychology and neuroscience of sex that tackles everything from gender myths to the neuroscience of female orgasm.

The following edition, to hit the wires next week, is a special on consciousness and there’s plenty more gold on its way.

All in the Mind is one of the few programmes that is as interesting to professionals as it is to enthusiasts and if you’ve never had a listen, now’s a good chance to check out some of the audio.

Link to All in the Mind site.
Link to 10th Anniversary Special 1: Getting Sexy.

An untranslatable mind

We tend to think of translation as a problem of grammar but a brilliant post on Notes from Two Scientific Psychologists demonstrates how even concepts about what the mind is can vary across languages.

In Korean, the concept “maum” replaces the concept “mind”. “Maum” has no English counterpart, but is sometimes translated as “heart”. Apparently, “maum” is the “seat of emotions, motivation, and “goodness” in a human being” (Wierzbicka, 2005; p. 271). Intellect and cognitive functions are captured by the Korean “meli” (head). But, “maum” is clearly the counterpart to “mind” in terms of the psychological part of the person. For example, there are tons of Korean books about “maum” and body in the same way that there are English texts on “mind” and body…

Interestingly, Russia, which kind of sits between East and West uses “dusa” as the counterpart to the psychological part of the person. “Dusa” is often translated as “soul”, but also sometimes as “heart” or “mind.” “Dusa” is associated with feelings, morality, and spirituality. The “dusa” is responsible for the ability to connect with other people. This meaning seems to lie somewhat more with the Eastern conception than with the highly cognitive concept of “mind.”

The Notes from Two Scientific Psychologists blog is generally excellent by the way.

I also recommend this great post on female attractiveness, wait-to-hip ratio and why evolutionary psychology needs spend more time working with other cultures before it can really talk about likely evolutionary explanations.

Link to ‘How Universal Is The Mind?’

Counting every phantom found

I’ve just found a sublime track by singer songwriter William Fitzsimmons riffing on the antiquated diagnosis of psychasthenia and its treatment with brain surgery. Unexpectedly, it’s quite beautiful.

The song is called Psychasthenia, a reference to old-fashioned diagnosis of the same name that was the first description of what we would now call OCD.

I suspect, however, that the song is actually a laconic commentary on a modern case of OCD as it mentions psychosurgery, recently a current treatment option once more, alongside an oblique reference to treatment with SSRI drugs.

These medications alter the serotonin system and are usually the first treatment option for the condition.

The song seems to put the listener in the place of someone looking for relief from severe OCD while referencing psychasthenia as a way of underlining how our treatments still reflect the early days of psychiatry.

With an alter robe
I have stumbled knife to lobe
In compulsion drown
Counting every phantom found

Cut me open please
Cut me open please

With a bridge I’ve killed
I will serotonin fill
To a fear resigned
Quiet room I hope I find

If this sounds like reading a great deal into what are actually quite abstract lyrics it’s worth noting that Fitzsimmons left his original career as a psychotherapist in an acute psychiatric ward to pursue music full time.

Link to audio of Psychasthenia on YouTube