The great rock n’ roll brain scramble

It’s not often you see someone licking a brain in a rock n’ roll video and get to think to yourself “well, there’s a funny story behind that”, but this is one of those occasions.

The video for singer Candice Gordon’s new single Cannibal Love starts out as a TV cooking programme and ends in a cannibal cook-out with the brain as the pièce de résistance.

Oddly, I met Candice when I was living in Dublin when she came to a neuroscience talk I did in a pub. She was both interested in neuroscience and just starting out on her music career.

All these years later, she’s still interested in neuroscience but is now touring the world with her startling blend of big band voodoo blues.

In contrast, I’m still doing talks in pubs.

So kids, er… stay in school.

Link to Candice Gordon’s Cannibal Love video.

BBC Column: Psychological self-defence for the age of email

My latest column for BBC Future. The original is here. Lots of the points made here apply to technology more generally.

Here’s a pretty safe assumption to make: you probably feel like you’re inundated with email, don’t you? It’s a constant trickle that threatens to become a flood. Building up, it is always nagging you to check it. You put up spam filters and create sorting systems, but it’s never quite enough. And that’s because the big problems with email are not just technical – they’re psychological. If we can understand these we’ll all be a bit better prepared to manage email, rather than let it manage us.

For this psychological self-defence course, we’re going to cover very briefly four fundamental aspects of human reasoning. These are features built into how the human mind works. If you know about them, you can watch out for them and – most importantly – catch yourself when one of these tendencies is leading you astray.

Pay it back

First up is reciprocity – our tendency to want to return like for like, whether that is a smile for a smile or a blow for a blow. Persuasion-guru Robert Cialdini cites reciprocity as being one of the six basic principles of influence: do something for someone, so they’ll feel they have to do something back. Suddenly freebies from salespeople make a lot more sense (and seem a lot more sinister).

Reciprocity works in email because we’re not just sending information through the ether, we’re communicating social information. Each email contains simple meta-messages, things like “I’m interested in what you’re doing”, or “This really matters to me”. Reciprocity means that each email is an invitation to a social encounter, and you know what that means – more emails sent back to you in reply.

Just think back to the last time you were away from email for a week: most likely the majority of the emails waiting for you in your inbox were from the first few days of your absence. Lots of our email is self-generated, responses to emails we’ve sent, a natural reaction oiled by the social grease of reciprocity. And this leads to another aspect of human reasoning, which is…

Reaping rewards

A part of us loves getting email – it provides basic proof that we’re part of society (and often more – it’s concrete evidence that someone wants to talk to us, invite us out, or tell us something). Our animal brains use some simple rules for processing rewards. The most fundamental of these rules is the so called Law of Effect, which simply states that if something is followed by a reward, then animals tend to increase the frequency with which they do it.

But the way email is structured to reach us taps into another basic rule the brain uses for processing reward. Irregular rewards have a special power to enforce repeat behaviour, something discovered by psychologists in the early twentieth century, and known for centuries by people who organise gambling (would anyone play slot machines if they just predictably gave you back 80% of the money you put in each time?).

Email drips into your consciousness during the day. Each time you check it you don’t know if you’ll be getting another boring work email, which isn’t very rewarding, or some exciting news or an opportunity, which is very rewarding. The schedule of these constant opportunities for surprise hooks us into checking email. To avoid it, you just need to fix your email so that you collect it all at once at regular intervals, such as every hour or twice a day, rather than checking each email as it arrives.

Close thrill

Hyperbolic discounting is another feature of how we’re wired to think about rewards. Discounting is the diminishing value of rewards as they get further away in time. It’s the thing that means that being offered 100 euros today is far more exciting than being offered 100 euros in ten years time. That discounting is hyperbolic means a reward that is very close gets drastically more attractive.

To see this, try thinking about whether you’d like 10 euros now or 20 euros in a year’s time. If you’re an impatient person maybe you’ll favour the 10 euros now, if you’re patient you can maybe wait for the 20 euros in a year’s time. But if we shift both rewards backwards in time by 10 years, the choice stops being ambiguous: 10 euros in ten year’s time, or 20 euros in eleven year’s time is an easy call. Almost everyone would go for the second option.

What this shows is that the choice of a smaller amount of money only seemed attractive because it was closer in time. Hyperbolic discounting is why people will pay money to pick up today’s news, but won’t even bend down to pick up yesterday’s news. Immediacy creates value in our brains.

Going back to email, think of a time you didn’t check your email for a week. If you’re like me, you probably opened your email expecting lots of exciting news – a sum of all the excitement you experience with each individual email. But actually, a week’s worth of email isn’t very exciting. The interest that email generates as you see it arriving in your inbox is an illusion generated by hyperbolic discounting. Every technology has its own logic, and part of the logic of email is the speed with which it is delivered, with the new mails always pushing their way to the top of the pile. This pull is as insidious as it is intense – apparently 59% of people surveyed by AOL are so addicted to keeping track of their email that they check it in the bathroom.

This is what makes me think that the very speed of email delivery is a handicap – email delivered with a half-hour delay would be easier to judge at its true value, and so be far less distracting.

Responsibility pressure

Finally, a fourth fundamental principle of human reasoning is our sense of ownership or responsibility. I’ve written recently about how we can be tricked into valuing something more by accidents of fate that put that thing in our possession. Email is prey to this bias: once something is there, it is natural to decide that it deserves our consideration, it is somehow our responsibility to read and respond.

Nowhere is this more apparent than the group email and the avalanche of replies that invariably ensues. Strike back by reminding yourself that not all email has to be replied to, that lots of issues will be – and should be – dealt with by other people. Ask yourself: “If I didn’t have this information in my inbox, would I go out looking for it?” Most of the time the answer is probably “no”, and that’s a sign that someone else is controlling your attention.

Unless you diligently maintain the boundaries of exactly what you are responsible for, email becomes a system for letting other people control your time. So delete that email and move on!

Come hell or high water

The New York Times has an article on New York’s suicide cops who are tasked with talking down potential ‘jumpers’.

If you want to read something that’ll restore your hope in humanity, give this article ten minutes of your time.

In Midtown Manhattan or the financial district, for instance, pedestrians are more likely to yell, “Jump!”; in residential areas, like Harlem or Brooklyn, where the would-be jumper might be a familiar face, residents will provide officers with information about the person. They will cheer and applaud officers who make a successful grab…

“Traffic was horrible,” Detective Keszthelyi recalled. “Everybody was yelling at me. New York is ‘Hurry up and move or get out of my way.’ ”

The 40-year-old detective tuned out the angry din and zeroed in on the man before him. “I’m not here to hurt you in any way,” he offered gently.

The detective asked the man’s story, what brought him out here, and a dialogue began. The man, in his early 20s, explained that he had no job and no place to live, Detective Keszthelyi said.

“You might seem like you are alone, but you are not really alone,” he told him.

You sir, are a star.

Link to NYT article ‘The Jumper Squad’ (via @rvitelli)

The luxury of hindsight

“It’s no secret” says the promotional material “that several professional footballers live in Repton Park”, presumably unaware that one of London’s most luxurious housing developments used to be a psychiatric hospital.

Repton Park is the new name for what was originally called the London County Lunatic Asylum and was eventually renamed Claybury Hospital before the fashion for monolithic mental hospitals finally passed.

When it finally closed it stayed derelict for a few years before it was bought by a property developer and turned into luxury flats.

As you walk round the estate you can see it’s been an easy sell. Driveways are scattered with Porches and Range Rovers and there seems not a single apartment which has not been sold.

The surroundings are admittedly stunning and the place boasts its own health club. Curiously, the estate has been divided into sections with faux stately names like Kensington and Tavistock House.

If this story sounds familiar, it is remarkably similar to the history of Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum, later Friern Hospital, and now Princess Park Manor, which we covered previously on Mind Hacks.

Along similar lines, neither the property developers nor the residents of Repton Park are keen to mention the heritage of the building they now live in.

The residents’ association carefully avoids any mention of mental health in their history of the estate and the property dealers mention the ‘fine Victorian facades’ but not why they were built.

Next on the redevelopment list is probably the old City of London Lunatic Aslyum, later Stone House Hospital. Currently empty, it will shortly be converted into, well, luxury flats – although credit to the local council for specifying that some will have to become affordable housing.

However, if you can look past the luxury of Repton Park, the history itself is fascinating. There’s a great account of it here.

Welcome, professional footballers.

Link to history of Claybury Hospital.
Link to previous Mind Hacks piece on Friern Hospital.

Brain candle

Like most neuroscientists, when you’ve had a hard day at the lab, you get home and just want to scatter a few rose petals into a warm bath, put on your favourite whale song tape, and sink into the tub.

What’s missing? A few candles to shed a gentle ambient glow over your tired body.

Sadly, most candles just don’t cut it.

Tea lights just remind you of those 47 cups of tea you drunk during data analysis and if you wanted something with the scent of soothing reassurance you would have gone to the clinical psychology department.

What you need is a brain-floating-in-formalin-style candle.

Well, don’t worry, because ThinkGeek have started selling one.

It says it’s a “hand-sculpted brain candle suspended in gel wax” and oddly it’s described as unscented.

Clearly wrong. It smells of science.

And relaxxxxxx.

Link to brain candle.

No, internet addiction is not an ‘official mental illness’

The media has been buzzing with the supposed news that ‘internet addiction’ has been added to the list of ‘official mental disorders’. This is nonsense, but it tells us something oddly disappointing about how the media handles tech scare scores.

This recent wave of ‘the internet is making us crazy’ drivel stemmed from an article published in The Sydney Morning Herald and the story soon went global – being picked up by everyone from the Wall Street Journal to Russia Today.

Firstly, for those of you who are not aware why the concept of internet addiction is so untrue it’s a logical impossibility, I’ll direct you to an earlier post.

But talking specifically about the article which sparked the media panic attack, it’s odd in that it quotes two psychologists – one who has never published anything on internet addiction and the other who is a Reiki therapist. This doesn’t make it wrong but it does strike me as slightly strange for a news piece.

The article is trying to talk about the listing of ‘internet use disorder‘ in a non-diagnosable section of the DSM-5 for conditions “recommended for further study”.

This section has speculative and non-official disorders in it. You can find caffeine use disorder there if you’re feeling a bit jittery.

It also has the diagnosis of attenuated psychosis syndrome in it. Here’s how science journal Nature reacted when this diagnosis was listed in the same section: “Psychosis risk syndrome excluded from DSM-5″

In other words, if something appears in the DSM-5 section “recommended for further study” it is excluded from the list of ‘official mental illnesses’ because the diagnosis has been evaluated but found to be unsupported by research evidence.

It’s a mystery why this has suddenly become ‘news’ now because this decision has been discussed for years and it finally happened last May.

But it’s also worth noting that even the proposed definition of internet use disorder isn’t actually about using the internet, it’s about online gaming. This doesn’t make it any less nonsense, however. If someone who is addicted to gambling starts playing online do they suddenly have ‘another mental illness’? Clearly not.

Similarly, the idea that someone can be ‘addicted to gaming’ is just daft as the concept of ‘gaming’ is so wide as to not describe any single behaviour or experience – something quite important if you’re going to say that there is a mental illness based on it.

More interestingly, the The Sydney Morning Herald article has a curious quirk that allows us to see how lazily these stories get picked up and flung around.

The piece says will be included in the ‘revised edition of the DSM-IV’ – which is presumably a very awkward way of saying DSM-5.

Suddenly though, the world’s media is saying that ‘internet addiction’ will be included in the ‘DSM-IV’ which would be quite a feat considering it was published in 1994.

Here’s the clanger presented as original journalism from Forbes, the Daily Mail, the HuffPo, Mashable, the New York Post, Times of India and Russia Today. The Guardian even asked readers to vote on whether it was true!

Essentially, you can currently get anything into the media just by suggesting that technology is ‘bad for our minds’, because we love stories that justify our worries – no matter how untrue.

We used to think schools were ‘bad for the mind’ but try getting ‘education causes mental illness’ into the newspapers.

BBC Column: Can glass shape really affect how fast you drink?

My latest column for BBC Future. The original is here. I was hesitant to write this at first, since nobody loves a problemmatiser, but I figured that something in support of team “I think you’ll find its a bit more complicated than that” couldn’t hurt, and there’s an important general point about the way facts about behaviour are built from data in the final paragraphs, and why theory is important.

Recent reports say curved glasses make you drink beer quicker. But, we must be cautious about drawing simple conclusions from single studies.

We all love a neat science story, but even rock solid facts can be less revealing than they seem. Let’s take an example of a piece of psychology research reported recently: the idea that people drink faster from curved glasses.

Hundreds of news sources around the globe covered the findings, many of them changing the story slightly to report that people drink more (rather than faster) from a curved glass. At first it seems like a straightforward piece of psychology research, with clear implications: curved glasses will make pacing yourself harder, so you’ll end up drinking more than you should. Commentators agreed with the research (funded by Alcohol Research UK) – beverage manufacturers were probably onto this before, and will now be rushing to make us take our favourite tipple out of a curved glass.

But before we change our drinking habits or restock our glass collections, let’s look at what the scientists actually did.

Luckily for us the team of researchers from the University of Bristol, UK, published their paper in an open access journal, which means the research details are free for all to read.

The Bristol team invited participants into the lab and asked them to drink lager (or lemonade) from a straight class or a curved one, while watching a nature documentary (a BBC one, I’m happy to report). They also asked their volunteers to judge when the glass was half full. The results of both were clear, participants finished their drink of lager sooner in the curved glass. They also judged the halfway point as being lower down the curved glass than the straight glass – suggesting a reason for the faster drinking: if people thought the glass was fuller than it really was when then they would underestimate the rate at which they were drinking.

Human factor

Now this is all well and good, but there are many reasons why the results don’t mean that we can make people drink more by changing the shape of their glass. Importantly, none of these reasons would have to do with this research being wrong or inexpertly done. I’m absolutely certain that if we did the study ourselves we’d find exactly the same thing.

No, the reasons you can’t jump to conclusions from this kind of study is because, inevitably, a single study can only test one aspect of the world, under one set of circumstances. This makes it hard to draw general conclusions of the sort that get reported. Notice how the psychologists measured one thing (rate of drinking lager), for just two different glasses, over a single drink, for one set of people (volunteers in Bristol, in 2012), and yet a generalised truth stating that “people drink more from curved glasses” emerged from a specific set of circumstances.

Now obviously, the aim of science is to come up with answers to questions that become generalised truths, but psychology is a domain in which it is fiendishly hard to establish them. If you are studying a simple system, then cause and effect is relatively easy to establish. For instance, the harder you throw a rock, the further it tends to travel in distance. The relation between the force you put in and the acceleration of the rock you get out is straightforward. Add a human factor into the equation, however, and such simple relations begin to disappear. (Please don’t experiment by throwing rocks at people.)

To see how this limits the conclusions that can be drawn from the drinks study, think of even the most trivial factor that could change these results. Would you get the same result if people drank ale rather than lager? Probably. If they drank two pints rather than one? Maybe. If they drank in groups rather than watching TV (arguably closer to the circumstances of most drinking)? Who knows! It seems to me perfectly plausible that a social situation would produce different effects than a solo-drinking experience.

We could carry on. Would the effect be the same if we tried it in Minneapolis? In Lagos? In Kuala Lumpur, Reykjavik or Alice Springs? Most psychology studies are carried out on urban, affluent, students of the western world – a culturally unusual group, if you take a global or historical perspective. All the subjects studied were “social drinkers”, presumably with some learnt associations about curved and straight glasses. Maybe the Brits had learnt that expensive beer came in curved glasses. If this is the case, the result might be true for everyone who has a history of drinking from straight glasses in the UK, but not for other cultures where alcohol isn’t drunk like that.

Little things, big effect

Software entrepreur Jim Manzi calls the rate at which small changes can have surprising effects on outcomes, and the consequent difficulty in drawing general conclusions, “causal density”. It’s because human psychology and social life is so causally dense that we can’t simply take straight reports that X affects Y and apply them across the board. But there are hundreds of these relationships reported all the time from the annals of psychology: glass shape affects drinking time, taller men are better paid, holding a hot drink makes you like someone, and so on. Surface effects like these are vulnerable to small changes in circumstances that might remove, or even reverse, the effect you’re relying on.

Psychology researchers know all these arguments, and that’s why they’re cautious about drawing simple conclusions from single studies. The challenge of psychology is to track down those results that actually do generalise across different situations.

The way to do this is to report findings that are about theories, not just about effects. The Bristol researchers show the way in their paper: as well as testing drinking speed, they relate it to people’s ability to estimate how full a glass is. They could have just measured drinking speed, but they knew they had to relate it to a theory about what people really believed to come up with a strong conclusion.

If we can find the right principles that affect people’s actions, then we can draw conclusions that cut across situations. Unless we know the reasons why someone does something, we’ll be tricked time and time again when we try to infer from what they do.

I’m just here for the research

My latest Beyond Boundaries column for The Psychologist asks why psychologists don’t immerse themselves in the lives of people they study and whether sociologists think we’re wimps. Plus a bonus question about why strip clubs are so frequently researched.

Sociologists must think we’re wusses. While we’re handing out questionnaires, scanning people in labs or measuring behavioural responses, our society-focused friends wade into the thick of it. One particular technique, called participant observation, involves taking part in the activities of those you want to study or accompanying them in their daily lives. For reasons never quite clear to me, this has never been a popular approach in psychology, although from reading a few of the studies, perhaps you can begin to see why.

Simon Winlow was finding it difficult to study violence in the night-time economy and so decided to get himself a job as a bouncer. His work provides an exceptional insight into how doormen use and understand professional violence in clubs and pubs. This was not least because, at the risk of losing his job, Winlow was expected to muscle in when patrons became aggressive. In other words, beat people up. It’s not often that you read about a researcher beating up their research subjects but how could you do such a study without it? ‘The rights and wrongs of these issues’, his research team noted, ‘were never fully resolved’. Run-ins with the authorities are not unknown. Sociologist Mick Bloor, who himself ended up in a bar fight while studying male prostitution in Glasgow, wrote a pertinent article on research dangers. He recounts how one PhD student had been imprisoned without trial in Africa during fieldwork.

Several other researchers immersed themselves in the world of provos and paramilitaries during the height of The Troubles in Northern Ireland. Lorraine Dowler recounted how she was forced to flee when her interviewee became the target of a street-level assassination attempt, while social scientist Frank Burton woke one morning to find a submachine gun pointed in has face and the owner insinuating he was a military informer. Sadly, not all have come away from their experiences unscathed. The body of Ken Pryce was found washed up on a Caribbean beach after investigating criminality in Jamaica.

There are some isolated examples in psychology, most notably David Rosenhan’s study ‘On being sane in insane places’, where he asked researchers to fake symptoms of mental illness to be admitted to psychiatric hospital, but we are surprisingly reticent to take an immersive approach to the people we study. Maybe we are specialists in looking in from the outside?

Not mentioned in the column, to avoid offending the gentle readers of The Psychologist, is the fact that one of the most popular subjects for ‘participant observer’ studies has been strip clubs.

Just think about that for a minute.

Whatever strip club related thoughts are now gyrating through your mind, be assured that someone has done a study on it, by, er… participating and observing.

Visiting strip clubs, visiting strip clubs for women, visiting gay strip clubs, working as a stripper, and probably the finest example of its genre – a study on going to strip clubs while on holiday.

Drs, I would take my hat off to you, but it’s covering my data.

Thanks to Jon Sutton, editor of The Psychologist who has kindly agreed for me to publish my column on Mind Hacks as long as I include the following text:

The Psychologist is sent free to all members of the British Psychological Society (you can join here), or you can subscribe as a non-member by going here.

Link to column from The Psychologist (bottom of page).