Spike activity 09-01-2015

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

Game theorists crack poker according to a fascinating report from Nature. First nuclear war, now poker. Whatever next!

Harvard Business Review has a genuinely interesting piece on the psychology of office politics.

Child mental health services have been secretly cut by £50m according to BBC News. What we need is some important politician to tell us how important mental health is to make this right again.

British Journal of Psychiatry puts a psychedelic portrait of the Shulgins on its front cover. Rumour has it that if you lick the pages your hallucinations disappear.

There’s an interesting piece in Wired about images specifically generated to mislead AI image recognition algorithms.

The New York Times has an extended and interesting profile of innovative neuroscientist Sebastian Seung.

Can deaf people hear hallucinated voices? An interesting piece in Mosaic tackles the issue.

The scan says we add fries and call it a special

Photo from Flickr user Daniel Go. Click for source.Marketing magazine has an interview with the marketing director of KFC who explains why he thinks neuroscience holds the key to selling deep-fried junk food.

“Marketing as a whole is undergoing transformation,” he says. “We now know through neuroscience how people’s brains work and what affects their decision-making. So what we’re trying to do is take the new knowledge and say – this is how we put it together, this is how a brain actually works – and this is how we should be marketing.”

Somebody, please, find me a pizza.
 

Link to Marketing interview.

Excellent NPR Invisibilia finally hits the wires

A sublime new radio show on mind, brain and behaviour has launched today. It’s called Invisibilia and is both profound and brilliant.

It’s produced by ex-Radiolab alumni Lulu Miller and radio journalist Alix Spiegel – responsible for some of the best mind and brain material on the radio in the last decade.

The first episode is excellent and I’ve had a sneak preview of some other material for future broadcast which is equally as good.

It’s on weekly, and you can download or stream from the link below, and you can follow the show on the Twitter @nprinvisibilia.

Recommended.
 
Link to NPR Invisibilia.

Is public opinion rational?

There is no shortage of misconceptions. The British public believes that for every £100 spent on benefits, £24 is claimed fraudulently (the actual figure is £0.70). We think that 31% of the population are immigrants (actually its 13%). One recent headline summed it up: “British Public wrong about nearly everything, and I’d bet good money that it isn’t just the British who are exceptionally misinformed.

This looks like a problem for democracy, which supposes a rational and informed public opinion. But perhaps it isn’t, at least according to a body of political science research neatly summarised by Will Jennings in his chapter of a new book “Sex, lies & the ballot box: 50 things you need to know about British elections“. The book is a collection of accessible essays by British political scientists, and has a far wider scope than the book subtitle implies: there are important morals here for anyone interested in collective human behaviour, not just those interested in elections.

Will’s chapter discusses the “public opinion as thermostat” theory. This, briefly, is that the public can be misinformed about absolute statistics, but we can still change our strength of feeling in an appropriate way. So, for example, we may be misled about the absolute unemployment rate, but can still discern whether unemployment is getting better or worse. There’s evidence to support this view, and the chapter includes this striking graph (reproduced with permission), showing the percentage of people saying “unemployment” is the most important issue facing the country against the actual unemployment rate . As you can see public opinion tracks reality with remarkable accuracy:

Unemployment rate (source: ONS) and share of voters rating unemployment as the most important issue facing the country (source: ipsos-MORI), from Will Jenning's chapter in "Sex, lies & the ballot box" (p.35)
Unemployment rate and share of voters rating unemployment as the most important issue facing the country, from Will Jenning’s chapter in “Sex, lie & the ballot box” (p.35)

The topic of how a biased and misinformed public can make rational collective decisions is a fascinating one, which has received attention from disciplines ranging from psychology to political science. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the book to get more evidence based insights into how our psychological biases play out when decision making is at the collective level of elections.

Full disclosure: Will is a friend of mine and sent me a free copy of the book.

Link: “Sex, lies & the ballot box (Edited by Philip Cowley & Robert Ford).

Link: Guardian data blog Five things we can learn from Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box

Bringing us closer to the blueprints of the brain

I’ve got a piece in today’s Observer about the amazing science of doing functional brain imaging and behavioural studies with babies while they are still in the womb to see the earliest stages of neurocognitive development.

Brain development during pregnancy is key for future health, which is why it gets checked so thoroughly during prenatal examinations. But neuroscientists have become increasingly interested in how the activity of the brain becomes progressively integrated and synchronised during development to support human experience, something developmental neuroscientist Moriah Thomason calls “bringing us closer to the blueprints of the brain”.

It’s difficult to state how remarkable this is, both technically and scientifically, as researchers have managed to measure the unborn brain in action as it responds to the outside world through the womb.

The article looks at how this science is developing and what it’s telling us about the earliest stages of the developing brain.

Exciting stuff.
 

Link to ‘Prenatal blueprints give an early glimpse of a baby’s developing brain’