How would clones think ?

In Michael Marshall Smith’s novel Spares, a disaffected cop decides to free human clones, kept for their body parts.

Although fiction, Smith’s book presents an interesting thought experiment and brings some salient questions to mind. For example, what would be the psychological effect of discovering that you had been cloned, or actually were a clone ?

With the science and ethics of cloning being debated widely in the media, ABC Radio National’s All in the Mind programme recruits a psychiatrist, a geneticist and an expert on ethics to discuss the possibilities.

Link to programme transcript.
Link to realaudio archive of radio programme.

‘Mirror neurons’ track thoughts and intentions

In research published in PLoS Biology, scientists led by Marco Iacoboni discovered that the brain’s “mirror neurons” are active when we are trying to work out other people’s thoughts and intentions.


‘Mirror neurons’ are a set of cells in the frontal lobe of the brain, named because as well as being active when we execute actions, they are also active when we observe the actions of someone else.

Iacoboni and his colleagues asked participants to watch various movie clips of actions and related scenes in a fMRI scanner. In their analysis, they contrasted the brain activity from actions where their was an obvious intention (like picking up a sandwich) with actions where no obvious intention was implied.

They discovered that part of the activity in the ‘mirror neuron’ system was specifically related to perceiving intentions, rather than watching actions in general.

The ability to understand other people’s intentions is known as “theory of mind” and is considered one of the building blocks of social interaction. This is the first study to show how the ‘mirror neuron’ system may be involved in reading others’ intentions and desires, and is an important step in understanding how the brain supports social functioning.

This is part of an increasingly popular area of science known as social cognitive neuroscience, which aims to understand the psychology and neuroscience of person-to-person interaction.

Synopsis of study, and a news story discussing it.
Full text of the study from PLoS Biology.

What you lookin’ at?

The eyes are the primary social signal. It’s the eyes we spend most of the time looking (“To See, Act” [Hack #15]). Even when the other person is talking, we look most at the eyes, not the mouth. We use them to signal turn-taking in conversation, to read emotions from, like fear…and we use them to work out what another person is looking at.

It’s this – gaze perception – that I’ve been getting interested in. How accurately can we tell where someone is looking? How accurately can we tell if someone is looking at us, or not? I’ve been looking out for some actual figures here, basic parameters on how small a difference we can detect in where someone is looking, either when they are looking at us, or at someone else.

Obviously, to be able to answer this question with actual parameters would have all sorts of implications. For, say, the design & manipulation of pictures showing people looking at things, for VR interfaces and, also, I guess it might give a better idea of when someone can tell i’m looking at them, and when they just can’t know I am for sure. You know, just as a sort of side benefit…

Continue reading “What you lookin’ at?”

Love looks not with the eyes…

“Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind” says Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, perhaps explaining the strange behaviour of those in love.

Love has long been linked to madness, and it’s easy to see why. People in love tend to hold unlikely and overly positive beliefs about their lovers, show signs of mania, obsessional thinking and experience catastrophic lows when things go wrong.

In a new book, psychologist Frank Tallis argues that love and lovesickness should be considered more seriously by psychologists and neuroscientists, and that lovesickness can trigger identifiable symptoms of mental illness in some people.

In fact, Dr Tallis is continuing a long tradition of medical enquiry into lovesickness which has been around since the Ancient Greeks (as the history of erotomania shows) although Jacques Ferrand’s 1623 A Treatise on Lovesickness probably stands as one of the greatest works in this area (summary, amazon entry with excerpts).

To say that “The course of true love never did run smooth” would be an understatement though, especially if you’re investigating love and attraction.

Research has shown that, for some, making love causes amnesia. Luckily though, people are disproportionately more likely to marry others whose names resemble their own, perhaps making the post-coital name guessing a little easier. It seems Cupid has a sense of humour if nothing else.

Link to BBC site on the science of love.
Link to Frank Tallis’ site with a sample chapter of his book.

Male faces with feminine features more attractive

Recently released results from Dr Tony Little and his team, suggest that males with more feminine features are more widely attractive to women. Women who consider themselves highly attractive however, are more likely to go for classically masculine faces.

Dr Little is interested in identifying the features of attractiveness and explaining why we might have evolved to recognise and seek-out beauty.

The link might be explained by the fact that some physically attractive features are linked to levels of hormones (such as testosterone) that are present during development. These are also known to have an influence on fertility and coupling behaviour.

The researchers based their findings on data gathered from staff and students at the University of Liverpool, but have an online lab where you can take part in similar experiments.

Link to the research team’s online lab.
Link to BBC News story on the research findings.

People hacking for women

A research team led by Simon Chu from the University of Central Lancashire have found that a woman’s height can significantly effect how they are perceived by others.

The researchers found that taller women are perceived by both men and women as more intelligent, assertive, independent, ambitious, richer and more successful, regardless of how the person really is.

In contrast, shorter women are perceived as more considerate and nurturing, but only by men.

Unfortunately, the scientific paper isn’t out yet, as it would be interesting to calculate the strength of the effect per inch or centimetre lost or gained.

However, women should be able to encourage people to form particular first impressions by influencing the height they are perceived to be, either by the use of heels, meeting on uneven surfaces, or even carefully selecting the surrounding environment to fool our brain’s size-estimation process.

This process is known as size constancy and allows us to understand that objects tend not to expand when they come towards us, even though they take up more room on our retina.

Size constancy can be easily fooled though, as the Ames room demonstrates, although standing next to shorter people (to seem taller) or taller people (to seem shorter) is likely to have some effect, as the system partly works by relative comparisons.

Link to summary of research via


Since we’ve been hitting lie detection recently, I thought I’d point out that according to a brief communication in a 2000 volume of Nature (May, vol 405, abstract here, full text here if you can access it), people who have acquired aphasia (an impairment in the processing of others speech, leading to difficulties in comprehending spoken language) are better at detecting lies. The case the authors make is that the brain redresses damage to the circuitry that underpins language ability by boosting the recognition of non-verbal behaviour. This more sensitive detection (which isn’t merely better processing of the information in the voice, but depends on using facial cue information) allows a superior level of ‘lie-detection’ – which in this study was confined to recognising emotions that models (the people being viewed – effectively the stimuli for this kind of study) are trying to conceal.

Using patients as some kind of high-falutin sniffer dog isn’t particularly appealing. But the finding lends itself to some great hard-boiled noir…

“I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about. But this guy’s a liar.”

It’s also a fun conundrum for philosophers of semantics, no? An entity that can evaluate whether something is true or false without accessing its content. And they’re a bit more real than zombies.

Morph your personality

I recently attended the annual meeting of the Experimental Psychology Society in London and equipped with my PAA (personal analogue assistant, i.e. paper + pencil) got busy sucking up what was said. This is the first of a few posts looking at some of the new research presented there. Since much of this is genuinely new, it won’t have jumped through all the hoops normally traversed by science printed in a journal or re-reported in the media. But it’s sound stuff from respected researchers, and I figure all of you are as eager as me to get the news before it’s news. Right? Today I’ll be working from a talk given by Ian Penton-Voak called “Personality dimensions in the social face”. I hope you’ll understand the title I’ve given presently.

Continue reading “Morph your personality”

Ballet and the mirror system

Beatriz Calvo-Merino and researchers from University College London have been investigating how the brain understands other people’s movements with the help of professional ballet dancers and experts in capoeira.


It is thought that the human brain has a ‘mirror system’, that simulates the actions of others as we observe them. This might be the basis of a number of important skills such as observational learning and communication.

This system seems particularly tuned to biological motion, as it doesn’t seem to activate when mechanical motion is viewed, or, for example, when an obviously artificial hand is watched while it moves.

Calvo-Merino used the brain scanning technique fMRI to investigate whether the mirror system of expert dancers would react differently when watching their own dance style, when compared to a dance style they didn’t know.

They found that when dancers viewed moves which they were expert in, their brains were more active in areas associated with action planning, body image, motion perception and, unexpectedly, and reward and social behaviour.

The results suggest that the mirror system is involved in understanding the movement of others by combining it with our own repertoire of skills and experience, and that this may be a crucial part of our social interaction.

Link to story from
Link to the abstract of the study from the journal Cerebral Cortex.

Eyes wide with fear


Here’s another story related to Vaughan’s post of a couple of days ago about the amygdala and fear perception.

A brain imaging study reported in the journal Science [1] found that showing the silhouettes of fearful eyes for just 17 milliseconds was enough to increase activity in the amygdala’s of human subjects – the effect is something like just seeing the whites of someone’s eyes in the dark (as shown in the picture, along with the comparison condition – the silhouette of the eyes of someone showing a happy expression).

The two things struck me about this. The first, obviously, is how brief the exposure is. If you are shown something for 17ms you will probably be unable to tell that you’ve been shown anything at all (you might see a flash), you certainly won’t be able to tell what it is. In this study the 17ms picture of eyes was immediately followed by a picture of a normal, expressionless, face – which makes perceiving the eye-silhouettes even harder (and, indeed, none of the participants in the experiment reported that they noticed anything unusual).

But their brains did. The amygdala was already ramping up, ready to signal ‘be afraid’ to the rest of the brain. And this to something that isn’t actually scary in itself – but a social signal that there is something to be afraid of nearby. Social and emotional information is being priority-routed through the brain’s processing streams.

Continue reading “Eyes wide with fear”

Fear can be found in the eyes

Neuroscientist Ralph Adolphs has been working with a woman known only by the initials SM. She has damage to the amygdala on both sides of the brain, and although she can recognise emotions such as happiness, anger, surpise, sadness and disgust on people’s faces, she can’t recognise fear.


Adolphs investigated exactly what SM was looking at when she viewed emotional expressions and found that she rarely looked at the eyes. Most other emotional expressions can be recognised from other parts of the face, but recognising fear seems to particularly involve viewing the eyes.

When prompted to look specifically at the eyes, SM became a lot better at recognising fear, although quickly reverted back to avoiding them if not reminded.

The amygdala has been traditionally associated with emotion, particularly the negative emotions, but Adolphs suggest that maybe it has a wider function, also involving visual attention and analysis.

Why damage to the amygdala might specifically cause problems with viewing the eyes of other people remains to be investigated, as does whether SM’s ability to focus in on other parts of the face is entirely normal.

Link to story on

Face recognition might be innnate

Researchers from the Universities of Queensland and Denver have found that newborn babies preferentially look at human faces, but not human body shapes in general. This seems to suggest that face recognition might be innate in some way and might be one aspect of our genetic inheritance which promotes social interaction and allows us to develop subtle social communication skills needed for the complexity of human interaction.

A study published in 2004 suggested that this is more than just a simple preference for any face-like shape, but that newborn babies prefer attractive rather than unattractive faces. It is still unclear why this might happen, although it perhaps hints that attractive faces may seem more attractive because they more closely match a configuration passed down to us via our genes.

The excuse “Sorry honey, I was just looking to see if their face matched my genetic template of innate face shapes” is of course unlikely to get you out of trouble, regardless of your ability to describe the science behind it.

The Social Yawn


All animals yawn (see and in humans yawning seems to be contagious. Seeing another person yawn, or even just reading about yawning can make you yawn. (We talk about unconscious immitation in chapter 10 of the book). James Anderson from the University of Stirling gave a lecture in Sheffield last week about yawning – in the introduction he told us that when he lectures on yawning lots of people in the audience, well, yawn. But his talk was only yawn-inducing in the social-contaigon sense.

Yawning, it seems to me, may provide us with paradigm case of an automatic behaviour that, moving along the phylogenetic scale, has become co-opted into a quasi-voluntary social signal.

Continue reading “The Social Yawn”

The face, the brain and Marilyn Monroe

Researchers from London and Italy have just published a study on the brain areas involved in perceiving and understanding faces. They created an elegant experiment where they used morphing to compare how brain activity changes as a photograph is gradually blended from one person to another, for example, from Marilyn Monroe to Margaret Thatcher.

They found that the brain did not respond in the same gradual manner, and that activation shifted to specific areas at certain points in the blending process. When the blending was in its early stages, participants perceived the picture as the same person with physical changes to their face, an experience which caused activation in the inferior occipital gyrus. When the level of blending affected recognition of the pictured person, the right fusiform gyrus was activated, an area thought to be involved with judgements of familiarity for faces. When a participant was already familiar with the people in the pictures, the temporal lobes became active when the final face became clear. These areas have been linked to semantic memory and naming.

This study is important as it shows specialised areas of activation for different stages in the face perception process in a single experiment.

These stages have been hypothesised to exist for quite some time in a model developed by psychologists Vicki Bruce and Andy Young, largely from studies on people with prosopagnosia, a condition where face recognition can be impaired, usually after brain damage.

Link to BBC News story.
Link to story in The Guardian.
Link to abstract from Nature Neuroscience.

Imaginary friends

Psychologists from the University of Oregon have been studying children’s imaginary friends. Their study found that 65% of children had imaginary friends at the age of 7, a much higher rate than expected, and that the presence of an imaginary friend is linked to better emotional understanding and ‘theory of mind’ skills (the suggested ability that allows us to figure out and represent others’ beliefs and intentions).

Other studies on imaginary friends in children have also shown that they seem to be quite normal and generally linked to positive psychological development.

Interestingly though, some of the children report that their imaginary playmates don’t always do what they’re told and sometimes won’t go away when expected to, or bother them inconveniently. It seems that even from quite a young age, we are not always master of our own imaginations.

Link to story in Seattle Post-Intelligencer.