subliminal interpersonal attraction

A bit of a killer for notions of personal agency and/or sacred nature of love:

How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Js: Implicit Egotism and Interpersonal Attraction

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2004, Vol. 87, No. 5, 665-683

John T. Jones, Brett W. Pelham, Mauricio Carvallo, Matthew C. Mirenberg

From the perspective of implicit egotism people should gravitate toward others who resemble them because similar others activate people’s positive, automatic associations about themselves. Four archival studies and 3 experiments supported this hypothesis. Studies 1?4 showed that people are disproportionately likely to marry others whose first or last names resemble their own. Studies 5?7 provided experimental support for implicit egotism. Participants were more attracted than usual to people (a) whose arbitrary experimental code numbers resembled their own birthday numbers, (b) whose surnames shared letters with their own surnames, and (c) whose jersey number had been paired, subliminally, with their own names. Discussion focuses on implications for implicit egotism, similarity, and interpersonal attraction.


mind hacks samples

Mind Hacks will be in the shops soon. Meanwhile you can read some samples from the book on the O’Reilly pages here


ramachandran interview

An interview I did with V S Ramachadran has just appeared in the November issue of The Psychologist magazine (free online access in six months time, if you want the PDF now email me).

Not all of our conversation made it into the published article, so here is an extra bit of text that has nowhere else to be. Prof. Ramachandran had been speaking at the Winchester Festival of Art and the Mind about the psychological laws which underlie the construction and appreciation of visual art:

TS : You say your “universal laws” may pertain to less than 10% of art…the remaining 90% of variance being driven by culture. But couldnt an art historian argue that it is precisely this 90% thats interesting about art? Isn’t the universal 10% just about perception rather than art?

VSR : Well it depends on what you mean by “interesting”… the question is interesting for whom? Art historians are interested in the 90% .. its what they do for a living. Scientists, on the other hand, are interested in precisely the 10% that cuts across cultural boundaries.

Secondly I prefer to use the phrase “Aesthetic universals” or “laws” rather than “laws of ART”. Art is a loaded word that has now come to mean anything and everything that anyone wants to call “art” – such as Damien Hirst’s pickled cows- and thats not a good place for a scientist to start. If you dilute the meaning of the word art to encompass any entity – then there isn’t much to study.

Third your suggestion that the 10% I’m calling “universal laws” applies only to the earlier less interesting perceptual component of art rather than aesthetic response is based on the now out-moded strictly modular hierarchic bucket-brigade view of perception put forward by David Marr, Fodor and other AI researchers who knew very little about the brain. The boundary between where perception ends and where visual aesthetics begins isnt all that clear cut.. in fact there are probably innumerable feedback messages from high level object parsing, limbic emotional circuits, and so called perceptual principles of object segmentation … these feedback signals are what generate the multiple “aha” signals for each partial glimpse of object-like chunk; “Ahas” that the artist exploits. As I said its “visual foreplay before the climax of recognition and arousal”.


priming for social control

Catching up with my journal abstracts, I noticed this:

Rotteveel, M.; Phaf, R.H. (2004). Loading working memory enhances affective priming. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 11. 11, 2, 326-331(6).
Abstract: Stronger affective priming (Murphy & Zajonc, 1993) with suboptimal (i.e., reduced consciousness) than with optimal (i.e., full consciousness) prime presentation suggests that nonconscious processes form an important part of emotions. Merikle and Joordens (1997) have argued that both impoverished presentation and divided attention can produce suboptimal conditions and result in parallel effects. We manipulated attention by means of a concurrent working memory load while keeping presentation duration constant, as participants evaluated Japanese ideographs that were preceded by happy,neutral, or angry faces (affective priming) and male or female faces (nonaffective priming). In contrast to nonaffective priming, affective priming was larger with divided attention than with focused attention. It is concluded that manipulations of stimulus quality and of attention can both be used to probe the distinction between conscious and nonconscious processes and that the highest chances of obtaining the pattern of stronger priming with suboptimal presentation than with optimal presentation occur in the affective domain.

Which I can’t help thinking implies: if you want to pull people’s emotional strings (without them knowing it) then you should keep them busy.

Call me a social-control conspiracist, but i think this is another good reason for us all to spend more time sitting down with a cup of tea and less time working to keep the economy going


an hour of being 75 years old

Quoting Slovic et al (1982), Facts versus fears: Understanding perceived risk:

…Sowby (1965) provided extensive data on risks per hour of exposure, showing, for example, than an hour of riding a motorcycle is as risky as an hour of being 75 years old.


  • Slovic, P., Fischhoff, B. & Lichtenstein, S. (1982). Facts versus fears: Understanding perceived risk. In D. Kahneman, P. Slovic & A. Tversky (eds.). Judgement under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  • Sowby, F.D. (1965). Radiation and other risks. Health Physics, 11, 879-887.
  • Categories

    The Haas Effect

    A neat little effect:

    Moore says,

    If two successive sounds are heard as fused, the location of the total sound is determined largely by the location of the first sound. This is known as the “precedence effect”, although it has been called the “Haas effect”…

    This, among other things, stops you getting confused when a sound comes at you from two speakers at once.

    Now, if you drop something and record the sound, and then play it back backwards, you can hear the echos that are normally masked.

    (Thanks to Nicol, and his supervisor, for the info)

    There is more, of course, in the book

    B.C.J. Moore, An Introduction to the Psychology of Hearing, 5th Ed., Academic Press, San Diego (2003).


    What has psychology done?

    What has psychology done? A challenge to silence the doubters comes from the BPS in this Month’s issue of The Psychologist

    The Society’s Publications and Communications Board would like to produce a new document to complement the Annual Report, focusing on psychology rather than the Society. This report would outline significant scientific research developments and practical applications from the discipline in the last year.The aim is to promote the usefulness of the discipline to an external audience of research councils, politicians, civil servants, employers and journalists. Before potentially producing this as a separate document in 2006 we would like to pilot the project as a special feature in The Psychologist. Your contributions are sought. We are looking for brief descriptions of:

  • published research from the last year
  • partnerships between academia and the public or commercial sector leading to new products or applications of psychological knowledge; or
  • new professional developments which will have a significant impact on the lives of others.
    …you could even just send one sentence on what has been found, one on why it is important in terms of understanding people or making a difference to their lives, plus the reference. Material has to be intrinsically relevant and interesting to an extremely wide audience with little or no background knowledge of the area, and written in a way that makes it more so. It is a tough task, but this is a great opportunity to show what psychology has been up…This is your chance to silence the psychology doubters by showcasing interesting and useful research from the last year, so get writing. Send your contribution to by Monday 15 November. Feel free to get in touch before then if you have any questions about the process or the suitability of material. [my emphasis]

  • Categories

    The Wisdom of Crowds

    Real laziness here, stealing notes from a review of a book that I can’t be bothered to read
    The Book: The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many are Smarter than the Few by James Surowiecki
    The Review: London Review of Books. The Notes:

    Phenomenon: For many decisions the average of many judgements is often better than the judgement of a single, albeit expert, individual. Example: judging the number of jellybeans in a jar – typically even individuals who have previously been most accurate (‘the experts’) will be outperformed by the average answers.

    Seems analogous to the ‘less is more’ effect. This is, roughly, that sometimes an overabundance of information can distract you from applying an on-average-correct heuristic. Example: Answer this question Which city has more inhabitants: San Diego or San Antonio?. Who should do better at this question, Germans or Americans? The Germans, typically, have little knowledge of the size of American cities. So when given this pair they guess that the one they have heard of is larger (San Diego), and they are correct. The Americans know lots about American cities. They try to use all the information they have to make a correct decision. Which is more politically important? Which has more people I know living in it? Which felt bigger when I visited? Sometimes this information is helpful, sometimes it is distracting. Sometimes decision making based on more knowledge is outperformed by that based on less knowledge (here the analogy with the wisdom of crowds i guess). In one study [1] the German group using their simple recognition heuristic scored 100%. More generally, often neither method/group is always correct, but the simple, one criterion, rule can often be more correct.

    So one mechanism by which the wisdom-of-crowds effect works is probably just reducing the level of knowledge that is contributing to the decision. A dumb kind of wisdom!

    But crowds can often be dumb-dumb too, especially when they become herds. What are the conditions under which they keep their dumb-wisdom, the conditions when a mixture is better than the best expert?


    Requires certain conditions for the crowd to make good decisions: members of group must be willing to think for themselves; they must be mostly independent of each other; must be reasonably decentralised; must be some means of aggregating opinions into a collective judgement. If people start second-guessing each other, or following each other, the crowd becomes a herd and herds are bad at decision making…Crowds do not do well the question is not a straight-forwardly cognitive one. They are not good at moral judgments.

    You might argue that a group of people which are all thinking for themselves isn’t really a crowd. You might also argue that the wisdom of crowds doesn’t apply to moral judgements because individual judgements are non-commensurable in so many ways, not just because they are subject to lots of weird biases. If the choice is the same, but the individuals are making different decisions (e.g. they have access to contradictory information and/or they are using different criteria to select what a ‘good’ answer is) then aggregation isn’t possible.

    I think a more helpful book would not be The Wisdom of Crowds – Why the Many are Smarter than the Few but The Wisdom of Crowds – How the Many can be Smarter than the Few. Anyway, good to have some starting notes on when crowd decisions will outperform individual decisions – and when ’emergent’ decisions will be herd-like and unproductive.


    [1] Goldstein, D. G., & Gigerenzer, G. (2002). Models of ecological rationality: The recognition
    heuristic. Psychological Review, 109, 75-90. Online here


    Dolphin’s Brains

    A wrinkle to add to one of my favourite neurobiology factoids: Dolphins may not sleep with one side of their brains at a time after all [1]. Or, rather, they do sleep one side at a time (unihemispherically), but they may also sometimes let both sides sleep at once, albeit very briefly.

    It’s not just dolphins who sleep with one side of the brains at a time. Other sea-sleeping mammals (whales, seals and manatee), many birds and maybe reptiles, like crocodiles, sleep unihemispherically too [1].

    Posture assumed by northern fur seals during unihemispheric slow-wave sleep in water. In this example, the fur seal is lying on its left side while the left flipper (connected to the awake (right) hemisphere) constantly paddles. This posture allows the fur seal to keep its nostrils above the water?s surface, while the left hemisphere sleeps. When the fur seal switches to lying on its right side, the left hemisphere remains awake while the right hemisphere sleeps. (Figure and text shamelessly stolen without permission)

    So: possibly our reptilian ancestors slept unihemispherically and we lost the habit as we tripped up the phylogenetic scale. Secondly, dolphins probably wouldn’t sleep one hemisphere at a time if they weren’t sleeping in the water. If we could just convince those guys to move onto land…I mean they’re pretty smart already, think what they could do if they could let one of their hemispheres drop the functions needed for wakefulness [3]. With one hemisphere relived of the need to be self-sufficient it could develop a deeper, complementary role for the other, waking-responsible hemisphere. They could be even smarter than they already are. Lets face it, we could do with some help up here- we need the dolphins on our team!

    Hmm. Anyway. I wonder if there asymmetries in the human hemispheric response to sleep? It would suggest that a similar process had happen in mammalian evolution. And did dolphins evolve from a land-based mammalian line, and when?


    1. Sam H. Ridgway (2002). Asymmetry and Symmetry in Brain Waves from Dolphin Left and Right Hemispheres: Some Observations after Anesthesia, during Quiescent Hanging Behavior, and during Visual Obstruction. Brain, Behavior and Evolution 2002;60:265-274

    Abstract: Studies of sleep in cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises), substantiated by electrophysiological data, are rare with the great majority of observations having been made by one group from Russia. This group employed hard-wired recording with low-noise cables for their EEG observations, whereas our report describes behavioral and EEG observations of dolphin sleep using telemetry. Marked asymmetry of the EEG was observed during behavioral sleep posture. At different times synchronized slow waves appeared in both left and right brain hemispheres concurrently with lower voltage, faster, desynchronized EEG activity in the opposite hemisphere. On the other hand, during one brief period of sleep behavior, sleep-like EEG activity appeared on leads from both hemispheres. When the animal was exposed to a loud sound, it woke with lower voltage, faster, relatively symmetrical, desynchronized EEG activity appearing from both hemispheres. Additionally, the EEG appeared relatively desynchronized and symmetrical between the two hemispheres when the animal was awake during recovery from pentothal-halothane anesthesia as well as during waking periods when one or both of the animal’s eyes were covered by an opaque rubber suction cup.

    2. N.C. Rattenborg, C.J. Amlaner, S.L. Lima (2000). Behavioral, neurophysiological and evolutionary perspectives on unihemispheric sleep. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews. Volume 24, Issue 8 , December 2000, Pages 817-842

    3. Incidentally dolphins do have some hemispheric specialisation – they have a left dominance for visuo-spatial cognition (ie the opposite to humans): Kilian, A., von Fersen, L., G?nt?rk?n, O. (2000). Lateralization of visuospatial processing in the bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus). Behav Brain Res 116: 211-215


    Optimal neural population coding of an auditory spatial cue

    My friend Nicol had his first paper in Nature come out today [1]. Well done Nicol! [2]. For any readers who care for a bit of computational neuroscience, with information theory on the side, here’s the abstract:

    A sound, depending on the position of its source, can take more time to reach one ear than the other. This interaural (between the ears) time difference (ITD) provides a major cue for determining the source location. Many auditory neurons are sensitive to ITDs, but the means by which such neurons represent ITD is a contentious issue. Recent studies question whether the classical general model (the Jeffress model) applies across species. Here we show that ITD coding strategies of different species can be explained by a unifying principle: that the ITDs an animal naturally encounters should be coded with maximal accuracy. Using statistical techniques and a stochastic neural model, we demonstrate that the optimal coding strategy for ITD depends critically on head size and sound frequency. For small head sizes and/or low-frequency sounds, the optimal coding strategy tends towards two distinct sub-populations tuned to ITDs outside the range created by the head. This is consistent with recent observations in small mammals. For large head sizes and/or high frequencies, the optimal strategy is a homogeneous distribution of ITD tunings within the range created by the head. This is consistent with observations in the barn owl. For humans, the optimal strategy to code ITDs from an acoustically measured distribution depends on frequency; above 400 Hz a homogeneous distribution is optimal, and below 400 Hz distinct sub-populations are optimal.

    Update: Article from BBC news Hearing more complex than thought

    [1] Optimal neural population coding of an auditory spatial cue
    Nicol S. Harper and David McAlpine
    Nature, 05 August 2004, Volume 430, No. 7000, pgs 682-686

    [2] I am immensely proud – in the it-had-nothing-whatsoever-to-do-with-me-I-just-watched-it-happen kinda way

    books events psychology

    Codename ‘Brain Hacks’

    I’m writing a book, with my friend Matt, for O’Reilly, codenamed ‘Brain Hacks’

    The book is a selection of 100 design quirks of consciousness – ways in which constraints from neurobiology or evolution have produced unexpected features in cognition.

    O’Reilly are an American publisher who produce computer books. One series they do, the Hacks series covers tips, tricks, unorthodox methods and functional insights for well known bits of software. This book will be the same, but covering for the bugs and features of the human operating system. A selection of functional anecdotes about the construction of conscious experience and behaviour. A smash and grab on the intellectual goodies of cognitive neuroscience!

    Writing the book is going really well, and we’ve got some great people contributing. It’s great fun putting together practical demonstrations of important computational and cog neuro principles, and it’s even fun being driven slightly mad as I start to notice all the ways in which my experience of the world is constructed from the raw data available to my senses, and the ways my actions are delegated to different, intermeshed, subsystems.

    There’s loads more to say, but for now I’m going to get back to writing the book. Swing over to Matt’s blog if you want to read a bit more about the project – and of course check back here over the next month (until I fly to Burning Man when this blog will go a bit quiet for a couple of weeks).


    Teen mice and anti-gravity fish

    I think coming across stuff like this is one of the reasons I love science. I’d never have thought of it, but someone did and now the knowledge is available for everyone to share. Plus it means that somewhere in Germany, someone is getting paid to centifuge fish.

    Risk-taking behavior in adolescent mice: psychobiological determinants and early epigenetic influence
    Giovanni Laviola, Simone Macri, Sara Morley-Fletcher, Walter Adriani
    Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 27 (2003) 19?31

    Abstract: Epidemiological research has emphasized that adolescence is associated with some temperamental and behavioral traits that are typical of this age and that might substantially contribute to both psychological and psychobiological vulnerability. The contribution of the important developmental rearrangements in neurobiological and neuroendocrinological processes has received surprisingly little investigation. The present review summarizes recent work in animal models, indicating that adolescent rodents exhibit marked peculiarities in their spontaneous behavioral repertoire. When compared to adults, adolescents show an unbalanced and extremes oriented behavior, consisting of an increased novelty seeking, together with decreased novelty-induced stress and anxiety, an increased risk-taking behavior in the plus-maze, as well as elevated levels of impulsivity and restlessness. Age-related discontinuities in the function of monoaminergic systems, which are a main target of abused drugs, can perhaps account for such a profile. In particular, a peculiar function within reward-related dopaminergic brain pathways actually seems to underlie the search for novel and rewarding sensations, as well as changes in the magnitude of psychostimulant effects. The role played by early epigenetic factors in the shaping of novelty-seeking behavior of adolescent and adult rodents are also reviewed. Two examples are considered, namely, subtle variations in the hormonal milieu as a function of intrauterine position and precocious or delayed maturation of nutritional independence as a function of changes in time of weaning. As for spontaneous drug consumption, a prominent vulnerability to the oral intake of nicotine during early adolescence is reported. In conclusion, adolescence in rodents may represent a suitable animal model with enough face- and construct-validity. Actually, this model is able to show behavioral features that resemble those found in human adolescents, including vulnerability to the consumption of psychoactive drugs.

    Neurobiology of fish under altered gravity conditions
    Ralf H. Anken, Michael Ibsch, Hinrich Rahmann
    Brain Research Reviews 28 1998 9?18

    Abstract: In vertebrates (including man), an altered gravitational environment such as weightlessness can induce malfunction of the inner ear, based on an irregular dislocation of the otoliths from the corresponding sensory epithelia. This dislocation leads to an illusionary tilt, since the otolithic inputs are not in register with other sensory organs. This results in an intersensory conflict. Vertebrates in orbit therefore face severe orientation problems. In humans, the intersensory conflict may additionally lead to a malaise, commonly referred to as space motion sickness (SMS). During the first days in weightlessness, the orientation problems and SMS disappear, since the brain develops a new compensatory interpretation of the available sensory data. The present review reports the neurobiological responses?particularly in fish?observed at altered gravitational states, concerning behaviour and neuroplastic reactivities. Recent investigations employing microgravity (spaceflight, parabolic aircraft flights, clinostat) and hyper-gravity (laboratory centrifuges as ground based research tools) yielded clues and insights into the understanding of the respective basic phenomena. The possible sources of human space sickness a kinetosis and of the space adaptation syndrome (when a sensory reinterpretation of gravitational and visual cues takes place) are particularly highlighted with regard to the functional significance of bilaterally asymmetric otoliths (weight, size).


    Dualism and Neuroimaging

    I can’t recommend highly enough Descarte’s Baby by Paul Bloom. I never found developmental psychology particularly interesting until recently. Bloom’s book is a great example of why I should have paid more attention to the field. He combines an evolutionary framework and a solidly cognitive approach to address (read ‘speculate on’) the things that are at the very heart of humanness.

    One point he makes which doesn’t make it into my review for The Psychologist– which is embarrassingly gushing anyway – is the idea that our innate disposition towards dualism helps explain the popular appeal of neuroimaging research. The amazement that greets an fMRI experiment showing the involvement of the frontal lobe in thinking about whether to ask for a rise, or the involvement of your parietal lobe in thinking about how to assemble Ikea furniture [2] can be reduced to / explained as a simple amazement that anything to do with mind has a correspondence in the brain. Of course, to a cognitive neuroscientist that’s axiomatic. But to the layperson maybe their unquestioned dualism means they are still impressed that cognitive activity produces biological effects.

    Persistent dualism might also be part of the reason that the ‘We only use 10% of our brains’ myth is so common. To a neuroscientist it’s a (sorry) no-brainer – Did you think that 90% of that 1.2 kg of your body was just sitting there, with no purpose?!– but many people still think of themselves as eternal souls, not as biological machines. From this point of view it seem entirely plausible that what we perceive as us could be pretty much independent of our brains.


    [1] Descarte’s Baby – How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human by Paul Bloom
    Publisher: William Heinemann. Date, Price & Format: July 1st, 2004, ?20 Hardback

    [2] I just made these examples up, sorry. But you get the idea.



    Bless the heart of the British Psychological Society. I’ve just discovered that their email system has a profanity filter which protects their staff from receiving mail containing any vulgar words.

    I found this out after emailing the editor of The Psychologist magazine about a research summary we may publish in the magazine. I’ve put the citation which tripped the profanity filter at the end of this post so, gentle reader, please be warned and avert your eyes if you are of a sensitive disposition:

    Dong, C., Sanchez, L.E. & Price, R.A. (2004). Relationship of obesity to depression: A family-based study. International Journal of Obesity, 28, 790-795.

    update: Jon, the editor, informs me that the offending word falls on their list in between ‘dildo’ and ‘dothead’. Thank goodness the BPS protects employees from this kind of filth…

    update 2It has just occured to me that it is a little strange that BPS employees cannot receive emails with profanities in, but they can evidently send them


    giving psychology away

    I remain skeptical as Philip Zimbardo [1] promises that Psychologists are positioned to “give psychology away” to all those who can benefit from our wisdom. I don’t think we’ve had such a good track record over the years – psychosurgery, electroshock re-education, ECT, psychiatric medication, Freudianism – what makes us so sure that now psychological science is ready to go out and tell people how to run their lives (again).

    And even though there are undoubtably true and useful bits of psychological research I think the market could benefit from more skepticism about the truth and usefulness of psychology, not more hard-sell about the wonder-benefits of ‘scientific’ approaches to the mind.

    But hey i guess i should shut up until i can get hold of a copy of the full article to read.

    [1] Does Psychology make a significant difference in our lives?
    By Zimbardo, Philip G. American Psychologist. 59(5), Jul-Aug 2004, 339-351.


    Fresh Brains

    Recommended items to pack a fresh brain:

    1. Put the fresh brain (A)

    2. In a ziploc bag (B)

    3. Wait! Don’t just ziploc – double-ziploc (C)

    Pack with ice and post!

    Continue reading the shipping information for fresh brains at the New York Brain Bank website (also availale in PDF)


    a maturational timetable

    The order in which different brain areas reach maturity must be crucial to how activity-guided development creates functional specialisation (there’s good stuff on this in Rethinking Innateness). Here’s a maturational timetable (via) for different brain areas:

    Notice that it’s areas associated with audition that finish myelination first (in the womb), and the neocortex which finishes last (about 25 years later).


    Elman, J., Bates, E., Johnson, M., Karmiloff-Smith, A., Parisi, D., & Plunkett, K. (1996). Rethinking innateness: A connectionist perspective on development. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press/Bradford Books.


    What kind of response is conscious experience

    Like a dutiful embodied cognitivist i believe that what we’re doing affects how we think. Or, on a more mircoscale, that the task we’re engaged in affects the how we process the stimuli we’re sensing. Not just how we process the stimuli in the sense of the parameters of the processes used to deal with it, but that the actual processes themselves alter – and not always in ways we have personal insight into.

    So, as part of my duties i was re-reading Goodale & Milner’s (1992) classic paper “Separate visual pathways for perception and action”. They discuss research that shows that motor systems aren’t fooled by various illusions – so that with things like the muller-lyer illusion, our fingers reaching to grab the object are not fooled in the same way as our eyes are fooled in providing us with information on size. They go on to say:

    The functional modules supporting perceptual experience of the world may have evolved more recently than those controlling actions within it

    But that’s just an aside. The question that jumps out at me is, if the type of response affects stimulus processing, what kind of response is conscious experience?


    1. Goodale MA, Milner AD (1992). Separate visual pathways for perception and action. Trends in Neurosciences, 15(1), 20-25.


    Rat vs Man, part 2

    Like i said, the rat is more spinal cord than cortex, whereas the human is more cortical than spinal cord by a factor of nearly forty. Does anything else happen as we stagger up up the phylogenetic ladder? Well there’s a whole lot of crinkles added…




    more on cortical plasticity

    The unexpected consequences of a noisy environment
    Xiaoqin Wang
    Trends in Neurosciences
    Volume 27, Issue 7 , July 2004, Pages 364-366
    Laboratory of Auditory Neurophysiology, Department of Biomedical Engineering, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine

    Abstract: A recent study found that the functional organization of auditory cortex was disrupted when rats were exposed to a moderate level of continuous noise during early development. However, this detrimental effect on auditory cortex could be remedied later by stimulating the noise-reared rats with structured sounds. These findings suggest that the endpoint of the ?critical period? could be extended well into adult life, which has significant implications for our understanding of cortical plasticity.



    Rat vs Man

    Thanks to Brain facts and figures


    brain scamming

    Nature discuss neuromarketing:

    A more skeptic view of neuromarketing is that cognitive scientists, many of whom watched from the sidelines as their molecular colleagues got rich, are now jumping on the commercial bandwagon. According to this view, neuromarketing is little more than a new fad, exploited by scientists and marketing consultants to blind corporate clients with science

    No one would do that, would they? Would they…?

    psychology quotes

    Quote #37

    Given what we know about the human brain, two facts stand out as astonishing: (1) We know very little about what distinguishes the human brain from that of other species; and (2) apparently, few neuroscientists regard fact 1 as much of a problem.

    –Todd Preuss (2000). What’s human about the human brain? In The New Cognitive Neurosciences (M.S. Gazzaniga, Ed.), Cambridge MA: MIT Press.
    Via Jody Culham

    psychology science

    the hare of credulity

    I blogged about this paper [1], last week, and alex had some very sensible things to say about it too, but basically my fear was that it would be that once outside the realm of academic discussion it would be seized as good evidence for a sixth sense. In fact the deeper story is that in the more tightly controlled studies the effect wasn’t present – a classic pattern for investigations of the paranormal and one that suggests to me that, if anything, the evidence is against the effect being a true one.

    And how is the research reported in the Sunday Times [2] today? “There is a sixth sense…science has found evidence that people know when they are being observed”. The text of the article is a more balanced than the headlines, but it leaves me gritting my teeth as the hare of credulity outruns the tortoise of skepticism, again.

    1. Schmidt, S., Schneider, R., Utts, J. & Walach, H. (2004). Distant intentionality and the feeling of being stared at: two meta-analyses. British Journal of Psychology, 95, 235-247

    2. The Sunday Times, 27th of April 2004, p9, “Didn’t you know it: there is a sixth sense”, John Elliott and Sarah Keenlyside


    No language instinct

    Geoffrey Sampson doesn’t believe in the language instinct. I remember reading his book Educating Eve in my final year at university and being splendidly, incoherantly, annoyed by his views on the nature-nurture debate. My girlfriend at the time had been set the book as part of her linguistics course and I singularly failed to express to her just how wrong-headed Sampson’s arguments were – how he completely failed to engage with the whole point of Pinker’s book., for one thing.

    Of course I was fresh from reading things like Rethinking Innateness and had all the zeal of the new convert. I can’t remember the details of Sampson’s argument, and now I think i’d like to re-read it to check if i still feel the same way, and maybe to recapture that feeling of annoyance. Maybe my appreciation of it will have changed, I certainly think my appreciation of the language innateness debate has changed – i’ve had the luck to read Terance Deacon’s The Symbolic Species for a start, and that’s a book which should stretch anyone’s appreciation of language and brain evolution.


    BrainVoyager BrainTutor

    This is a screenshot of me playing with the BrainVoyager BrainTutor. BrainVoyager make fMRI analysis and visualisation software, and they’re kind enough to offer this interactive guide to different cortical regions for free.

    Pictures can’t describe how much fun it is to play with, adding and removing the different hemispheres, labels, views, rotating the whole head, etc. It’s a shame they don’t have more areas programmed in at the moment (it’s just the lobes the gyri and sulci – but there’s a promising ‘forthcoming’ button for Brodmann areas).

    books psychology

    Counseling the Procrastinator

    New from APA books

    Counseling the Procrastinator in Academic Settings

    This new book discusses a number of recently designed practical counseling methods for use in academic settings. Over 70% of students in North America procrastinate! This new book describes practical counseling methods on procrastination, work habits, productivity, and self-regulation.

    Just 70%?!

    books psychology science

    Science and Poetry on science, language, and ‘the reptilian brain’

    The words we use, even in passing, to describe genes or brains or evolution can lock us into a view of nature that may be meaningful or misleading.

    The brain suffers from plenty of bad language….[In Alchemy of the Mind, Ackerman] indulges in this sort of bad language a lot. One example: she loves referring to our “reptile brain,” as if there was a nub of unaltered neurons sitting at the core of our heads driving our basic instincts. The reality of the brain–and of evolution–is far more complex. The brain of reptilian forerunners of mammals was the scaffolding for a new mammal brain; the old components have been integrated so intimately with our “higher” brain regions that there’s no way to distinguish between the two in any fundamental way. Dopamine is an ancient neurotransmitter that provides a sense of anticipation and reward to other animals, including reptiles. But our most sophisticated abilities for learning abstract rules, carried out in our elaborate prefrontal cortex, depend on rewards of dopamine to lay down the proper connections between neurons. There isn’t a new brain and an old brain working here–just one system. Yet, despite all this, it remains seductive to use a phrase like “reptile brain.” It conjures up lots of meanings. Ackerman floods her book with such language, which I grouse about other bad language in my review.

    Which makes me wonder, as a science writer myself: is all poetry is ultimately dangerous? Does scientific understanding inevitably get abandoned as we turn to the juicy figure of speech?

    I say ‘no’. All language is imprecise to some degree. This is what gives it power- without imprecision you couldn’t have generality. To try and cut out all figures of speech would be to buy into the idea that perfect truth can be expressed in language, which is the sort of absolutist manifesto that leads to fundamentalisms of all sorts (including scienticism).

    A good figure of speech can convey whole worlds of understanding, as well as being part of the fun that you need to motivate you to keep reading. Precision in scientific understanding is like democracy – something to always strive towards without fooling yourself that you’ve ever completely arrived.

    So, yes poetry is dangerous, but so is trying do without it- any dealings with the ostrich-literalism of Creationists will demonstrate that.

    Damn, I’m so liberal sometimes i make me sick.

    The real problem with poetry is that people are given more license to get away with complete nonsense. But then the problem isn’t poetry – it’s nonsense.


    Simple Heuristics That Make Us Smart

    Precis of Simple Heuristics That Make Us Smart, by Gerd Gigerenzer, Peter M. Todd, and the ABC Research Group, Oxford University Press, 1999

    Abstract: How can anyone be rational in a world where knowledge is limited, time is pressing, and deep thought is often an unattainable luxury? Traditional models of unbounded rationality and optimization in cognitive science, economics, and animal behavior have tended to view decision-makers as possessing supernatural powers of reason, limitless knowledge, and endless time. But understanding decisions in the real world requires a more psychologically plausible notion of bounded rationality. In Simple heuristics that make us smart, we explore fast and frugal heuristics–simple rules in the mind’s adaptive toolbox for making decisions with realistic mental resources. These heuristics can enable both living organisms and artificial systems to make smart choices quickly and with a minimum of information by exploiting the way that information is structured in particular environments. In this precis, we show how simple building blocks that control information search, stop search, and make decisions can be put together to form classes of heuristics, including: ignorance-based and one-reason decision making for choice, elimination models for categorization, and satisficing heuristics for sequential search. These simple heuristics perform comparably to more complex algorithms, particularly when generalizing to new data–that is, simplicity leads to robustness. We present evidence regarding when people use simple heuristics and describe the challenges to be addressed by this research program.

    Haven’t read this for a while, and on re-reading this jumped out

    5.1 Exploiting environment structure
    Fast and frugal heuristics can benefit from the way information is structured in environments. The QuickEst heuristic described earlier, for instance (see chapter 10), relies on the skewed distributions of many real-world variables such as city population size–an aspect of environment structure that traditional statistical estimation techniques would either ignore or even try to erase by normalizing the data. Standard statistical models, and standard theories of rationality, aim to be as general as possible, so they make as broad and as few assumptions as possible about the data to which they will be applied. But the way information is structured in real-world environments often does not follow convenient simplifying assumptions. For instance, whereas most statistical models are designed to operate on datasets where means and variances are independent, Karl Pearson (1897) noted that in natural situations these two measures tend to be correlated, and thus each can be used as a cue to infer the other (Einhorn & Hogarth, 1981, p. 66). While general statistical methods strive to ignore such factors that could limit their applicability, evolution would seize upon informative environmental dependencies like this one and exploit them with specific heuristics if they would give a decision-making organism an adaptive edge.

    Because ecological rationality is a consequence of the match between heuristic and environment, we have investigated several instances where structures of environments can make heuristics ecologically rational:

  • Noncompensatory information. The Take The Best heuristic equals or outperforms any linear decision strategy when information is noncompensatory, that is, when the potential contribution of each new cue falls off rapidly (chapter 6).
  • Scarce information. Take The Best outperforms a class of linear models on average when few cues are known relative to the number of objects (chapter 6).
  • J-shaped distributions. The QuickEst heuristic estimates quantities about as accurately as more complex information-demanding strategies when the criterion to be estimated follows a J-shaped distribution, that is, one with many small values and few high values (chapter 10).
  • Decreasing populations. In situations where the set of alternatives to choose from is constantly shrinking, such as in a seasonal mating pool, a satisficing heuristic that commits to an aspiration level quickly will outperform rules that sample many alternatives before setting an aspiration (chapter 13).
    By matching these structures of information in the environment with the structure implicit in their building blocks, heuristics can be accurate without being too complex. In addition, by being simple, these heuristics can avoid being too closely matched to any particular environment–that is, they can escape the curse of overfitting, which often strikes more complex, parameter-laden models, as described next. This marriage of structure with simplicity produces the counterintuitive situations in which there is little trade-off between being fast and frugal and being accurate.

  • Categories
    psychology science

    Three stages of so what

    Three things you can ask when told of a (psychological) phenomenon

    1. Is it true?

    Often you don’t need to look any further than disbelieving what you’ve been told. We only use 10% of our brains. You can remove the mystery implied by simply doubting the assertion. No one is influenced by adverts, so why do they spend money on them Etc. Not true, no mystery, no problem.

    2. Is it real in and of itself?

    Are we talking about something that is real and seperate from other effects we are familiar with, or is it just an consequence of something else (which we’ve already dealt with). You’re told The children of Israeli pilots are 70% boys. It seems to be true- is it worth worrying about? Only if the sex bias in the children born to Israeli pilots continues passed the point it was brought to your attention. Otherwise it’s just selection bias – of all the national & professional groups in the world something statistically unlikely had to happen to one of them, and that’s the one you got told about.

    3. If it is true, and real, is it manifest?

    Lots of phenomenon in psychology can be shown in controlled experiments, but it’s not clear that they manifest in any practical way amoung the noise and confusion of the real world. You’re told movement of light attached to people’s joints creates a powerful subjective impression of a full moving human form.. It’s true. It’s real (probably). Is it any use? Yes – we can use of flourescent markers at the joints of cyclists to tap into the specialised circuitry for figure perception and therefore make cyclists more visible, and thus more safe [1].

    [1] Kwan, Irene; Mapstone, James (2004) Visibility aids for pedestrians and cyclists: a systematic review of randomised controlled trials. Accident analysis and prevention 36(3), 305-312