Saturday, December 29, 2012

Stevie Ray Vaughan at the Montreux Jazz Festival, 1985: The Concert Film

Incredible musician, and an interesting look at a man at the height of his powers and fame. Brought to you by Open Culture.

Stevie Ray Vaughan at the Montreux Jazz Festival, 1985: The Concert Film

December 27th, 2012

In the 1980s, Stevie Ray Vaughan tore through the international music scene like a Texas tornado. His amazingly fluid and dexterous guitar playing on a series of platinum albums established Vaughan as a household name and helped spark a blues revival. But in the summer of 1990 a helicopter he was riding on crashed into a hill in Wisconsin, and the whirlwind had passed.

This concert film captures Vaughan in full force. It was made on July 15, 1985, during Vaughan’s second appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival. His first, in 1982, had seemed like a disaster at the time. Vaughan and his band Double Trouble had never made a record and were virtually unknown outside of Texas in 1982, and their performance at Montreux was met by booing from the some members of the audience. Vaughan was shaken. He had never been booed before. But the 1982 Montreux performance turned out to be the most important of Vaughan’s career, as Chris Gill explains in Guitar World:
David Bowie was in the audience, and he made a point of meeting Vaughan and his manager in the after-hours lounge. John Paul Hammond, the son of record producer John Hammond, also saw the show and asked for a tape of the performance to give to his father. Jackson Browne caught the band’s performance in the after-hours lounge, and he sat in with the group until early the next morning. Within the next few months, Browne invited Vaughan and Double Trouble to his L.A. studio to record a demo, Bowie asked Stevie to appear on his next album [Let's Dance], and John Hammond, who helped develop the careers of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, helped the band sign a deal with Epic Records and offered to produce their debut album. The rest, as the cliché goes, is history.
So the 1985 Montreux appearance was something of a triumphal return for Vaughan. There was no booing this time. Vaughan had a pair of platinum albums under his belt, and he and Double Trouble were touring Europe to promote their third album, Soul to Soul. In the film, Vaughan and the band are introduced by festival founder Claude Nobs, who gave them their big shot in 1982. The trio of Vaughan on guitar and vocals, Tommy Shannon on bass, and Chris Layton on drums had just been expanded to include Reese Wynans on keyboards. They play 13 songs, including three with Texas bluesman Johnny Copeland, who joins them on “Cold Shot,” “Tin Pan Alley” and “Look at Little Sister,” in which Copeland and Vaughan trade blistering guitar solos. Another song, Copeland’s “Don’t Stop By the Creek, Son,” was apparently performed that night but cut from the film. The rest of the concert appears to be intact.

Here’s the set list:

  • Scuttle Buttin’
  • Say What!
  • Ain’t Gone “N’ Give Up on Love
  • Pride and Joy
  • Mary Had a Little Lamb
  • Cold Shot
  • Tin Pan Alley
  • Look at Little Sister
  • Voodoo Child (Slight Return)
  • Texas Flood
  • Life Without You
  • Gone Home
  • Couldn’t Stand the Weather

Related content:

‘Electric Church’: The Jimi Hendrix Experience Live in Stockholm, 1969

Willems and Francken - Embodied Cognition: Taking the Next Step

This article is new from Frontiers in Cognitive Science (open source science and neuroscience writing), one of the group of Frontiers in Psychology publications. In this article, the authors seek to take stock of the current research into embodied cognition (which they feel is too non-specific), and from there they want to formulate directions for how this field can be studied in a more fruitful fashion.

Embodied cognition: taking the next step

Roel M. Willems1,2* and Jolien C. Francken1
1Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, Radboud University Nijmegen, Netherlands2Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen, Netherlands
Recent years have seen a large amount of empirical studies related to “embodied cognition.” While interesting and valuable, there is something dissatisfying with the current state of affairs in this research domain. Hypotheses tend to be underspecified, testing in general terms for embodied versus disembodied processing. The lack of specificity of current hypotheses can easily lead to an erosion of the embodiment concept, and result in a situation in which essentially any effect is taken as positive evidence. Such erosion is not helpful to the field and does not do justice to the importance of embodiment. Here we want to take stock, and formulate directions for how it can be studied in a more fruitful fashion. As an example we will describe few example studies that have investigated the role of sensori-motor systems in the coding of meaning (“embodied semantics”). Instead of focusing on the dichotomy between embodied and disembodied theories, we suggest that the field move forward and ask how and when sensori-motor systems and behavior are involved in cognition.
Full Citation: 
Willems RM and Francken JC (2012) Embodied cognition: taking the next step. Frontiers in Psychology; 3:582. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00582

Here are the first two sections of the paper to give you an idea where the authors are going with this piece.

Introduction: Exciting Embodiment

In the last two decades, cognitive science has embraced the thesis of “embodiment.” Embodied cognition stresses the intertwined nature of thinking and acting, and as such is an antidote to the traditional divide between cognition on the one hand and perception and action on the other. The excitement about embodiment within cognitive science lies mainly in its promise to destroy the traditional “sandwich” (or “hamburger”) model of cognitive processing, with its strict perception-cognition-action scheme (e.g., Hurley, 2001). The sandwich model regards “thinking” as the real stuff (the beef so to say), and takes perception and action as separated slave systems, providing input to cognitive processors (perception) and executing its commands (action).

Instead, embodied cognition stresses that perception and action are directly relevant for our thinking, and that it is a mistake to regard them as separate. The thesis comes in various formats, and a more in depth coverage is beyond the scope of this article (e.g., O’Regan, 1992; Van Gelder, 1995; Clark, 1997; Barsalou, 1999; Wilson, 2002; Noe, 2004;Gallagher, 2005; Wheeler, 2005).

In this paper we want to take stock and see what embodiment has done for a particular research domain in cognitive science, namely the study of semantic representations. With respect to semantic representations, embodied cognition is related to the claim of modality-specific versus abstract representations, in which modality-specific views predict sensori-motor cortex to be constitutive of conceptual representations (see Kiefer and Pulvermüller, 2012 for an excellent recent overview).

This being an opinion paper, it is by no means our intention to give an overview of the field. Instead we highlight certain studies, where we could have chosen others. Of particular importance is that we have chosen to ignore the neuropsychological literature regarding semantic representations (see e.g., Gainotti, 2000; Caramazza and Mahon, 2003;Kiefer and Pulvermüller, 2012).

The Erosion of a Concept: The Case of Embodied Semantics Representations

Often embodied cognition is defined very broadly. When we for example look at experiments investigating “embodied semantics,” an important prediction is that understanding sensori-motor concepts leads to activation of sensori-motor cortices. So when people read about hand and foot actions, parts of the motor cortex involved in moving the hands and the feet are activated (e.g., Hauk et al., 2004; Tettamanti et al., 2005). Although interesting from the sandwich model perspective, it is unfortunate that the main hypothesis often does not go beyond predicting “involvement” of sensori-motor cortices (see also Binder and Desai, 2011; see alsoChatterjee, 2010).

An illustration of this lack of specificity is how easily embodied cognition can capture strikingly different findings. For instance, Buccino et al. (2005)used single-pulse TMS to stimulate the hand or foot/leg motor area while participants were listening to sentences expressing foot and hand actions. Reaction times (RTs) and motor evoked potentials (MEPs) were specifically modulated for the effector involved in the described action: a hand-action-related sentence produced decreased MEPs in the hand area and slower RTs when subjects responded with their hand. The authors conclude that the processing of language modulates the activity of the motor system in an effector specific way. However, in another TMS study with a similar designPulvermuller et al. (2005a) report that faster RTs are observed to hand/arm words after stimulation of the hand area.

It is striking that although the results are opposite (slower versus faster RTs), both are taken as confirmation of the embodied semantics theory. Instead, the researchers could have elaborated more about the reason of their divergent findings. For instance, maybe the differences arise because the interference occurs at a decision making level after semantic analysis (Mahon and Caramazza, 2008; Chatterjee, 2010). By formulating more specific hypotheses, e.g., here on the direction of the effect and the underlying mechanism, these findings could have been more informative. It strikes us as disappointing to not go beyond the conclusion of involvementof cortical motor areas; the pattern of results suggests that something more interesting is going on than motor cortex activation in response to action words. One is left with the question what result would be taken as evidence against embodied cognition?

Another sign of an underspecified theory is that similar findings can be interpreted as evidence in favor as well as against embodiment. Take the studies of Saygin et al. (2010) and Bedny et al. (2008).

First, Saygin et al. showed activation of perceptual (visual) areas when subjects were reading sentences describing motion. More specifically, they found increased BOLD levels in motion sensitive area MT+ when participants read sentences like “The wild horse crossed the barren field” versus “The black horse stood in the barren field” (Saygin et al., 2010). Second, in the study of Bedny et al. participants judged pairs of words that implied motion (animals, e.g., “the horse,” “the dog”), had intermediate implied motion (tools, e.g., “the sword,” “the axe”), or had little implied motion (natural kinds, e.g., “the bush,” “the pebble”). These authors did not find modulation of MT+ activity for words with different motion ratings. Regions within posterior lateral temporal cortex were more active when comparing verbs and nouns, independent of the amount of motion associations of the words.

A general theory of embodiment would have predicted both studies to find modulation in area MT+ related to amount of motion expressed in the materials. The fact that the one study does observe such modulation, and the other does not is an interesting clue to the context-dependence of sensory cortex activations during language comprehension or as Saygin et al. (2010) p. 2486) put it: “the choice of task and stimuli can influence the power to detect modulations of MT+ by linguistic events.” Instead, what happens is that one set of authors interpret their findings as in line with embodied cognition, and the other set of authors interprets their findings as evidence against embodiment, since they show that retrieval of sensory motor features is not obligatory during word comprehension (Bedny et al., 2008). The differences in their findings can probably be attributed to the differences in design. However, both studies generalize their results to the question of whether it supports an embodied or disembodied account, and it is in this interpretation stage that opposite conclusions are drawn.

Many experiments are driven by the “embodied versus disembodied” distinction. This is not a fruitful approach, and in the next section we will show that such a broad distinction does not do justice to the experimental findings that are available. To foreshadow our conclusion: Instead of quarreling about embodied versus disembodied, the field should take the next step and ask the question when and how sensori-motor cortices play a role in understanding.

Brain Science Podcast - Neuroscience Highlights for 2012 (BSP 92)

Dr. Ginger Campbell, devotes this month's Brain Science Podcast to a review of the guests and topics she has covered in 2012. The guest list is impressive: Patricia Churchland, PhD, William Uttal, PhD, Christof Koch, PhD, Sebastian Seung, PhD, Rachel Herz, PhD, Pamela Greenwood, PhD, Terrence Deacon, PhD, Bruce Hood, PhD, Evan Thompson, PhD, and Jaak Panksepp, PhD.


Neuroscience Highlights for 2012 (BSP 92)

The Brain Science Podcast recently passed 4 million downloads and it remains entrenched at or near the top of the iTunes rankings for Science and Medicine. So now it's time for our 6th Annual Review Episode. The purpose of this year-ending podcast is to review some of the year's highlights and key ideas. As I reviewed the transcripts of this year's episodes I was struck by the fact that although each episode stands alone, they also inform one another. One unifying theme was the importance of taking an evolutionary approach to understanding how the human brain generates complex features like mind and consciousness.

Listen to Episode 92

Episode Transcript (Coming Soon!)

Interviews have become an outstanding feature of the Brain Science Podcast. This year I interviewed 10 scientist, including five who have appeared in past podcasts. Here is a list of this year's guests: 
# Indicates returning guest. See Guest List for previous episode.
* See the Bibliography page for books featured on the Brain Science Podcast.

In addition to discussing the books by these guests, I also reviewed Who's in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain by Michael S. Gazzaniga and Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain by Antonio Damasio.

Related Episodes:
  • BSP 32: Brief Introduction to Brain Anatomy
  • BSP 47: Basics of Brain Evolution
  • BSP 57: Chris Frith, author of Making up the Mind: How the Brain Creates Our Mental World
  • BSP 67: Thomas Metzinger, author of The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self

Friday, December 28, 2012

Top Brain, Psychology, and Neuroscience Stories from 2012, Part Three

These stories come from three sources - Forbes, BPS Psychology, and PsyBlog. Many of these stories appeared here or in my Facebook feed, and several more are pieces I had missed.

This is the third and final part of the series, a collection of the best stories from 2012 that appeared on the British Psychological Society (BPS) Research Digest site. As an added bonus, they also published a timeline of top stories from each month.

Our ten most popular posts of 2012

Post compiled by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest

1. Why do children hide by covering their eyes?

"Together with the fact that it was the concealment of the eyes that seemed to be the crucial factor for feeling hidden, the researchers wondered if the children's invisibility beliefs were based around the idea that there must be eye contact between two people - a meeting of gazes - for them to see each other (or at least, to see their "selves")."

2. Why do humans walk in circles?

"Bestaven's team said this suggests that our propensity to walk in circles is related in some way to slight irregularities in the vestibular system. Located in inner ear, the vestibular system guides our balance and minor disturbances here could skew our sense of the direction of "straight ahead" just enough to make us go around in circles."

3. Pop music is getting sadder and more emotionally ambiguous

"Schellenberg and von Scheve found that the proportion of songs recorded in minor-mode has increased, doubling over the last fifty years. The proportion of slow tempo hits has also increased linearly, reaching a peak in the 90s."

4. You're most creative when you're at your groggiest

"Here's the headline result: the students were much more successful at solving the insight problems when the time of testing coincided with their least optimal time of functioning."

5. Introducing "enclothed cognition" - how what we wear affects how we think

"Participants who donned a lab coat performed significantly better than others who merely saw a lab coat on the desk (thus suggesting the enclothed effect is more powerful than mere priming) or others who wore the same kind of coat but were told it belonged to a painter."

6. Made it! An uncanny number of psychology findings manage to scrape into statistical significance

"The pattern of results could be indicative of dubious research practices, in which researchers nudge their results towards significance, for example by excluding troublesome outliers or adding new participants. Or it could reflect a selective publication bias in the discipline - an obsession with reporting results that have the magic stamp of statistical significance. Most likely it reflects a combination of both these influences."

7. Why you should watch a horror film before going to the art gallery

Feeling afraid enhances the sublime power of art. "The capacity for a work of art to grab our interest and attention, to remove us from daily life, may stem from its ability to trigger our evolved mechanisms for coping with danger," the researchers said.

8. What your Facebook picture says about your cultural background

"Regardless of their current location, there was a significant association between cultural background and style of Facebook picture. Facebook users originally hailing from Taiwan were more likely to have a zoomed-out picture in which they were seen against a background context. Users from the USA, by contrast, were more likely to have a close-up picture in which their face filled up more of the frame."

9. Total recall: The man who can remember every day of his life in detail

"For most of us, it's tricky enough to remember what we were doing this time last week, let alone on some random day years ago. But for a blind 20-year-old man referred to by researchers as HK, every day of his life since the age of about eleven is recorded in his memory in detail."

10. Facebook or Twitter: What does your choice of social networking site say about you?

"The researchers interpreted these patterns as suggesting that Facebook users seek and share information as a way of avoiding more cognitively demanding sources such as journal articles and newspaper reports. Twitter users, by contrast, use the site for its cognitive stimulation - as a way of uncovering useful information and material without socialising (this was particularly true for older participants)."

* * * * *

And here is the "at-a-glance" timeline for BPS Research Digest stories from 2012:

Your at-a-glance guide to psychology in 2012

Milgram, Freud, Scandal and Sport, here's the Psychological Year in Review.

Post compiled by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Jan - <>Hertfordshire police said they'd completed a successful trial using the polygraph with convicted sex offenders. The test, which measures physiological arousal, has a poor reputation among psychological scientists. Aldert Vrij at the University of Portsmouth said it is "atheoretical and inaccurate". <>Figures from December showing a dramatic rise in anti-depressant medications continued to attract controversy. The mainstream media said it was a sign of the recession affecting our mental health. Ben Goldacre and others disagreed.

Feb - <>New data suggested Little Albert was brain damaged. <>There was huge interest in a new study showing that brain activity could be decoded to reveal the words a person had heard. <>The film A Dangerous Method was released, about the relationship between Freud and Jung. <>Numerous psychologists joined other thinkers in answering the annual Edge question: "What is your favourite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?". <>Twitter activity was found to predict the impact of science journals. <>The NYT noticed the rising wave of psychotherapy apps. <>Ulric Neisser passed away.

March - <>A row erupted over replications in psychology after a US professor reacted angrily to a failed replication of one of his seminal papers. <>The Maudsley/IoP debated whether psychoanalysis has a place in the modern NHS. <>The UK Government's Behavioural Insight Team said millions of pounds could be saved by using psychological insights to combat fraud and error. <>The Office for National Statistics (ONS) released its first data on the nation's wellbeing. <>An article was published on the last of the split-brain patients.

April - <>The Levelt committee at the University of Tilburg published thepreliminary results from its investigation into the fraud by Diederik Stapel. <>The Psychologist published an opinion special issue on the importance of replication. <>The UK's first ever "happiness weekend" took place at Wellington college. <>The British Psychological Society launched its Origins project - charting the history of the discipline. <>Neuroscience writer Jonah Lehrer published his eagerly awaited book on creativity - Imagine. <>Channel 4 began a new show about people's hidden psychological talents.

May - <>Oxford University opened a new lab, "the Oxford Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour". <>A paper was published based on a replication of Milgram on a French TV quiz show. <>A survey of the media's treatment of neuroscience found that findings are often misrepresented for ideological ends. <>The British Psychological Society launched a sports psychology portal in anticipation of the Olympic Games. <>Researchers in the USA attempted to simulate the brain damage suffered by Phineas Gage. <>The "disappearing hand trick" won the year's prize for best illusion.

June - <>A trial of parenting classes began in England. <>A report by a cross-party group of MPs claimed half the UK population has a negative body image. <>The British Psychological Society published its concerns about the planned changes to psychiatry's diagnostic code (DSM-5). <>A meta-analysis claimed that working memory training fails to bring broader benefits. <>Crowdsourcing was said to be transforming the science of psychology. <>A close-up photo of the surface of a living human brain won the Wellcome Trust image awards. <>The Psychologist published a feature article on the psychology of competition in anticipation of the London Olympic games in July.

July - <>The Erasmus University of Rotterdam found one of their top social psychologists, Dirk Smeesters, guilty of "data selection" and failing to keep suitable data records. <>Chartered Psychologist Lih-Mei Liao, was part of a team behind a new animated documentary about labiaplasty. <>Pioneering occupational psychologist Harry Levinson passed away. <>An LA-Times op-ed urged people to stop bullying the social sciences. Another said psychology isn't a science (oh yes it is). <>Social psychologist Lawrence Sanna resigned his post under the cloud of scandal. <>Newsweek said the Internet is making us crazy. <>Plans were announced for the polygraph test to be rolled out nationally in England and Wales. <>George Miller passed away. <>Jonah Lehrer resigned his position at the New Yorker after admitting he'd fabricated some Bob Dylan quotes in his book Imagine.

August - <>More data were published showing anti-depressant prescriptions on the rise. <>A murder trial judge in the US ruled that fMRI-based lie-detection evidence was inadmissible. <>Cambridge University merged its two psychology departments into one - "Experimental Psychology" and "Social and Developmental Psychology". <>The first annual results from the ONS well-being survey found that three quarters of people aged over 16 rated their overall life satisfaction as 7 or more (out of 10).

September - <>The winners of the latest annual Ig Nobel Awards were announced, including a study that brain scanned a dead salmon and another that showed leaning to the left makes the Eiffel Tower appear smaller. <>Nature published an editorial lamenting the lack of investment in research into ways to improve the effectiveness of psychological therapy. <>The Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP) published an open letter to its members urging them to "make discussions of ethical behavior part of the everyday discussion in your lab." <>The Commission on Media Violence concluded that "research clearly shows that media violence consumption increases the relative risk of aggression."

October - <>The UK Home Office announced that it’s widening the cross-government definition of domestic violence, to take into account psychological factors. <>Thomas Szasz passed away. <>Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman wrote an open letter to social psychologists. <>The board of directors at the Great Ape Trust in Iowa placed the celebrated primatologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh on "administrative leave". <>A neurosurgeon claimed that he died and went to heaven (and back) while suffering from a brain infection. <>British psychiatrist David Healy told the American Psychiatric Association that the profession is committing "professional suicide" by failing to deal with its close relationship with the pharmaceutical industry. <>Positive psychology mourned the passing of Christopher Petersen. A study into why children hide by covering their eyes becomes the most popular item on the Digest blog since records started.

November - <>Labour leader Ed Miliband gave a speech to the Royal College of Psychiatrists about mental illness, which he described as the "biggest unaddressed health challenge of our age". <>Nate Silver predicted the outcome of the US presidential election using number-crunching techniques. <>The Schizophrenia Commission published the results of its year-long investigation into the state of care for patients in England with schizophrenia, finding them to be "badly let down". <>The Effect, a play about depression and the inadequacy of neuropharmacological explanations, opened at the Cottesloe Theatre, London, to rave reviews.

December - <>An American Psychiatric Association working party approved the proposed changes to its diagnostic code (DSM-5), due for publication next May. <>A law change was proposed to reflect the psychological harm caused by sexual offences. <>The Commons home affairs select committee calls for a fundamental review of UK drugs policy. <>The British Psychological Society's Research Digest published its first handy guide to the psychological year in review.

January - ?

Changing Values: The Global Transformation of Values Has Already Begun

The following is a section from the German Advisory Council on Climate Change (WGBU) report, World in Transition: A Social Contract for Sustainability. They identify in this study some wide-scale values change - perhaps a move toward a more worldcentric perspective - that the identify as "post-materialistic." I posted an outline earlier today - here - which links to the full 400-page PDF file of the study.

Changing Values: The Global Transformation of Values Has Already Begun

In the following, the WBGU brings forward a twofold argument. Firstly, that the necessary transformation into a low-carbon society already corresponds to some of the prevalent attitudes and value systems in many of the world’s countries (Box 2.1-1). Secondly, that the transformation can therefore be viewed as a positive factor in the sense of increasing subjective life satisfaction for large parts of the population. 

Value systems are always linked to cultural and social context. In pluralistic societies, they are ‘negotiated’, i.e. hotly debated, against the background of practical problems and dilemmas. Value conflicts are just as normal as distribution conflicts, and – always assuming that they are carried out peacefully and solved amicably – promote social change and cultural innovation (Dahrendorf, 1957). Any kind of reflexion on the development progress and transformation chances of today’s societies must start with empirically proven values and attitudes. This highlights many issues, such as: what are the value systems in the poor and in the wealthy regions of the world, and how do they differ? And, again region-specific, how is the relationship between the goal of (increasing) material wealth on the one hand, and postmaterialist ideals of self-expression and consideration of the natural environment on the other, developing? What rank is accorded to the growth of both national economies and the global economy in relation to environmental and climate protection?

Since the beginning of the modern era, attitudes and considerations inspired by personal benefit maximisation have established themselves. With the advent of industrial mass production, the ‘good life’ has increasingly become synonymous with material wealth. In the course of the ‘Great Transformation’ (Polanyi, 1944), the economy has been extensively disembedded from its relation to society and life worlds. This functional differentiation of the economic system has lent it an autonomy that has made possible a previously unimagined extent of productivity growth. However, it has also led to the whole social order being subjected to economic principles (Schimank, 2009). This is (only) the case once market principles affect all other subsystems (such as politics, culture, family, etc.) thereby turning rational cost-benefit analysis into the interpretation pattern that determines the actions of society as a whole. This focusing of individual and collective attitudes and preferences has had as much of a determining impact on the self-definition and self-observation of developed industrialised societies as it has on the implementation of socio-economic modernisation in most of the developing societies in the south. This generalisation (or tunnel vision) means that the aspects of a ‘good life’ and sustainable development have become secondary.

Nevertheless, a rethinking process seems to be currently taking place in many parts of society in a great number of countries; just one example from Germany to highlight this, and prove the point: according to a survey published in the autumn of 2010, carried out by the Emnid Institute and commissioned by the Bertelsmann Foundation, a significant part of the German population views growth and capitalism with scepticism: a mere third of Germany’s citizens believes that growth will automatically impact positively on their own personal quality of life. Immaterial values such as social justice or environmental protection are accorded so much importance that they influence the attitude Germans have towards the economic system; for example, 88 percent of respondents think that the current system is not suitable for taking environmental protection, resource conservation, and social redistribution, adequately into account. The majority would like a ‘new economic system’, and does not really believe in the resilience and crisis resistance of purely marketdriven economic systems. Particularly younger Germans do not trust the market’s self-restorative powers, and call for improved compatibility between economic growth and environmental protection. The survey substantiates that in Germany, postmaterialist thinking is by no means limited to the well-off and educated. For the majority of respondents, health, social relationships and environmental status were deemed to be far more important sources of personal quality of life than ‘increasing money and wealth’ (Figure 2.1-1). 75 % of respondents with higher education entrance qualifications, and 69 % of respondents with a mere school leaving certificate, agreed with the statement ‘I consider wealth to be less important than environmental protection and debt reduction’ (Bertelsmann Foundation, 2010).

The increasingly sceptical view of the current economic system’s performance and its externalities rests not least on the realisation of the system’s social costs that result from economic activities relying on short term benefits and gains (Section 1.1), but also on the improvements of material wealth in low-income household settings, leaving space for alternative, postmaterialist value-orientations and lifestyles. These have emerged from the eco (or green) niche, and – as will be shown in the following – are now increasingly determining general perspectives; this also applies in economically less developed regions.

Box 2.1-1: Values, Attitudes and Opinions

The terms ‘values’, ‘attitudes’ and ‘opinions’ have different meanings in psychology, sociology and political sciences (see Häcker and Stapf, 1994). For the most part, it is assumed that attitudes are based on values, and that these attitudes influence people's behaviour, even if research (Eckes and Six, 1994) assumes that there is no particularly close connection between attitudes and behaviour. In this report, the WBGU uses these terms as follows:

1. Personal and cultural values: According to Kluckhohn (1951), values are a shared perception of something worth having or striving for. Cultural values therefore refer to something that has evolved socio-culturally, something that exists independent of individuals. Personal values, on the other hand, refer to the subjective concepts of desire and specific value orientation. Personal values or value orientation therefore describe the individuals' relatively stable preferences with regard to different values (Häcker and Stapf, 1994).

2. Attitudes: Contrary to the rather abstract ‘values’ and ‘value systems’, attitudes relate to certain objects, people (groups), ideas and ideologies, or specific situations (Häcker and Stapf, 1994). Attitudes represent evaluation and action tendencies with regard to attitude objects, and are usually stable in the medium-term. They are therefore neither long-term value systems, nor short-term intentions.

3. Opinions: Are generally considered to be the verbalisation of attitudes and values (Rokeach, 1968). Attitudes are usually measured by several items, i. e. asking carefully selected questions and statements which are indicators for certain attitudes to evaluate one attitude object, thereby ensuring that the results are reliable.

The Dalai Lama - Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life - Day 1

This is the morning session of a four-day teaching from the Dalai Lama on a Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life, delivered December 24-27, 2012 in Delhi, India. This post will contain the two lectures from day one.

The Dalai Lama - Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life - Delhi, 2012, Day 1
Morning session of the first day of His Holiness the Dalai Lama's four day teaching on Shantideva's "Guide to a Bodhisattva's Way of Life" given at the request of a group from Russia in Delhi, India, on December 24-27, 2012. His Holiness speaks in Tibetan followed by an English translation.

Afternoon session of the first day of His Holiness the Dalai Lama's four day teaching on Shantideva's "Guide to a Bodhisattva's Way of Life" given at the request of a group from Russia in Delhi, India, on December 24-27, 2012. His Holiness speaks in Tibetan followed by an English translation.

John Thackara - Individual Change Agents Play a Central Role as Drivers of Transformation

Writing for Observatory, John Thackara breaks down a new 400-page report from the German Advisory Council on Climate Change (WGBU), World in Transition: A Social Contract for Sustainability. One of the key findings in his analysis is the recognition that "individual actors and change agents play a far larger role as drivers of transformation’ than they’ve been given credit for in the past." 

The study also found that in many countries around the world capitalism is viewed with skepticism (including Germany, South Korea, Mexico, Brazil, India, and China), and that in these countries the citizens are concerned about the global environment and would welcome a new economic system that is sensitive to its environmental impact.

The study refers to this shift in values as "post-materialist thinking." Sounds good to me.

German Government Think-Tank Supports Fringe Change Agents

Posted 12.07.12 | John Thackara

Phases of social diffusion of ideas and behaviours, and the roles of change agents in the transformation process. Source: WGBU 

Good news from Germany: A ‘global transformation of values has already begun’. It’s proving tough to leverage changing attitudes into sustainable behaviour — but a transition to a more sustainable society ‘would be welcomed by a significant part of world society’.

In a 400-page report called World in Transition: A Social Contract for Sustainability, the German Advisory Council on Climate Change (WGBU), the heavyweight scientific body that advises the German Federal Government on ‘Earth System Megatrends’, reviewed a wide-range of values surveys. A significant majority of the German population, it found, views growth and capitalism with scepticism and ‘does not believe in the resilience of market-driven economic systems’.

This post-materialist thinking is not limited to the well­-off and educated. In South Korea, Mexico, Brazil, India, and China, the report also found, a significant majority supports ambitious climate protection measures, and ‘would welcome a new economic system’ to achieve that.

A key barrier to change is that value systems are often ‘abstract concepts perceived as an hypothetical area of life’. Other obstacles include a lack of long-term orientation in policy; loss aversion; path dependencies; distorted fiscal incentives; the ‘lock-in effect’ of existing systems; plus laws and institutional inertia.

Seeking inspiration, the report examines how great transformations happened in the past: the abolition of slavery; the green revolution in agriculture; the spread of the internet.

A key conclusion here is that ‘individual actors and change agents play a far larger role as drivers of transformation’ than they’ve been given credit for in the past.

The most effective change agents, states the report, ‘stimulate the latent willingness to act by questioning business as usual policies’. They also put open questions and challenges on the agenda, and embody alternative practices in the ways they work.

Change agents, the think tank finds, ‘tend to frequent the margins of society where unorthodox thinkers and outsiders are to be found’. Grassroots initiatives are especially important source; this is because ‘local actors can refer to context bound knowledge’ and ‘appreciate what will work under specific local conditions, and what will not’.

The report then asks: ‘How can these insular individual actors reach the critical mass required to transform the relationship between humankind and nature?.’

At this point our interest peaked — but the WGBU muse fell silent: No concrete ideas are proposed.

So here’s one from us: if the German Federal Government is minded to support the Doors of Perception network of margin-dwelling individuals — well, we’re minded to accept.

World in Transition: A Social Contract for Sustainability, German Advisory Council on Climate Change (WGBU) (2011)

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The First Live Performance of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (1991)

As a Nirvana fan, it's really cool to see the first live performance of one of their classic songs, nearly two years before the song would propel their major label debut album to #1 on the music charts, knocking Michael Jackson from that spot.

Here is an MTV article on the 20th Anniversary of the song's debut on that network.

As a non-Nirvana fan, this probably sounds like noise.

The First Live Performance of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (1991)

December 26th, 2012

It’s over 20 years ago now that Nirvana’s video for “Smells like Teen Spirit” debuted on MTV’s 120 Minutes and, for better or worse, inaugurated the grunge era. The video arrived as a shock and a thrill to a generation too young to remember punk and sick of the steady stream of cheesy corporate dance music and hair metal that characterized the late-80s. For everyone outside the small Seattle scene that nurtured them and the tape-trading kids in the know, the band seemed to arrive out of nowhere as a total angst-ridden package, and the MTV video, by first-time director Samuel Bayer, seemed bracingly anarchic and raw at the time.

But a look at the first live performance of “Teen Spirit” (above) makes it seem pretty tame by comparison. The video’s a little grainy and low-res, which suits the song just fine. Live, “Teen Spirit’s” disturbing undertones are more pronounced, its quiet-loud dynamics more forceful, and the energy of the crowd is real, not the thrashing around of a bunch of teenage extras. Not a cheerleader in sight, but I think this would have grabbed me more than the pep rally-riot-themed MTV video did when it debuted a few months later. Despite their anti-corporate stance, Nirvana was a casualty of their own success, eaten up by the machinery they despised. Their best moments are still the unscripted and unpredictable. For contrast, zip back to 1991 and watch the MTV video below. Also don’t miss Nirvana’s Home Videos: An Intimate Look at the Band’s Life Away From the Spotlight (1988).

~ Josh Jones is a writer and scholar currently completing a dissertation on landscape, literature, and labor. This video makes him feel old.

Top Brain, Psychology, and Neuroscience Stories from 2012, Part Two

These stories come from three sources - Forbes, BPS Psychology, and PsyBlog. Many of these stories appeared here or in my Facebook feed, and several more are pieces I had missed.

This collection, part two of a series, comes from PsyBlog's 10 Most Popular Psychological Insights From 2012. PsyBlog is created and written by Jeremy Dean, who is currently a researcher at University College London, working towards a PhD, having previously completed an MSc in Research Methods in Psychology at the same institution.

I'm just posting the 10 Psychological Insights - follow the title link to Dean's site to read the whole post. Or you can just read the stories you are interested in by following the link for each of the 10 items.

PsyBlog’s 10 Most Popular Psychological Insights From 2012

How the mind works, the dark side of creativity and how to be a great leader: these and more...

Here's my review of the psychological insights covered here on PsyBlog in 2012 that have proved most popular with you, the readers.

BPS Research Digest - The Best Psychology Books of 2012

I will do my own version of this list soon, but for now here the list from the British Psychology Society Research Digest. From this list, I've read Haidt's The Righteous Mind and I am currently reading Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon, which is (so far) an interesting book, and a little different than I had expected.

The best psychology books of 2012

Saturday, 8 December 2012

It's the season for Christmas book lists and we've trawled through them, looking for the psychology-themed tomes earning a recommendation.

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by psychologist Jonathan Haidt - listed by the Sunday Times as one of their favourite thought-provoking books of the year (also chosen by the Guardian as a top psychology book).

In the same Sunday Times category was listed Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain, which also won GoodReads vote for best non-fiction of the year.

In its list of the over-looked non-fiction books of the year Slate highlights The Wisdom of Psychopaths by psychologist Kevin Dutton: a "terrifically entertaining and chilling book".

Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty and the Mad Doctors of Victorian England by Sarah Wise (Bodley Head, £20) - Sebastian Faulks for the Daily Telegraph recommended it, saying "it is an illuminating look at an area of social history that inspired Wilkie Collins among others".

Internal Time: Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and Why You’re So Tired by Till Roenneberg was chosen by Brain Pickings as one of the best science books of the year.

This year's British Psychological Society book award went to Dorling Kindersley's The Psychology Book: "An innovative and accessible guide designed for readers new to psychology."

In Amazon's list of the best non-fiction books of the year was The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg.

Barnes and Noble listed Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon as one of the best non-fiction books of the year: "This crucial and revelatory book expands our definition of what it is to be human." (also chosen by the NYT as one of the 10 best books of the year).

The Guardian published a list of the best psychology books of the year, highlighting Beyond Human Nature by Jesse J Prinz: "shows how on most of the points on which evolutionary psychologists like to reflect, humans are shaped far more by their culture than by nature."

The Sunday Times chose Pieces of Light: The New Science of Memory by psychologist Charles Fernyhough as one of their favourite science books of the year: "a book about memory that is also a memoir".

The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: Risk-taking, Gut Feelings and the Biology of Boom and Bust, by John Coates was listed by the Daily Telegraph as one of the year's best science books: "No one is better qualified to analyse the biology of banking than Coates, a trader turned neuroscientist."

Last but not least, James Gleick's The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood won this year's Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books: "tells the story of information technologies that changed the very nature of human consciousness."

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Dr. Gabor Maté on the Stress-Disease Connection, Addiction and the Destruction of American Childhood

From Democracy Now! Here are three excellent interviews with  Dr. Gabor Maté on the Stress-Disease Connection, Addiction, and the Destruction of American Childhood (as one might guess from the title).

Dr. Maté is the bestselling author of four books: When the Body Says No: Understanding the Stress-Disease Connection (2011); Scattered: How Attention Deficit Disorder Originates and What You Can Do about It (2000); and, with Dr. Gordon Neufeld, Hold on to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More than Peers (2006); and his best known work, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction (2010).

There is a short one minute, or so, introduction and then the three interviews, all from 2010, come up when the intro is done.

Dr. Gabor Maté on the Stress-Disease Connection, Addiction and the Destruction of American Childhood

Today, a Democracy Now! special with the Canadian physician and bestselling author, Dr. Gabor Maté. From disease to addiction, parenting to attention deficit disorder, Maté’s work focuses on the centrality of early childhood experiences to the development of the brain, and how those experiences can impact everything from behavioral patterns to physical and mental illness. While the relationship between emotional stress and disease, and mental and physical health more broadly, is often considered controversial within medical orthodoxy, Maté argues too many doctors seem to have forgotten what was once a commonplace assumption, that emotions are deeply implicated in both the development of illness, addictions and disorders, and in their healing. [includes rush transcript]

First Interview:
In our first conversation, Dr. Maté talked about his work as the staff physician at the Portland Hotel in Vancouver, Canada, a residence and harm reduction facility in Downtown Eastside, a neighborhood with one the densest concentrations of drug addicts in North America. The Portland hosts the only legal injection site in North America, a center that’s come under fire from Canada’s Conservative government. I asked Dr. Maté to talk about his patients.

Second Interview:
In that first interview, we touched briefly on his work on attention deficit disorder, the subject of his book. Well, just about a month ago, we had Dr. Maté back on Democracy Now! to talk more about ADD, as well as parenting, bullying, the education system, and how a litany of stresses on the family environment is leading to what he calls the "destruction of the American childhood."

Third Interview:
Dr. Maté came on Democracy Now! this year to discuss his book When the Body Says No: Understanding the Stress-Disease Connection. Based on medical studies and his own experience with chronically ill patients at the Palliative Care Unit at Vancouver Hospital, where he was the medical coordinator for seven years, Dr. Maté argues that stress and individual emotional makeup play critical roles in an array of diseases, including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, multiple sclerosis and arthritis. Speaking to us this time from Vancouver — it was actually during the Vancouver Olympics — Dr. Maté began by explaining his analysis of the mind-body connection.

Top Brain, Psychology, and Neuroscience Stories from 2012

These stories come from three sources - Forbes, BPS Psychology, and PsyBlog. Many of these stories appeared here or in my Facebook feed, and several more are pieces I had missed.

For the first collection - this one comes from Forbes and was compiled by science and technology contributor David DiSalvo. Good list - to me the best story of these 10 is that Dr. Robert L. Spitzer finally recanted his research on reparative therapy and asked the Archives of Sexual Behavior, where his APA presentation from 2001 was published in 2003, to retract it. A lot of damage has been done already because of this paper, but at least he asked the journal to retract the paper.

The next collections will be posted tomorrow and Friday.

Forbes: The Top 10 Brain Science and Psychology Stories of 2012

David DiSalvo, Contributor

I write about science, technology, and the cultural ripples of both.


This is the fourth year that I’ve chronicled some of the best brain science and psychology stories from the past 12 months, and every year it gets a little harder because the amount of research published each month just keeps growing. So this year, I’m narrowing the list by choosing the top 10 stories covered on Neuropsyched in 2012. I’ve focused on pieces covering research and research-spawned developments (in other words, there aren’t any top 10 lists in this top 10 list).

1. Humans Aren’t the Only Apes that Have a Midlife Crisis

Withdrawal, frustration, sadness — all are considered hallmarks of the human midlife crisis. Until now, the collection of factors cited as bringing on the angst have included societal and economic pressures that exert psychological forces strong enough to bend our lives into the famous U-shaped curve of happiness.

But research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences could drastically alter those assumptions by bringing another no-less-ominous factor to the table: biology. It seems our cousins the great apes also experience midlife crises, and they don’t need the allure of a new Lexus or hair transplants to get them there.

First, let’s put the midlife crisis in perspective with what has been the accepted definition for many years. By midlife, the challenges of achievement have wound down and been replaced by responsibilities like raising a family, paying for a house, and trying to climb the next tenuous wrung on the corporate ladder. Taken altogether, these pressures drop us to the bottom of the U in the U-shaped curve of happiness.

But then, after what could be 10-15 years or more, the pressures start letting up. The burdens become less arduous, and we start our ascent from the bottom of the U into happier days when we experience more freedom to pursue what makes us fulfilled.

If social / psychological explanations were solely adequate for enlightening human behavior, the description I just gave could live on forever more. Good thing there are a few other primates on the planet to set us straight.

Researchers Andrew Oswald, a behavioral economist from the University of Warick and Alexander Weiss, a primatologist from the University ofEdinburgh, assembled an international team of experts to conduct a “well-being census” of 336 chimpanzees and 172 orangutans of all ages living in research facilities and zoos spanning five countries.

The team worked with the primates’ keepers and asked them to complete questionnaires designed to assess the mood, pleasure-seeking drive, and other personality traits of the apes across each of their life spans. The keepers were also asked to assess how effective each ape was in achieving the human equivalent of goals — becoming dominant, winning a mate, or learning to use a tool or toy in a novel way.

The results of these and other questions were analyzed and composite well-being scores were plotted along the apes’ life spans. As it turns out, they also have a distinctive U-shaped curve, and it looks a lot like ours. Around the age of 30, the approximate midpoint of an average chimp’s or orangutan’s life span, the apes experienced less energy, lowered moods, less willingness to engage with the group, and less gumption to achieve anything new.

What this finding tells us is that we have every reason to believe that biology exerts a strong influence in the human midlife crisis as well, although it’s not exactly clear why. Neurobiology, among other disciplines, now has the stage to carry on new research that could eventually unlock the reasons.

“This opens a whole new box in the effort to explain the midlife dip in well-being,” Andrew Oswald told the L.A.Times. “It makes one’s head spin.”

2. Receiving a Compliment has Same Effect as Receiving Cash

Compliments may not pay the rent, but according to new research, they help improve performance in a similar way to receiving a cash reward. 

Caroline von Tuempling/Getty Images

Researchers recruited 48 adults for the study who were asked to learn and perform a specific finger pattern (pushing keys on a keyboard in a particular sequence as fast as possible in 30 seconds). Once participants had learned the finger exercise, they were separated into three groups.

One group included an evaluator who would compliment participants individually; another group involved individuals who would watch another participant receive a compliment; and the third group involved individuals who evaluated their own performance on a graph.

When the participants were asked to repeat the finger exercise the next day, the group of participants who received direct compliments from an evaluator performed significantly better than participants from the other groups. The result indicates that receiving a compliment after exercising stimulated the individuals to perform better even a full day afterward.

According to Professor Norihiro Sadato, the study lead and professor at the National Institute for Physiological Sciences in Japan, ”To the brain, receiving a compliment is as much a social reward as being rewarded money. We’ve been able to find scientific proof that a person performs better when they receive a social reward after completing an exercise. Complimenting someone could become an easy and effective strategy to use in the classroom and during rehabilitation.”

The researchers had previously discovered that the same area of the brain affected in this study, the striatum, is activated when a person is rewarded a compliment or cash.

Why might this happen? Odd as it may sound, the answer is probably closely related to the function of sleep. Researchers theorize that complimenting someone’s efforts acts as a catalyst for better “skill consolidation” during sleep. To account for the sleep variable, researchers in this study kept close tabs on the duration and quality of sleep of the participants. From this and previous studies, it seems as though praise provides the right memory boost for the brain to more efficiently consolidate learning while we’re snoozing. Receiving a cash incentive appears to trigger the same effect.

The practical takeaway: if you’re in a position of authority (manager, teacher, etc), be sure to use compliments (and/or spot bonuses) as a means to encourage learning new skills. You may find that your underlings come back the next day with surprising improvements.

The study was published in the open-access journal PLOS One.

3. Could We One Day Switch Off Bad Habits in Our Brains?

Imagine one day being able to consult with a doctor about “switching off” your smoking habit with a day of outpatient surgery.

That’s the possibility raised by a new study conducted by MIT neuroscientists aimed at finding the master switch in the brain that controls habits. Researchers found that a small region of the brain’s prefrontal cortex, where most thought and planning occurs, is responsible for moment-by-moment control of which habits are switched on at a given time.

“We’ve always thought — and I still do — that the value of a habit is you don’t have to think about it. It frees up your brain to do other things,” says Institute Professor Ann Graybiel, a member of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT. “However, it doesn’t free up all of it. There’s some piece of your cortex that’s still devoted to that control.”

As we’re all well aware, old habits die hard, and that’s because they are deeply wired into our brains. That’s great in some cases because it allows our brain to expend energy on other things while a habitual behavior, such as driving to work, occurs with very little thought required. But in other cases habits can wreak havoc with our lives, as with obsessive-compulsive disorder. And sometimes what was once a beneficial habit continues even though it no longer benefits us.

The MIT team simulated that scenario with rats trained to run a T-shaped maze. As the rats approached the decision point, they heard a tone indicating whether they should turn left or right. When they chose correctly, they received a reward — chocolate milk (for turning left) or sugar water (for turning right).

To show that the behavior was habitual, the researchers eventually stopped giving the trained rats any rewards, and found that they continued running the maze flawlessly. The researchers then offered the rats chocolate milk in their cages, but mixed it with lithium chloride, which causes light nausea. The rats still continued to run left when cued to do so, but they stopped drinking the chocolate milk.

Once they had shown that the habit was fully ingrained, the researchers wanted to see if they could break it by interfering with a part of the prefrontal cortex known as the infralimbic (IL) cortex. Although the neural pathways that encode habitual behavior appear to be located in deep brain structures known as the basal ganglia, it has been shown that the IL cortex is also necessary for such behaviors to develop.

Using optogenetics, a technique that allows researchers to inhibit specific cells with light, the researchers turned off IL cortex activity for several seconds as the rats approached the point in the maze where they had to decide which way to turn.

Immediately, the rats stopped running to the left (the side with the tainted chocolate milk). This suggests that turning off the IL cortex switches the rats’ brains from an “automatic, reflexive mode to a mode that’s more cognitive or engaged in the goal — processing what exactly it is that they’re running for,” according to Kyle Smith, lead author of the paper.

Once broken of the habit of running left, the rats soon formed a new habit, running to the right side every time, even when cued to run left. The researchers showed that they could break this new habit by once again inhibiting the IL cortex with light. To their surprise, they found that these rats immediately regained their original habit of running left when cued to do so.

“This habit was never really forgotten,” Smith says. “It’s lurking there somewhere, and we’ve unmasked it by turning off the new one that had been overwritten.”

So what does this mean for us? First, it appears that old habits can be broken but they aren’t forgotten. They’re replaced by new habits, but the old habit is still lurking. And it seems that the IL cortex (the “master switch”) favors new habits over old ones.

We are, of course, a long way from testing this technique in humans. But eventually, according to Graybiel, it’s possible the technology will evolve to the point where it might be a feasible option for treating disorders involving overly repetitive or addictive behavior.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

4. How One Flawed Study Spawned a Decade of Lies

In 2001, Dr. Robert L. Spitzer, psychiatrist and professor emeritus of Columbia University, presented a paper at a meeting of the American Psychiatric Association about something called “reparative therapy” for gay men and women. By undergoing reparative therapy, the paper claimed, gay men and women could change their sexual orientation. Spitzer had interviewed 200 allegedly former-homosexual men and women that he claimed had shown varying degrees of such change; all of the participants provided Spitzer with self reports of their experience with the therapy.

Spitzer, now 79 years old, was no stranger to the controversy surrounding his chosen subject. Thirty years earlier, he had played a leading role in removing homosexuality from the list of mental disorders in the association’s diagnostic manual. Clearly, his interest in the topic was more than a passing academic curiosity – indeed, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say he seemed invested in demonstrating that homosexuality was changeable, not unlike quitting smoking or giving up ice cream.

Fast forward to 2012, and Spitzer is of quite a different mind. In April he told a reporter with The American Prospect that he regretted the 2001 study and the effect it had on the gay community, and that he owed the community an apology. And in May he sent a letter to the Archives of Sexual Behavior, which published his work in 2003, asking that the journal retract his paper.

Spitzer’s mission to clean the slate is commendable, but the effects of his work have been coursing through the homosexual community like acid since it made headlines a decade ago. His study was seized upon by anti-homosexual activists and therapists who held up Spitzer’s paper as proof that they could “cure” patients of their sexual orientation.

Spitzer didn’t invent reparative therapy, and he isn’t the only researcher to have conducted studies claiming that it works, but as an influential psychiatrist from a prestigious university, his words carried a lot of weight.

In his recantation of the study, he says that it contained at least two fatal flaws: the self reports from those he surveyed were not verifiable, and he didn’t include a control group of men and women who didn’t undergo the therapy for comparison. Self reports are notoriously unreliable, and though they are used in hundreds of studies every year, they are generally regarded as thin evidence at best. Lacking a control group is a fundamental no-no in social science research across the board. The conclusion is inescapable — Spitzer’s study was simply bad science.

What’s remarkable is that this classic example of bad science was approved for presentation at a conference of the leading psychiatric association, and was subsequently published in a peer-reviewed journal of the profession. Spitzer now looks back with regret and critically dismantles his work, but the truth is that his study wasn’t credible from the beginning. It only assumed a veneer of credibility because it was stamped with the imprimatur of his profession.

Why this occurred is a bit more complicated than a mere case of professional cronyism. For many years before his paper on reparative therapy, Spitzer had conducted studies that evaluated the efficacy of self-reporting as a tool to assess a variety of personality disorders and depression. He was a noted expert on the development of diagnostic questionnaires and other assessment measures, and his work was influential in determining whether an assessment method was valuable or should be discarded.

Little wonder, then, that his paper on reparative therapy–which used an interview method that Spitzer recognized as reliable–was accepted by the profession. This wasn’t just anyone claiming that the self reports were valid, it was one of the most highly regarded diagnostic assessment experts in the world.

Reading the study now, I’m sure Spitzer is embarrassed by its flaws. Not only did he rely on self reports, but he conducted the participant interviews by phone, which escalates unreliability to the doesn’t-pass-the-laugh-test level. By phone, researchers aren’t able to evaluate essential non-verbal cues that might cast doubts on verbal responses. Phone interviews, along with written interviews, carry too much guesswork baggage to be valuable in a scientific study, and Spitzer certainly knew that.

The object lesson worth drawing from this story is that just one instance of bad science given the blessing of recognized experts can lead to years of damaging lies that snowball out of control. Spitzer cannot be held solely responsible for what happened after his paper was published, but he’d probably agree now that the study should never have been presented in the first place. At the very least, his example may help prevent future episodes of the same.

5. What Makes Presidents and Psychopaths Similar?

On October 14, 1912, just before giving a scheduled speech in Milwaukee, Theodore Roosevelt was shot in the chest by would-be assassin John Schrank. 
Roosevelt not only survived the attempt on his life, but went on to deliver his speech as scheduled. He began by saying,

“I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose. But fortunately I had my manuscript, so you see I was going to make a long speech, and there is a bullet – there is where the bullet went through – and it probably saved me from it going into my heart. The bullet is in me now, so that I cannot make a very long speech, but I will try my best.”

What explains Roosevelt’s dauntlessness? New research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that presidents and psychopaths share a psychological trait that may shed light on what made Teddy such a unique character.

The trait is called “fearless dominance,” defined as the “boldness associated with psychopathy.” Researchers say that when found in the psychological makeup of presidents, it’s “associated with better rated presidential performance, leadership, persuasiveness, crisis management, Congressional relations, and allied variables; it was also associated with several largely or entirely objective indicators of presidential performance, such as initiating new projects and being viewed as a world figure.”

Researchers tested their hypothesis in the 42 U.S. presidents up to and including George W. Bush using (a) psychopathy trait estimates derived from personality data completed by historical experts on each president, (b) independent historical surveys of presidential leadership, and (c) largely or entirely objective indicators of presidential performance.

More than 100 experts, including biographers, journalists and scholars who are established authorities on one or more U.S. presidents, evaluated their target presidents using the data derived from the sources listed above.

The results:

Theodore Roosevelt ranked highest in fearless dominance, followed by

  • John F. Kennedy,
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt,
  • Ronald Reagan,
  • Rutherford Hayes,
  • Zachary Taylor,
  • Bill Clinton,
  • Martin Van Buren,
  • Andrew Jackson,
  • and George W. Bush.

6. Why Jerks Get Ahead

As much as we’d rather not admit it, jerks often get ahead in our world — usually at the expense of a lot of other people along the way. Psychological 
research over the past few years is revealing why. As it turns out, acting like a jerk isn’t the secret to reaping the rewards of jerkiness. The real secret is simply letting others place you on a pedestal.

The most recent study illustrating this point was covered in the Wall Street Journal in a piece entitled, ”Why Are We Overconfident?” The study wanted to uncover what adaptive advantage overconfidence could possibly convey, since it so often leads to errors that don’t benefit us. The short answer is that even if overconfidence produces subpar results, others still perceive it positively. Quoting from the article:

In one of several related experiments, researchers had people take a geography quiz —first alone, then in pairs. The task involved placing cities on a map of North America unmarked by state or national borders. The participants rated themselves on their own abilities and rated each other, secretly, on a number of qualities.

As expected, most people rated their own geographic knowledge far higher than actual performance would justify. In the interesting new twist, however, the people most prone to overrate themselves got higher marks from their partners on whether they “deserved respect and admiration, had influence over the decisions, led the decision-making process, and contributed to the decisions.”

In other words, overconfident people are perceived as having more social status, and social status is golden.

A study last year highlighted a similar result, but this time with respect to another jerk-marquis trait: rudeness. Being rude is a categorically negative behavior by most standards, and to suggest otherwise–that is, to mount a defense of rudeness–would be a really strange thing to do. But psychology research is often at its best when it endorses positions that at first glance seem awfully strange.

And so it is with rudeness, because while most of us deplore it, research suggests that we also see it as a sign of power. A study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science indicated that the ruder someone acts, the more convinced observers become that he or she is powerful, and therefore does not have to respect the same rules the rest of us bow to.

In one of the experiments, study participants read about a visitor to an office who marched in and poured himself a cup of “employee only” coffee without asking. In another case they read about a bookkeeper that flagrantly bent accounting rules. Participants rated the rule breakers as more in control and powerful compared to people who didn’t steal the coffee or break accounting rules.

In another experiment participants watched a video of a man at a sidewalk café put his feet on another chair, tap cigarette ashes on the ground and rudely order a meal. Participants rated the man as more likely to “get to make decisions” and able to “get people to listen to what he says” than participants who saw a video of the same man behaving politely.

What this study appears to indicate is that violating norms is viewed by others as a sign of power, even if the observers would otherwise judge those violations as rude or flatly wrong. Considering many of the openly rude jerks we venerate, these findings make a lot of sense. (Though I would like to see a follow on study that examines observer perceptions when the rude rule breakers are caught. Perhaps it’s less the rudeness and corruption we admire, and more the ability to get away with it that intrigues us. Maybe we’re just a little smitten with the charisma of villainy.)

Taken together with the results of the study on overconfidence, it would seem that jerks are inherently quite good at putting one over on us. In fact, they don’t even have to try. They just need to work their trade and earn the praise of their peers. 

7. How Stress Damages Your Mental Health

Researchers at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in New Orleans (Oct 13-17, 2012) presented studies showing how stress, no matter its cause, alters brain circuitry in ways that can have long-term effects on mental health.

Research by Dipesh Chaudhury of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York shows that traumatic events appear to cause depression by derailing the brain’s so-called reward system, which normally causes pleasurable feelings whenever we engage in fun activities like spending time with friends. People who have suffered major stress, such as soldiers returning from combat, often report that they no longer find pleasure in these things.

Mice respond in a similar way to traumatic events, Chaudhury says. And his research shows that this response can be prevented by reducing the activity of certain brain cells involved in the reward system. [Source: NPR, October 15, 2012] A drug causing a similar outcome could eventually be effective in humans.

Stress also causes the release of chemicals that impair the function of the prefrontal cortex, home of higher level thinking. When we experience acute stress, these chemicals–including cortisol and norepinephrine–heighten our reactive tendencies by muting our reflective tendencies, leading to everything from anxiety to aggression to depression.

One of the drugs that appear to reverse these effects is ketamine (I wrote about it recently here), an anesthetic that has the ability to rejuvenate damaged nerve cells in hours, potentially making it a groundbreaking new type of antidepressant Derivatives of the drug are already in human trials.

The American Psychological Association’s “Stress in America” report provides a useful table, shown below, indicating the effects of stress on your body, your mood, and your behavior. 
Common effects of stress …  
On your body . . .

  • Headache
  • Muscle tension or pain
  • Chest pain
  • Fatigue
  • Change in sex drive
  • Stomach upset
  • Sleep problems
On your mood . . . 

  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Lack of motivation or focus
  • Irritability or anger
  • Sadness or depression
On your behavior . . . 

  • Overeating or undereating
  • Angry outbursts
  • Drug or alcohol abuse
  • Tobacco use
  • Social withdrawal

Source: American Psychological Association’s “Stress in America” Report

8. Are Two Heads Really Better Than One?

Group thinking has been a popular topic in behavioral research for a long time, particularly so in the last couple of decades. The judgment of one person can be called into question for a hundred different reasons – everything from preexisting beliefs to confirmation bias and beyond.

But if you add another mind to the mix, then theoretically a buffer against some of those biases has been introduced, and better judgments should result.

Or so the theory goes.

A recent study published in the journal Psychological Science flips this idea on its head by asking if two people may actually produce worse judgments, not because together they aren’t capable of making a good decision – but precisely because they are so confident that they can.

Researchers tested this hypothesis with 252 subjects, dividing them into a group of individual decision-makers and a group of partners (referred to as dyads). They were given a set of questions that required estimated answers, (i.e. “What percentage of Americans own pets?”). For each question, they were also asked to rank their level of confidence in their answer on a scale of 1 to 5. To make things more interesting, subjects earned $30 for making estimates, but lost $1 for each percentage point their answer deviated from correct.

Each individual or dyad was then given a “peer advisor” opinion on their responses and told they could choose to revise their answers, if they wished, based on the new information.

The results showed that the dyads were more confident in their responses than individuals, and also chose to ignore advisor input more often than individuals. But they were also statistically no better than individuals in making correct estimates.

While notable, that isn’t the key finding of this study. The most interesting statistic is revealed between the subjects’ initial estimates and revised estimates. Individuals who chose to revise their answers based on the advisors’ opinions reduced their error rate by about 10 percentage points. Dyads that revised their answers only improved by about 5 percentage points.

The reason why has everything to do with the confidence-buttressing effect of two people working together. Individuals were willing to make larger revisions in their estimates based on new information, while the dyads made relatively small revisions, if any. The research team dubs this the “cost of collaboration.” If the dyads were more willing to integrate new information into their judgments, then they could potentially produce better results than individuals; but their reluctance to consider new information added no value to the end result.

Psychologist Julie Minson, co-lead of the study, says these findings don’t negate the value of group decision-making, but they do highlight a need for caution. “If people become aware that collaboration leads to an increase in overconfidence, you can set up ways to mitigate it. Teams could be urged to consider and process each others’ inputs more thoroughly.”

The same goes for a couple choosing a mortgage or a car, Minson adds. “Just because you make a decision with someone else and you feel good about it, don’t be so sure that you’ve solved the problem and you don’t need help from anybody else.”

9. Sleeplessness Causes Our Mental Circuits to Overheat

We intuitively know that sleep is important, and a great deal of research on the health effects of sleeplessness backs up this belief. But what exactly isgoing on in our brains when we don’t get enough shuteye?

Researchers tackled this question in a new study that suggests our brains become bundles of hyper-reactive nerve cells as the sleepless hours tick by. In a sense, our noggins overheat when we deprive them of necessary down time–bad news for those of us who work into the wee hours.

The research team, led by Marcello Massimini of the University of Milan, delivered a stout magnetic current to study participants’ brains that set off a cascade of electrical responses throughout their nerve cells. The team then measured the strength of this electrical response in the frontal cortex, a brain region that’s involved in making executive decisions, using nodes attached to participants’ scalps. This procedure was completed a day before a night of sleep deprivation and repeated afterward.

The results: participants’ electrical responses were significantly stronger after a night of sleep deprivation than they were the previous day. The effect was corrected by one good night’s sleep.

Writing in Science News, Laura Sanders points out that the results reinforce the most widely held theory of why we sleep:

During waking hours, the brain accumulates connections between nerve cells as new things are learned. Sleep, the theory says, sweeps the brain of extraneous clutter, leaving behind only the most important connections.

The study was published in the February 7th, 2012 issue of the journal, Cerebral Cortex.

10. How Your Brain Could be Keeping You Fat

Neurogenesis is a wonderful word that means our brains continue to grow new neurons throughout our lifetimes. Not long ago, the brain was thought of as a static hunk of tissue that stopped growing after a neuronal “pruning” period early in our lives.

With time, neuroscience research uncovered two parts of the brain that evidence neurogenesis: the hippocampus, associated with memory formation, and the olfactory bulb, associated with the sense of smell.

Now, a study has uncovered a third part of the brain that, at least in mice, shows positive signs of neurogenesis: the hypothalamus, associated with body temperature, metabolism, sleep, hunger, thirst and a few other critical functions.

The news about this particular form of neurogenesis, however, isn’t so wonderful.

Researchers from the Department of Neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine injected mice with a chemical that incorporates itself into newly dividing cells. They found that the chemical appeared in rapidly proliferating cells called tanycytes in the hypothalamus, and further tests confirmed that the tanycytes specifically produced new neurons and not other types of cells.

The research team then wanted to find out what these neurons do, so they studied the new hypothalamus neurons in mice that had been fed a high fat diet since birth. Since the hypothalamus is associated with hunger and metabolism, the team speculated that the neurons may be linked in some way to weight gain. Turns out, they were right.

At a very young age, the mice fed a high fat diet didn’t show a difference in neurogenesis from young mice fed a normal diet. But when they became adults, the mice fed a high fat diet showed four times the neurogenesis of the normal mice, and gained significantly more weight and had much higher fat mass.

To make sure that the new neurons were actually correlating with the weight gain, the researchers killed the neurons in some of the mice with focused X-rays. Those mice showed far lower weight gain and body fat than those fed the same high fat diet, and even lower than mice that were more active.

In other words, it’s clear that these neurons have a major impact on weight regulation and fat storage in mice — and it’s altogether possible the same holds true for us.

Further tests will have to be conducted to find out if that’s the case, but from an evolutionary standpoint it would make sense. Dr. Seth Blackshaw, the lead researcher, comments that hypothalamic neurogenesis may be a mechanism that evolved to help wild animals survive and probably also our ancestors. “Wild animals that find a rich and abundant source of food typically eat as much as possible as these foods are generally rare to find.”

But in a culture with an abundance of food, that formerly life-saving advantage can turn into a distinct disadvantage. Blackshaw explains, “In the case of the lab animals and also in people in developed countries who have an almost unlimited access to food, this neurogenesis is not at all beneficial as it potentially encourages unnecessary excessive weight gain and fat storage.” In short, our diets may be training our brains to keep us fat.

On the upside, if these findings are confirmed in humans, they may eventually lead to a drug that blocks neurogenesis in the hypothalamus — but we’re a long way from there.

The study was published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

~ You can find me on Twitter @neuronarrative and at my website, The Daily Brain.