Friday, May 09, 2008

Psychology in the News - Emerging Self, The Brain, Justice in the Brain, Mirror Neurons, and More

Lots of cool psychology articles from the last couple of days. I'll try to be little more brief in quoting from these articles.

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From PsyBlog, When the Self Emerges: Is That Me in the Mirror?
Top 10 child psychology study: Most people look out for number one, themselves, which makes it strange to think that there was ever a time when we had no concept of 'me'. A simple study dating from the early 70s suggests that before the age of around two years old we can't recognise ourselves in the mirror. Because of this study, and the many variations that have followed, some claim that it isn't until our second birthday that our self-concept emerges.
In fact, Douglas Hofstadter argues that there is no real self before age three. But it seems from this study that age two is more realistic.
After testing 88 infants Amsterdam could only obtain reliable data on 16 of them - infants will be infants and many didn't want to play. From these 16 infants Amsterdam found three categories of response:
  1. 6-12 months: it's another baby! The child behaves as though the infant in the mirror is someone else - someone they'd like to be friendly with. They display approach behaviours such as smiling and making noises.
  2. 13-24 months: withdrawal. The infants no longer seem particularly happy at catching their own image in the mirror. Some look a little wary while others will smile occasionally and make some noises. One interpretation of this behaviour is that the infants are acting self-consciously here (perhaps demonstrating self-concept), but it could also be a reaction to another child.
  3. 20-24 months onwards: it's me! From around this age infants start to clearly recognise themselves by pointing to the spot of rouge on their own noses. This strongly suggest they have realised the image is themselves and the spot of rouge is on their own nose.
Although Amsterdam's results were from a small sample size, they have subsequently been repeated with many more participants.
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From Deric Bownd's Mindblog, Our brains can choose our actions 10 sec before awareness.
Here is an elegant update from Soon et al. of the continuing story that started with Libet's original observation that supplementary motor area (SMA) becomes active before our subjective sense of consciously willing an action. This work ignited a a long controversy as to whether subjectively 'free' decisions are determined by brain activity ahead of time. These new results go substantially further than those of previous studies by showing that the earliest predictive information is encoded in specific regions of frontopolar and parietal cortex, up to 10 seconds before it enters awareness (and not in SMA), presumably reflecting the operation of a network of high-level control areas that begin to prepare an upcoming decision. This preparatory time period in high-level control regions is considerably longer than that reported previously for motor-related brain regions.
Hmmm . . . are we more "automated" than we might want to believe?

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From PhysOrg, Scientists find connection between mental fitness and multi-lingualism:
Children who speak a second or third language may have an unexpected advantage later in life, a new Tel Aviv University study has found. Knowing and speaking many languages may protect the brain against the effects of aging.

Dr. Gitit Kavé, a clinical neuro-psychologist from the Herczeg Institute on Aging at Tel Aviv University, together with her colleagues Nitza Eyal, Aviva Shorek, and Jiska Cohen-Manfield, discovered recently that senior citizens who speak more languages test for better cognitive functioning. The results of her study were published in the journal Psychology and Aging.

However, Kavé says that one should approach these findings with caution. “There is no sure-fire recipe for avoiding the pitfalls of mental aging. But using a second or third language may help prolong the good years,” she advises.
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From EurekAlert,
Justice in the brain: Equity and efficiency are encoded differently:

Which is better, giving more food to a few hungry people or letting some food go to waste so that everyone gets a share" A study appearing this week in Science finds that most people choose the latter, and that the brain responds in unique ways to inefficiency and inequity.

The study, by researchers at the University of Illinois and the California Institute of Technology, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of people making a series of tough decisions about how to allocate donations to children in a Ugandan orphanage.

The researchers hoped to shed light on the neurological underpinnings of moral decision-making, said co-principal investigator Ming Hsu, a fellow at the U. of I.’s Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology.

“Morality is a question of broad interest,” Hsu said. “What makes us moral, and how do we make tradeoffs in difficult situations"”

An interest in such issues kept the study subjects in the scanner, despite the pain of grappling with difficult choices, Hsu said. “Quite a few came out saying: ‘This is the worst experiment I’ve ever been in. I never want to do anything like this again!’ ”

The subjects were told that each child would start out with a monetary equivalent of 24 meals, an actual gift from the research team to the orphanage. An undetermined number of meals would have to be cut from some children’s allotments, however. The number of meals cut and the individual children who would be affected depended on how the subjects selected from options the researchers presented.

Every decision pitted efficiency (the total number of meals given) against equity (how much the burden of lost meals was shared among the children).

One could choose to take 15 meals from a single child, for example, or 13 meals from one child and five from another. In the first option the total number of meals lost would be lower. Efficiency would be preserved, but one child would bear the brunt of all the cuts. In the second option more children would share the burden of lost meals but more meals would be lost. The equity was better – but at a cost to efficiency.

“This dilemma illustrates the core issues of distributive justice, which involves tradeoffs between considerations that are at once compelling but which cannot be simultaneously satisfied,” the authors wrote.

The study was designed to address the psychological and neurological dimensions of two longstanding debates about distributive justice. First, is equity or efficiency more critical to our sense of justice" And second, are such questions solved by reason alone, or does emotion also play a role"

This study has been getting a lot of press. This is from Medical News Today:
Three regions of the brain, the insula, putamen and caudate, were involved in different ways, at different points in the decision process.

The insula was active when equity changes were being considered, while the putamen was active when efficiency changes were being considered. And the caudate appeared to integrate equity and efficiency when the decision was taken.

Hsu said that the involvement of the insula suggests that emotion is involved when a person is thinking about inequity.

Studies have shown that the insula, which is involved in awareness of bodily states and emotions, becomes active when people feel hungry, crave drugs, or have intense feelings like anger, fear, disgust and happiness. Other studies have also suggested it mediates fairness.

The authors said the putamen and the caudate regions of the brain become activate during reward-related learning.

Hsu described what they saw. At first "you're seeing the signal in the insula and the putamen," he said, but "when they hit the lever you see the insula activation. And when the ball gets to the end you see (activation of) the caudate," he added.

Hsu explained that:

"The putamen is responding only to the chosen efficiency, which is how many meals get taken away from the kids or how many meals they end up with."

"The insula, however, responded to how equitably the burden of lost meals was distributed," said Hsu.

The authors wrote that the results showed how the brain "encodes two considerations central to the distributive justice calculus and shed light on the cognitivist/sentimentalist debate regarding the psychological underpinnings of distributive justice".

They suggested the findings support the notion that "a sense of fairness is fundamental to distributive justice, but, as suggested by moral sentimentalists, is rooted in emotional processing".

On a more general level they suggested that:

"Emotional responses related to norm violations may underlie individual differences in equity considerations and adherence to ethical rules."
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From BBC's In Our Time, THE BRAIN: A HISTORY. [This is an audio file.]

In the 5th century BC the Greek physician Hippocrates confidently asserted:

“Men ought to know that from the brain and from the brain only arise our pleasures, joys, laughter and jests, as well as our sorrows, pains, grieves and tears.”

This might suggest that people have never doubted the importance of the brain, but for Aristotle the heart was the ruler of the body and the seat of the soul.

Despite dissections of brains both human and animal throughout the following centuries, in 1669 the Danish anatomist, Nicolaus Steno, still lamented that, “the brain, the masterpiece of creation, is almost unknown to us.”

Why was the brain seen as a mystery for so long and how have our perceptions of how it works and what it symbolises changed over the centuries?


Vivian Nutton, Professor of the History of Medicine at University College London

Jonathan Sawday, Professor of English Studies at the University of Strathclyde

Marina Wallace, Professor at the University of the Arts, London, Central St Martin’s College of Art and Design
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This is a very cool and informative video.
Mirror neurons fire in the brain both for doing and observing the same action being done by another person. Researchers such as VS Ramachandran suggest that these neurons may be responsible for aiding us in imitation and language acquisition.

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This is a little less academic, but still a nice post from Gaiam Life, Avoid the Traps of Unconscious Loving:

Are you creating misunderstanding, hurt and conflict in your most cherished relationships — without even knowing it? Build yourself some detours around the most common “unconscious loving” pitfalls.

Often we’re not aware of the destruction our words and actions may cause — we just go along, doing and saying the only things we know how to do and say. These tips, exercises and insights from Conscious Loving by renowned relationship expert Gay Hendricks can help you and your partner overcome relationship troubles or just strengthen your bond with your partner so you can avoid falling into these traps.

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Finally, a good article from the Research Digest Blog from the British Psychological Society, Are people with borderline personality really more empathic?
People with borderline personality disorder (BPD) are emotionally fragile, impulsive, suffer from low mood, have intense unstable personal relationships and - according to a handful of studies - they also have enhanced empathy.

But new research by Judith Flury and colleagues shows the idea that BPD patients have enhanced empathy is a spurious finding reflecting the methodological design of prior studies combined with the fact BPD patients are particularly difficult to read.

The 76 lowest and highest scorers on the Borderline Syndrome Index were selected from among 789 students. These 76 were then arranged into pairs of low and high borderline participants. The members of each pair were videoed chatting to each other for ten minutes, after which each person completed a personality questionnaire about themselves, and about how they thought their partner saw themselves. This latter part of the design mirrors the methodology of earlier studies that seemed to show BPD is associated with enhanced empathy.

As in the earlier studies, it turned out that the high borderline students were better than the low borderline students at predicting how their partners scored their own personalities - a sign of empathy, you'd think. But further analysis showed that this finding was caused by the fact that all the students tended to score their partners' personalities in a fairly stereotypical way. This tactic worked if a participant's partner was low borderline (with a less unusual personality profile), but not if they were high borderline with an unusual personality profile - hence the apparent finding that high borderline scorers are more empathic.
Anyone who has grown up with a borderline parent, or dated a borderline partner, knows that empathy is not one of their skills, so this is good research in dispelling that myth.

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