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Monthly Archives: November 2011

For Students: a couple of interesting papers on open access

This post is primarily for my students, but others might be interested, too.
Sage Publishers have just put a couple of widely-read articles online on (probably temporary) free access.
These might be of interest to you: one is about student drinking (have you had your liver function tested lately?):
Jennifer E. Cross, Don Zimmerman and Megan A. O’Grady (2009) Residence Hall Room Type and Alcohol Use Among College Students Living on Campus Environment and Behavior  41: 583

The other is about the social construction of the idea of ‘serial killer’. It seemed from the ‘important questions in psychology’ exercise that we did, that quite a few people thought that understanding serial killers is an important question (not sure I agree), so you might find this interesting. It’s not about ‘why do serial killers do it?’, though, but about ‘what are our ideas of what serial killers are, and how are they used in court?’ It’s a discourse analysis study: a method in psychology which you may not be familiar with, but which you’ll come across later in the course, which is very different from an experimental approach.

From the abstract: “A courtroom transcript concerning the confession to 10 murders by the serial killer, Dennis Rader, was analysed. The transcript was read and reread in order to examine how the killer drew upon popular understandings of serial killing, until eventually three main discourses were identified: perpetrator as ‘sympathetic’, ‘serial killer’ and ‘driven by sexual fantasy’. The analysis demonstrated that these discourses all served to reinforce the widely shared construction of the serial killer, i.e. being sexually motivated. Furthermore, the findings show how this construction served the functions of mitigating responsibility, justifying certain actions and obscuring violence.”

I only read a bit before deciding it was too upsetting – but I remember I was less sensitive about these things when I was younger, so others may find it OK.
Ross Bartels and Ceri Parsons (2009) The Social Construction of a Serial Killer Feminism & Psychology 19: 267

The starting page for both of these is
where there are links to other popular papers in Sage journals, including one in the Journal of Black Psychology.

We do have Feminism & Psychology, both on paper (2000-2006 in Boots; the full collection at Clifton) and online. I regret to say we no longer take Environment & Bahaviour (a good journal, full of interesting studies). I am ashamed to say that we no longer take the Journal of Black Psychology, though we have paper copies from 2000-2006, and I think there is electronic access to the same range of dates.


Meditation and brain scans: for once I like a neuroscience story

Parallel posts on this story on Medical News Today and PsyPost, both (a bit) rewritten from a press release from Yale, I guess (I can’t find the original, but I can find lots of other postings in almost the same words from other news outlets):

For once, this looks like a bit of brain scan research which does help to explain what’s going on, in matching up brain activity with what we know phenomenologically about meditation states, rather than saying ‘some bit of the brain or other lights up, so that’s real proof that it happens’.
Could be, of course, that I just like to see sensible positive stuff about meditation, and the results fit with my own understandings, so I’m a bit prejudiced.

A new brain imaging study led by researchers at Yale University shows how people who regularly practise meditation are able to switch off areas of the brain linked to daydreaming, anxiety, schizophrenia and other psychiatric disorders. The brains of experienced meditators appear to show less activity in an area known as the “default mode network”, which is linked to largely self-centred thinking. The researchers suggest through monitoring and suppressing or “tuning out” the “me” thoughts, meditators develop a new default mode, which is more present-centred.

Still, I can’t resist some moans. Here’s  evidence of how these stories closely paraphrase (as journalism, that’s OK; in academically assessed work, this kind of thing counts as plagiarism) and seldom say any more than the original press release. Poor editing, too, with grammatical errors introduced into the MNT version, and not corrected in the PsyPost quote (OK, sticking with a verbatim quote even when it isn’t quite syntactically correct is permissible, but MNT’s version is just a mess*)

On Medical News Today:  “Meditation can help deal with a variety of health problems, from quitting smoking, to coping with cancer, and even prevention psoriasis, one of the researchers said in a statement.”

On PsyPost: “Meditation has been shown to help in variety of health problems, such as helping people quit smoking, cope with cancer, and even prevent psoriasis,” Brewer said.

More important than the grammar is the ‘cure for cancer’ hint, which could just be there to help with the newsworthiness. I know the researcher (Judson Brewer, director of the clinic – see details below) actually says ‘cope with cancer’, which could be fair enough, but can’t you just see this ending up as a headline which says “Meditation Cures Cancer, Psoriasis and Smoking, and Can Cure the ‘Me, Me, Me generation’, Too’?  Guess which newspaper I’m thinking of – and I deny that this is a mendacious smear driven by my hatred of the media.†

Also, the PsyPost posting is illustrated with one of those side-view-of-a-brain-with-two-coloured-blobs-on images which is no use to anyone, but is supposed to make it look like proper science.
Interesting story though, so thanks, MNT and PsyPost.

Here’s the Yale Therapeutic Neuroscience Clinic’s (the source of the research) homepage, which has access to some interesting-looking stuff: magazine articles and a video of a lecture (in a box on lower right):

The full reference is on the clinic’s ‘publications’ page:

Brewer, J. A., P. D. Worhunsky, J. R. Gray, YY Tang, J. Weber, H. Kober. (2011) “Meditation experience is associated with differences in default mode network activity and connectivity.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (in press).

*And yes, I know any sensible, non-anal person wouldn’t care about this.


See, I told you psychoanalysis is still in fashion….

From psychology:

“….new film A Dangerous Method centered on the relationship between Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud and Sabina Spielrein. The film stars Michael Fassbender as Jung, Viggo Mortenson as Freud and Keira Knightley as Spielrien.”

Here’s the website for the film:, and the trailer: (contains some nudity and sexual content, but, thank goodness, little violence). Directed by David Cronenburg, who made The Fly.

YouTube version, without the sex and nudity:

Out in the US this week (23 Nov), in the UK in February.

Viggo Mortenson as Freud? mmmm.

The best cinema Freud I’ve seen was Alan Arkin in The Seven Percent Solution: (
Sherlock Holmes meets Freud (with some narration from John H Watson – but that has to be Holmes’ Watson, not the one we’re interested in: must be a Freudian slip). Wonderfully silly, but Arkin comes across (to me, anyway) as being full of depth and intelligence. It was unobtainable on video for years, and hardly ever shown on TV, but I’ve just seen that the DVD’s on Amazon: now on my wish list.
Here’s the cast list & photos:
Lots of big names (for 1976, anyway).

Today’s newspaper: some spoilers for Schools of Thought later in the year

Just a post to show how the kind of thing we talk about in Schools of Thought comes up in the mainstream press (well, The Guardian, anyway). Today (Mon 20th  November)  there are two stories about topics which we’ll be taking up later in the year:
About the ideas behind the Siri personal assistant on the latest iPhone (you know you want one). Two themes here. The original voice recognition/artificial intelligence/natural language recognition research was financed by the US military, along  with most of the rest of cognitive psychology (as I’ll discuss in Cognitive Psychology as the Science of Killing People), and also how it’s possible to build computer systems which mimic how we understand everyday speech (something which it is still a big problem for psychology to understand). Christina will be talking about the usefulness of the computer simulation approach in The Rise and Fall of Computational Psychology.

The other story:
is about a veteran forensic psychotherapist who uses a psychoanalytic/Freudian approach. The subheading and first few paragraphs sound as though it’s about really weird ideas, but read on – it gets more sensible. The point here, apart from the intrinsic interest, is that this is a three page article about a psychoanalyst – in 2011. I’ll be arguing that Psychoanalysis is Alive and Well next term (well, maybe more accurate to say that Psychoanalysis’s Zombie is Differently Alive* and Still Shambling Among Us).

*Who is trying to rehabilitate the undead by (politically correctly) calling them the differently alive?

Reasons to be grateful: you can boost your amygdala for a better life

There are quite a lot of references and links at the end

The Guardian had alternative headlines for this:
On paper: Happy people caught in a ‘cycle of positivity’, scientists find
Online: Brain scans of happy people help explain their ‘rose-tinted’ outlook has a clear, concise writeup of this (

Brain scans of volunteers who scored high on a standard test for happiness showed activity in regions that reinforced their happy dispositions and set them up for a “cycle of positivity”, scientists said. The positive outlook on life was not a reflection of naivety or ignorance of the world`s threats and dangers, they said, but an enhanced response to positive events and the opportunities surrounding them.
Psychologists Wil Cunningham and Tabitha Kirkland at Ohio State University uncovered the effect while scanning the brains of 38 volunteers as they looked at a series of pictures designed to evoke positive, negative or neutral feelings.
The negative images included an unhappy person sitting in a chair and someone being threatened with a gun, while positive images included a basket of kittens and a bunch of flowers. Among the neutral images were patterns and household objects*.
The scientists focused on part of the brain called the amygdala, an almond-shaped region used in early processing of information about the world around us and emotional reactions to it.
The scans showed that all the volunteers` brains reacted the same way to negative and neutral images, with negative pictures causing more arousal in the amygdala than neutral ones.
But the most striking result was in the happiest volunteers, who had scored five and above on a seven-point happiness test. When they saw positive images, the activity in their amygdalas rose much higher than it did in the less happy people.
The findings were reported at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting in Washington DC.

I’ve lifted that from without any guilt: it’s probably based very closely on a press release from the Society for Neuroscience. Lots of other news outlets posted the same story in pretty much the same words.

OK, so our attitude to life and our wellbeing are driven by our patterns of amygdala responsiveness, right? Well, maybe, but this reminded me of a well-known finding in positive psychology research: Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough’s 2003 ‘Gratitude’ research (reference at the end) They found, as described in the abstract (shortened here):

The effect of a grateful outlook on psychological and physical well-being was examined. Participants were randomly assigned to 1 of 3 experimental conditions (hassles, gratitude listing, and either neutral life events or social comparison) [they kept diaries in which they noted things in different categories – hassles, gratitude, etc –  according to their experimental group]; they then kept weekly or daily records of their moods, coping behaviors, health behaviors, physical symptoms, and overall life appraisals. […] The gratitude-outlook groups exhibited heightened well-being across several, though not all, of the outcome measures across the 3 studies, relative to the comparison groups. The effect on positive affect appeared to be the most robust finding. Results suggest that a conscious focus on blessings may have emotional and interpersonal benefits.

So, reflecting on ‘blessings’ or ‘things to be grateful for’ (positive things, though rather more experientially meaningful than a basket of kittens) increases wellbeing – and having an amygdala which responds strongly to positive things (well, kittens and flowers) is associated with higher reported levels of happiness – could there be some link here?

In the following argument, I admit that I’m confusing C&K’s ‘positive things’ with E&M’s ‘things to be grateful for’, which may not be justified, but I’m hoping they’re close enough to provide the basis for some speculation.
Note that Emmon’s & McCullough’s study is experimental, so we have some idea of causation, while Cunningham & Kirkland’s is observational, which is why I said ‘is associated with’ in the last paragraph. The usual assumption, when you read about ‘this brain activity is associated with that behaviour’ is that the relationship is deterministic, and, in this case, happy people are happy because they have happy brains, and certainly the way these stories appear in the press generally suggests that. But it looks here as though the relationship could be the other way round: could embarking on a gratitude programme be the thing that boosts your positive amygdala response? And might that lead to a positive cycle between gratitude/happiness and a happy amygdala? Or, of course, it’s possible that the amygdala is pretty trivial here: yes, it responds more strongly in gratitude-loaded people, but that strong response isn’t driving anything, it’s just dependent on other, more important things, such as a conscious focus on things to be grateful for.
What I’d like to see (here’s a possible PhD project, kids – or maybe 3rd year project if you’re at a rich university with easy access to fMRI: are there any of those?) is a study tracking amygdala response à la W&K in people who are going through an E&M-style ‘gratefulness’ programme. You might predict that the decision to practice gratefulness would boost the positive amygdala response: a reverse of brain-led determinism. It might be that W&K are onto this already; they have papers in press with words like ‘tuning’, time’ and ‘trajectory’ in the titles.
We’ve got one famous example of this kind of thing already: the study on the hippocampuses of London taxi drivers (Maguire, Woollett & Spiers, 2006).

Some sources:
Cunningham’s and Kirkland’s home pages, which give details of other research and published papers:

There’s a ref below to a chapter by Emmons & Shelton, discussing gratefulness much more widely, but also containing some details of the experimental research, in Snyder & Lopez’ (2002) Handbook of Positive Psychology.

Emmons, R A., Shelton , C. M. (2002) Gratitude and the science of positive psychology. In: Handbook of Positive Psychology. Snyder, C. R.; Lopez, Shane J.; New York , NY , US : Oxford University Press. 459-471.
Available at

Emmons Robert A., McCullough Michael E. (2003) Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 84 (2) 377–389
Available at:

Maguire EA, Woollett K, Spiers HJ. (2006) London taxi drivers and bus drivers: a structural MRI and neuropsychological analysis Hippocampus 16(12),1091-101.  gives you the abstract, which is pretty clear, thorough and helpful, and – as usual – shows that the actual findings are more complex than the myth. Some parts of the hippocampus shrank in the taxi drivers, and “we found that the ability to acquire new visuo-spatial information was worse in taxi drivers than in bus drivers”. Did you know that? Me neither.

*How weedy is this? Miserable-looking person? Basket of kittens? I could think of much more negative and positive stimuli than this. Maybe this is a response to (perfectly proper) ethical concerns – you can’t show people anything which might be so negative that they’re moved to tears: that would be experimental abuse – and so you shouldn’t use anything really positive either – that would be out of proportion to the negative stimulus. This may be being too fussy: everyday there’s something in the newspaper which makes me feel terribly sad. On the other hand, if you can get observable differences with trivial stimuli like this, it looks likely to be a powerful and significant (in both senses) effect.

Was: More Psychology Disguised as Physiology. Now: Psychology: the Secret of Life

“Researcher examines how brain perceives shades of gray” the headline (italics added)

From Psypost:

…but the actual study was on how people perceive shades of grey (or gray, depending on which language you’re writing in).

I intended this to be a minor moan about mislabelling interesting psychological research, but it developed into a discussion of the nature of Life and Meaning itself (sort of): see the bit after BUT… below.

This is about the interesting perceptual problem that we see white things as being white, even in rather dim light, when they’re reflecting thousands of times less light than they do in bright light, and also very much less light than is reflected from black things in bright light, which still look really black, even though they’re actually reflecting lots of light back to us. We must be working to some kind of baseline – ‘what’s the grey level brightness here?’ – or maybe ratio – ‘I’ll see the brightest thing here as white, and anything 100 times less bright as black’ – or something, but I don’t think that’s been worked out.
The study referred to here is testing out the ‘ratio’ explanation, by asking people to estimate levels of brightness over a checkerboard with a very great range of levels of brightness.

Sarah Allred, an assistant professor of psychology at Rutgers–Camden […] conducted the research with Alan L. Gilchrist, a professor of psychology at Rutgers–Newark, and professor David H. Brainard and post-doctoral fellow Ana Radonjic, both of the University of Pennsylvania. Their research will be published in the journal Current Biology. [No further reference given]
Participants were asked to look at a 5×5 checkerboard composed of grayscale squares with random intensities spanning the 10,000-to-1 range. They were asked to report what shades of gray a target square looked like by selecting a match from a standardized gray scale.
If the visual system relied only on ratios to determine surface lightness, then the ratio of checkerboard intensities the participants reported should have had the same ratio as that of the black and white samples on the reflectance scale, about 100-to-1.
Instead, the researchers found that this ratio could be as much as 50 times higher, more than 5,000-to-1.

Sounds like good evidence against the ratio model, which is interesting, because it’s probably the most obvious explanation for how we do this. I’d be tempted to follow this up and find out more (it’s also interesting for a photographer, because understanding the difference between how we appreciate tones and contrast and how the much more ‘objective’ system of the camera sensor/digital representation/monitor or paper output system does it would help in getting things to look the way we want them to look, in spite of the fact that the world of light is wilder and more varied than either our eyes or the digital systems can really cope with. Playing around with all the sliders and controls in Photoshop can help to give some ideas of what the issues are).


…you may guess what I’m going to say next. Why is this represented as brain research, rather than people research? The researcher is quoted as saying:

She continues, “In addition, even though we used behavioral rather than physiological measures, our results provide insight into the neural mechanisms that must underlie the behavioral results.”

“even though we used behavioural rather than physiological measures”?! Good grief.  Yes the neural mechanisms are (probably equally) interesting, and understanding them will extend our understanding of the, apparently less valuable, behavioural processes – but isn’t the only* reason we want to find out about the brain processes because the behaviour/experience is interesting/puzzling/maybe practically important? If we didn’t have all those puzzles of consciousness and complex behaviour, would anyone give a toss about the brain processes?

Now I’ve got going on this, I could take it further: what’s the root cause here? What’s driving the evolution and development of our brains? There can’t be evolutionary selection of brains: it’s not the tissue, or even the wiring (it’s not really wiring, of course, but that’s our late-20th century metaphor for whatever weird things are going on in there) which is selected: it’s actions in the world, which result in survival for long enough, and then success in mating, to produce viable, adaptive offspring – in other words, behavioural and psychological things.

Now, brain processes may limit the range of adaptation possible: in Terry Pratchett’s books, trolls are fick because their silicon-based nervous systems don’t run as fast as carbon-based ones at Ankh-Morpork temperatures (any real-life examples?), and physiological changes may give behavioural advantages which pay off in evolutionarily useful behaviour – like trichromatic vision in primates, which is said to give us better ability to distinguish between ripe and unripe fruits (and therefore allows better nutrition) than the crappy old two-colour system allowed – but the physiology is only important, and only selected for, as it’s mediated through behaviour.

So there you go – it’s psychology which got us where we are now; the physiology was just dragged along as a necessary underpinning. It’s about time we started misrepresenting brain research as psychology, just to make it sound important, not the other way round.

*OK, some nerds might be interested in it for its own sake, just like some people like to speculate about prime numbers – and that kind of interest can sometimes be useful in the long term.

I admit that some of the physiology can be adaptive in straightforwardly physiological ways: so the mutation which makes some people resistant to the malaria parasite clearly improves their ability to survive and reproduce without that effect being psychologically mediated or significant, but I don’t see that as applying to brain-based evolution.

“Amnesiac cellist astounds doctors with musical memory”

“German musician who lost nearly all memory after contracting herpes encephalitis can learn new pieces of music.”
Well, not exactly, if you read the article, but it’s a noteworthy finding, all the same.
This is a report about research by Carsten Finke, a neurologist at Charité university hospital in Berlin, presented at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in Washington DC on Sunday  (13 Nov 2011). The original press release (which gives the person’s age as 68, not 71: but that might be the difference between his age when the study was done, and his age now, when it’s reported) is at:–Final%20Draft.pdf (along with news releases about other papers at the conference).

Extracts from  these sources:

The Guardian article: A professional cellist who lost nearly all of his memory after a virus destroyed parts of his brain has astonished doctors with his remarkable recall of music. The 71-year-old, known only as PM, had played with a major German orchestra before contracting the infection that devastated his brain’s memory centres in 2005. The illness left the musician with such profound amnesia he could remember almost nothing of his past and was unable to plan for the future. The only people he recognised were his brother and a care worker.

From the abstract in the press release: General episodic and semantic memory seemed to be almost absent. For example, P.M. was unable to name any German river, federal state or historic event. In addition his ability to recall professional knowledge or events was severely compromised. He was unable to name composers, famous cello players or personal professional events

From The Guardian again: PM was struck down by a rare herpes encephalitis infection that leaves many patients with brain damage even if they receive urgent treatment.  In PM’s case, the virus wiped out large parts of the brain’s medial temporal lobes, which are important for remembering events and facts.

From the Neuroscience press release: However, when tested on basic musical skills, researchers found the cellist was able to identify the intervals, scales, rhythms, and metrics of various musical pieces

Isn’t that a bit like being able to read, and being able to distinguish between grammatical and ungrammatical sentences, and rhyming and non-rhyming, scanning and non-scanning poetry? Would it be surprising if those skills (which are pretty fancy, really, but most literate people have them) were maintained?

Guardian: In one [test], the doctors took well-known pieces of music composed before the cellist fell ill, such as Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, and paired them with similar sounding pieces composed after 2005. When PM was asked to say which he knew better, he named the older scores 93% of the time. In a later test [in which he was played pieces composed post-2005, so not part of his earlier experience], PM recognised 77% of pieces he had been played earlier in the day, suggesting he had some capacity to learn new music.

What would be really interesting would be ‘learn and play’, or just ‘learn and sing’. PM reportedly still plays cello at home, but isn’t willing to play in front of doctors. For someone musically skilled, playing a melody is much the same as recalling it – if you can remember it, you can play it. Even for non-musical people like me, I’d have to be able to sing some version of the tune to be able to say I recalled it. Recognising it as something familiar is much easier, and there’s lots of psych research to support that. But, in this case, both would be aspects of (rather vague) episodic memory – ‘I’ve heard that somewhere before’, and also semantic memory (I think the distinction between the two isn’t very clearcut here). So if PM can do the episodic/semantic recognition task, but not an equivalent active recall task (we don’t know: it’s not reported here, but maybe if it’s not reported, he couldn’t do it – just as Christina said) then that’s evidence of neurally different recognition and recall systems? I’m not well up on this stuff, and maybe there’s already evidence like this (and I’m not wholly convinced about all these separate neural modules), but I thought that was an interesting point.
And, also – can he remember the cello parts he used to play?* Is that a different kind of semantic memory from remembering the names of German rivers? Maybe so. The Guardian article mentions Clive Wearing, another musician with very dense anterograde amnesia, and a lot of retrograde amnesia, after an infection, rather like PM. Wearing does a very convincing job of conducting a choir singing complex music (on a BBC documentary, hosted by Jonathon Miller), but as soon as they get to the end of the piece, he can’t remember where he is, why he’s there, or who the members of the choir (which he’d worked with before his illness) are. It would be fascinating to know what PM’s skills are.

Here’s a video clip of Wearing doing that kind of thing (not the one I’ve seen before, and his performance here is nothing like as impressive as on that one – but the other was some years before, and I think he’s out of practice now). This also has some useful commentary from his wife Deborah – about the experience he finds himself in, as well as the musical skills. There’s lots more on YouTube about Wearing’s case, though I couldn’t find the exact clip I wanted.

But…  “Neighbours said the man still played the cello in his apartment, but he refused to play in front of doctors, perhaps because he felt he was no longer any good, Finke said.” Not surprising, and it might be better to leave the poor old guy alone:
“Good afternoon, Herr M. You won’t remember us, but we’ve come round again to probe the depths of this dreadful [and to you inexplicable, because you can’t remember the illness or the explanations] calamity that has overtaken you, and robbed you of most of your skills and dignity. Now, if you’ll just sit there and do whatever we ask, even though you don’t know us or why we’re here, everything will be fine.” – though if it can be presented to PM as “let’s listen to some music and then chat about it” I guess that’s OK. (Though someone on the Guardian comments board claimed that making a musician listen to the Four Seasons is cruel and unusual treatment in itself).


Guardian: Doctors now hope that PM’s ability to learn music can be used to improve his rehabilitation. One idea is to use musical notes to signify people and various tasks, such as taking medicine or calling someone.

If they really mean ‘musical notes’ that suggests a misunderstanding of what music and musical memory is all about.

*Though maybe professional musicians don’t remember so much. What you need to do is forget last week’s work and pick up and deal with this week’s work amazingly fast. There may also be an effect of habitually reading what you’re playing. I had been learning tunes and songs for 40+ years by ear (and usually learning the words by listening to performance, rather than by reading them) before I joined a choir and had to start reading music. Working by ear like that, I could learn and remember lots of songs without too much trouble – sometimes for many years without singing them. Working with the choir, where, although I can’t read music properly, I follow the music and use it as a prompt for what I’m singing, I’ve found I can’t remember my parts from one term to the next: once we’ve done the concert, they vanish (well, there are some relearning savings, as Ebbinghaus found for nonsense syllables). Plato famously felt that the spread of literacy would damage people’s memory abilities – maybe musical literacy does the same.

Young woman with amnesia unable to hold a single face in short-term memory… unless it’s Paris Hilton!

The headline above is not mine: it’s from the press release about this story. Turns out, as far as I can tell, it’s not just Paris Hilton, but any familiar face. Just as well: only being able to remember Paris Hilton sounds like a fate worse than death.
Here’s the press release, from Baycrest*:, and the original (not-yet-in-print) journal article: (or at least the abstract: I can’t find an institutional access link – just ‘purchase PDF’ for the whole article. Maybe it’ll be more available once it’s appeared in the journal).
The press release, including a one-minute video of Nathan Rose. the lead researcher, talking about the case: (posted below: also visible at gives quite a lot of information and explanation. Worth looking at the press release before reading the rest of this post, maybe.

I think there are two things interesting about this: one is that it seems to give new insight into hippocampus damage and how it relates to ‘short term memory’, ‘long term memory’ and ‘working memory’ (and maybe how those are unhelpful/inaccurate ways of describing what people do: certainly the labels are used a bit loosely in the article).

The other thing I think is interesting, though, is mentioned almost in passing in the release:

Despite HC’s severe memory impairment – the result of experiencing hypoxia (loss of oxygen) in the first week of life – she is a relatively normal functioning individual and college graduate, who is an avid film buff and celebrity watcher.

She’s described as having ” a profound long-term memory deficit” (about 40 seconds into the video). I guess that means the common amnesia problem of transferring immediate memory into something that is accessible over longer periods. But she also has “relatively preserved semantic memory” (from the journal article abstract). Her brain damage is described as:

This woman is missing 50 percent of the normal volume of her hippocampus with no obvious damage to other parts of her brain. This provides an extraordinary opportunity to generate new insights about how this crucial memory centre of the brain affects both short-term and long-term memory,” said lead investigator Nathan Rose, a post-doctoral fellow in Cognitive Neuroscience at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute.

Right: so she’s had a severe problem from just after birth, but has developed a “relatively preserved semantic memory”, and is normally functioning and a college graduate. OK, ‘relatively preserved’ could mean relative to her severe deficit in other areas, and still be quite poor, but if she’s normally functioning and can follow films well enough to enjoy them, she sounds pretty normal. But wouldn’t the standard ‘short-term transfer to long-term’ amnesia deficit mean that she couldn’t really build up any kind of semantic memory? We know that other individuals with anterograde amnesia can accumulate procedural and implicit memories, but the kind of learning/memory required to learn to make sense of the world (and to get a college degree, though making sense of the world is harder, I think) seems to be different from that.
I guess my interpretation is that people can be better at coping than the brain science suggests – and if the damage occurs early enough, there may be ways of getting round it/compensating for it – but also that our categories of STM, LTM, semantic, procedural, explicit, implicit, while very useful for describing, and maybe theorising, memory, are probably crude over-simplifications abut an activity which is much more complex and fluid than these models.

…and: you always need a good headline:
Young woman remembers mum’s face better than strangers’ faces
– which I think is also an accurate reading of the press release (but does admittedly leave out the psychological point) wouldn’t generate much interest. Maybe there’s a positive side to Paris Hilton after all. Maybe.

*“Headquartered on a 22-acre campus in Ontario and fully affiliated with the University of Toronto, Baycrest is the global leader in developing and providing innovations in aging and brain health.” From what I can see on the website, I think it’s a combined hospital, care centre, and research centre.

Understanding narratives, in film and elsewhere, actually requires a lot of cognitive abilitiesOne of the most damaging (for her) early features of my mum’s gradually developing vascular dementia was her inability to follow (and therefore enjoy) stories, films, radio plays. On the other hand, I wasn’t that worried when my son, at about age four, enjoyed watching the video of Star Wars again, and again, and again, and again. This was valuable cognitive development stuff: he was coming to understand about sequences of events, and narrative – and probably about film representation of the real world (well Tatooine, anyway). He grew up to take a Drama degree….

Racism and Sexism Linked, Scientists Find (and Are We Repressing Something?)

Another ‘who would have guessed?’ story, maybe – but it led me to another forgetting/changing the past story. That story is a long way down the page, but the long lead-in to it is a bit interesting

Prejudiced attitudes are based on generalised suppositions about certain social groups and could well be a personality trait. Researchers at the University of the Basque Country (UPV-EHU) have confirmed the link between two types of discriminatory behaviour: sexism and racism. They also advise of the need for education in encouraging equality.

As I read through this story, I thought “but haven’t they heard about The Authoritarian Personality* (AP), the famous post WWII study which looked at the links between anti-Semitism, other forms of ethnocentrism (AKA racism, roughly), political beliefs, personal beliefs and upbringing?” I guess maybe the original researcher knew about it, but that knowledge doesn’t come across in the press release.

Very roughly (the story is complicated) the AP researchers were looking for the roots of anti-Semitism: not surprising in research financed by a Jewish organisation in California in the late 1940s. They used several personality/opinion scales, and showed a significant relationship (remember all the issues about what that might actually mean) between anti-Semitism, ethnocentrism, conventional ideas about sex and gender roles (a woman’s place is in the home), support for those in authority, and punitiveness towards those who broke society’s rules – and also far-right, anti-democratic values (using the F [for Fascism] scale). They also proposed a link between all those values and family dynamics and harsh discipline in childhood, and tied the whole ‘Authoritarian’ syndrome together with a Freudian/psychodynamic explanation to do with repressed and projected aggression. This research has been very controversial over the years, and took a slightly comic turn, in the 1950s, when the Enemies of the World changed from (sort-of) right-wing Fascists to (sort-of) left-wing Communists, and a UK researcher discovered the ‘authoritarian of the left’ to match the ‘authoritarian of the right’.

The whole thing is a fascinating study in methodology, kinds of explanation in psychology, and how political values are intertwined with ‘scientific’ psychology. Lots of the conclusions were questioned, and the whole package wasn’t really accepted as an explanation of racism and far-right values (especially the harsh upbringing bit), but I think the finding that these various prejudiced attitudes were to some extent associated held up. The best account I know is in Roger Brown’s book Social Psychology (first edition: not in the second edition) published in 1965. I can’t find any version of this available online. I’ve got a copy (bought new for my second year undergraduate social psych class when it was an exciting new book). I could loan out a photocopy of the chapter, maybe. I used to teach about the AP as a young psych lecturer in the 70s and 80s, but it’s sort-of dropped into the mists of history now. The whole of the (long, quite hard going, but wide-ranging) first volume of original report on the research is available on-line at the American Jewish Committee archive:
The E (ethnocentrism) and A-S (anti-Semitism) scales are at (this links them together as the E scale, but I think the first set of items were a separate scale in the original research). The statements you’re asked to agree or disagree with are pretty vile – maybe we’ve come some way in the last 60 years.

OK: what’s my point here?

Well, first, we’ve known for a long time that different aspects of racism go together, and were associated with conventional gender values in 1940s USA (what we’d call sexism today) so the Basque result isn’t surprising. The original AP suggested that authoritarianism was associated with over-positive self-image: the Basque researchers are reported to be surprised that racism wasn’t associated with low self-esteem – perhaps they hadn’t picked up the link with the AP, after all.

A bit more interesting – to me, anyway – is what I found when I started looking for modern information on the AP. There are quite a few short, fairly simple, not very academic accounts available online. The accounts seem to focus on the Fascism, anti-democratic aspect, and problems with the upbringing explanation, and downplay or leave out anything about the whole spectrum of attitudes, particularly various forms of racism, and how they might be associated and might be associated with political values. Examples:
(this summary starts with “Adorno et al. (1950) proposed that prejudice is the results of an individual’s personality type” – fair enough, but prejudice isn’t mentioned again)

Wikipedia gives a pretty good account, I think (it often does), but that plays down the prejudiced attitude stuff, too:

Seems like a clear case of (psychodynamic) repression to me – why won’t we recognise the study of racism as a vital part of a study which started as an inquiry into anti-Semitism? Are we not prepared to face up to something here?

* T.W. Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel J. Levinson and R. Nevitt Sanford (1950) The Authoritarian Personality, Studies in Prejudice, Volumes 1 & 2 Harper & Brothers

†Maite Garaigordobil at The University of the Basque Country. There’s no proper reference in the release (I hate that: this is why getting into the habit of proper referencing is part of being a good member of the academic community). Maite seems to publish mainly in Spanish, but a quick scan of the papers she lists on her web pages doesn’t show one that looks like this one, either in Spanish or English – please do let me know if you locate the original.

Finding up-to-date, interesting stuff in psychology: from Twitter to peer-reviewed journal

There’s a paper in the next edition of the journal Cognition which relates to the Alison Gopnik paper on babies’ understanding that  you’re reviewing for the first assessment. If you found the original paper interesting (I did), you might be interested to look at the Cognition paper, though it’s not necessary for the assessment.

How did I know it was there? Well, I subscribe to PsychologyNow on Twitter, which relays all kinds of press releases and blog posts about psychology, some pretty flaky, some (like this one) about research published in quality journals, but all released (and it’s important to remember this) to generate publicity for someone.
In this case, it’s the host university for the research which is publicising itself (NTU does the same).
So PsychologyNow pops up with

If I click through (…etc: Twitter shortens links to fit into the 140 characters). I get to    which looks like this:

That looks interesting, but I want more detail about the actual study.
At the bottom, it says:

Article adapted by Medical News Today from original press release. Click ‘references’ tab above for source.

If I click that, I get:

The study, “Do 10-month-old infants understand others’ false beliefs?” is published in the journal Cognition.
University of Missouri-Columbia

And if I click on that link:

Which is no use to me at all: Medical News Today hasn’t really used the right link.

BUT I have some more information now: I know that the study was done by “Yuyan Luo, associate professor of developmental psychology in the MU College of Arts and Science” (it says that on the MNT page) , and also that she was quoted as saying: “Understanding other people is a key factor in successful communication, and humans start to understand this at a very young age”. This is on the MedNT page, but it’s very likely taken word for word from the UMiss press release*  SO I can use these as search terms. Putting “Yuyan Luo” and “Understanding other people is a key factor in successful communication, and humans start to understand this at a very young age” into Google (the double quotes are important: you should know why by now), gives:
Well, actually, lots of other compilers and press agencies which have (plagiarised)* reported the same story in the exact same words, but also, five down:

Babies understand thought … – News Bureau – University of Missouri\….

Which looks like what I’m looking for. Clicking through on that gives:   which looks like this:

OK, that’s nearer the source, but it’s mainly the same as on MedNT BUT down at the bottom it says:

The study, “Do 10-month-old infants understand others’ false beliefs?” is published in the journal Cognition

NOW I can go to Scholar Google with “Do 10-month-old infants understand others’ false beliefs?” and ‘Cognition’, which takes me straight to:

OK, that’s the original article, and that’s great, but it won’t let me read the full article (I’m doing this from outside NTU in the comfort of my own home with Whapweasel, Fatamou Diabaté, Ballaké Sissoko, Bruce Springsteen playing on iTunes shuffle: so much nicer than Boots Library), so I have to go to ‘Institutional Login’ and go through the process I’ve described in ‘How to access journal articles from outside NTU’ on NOW, and FINALLY I can read the original paper (to be published next month in paper form in the journal).

Was that all worth it?
Well, it only took me a minute to actually do that: three clicks-through and two cut-and-paste searches. It’s taken me ages to describe it. What’s worthwhile is finding ways of finding out about interesting developments in psychology, and getting to look at the original research, and the intention of this post is to give you some idea of how to do that.

*If you start tracking down stories through the press, you’ll find that what we at the university regard as outrageous plagiarism is very common in the press, and for stuff like this that’s just reporting and nothing else, maybe that’s OK. Just don’t do it on the degree, kids: wait till you have a job and you’re paid to plagiarise – but watch out for copyright lawsuits.

† some of these articles/notices will say ‘adapted from’ or ‘based on’ a press release from XYZ, which is fair enough, but it’s unfair of me to claim the others are plagiarising – they’re just passing on stuff in a way which is recognised as being acceptable within the industry, which is quite different from what we’re doing in assessing people’s competence/originality, where this kind of word-for-word reproduction is NOT acceptable, unless it’s clearly signalled as a quote (which I hope I’ve done above).