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Category Archives: Psychology in the Media

Psychologist* shows that you can see almost anything in complex, ambiguous figures

A piece in Psychology Today (July 29, 2012) by Neel Burton in their ‘hide & Seek’ column: The Creation of God: Michelangelo’s awesome hidden message.

It’s an analysis of Michaelangelo’s famous picture from the Sistine chapel ‘The Creation of Adam’ ( claiming to show that “what almost everyone has missed is the hidden message that Michelangelo inserted: a human brain dissimulated in the figure of God.”

Although the Creation of Adam was painted around 1511, it is not until 1990 that Frank Lynn Meshberger, a physician in Anderson, Indiana, publicly noted in the Journal of the American Medical Association that the figures and shapes that make up the figure of God also make up an anatomically accurate figure of the human brain. Take a close look at the picture above and you will see the Sylvian fissure that divides the frontal lobe from the parietal and temporal lobes: it is represented by a bunching up of the cape by one of the angels and by a fold in God’s tunic. The bottom-most angel that appears to support the weight of God is the brainstem, and his trailing scarf the vertebral artery. The foot of another angel is the pituitary gland, and his bent knee the optic chiasm where the optic nerves from the eyes partially cross over. The ingenuity and level of detail is simply staggering, and a lasting testament to Michelangelo’s extraordinary—and, for the time, very unusual—knowledge of human anatomy.

Yeah, right. Take another look and you’ll see that if it is an image of the brain, then the cerebellum has been blown to ribbons, and there’s a very unhealthy-looking overdevelopment of the occipital lobe at the back of the brain. Also most of God’s body is in the midbrain, with a bit of His head sticking through into the frontal lobes. Given that God is the primary image in the right-hand cloud, what was M’s meaning in slicing up his body so randomly amongst different brain areas, given his “extraordinary—and, for the time, very unusual—knowledge of human anatomy”?

I think this is just another example of the powerful and compelling ability we have to extract meaningful information from very complex or confusing input – which sometimes leads us to ‘see’ clearly things which just aren’t there. You will have heard of images of the Virgin Mary  on pieces of toast, or sliced tomatoes (I regularly see Lao Tsu in my porridge).

An old example is this image:

Hidden face

Said to be originally a photograph of a snowy mountainside, but ‘revealing’ an image of a bearded man with long hair (some say Christ, some say Gerry Garcia: it’s probably Allen Ginsberg) if you look at it long enough. If you don’t see it,don’t worry. The face will pop out at you sooner or later, and once you’ve seen it, you won’t be able to go back to the meaningless blobs.

We all do this kind of thing with clouds, as Shakespeare noted some time ago:

Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?
Polonius: By the mass, and ’tis like a camel, indeed.
Hamlet: Methinks it is like a weasel.
Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.
Hamlet: Or like a whale?
Polonius: Very like a whale.

— Hamlet, III.ii

OK, this is Hamlet mocking Polonius for always agreeing with what the boss says, but it only makes sense because we all know that we can see all kinds of things in the complex, ambiguous patterns of clouds.

Charles Schultz used the idea too, in Peanuts:

Peanuts strip

In case you can’t read the speech bubbles above,or the image link stops working:

Lucy Van Pelt: Aren’t the clouds beautiful? They look like big balls of cotton. I could just lie here all day and watch them drift by. If you use your imagination, you can see lots of things in the cloud’s formations. What do you think you see, Linus?

Linus Van Pelt: Well, those clouds up there look to me look like the map of the British Honduras on the Caribbean. [points up] That cloud up there looks a little like the profile of Thomas Eakins, the famous painter and sculptor. And that group of clouds over there… [points] …gives me the impression of the Stoning of Stephen. I can see the Apostle Paul standing there to one side.

Lucy Van Pelt: Uh huh. That’s very good. What do you see in the clouds, Charlie Brown?

Charlie Brown: Well… I was going to say I saw a duckie and a horsie, but I changed my mind.

So, I think Neel Burton is wrong – and I think he’s missed an even more remarkable clue: God is passing the spark of life from his finger to Adam – just like the spark of life which ignites the petrol/air mixture in the combustion chamber of the petrol engine (M. did actually do drawings of a flat-four hemihead air-cooled engine, intended to power his famous helicopter, but they were lost in the 19th century). So every time I fire up the Bristol, I reflect on M’s secret message about the true meaning of life.

If you really want to get into the ‘M’s secret messages’ stuff, here’s  Orion in the Vatican by Daniel A. Wilten, an online book (only $9.99):

Witness the Orion nebula hidden in high altars and in famous frescoes by masters such as Michelangelo since the early 1500’s
Discover the famous fresco depicting the Orion constellation in the main vault of the mother Jesuit church
Discover the true origin of the winged disk and where the ancients derived its symbolism
Learn why Hermes Trismegistos declared Egypt the image of heaven
See proof of the Hall of Records and the Orion nebula matching recent development in Egypt
Resdiscover mystical knowledge uncovered after thousands of years
Learn man’s connection to the Orion nebula and its association to consciousness
Learn why the Orion nebula is the master code

*Not a psychologist, actually. Psychology Today says: “Neel Burton, M.D., is a psychiatrist, philosopher, and writer who lives and teaches in Oxford, England.”


Psychologists worried about existential queries. What’s the point?

Story by John Hooper in The Guardian today (18 July) about Corigliano d’Otranto, a small town in southern Italy, which has appointed an (unpaid) municipal philosopher. The town mayor, Ada Fiore, is a philosophy teacher.

Under Fiore’s mayorship, the council has put up ceramic plaques with quotations from the likes of Saint Augustine. It has given out postcards for distribution in bars and shops that ask existential questions, such as “Why were you born?”.

The municipal philosopher (hours 3-7 on Friday, €15 a session), Graziella Lupo, said that “Much of her work was about getting people to think clearly, listen to each other and formulate questions that bore on the subject in hand.” Right on, Graziella.

Dangerous stuff, which the head of the regional psychological professional body has roundly condemned.

Dr Giuseppe Luigi Palma said the use of a consulting philosopher was “not only misleading and confusing, but utterly perilous”. He said his organisation was ready to take “all the most appropriate actions to combat any offence that may be identified”.

What would be ‘all the most appropriate actions’ here? I guess trying the old ‘My next statement is a lie. My last statement was true’ trick on her won’t work – she’ll have seen that one before. Maybe giving out postcards saying ‘Have you ever wondered why you were born? Forget it, you don’t want to know: trust me, I’m a psychologist.’ Or could the population be infected with rampant reductionism?

If you do want to take the utterly perilous step of getting into existential queries, there is a discussion group: (though I think a lot of the questions there are metaphysical, rather than existential), which was linked to Existential Questions TV ( – but ‘this channel has been deleted’. Worrying.

For myself, I think many existential questions can be answered by watching Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. (And although this is a perilous area where psychologists should fear to tread, I can give an explanation, based on Cox’s Transactional Stress model and the Yerkes-Dodson Law, why it isn’t a good idea for the Knight to challenge Death at chess. If you’re brave enough, email me).

Graziella Lupo is on Facebook. I haven’t friended her, but she gives some public information: among her favourite authors/books are Zygmunt Bauman (yes!), Martha Nussbaum and  Virginia Wolf, and Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
One of her favourite films is The Matrix – not a good choice, but perhaps it’s compulsory for philosophers. That’s backed up with Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, which I hope she’s recommending to the citizens of Corigliano d’Otranto.

Palma has a website:, which is about his bid in the 2010 Puglia regional elections.

Lupo doesn’t seem impressed with Palma’s warnings:

“I don’t think the college of psychologists knows what a philosophical consultant is.” And being a philosophical consultant, she added: “Their criticism is in any case devoid of epistemological content.”

Can’t argue with that – at least, not without looking up ‘epistemological’.

ps As I’m coming near the end of 39 years of teaching psychology, the existential questions ‘what was that all about, then?’ and ‘was there any point?’ do crop up. ‘All the most appropriate action’ needs to be taken – writing blogs, calvados and singing, probably.

pps On the same page of The Guardian was the headline: “Chain of bicycle thieves sought by Paris police”. I bet that gave them a laugh. They got a completely irrelevant reference to De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves into the piece, too.

Scientists discover hardwired racist centre in our brains!!! Not

Or: are Daily Mail reporters hardwired to misrepresent psychology stories? Probably not.

This started out as a story about the Daily Mail misrepresenting some neuropsych research (why is that news?) but as I looked into it and thought about it, it involved some other issues.

The starting point is a Daily Mail story “Racism is hard-wired into our brains” about some research at New York University recently published in Nature Neuroscience (Kubota, Banaji & Phelps, 2012). I picked it up in The Guardian, initially in a letter to The Guardian from the three authors of the original journal article thanking The Guardian for a piece it had run in criticism of the Mail story, and making it clear that they did not say what the Mail said ‘scientists say’.

As I followed up the story, though, I found an account of how the original research is part of a Jewish conspiracy to destroy the white race,  and (conversely) how lefty’s (sic) and the BBC only object to ‘hardwiring’ when it’s about race [not discussed in this post: I might get back to it later]. It also started me thinking about ‘hardwiring’ (a word which was widely used in reports of the research, though it wasn’t in the original press release) and what it means and implies. So, below is an account of the original misreporting, then stuff about the Jewish plot. A thoughtful (I hope) bit about the concept of hardwiring will make a future post.

OK, start with the research and the Mail story. Here’s the abstract for the original paper, titled The Neuroscience of Race:

Abstract: As the racial composition of the population changes, intergroup interactions are increasingly common. To understand how we perceive and categorize race and the attitudes that flow from it, scientists have used brain imaging techniques to examine how social categories of race and ethnicity are processed, evaluated and incorporated in decision-making. We review these findings, focusing on black and white race categories. A network of interacting brain regions is important in the unintentional, implicit expression of racial attitudes and its control. On the basis of the overlap in the neural circuitry of race, emotion and decision-making, we speculate as to how this emerging research might inform how we recognize and respond to variations in race and its influence on unintended race-based attitudes and decisions.

This paper is at, but you need a subscription (or £22) to view the full paper. There’s a Nature News piece (essentially a press release)  How the brain views race: How do our brains respond when we see someone of a different ethnicity? By Mo Costandi at (Costandi, 2012), with quotes from Liz Phelps, one of the authors, where I think most of the later press stuff came from. The original paper is a review of other research which suggests that the regions of the brain involved in making decisions about the race of a person overlap with the regions of the brain involved in emotion: “there’s a network of brain regions that is consistently activated in neuroimaging studies of race processing. This network overlaps with the circuits involved in decision-making and emotion regulation, and includes the amygdala, fusiform face area (FFA), anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC).” (Constandi, 2012)

Yes, so?

Well, there’s a background in “the implicit association task, which measures initial, evaluative responses. It involves asking people to pair concepts such as black and white with concepts like good and bad. What you find is that most white Americans take longer to make a response that pairs black with good and white with bad than vice versa. This reveals their implicit preferences” (Constandi, 2012). This is a pretty well-known finding in psychology now, and implicit association measures are used quite a lot (including studies I find very unconvincing about whether people present their ‘true selves’ online – but that should be another post). Phelps mentions a 2000 study which showed a link between this kind of implicit preference measure with the brain areas mentioned above. Constandi doesn’t reference it, but it must be a paper in J Cognitive Neuroscience titled Performance on Indirect Measures of Race Evaluation Predicts Amygdala Activation by Elizabeth Phelps & six others (Phelps & al, 2000):

Abstract: We used fMRI to explore the neural substrates involved in the unconscious evaluation of Black and White social groups. Specifically, we focused on the amygdala, a subcortical structure known to play a role in emotional learning and evaluation. In Experiment 1, White American subjects observed faces of unfamiliar Black and White males. The strength of amygdala activation to Black-versus-White faces was correlated with two indirect (unconscious) measures of race evaluation (Implicit Association Test [IAT] and potentiated startle), but not with the direct (conscious) expression of race attitudes. In Experiment 2, these patterns were not obtained when the stimulus faces belonged to familiar and positively regarded Black and White individuals. Together, these results suggest that amygdala and behavioral responses to Black-versus-White faces in White subjects reflect cultural evaluations of social groups modified by individual experience.

As far as I can make out, the 2012 paper is reviewing a number of similar stories, which show that a) Whites may show (not consciously recognised) prejudice against Blacks, and b) emotion-relevant areas of the brain show activity when they’re doing that. Phelps suggests in the Constandi interview that some of this activity might be related to resolving (presumably unconscious) conflicts which arise when ‘right-thinking’ people feel stirrings of racial prejudice. This might fit with those good old 70s social psychology ideas of cognitive dissonance (someone must have done a fMRI study of cognitive dissonance, surely? I’d like to hear of it, if they have). So, overall, this looks like studies which sort-of, more-or-less, probably (remember that fMRI isn’t very precise, and there are a lot of calculations and assumptions that go into those nice coloured brain pictures) relate brain activity to psychological processes which we already have a pretty good knowledge of: interesting, but not very surprising.

But if it’s in the brain, it’s much more significant than if it’s in the behaviour, or so the Mail (and lots of others) think, so evidence about racism in the brain is more convincing than evidence from what we do. In the press release, Phelps points out that we already know that’s there’s lots of evidence of unintentional (or implicit) bias against African-Americans in US society. The way the research should process, she says, is: “We need to investigate how our implicit preferences are linked to the choices and decisions we make. We want to use this knowledge to reduce the unintended consequences of race bias — the things we do that aren’t consistent with our beliefs.” (Constandi, 2012). The title of the Nature News piece is How the Brain Sees Race, which doesn’t seem to reflect the piece well, but it gets worse when translated by the Daily Mail:

Racism is ‘hardwired’ into the human brain – and people can be prejudiced without knowing it

  • Same circuits that allow people to judge ethnic groups also drive emotional decisions
  • Even ‘right thinking’ people can have racist attitudes
  • Racism operates below the conscious level

By Rob Waugh (at–people-racists-knowing-it.html)

If you take the specific points made in the headline and subheads, and number them:

Racism is ‘hardwired’ into the human brain (1) – and people can be prejudiced without knowing it (2)
Same circuits that allow people to judge ethnic groups also drive emotional decisions (3); Even ‘right thinking’ people can have racist attitudes (4); Racism operates below the conscious level (5),
then four out of the five are not unreasonable (well, 3 is a bit dodgy: what do you mean by ‘judge’, here – and who decided that ‘judging’ was the most significant interaction between cultures?) – it’s just the big ‘hardwired’ headline that comes out of nowhere. 2 and 5 say the same thing, and are only slightly different from 4, but that’s just sloppy sub-editing. But ‘hardwired racism’ is what sticks in perceptions of the article: when I was searching for more information for this post, I found lots of repeats of the Mail headline in other newspapers and posts around the world, and it seems to have been preferred to the headline that Nature News used.

A bit further down, the Mail claims: “Brain scans have proved that interactions with people of other ethnic backgrounds set off reactions that may be completely unknown to our conscious selves.” It then goes on with quite a lot of quotes from Phelps which aren’t the same as the ones in the Nature News piece (as I’ve noted previously, newspaper quotes about science stories are often taken straight from PR material, so credit to the Mail for doing that – though you’ll see below that they didn’t research the story completely), but were quotes from the original paper – which seem to fit with the story I’ve given above, and with the Nature News piece (she goes on a bit more about the social importance of research like this in these quotes than in the Nature News piece), and not with the beginning of the article. A couple of years ago, when I got one of my classes to review psychology stories in the press, they often found that the main story was reasonably accurate and informative, but the headline and opening often distorted the story considerably, and they noted that this happened quite a lot with the Mail.

What made this story interesting to me was that Elizabeth Phelps and the other authors took the trouble to repudiate the false message of the Mail story. They wrote to The Guardian in response to a Guardian article also criticising the Mail’s version. Maybe they wrote to the Mail too, but I can’t find any hint of that on the Mail’s page for the article. It’s worth giving their letter  in full:

As the authors of the recent Nature Neuroscience article on the neuroscience of race, we would like to express our gratitude for the Guardian’s critique of an article published in the Daily Mail entitled “Racism is ‘hardwired’ into the human brain”. The Guardian’s response, by Richard Seymour (Comment is free, 27 June), is an accurate and responsible representation of the review article. Although the content of the Mail’s article consisted of quotes from the original piece, the paper did not contact the researchers for comment on the scientific conclusions. The sensational title that the Daily Mail selected not only misrepresents the science, but is also damaging for intergroup relations. By using the word “hardwired” the Mail title implies that racism is innate.
As the Guardian article accurately cites, race attitudes are largely culturally determined and shift over time. It is our opinion that the Daily Mail’s title was irresponsible and we applaud the Guardian’s efforts to stand with the scientists and accurately represent research.
Jennifer Kubota, Mahzarin Banaji, Elizabeth Phelps  New York University

(this is at, and The Guardian article by Richard Seymour is at

Right on, Jeni, Mahzarin and Liz.

The ‘Jewish conspiracy’ part starts here

In looking for material online about this research, I came across stuff which makes the Mail’s version look reasonable and balanced.

Here’s a blog headline and opening:

Jewish Scientist Nears Physical Cure For ‘White Racism.’ A Nanotechnology Lobotomy?

Time is running out for a white race already brainwashed into accepting, even welcoming their own fate.
‘Racism’ will be cured by future proceedures such as nano-tech operations to lobotomise areas of the brain as well as to alter DNA to ‘breed out’ the ability to discriminate within the white brain:
“Racism, says a leading Jewish scientist, “is ‘hardwired’ into the human brain – and people (Ed: in the terms of political correctness this means whites) can be prejudiced without knowing it.” Says Dr Elizabeth Phelps, of New York University. [I can’t find this quote from Phelps elsewhere: I think it’s probably constructed from the Mail headline]

I originally found this in the Our Weapon is Truth blog, posted on June 27, but then I found exactly the same stuff (including the missing double quote the third para) in Pragmatic Witness, posted on June 28, and Endzog, possibly the original source, posted on June 26. I wish my stuff was picked up and recirculated so quickly. The Weapon is Truth URL is – but you don’t have to go there: I read this stuff so you don’t have to.
I think the ‘wiping out the white race’ logic is that if we reduce white racism, then whites will inevitably be overwhelmed by other races (because the other races are innately superior?), or maybe ‘whiteness’ will be bred out of the world through miscegenation. The piece somewhat over-interprets Phelp’s quotes, I think:

In a sentence which betrays the plan to alter the human genome and the brain of individuals Dr Phelps says that “The finding may force researchers to think about racism in entirely new ways, and the findings published in Nature Neuroscience could lead to fresh ways of thinking about unintended race-based attitudes and decisions.”

Sorry, run that by me again? I’m always striving for ‘fresh ways of thinking’ in myself and others – but I hadn’t thought of trying altering genomes or nano-surgery. Nano-surgery? Here’s how it will work:

Here is such an application in development. One day, created to mimic bacteria and attuned to eat away fixed portions of the brain before dissolving, it could be dispensed through a tablet to offending schoolchildren or thought-criminals like Emma West or having been genetically engineered to target Caucasians, perhaps even released into the water supply in short bursts:

(Emma West is the drunk-racist-abuse-on-tram person: I had to look that up)

Don’t worry guys: we haven’t discovered the hardwired centre of racism in the brain, the kind of tumour-attacking nanotechnology described in the video wouldn’t work for ‘eating away’ the racism centre (though if you could find a racism neurotransmitter, I can imagine that it might be possible to nanofocus on that), and I can’t begin to imagine how you could alter the human genome to affect any of this (to move some bits of the brain away from others?) even less what Kotaba & al’s research has got to do with that. The ‘white race’ (whatever that is) is still safe.

OK, these people are fruitcakes, and what they say doesn’t make sense – but the kind of thing the Mail headline writers do (thoughtlessly, maybe, when it comes to science stories) gives them something to lever against. So I wish the Mail would be more thoughtful (and accurate) in how it headlines psychology research.

On the other hand, there’s no guarding against delusion: who’d have thought that the National Cancer Institute’s syrupy cancer-busting nanotechnology promotion would have inspired fantasies of eating away schoolchildren’s brains?

Constandi, Mo (2012) How the brain views race: How do our brains respond when we see someone of a different ethnicity? Nature News, 26 June 2012

Kubota, Jennifer T, Banaji, Mahzarin R & Phelps Elizabeth A (2012) The neuroscience of race Nature Neuroscience 15, 940–948

Phelps, Elizabeth A., O’Connor, Kevin J., Cunningham, William A., Funayama, E. Sumie, Gatenby, J. Christopher, Gore, John C. & Banaji, Mahzarin R. (2000) Performance on Indirect Measures of Race Evaluation Predicts Amygdala Activation Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 12(5), 729–738

Phelps, Elizabeth A. & Thomas, Laura A. (2003) Race, Behavior, and the Brain: The Role of Neuroimaging in Understanding Complex Social Behaviors Political Psychology 24(4), 747-758

You can rewire your brain! Well, maybe

As usual, a psychology story in the press which made me think ‘yes, but…’.

This is in today’s (Weds 13 June) Guardian: How Barbara Arrowsmith-Young rebuilt her own brain:

Barbara Arrowsmith-Young had a phenomenal memory but was ‘living in a fog’. She realised that part of her brain was not functioning properly so she devised a series of cognitive exercises to develop it. The results changed her life – and now she has helped thousands of children with learning disabilities

It looks as though this is a PR-inspired article. The second paragraph has the line: “She has just published a groundbreaking, widely praised and enthralling book called The Woman Who Changed Her Brain”. The online version of the article comes with a link to the book in the Guardian bookshop:
Some quick research turned up various online interviews and articles from various parts of the world in the last month or two, like this Australian book fair video: , and she was on at the Hay Festival on 5 June, so I guess the Guardian article is part of a world tour publicising the book – and her Arrowsmith cognitive program for children with learning disabilities:

So I think it’s important to note that this is a story that promotes a commercial operation from Arrowsmith-Young’s point of view, though that’s presumably not why The Guardian thought it worth publishing. That doesn’t mean it’s not psychologically interesting, or (more important) that there might be something here which really could benefit people with cognitive problems.

This is the story. AY (sorry, I ‘m too lazy to keep on typing Arrowsmith-Young) was a child with multiple cognitive problems: in the Australian video linked to above she describes a wider range of problems than are identified in the Guardian article. The basic point seems to be, though, that although she had a “phenomenal” memory, she “didn’t understand anything. Meaning never crystallised. Everything was fragmented, disconnected.” For example, she couldn’t grasp the relationship between hands of a clock and the time. “I was just not attaching meaning to symbols.” In spite of this, by hard work and memory power, she was able to pass school and university courses.
Then she came across two pieces of psychological research. The first was a case study by Alexander Luria of a Russian soldier who had been shot in the head* and suffered damage to the left occipital-temporal-parietal region:

I recognised somebody describing exactly what I experienced. His expressions were the same: living life in a fog. His difficulties were the same: he couldn’t tell the time from a clock, he couldn’t understand bigger and smaller without drawing pictures, he couldn’t tell the difference between the sentences ‘The boy chases the dog’ and ‘The dog chases the boy.’ I began to see that maybe an area of my brain wasn’t working.” [Luria’s book, The Man With a Shattered World (1972), which describes this case, is still available. There’s a useful, but very basic, summary at]

and then:

She read about the work of Mark Rosenzweig, an American researcher who found that laboratory rats given a rich and stimulating environment, with play wheels and toys, developed larger brains than those kept in a bare cage. Rosenzweig concluded that the brain continues developing, reshaping itself based on life experiences, rather than being fixed at birth: a concept known as neuroplasticity. Arrowsmith-Young decided that if rats could grow bigger and better brains, so could she. [Some details of Rosenzweig’s work further down]
So she started devising brain stimulation exercises for herself that would work the parts of her brain that weren’t functioning. She drew 100 two-handed clockfaces on cards, each one telling a different time, and wrote the time each told on the back of the card. Then she started trying to tell the time from each, checking on the back each time to see if she was right. She did this eight to 10 hours a day. Gradually, she got faster and more accurate. Then she added a third hand, to make the task more difficult. Then a fourth, for tenths of a second, and a fifth, for days of the week.
I was experiencing a mental exhaustion like I had never known,” she says, “so I figured something was happening. And by the time I’d done that for three or four months, it really felt like something had shifted, something had fundamentally changed in my brain, allowing me to process and understand information. I watched an edition of 60 Minutes, with a friend, and I got it. I read a page of Kierkegaard – because philosophy is obviously very conceptual, so had been impossible for me – and I understood it. I read pages from 10 books, and every single one I understood. I was like, hallelujah! It was like stepping from darkness into light.””

After all that (some years ago), AY has moved on to become able to talk “fluently and passionately and with great erudition” about her book and about her program for helping children with cognitive deficits. She has developed a range of mental exercises for helping a range of cognitive functions (The Guardian says 19) to help thousands of children diagnosed with ADD or ADHD over the years in 35 schools in the US and Canada.

OK, that’s the story, and it’s very interesting. But a few things worry me.

The first one was wondering how someone with no clear idea of cause and effect, and not able to understand a television news programme (she gives the ability to understand such a program after her exercises as evidence that they had worked), could understand the ideas and implications of Luria’s and Rosensweig’s work, and then make the conceptual jump from that to the clockface card exercise. I think I need more information to understand how that worked. I guess I should read the book.
The second worrying thing is that I don’t know of any peer-reviewed research to support this. A quick search in Google Scholar shows links to stuff published on her website, but not much else. I do know of research which suggests that ‘muscle-style’ training of cognitive abilities doesn’t seem to do much good. So Melby-Lervåg & Hulme (2012), after a meta-analysis of twenty three studies of working memory training, conclude in their abstract:

Meta-analyses indicated that the programs produced reliable short-term improvements in working memory skills. For verbal working memory, these near-transfer effects were not sustained at follow-up, whereas for visuospatial working memory, limited evidence suggested that such effects might be maintained. More importantly, there was no convincing evidence of the generalization of working memory training to other skills (nonverbal and verbal ability, inhibitory processes in attention, word decoding, and arithmetic). The authors conclude that memory training programs appear to produce short-term, specific training effects that do not generalize.

The third thing is my generalised cynicism about the spurious convincingness of explanations which depend on brain function. Now, I may be being unfair to AW, but there is evidence for this spurious convincingness as a general effect**. Weisberg, Keil, Goodstein, Rawson, and Gray’s (2008) paper The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations (available at tried out good and bad explanations for psychological phenomena, and found that adding a bit of neuroscience flannel enhanced credibility, at least for non-experts. Here’s their abstract:

Explanations of psychological phenomena seem to generate more public interest when they contain neuroscientific information. Even irrelevant neuroscience information in an explanation of a psychological phenomenon may interfere with people’s abilities to critically consider the underlying logic of this explanation. We tested this hypothesis by giving naïve adults, students in a neuroscience course, and neuroscience experts brief descriptions of psychological phenomena followed by one of four types of explanation, according to a 2 (good  explanation vs. bad explanation)  2 (without neuroscience vs. with neuroscience) design. Crucially, the neuroscience information was irrelevant to the logic of the explanation, as confirmed by the expert subjects. Subjects in all three groups judged good explanations as more satisfying than bad ones. But subjects in the two nonexpert groups additionally judged that explanations with logically irrelevant neuroscience information were more satisfying than explanations without. The neuroscience information had a particularly striking effect on non-experts’ judgments of bad explanations, masking otherwise salient problems in these explanations.

For camparison, here’s an accountof the AY approach from AY’s commercial website,

Recent discoveries in neuroscience have conclusively demonstrated that, by engaging in certain mental tasks or activities, we actually change the structure of our brains–from the cells themselves to the connections between cells. The capability of nerve cells to change is known as neuroplasticity, and Arrowsmith-Young has been putting it into practice for decades. With great inventiveness, after combining two lines of research, Barbara developed unusual cognitive calisthenics that radically increased the functioning of her weakened brain areas to normal and, in some areas, even above normal levels. She drew on her intellectual strengths to determine what types of drills were required to target the specific nature of her learning problems, and she managed to conquer her cognitive deficits.

I’d prefer some empirical evidence for determining “what types of drills were required”, rather than drawing on AY’s “intellectual strengths”, but the main point is that I think the opening statement is only really supportable in a fairly trivial sense: “by engaging in certain mental tasks or activities, we actually change the structure of our brains–from the cells themselves to the connections between cells.” Well, yes: to the extent that we’re cognitively changed by what we do, our brains change. What else could be happening? Those changes can affect our experience qualitatively, even in later life. Some years of struggling with singing in a choir, and trying to cope with big books full of notes, have made me almost able to read music directly and recognise intervals in a way which is experientially quite different from my earlier strictly by-ear experience of music, and I encourage anyone to try it – your brain will work better, and you’ll experience things you didn’t before!! – but I don’t see that as a neurological breakthrough. Is the AY statement a neurologically-enhanced not-much-of-an-explanation? Certainly the Rosenzweig*** studies, while important and fascinating, don’t take us into AY territory. You can read an original 1964 Bennet, Diamond, Kreech & Rosenzwieg paper here: (It’s always really valuable to read the originals), and a later 1996 summary (Rosenzweig and Bennett, 1996) here:
R&B were mainly concerned with increase in brain size and connectivity, and later on with improvements in memory and learning (obvious things to look at in rats). I always took that research as being more of a warning about the damaging effects of deprivation more than the enhancing effects of stimulation (though the B&Al paper does distinguish between non-deprivation and extra stimulation). I’m not up-to-date on this stuff, so I’d be interested to hear of more recent evidence which might suggest changes in more advanced cognitive functioning as a result of changed experience (apart from the non-result of M-L&H, cited above).

Am I being too sceptical here?

*People getting shot in the head is a valuable source for psychological/neurological research. If we ever run out of wars (unfortunately, not likely) we’ll have to make do with motorcyclists (note to my friend John: be careful out there).

**I got this reference from one of Ben Goldacre’s blogs about Mind Gym. Goldacre is wonderfully scathing, and funny, about Brain Gym, which also has some neurological explanations which don’t convince me (actually he’s wonderfully funny and scathing about lots of Bad Science – read the book, follow the blog, follow him on Twitter [for an interesting example of one way of using Twitter, including crowdsourcing advice about what to eat in your fridge]). This particular blogpost was
(The link G gives at the end to the Weisberg & al paper doesn’t work, but the ones I give here are OK – in June 2012, anyway)

***I can’t resist pointing out that Rosenzweig’s grandparents were asylum seekers (the people formerly known as refugees) or economic migrants (as with many valuable contributors to their new host society) – and no, not ‘bogus asylum seekers’ – what’s the point of seeking bogus asylum? Or even not really (bogusly) seeking asylum?: ‘Oh, thanks for giving me refugee status, but I don’t really want it: it was just a windup, actually.” Anyone who uses that phrase needs to take a (non-subsidised) course to improve their understanding of English and logic, and then be deported (to whatever planet they came from) if they fail. [Mild trolling here]

Bennet, Diamond, Kreech &, Rosenzwieg (1964) Chemical and Anatomical Plasticity of Brain Science 146, 610-619

Melby-Lervåg, M., & Hulme, C. (2012). Is Working Memory Training Effective? A Meta-Analytic Review. Developmental Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0028228
A short writeup about  this paper: No Evidence That Working Memory Training Programs Improve General Cognitive Performance

Rosenzweig, Mark R. and Edward L. Bennett. (1996) Psychobiology of plasticity: effects of training and experience on brain and behavior Behavioural Brain Research 78 57-65

Weisberg, Deena Skolnick, Frank C. Keil, Joshua Goodstein, Elizabeth Rawson, and Jeremy R. Gray (2008) The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 20:3, pp. 470–477

Which moral values drive your vote, and where’s your starting point?

After you’ve read this, check out the comment by my colleague Thom Baguley below (if you can’t see it, click on the title of this post to go to its ‘permalink’ version, which shows comments at the bottom. Gives a link to a useful debunking post by Andrew Gelman on the Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science blog (no, it’s good and interesting, really).

Interesting piece in this Wednesdays’ Guardian* by Jonathan Haidt (** giving a psychological line on why “working-class people vote for the political right, even when it appears to be against their own interests”. Haidt suggests that political choice is a moral choice as much as an economic one, and that right-wing parties “often serve up a broader, more satisfying moral menu than the left”.

This comes out of research by the group represented at

a group of professors and graduate students in social psychology at the University of Virginia, The University of California (Irvine), and the University of Southern California. Our goal is to understand the way our ‘moral minds’ work.

Haidt’s idea is that there are several dimensions of morality:


…and different political messages appeal to different aspects. So left-leaning messages often promote caringness, and to some extent fairness, while right-leaning messages promote liberty, loyalty, respect for authority and religion, and to some extent fairness. From this point of view, the right-wingers have the advantage of a wider range of values to promote. [psychologically-explainable Guardian errors: Haidt discusses this by analogy with the range of tastes we can detect: sweet, sour, salt, etc, and the article says that ‘conservatives have a broader moral palate than the liberals’: at least it keeps the metaphor unmixed, I guess. This is an association error, not a Freudian slip]

I said ‘to some extent fairness’ for both sides, because both sides focus on unfairness. On the right it’s the unfairness of spongers and benefit cheats (in the UK, anyway. In the US, this seems to include the unfairness of people who haven’t bought health insurance getting cancer treatment for free). On the left, it’s the unfairness of enormous rewards for people who aren’t seen as being useful to society. Quite a lot of the online discussions/slanging matches about the occupy movement and the 99% vs the 1% show these different orientations clearly.

Haidt claims that a good deal of people’s political are influenced by how strongly they feel about these different ‘flavours’ of morality, and the yourmorals group that he is associated with have quite a bit of research to show that people who identify themselves as being on the right and on the left do show different sensibilities to the different aspects. You can check that for yourself on the yourmorals site: after registering (anonymously, but with some demographic information), you can take lots of their tests, including the moral preferences questionnaire. When I did it, I came out higher on the care/harm dimension than 102,000 liberals and much higher than 21,000 conservatives (note that one personality difference between liberals and conservatives is that he latter are less inclined to waste their time with academic tomfoolery like this, by a ratio of 6 to 1), and much lower than either on sanctity/degradation – and I’m probably well to the left of most US liberals (Haidt explains that ‘liberal’ means something different in the US, not spineless, snivelling, selling-out posh-boy tuition-fee raisers, though he puts it more politely. The yourmorals site also introduces the word ‘socialist’ very gently, explaining that in some countries it is a respectable term for some people with left-wing views, presumably hoping that US respondents won’t be put off by it). Go & try it yourself, along with several other interesting measures on the site.

Haidt concludes:

When working-class people vote conservative, as most do in the US, they are not voting against their self-interest; they are voting for their moral interest. They are voting for the party that serves to them a more satisfying moral cuisine. The left in the UK and USA should think hard about their recipe for success in the 21st century.

All this makes sense to me, and fits broadly with traditional psychological approaches to political choice, like the authoritarian personality ( [Yes, I know there’s a lot more to it, but this post is long enough already]. In the few political arguments I get into (never seems to do any good), it often comes down to ‘position X leads to this moral wrong’, to which the other person responds ‘So? That’s not what’s important: it’s this moral wrong which we should be worried about’ – and the differences in the moral wrongs and rights people think significant do seem to correspond with the kind of dimensions Haidt is proposing. Maybe it would be a good idea to try to show how socialist policies do support those other moral dimensions. That might require some thought and ingenuity, or maybe just some lying.

But is there another factor, which you could call something like adaptive level? What’s accepted as a basic, obvious, taken-for-granted level of things like caringness, loyalty, sanctity? Probably everyone agrees that stamping on babies is unacceptable, but Haidt gives the example of cruelty to animals:

For example, how much would someone have to pay you to kick a dog in the head? Nobody wants to do this, but liberals say they would require more money than conservatives to cause harm to an innocent creature.

What about denying care to someone who is ill or injured unless they can pay for it? From my UK perspective, requiring payment for basic health care seems a bit like charging people for oxygen: it’s just unacceptable – and the UK political debate is around how health care – free at the point of delivery – should be organised, and how far it should extend, not about whether some people should be denied health care. The way I write about is shows my bias: it feels more appropriate to write ‘some people denied health care’ than ‘some people given health care’: the second phrase doesn’t seem to carry any information, like ‘some people have bodies’. ‘Some people denied champagne and Rolex watches’ and ‘some people have champagne and Rolexes’ works the other way.

From this side of the Atlantic, the idea that people should want to block access to free care seems perverse, and going beyond moral issues – but in the US, that’s a definitely debateable issue of freedom and fairness. In the same way, my Finnish friend was surprised that we dared to charge little children for food while they were in school: “Finnish people would find that just unacceptable” (Finland doesn’t charge tuition fees at universities for EU students, either – they have some idea about education being freely available to all – nutcases). It seems reasonable to suggest that moral issues are debated about some fixed, arbitrary start point, and this start point is culturally variable, but then we need an explanation and mechanism for his start point. Is it just custom and practice? Maybe if read some more of the papers from this group I’d get some idea about that.

Small methodological point: when I was doing the questionnaires on the yourmorals site, I found that they had comments boxes at the end like:

Was anything on this page unclear, or do you need to explain anything about your answers?

Was anything unclear in this study, or is there something we should know about your answers before we analyze your data?

Isn’t that sensible? I often use any comment box I can find to point out unclear things, or why the answers the questionnaire allows me to give misrepresent my position, because usually questionnaires don’t seem to have any interest in how respondents think about things like this. I suspect that means I get identified as some kind of contrarian weirdo whose responses should be junked. Nice to see researchers having the courtesy to ask – and probably improving their measures as a result (though it’s always possible that the analysis says IF ‘textincommentbox’ THEN ‘dumpresponses’)

*I don’t get all my psychology from The Guardian, though it may look that way, but my ‘Psychology & the Media’ option group found that there’s a great deal of psychology discussed in the everyday press, often with enough information to enable you to trace the publications (or at least the press releases) behind it, and this is a good example.

** Haidt will email you copies of quite a few of his papers from this site. He also helpfully tells you that it’s pronounced ‘Height’. Thanks for both of those things, Jonathan.

Scientists can read your thoughts!!!!! Yeah, right

There have been two recent sets of reports on the ‘scientists can read your thoughts’ theme.
The Guardian reports:

Mind-reading program translates brain activity into words

The research paves the way for brain implants that would translate the thoughts of people who have lost power of speech (31 January 2012)

This is about the paper by Pasley & al (2012) in PLoS Biology ‘Reconstructing Speech from Human Auditory Cortex.’
Here’s the original press release (as always, it’s a university press release which produces all the news coverage):– which includes a video showing the original stimuli and the reconstructions.

The Guardian story says:

In a series of new experiments, scientists have been able to use a computer to decipher brain activity. So what, huh? Well, the computer can reconstruct those signals into the actual words the participants are thinking about. It can read your mind.
OK, so sometimes the words were difficult to recognise, but that’s not the point: it means that people unable to speak could generate a voice just by thinking in sentences.
“Potentially, the technique could be used to develop an implantable prosthetic device to aid speaking, and for some patients that would be wonderful,” Robert Knight, a senior member of the team and director of the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, told the Guardian. “Perhaps in 10 years it will be as common as grandmother getting a new hip.”

Well, that would make sense if they were recording brain activity of people who are speaking these words, or even better intending to speak these words – but that’s not what’s happening here. They’re recording the activity of people listening to these words, so if there’s any mind reading going on here, it is reading what people are hearing, not what they’re thinking or intending.

The other similar story concerns the work of Jack Gallant and his team at U. C. Berkeley, published in Current Biology (Nishimoto & al, 2011): for the abstract.

The Economist says:


It is now possible to scan someone’s brain and get a reasonable idea of what is going through his mind. For the second paper of the trio [Gallant & al, 2011], published in Current Biology in September, shows that it is now possible to make a surprisingly accurate reconstruction, in full motion and glorious Technicolor, of exactly what is passing through an awake person’s mind.

Well, not really*.
The Discovery News account is more realistic:

What if scientists could peer inside your brain and then reconstruct what you were thinking, playing the images back like a video?
Science and technology are not even remotely at that point yet, but a new study from the University of California Berkeley marks a significant, if blurry, step in that direction.
Gallant wants to be clear about his lab’s research goal. “We’re trying to understand how the brain works,” he said. “We’re not trying to build a brain-decoding device.”

In the study, activity in the brain while watching the target video was matched with activity while watching a very large number of other random video clips, with ingenious software matching the target activity with whatever appeared in the brain activity while watching the other clips.

Here’s a shorter, but more precise, online press account:  Mind-Reading Tech Reconstructs Videos From Brain Images, by Dan Nosowitz, though as is often the case, the headline is not backed up by the information in the article. It’s a very short article, but is quite clear that what is happening is that Gallant is “attempting to reconstruct a video by reading the brain scans of someone who watched that video–essentially pulling experiences directly from someone’s brain”, and points out that this is really “what the researchers would really prefer we call ‘brain decoding’ rather than “mind-reading.”

That’s the point for of these studies: they’re picking up input signals at some level of decoding, and this isn’t really very different from the kind of event recording in the optic nerve or the visual cortex carried out by people like Hubel and Weisel all those years ago. Certainly, H & W were given the Nobel Prize, quite rightly, for their work, and this work takes the analysis deeper into the brain and at a much higher level of complexity and so is a considerable advance – but it’s not ‘reading our thoughts’. The Gallant paper from U.C. Berkeley puts it nice and clearly: “These results demonstrate that dynamic brain activity measured under naturalistic conditions can be decoded using current fMRI technology.”
The results are really impressive. Here’s a demo video of the video inputs and the computer reconstruction:

That’s a great technical advance, but we already have a ‘reading your thoughts’ example using EEG. This is the ‘readiness potential’ which Libet (1985) used in the well-known study which shows that brain activity showing decision to act seems to anticipate conscious awareness of that decision. Actually, the readiness potential was discovered a long time ago, first reported by Kornhuber and Deecke in 1965. I first heard of it in a talk by W. Grey Walter in 1968, and Grey Walter had been able to use readiness potential to allow people to use ‘mind control’ of the world nearly 50 years ago. He had set up a system to detect the readiness potential, and use that signal to do things like switching a light off and on. All you had to do was to decide to switch the light and the system would pick up your decision and do the action for you. I don’t think there was any differentiation of readiness potentials, so the system could only be set up to do one thing at a time, and probably deciding to do anything would activate it, so that’s not really mind reading, either. I remember Grey Walter saying that the easy way of doing this was to actually reach out for the switch, when the sytem would turn on th elight before you got there, but he did find it possible to activate the system without actually making the movement, just by forming the intention. He said it was a weird sensation. I think Grey Walter is an under-remembered scientist. His EEG work is fascinating, and he also did important early work in robotics. He does have a Wikipedia page:

(You need to be aware that the account I just given is an unsubstantiated memory of a rather informal talk nearly 50 years ago, when I was a young physiologist just beginning to learn about psychology. I’m sure I haven’t made it all up, but the account of what Grey Walter had been able to do may be more complete and coherent than the actual research. From all we know about memory some changes in that direction are likely.)

Actually, while following the press stories on the research above, I came across something which does look a bit more like mind reading, and is maybe more encouraging, or more frightening, depending on your point of view.

Here’s the Discovery News story:

A simple slide show could be the next weapon against terrorists. Using a brain-electrode cap and imagery, scientists at Northwestern University can pick the date, location and means of a future terrorist attack from the minds of America’s enemies.

Well, no it can’t, but if you read on there is some interesting stuff happening:

The electrodes measure the P300 brain wave, an involuntary response to stimuli that starts in the temporoparietal junction and spreads across the rest of the brain. When the wave hits the surface of the brain, the electrodes detect the signal. The stronger the reaction of the subject to a particularly stimuli, the stronger the P300 brain wave.
Rosenfeld and his co-author, graduate student John Meixner, divided 29 Northwestern University students into two groups. One group planned a vacation while the other group planned a terrorist attack. The students then had electrodes placed on their scalp, and were shown a series of images of various cities, such as Boston and Houston, and various means of attack, along with other related, but irrelevant, images as controls.
As the slide show advanced, the electrodes recorded the P300 waves. When, for instance, the mock terrorists saw an image of the city they planned to attack, the electrodes recorded strong P300 brain waves. The Northwestern scientist then compared the strength of all the brain waves to find out who was planning at attack on which city, when they were planning it and how they meant to carry out the attack.
The Northwestern scientists correlated the strongest brain waves with “guilty knowledge” every time. Weaker P300 waves were seen when subjects saw images not associated with their planned attack. Scientists also examined P300 waves from the students in the group that was planning vacations, and did not falsely identify any of them as terrorists.

Here’s an actual paper on the research (Rosenfeld & al, 2008):

If you’ve read my previous posts, you’ll know exactly what I’m going to say here. Brilliant research, doing complicated stuff, with fascinating possibilities, but greatly overhyped by the headlines, and slightly misrepresented by the text, with the clearest remarks about the true scope of the research right at the end of the article. I think the overall result of this is to make the reader cynical about any possibility of progress – “I read about the same thing five years ago, and it never happened: these scientists are always making fanciful claims” – and to underrepresent the complexity (and interest) of the research that is actually going on.

*To be fair to The Economist, the article also describes two other interesting studies which are a little bit nearer to the ‘mind reading’ headline**.

**But to be pedantic (and maybe unfair) no-one uses Technicolor nowadays, and you have to be pretty old to even remember the phrase ‘in glorious Technicolor’.


Grey Walter, W (1964) Contingent negative variation: An electrical sign of sensorimotor association and expectancy in the human brain Nature 203, 380-384

Libet, B. (1985) Unconscious cerebral initiative and the role of conscious will in voluntary action. Behavior & Brain Science 8, 529–566

Nishimoto, Shinji, Vu, An T., Naselaris, Thomas, Benjamini, Yuval, Yu, Bin, Gallant Jack L. (2011) Reconstructing Visual Experiences from Brain Activity Evoked by Natural Movies Current Biology, 21(19), 1641-1646

Pasley, Brian N., Stephen V. David, Nima Mesgarani, Adeen Flinker, Shihab A. Shamma, Nathan E. Crone, Robert T. Knight, Edward F. T PLoS Biology
Available at:

Rosenfeld, J. Peter, Elena Labkovsky, Michael Winograd, Ming A. Lui, Catherine Vandenboom and Erica Chedid (2008) The Complex Trial Protocol (CTP): A new, countermeasure-resistant, accurate, P300-based method for detection of concealed information Psychophysiology, 45, 906–919.
Available at:

How Neuroscience Appears in the Mainstream Press: some empirical support for my prejudices

A paper published this month in the journal Neuron by O’Connor, Rees and Joffe (2012): Neuroscience in the Public Sphere is a fascinating content analysis of how neuroscience has been presented between 2000 and 2010 in six mainstream UK newspapers: the Daily Telegraph, Times, Daily Mail, Sun, Mirror, and Guardian.
On the basis of other research by Racine and colleagues (referenced in the article) they point out that there are three main stories in representation of neuroscience research:

Neurorealism describes the use of neuroimages to make phenomena seem objective, offering visual proof that a subjective experience (e.g., love, pain, addiction) is a “real thing.” Neuroessentialism denotes depictions of the brain as the essence of a person, with the brain a synonym for concepts like person, self, or soul. Finally, neuropolicy captures the recruitment of neuroscience to support political or policy agendas.

I have complained in previous posts about the logical flaw in neurorealism, and I guess the habit of illustrating articles with a generic fMRI image of the brain (which I also hate) is an example of neuroessentialism.
O’Connor et al’s paper goes further than this, however, with fascinating detail of trends and content:

The data revealed that the number of articles published per year climbed steadily for most of the decade (Figure 1) [in original], despite drops in 2007 and 2009. Table 1 [in original] displays the percentage of articles that discussed different subjects. The most frequent category of subjects to which the media referred was brain optimization: 43% of all articles discussed enhancement of or threats to brain function. Thirty-six percent of articles referred to psychopathology, 24% to basic functions, and 14% to applied contexts. Fourteen percent discussed issues related to parenthood and 12% individual differences, while sexuality and morality both appeared in 11% of the sample.

They identified three main themes: brain as capital, brain as index of difference – so explaining differences between people in terms of differences in brain function – and thirdly, and what I’ll focus on here, brain research as proof of particular phenomena or beliefs.

The final theme captures the deployment of neuroscience to demonstrate the material, neurobiological basis of particular beliefs or phenomena. This was presented as evidence of their validity and was sometimes used for rhetorical effect. This theme traversed most of the code categories but was particularly salient within applied contexts, basic functions, sexuality, and spiritual experiences.

Two sub-themes here. First, neuroscience research tells us what is ‘natural’, and what is natural must be right… ” In social discourse, what is “natural” is often equated with what is just or right: implicit in the descriptive “is” statement is a normative “ought” statement.”  …the other is assuming that if you can show a neurological correlate of something, then that is a complete and sufficient explanation for it, even if the phenomenon is something which obviously also relates to social and historical factors:

For example, research on the analgesic effects of religious beliefs was used to explain how religious martyrs endure torture (Daily Telegraph, September 9, 2008); the tenacity of historical figures like Winston Churchill and Emmeline Pankhurst was attributed to their alleged possession of a gene linked to stubborn behavior (Daily Mail, January 3, 2008); and a study showing that informational overload can “crowd out” empathy was presented as evidence that social networking websites like Twitter “rob people of compassion” (Daily Mail, June 3, 2009). These were examples of overextensions of research, with implications drawn far outside the original research context. This overextrapolation of research was not limited to idle speculation but sometimes extended to calls for concrete applications. Daniel Amen, a psychiatrist and owner of a chain of private brain-scanning clinics, has suggested in the US press that all presidential candidates should have their grey matter probed. This, he suggests, would help to steer clear of a future Adolf Hitler (cursed with “faulty brain wiring”) or Slobodan Milosevic (who suffered “poor brain function”). (Times, January 7, 2008)

The authors point out that this is a powerful rhetorical technique:

The media data provide a naturalistic analog to experimental findings that brain-based information confers a scientific aura that obscures an argument’s substantive content (Weisberg et al., 2008). The ability to simulate coherent “scientific” explanations through cursory reference to the brain meant that neuroscience was exploited for rhetorical effect. Due to the size and range of the media sample, it was impossible to directly compare media coverage with the corresponding neuroscience research to precisely establish the extent they diverged. However, it seemed clear that research was being applied out of context to create dramatic headlines, push thinly disguised ideological arguments, or support particular policy agendas.

… and understanding of this has implications for scientists:

Rather than a one-way flow of information in which scientists passively impart “the facts” in a press release, the public engagement process thus becomes a dialogue in which scientists interact with, influence, and are influenced by society. Awareness of the public impact of neuroscientific information should also be encouraged within the policy sphere. Incorporation of neuroscientific evidence into policy debate should be closely monitored to ensure that the contribution is substantive rather than purely rhetorical and that neuroscientific evidence is not used as a vehicle for espousing particular values, ideologies, or social divisions.

I’ve quoted extensively from this article, because what it says is worth repeating. It seems clear and evenhanded, and is short and quite readable. It covers more topics than the one I’ve picked out, as well. Follow the link above and you can read it for yourself.

I found this article by following a post on the Neurobonkers blog: “New paper slams UK media for routinely misrepresenting neuroscience research to further ideological agendas”
Nneurobonkers looks as though it’s an interesting and entertaining blog, and I think I’ll try following it. “New paper slams UK media for routinely moisrepresenting” is a bit strong, perhaps. I’m tempted to believe that the Daily Mail might routinely misrepresent things to further ideological agendas, but that’s my prejudice. When my ‘Psychology and the Media’ option students studied psychology reporting in the popular press a couple of years ago we actually came to the conclusion that Daily Mail articles on psychology were comparatively quite accurate and informative, though the headlines for those articles did often seem to misrepresent the research. Can’t believe that The Guardian would misrepresent anything, though – but they do use that stupid brain picture a lot.

Update: Just noticed a useful blog post by, which gives information on the Racine & al research mentioned above, and other similar stuff, and a devastating example of how neuro information is misunderstood and misused (and misrepresented, it seems), in Cordelia Fine’s criticism of an assertion in Louann Brizendine’s bestseller The Female Brain that women are more empathic than men because they have more mirror neurones than men. Brainblogger’s post is worth reading if you thought the stuff above was interesting.

Full article reference:
O’Connor, Cliodhna,  Rees, Geraint & Joffe, Helene (2012) Neuroscience in the Public Sphere, Neuron 74, (2), 220-226

Refs mentioned above from the article:
Racine et al., 2005 Racine, E., Bar-Ilan, O., and Illes, J. (2005). Nat. Rev. Neurosci6, 159–164. PubMed

Racine et al., 2006 Racine, E., Bar-Ilan, O., and Illes, J. (2006). Sci. Commun. 28, 122–142. PubMed

Racine et al., 2010 Racine, E., Waldman, S., Rosenberg, J., and Illes, J. (2010). Soc. Sci. Med71, 725–733. CrossRef | PubMed

Rubinstein et al., 2001 Rubinstein, J.S., Meyer, D.E., and Evans, J.E. (2001). J. Exp. Psychol. Hum. Percept. Perform. 27, 763–797. CrossRef | PubMed

Final note: I’ve copied and pasted these references from the original journal articles, so they’re obviously in correct form for the journal. That form leaves out the title of the paper: seems particularly unhelpful, but I’m too lazy follow them through and find the titles for you. You can get an idea of the topics from the way they’re cited in the paper and the quotes above.

“It makes perfect sense, then, to include our likes of big brands in our on-line identities” Antonia Senior, 2012

Short article in Media Guardian on 5 March on Facebook’s use of people’s product ‘likes’:

It’s mainly about the using your data/privacy/big business debate, and interesting from that point of view, but for my students interested in online identity, it raises some points about that, as well as identity and products generally:

Ten minutes in the British Museum suggests some of the reasons: humans have always been identified by what they buy. Ever since Stig stepped out of his cave with a particularly on-trend club, the link between who we are and what we possess has been there.

Well, maybe.* This is probably a culturally-biased view, and it’s definitely a data-biased one. What are you going to show in the British Museum except possessions? What can you show in the British museum except possessions? What can the British Museum curators argue from the evidence available to them except that there is a link between who people are and their possessions, even if they probably guess that there’s more to it than that? I think there’s a link between who I am and how I deal with problems, respond to people I don’t know, interact with small children, what I sing along with when I’m doing the washing up… (and, OK, the possessions, too). The only bit of that future archaeologists could possibly pick up is that I might have done the washing up, since there’s no robbed-out dishwasher space in the excavation of my kitchen.

The article claims that Coke (Rihanna, too) has far more Facebook likes than Jesus of Nazareth. Even as a non-Christian, I find that depressing. Makes me feel like seeking his page out and making my vote. From what I’ve read about him, he’d be prepared to friend even a poor sinner like me. We should all do it: “according to […] Jesus was in the top 10 risers last week.”

* analysis of this blog will show that ‘Well, maybe’ is the commonest phrase, probably

Unless it’s ‘probably’

Does having thin friends give you anorexia? …and should there be government intervention about that?

This is a long post about something people might have heard me going on about before, but I think there are some useful points near the end – and a personal confession. If you don’t want to go through all my nit-picking about the research behind these headlines, just scroll down to where it says RANT STARTS HERE.

A story cropping up all over this week (but please read on, past these headlines – because I don’t think the headlines are at all justified):

The Guardian: Anorexia research finds government intervention justified: Economic analysis finds that banning very skinny models from catwalk and pictures from magazines may prevent ‘epidemic’

Vox: Research-based policy analysis and commentary from leading economists: When distorted self-image takes its toll: The effects on the health of European females Joan Costa-i-Font &  Mireia Jofre-Bonet (authors of the original article)
Striving for the perfect body can take its toll, both physically and mentally. This column shows how excessive preoccupation with self-appearance can give rise to preventable eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia, among European females. It is time for policy action to shift people’s perceptions of their ideal body closer to what is healthiest.

The Age (an Australian newspaper): Skinny model ban ‘could curb anorexia’
Governments are justified in using the law to stop modelling agencies using very skinny women on catwalks and prevent magazines from printing photographs that suggest extreme thinness is attractive, according to research from the London School of Economics.

These are based on an upcoming paper in Economica. It’s not available online yet, though it looks as though Economica makes the current issue available free online, which is good, so you might be able to get to it in a few months. The authors link to CEP Discussion Paper No 1098 November 2011: Anorexia, Body Image and Peer Effects: Evidence from a Sample of European Women Joan Costa-Font and Mireia Jofre-Bonet in their Vox piece above, which looks as though it’s likely to be very similar to the forthcoming article.

The article is long and complicated and based on economic modelling, with lots of equations. I don’t understand the modelling process, and even if I did, I couldn’t follow the maths. So perhaps I shouldn’t comment, but I think I get the drift of the argument and the evidence – and how that relates, or doesn’t, to the headlines. I don’t think the article justifies the conclusions above, and I think it misses an important psychological point about eating disorders.

The research is a piece of economic modelling about the relative utility of health and body image, and how that might be influenced by various social and demographic factors, which comes to the conclusion:

Our results were consistent with the assumption that individuals trade off health against self-image.

Also, there’s a demonstration that ‘severe anorexia’ rates, as defined by the number of women who had a very low BMI (body mass index & so were extremely thin), who saw themselves as being ‘fine’ or ‘too fat’, and who also thought they were eating adequately, are higher in those European countries where women have lower BMIs generally. I don’t think that’s a great definition of extreme anorexia. But OK, then – and then what are their conclusions?

Also, in agreement with the epidemiological literature, we found that weight-related food disorders happen mostly at younger ages and require attention before they extend to older age groups. Note that the findings showed that anorexia primarily affected women aged between 15 and 34, and that it was primarily socially induced. These results have serious policy implications. They call for urgent action on individual identity, probably while it is still being formed, so as to prevent severe damage to women’s health and in order to improve their well-being and that of their families and friends.

Well, we sort-of knew about the younger-ages bit, and could have guessed that there are social influences (in accordance with a number of ‘you catch being fat from your friends & family’ findings),but does that really provide solid backing for the conclusions in the last two sentences?

Both the newspaper headline stories above talk about how this research supports a government ban on thin models. All I could find out about that in the article was the final paragraph:

In the light of this study, government intervention to adjust individual biases in self-image would be justified to curb or at least prevent the spread of a potential epidemic of food disorders. The distorted self-perception of women with food disorders and the importance or the peer effects may prompt governments to take action to influence role models and compensate for social pressure on women driving the trade-off between ideal weight and health. However, given the nature of the data and the absence of natural experiments we can’t prove our results as being causal and should be taken with caution.

Nothing about banning thin catwalk models (actually nothing about models at all) in the paper. The authors did try out a measure of exposure to inappropriate images by using subscription rates to ‘women’s magazines’ – and found it unrelated to anorexia rates. They comment:

The result of non-significance for the women’s magazine circulation per capita was quite puzzling as it was not consistent with some specific studies on the subject (Turner et al., 1997). This may be due to the crudeness of the country measure and the possibility that the categories are not comparable across countries; perhaps better quality data was required to measure the effect of environmental or media-related variables.

In other words, as good scientists, if we don’t find the results we wanted we presume it must be a problem with our measurements (this isn’t meant to be a snide criticism of the authors: that’s the way most people react to disconfirmation, really – and their measure was pretty crude). More importantly, it was NOTHING to do with skinny catwalk models.

Actually I think other measures in the paper seem pretty crude and/or inappropriate: for instance, their measure of health-consciousness was “the declared number of gynaecological screenings taken in the last 6 months.” The study uses a big general-purpose European dataset, so they have to use whatever measures were taken in compiling the dataset, rather than choosing appropriate measures – but it might be better not to force too much meaning into those measures.

The index of ‘severe anorexia’, as defined above, for women 15-34 varies a lot across European countries, from 4+% in Austria to 0.0% in Northern Ireland, what used to be West Germany, Greece, France and the Netherlands. What used to be East Germany (right next to West Germany) has a rate of 1.45%, and Ireland (right next to Northern Ireland) has 2.66%, so those are medium and high rates compared with other European countries. It’s a bit surprising that what you might think are closely related countries have such different rates of severe anorexia – though the mean BMIs of the population of young women in the those countries (the peer comparison measure) do go in the appropriate direction: higher in WGermany and NIreland than EGermany and Ireland.

So, I’m not convinced by the evidence, and it looks as though the ‘government should ban skinny models’ stuff just comes out of reporters’ fevered imaginations (or, more likely, the headline they’ve used several times before without thinking about it properly then, either). But on top of that….


Two things to rant about.

Yes, anorexia can be dreadful, both for those individuals who want to starve themselves, and for those around them, but it’s not the important weight epidemic. Overeating and obesity are what kills many more people, and looks to be getting to be a bigger and bigger problem. So if underweight models really do encourage young women (and men) to eat less – bring them on. Starve them more: their sacrifice will be worth it for the good of the nation. When I walk down the street, I don’t see much evidence of the malign influence of skinny models; more the effect of cheap calories and low-effort transportation, and I’m sure that’s the case in the diabetes clinics, too. [Disclaimer: my BMI is around 30, so I could definitely do with some of that influence, if it worked].


Whenever I read first-hand accounts of anorexia, the thing that strikes me most are issues of control, not body dysmorphia or inappropriate models. A couple of recent, anecdotal, examples: Gok Wan talking about his anorexia on TV last week: ‘I felt I couldn’t control anything in my life except what I put in my mouth, so I started to control that’.

Laurie Penny (identifying herself as a recovered anorexic) in the New Statesman, 5 March, 2012 (this article may appear on her blog:, which has other interesting stuff on it, though it’s not there as I write):

The most important thing to recognise about eating disorders is that starving, bingeing, purging and puking are not causes of distress, they are symptoms of it. The diseases are replete with contradictions, at once about denying hunger for food, for rest, for fun, for sex, for freedom while the sufferer – a curious combination of aggression and compliance. Eating disorders are what happens when youthful rebellion cannibalises itself.

She compares anorexia with work-to-rule strikes:

Women, precarious workers, young people, and others for whom the stakes of social non-conformity are high, lash out by doing only what is required of them, to the point of extremity. Work hard; eat less; consume frantically; push yourself to the point of collapse.
We followed all the rules, sufferers seem to be saying – now look what you made us do.

Seems a more psychologically (and socially) sophisticated account to me – and suggests that even if we locked up all those skinny models, the problem won’t go away.

Final admission That’s my position, intellectually, but actually, deep down, I’m influenced by the skinny models, too, and they’ve led me into dysmorphia. I would love to be able to put on a light-coloured linen suit and look like Bill Nighy

 or Dan Cruickshank,

 but when I look in the mirror, all I see is Sydney Greenstreet (Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, and below):

Was: Cognitive Psychology as the science of killing people; now: Neuroscience as the science of….

In this week’s lecture, I’ll present the case that the rise of cognitive psychology in the 50s and 60s, and then the development of computational models in psychology in the 80s, and cognitive neuroscience more recently, were heavily financed by the military, because they helped to provide the knowledge required to enable soldiers to operate increasingly complex weapons systems, and more recently to replace soldiers with smart weapons.

I admit that my view of the development of cognitive psychology may be biased because many years ago, as a hard-line pacifist, I refused to apply for an attractive post-doc research job (in visual search, the topic of my PhD thesis) because it was financed by the Navy – and maybe my career has been downhill ever since. I’m still a hard-line pacifist: show me a war and I’ll march against it (never seems to do much good)*.

But, every time I start thinking this is just an eccentric personal concern, something comes along which reminds me that psychological research is useful to the military, they do finance it, and it is something to be concerned about.

An example from 2008: ‘You really can smell fear, say scientists’ (  an article in The Guardian by James Randerson. Great study involving parachutists’ armpits and brain scanners, looking for a ‘fear pheromone’ (psychologists know how to have fun). And the fourth paragraph reads:

The research was funded by the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency – the Pentagon’s military research wing – raising speculation that it is a first step to isolating the fear pheromone for use in warfare, perhaps to induce terror in enemy troops. But DARPA denied that it had any military plans for fear pheromones or plans to fund further research into the field.

I was preparing this year’s lecture, and thinking that example was a bit dated, when along came (7 February 2012): Rise of the man-machines: how troops could plug their brains into weapons, by Ian Sample in The Guardian. That’s an over-sensationalist title: like most articles like that, the title should have a compulsory ‘sometime, maybe’ added at the end, but it’s a serious article about a just-released report by the (UK) Royal Society which “considers some of the potential military and law enforcement applications arising from key advances in neuroscience”. The intro to the report is at, and the full report is at:

From The Guardian article:

The authors argue that while hostile uses of neuroscience and related technologies are ever more likely, scientists remain almost oblivious to the dual uses of their research.

The article quotes Vince Clark, a US researcher who is using transcranial direct current stimulation to enable soldiers to spot targets more quickly, as saying:

As a scientist I dislike that someone might be hurt by my work. I want to reduce suffering, to make the world a better place, but there are people in the world with different intentions, and I don’t know how to deal with that.
If I stop my work, the people who might be helped won’t be helped. Almost any technology has a defence application.

Clark’s work is also potentially useful for dementia sufferers, so I hope he makes a lot of progress in time for it to be useful to me, but still…. (Actually another article by Sample the same day: points out “How dementia drugs could be used by the military”.)

Both the article and Royal Society report are fascinating reading, but I was struck that the Royal Society’s first recommendation for the scientific community is:

There needs to be fresh effort by the appropriate professional bodies to inculcate the awareness of the dual-use challenge (i.e., knowledge and technologies used for beneficial purposes can also be misused for harmful purposes) amongst neuroscientists at an early stage of their training.

So, that’s what I’m doing in my lecture (and here). All you early-stage neuroscientists, think about this. Just saying.

* Bring home our boys from Iran. I’d like to claim you read it here first, but Mad Magazine got there before me.

Good luck with that, Vince. You, me, and most Miss World contestants, they say.