Monthly Archives: February 2009

Common Drug Could be an Emotion Eraser

beta-blockersIf your doctor offered you a well-tested, often-prescribed drug to erase emotions associated with your worst memories, would you take it?   According to a study just published in the online journal Nature Neuroscience, this Brave New Worldish sounding scenario may not be as unrealistic as it seems. 

The study tested whether beta blockers, a common class of drugs often prescribed for heart conditions, would dampen the level of emotion felt when recalling a frightening memory.  According to Science News, researchers paired an electric shock with an image of a spider to condition study participants to have a fearful memory of the image.  Later, some participants were given the beta blocker propranolol, and others a placebo.

All participants were then shown the image of the spider again after 24 hours.  Participants who had been given the beta blocker showed a significantly lower fear response than the placebo group, and in some cases the fear response was eliminated.

It’s important to note that the memory of the spider and the electric shock was still intact — it was the emotion felt with the memory that was reduced or eliminated.

From the Science News article:

The researchers think beta-blockers work by changing the way the frightening memories are stored. Each time a memory is recalled it changes a little, and the new version is recorded in the long-term memory stash via brain chemical fluctuations in a process called reconsolidation. The beta-blockers could interfere with the brain chemicals, blocking reconsolidation of the emotional component of the memory, but leaving the rest of the memory intact, the scientists suggest.

Here, however, is the catch: if beta blockers work the way this study suggests, by interfering with the reconsolidation of the emotional component of memory, then it’s not just bad memories that would be affected.  Emotional responses that tag along with the happiest memories would also be dampened or eliminated.

Clearly a lot more research will be done before beta blockers would ever be prescribed for anxiety disorders or post traumatic stress. But, it may be that one day many people will be faced with the choice of numbing all of their emotional memories–the bad and good–or deciding to suffer the bad ones because the good ones are just too important to lessen.


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Video Game Vaccine for the Brain

tetris-game-largePeople who have witnessed a violent event are often plagued by traumatic memories, sometimes lasting many years.  Who would have thought that playing Tetris could be a remedy to lessen the trauma? 

Researchers at Oxford University hypothesized that playing Tetris after witnessing violence would sap some of the cognitive resources the brain would normally rely on to form memories.  In the study (available in full at PLos ONE), participants were exposed to a 12-minute film containing real injury and death, and then given a 30-minute break.

After the break, one group was asked to play Tetris for 10 minutes while the other group did nothing.  For the following week, both groups were monitored to determine how much flashback memory they were experiencing. The group that played Tetris experienced significantly less flashback and significantly less post traumatic stress.

In effect, Tetris acted like a ‘cognitive vaccine’ against traumatic memory.  From the study:

The rationale for a ‘cognitive vaccine’ approach is as follows: Trauma flashbacks are sensory-perceptual, visuospatial mental images. Visuospatial cognitive tasks selectively compete for resources required to generate mental images. Thus, a visuospatial computer game (e.g. “Tetris”) will interfere with flashbacks. Visuospatial tasks post-trauma, performed within the time window for memory consolidation, will reduce subsequent flashbacks.

Memory research suggests that there’s about a 6-hour window immediately after witnessing trauma during which memory formation can be disrupted.  The results of this study indicate that if you happen to have Tetris or a game like it handy during those six hours, it’s the cure for what ails you.

hat tip: Very Short List: Science 

Link to Tetris online


Filed under About Neuroscience, About Research

Noggin Raisers Vol.9

monkey-thinkingIf you’ve wondered which antidepressants work the best, check out Neuroskeptic’s analysis of a recent paper published in the Lancet.

Your boss puts on a good show of confidence, but is he or she faking it?  Time discusses recent research that suggests possibly so.


Is she really into you…or everyone?  Jena Pincott gives us the scoop here.

You are not your brain argues philosopher Alva Noe in a new book discussed here in My Mind on Books.

Rationally Speaking discusses whether the ‘end of solitude’ is a real cultural phenomena, or just the latest technoskeptic bunk.

Taking us on a joy ride to post-humanity, Science Not Fiction chats here about the graphic novel Transhuman, that’s more than just a thick comic book.

Turns out that the Neanderthal genome may have secrets to reveal about us, according to Wired Science in this post.

Stanford University just put up a selection of 10-minute lectures on YouTube called The Future of Human Health that are worth checking out.

Brainstorming is so 1990’s — try Brainwriting says BPS Research in this typically thoughtful post.

Looking for a topic on a psychology site but need some help finding it?  Check out PsychSplash.

Deaf signers actually feel words on the tips of their fingers, as discussed in this PsyBlog post.

Diet soda can’t trick your body into accepting false sweetness, explains Jonah Lehrer in this post at The Frontal Cortex.

And Seed magazine breaks out the bubbly in several good articles in celebration of Darwin’s 200th birthday.

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To Esteem Thyself, Or Not

magical-weave-mirrorIf anyone was asked to list the top 10 topics that ignite arguments, I doubt very much that ‘self esteem’ would make the cut. And yet, this seemingly bland, bordering-on-clichéd topic is in fact the source of many battles.  Too little, or too much is the question: how much self esteem is the right amount?

Now a study from the University of Geneva (courtesy of BPS Research) suggests that self esteem at low doses is linked to higher suicide rates around the world.  Researchers evaluated suicide rates and self esteem levels, using data from the International Sexuality Description Project, across 55 nations and arrived at this conclusion:

Results indicate that suicide is especially common in nations with relatively low levels of self-esteem. This relation is consistent across sex lines, age of suicide and independent from several other relevant factors such as economic affluence, transition, individualism, subjective well-being, and neuroticism.

If these results stike you as uncontroversial, consider the work of psychologist Roy Baumeister, a decades-long public critic of the self esteem movement — and, one might confidently say, self esteem in general.  Baumeister’s research tells a different story about high self-esteem, linking it not to successful performance in life, but to tendencies toward bullying, murder, racism and gang involvement.  Here’s a snippet from an article he did in the Los Angeles Times a few years ago:

It was widely believed that low self-esteem could be a cause of violence, but in reality violent individuals, groups and nations think very well of themselves. They turn violent toward others who fail to give them the inflated respect they think they deserve. Nor does high self-esteem deter people from becoming bullies, according to most of the studies that have been done; it is simply untrue that beneath the surface of every obnoxious bully is an unhappy, self-hating child in need of sympathy and praise. High self-esteem doesn’t prevent youngsters from cheating or stealing or experimenting with drugs and sex. (If anything, kids with high self-esteem may be more willing to try these things at a young age.)

He also points to research indicating that self-esteem in high doses leads to a host of more common shortcomings:

High self- esteem in schoolchildren does not produce better grades. In fact, according to a study by Donald Forsyth at Virginia Commonwealth University, college students with mediocre grades who got regular self-esteem strokes from their professors ended up doing worse on final exams than students who were told to suck it up and try harder.

Self-esteem doesn’t make adults perform better at their jobs either. Sure, people with high self-esteem rate their own performance better – even declaring themselves smarter and more attractive than their low self-esteem peers – but neither objective tests nor impartial raters can detect any difference in the quality of work.

And Baumesiter isn’t alone, either on the secular or sectarian front. Nicholas Emler, noted social psychologist at the London School of Economics, shares this view and adds many additional caveats. And religious leaders the world over have routinely condemned the self esteem movement (in its official and generic forms) as endorsing a view of humanity too ‘esteemed’ for its own good.  “Esteem thyself not” is the anthem of many preaching this position in the West.

Of course, if you Google ‘self esteem’, what you’ll predominantly get is glowing, unabashed praise for self esteem as a movement, and simply as an essential staple of the good life.

If the University of Geneva research is correct, the pro-self esteem position seems to have the final trump card on this controversy.  Maybe.  It depends on what is meant by ‘self esteem.’ Does this term translate well across language and cultural lines?  Does someone in Beijing believe that self esteem is the same thing that someone in Birmingham believes it to be? 

With those questions in mind, I’m launching my first poll on this site.  We have an international audience right here, so who better to answer the question than you?



Filed under About Belief, About Research, Books and Ideas

Sex and Nightmares

sleep051206_228x259Women have more nightmares than men, and men dream about sex more than women.  Those are a couple of the results of a study conducted by a researcher at the University of West England that delved into gender differences in dream content.  Turns out, there are quite a few. 

According to ScienceDaily, researcher Dr. Jennie Parker was inspired by her own recurring nightmares to investigate the dream question.  From the article:

To discover more about women’s dreams I asked participants in my project to fill out a structured dream diary. The evidence was collected in a very different way to that used in previous dream analysis projects that largely depended on recall after the dream has happened. The participants in my study were all primed to record their dreams before the dreams happened. I took a sample of 100 women and 93 men.

I found that women’s nightmares can be broadly divided into three categories, fearful dreams – being chased or life threatened, losing a loved one or confused dreams.

The nightmares correlate highly with past anxieties in the women’s lives. These dreams (called ’emblem dreams’ in the study) are more emotionally intense than men’s nightmares and are likely to be remembered.

The study also uncovered that women’s dreams contain more family members, more indoor settings, more negative emotion and more physical aggression than men’s dreams. 

Men, on the other hand, are more likely to dream about sex. Specifically, they dream more about actual sexual intercourse, while women dream more about kissing and sex fantasies.  (Previous research has also shown that women are more likely to dream about sexual activity with celebrities, with Bono, Brad Pitt and George Clooney topping the list.)

Link to the ScienceDaily article

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Welcome to the Age of the Neuron Chip

_45441229_silicon_466BBC News is reporting on an amazing advance in biomedical silicon chip technology from researchers at Edinburgh University in Scotland.  Using a technique that allows neurons to grow in tiny detailed patterns on the surface of a silicon chip, the pioneers of this process have moved us one step closer to repairing or replacing damaged human tissue with silicon technology.

During the chip manufacturing process, the scientists printed patterns on the smooth silicon surface.  The chip was then dipped in a patented mixture of proteins, and neurons grew along the patterns on the surface.  The technique also works with stem cells.

Consider the eventual applications of this process:  using micro-surgery to implant silicon prosthetics to replace any tissue in the human body.  To a degree, this is already being done in patients suffering from retinal diseases where Artificial Silicon Retinas are implanted to improve vision. But the Edinburgh researchers’ advance takes this to an entirely new level by opening the possibility of replacing or repairing any tissue that can be “mapped” onto micro silicon chips.

Much sooner than that,  this technology could lead to alternatives to animal testing, the theory being that new drugs would be tested on tissue constructed from silicon chips rather than the live tissue of animals.  

Below is a video discussing biomedical advances in creating a bionic eye using silicon chip technology, and below that is a video discussing the creation of a prosthetic trachea using a patient’s own stem cells.


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Does Violent Media Make People More Heartless?

video-gameThe debate about the effects of violent media rages on, and researchers are becoming more creative with ways to test their theories pro or con.  New Scientist reports on a recent study that used simulated drama to determine if people exposed to violent media (video games and movies in this case) would be less inclined to help someone in need. 

Here’s what the researchers did in the first experiment: 

320 students – half men, half women – played either a violent game or a non-violent game. Violent games included Carmageddon, Duke Nukem, and Future Cop. I’ve never heard of any of the non-violent games, but they certainly sounded the part: Glider Pro, 3D Pinball, Austin Powers and Tetra Madness.  After playing the game for 20 minutes, students filled out a survey assessing their experience.

Then, while they were completing the survey, the researchers played an audio recording of a loud simulated fight in the hallway. The script of the simulation went like this:

First Actor: “You stole her from me. I’m right and you know it, loser.”

Second Actor: “Loser? If I’m a loser, why am I dating your ex-girlfriend?”

First Actor: “OK, that’s it, I don’t have to put up with this shit any longer.”

A chair-flinging tussle ensues, and Second Actor gets pummelled – “It’s my ankle, you bastard. It’s twisted or something.” And to make the ruse more convincing, the researchers kicked on the door a couple times.

Three minutes after the simulated fight–enough time for anyone to respond to what they were hearing in the hallway–a researcher returned to the testing room and asked if everything was OK.  Nearly everyone in the room mentioned the fight, and the researcher then asked the participants if they attempted to help and to rate the seriousness of the fight on a scale of 1 to 10.  Here are the findings:

Students who played a violent game took nearly five times longer to help (73 vs 16 seconds), were slightly less likely to mention the mêlée (94 vs 99%), and rated it as less serious (5.9 vs 6.4 out of 10), compared with volunteers who played a non-violent game, the researchers found.

For the movie experiment, the researchers took a different approach. From the New Scientist article:

Participants watched either a fantasy flick staring Jodie Foster, Nim’s Island, or a Ben Stiller-produced horror film called The Ruins.

Either before or after each film, a young woman with a wrapped ankle on crutches drops one of her crutches and struggles to pick it up. A hidden researcher timed how long it took moviegoers to help the woman.

Across 18 trials, people who sat through The Ruins took 26% longer – about five seconds versus seven – than people who watched Nim’s Island. When the woman lost her crutch before the film, all volunteers took about 5.5 seconds to help.

What’s interesting to me about this study is that, despite its creative approach, the results tell a similar story as previous research about the effects of violent media:  there’s an effect, but it’s relatively small.  Plus, there are a slew of caveats to mention, not the least of which being that this study used exclusively college students, who presumably are exposed to similar enculturating influences and come from similar socioeconomic strata.  It would be more telling to run the same study with a random selection of volunteers from both within and outside the college campus. In addition, this study says nothing about media effects on children and shouldn’t be compared to research with that as its focus.

All that said, there still appears to be something there, albeit probably too small a difference to be of any real consequence. Maybe a better question to examine is– how likely are people to respond to someone in need when they are absorbed in any kind of electronic media?   As you can see in the results, whether someone is watching a horror movie or a PG fantasy movie, it still takes a few seconds before they get up to help someone clearly in need. Perhaps violent media increases this attention/action gap, but it exists regardless.

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