Monthly Archives: April 2009

The Peculiar Power of Music on Memory

Though the psychology of music is an old field of study, the last 20 years have seen tremendous strides in understanding music processing in the human brain. Daniel Levitin from McGill University is on the leading edge of advancing this understanding, with particular focus on how music effects higher order cognitive processes.  Everyone has wondered why they can recall a song that was popular when they were in elementary school, but forget where they put their keys. Levitin enlightens us on why this happens, among other topics, during this talk at Unlocking the Secrets and Powers of the Brain, sponsored by the NSF, The Franklin Institute, and DISCOVER magazine. Video is just over six minutes long.


You can read more on the neuroscience of music in this comprehensive paper co-authored by Daniel Levitin

Link to Daniel Levitin’s website



Filed under About Neuroscience

What Might Make You Trust a Stranger?


by David DiSalvo

It comes as no surprise that people tend to prefer others of the same in-group. If you’re a diehard supporter of a political candidate and someone drives by with a bumper sticker endorsing the candidate, you feel a hint of “inness” with that person. If someone drives by with a bumper sticker of the candidate’s opponent, you feel a twinge of “otherness” about that person.  If asked why, you might say that the first person probably shares many of your views and you’re on the same team, more or less. The second driver is showing with the opponent’s bumper sticker that she’s on the other team.  In effect, you feel a sense of in-group trust with the first person that you don’t feel with the second.

But why, exactly, trust a stranger any more than another stranger if you don’t really know either of them?  That question was addressed in a study in the April issue of Psychological Science.  The study begins by establishing two possible bases for group-based trust. The first is stereotyping — people tend to judge in-group members as nicer, more helpful, generous, trustworthy and fair. The second is expectation — people tend to expect relatively better treatment from in-group members because they are thought to value, and want to further, other in-group members’ interests.

Study participants were offered a choice between an unknown sum of money from an in-group member or an out-group member (and were told that the in-group and out-group members controlled the amount of money to allocate as they desired).  The initial result was that participants overwhelmingly chose the in-group member option.  And, surprisingly, this result held true even when the stereotype of the in-group was more negative than that of the out-group. Good, bad or indifferent, the stereotype was ignored in favor of group identity. 

But, when participants were told that the in-group money giver didn’t know they were part of the same group, the situation changed.  When this was the case, participants resorted to making their choice on the basis of stereotype.  If the in-group was portrayed negatively, then the participants were more likely to choose the out-group member option, and visa versa.

So this study suggests that when members of the in-group are mutually aware of their inness, there’s an expectation of better treatment than would be received from an out-grouper. But when that awareness is muddied, reliance on stereotypes kicks in. 

This analysis gets really interesting when focused on electronic communication. Online, most people are not aware of others’ inness or outness. According to the results of this study, in these cases we’d expect most people to rely on group stereotypes when deciding who to trust (follow, read, etc), and social networking provides fertile ground to test this hypothesis in real-time.
Foddy, M., Platow, M., & Yamagishi, T. (2009). Group-Based Trust in Strangers: The Role of Stereotypes and Expectations Psychological Science, 20 (4), 419-422 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02312.x

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Filed under About Belief, About Perception, About Research

Shrinking the Easter Bunny













Check out more of Doug Savage’s cartoons at Savage Chickens

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Noggin Raisers Vol.12

robot-brainMind Hacks discusses research on sleep behaviors linked to neurological disturbances like narcolepsy and Parkinson’s here

NeuroWhoa explores research on the link between religious thinking and end-of-life medical treatment — does religious belief really amp up the desire for more intense treatment?

The voodoo strikes back! Neuroskeptic discusses a bit of vernacular push-back on the research paper that coined the term “voodoo neuroscience” here

So, exactly what are female hormones doing in semen?  Jena Pincott explains with trademark wit

What’s the connection between action selection and attention allocation? The Mouse Trap thoughtfully discusses this topic here

Intriguing new research on the dynamics of group decision-making is analyzed by BPS Research Digest right here

Fascinating post and video at Neurophilosophy about new neurons migrating long distances along blood vessels

The latest issue of Philosophy Now tackles the topic of robot consciousness, leading off with this intertesting piece  

Science News has an informative article on the possible mind clearing and boosting power of sleep

The psychology of pride is featured in this New York Times article

Video game addiction?  The Situationist digs deeper here into research on a dubious premise

And finally, this Wired Science post discusses the anti-smoking drug that may soon be making its debut as an antidepressant.

Image credit: Oregon State University

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Psychology for Dummies: An Interview with Authors Laura Smith and Charles Elliott

elliott_smith_bwDepression for Dummies, Overcoming Anxiety for Dummies, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder for Dummies– these are just a few of the titles penned by Dr. Laura Smith and Dr. Charles Elliott, a writing duo with a library of psychology and self-help books between them.  Tackling challenging topics with an accessible style is their specialty, and has allowed millions of readers gain a better understanding of anxiety, depression, OCD, and borderline personality disorder, among other topics.

They recently spent some time discussing the For Dummies series and a variety of psychology issues and questions with Neuronarrative. 

You’ve written several books on depression, anxiety, OCD and related topics, including some of the wildly popular For Dummies books. What led you to the Dummies format to address these topics?  

depressionYes we have; in fact, we’ve just finished our sixth book in the series. As clinical psychologists, we’ve read dozens of self-help books. Most of them focus on how to deal with some specific mental disorder such as depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, or generalized anxiety disorder. Some of these books ignore empirical findings and present an interesting, but highly idiosyncratic and non-data based set of recommendations. Many of the better books in this genre are written by highly renowned researchers and do a great job of presenting the findings from a specific researcher’s approach to the disorder. However, in the past couple of decades, the mental health field has managed to develop a number of empirically based treatment strategies for most emotional disorders. We believe people can profit from knowing about a range of strategies so long as they rest on a research base.

In the For Dummies series, we saw an opportunity to provide consumers with an unusually comprehensive approach to each topic covered. Thus, in all of our books we discuss a variety of empirically supported treatment approaches, diagnostic issues and controversies, related disorders, etiology, prevalence, where and how to find professional help, and ideas for how friends and family can facilitate treatment. For example, in Obsessive Compulsive Disorder For Dummieswe discussed the fact that twenty years ago, the only treatments for OCD were exposure and response prevention (ERP) and medication. We were able to review not only ERP, but new mindfulness based approaches, cognitive therapy specifically tailored to OCD, medications, and Deep Brain Stimulation (a very preliminary, but possibly promising strategy).

At the same time, we appreciate the For Dummies series for its nontechnical, no nonsense approach to presenting information. We really enjoy taking complex subjects and presenting them in a way that enables intelligent consumers to understand a topic that may be new to them. Finally, we were thrilled that the editors also encourage the use of humor and a panache of irreverence. We believe that readers enjoy a touch of levity when reading about such serious subjects.

Some fear that the proliferation of medical information, particularly on the internet, is causing widespread self-diagnosis panic.  What’s your take on this?

We’re firm believers in the value of information. No doubt, some people panic when they discover on the Internet that they may have a couple of symptoms of some serious disorder yet later learn that they don’t really have the actual illness or disease. But we suspect that for all those who are unnecessarily rattled by what they read, many more discover that they suffer from problems that that they were unaware of, but that can be successfully treated–and generally with greater success than they would have had by not starting treatment until their doctor discovered something at a physical exam months or years down the road.

News concerning the development of psychiatric disorders in children, such as OCD, is on the rise. In your opinion, are parents getting better at identifying symptoms in their kids?  And have doctors become more willing to consider the possibility that a child needs psychiatric help? 

ocddummiesWe do believe that both parents and doctors have greater awareness about these issues than ever before. That awareness is certainly one of the reasons we see disturbing trends in the rise of various mental health issues in kids today as compared to the past. At the same time, some evidence suggests that more than increased awareness lies behind the escalating numbers we’ve seen in the past fifty years or so. Several studies have suggested that the rate of anxiety and depression in kids today greatly exceeds levels we’ve seen in the past.

We’re also concerned that there has appeared to be an over reliance on medications for dealing with these issues. Potent medications are increasingly being prescribed to kids for disorders which were once considered rare in children such as bipolar disorder. We suspect some of these diagnoses are given instead of behavioral disorder diagnoses so that these medications may be employed.

We take a more conservative approach to medications in kids because of a dearth of long term safety and efficacy studies. In fact, some studies have shown that many of these medications significantly increase risks of diabetes and sometimes set off suicidal thinking. Therefore, our usual recommendation is that treatments should first target the child’s problematic behaviors or moods as well as involve parents, the family, and the school environment. Cognitive behavioral interventions have been found to be especially effective and often obviate the need for medications. When they don’t, medications can be considered, but as judiciously as possible. 

Tell us what “anxiety” really is in a clinical sense, and how it’s different than “a case of nerves” that everyone occasionally feels.

saddummiesYou’re correct that everyone feels stress and gets a case of nerves from time to time. You couldn’t live a meaningful life without them. Normal anxiety occurs when you’re faced with real challenges and hassles. Normal anxiety can even prepare you to deal with such challenges more effectively. Some experts call this type of anxiety facilitative anxiety. Normal anxiety dissipates when the problem is solved or diminishes.

Think of preparing for an examination. If you have no anxiety or worry at all, you’re likely to feel little motivation to prepare. If you’re moderately anxious, you’ll spend a lot more time studying. If your anxiety goes over the top, you may study a lot, but be unable to concentrate or you may deal with the anxiety by procrastination or avoidance of the task. In other words, complete absence of anxiety isn’t always such a good thing, moderate amounts can help and excessive anxiety interferes with performance.

Clinical anxiety debilitates rather than facilitates. By definition, most anxiety disorders persist for months. They involve reactions that exceed the objective nature of whatever seems to trigger them and in some cases; no trigger is even easily identifiable. Clinical anxiety comes with strong physical symptoms such as fatigue, restlessness, interrupted sleep, poor concentration, muscle tension, and irritability. Clinical anxiety reduces quality of life.

When it comes to prescribing meds for anxiety, the voices of dissent are many. Tell us something about the controversy surrounding benzodiazepines and other anxiety meds.

Evidence suggests that many anxiety disorders are treated especially effectively with certain psychotherapies most of which are based on cognitive behavior therapy. Thus, we would rarely suggest medications as the first line strategy. Benzodiazepines, although frequently prescribed for anxiety by general practitioners, are especially problematic for a variety of reasons including:

  • Benzodiazepines have a significant addictive potential which may be heightened among those with anxiety disorders.
  • Some data suggests that these drugs may actually increase the risk of relapse when combined with cognitive behavior therapies for anxiety.
  • Benzodiazepines increase the risk of falling among the elderly and one study showed they may double the risk of automobile accidents. Of course, combined with alcohol, these risks escalate considerably.
  • One study suggested that taking benzodiazepines on a prolonged basis shortly following a trauma actually increased the risk of developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder later.

This is not to say that medications have no role to play in the amelioration of anxiety disorders. However, we generally recommend that any use of benzodiazepines be strictly limited to short-term acute stress. Other medications such as the Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibiters (SSRIs) and Serotonin Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors (SNRIs) sometimes appear useful as adjuncts to psychotherapy especially when appropriate therapies have failed to result in sufficient improvement. 

Diagnosed cases of depression are also rising, and some believe that it’s an increasingly over-diagnosed illness.  What do you believe is behind the surge in depression cases?  

dummiesdepressionOf course doctors and mental health workers are more aware of the symptoms of depression than ever before. In fact, increasing numbers of primary care offices provide screening instruments for depression and anxiety. The public has also become more aware of the symptoms of depression due to a bombardment of advertizing, largely paid for by the pharmaceutical industry. For the most part, this increased awareness is a good thing and it has steered many people into earlier treatment of their distress.

At the same time, we have concerns about that the fact that antidepressant medications are today the most prescribed drug for any condition whether mental or physical. We worry that doctors may be prescribing medications for what used to be considered subclinical conditions. People receive prescriptions after breaking up with a boyfriend, being fired from a job and failing to be accepted into a college. Life transitions such as moving to a new city or coping with grief or loss sometimes trigger a trip to the doctor’s office for relief. When emotional reactions to such events are unusually profound or prolonged, medication may be warranted in some cases. However, there’s value in struggling with sadness, worry, and loss. From times such as these, humans develop new philosophies, literature, and creative solutions. We’d hate to see medications used to stifle struggles. Happiness is better appreciated when one has experienced sadness.

One of the continuous controversies surrounding psychiatric disorders is the influence of drug companies on the prescription–perhaps the over-prescription–of certain meds.  How large a concern do you think this really is? 

bpddummies1The heat has turned up on this controversy in the past few years as increasing numbers of articles have appeared which indicate that pharmaceutical companies have frequently engaged in questionable practices such as holding back negative results from publication. In addition, many authors of medication studies have failed to disclose their substantial financial ties to the pharmaceutical industry. Finally, it appears that many of the authors of clinical practice guidelines have had significant financial arrangements with the pharmaceutical industry.

If you could choose any topic, which would it be for your next Dummies book?

We’d really like to answer this question. However, we’re currently discussing the next project or two with the For Dummies publisher (Wiley). We can say that one of these projects excites us more than any of the others we’ve done to date as we see a huge need for an accessible book on this topic.

Link to the authors’ website

Link to the authors’ blog


Filed under Interviews

How Language Shapes Our World

42-15762988What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. –Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about. –Benjamin Lee Whorf

Here’s an experiment to try out:  find a black marker and two paper bags; on one bag write the word “Rose.”  On the other write the words “Chili Peppers.”  Now put rose petals into each of the bags and close them up.  Find a few people willing to lend their sniffing power to your cause and ask them to sniff each bag (making sure that they can read the labels as well).  Then ask them to report on what they smell in each bag. 

Will, as Shakespeare claimed, “that which we call a rose by any other name smell as sweet”? 

According to Stanford University psychology professor Lera Boroditsky, the answer is no.  Her research on the shaping power of language was featured on an excellent National Public Radio science piece this week. 

Focusing on the grammatical gender differences between German and Spanish, Boroditsky’s work indicates that the gender our langauge assigns to a given noun strongly influences us to unconsciously give that noun characteristics of the grammatical gender.  

One example she discussed is the word “bridge.” In German, bridge (die brucke) is a feminine noun; in Spanish, bridge (el puente) is a masculine noun. Boroditsky found that when asked to describe a bridge, native German speakers used words like “beautiful, elegant, slender.” When native Spanish speakers were asked the same question, they used words like “strong, sturdy, towering.”

This worked the other way around as well. The word “key” is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish. When asked to describe a key, native German speakers used words like “jagged, heavy, hard, metal.” Spanish speakers used words like “intricate, golden, lovely.” 

Boroditsky even created her own language (called Gumbuzi), with its own feminine and masculine grammar assignments, to test the hypothesis from scratch.  After only one day of learning the new language, participants began using  descriptions of nouns influenced by grammatical gender.

Boroditsky’s work suggests that how we see the world is strongly influenced by the grammar we internalize. From the transcript:

The grammar we learn from our parents, whether we realize it or not, affects our sensual experience of the world. Spaniards and Germans can see the same things, wear the same cloths, eat the same foods and use the same machines. But deep down, they are having very different feelings about the world about them.

You can listen to the entire story here, including more about the test of Shakespeare’s quote. The piece is just over seven minutes long.


Filed under About Perception, About Research

You, Me and Our Mistakes Make Three: An Interview with Author Joe Hallinan

joe_hallinanMaking mistakes is as human as breathing.  But if that’s true, why are most of us so unwilling to admit it? Maybe that unwillingness is itself one of our many little quirks, “design” flaws leading us to make decisions that in retrospect seem ridiculous, miss plain-as-day details right before our eyes, and comfortably consider ourselves well above average.

Pulitzer Prize winning author Joe Hallinan wanted to reach the root of our error-prone natures, and to get there he delved into psychology, neuroscience, marketing, sports, geography, finance and economics. That trip led him to discover that we humans are as efficient as we are mistake-ridden; born pattern-finders that routinely stumble over the most obvious details.  He recently took a few minutes to discuss his latest book and a few of his findings with Neuronarrative.


You’ve just had a book published called Why We Make Mistakes. So give us a hint, why do we make mistakes?

Short answer: we’re not wired the way we think we’re wired.  We believe our memory and vision, for instance, are much better than they are, and our judgments are influenced by all sorts of contextual factors, or frames, than most of us are willing to admit.

If there’s one thing cognitive neuroscience has taught us, it’s that the brain is riddled with quirks, errors and biases. What did your research leading up to the book reveal to you about how the brain works (or doesn’t)?

mistakes_200Obviously, there’s a huge amount about the brain that we don’t know; and, if the past is any guide, some of what we do “know” now may turn out later not to be true. That said, it’s clear that humans have variety of predictable biases. We are prone to believe that we’ll act more virtuously in the future, for instance, than we actually end up acting once we get there.

This is why corporations clean up with such products as gift cards or frequent flier miles or rebate coupons: We don’t use these products nearly as much as we think we will when making our initial purchase. Corporations know this about us; but we seem not to know it about ourselves.

One other interesting thing is that we’re not the entirely rational beings we like to think we are. We seem to work on two levels, one cerebral and one more visceral. We toggle between them like a car’s headlights switching from high beam to low; the problem is, we’re often not sure which “beam” we’re on. We’ll think we’ve made a decision (like buying a bottle of wine) on a rational basis, only to find out that our choice was actually influenced by the music in the store.

When we make a mistake, there’s usually less than even odds that we’ll own up to it.  Why do you think we’re so self conscious and defensive about something we’re all absolutely prone to do?

In a lot of circumstances, admitting a mistake can be a career death sentence. To admit you erred is to show your jugular to your enemies. So people don’t do it.

On a more personal basis, owning up to an error may require us to admit some unpleasant truths to ourselves. For instance, if we sign up for a gym membership that we end up not using, it’s easy to come up with excuses for why we didn’t exercise as often as we thought we would: we can blame the kids, or say there was some project at work that came up.

It’s much harder to admit that we really are the undisciplined, lazy person our old ex-boyfriend/girlfriend said we were – because if they were right about that, they might have been right about other things, and that would mean even more years in therapy! I’m joking a bit, but you get the point: admitting the root cause of a mistake can be painful, so most people avoid the pain.

What’s the most important thing you learned while writing the book and why?

Three words: perception is economical. Our various forms of perception give us great bang for the buck, but they’re not foolproof — not by a long shot. Take vision, for instance. We think that when we see things we see all there is to see – that our mind takes a snapshot of the event.

This is why we assign such high credibility to eyewitness testimony. But we know the eye doesn’t work this way; it sees some things but not others. Which helps explain why there is such a high error rate on some forms of eyewitness testimony. Between 1989 and 2007, for instance, 201 prisoners in the U.S. were freed through the use of DNA evidence. Of these, 77% had been mistakenly identified by eyewitnesses.

What does and doesn’t work to reduce mistakes? 

Some simple things are surprisingly effective. Using checklists – like the ones you make when going to the grocery store – can dramatically reduce errors. The New England Journal of Medicine recently featured a study of surgical death rates at eight hospitals around the world. When doctors used basic checklists before operating, surgical death rates fell by nearly half!

What are you working on next?

That’s what my agent wants to know…I’ve got a couple of ideas cooking, but nothing ready to take out of the pot.

Link to Joe Hallinan’s website

Photo credit: Andrew Collings Photography

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