Monthly Archives: June 2009

Noggin Raisers

drunkI’ve been guest blogging at Neuroworld for the past week (hence the slight slowdown here…regular programming will resume soon). This set of Noggin Raisers is pulling double duty at both sites, so if you didn’t already see them there, you can catch them here.

If I had a hammer — I’d give it to a woman…because according to a new study, women are better at hammering nails than men.  At night.  Good to know.

Born to be wild — a study reconfirms what James Dean’s life already proved…teens who think they will die young are more likely to engage in risky behavior.

A memory is born! — for the first time, researchers have captured an image of a memory being made. This is cool.

Went right to my head — when it comes to booze, that’s truer than we think…six minutes and it’s there.

Now you see it, now you don’t — or maybe you do? Find out why we’re so bad at noticing changes in even familiar scenes.

Men overspend to attract mates — that’s what the new book Spent by Geoffrey Miller contends…yep, sounds about right .

Second guessing yourself could help you get better test grades — that’s what a new study suggests; the trick is to rethink your first choice from a different perspective and then find a happy medium between the choices. Full write up at the BPS Research Digest.

Battle of the geriatric brains — a new study claims that U.S. seniors are “smarter” than their English counterparts.  But do they drive any faster during rush hour? (sorry, bad joke)

BaldA sucker goes bald every minute — the new “baldness calculator” is just another advertising mind screw. 

Big Pharma’s latest sales ploy— you guessed it, fMRI. Neuroscientist Robert Burton lifts the lid on the scheme over at Salon.

Low Seratonin = lousy mommy— mice with low S make horrible mommies, and a new study suggests that it’s the same for human moms. The answer – drugs that target the problem in the brain more precisely than Prozac, et al.

Is being bilingual always better? — nope, not always. Go watch the short movie at this link and find out why.

Endowment, my favorite sin— ever try on a pair of jeans in a dressing room and like them so much that you feel like you already own them?   Jonah Lehrer tells you why at the link above.

Your brain sees tools as an extension of your body —  that’s not a novel idea by any stretch, but a new study has produced convincing evidence that it may in fact be true.

How animals evolved to count — you probably knew that Arabian horses and Golden Retrievers can count, but how about salamanders and honey bees? Yes, indeed — but how (and, um, why)?

Grab a smoke and damage your brain — that’s what a new study is claiming; both puffing and chewing are suspectsSmoking-Brain Damage for nerve cell damage in your noggin.

If you want me to listen, talk to my right ear — why? because the left hemisphere of the brain is better at deciphering verbal communication, and a new study claims to link this advantage to right-ear hearing. Plus, you’ll be able to bum more cigarettes to damage your brain! (read the article and you’ll get that one.)



Filed under Noggin Raisers

It’s Raining in My Brain – Why We’re Obsessed with the Weather

weather_girlNote to those working on the reinvention of newspapers — stick to the weather.  Evidently, that’s what we Americans really care about most, or so the numbers in a just-released study seem to show.  From the LiveScience article about the study:

Although the number of forecasts an individual obtains varies significantly from day-to-day, depending on factors like weather events and planned daily activities, the researchers found that on average individuals received forecasts 3.8 times a day. These findings, when extrapolated to the total U.S. adult population of 226 million, indicate that Americans receive a yearly total of about 300 billion forecasts.

And not only are we awash in weather news, we also place a surprisingly high dollar value on weather forecasts — much more than it actually costs to provide them.

The survey indicated that households in this country place an average value of 10.5 cents on every weather forecast obtained. This equates to an annual value of $31.5 billion. In comparison, the cost of providing forecasts by government agencies and private companies is $5.1 billion.

So, what does this tell us about the psyche of the average news consumer?  On the face of it, it simply seems that we’re proccupied with knowing what’s coming next. But perhaps at a level beneath that concern, what we’re really preoccupied with is our mood.  According to a study from some years back entitled, “A multidimensional approach to the relationship between mood and weather,” the psychology of weather is more important than most of us think, affecting our moods and outlooks in substantial ways. From the study:

Humidity, temperature and hours of sunshine had the greatest effect on mood. High levels of humidity lowered scores on concentration while increasing reports of sleepiness. Rising temperatures lowered anxiety and scepticism mood scores. 

The number of hours of sunshine was found to predict optimism scores significantly. As the number of hours of sunshine increased, optimism scores also increased.

And there was a University of Michigan study in 2004 concluding that warm weather “boosts moods and broadens minds.”  According to that one, 72 degrees fahrenheit is the optimal mood-boost temperature, with mood fluctuations occurring at temps significantly higher or lower. 

Then there was this study (PDF) from 2005 entitled, “A Warm Heart and a Clear Head” that also makes a strong case for the weather-mood connection. From the study:

Pleasant weather (higher temperature or barometric pressure) was related to higher mood, better memory, and ‘‘broadened’’ cognitive style during the spring as time spent outside increased. The same relationships between mood and weather were not observed during other times of year, and indeed hotter weather was associated with lower mood in the summer.

Plenty of other research indicates the same thing, which leads me to believe that our rabid consumption of weather forecasts, and the high value we place on them, is about more than ensuring that we’ll have a sunny day at the beach.  I think we’re also trying to find out if it’ll be a sunny day in our heads.


Filed under About Research

The N-Effect: Competition Goes Up, Motivation Goes Down


Image via Stockbyte

Conventional wisdom has it that one of our mightiest competitive motivators is social comparison: we begin competing with others as soon as we compare ourselves to them. Whether the stakes are minuscule or massive, something in us wants to measure up inch for inch.  

New research published in the journal Psychological Science, however, shows that our competitive urges don’t engorge in a vacuum: the number of people we’re competing against has a direct effect on our motivation to compete. 

Here’s an illustration: Jessica takes a seat in a classroom with 10 other students. She looks around, evaluates the competitive landscape, and determines that her odds of doing well against this small group are good. The instructor passes out the particle physics exam and Jessica is off and running, motivated to score among the best in this class. 

Jason arrives at a different room to take his exam, and it’s a lot bigger than Jessica’s. In fact, it’s ten times as big, and Jason has to find a seat in a crowd of 100 students. He looks around and gulps. There’s no way to realistically compare himself to so many people.  The instructor passes out the exam and Jason begins without feeling a competitive edge.

The lack of motivation that Jason feels, in comparison to Jessica’s hyper motivated resolve, is the N-Effect.  Researchers assessed this effect through a series of five studies: the first examined SAT and CRT (Cognitive Reflective Test) scores in light of how many people took the tests in given venues over multiple years.  Even when controlling for other variables, researchers found a significant inverse correlation between the number of test takers and scores: the more people taking the test, the worse the scores.

Another study examined whether test takers, told to finish the test as quickly as possible, would finish their test faster when competing against 10 others, versus 100.  As predicted, the best scoring testers finished their tests significantly faster when competing against a smaller group. 

Yet another study compared the N-Effect to the effect of ratio bias (which leads people to think that it’s easier to draw one of 10 red jellybeans from a jar of 100 other colors, than to draw only one red jellybean from a jar containing 10 other colors, despite the equal probabilities of both outcomes).  Ratio bias is typically a within-subjects effect, and not a social-group effect, so the study was crafted to separate out the two to determine if the N-Effect would operate independently of ratio bias; as predicted, it does.

Of course, as with all research, there’s a long series of “yeah, buts” attached. The big one in this case is whether a given individual is more or less social-comparison oriented (SCO).  Returning to our imaginary test takers, maybe Jessica is just a hard-core SCO. If she’s in a room with 10 people, she’s a shark. With 100, more of a mullet.  And maybe Jason is a low-SCO soul. It could be that for him being in a room with 10 people wouldn’t be any more or less motivating than 100. 

But even with these individual differences acknowledged, this is still a quite interesting find — one that could yield better educational fruit if taken seriously.


Filed under About Research

Getting Your Variety On Keeps the Joy Rolling

jellybeansIt’s a cruel fact of human existence that with enough time, we can become bored with just about anything.  Whether it’s a new car or a new dog, a great Indian dish or a great song, eventually the initial pleasure fades into something more mundane. Which doesn’t necessarily mean we come to dislike the thing in question, but rather that we habituate to its once tantalizing allure and simply enjoy it less. Even sex (gasp!) isn’t immune.

But reseachers who conducted a new study published in the Journal of Consumer Research think that they’ve found a cure for habituated boredom.  The trick, they say, is overcoming “variety amnesia” — our tendency to forget that we’ve been exposed to a variety of great things, be they people, food, music, movies, home furnishings or other — and instead focus our attention on the singular thing that no longer gives us the tingles. 

To shake ourselves free from this negative trap, we must “dishabituate” by forcing ourselves to remember the variety of things we’ve experienced.  So, for example, let’s say that you’ve become bored with a particular musical group you once couldn’t listen to enough. This research suggests that what you need to do it recall the variety of other songs from other musical groups that you’ve listened to since the last time you listened to your once-favorite band, and by doing so you’ll revive appreciation for your fave.  

The researchers call this little head trick a simulation of “virtual variety,” which reduces satiation — the lessening of satisfaction over time — in a way similar to that of experiencing actual variety.

The study included three experiments, one involving experience with people, one with songs, and the third with jellybeans (yes, jellybeans); in all three cases, exposure to virtual variety had the effect of increasing enjoyment of the original thing in question.

A previous study discussed here showed that if you’re debating between spending your money on an object or on an experience, you should go with the experience.  Experience usually includes connectedness with others, and over time the memories of the experience–and the feelings they elicit–have more staying power than the pleasure of owning something, which steadily decreases as we habituate. 

The takeaway from all of this is hardly new, but worth repeating: variety and experience keep Jack from becoming a dull boy. Bon appetit.


Filed under About Research

Wash Your Hands, We’re Watching You

wash handsIn a recent post, I discussed a study that showed how using a safety checklist in hospitals can significantly reduce hospital-acquired infection deaths.  One of the most important items on that checklist — washing hands.

It seems a simple item, but to err is human, and err we do, often with big consequences.  Close to 2 million hospital-acquired infections occur each year and more than 250 related deaths occur each day in the United States, according to the CDC.  Up to half of those infections could be prevented if health-care workers washed their hands more often.  Reason being: the six pathogens (including MRSA) that account for two-thirds of all hospital-acquired infections are transmitted by hand.

The safety checklist is one way to help minimize the problem, but it can’t really make people wash their hands more often. What can?

Enter HyGreen, the hand breathalyzer.  Using sensors capable of detecting drugs in breath, new technology developed at the University of Florida monitors health-care workers’ hand hygiene by detecting sanitizer or soap fumes given off from their hands.  It also logs, down to the second, the frequency of hand cleaning and contact with patients in a database that supervisors can review immediately.

Here’s how it works: The health-care worker squirts sanitizer gel or soap into his or her hand before passing it under a wall-mounted sensor. A wireless signal from a badge worn by the worker activates a green light on the hand-washing sensor. When the worker enters a patient’s room, a monitor near the bed detects the status of the badge, and flashes green if the person has clean hands. If the person has not washed, or too much time has passed between washing and approaching the patient, the badge will give a gentle “reminder” vibration.

Right away this technology is going to beg Big Brother critiques (as my tongue-in-cheek title to this post alludes). It is, after all, surveiling peoples’ actions in real time.  But I see little difference between it and the checklist approach, in that both are tools helping our brains trigger behaviors that prevent dire consequences.

The gadget’s inventors say that they crafted the technology with the Hawthorne Effect in mind, a controversial theory predicting that people who are being studied will alter their behavior as a response to knowing that they’re being studied. I suppose that may be relevant, but it doesn’t hurt that those who are doing the studying in this case are also the health-care workers’ supervisors.

The big takeway here, I think, is that washing hands to prevent infection seems utterly rational, and it is. But that by itself is not enough to enable the behavior.  I like what psychologist Gary Marcus, author of Kluge, said about this in an interview I did with him last year:

Being rational is not something that comes natural to us, but is (at least to some degree) something we can do; the real trick is to remember to do it. I think of it a bit like trying to fix your golf swing; you may naturally want to bring your shoulders up, but if you work hard enough at it you can learn to keep them down. The problem isn’t so much in keeping your shoulders down for one shot, but in learning to do so routinely.

Our problem as a species is not that we can’t behave rationally, but that usually we don’t; simply being aware of that fact can help us to build better habits.

1 Comment

Filed under About Research

When It’s Learn or Lose, Sleep On It

sleepSLEEP 2009, the ultimate sleep research event, wrapped up this week with a slew of intriguing studies about the benefits of bedtime. The one that has my eyes perked is about sleep’s role in memory formation.

Researchers, led by Jessica Payne of Harvard Medical School, set out to determine if sleep boosts the creation of emotionally salient memories, and memories relevant to future goals, when it follows soon after learning. At the heart of the study is the notion that the sleeping brain actively and selectively consolidates memory. So, let’s say that what you are trying to learn is a side of beef, and your sleeping brain is the butcher. When you sleep (according to this hypothesis) the butcher takes the side of beef and trims it down to a stack of top sirloin and fillet mignon.

It turns out that’s not too far off the mark, but it’s even better than that. The results show that not only does sleep consolidate the most relevant, adapative and useful information, but the effect can last for up to four months. The trick is that you have to sleep soon after learning. Waiting approximately 24 12 hours after learning negates the effect.

This research adds more substance to the argument that the sleeping brain isn’t dormant in any sense of the word. It’s actively calculating what’s most important about our recent experience, and selecting what can be consolidated for long-term storage.

And while we’re talking about sleep, below is an interesting video in two parts called “The Secrets of Sleep” about the remarkable sleep deprivation stunt of Peter Tripp, which became a classic case study in the field. It’s a really well done piece, about 15 minutes in total.


Filed under About Research

How a Dose of Drama Can Make a Donor Out of You

HouseA new study suggests that emotional involvement with our favorite television shows might be worth a kidney or two. Organ donation, when depicted favorably in popular television dramas, gets a boost in the public sphere. This might be good or bad, depending on how you look at it. 

First, a bit about the study.  For some time now research has been showing that television is a potent way to facilitate social learning, which is the tendency of people to model attitudes and behaviors of others under particular conditions.  Two conditions are requisite: attention and memory.  Engaging television dramas that draw the viewer into their narratives meet both conditions — they absorb attention and catalyze memory formation.  When a viewer strongly identifies with a particular character in the drama, the effect is even more potent. (I recently discussed this narrative effect here regarding smoking, and a previous post looked at the emotional boost TV shows can provide.)  

In this case, the research team led by Susan Morgan, associate professor at Purdue University, wanted to know if depictions of organ donation in TV dramas like CSI, Numbers, Grey’s Anatomy, and House would influence learning about organ donation and increase motivation to become a donor. They also wanted to know how, or if, accuracy of the information influences learning and motivation. 

Participants were asked to watch a selection of episodes from popular TV dramas with storylines that included both positive and negative depictions of organ donation, and then complete surveys that assessed a range of factors related to how strongly the viewer had been influenced by the storylines (and no small potatoes here; more than 5000 people completed the House survey).     

The results:  viewers who were not organ donors before watching the dramas were more likely to decide to become one if organ donation was portrayed positively and if characters in the show explicitly encouraged it.  Viewers who reported emotional involvement with the narrative were significantly more likely to become organ donors.  And, finally, viewers clearly acquired knowledge from the content of each drama – whether it was accurate or not.

And that’s the “depending on how you look at it” part of this.  The study is really telling us a couple of different things: emotional involvement with narrative affects the way people think, and supplies knowledge that may very well not be true.  Most  people would probably agree that organ donation is a social good, and if TV dramas encourage it then all the better — but, the troubling part is that the same dynamic driving the good can also serve up the bad with equal effectiveness.  Pseudoscience, vaccine alarmism, and quackery of every flavor proliferates just this way.

Though not a narrative drama per se, here’s a recent Newsweek cover story about the Oprah show that touches on this dynamic operating on a massive scale.
Morgan, S., Movius, L., & Cody, M. (2009). The Power of Narratives: The Effect of Entertainment Television Organ Donation Storylines on the Attitudes, Knowledge, and Behaviors of Donors and Nondonors Journal of Communication, 59 (1), 135-151 DOI: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.2008.01408.x


Filed under About Research