Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Readings, 12 September 2007

Today's edition deals with psychology and neuroscience

The text following each item is quoted material, except for editorial comments, which are in color.

Lobes of Steel
Scientists have suspected for decades that exercise, particularly regular aerobic exercise, can affect the brain. But they could only speculate as to how. Now an expanding body of research shows that exercise can improve the performance of the brain by boosting memory and cognitive processing speed. Exercise can, in fact, create a stronger, faster brain.

Researchers: New understanding of autism is near
While many parents of autistic children - Murdock included - suspect thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative used in routine childhood vaccines as the disorder's cause, most scientists suspect it lurks in the human genome, etched unmistakably in the DNA. ...

As Gould and Murdock worry about their sons, molecular geneticist Michael Wigler, a few miles away at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, believes he and his colleagues are on the cusp of understanding why autism occurs and how some families can be affected more than once. Wigler and his team have discovered how certain spontaneous genetic mutations are relatively common and how they can be passed on by very healthy parents to their offspring.

It's unfortunate, as the article points out, that parents of autistic children misconstrue the idea that autism is a consequence of genetic errors to be "blaming the parents". Perhaps this is partly a holdover from earlier hypotheses, which now seem very mistaken, that autism is a consequence of bad parenting. An example of this idea, sometimes called the "refigerator mother" theory of autism, was promulgated by the once-influential but now mostly discredited Freudian psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim. As some people who have had him as a teacher can testify, Bruno had serious psychological issues of his own.

For a press release that describes Wigler's research, see here. Another article on the research: here. Additional but different research on neurological aspects of autism: here.

This is your brain on love
All animals mate: The most primitive system in the brain, one that even reptiles have, knows it needs to reproduce. Turtles do it but then lay their eggs in the sand and head back to sea, never seeing their mate again.

Human brains are considerably more complicated, with additional neural systems that seek romance, others that want comfort and companionship, and others that are just out for a roll in the hay.

"Love makes the world go 'round" has served as an epigram to inspire a number of popular songs over the years. A more cynical point of view would suggest that it's the mating instinct that makes the world go 'round. Or even more crudely, it's sex that makes the world go 'round. Whatever. In any case, in humans this impulse manifests itself within their brains in a variety of elaborate and complicated ways.

Study Finds Men Go for Good Looks
Science is confirming what most women know: When given the choice for a mate, men go for good looks.

And guys won't be surprised to learn that women are much choosier about partners than they are.

"Just because people say they're looking for a particular set of characteristics in a mate, someone like themselves, doesn't mean that is what they'll end up choosing," Peter M. Todd, of the cognitive science program at Indiana University, Bloomington, said in a telephone interview.

Researchers led by Todd report in Tuesday's edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that their study found humans were similar to most other mammals, "following Darwin's principle of choosy females and competitive males, even if humans say something different."

If these findings aren't obvious to you, perhaps you're still a little wet behind the ears... More on this research: here, here, here.

The Whys of Mating: 237 Reasons and Counting
Perhaps you thought that the motivations for sex were pretty obvious. Or maybe you never really wanted to know what was going on inside other people’s minds, in which case you should stop reading immediately.

For now, thanks to psychologists at the University of Texas at Austin, we can at last count the whys. After asking nearly 2,000 people why they’d had sex, the researchers have assembled and categorized a total of 237 reasons — everything from “I wanted to feel closer to God” to “I was drunk.” They even found a few people who claimed to have been motivated by the desire to have a child.

This is so quintessentially human – the need for novelty and variety is so great that humans need to think of so many rationalizations for what essentially boils down to: reproduction. More on this research: here, here.

Who’s Minding the Mind?
In a recent experiment, psychologists at Yale altered people’s judgments of a stranger by handing them a cup of coffee.

The study participants, college students, had no idea that their social instincts were being deliberately manipulated. On the way to the laboratory, they had bumped into a laboratory assistant, who was holding textbooks, a clipboard, papers and a cup of hot or iced coffee — and asked for a hand with the cup.

That was all it took: The students who held a cup of iced coffee rated a hypothetical person they later read about as being much colder, less social and more selfish than did their fellow students, who had momentarily held a cup of hot java. ...

Psychologists say that “priming” people in this way is not some form of hypnotism, or even subliminal seduction; rather, it’s a demonstration of how everyday sights, smells and sounds can selectively activate goals or motives that people already have.

Gee, you don't suppose, do you, that this sort of mechanism is at work when somebody notices a person of the opposite sex wearing clothing that has connotations of, say, power, affluence, or allure – and decides that it might be advantageous to become better acquainted with that person... and can think of 237 reasons for that....

But aside from that, this idea of "priming" also reminds me of the following:

A New Study Suggests A Relationship Between Fear Of Death And Political Preferences
This research is based on the idea that reminders of death increase the need for psychological security and therefore the appeal of leaders who emphasize the greatness of the nation and a heroic victory over evil. ...

For their current research, the scientists asked students to think about their own death or a control topic and then read campaign statements of three hypothetical political candidates, each with a different leadership style: "charismatic" (i.e. those emphasizing greatness of the nation and a heroic victory over evil, as described above), task-oriented or relationship-oriented. Following a reminder of death, there was almost an 800 percent increase in votes for the charismatic leader, but no increase for the two other candidates.

This research came out in 2004. But it seems appropriate to remember any time one observes would-be "leaders" who seem to talk a lot about "9/11" or "War on Terror" or "Al Qaeda". There's a very recent and prescient article on this connection here.

Sleights of Mind
In his opening address, Michael Gazzaniga, the president of the consciousness association, had described another form of prestidigitation — a virtual reality experiment in which he had put on a pair of electronic goggles that projected the illusion of a deep hole opening in what he knew to be a solid concrete floor. Jolted by the adrenaline rush, his heart beat faster and his muscles tensed, a reminder that even without goggles the brain cobbles together a world from whatever it can.

Here's a delightful article on many other ways that our brains/minds can play tricks on us, by the versatile writer George Johnson, whom I recently had the pleasure of meeting. It shows, once again, how easily we can be misled by others who are motivated to do so (including, sometimes, our unconscious selves).

Ironically, and very sadly, the parrot mentioned in the article, named Alex, has just died. Obituaries: here, here, here, here, here, here.

Out-of-body experiences are 'all in the mind'
By deliberately scrambling a person's visual and tactile senses, it is now possible to give them an "out-of-body" experience.

Two procedures – which are the first to imitate an out-of-body experience artificially – use cameras to fool people into thinking they are standing or sitting somewhere else in a room. They provide the strongest proof yet that people only imagine floating out of their bodies during surgery or near-death experiences.

"The brain can trick itself, and when it is trying to interpret sensory information, the image it produces doesn't have to be a real representation," says Henrik Ehrsson, of the Institute of Neurology, University College London, UK, who designed the first experiment.

Accidental or deliberate deceptions of the mind, like this one (perpetrated by oneself or others) – besides simply chemical influences such as alcohol or other drugs – show how convincingly the mind can be fooled given the right conditions. Such findings seem able to account for experiences that people describe as "religious" or "spirtual" or "numinous" or the like.

Other reports on this research: here, here, here, here, here, here, here.

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