Monday, March 31, 2008

And we thought only humans have art

Another Human 'unique trait' bites dust. It seems elephants can make self-portraits. Please see the video at the link below.

Elephant makes self-portriat

Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Autism, the middle cingulate and reputation management

There was an article on which I had wanted to comment earlier. the study by Chiu et al shows that in autistic individuals the middle cingulate cortex is hypofunctional during the self phase of the iterated Trust game, wherein one has to infer the mind of another, decide whether to trust him or her and accordingly decide what money to give to the trustee and what to keep for oneself.

Recent work using the multiround trust game has identified activations along human
cingulate cortex consistent with agent-specific response patterns generated during interpersonal exchange with another human. These patterns differentiate outcomes following revelation of the partner’s decision (‘‘not self’’ or ‘‘other’’ response) from those following submission of one’s own decision (‘‘self’’ response). Remarkably, the patterns are spatially complementary , and almost no manipulation perturbs them except one: the removal of the interactive partner . Removal of the social partner causes the cingulate response patterns to disappear even though the sensory, motor, and reward elements of the task remain intact. These results from the trust game are consistent with agent specific cingulate responses observed in a range of other experiments. Anterior and posterior cingulate activation occurs in response to the revelation of decisions of others in two-person games like the Ultimatum and Prisoner’s Dilemma games. Furthermore, increased middle cingulate activation is commonly observed in response to one’s own social decisions or emotions.

Chris and Uta Frith do an excellent job of putting these findings in perspective and argue that the autistic is less concerned with reputation management (as it has inability to infer others mind states it does not care hat they think) and suggest a simple experiment that could elucidate the point.

Our speculation is that this process of reputation management is impaired in autistic individuals, because it depends on the ability to read the minds of others. This hypothesis can be tested experimentally. If we are concerned with our reputation then our behavior will be strongly affected by whether or not an audience is present to observe our actions. Consider, for instance, another sharing game known as the dictator game. One player is given $100 and is allowed to share any amount he or she chooses with the other player. In this situation, the rational thing to do would be to give the other player no money at all, because the second player is powerless to respond. Even "dictators" will typically dole out a small proportion of the money, however. When there is an audience for the transaction, dictators give away even more money. Presumably, they do not want to have a reputation for meanness or for acting unfairly. If autistic people are not concerned with their own reputation, then their behaviour should not be affected by the presence of an audience.



I would like to extend their experiment and suggest one for those susceptible to psychosis. I have argued that Autism and Schizophrenia/ psychosis are extreme ends of a continuum and would thus conclude that in the iterated trust game, psychotics/ those susceptible to psychosis would show hyperfunctioning of middle cingulate cortex. I have elsewhere already argued that Psychotics have an enhanced ToM or mind reading ability. I would also hypothesize that psychotics would also show enhanced reputation management and an enhanced donation of money in the trust game when an audience is present as compared to controls or the autistics.


While an experiment is the best to settle such conjectures, it is tempting to see how this adds up and can explain certain symptoms of psychosis/ mania. If one is overly concerned with reputation management one can end up being a spendthrift / show irresponsible financial behavior as one tries to build a hypothetical reputation in the minds of the audience. Taken with the fact that psychosis comes clubbed with a belief in supernatural agents, magical thinking and super agency detection etc, one may not even need an actual audience - a make-believe audience may suffice to make one get overly concerned with reputation management and thus trusting too much the others -even with their money. when reality proves otherwise and people prove to be not worthy of the trust, one may dissociate with reality altogether and become paranoid on the other extreme. We know that the ACC is dysfunctional in schizophrenics, what about the middle cingulate? is it hypoactive during trust games in the self condition? Only a hypothesis, but worth investigating!

Sphere: Related Content

Monday, March 24, 2008

Stress contagion: from parents to the child?

Greg Downey at the excellent Neuroanthroplogy blog comments on a recent article by Mary Caserta, on the relationship between parental stress and illness in the children and the child's immune response. What the research team found was that :

Family processes have a substantial impact on children’s social and emotional well-being, but little is known about the effects of family stress on children’s physical health. To begin to identify potential links between family stress and health in children, we examined associations between specific aspects of family psychosocial stress and the frequency of illnesses in children, measures of innate and adaptive immune function, and human herpesvirus 6 (HHV-6) reactivation


Greg, thinks of several possible reasons for this association:
  1. Stressed out parents interact differently with their children and stress them.
  2. Mirror neurons or similar systems may underlie the fact that the child may be mirroring the internal stressed environment of the parent and consequently feeling stressed.
  3. Chemical mechanisms including pheromones released on being stressed (!!) may be at work and responsible for the contagion.
  4. Reverse causation: the stick children may be causing the parents to feel more stressed.

I find all the above explanations (except 3) interesting and plausible, but Greg has also ignored another potential reason. Being an anthropologist he has overlooked the genetic aspect. What if some underlying gene which endows the parent to feel more stressed is also responsible for the children being more susceptible to illness/ having more auto-immune response. After all the stress system and immune system are very much cloistered together. It is not hard to imagine that a gene that causes vulnerability to stress( or felling stressed) also increases sensitivity to environmental pathogens and sensitivity of immune response. As the child is sharing 50 % of the gene of the parent, there is a great likelihood that the sensitivity to stress and sensitivity to pathogens may be inherited in the same manner. Food for thought.

Sphere: Related Content

Monday, March 17, 2008

War and Peace

There is a new article by John Horgan, in the Discover Magazine regarding the eternal question of whether aggressiveness is in our genes and inevitable or can be done away with and lead to peaceful human existence.

I was introduced to psychology by reading Eric Fromm's excellent treatise on the same titled The Anatomy of human destructivity, in which he passionately argues that the animals are not cruel or destructive; but that it is a uniquely human trait. that book is a classic and I recommend it whole heartedly to anyone who has interest in the matter.

The Discover magazine article in particular quotes too of my favorite scientists: Robert Sapolsky and Frans De walls and they are on the side of 'peaceful humans' . It also has discusses those hwo belive in a darker view of human nature.

Some excerpts follow:

Frans de Waal stands in a watchtower at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center north of Atlanta, talking about war. As three hulking male chimpanzees and a dozen females loll below him, the renowned primatologist rejects the idea that war stems from “some sort of blind aggressive drive.” Observations of lethal fighting among chimpanzees, our close genetic relatives, have persuaded many people that war has deep biological roots. But de Waal says that primates, and especially humans, are “very calculating” and will abandon aggressive strategies that no longer serve their interests. “War is evitable,” de Waal says, “if conditions are such that the costs of making war are higher than the benefits.”
De Waal acknowledges that “we have a tendency, and all the primates have a tendency, to be hostile to non–group members.” But he and other experts insist that humans and their primate cousins are much less bellicose than the public has come to believe. Studies of monkeys, apes, and Homo sapiens offer ample hope that we can overcome our aggressive tendencies and greatly reduce or maybe even eliminate warfare.

Biologist Robert Sapolsky is a leading challenger of what he calls the “urban myth of inevitable aggression.” At his Stanford University office, peering out from a tangle of gray-flecked hair and beard, he tells me that primate studies contradict simple biological theories of male belligerence—for example, those that blame the hormone testosterone. Aggression in primates may actually be the cause of elevated testosterone, rather than vice versa. Moreover, artificially increasing or decreasing testosterone levels within the normal range usually just reinforces previous patterns of aggression rather than dramatically transforming behavior; beta males may still be milquetoasts, and alphas still bullies. “Social conditioning can more than make up for the hormone,” Sapolsky says.

De Waal suspects that environmental factors contribute to the bonobos’ benign character; food is more abundant in their dense forest habitat than in the semi-open woodlands where chimpanzees live. Indeed, his experiments on captive primates have established the power of environmental factors. In one experiment, rhesus monkeys, which are ordinarily incorrigibly aggressive, grew up to be kinder and gentler when raised with mild-mannered stump-tailed monkeys.

De Waal has also reduced conflict among monkeys by increasing their interdependence and ensuring equal access to food. Applying these lessons to humans, de Waal sees promise in alliances, such as the European Union, that promote trade and travel and hence interdependence. “Foster economic ties,” he says, “and the reason for warfare, which is usually resources, will probably dissipate.”

Fry has also identified 74 “nonwarring cultures” that—while only a fraction of all known societies—nonetheless contradict the depiction of war as universal. His list includes nomadic hunter-gatherers such as the !Kung in Africa and Aborigines in Australia. These examples are crucial, Fry says, because our ancestors are thought to have lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers from the emergence of the Homo lineage just over 2 million years ago in Africa until the appearance of agriculture and permanent settlements about 12,000 years ago. That time span constitutes 99 percent of our history.

Lethal violence certainly occurred among those nomadic hunter-gatherers, Fry acknowledges, but for the most part it consisted not of genuine warfare but of fights between two men, often over a woman. These fights would sometimes precipitate feuds between friends and relatives of the initial antagonists, but members of the band had ways to avoid these feuds or cut them short. For example, Fry says, third parties might step between the rivals and say, “‘Let’s talk this out’ or ‘You guys wrestle, and the winner gets the woman.’”

Sphere: Related Content

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Fool's Quest

Some of you may be aware that I also perceive of me as a literary person and try my hand at writing poetry, short stories and novellas. I have recently started a new blog called The Fool's Quest that would document my quest of coming up with novel literary pieces on a daily basis.

I strongly suggest , that though it has nothing to do with Psychology, it is bound to be a good read, so hurry up and visit that site.

Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Magical Thinking

There is an interesting article in Psychology Today regarding Magical Thinking and though one should read it in its entirety, I'll also post some snippets.


1. Anything can be sacred.
What makes something sacred is not its material makeup but its unique history. And whatever causes us to value essence over appearance becomes apparent at an early age. Psychologists Bruce Hood at Bristol University and Paul Bloom at Yale convinced kids ages 3 to 6 that they'd constructed a "copying machine." The kids were fine taking home a copy of a piece of precious metal produced by the machine, but not so with a clone of one of Queen Elizabeth II's spoons—they wanted the original.

2. Anything can be cursed.
Essences are not always good. In fact, people show stronger reactions to negative taint than to positive. Mother Teresa cannot fully neutralize the evil in a sweater worn by Hitler, a fact that fits the germ theory of moral contagion: A drop of sewage does more to a bucket of clean water than a drop of clean water does to a bucket of sewage. Traditional cleaning can't erase bad vibes either. Studies by Rozin and colleagues show that people have a strong aversion to wearing laundered clothes that have been worn by a murderer or even by someone who's lost a leg in an accident.

3. Mind rules over matter.
Wishing is probably the most ubiquitous kind of magical spell around, the unreasonable expectation that your thoughts have force and energy to act on the world. Emily Pronin and colleagues at Princeton and Harvard convinced undergrads in a study that they had put voodoo curses on fellow subjects. While targeting their thoughts on the other students, hexers pushed pins into voodoo dolls and the "victims" feigned headaches. Some victims had been instructed to behave like jackasses during the study (the "Stupid People Shouldn't Breed" T-shirt was a nice touch), eliciting ill will from pin pushers. Those who dealt with the jerks felt much more responsible for the headaches than the control group did. If you think it, and it happens, then you did it, right? Pronin describes the results as a particular form of seeing causality in coincidence, where the "cause" is especially conspicuous because it's hard to miss what's going on in your own head.


4. Rituals bring good luck.
To witness the mindless repetition of actions with no proven causal effect, there's no better laboratory than the athletic field.
We use ritual acts most often when there is little cost to them, when an outcome is uncertain or beyond our control, and when the stakes are high—hence my communion with the fuselage. People who truly trust in their rituals exhibit a phenomenon known as "illusion of control," the belief that they have more influence over the world than they actually do. And it's not a bad delusion to have—a sense of control encourages people to work harder than they might otherwise. In fact, a fully accurate assessment of your powers, a state known as "depressive realism," haunts people with clinical depression, who in general show less magical thinking.

5. To name is to rule.
Just as thoughts and objects have power, so do names. Language's ability to dredge up associations acts as a spell over us. Piaget argued that children often confuse objects with their names, a phenomenon he labeled nominal realism. Rozin and colleagues have demonstrated nominal realism in adults. After watching sugar being poured into two glasses of water and then personally affixing a "sucrose" label to one and a "poison" label to the other, people much prefer to drink from the "sucrose" glass and will even shy away from one they label "not poison." (The subconscious doesn't process negatives.)

6. Karma's a bitch.
Belief in a just world puts our minds at ease: Even if things are beyond our control, they happen for a reason. The idea of arbitrary pain and suffering is just too much for many people to bear, and the need for moral order may help explain the popularity of religion; in fact, just-worlders are more religious than others. Faith in cosmic jurisprudence starts early. Harvard psychologists showed that kids ages 5 to 7 like a child who found $5 on the sidewalk more than one whose soccer game got rained out

7. The world is alive.
To believe that the universe is sympathetic to our wishes is to believe that it has a mind or a soul, however rudimentary. We often see inanimate objects as infused with a life force.Lindeman Marjaana, a psychologist at the University of Helsinki, defines magical thinking as treating the world as if it has mental properties (animism) or expecting the mind to exhibit the properties of the physical world. She found that people who literally endorse phrases such as, "Old furniture knows things about the past," or, "An evil thought is contaminated," also believe in things like feng shui (the idea that the arrangement of furniture can channel life energy) and astrology. They are also more likely to be religious and to believe in paranormal agents.


In the end they also list the benefits of magical thinking and how some magical thinking has indeed proved somewhat correct!!

Who are WE to say the dreamers have it wrong? Carol Nemeroff and Paul Rozin point out that many magical beliefs have gained some element of scientific validity:

  • Magical contagion: Germ theory has shown that we have reason to fear that something invisible and negative can be transmitted by contact. Bacteria are the new curses.
  • Holographic existence: The idea that the whole is contained in each of its parts is born out by biology. Every cell in your body contains all of the DNA needed to create an entire person.
  • Action at a distance: Can voodoo dolls and magic wands have an impact? Well, gravitational pull works at a distance. So do remote controls, through electromagnetic radiation.
  • Mind over matter: The placebo effect is well-documented. Just thinking that an inert pill will have a medical effect on you makes it so.
  • Mana: Mana is the Polynesian term for the ubiquitous concept of communicable supernatural power. There is indeed a universally applicable parcel of influence that is abstract and connects us all: money.
Overall, an interesting piece indeed.

Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Categorical color perception: the language effect

I touched on the sapir-whorf hypothesis and how Russians are better able to do better Categorical Perception (CP) of color, thanks to the fact that they have a richer color terms lexicon than English, last month.

I have also covered the research of P. Kay earlier regarding color terms and their evolution. Now a new PNAS paper by Kay et al shows that while the left hemisphere(LH) , which is involved in language, shows superior CP effect in adults, the reverse trend is shown in infants i.e.e the infants show a stronger CP of colors when the stimuli is presented to Left Visual field (LVF) and hence processed by RH.

Their hypothesis was that while the CP of colors in adults is mediated by language, the CP in infants is non-verbal and the cP in adults may or may not build on this childhood CP ability. The results go on to show that not only doers language affect the left hemisphere dominance on categorical perception of colors ; it does so by overriding an inborn RH dominance for the same task. thus, there is no doubt that the color term lexicon heavily influences how we categorize colors in the adulthood.


Here is their conclusion:

Evidence suggesting that color CP varies cross-linguistically, and that color CP is eliminated by verbal interference, has supported the hypothesis that color CP depends on access to lexical codes for color . However, the finding of color category effects in prelinguistic infants and toddlers has led others to argue that language cannot be the only origin of the effect . The current study finds evidence to support both positions. Color CP is found in 4- to 6-month-old infants, replicating previous infant studies. However, the absence of a category effect in the LH for infants, but the presence of a greater LH than RH category effect for adults, suggests that language-driven CP in adults may not build on prelinguistic CP, but that language instead imposes its categories on a LH that is not categorically prepartitioned. The current findings may therefore suggest a compromise between the two positions: there is a form of CP that is nonlinguistic and RH based (found in infancy) and a form of CP that is lexically influenced and biased to the LH (found in adulthood). Color CP is found for both infants and adults, but the contribution of the LH and RH to color CP appears to change across the life span.

Sphere: Related Content