Monthly Archives: February 2011

A negative attitude can negate the placebo effect, new research finds

The Associated Press (via MSNBC) reports:

Scientists already know the placebo effect is real. They can measure it in studies that compare real drugs to dummy pills, where those given the fakes have noticeable improvements to pain and other symptoms.

But could a gloomy outlook really harm? British and German researchers performed the most sophisticated study yet to tell. They strapped a heat-beaming device onto the legs of 22 healthy volunteers, zapping it until people rated their pain at nearly 70 on a scale of 1 to 100…

Expecting more pain fired up sections of the brain that control mood and anxiety, the researchers recently reported in the journal Science Translational Medicine. In contrast, anticipating pain relief fired up different regions previously found active in people given placebos.


B Good Science Blog on “the man who could not forget”

Ben Good of the B Good Science Blog recently posted about mnemonists, whom Good defines as “individuals [who] have unfathomable memories and data recall.” In his excellent post, Good describes the case of Solomon Shereshevskii, a Russian man who was studied by famous psychologist and neuroscientist Alexander Luria:

Luria looked around the room and noticed that, unlike all the rest of the journalists, there was an individual not taking any notes. Luria confronted Shereshesvkii asking why he was not taking notes, at this point Shereshesvkii recited his entire talk back to word for word. Luria was stunned, as was Shereshesvkii who at this point had never realised that no one else had his perfect recall.

Scientists find monkeys show self-doubt behavior similar to humans

The BBC reports:

Monkeys trained to play computer games have helped to show that it is not just humans that feel self-doubt and uncertainty, a study says.

US-based scientists found that macaques will “pass” rather than risk choosing the wrong answer in a brainteaser task.

Awareness of our own thinking was believed to be a uniquely human trait.

But the study, presented at the AAAS meeting in Washington DC, suggests that our more primitive primate relatives are capable of such self-awareness.

Classic article: Anthony Greenwald on “The totalitarian ego”

Writing in The Huffington Post, social psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson defines self-serving bias as:

The tendency to see ourselves as responsible for our successes, but to see other people or the circumstances as responsible for our failures. We reason this way to protect our self-esteem, and to protect our image in the eyes of others. We also do it because it really feels right.

In other words, in a given situation, humans’ self-serving bias causes us to attribute positive outcomes, or successes, to our own individual, internal factors – we tell ourselves, I succeeded in this task because I am smart,or talented, or deserving, et cetera. The same bias causes us to attribute negative outcomes, or failures, to external factors: I failed because my boss didn’t give me clear directions, or my professor didn’t teach in a way I could understand, or the policeman who gave me the speeding ticket was out to get me.

A famous analysis of the self-service bias was published by Anthony Greenwald in the journal American Psychologist in 1980. Dr. Greenwald earned his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1963 and went on to join the faculty at Ohio State and U. of Washington. In his 1980 paper, Greenwald argues that self-serving bias is not merely a way for humans to interpret specific events, it is a fundamental part of the process by which we organize our understanding of the world.

Greenwald’s article is available online here (PDF).

New study finds cell phone use alters brain activity

Reuters (via The Huffington Post) reports:

Spending 50 minutes with a cellphone plastered to your ear is enough to change brain cell activity in the part of the brain closest to the antenna.But whether that causes any harm is not clear, scientists at the National Institutes of Health said on Tuesday, adding that the study will likely not settle recurring concerns of a link between cellphones and brain cancer.

The New York Times on the “wonders and fears” of artificial intelligence

The NY Times reports:

In 1963 the mathematician-turned-computer scientist John McCarthy started the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. The researchers believed that it would take only a decade to create a thinking machine.

Also that year the computer scientist Douglas Engelbart formed what would become the Augmentation Research Center to pursue a radically different goal — designing a computing system that would instead “bootstrap” the human intelligence of small groups of scientists and engineers.

For the past four decades that basic tension between artificial intelligence and intelligence augmentation — A.I. versus I.A. — has been at the heart of progress in computing science as the field has produced a series of ever more powerful technologies that are transforming the world.

Now, as the pace of technological change continues to accelerate, it has become increasingly possible to design computing systems that enhance the human experience, or now — in a growing number of cases — completely dispense with it.

Study finds electrical stimulation of the brain aids in solving novel tasks

The Huffington Post reports on new research by Richard Chi and Allan Snyder of the University of Sidney. According to Chi:

We took a standard problem of insight, a match stick arithmetic visual problem, and we trained people into solving the problem with one kind of strategy. Subsequently, we asked people to solve a much harder problem that required a novel twist, a completely different strategy for solving the problem. Most people had great difficulties in thinking outside the box! Only 20% of people without stimulation can solved this new problem, whereas 60% can with brain stimulation.

Dr. Chi describes the apparatus that provided the brain stimulation:

It is a simple device called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), which consists of two sponge electrodes and can be powered by a 9 volt battery. In layman’s terms, the technique can excite or inhibit certain part of the brain depending on current polarity. The effects of stimulation last about an hour…

Read more about this research on The Huffington Post.