Category Archives: Research methodology

NEWSWEEK on the ‘new (neuro)science of feelings’

NEWSWEEK reports on new neuroscience research into human emotion, which appears to be more closely linked to cognition than was thought to be the case just a couple of decades ago:

From the earliest days of brain mapping—determining which regions are responsible for which functions—neuroscientists traced feelings and thoughts to structures that were barely within hailing distance of each other. The limbic system deep in the brain, including the amygdala and hippocampus, seemed to be the brain’s holy terror of a 2-year-old, the site of anger, fear, and anxiety, as well as positive emotions. The frontal cortex, just behind the forehead, was the exalted thinker, where forethought and judgment, reason and volition, attention and cognition came from. As recently as the 1980s, neuroscientists focused almost exclusively on cognition and the other functions of the frontal cortex; emotions were deemed of so little interest that neuroscience left them to psychology…

[Subsequent research has found that] both prefrontal-cortex activity and the number of pathways sending calming signals to the amygdala determine just how easily a person will bounce back from adversity. Through these two mechanisms, our “thinking brain” is able to calm our “feeling” self, enabling the brain to plan and act effectively without being distracted by negative emotion.

The psychology of crossword puzzles

The Washington Post reports:

Crosswords can reflect the nature of intuition, hint at the way we retrieve words from our memory and reveal a surprising connection between puzzle-solving and our ability to recognize a human face.

“What’s fascinating about a crossword is that it involves many aspects of cognition that we normally study piecemeal, such as memory search and problem-solving, all rolled into one ball,” says Raymond Nickerson, a psychologist at Tufts University. In a paper published last year, he analyzed the mental processes of crossword-solving.

Retrieval failure: Cognitive neuroscientists interpret Rick Perry’s debate ‘brain freeze’

The Washington Post reports:

To neuroscientists, what happened to Texas Gov. Rick Perry Wednesday night looked like something very ordinary, exacerbated by stress: a “retrieval failure.”

It happens more often as we age. But the brain scientists say it shouldn’t be seen as evidence of an intellectual deficit or some medical problem. Instead, they say, retrieval failures offer a glimpse into how the brain does and doesn’t work, not just in the skulls of presidential candidates but for everyone else, too.

New study quantifies influence of genes on intelligence

The Los Angeles Times reports:

Intelligence is in the genes, researchers reported Tuesday in the journal Molecular Psychology.

The international team, led by Ian Deary of the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and Peter Visscher of the Queensland Institute of Medical Research in Brisbane, Australia, compared the DNA of more than 3,500 people, middle aged and older, who also had taken intelligence tests.  They calculated that more than 40% of the differences in intelligence among test subjects was associated with genetic variation.

The genome-wide association study, as such broad-sweep genetic studies are known, suggested that humans inherit much of their smarts, and a large number of genes are involved.

Amazonian tribe has no abstract concept of time, researchers find

Update: Originally, this post omitted the link to the TIME Magazine article. I’ve added the link – sorry for the oversight. —MGS

TIME Magazine reports:

Researchers from the University of Portsmouth and the Federal University of Rondonia in Brazil have found that the Amazonian tribe Amondawa, has no abstract concept of time. “In English we say things like, her birthday is coming up, or he worked through the night,” researcher Chris Sinha told NewsFeed. “But they (the Amondawa) don’t use such expressions of movement in space to metaphorically talk about time.”

The study was carried out via interviews, observations, questionnaires and experiments, and the results came as a surprise to the researchers, because it’s the first language in which it’s been established that space to time mappings don’t occur.

But although the Amondawa, who were first contacted by the outside world in 1986, don’t have anything like a clock, they do talk in time periods. “They’re just not as strict,” says Sinha. That means that if two members of a tribe were to meet up, they’d say something like “We’ll meet in the afternoon,” or “we’ll meet tomorrow morning.”  This is also explained by the fact that they have a small number system which only goes up to four.

Classic book: “When Prophecy Fails” by Leon Festinger

Recently, a self-described evangelical preacher named Harold Camping received much media attention after predicting that, in line with his interpretation of the Christian Bible, the world would end on May 21. (As far as I can tell, the world’s still here). I’ve long had an interest in apocalyptic cults because of the incredible complexity with which members of such social groups look at the world – psychologically speaking, they’re fascinating.

It’s no surprise, then, that such group have received much scholarly attention over the years. One work stands out – When Prophecy Fails by Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken and Stanley Schachter. First published in 1956, When Prophecy Fails tells the story of Dorothy Martin, a Chicago homemaker who claimed to receive telepathic messages from the alien planet Clarion warning that the Earth would end on December 21, 1954. Led by Martin, a group of followers gave up their possessions, jobs, and family ties to follow Martin, who told her group that ‘true believers’ in the aliens’ warning would be evacuated from Earth a few hours before the end via flying saucer.

Festinger, the lead researcher and a social psychologist at the U. of Minnesota (later, he moved on to Stanford), used the Martin group as a case study of his theory of cognitive dissonance, which argued that humans tend to generate belief systems and worldviews that conform to their actual behaviors in order to reduce the dissonance – or conflict – caused by holding incompatible beliefs simultaneously. In the case of the Martin UFO group, after the world did not end (and they were not saved by a flying saucer), only some members of the group abandoned Martin. Others came to believe that their actions (spreading the word about the impending end of the world) actually caused the end to NOT happen – that is, rather than concluding that they had accepted a mistaken belief, many of Martin’s followers instead concluded that the end would have happened but for their actions.

When Prophecy Fails was recently reprinted and is available from various booksellers, including Amazon.

The “science of self-delusion”


Update: My original post omitted the link to Mother Jones’ article. Sorry for any confusion. —MGS

Mother Jones Magazine reports:

An array of new discoveries in psychology and neuroscience has further demonstrated how our preexisting beliefs, far more than any new facts, can skew our thoughts and even color what we consider our most dispassionate and logical conclusions. This tendency toward so-called “motivated reasoning” helps explain why we find groups so polarized over matters where the evidence is so unequivocal: climate change, vaccines, “death panels,” the birthplace and religion of the president, and much else. It would seem that expecting people to be convinced by the facts flies in the face of, you know, the facts.

The theory of motivated reasoning builds on a key insight of modern neuroscience: Reasoning is actually suffused with emotion (or what researchers often call “affect”). Not only are the two inseparable, but our positive or negative feelings about people, things, and ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts, in a matter of milliseconds—fast enough to detect with an EEG device, but long before we’re aware of it. That shouldn’t be surprising: Evolution required us to react very quickly to stimuli in our environment. It’s a “basic human survival skill,” explains political scientist Arthur Lupia of the University of Michigan. We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close. We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself.