December 19, 2007

Winter Break!

Wow, so it's been over a month since I have written my last post. What can I say? I've been busy and time has gone by way too fast, haha. After Thanksgiving, I was pretty much concerned with completing graduate school applications, paper writing, collecting thesis data and studying/taking finals. Needless to say, it's been an interesting couple of weeks.

Well, the bulk of my work is done . . . for the time being. Finals are over with and my own students, from the social methods class that I TA for, finished their presentations last week. Most of my grad applications have been sent off, I just have three more to complete. And I'm done collecting thesis data for the semester, mostly because students are leaving campus. I'll be starting my project back up once everyone returns to campus. So, essentially, I'm free until about January 16th. Yea Winter Break! Nearly a month of relaxation . . . haha . . . yeah, right. The wifey and I don't really have big plans for the break, except seeing family I suppose. We both have thesis work to do. And I have a pile of "recreational" reading that I want to get through by the end of break. We'll see. The first order of business is to add more posts to this blog. I feel so bad about abandoning it for so long. Now that I have a decent amount of time to myself, I expect to be posting regularly. Perhaps, if I can get some preliminary analyses done, I can write about my master's thesis work. Well, until then, that's all for now! I'm going to start Steinbeck's The Winter of Our Discontent.

November 16, 2007

New social psychology magazine!

Sweet! I have just recently found out about this fairly new on-line magazine called, The Inquisitive Mind , or more simply, In-Mind. What's so cool about In-Mind? Well, I'll tell you!

In-Mind is a free, quarterly on-line magazine about, what else, social psychology! It's all about making social psychology more accessible to the public. The articles are written by real psychologists, and concern current research trends within the field. As well, readers don't really have to worry much about convoluted, scientific jargon. Instead, the articles are fairly easy to read and, at the same time, quite stimulating. Additionally, readers can debate with an article's author! Here's how they describe themselves:

"Welcome to the website of the Inquisitive Mind. The Inquisitive Mind, or In-Mind, is a young and exciting on-line quarterly magazine for social psychology. The magazine’s purpose is designed to interact with everyone that is interested in everyday human concerns and to inform you on the hot trends in scientific social psychological research. Now, science has its own language and you might not feel like having the time to keep up-to-date. We will attempt to bridge the existing gap by relating important social psychological research to issues that catch your mind . . .

. . . So, what all does In-Mind offer? First, you can read on the aforementioned topics by reading our articles. In order to read the full articles, you will have to register. This is free, and you may do so through the controls on the left. After you have registered, you may continue with the button 'articles' to read full articles (introductions of articles are available without registration). You can then discuss, debate, and argue with the authors and with other members. Moreover, if you find other members with common interests, you may connect with them directly through our In-Mind Community; every member has the opportunity to create a profile. Also, as a member you can automatically create your own blog. Use this blog to wander and wonder in the interesting world of social psychology . . ."
It looks really cool to me. I'm pretty excited about it, and, as you can see, I've added it to my "sites that I like" sidebar.

They even have some pretty appealing links and videos about social psychology. For instance, I found an interesting lecture given by Dr. Mahzarin Banaji on In-Mind. Dr. Banaji is a social psychologist from Harvard University who basically studies how our unconscious biases affect our social perceptions and attitudes. You can check out the video here:

Go see the website! I know you'll enjoy it!

October 16, 2007

Our mental number line?

Now here’s a post that I’ve been meaning to write for a while. I finally found some time (or motivation) to get it done I guess :)

Firstly, I should state that my research interests mostly lie within the field of social psychology (specifically affiliation and social rejection). But I also have some general interests in topics across a variety of other psychology sub-fields (as you can probably tell, I have a rather large interest in evolutionary psychology, which to me is more of a way of thinking about psychology than a sub-field). Well, this is a post about a general interest of mine, and that is the concept of number. Specifically, this post is going to be about human and animal abilities to order and represent numbers.

Jessica Cantlon and Elizabeth Brannon (2006) are researchers from Duke (you can find Brannon’s website here) who worked on two experiments investigating: 1) the ability of two rhesus macaques to apply a learned ordinal numerical rule, and 2) compared the performance of these same monkeys with that of humans on ordering pairs of numbers.
In the first experiment, the authors trained the rhesus macaques to present in ascending order all possible pairings of stimuli, of which each represented a numerical value between 1 and 9.
The stimuli consisted of a background with 1 through 9 square shapes in various colors and sizes, kind of like the blue boxes in the photo below:

Once the ordinal rule was learned, the macaques were then presented with stimuli that represented novel numerical values (10, 15, 20 and 30). Of the experimental sessions, there were three types of pairings. The first type were familiar-familiar pairs where each stimulus represented a value between 1 and 9. The second type were familiar-novel pairs, in which one stimulus represented a value among 10, 15, 20 or 30 and the other stimulus represented a value between 1 and 9. And lastly, the third type of pairing was novel-novel. This is where both stimuli represented a value among 10, 15, 20 and 30. Once presented with the pairings, the macaques were expected to use the ordinal rule and order the values from smallest to largest, which is what the authors found!

The monkeys ordered these values in the same direction that they originally learned to order the values between 1 and 9.
The findings are particularly interesting considering that the authors used a numerical value up to 30 and previous studies have only presented monkeys with values of up to 10. So not only does this first experiment show that rhesus macaques can compare and apply ordinal rules to unfamiliar values, but these monkeys can also represent and compare values of at least 30 with the possibility of no upper limit!

The second experiment was conducted to compare the performance of these monkeys with human participants and specifically to test how much the number comparisons are controlled by Weber’s law in each species (Weber’s law essentially states that the ability to discriminate between two values depends on the ratio between the two and not the actual absolute values.
For instance, it is easier to discriminate between the values of 1 and 9 than it is to discriminate between the values of 28 and 29).

The same macaques and 11 university students were instructed to pick the smallest value presented out of pairings of the same stimuli.
This time each stimulus represented a numerical value between 2 and 30. The human participants were instructed not to count, but to respond as quickly as possible once the stimuli appeared. The investigators observed that the monkeys and the human participants performed similarly in accuracy. Indeed, the difference between monkeys and humans in accuracy was smaller than the difference between the most and least accurate humans! The monkeys did perform significantly faster than the humans though. This could be attributed to the training, but remains unclear. However, the data from both the human and monkey groups did conform to the pattern predicted by Weber’s Law. Accuracy decreased and reaction time increased as the ratio between the small and large values increased. Whenever the values increased and the distance between them decreased, it took both humans and monkeys more time to order them.

Now, I thought that this was an intriguing article when I first read it last year.
It seems to support the supposition that humans and animals use a similar system for representing and ordering numbers. We seem to have a mental number line in common. Perhaps we evolved an underlying mechanism for non-verbal number representation from a common primate ancestor? Well, anyways, I thought the article was pretty cool and just wanted to share it, haha.


Cantlon, J., & Brannon, E. (2006). Shared system for ordering small and large numbers in monkeys and humans.

October 11, 2007

Self-replicating robots . . . and more

So I was just browsing around for some cool videos and what not, and guess what I found? If you guessed a short talk given by Hod Lipson, then you'd be correct!

As you might recall, I wrote about Lispon back in June
concerning his plenary address at HBES 2007. As I wrote before, he was my favorite speaker over the course of the conference. His topic was evolutionary robotics, which is basically about creating robots that:

"decide for themselves how they want to walk; robots that develop a sense of what they look like; even robots that can, through trial and error, construct other robots just like themselves"
It is really a very interesting area that may even help us understand how the human brain constructs self-models. Is it similar to how these robots develop a sense of themselves?

Well, anyways, Lispon gave a brief version of the same address, with the same video clips, as a TED Talk on October 11, 2007. If you don't feel like visiting the website, I have posted the video below. It's definitely really cool and worth the watch:

September 27, 2007

Celebrating the Cognitive Revolution

Yeah, so I was just browsing around Steven Pinker's website, and noticed that he had a link to some interesting video.

Basically, the Mind/Brain/Behavior Interfaculty Initiative at Harvard held a discussion celebrating the beginning of the cognitive revolution, and which inaugurated a new, permanent exhibit in William James Hall on the history behind the revolution. The talk (discussion) is titled: "The Cognitive Revolution at Fifty Plus or Minus One." The discussion includes a panel of none other than: George Miller, Noam Chomsky, Susan Carey and Jerome Bruner. The discussion is also introduced and moderated by Pinker himself. (all are pictured above: Pinker, Carey, Miller, Chomsky and Bruner) Oh . . . and this took place around April! (How did I miss this?)

The talk is very awesome! The panel discussion is broken into 4 videos and I definitely recommend viewing them all! Well, to anyone who's interested in the History of Science/Psychology/Cognitive Science anyways. Of course, it is pretty "Harvard-centric," as I think Pinker himself said, but the panel does mention some other important players, such as Piaget and Edward Tolman. It's really cool just to hear about how a department absorbed in radical behaviorism in the 1950's (B.F. Skinner) could give birth to an influential paradigm that allowed purposeful thought! It's also really cool to hear about all the thinkers who influenced each on the panel.

Check it out!

September 14, 2007

Today in the History of Psychology

Today, in 1907, one of the most famous pioneers in social psychology was born. The man that I am speaking of, and who is pictured to the right, is of course Solomon Asch. Like many in his day, Asch was trained as a gestalt psychologist. (An approach that advocates that the "whole is greater than the sum of its parts." For instance, the brain cannot be defined just by its seperate parts, but by how each acts on each other simultaneously).

Asch studied many aspects of social behavior including impression formation, and even wrote one of the first influential social psychology text books, simply called, Social Psychology (1952). But what he is probably most famous for is a set of experiments he conducted in the 1950's on the topic of conformity.

In his experiments, participants viewed a picture of a line and were to compare this line to a separate set of lines to see which best resembled the first (pictured below):
All participants were confederates (basically fake participants/actors) except one. Before being asked which line correctly resembled the first, the confederates were instructed to give an incorrect answer. The confederates and one participant were all seated in a classroom, where the one participant occupied the last seat. And they were instructed to announce their answer aloud, with the real participant answering last. When the confederates were unanimous in their incorrect judgments, most real participants felt discomfort from the answer they thought was right and the answer that they heard the confederates say. Most of the participants caved under the social pressure, leaving only about 29% of his subjects who refused to "join the bogus majority." Of course if the confederates were not unanimous in their incorrect judgments, then most participants would give the correct answer.

This experiment had some interesting implications for the power of conformity in social groups and has laid the groundwork for the famous obedience experiments by Stanley Milgram.

Happy Birthday Solomon Asch!

September 13, 2007

"The Stuff of Thought"

Steven Pinker's new book, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature, is finally out! Woohoo! It came out on Tuesday and I rushed to the local Barnes and Noble to pick up my copy. I can't wait to start reading it! I'm going to try to get to it this weekend, at least start on it if I can get my other work done. I'm so excited!

September 9, 2007

Darwinian Medicine

For those of you interested, evolutionary psychologist/psychiatrist Dr. Randolph Nesse has put together a series of lectures for the Henry Stewart Talks called, Evolution and Medicine: How New Applications Advance Research and Practice.

The combined lectures were designed to be a complete introductory course to the field of evolutionary medicine with over 30 expert contributors. Topics include: Fundamentals of evolution and medicine, evolutionary genetics, infectious diseases, co-evolution and arms races, environmental factors, constraints and trade-offs, sexual selection and reproduction, cancer, mental disorders, and practical applications. Power-point slides come along with each talk as well.

The only bad thing about the lectures is that you cannot view them for free. That's right, you have to purchase them! But many, not all, of the lectures offer a playable extract for free. It's a little 5 minute sample of the talk, I guess so you can decide whether you want to buy the rest or not. Of course the single user license is about $650! Wow! So it's just like enrolling in a online course I suppose, just without the grade. From what I heard from the playable extracts . . . they seem pretty interesting.

Go check them out!

Today in the History of Psychology

"There is nothing so practical as a good theory."
- Kurt Lewin, 1951

Today in 1890, the "founder of social psychology," Kurt Lewin, was born!

Originally from Prussia, he emigrated to the United States as a result of World War II. He held a position at the University of Iowa, where he developed his interests in social phenomena and even began research, in order to help the war effort, such as examining troop morale. Of course, coming from the German tradition of Gestalt Psychology, he was a true believer in a good theory. One cannot fix a problem from evidence alone. To create a solution to a social problem, one must fully understand the issue. Lewin was really the first to utilize theory-building for the understanding of social "facts," and he rigorously employed experimentation to test his hypotheses.

He moved to MIT around 1944, where he established the Research Center for Group Dynamics. One might say, the field of group dynamics is where his importance lays and where his legacy proliferates. Here he developed and refined his field theory of social behavior, B=ƒ(P,E), (behavior is a function of a person and his/her environment). That basically means, one's behavior is due to the situation the person is in when the behavior occurs, rather than emphasizing past experiences (upbringing). He also looked at concepts such as group performance and leadership styles, and even found that democratic leadership proved to be the most productive type of leadership.

Lewin died in 1947, just three years after the establishment of his research center, yet his legacy lived on through his students. One of these students was Leon Festinger. Festinger studied under Lewin at the University of Iowa where he received his Ph.D in 1942. He later followed Lewin to MIT and headed the Research Center for Group Dynamics after Lewin died.

Happy Birthday Kurt Lewin!

August 29, 2007

the summer just goes by so fast . . .

Yes it does! Classes started today in fact, but I feel like it was just the beginning of June last week. Oh well, the summer was fun and I think that I did some pretty cool stuff (besides getting married).

For instance, I held two jobs over the summer. Firstly, I was a teaching assistant for a class concerning research methods in clinical psychology. Not my particular field of interest, but it was pretty nice regardless. We only had like 6 students. I mostly ran the labs where they conducted two research projects. One project was an online environmental attitudes survey, where some questions were borrowed from another survey collected in the 80's. Essentially, the students were supposed to look at how attitudes on the environment have changed in the past twenty years. For their other project, I had them rate tape recordings of psychiatric patients. The patients participated in a series of role plays as a measure of social skills. The students then rated the tapes based on a set of criteria for conversational content as well as non-verbal content. This was mostly an exercise for the students so that they had experience conducting inter-rater reliability estimates. We wanted them to know how hard it is to obtain good reliability with these types of procedures. You don't really get that kind of knowledge just from reading journal articles.

My other job was as a research consultant at The Glennan Center for Geriatrics and Gerontology at Eastern Virginia Medical School. This was a pretty cool job as well. I worked for Dr. Barbara Freund, who mostly conducts driving simulation research on patients with Alzheimer's. Well, over the summer she obtained two new simulators from Raydon Corp. My project pretty much was centered around conducting quality assurance tests on the simulators to make sure that they were fit for participants in future studies. But she also let me participate in whatever else she had going on that I may have been interested in, which was cool. I really enjoyed it there. I thought that it would be like playing video games all day, but interestingly enough it wasn't. I still have to write a post about "simulator sickness," which I've wanted to write since June . . . just haven't had the time I suppose. It'll be up here soon though. What's really cool is that she's letting me work for her during the academic year, as research on the side . . . because I'll always need the extra experience. Of course this will only happen if my schedule permits it, my thesis is my number one priority!

So that's what the majority of my summer was spent on, although I also spent a lot of time teaching my wife how to play racquetball. She's gotten really good too! We both have also spent a lot of time studying for the GRE's. We're both nearing the end of our Master's programs (hers is in Literature) and we definitely want to go on for our Doctorates. That means we have to go through the lovely process of applying to graduate school again . . . YEA! (can you feel the horror?) Once more, we are trying to get into the same school! It'll work out somehow though. I'm actually not that worried about it.

Well, that was my summer. I now have a semester off solid work to look forward to, but it's cool because I'm really looking forward to the research opportunities that I will be participating in this semester, including my thesis on social ostracism/exclusion. I'm also taking a required course on psychopathology, and will probably audit the evolutionary psychology course offered through our department. Lastly, I will be the teaching assistant for my research advisor, Dr. John Nezlek, which is very cool! He's brilliant, so the more time I spend around him, hopefully the more I'll pick up. The course is "Research Methods of Social Psychology," which is a perfect fitting for me. I'll be controlling the labs for the course, but will be sitting in on the classes as well. And the first meeting will be tomorrow!

That's all for now!

August 24, 2007

Colbert on Michael Shermer

Michael Shermer, science writer and editor of Skeptic magazine, was recently featured on The Colbert Report. It was pretty good, like all the others. Shermer did a pretty good job of explaining the need for science and skepticism, in the limited amount of time given. Favorite quote:

"If you want something to work, you use science!"
He also gives examples of how to examine evidence to disprove conspiracy theories (9/11 conspiracy theories in particular) and why you can't just go on anecdotal evidence for anything! If you want to find something out, you have to research the evidence!

the science behind out-of-body experiences

Here's a New York Times article of interest. Research published today in Science examines how normal, healthy people can have out-of-body experiences.

Usually the various sensory systems of which we observe our environment (vision, touch, balance, etc.) work together to create our sense of being. Yet when one system is thrown off or is given inaccurate information that greatly differs from the other systems the brain may try to make sense of the mis-matched information. In fact, it may force a sense of being in a different body.

In one experiment, Dr. Olaf Blanke, a neuroscientist at the École Polytechnique Fédérale in Lausanne, asked participants to wear virtual reality goggles while an image taken of their backs was shown to them as being six feet in front of them. As this image was being projected, he simultaneously stroked their backs and their images' backs with a stick. If the two strokes occurred in sychronism, participants reported being inside the illusory body. When the strokes were not synchronous, there was no illusion. Strangely, when the image being projected was not of the participant, but instead of a mannequin dressed in the same clothes as the participant the illusion still occurred.

In a different but related experiment, Henrik Ehrsson, a neuroscientist from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, had participants sit while wearing goggles connected to two video cameras set up behind them. He then began to stroke each person's chest with a stick, while at the same time moving a second stick just under the camera lenses so that it seemed to stroke the virtual body. When both strokes were simultaneous, the illusion of being outside their bodies was reported by the participants.

This is some really cool stuff I must say. It definitely gives some interesting insight into what goes on during near-death experiences where people report a sense of being outside of their bodies. Usually in these types of experiences individuals go through serious trauma or injury. There's no telling what their brains are trying to make sense of in these situations. Though one point to make is that they usually report a feeling of floating over their bodies, whereas participants in the above experiments did not have such a strong sense of floating. Of course, that is what future research is all about . . . right?

August 23, 2007

understanding a junk food junkie . . .

Mmm . . . mmm . . . good!

There's an interesting article from Scientific American that helps explain the current understanding of compulsive eating and its relation to drug abuse.

Basically, both types of behaviors activate the same brain circuitry in similar ways. The circuitry involved are neuronal networks that once evolved for the purpose of rewarding behaviors that were essential for the survival of our species (sex, finding/eating food, etc.) We essentially get rewarded for eating food (pleasure from taste), but at the same time we are conditioned with the various cues that preceded the pleasure (what the food looked like, the smell and where we found it), so that when we encounter those same cues again we expect the same pleasure, which, in turn, should make us more likely to eat the viand again.

"if the behavior necessary to seek a pleasurable experience was triggered exclusively by the object, the conditioned response would be very ineffective indeed; think about the need to find food to survive, for example: say we are primitive creatures in the jungle and you by pure chance taste a banana. The banana tastes good, but if you were just conditioned to remember that it tasted good—and not to the smell, the shape, the color, or the location of the banana—your ability to find it again would be impaired. Once you create this conditioned memory, though, it’s just like Pavlov’s dogs; the response becomes a reflex. This conditioned response underlies both the drive in drug addiction and the drive in compulsive eating."
In neuroimaging studies scientists have found that people display an increased level of dopamine in their striatum (brain area associated with reward and motivational responses) after just seeing and smelling their favorite food. The article also explains that this is the same thing that happens when drug addicts watch videos of people taking their drug of choice! At that high-calorie foods are more reinforcing than low-fat, low-calorie foods, which makes sense because as hunter-gatherers food was not always abundant. Eating high-calorie foods would be advantageous, because that contain more energy. But most of us don't live in hunting and gathering societies anymore:
"Our genes have changed little, but in our environment, we are now surrounded by high-fat, high-sugar foods. And this abundance is undoubtedly a major factor contributing to the rise in obesity Conditioning responses are incredibly powerful with food: when I go past a vending machine and I see chocolates I like very much, I desire the chocolate even though I’m not hungry. But if those chocolates weren’t there, it would be the last thing on my mind."
Such research adds additional insight into treatments for obesity and compulsive eating. One area that I find interesting is the use of biofeedback for treating over-eating:
"Yet another exciting area NIDA is researching is the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (or fMRI) in biofeedback to train people to exercise specific parts of their brains, just like muscles. Sean Mackey of Stanford University, neuroscientist Christopher De Charms of Omneuron [in SanFrancisco] and their colleagues have similarly trained healthy subjects and chronic-pain sufferers to control their brain activity to actually modulate their experience of pain. So NIDA is exploring the possibility that you might use this kind of biofeedback to train people to control a region of the brain called the insula, which has been implicated in food and drug cravings. Smokers who have a lesion in the insula after a stroke, for instance, seem to lose the desire to smoke."
Pretty cool stuff. Well, anyways, check out the rest of the article!

August 20, 2007

"it's on a par with a night of heavy drinking"

If you've seen the movie, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, then you may remember that the main character, Joel Barish (played by Jim Carrey), hires a company to erase the memories of his ex-girlfriend (played by Kate Winslet) after an epsiode of heart-break. This ends up being a mistake for Joel, and he spends the majority of the film struggling to preserve what's left of his memories of Clemetine while unconscious.

Now of course this is all science-fiction. But what if you really could erase specific long-term memories? Say memories of a deceased loved one? Or, in Joel's case, an ex-mate? Would you do it? What about traumatic experiences? Would you be willing to erase memories of a traumatic experience?

Well, we are a long way from the memory erasing capabilities of Eternal Sunshine, but research recently published in Science suggests that long-term memories are not etched in stone as previously thought. Instead, memory might be more like a "machine" that must keep running in order to hold onto experiences. Yadin Dudai, Head of the Weizmann Institute’s Neurobiology Department, found that by inhibiting the synaptic protein, PKMzeta, long-term memories in rats could be erased.

Essentially, Dudai's team trained rats to avoid certain tastes. Once the aversion was learned, they then injected the rats with a substance in the area of the cortex associated with taste memories. This substance is a PKMzeta blocking agent. After only a single application, the rats forgot their taste aversion training.

"The technique worked as successfully a month after the memories were formed, which is analogous to years in humans, and all signs so far indicate that the affected unpleasant memories of the taste had indeed disappeared."
"In other words, long-term memory is not a one-time inscription on the nerve network, but an ongoing process which the brain must continuously fuel and maintain and these findings raise the possibility of developing a 'memory eraser'."
That's pretty cool . . . very interesting, but I can't help being left feeling uneasy. If we actually reach the point of developing a "memory eraser," would it be used for practical, commercial purposes? And what would they be? Is it even ethical to erase anyone's long-term memories for any purpose? Perhaps erasing memories of traumatic experiences that lead to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Of course, I'm sure that such memory erasing capabilities would not be so solicitously advertised as it was in Eternal Sunshine, and there would probably be restrictions on the procedure. Very cool research, but definitely opens up a host of ethical questions.

July 20, 2007

Cure for fear?

Now here's an interesting article. According to the press release, scientists from MIT's Picower Institute for Learning and Memory have discovered the molecular mechanism behind fear!

They found that inhibiting the enzyme, Cdk5, within the hippocampus of mice, eliminated a fear that they learned within a particular context:

"In the current research, genetically engineered mice received mild foot shocks in a certain environment and were re-exposed to the same environment without the foot shock.

The team found that mice with increased levels of Cdk5 activity had more trouble letting go of the memory of the foot shock and continued to freeze in fear.

The reverse was also true: in mice whose Cdk5 activity was inhibited, the bad memory of the shocks disappeared when the mice learned that they no longer needed to fear the environment where the foot shocks had once occurred."

This research was recently published in Nature Neuroscience. Pretty cool! Such exciting findings could possibly open up the door to new effective treatments for various emotional disorders, extreme phobias and even Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Very cool!

July 9, 2007

Gilbert on Colbert . . .

Here's another interview for you, from the Colbert Report. In this interview, Colbert takes on Daniel Gilbert and his book, Stumbling on Happiness. Gilbert is a social psychologist from Harvard that specializes in affective forecasting. Affective forecasting is one's ability to predict his/her future emotional state. People seem to be bad at predicting their emotional states, and Gilbert even explains that people are not particularly good at knowing what makes them happy. I have not read his book yet, but I intend to (it's on my list of books to read over the summer).

But anyways, the interview was good as always . . . and I got some interesting facts out of it. Like . . . people with kids are less happy than people without children. And the more children you have, the more unhappier you will be. Well, of course, that's talking about people on the average. I don't think it really says anything about happiness on the individual level. There's really no way to tell whether having a child is going to make you happy or not. Some people have really good, happy relationships with their children . . . others have bad relationships with them. It just happens to be that, on the average, people with children are unhappier than people without children. Of course, he doesn't really qualify this unhappiness. How unhappy are people with kids on average? What is it comparable to? Is it like getting fired from a job? Or eating just too much chocolate cake, to the point where you feel sick? Are people with pets less happy than people without pets as well? (just a thought)

On another note, there are some things that seem to make people happy. They are: 1. Marriage and 2. Religion. But again, the same thoughts come to mind. Does this say anything about me as an individual, as opposed to people on average? And how happy do these things make people comparatively speaking?

Oh well, I guess I just have to read the book I suppose.

Check out the Colbert clip, and if this stuff sounds interesting, go out and get the book!

June 27, 2007

HBES 2007

Yeah, so I know it's a little later than I expected . . . and you're sick of the excuses, haha. Oh well, I might as well report on the 2007 HBES conference now, cause if I wait any longer, it will never get done!

Well, as you probably know by now, the Human Behavior and Evolution Society held this year's conference, May 30th - June 3rd, here at the College of William and Mary, and was hosted by the awesome Lee Kirkpatrick and Brandy Burkett! It was exciting! I mean, to have such superstars as Robert Kurzban, David Buss and John Tooby (just to name a few!) under the same roof and so close to home, it was an opportunity that just could not be missed! Fortunately John, from Evolutionary Psychology, and I were able to volunteer our services in exchange for free admission, haha. It was cool though. We mostly helped man the registration desk at various times and also helped answer questions about campus and what not. We met a lot of cool people, including other graduate students interested in evolutionary psych., and we even met the editors of the Journal of Social, Evolutionary and Cultural Psychology, Sarah Strout and Rosemarie Sokol. That was pretty cool, because they recently finished graduate school as opposed to most of the other people that we met. It was nice to get a fresh perspective on graduate school in EP, being editors for a new journal and how to not be too intimidated by big names in the field. By the by, back in April I wrote a post about their new journal . . . if interested, you can find it here.

When not working or mingling, I was able to catch some really good talks. My favorite was that of Hod Lipson, from Cornell, who spoke about Evolutionary Robotics, a field which utilizes evolutionary theory to allow robots to reconstruct their very own body plan! Very interesting. Sadly, John has already beaten me to the punch, haha. Well, that's what I get for not giving my blog the attention that it needs! His post on Lipson's talk can be found here. And he does a good job:

"Lipson and his colleagues have found that certain fitness functions can allow robots to model and understand their own structure. Although robots do not yet have what we often refer to as consciousness, they do have the ability to recognize changes in their robotic structure through a process of continuous self-modeling. For example, a robot that has five appendages can recognize when one of its appendages is amputated and it can adapt its behavior to be congruent with its new structure."
Check out the full post!

Well, all in all, I thought the conference was a good experience for me, even though I didn't present any research of my own and I didn't even get to be there for the whole time (my wedding). I just say to myself, "There'll be next time." It was just a good environment for me to be in, intellectually . . . good just to see what is going on in the field myself. Photos from the conference can be accessed here if anyone's interested.

June 25, 2007

Daniel Everett and Recursion

Edge has an interesting video of linguist Daniel Everett discussing his ideas of recursion in human language and thought.

The current, Chomskyan view of language is that we are basically pre-wired by our genes with the ability to produce infinite grammars using finite structures. In other words, we have no limit to what we can say even though we have a limited vocabulary. This ability is triggered and shaped by our environment and is also a function of our ability to use recursion. Recursion is the ability to insert a phrase into another phrase of the same type. Here's an example that Everett gives:

"If I say 'John's brother's house', I have a noun, 'house', which occurs in a noun phrase, 'brother's house', and that noun phrase occurs in another noun phrase, 'John's brother's house'."
Essentially, one could infinitely add on additional phrases to any sentence. (John's brother's house; John's brother's sister's house; John's brother's sister's husband's house, etc.) Recursion is supposed to be the fundamental property of human language. But what happens if you find a language that doesn't use recursion? Well it would go against the ideas of Chomsky and instead put forward the proposition that humans do not need a universal grammar. And this is what Everett is, in fact, claiming.

He is claiming that a culture from the Amazon, the Piraha, of which he has worked with for 30 years, do not exhibit recursion in their language. If this is so, then that means the Piraha are limited in what they can say, though that doesn't mean their language is not a rich one. This would be considerable evidence against the Chomskyan paradigm. It would mean that recursion isn't an essential element to human language. But he doesn't go so far as saying that recursion is unimportant:
"If you go back to the Pirahã language, and you look at the stories that they tell, you do find recursion. You find that ideas are built inside of other ideas, and one part of the story is subordinate to another part of the story. That's not part of the grammar per se, that's part of the way that they tell their stories. So my idea is that recursion is absolutely essential to the human brain, and it's a part of the fact that humans have larger brains than other species. In fact, one of the papers at the recursion conference was on recursion in other species, and it talked about how when deer look for food in the forest, they often use recursive strategies to map their way across the forest and back, and take little side paths that can be analyzed as recursive paths. So it's not clear, first of all that recursion is unique to humans, and it's certainly not clear that recursion is part of language as opposed to part of the brain's general processing."
His idea seems to be that recursion is a property of the human brain in general, as well language is also a property of our brains. We don't necessarily have to have a "language instinct." And instead, it's possible that language is just a product of our ability to use our greater general intelligence as compared with other species to solve our everyday problems. It's an interesting idea, though a lot of research would have to be done and scrutinized before such controversial claims could be verified. Well, anyways, check out the video. There's also a transcription of the interview here. As well, there are also some really good responses and counter-responses to Everett here, including a response from Steven Pinker, which is pretty cool. Check them out!

June 12, 2007

it's been a while . . .

Well . . . hello, hello, hello. I know it's been a little while since I have written a post. Don't worry, I haven't forgotten about the blog. I have just kind of been away from technology lately. Mostly because I have . . . . gotten MARRIED! That's right! The big day was: June 2, 2007. I don't want to get too personal and all, but it definitely was one of the best days/nights of my life. We just recently got back from our honeymoon, plus I have started my new summer research job at Eastern Virginia Medical School, so I have just haven't had the time or resources for new posts.

Well, anyways, I just wanted to say that I haven't forgot about the blog. And I have a couple of really cool posts planned out and will post over the next couple of days. One will likely be about the recent HBES conference held at William and Mary, and of which I was a volunteer before I left for the wedding. It is also worth the note that my good friend John, over at Evolutionary Psychology, had presented some of his research there. His talk was awesome!

Another post will probably be about "simulation sickness," which is like motion sickness that people feel when they are on a driving simulator. This is something I'm learning about at my new job. And lastly, for awhile now I've been wanting to write a post about our ability to work with numbers. So keep a look out for these, plus any other interesting psych. news that I might post on here. I have a lot of unpacking, cleaning, working and more traveling to do, but I'll have at least two new posts up by Sunday.

Oh well, until then . . . have a good week!

May 24, 2007

Stephen Colbert interviews Jared Diamond

Here's another hilarious Colbert interview! This time he takes on Jared Diamond, the famous biologist and author of Guns, Germs and Steel. Even though the book has been out for awhile, it was the topic of most of the conversation.

For those who don't know, his book is about how the cultures of Eurasia were able to conquer the rest of the world, because they were essentially more lucky. Well, in the sense that they happened to inhabit more fertile land with better crops and animals that were easier to domesticate. This gave the peoples of Europe and Asia a considerable advantage over those of Africa and the Americas. This is just a very brief overview though, so if you haven't already done so, you should definitely check out the book!

Overall, Colbert displays his usual wit and humor in his questioning, but I think Diamond survived without a hint of confusion or agitation. Go check it out!

May 23, 2007

New MSc in Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology

The Institute for Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Oxford has developed a new program where candidates can earn a Master's of Science in cognitive and evolutionary anthropology! Awesome!

The degree is earned over the course of 12 months. Students, along with the usual research method and statistic courses, study the course of human evolution from a biological, cognitive and behavioral perspective, while analyzing how the mind creates culture as well. The new program looks incredibly interesting to me.

Here's a very quick snippet summarizing the program:

"Arguably, Homo sapiens are the only animals capable of genuine language, culture, and religion. We are distinguished by our laughter, singing, rituals, and art, as well as our intelligence. What about our evolution and our resulting cognitive equipment make us human? Make culture possible? The Institute for Cognitive & Evolutionary Anthropology's Masters program explores these issues through the lenses of contemporary research in cognitive and evolutionary anthropology."
This is good news! It's great to see the incorporation of research dealing with human evolution with that of human and animal cognition. It's a mistake to ignore the fact that the human mind is a product of natural selection, just as any other part of the body!

The program starts in October of 2007!

May 14, 2007

E.O. Wilson and the Encyclopedia of Life . . .

Edge has a link to an awesome video of E.O. Wislon.

It's footage of Wislon accepting his 2007 TED (Technology, Entertainment & Design) prize, which includes a $100,000 check. Here's some detail about what the TED prize actually is:

"The prize was introduced in 2005, and it is unlike any other award. Here's why. Although the winners receive a prize of $100,000 each, that's the least of what they get. The real prize is that they are granted a WISH. A wish to change the world. There are no formal restrictions on the wish. We ask our winners to think big and to be creative. They are permitted several months of dreaming, brainstorming and planning. Then they come to TED, and during a special session at the conference, they unveil their wish. The goal is that it creates an incredible sense of excitement and common purpose. It inspires the TED community, and all those who hear about the wish, to offer their help in making the wish come true."
Well, Wilson's wish is to create an encyclopedia of life! This is supposed to be a web-based collection of data created by scientists and amateurs on every aspect of the biosphere. What an incredible task! We know so little about nature right now. But I guess that's really the purpose of it . . . to get people interested in learning and discovering more about the biosphere. In his talk, he discusses various threats to life on our planet as well. And there's also a really cool video montage of nature during his talk, including micro-organisms, insects, monkeys and people. So go check it out!

May 9, 2007

Richard Dawkins interview

There's an awesome interview of Richard Dawkins over at Cosmic Afterthoughts. It was pretty good, so I recommend checking it out.

For those of you who don't already know, Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist from Oxford University who popularized the view that natural selection acts through the survival of competing genes, and that our physical and behavioral traits are adaptations due to the genes that promote their propagation best. So you can see how he's been an influence to evolutionary psychology I'm sure. I mean, he's basically laid the foundation for it! This argument of his was laid out in the 1976 release of The Selfish Gene.

Lately though, he has been gaining more attention for his active popular science writing, unabashed atheism and promotion of skepticism. This is what the interview concerns itself with mostly. They discuss his newest book, The God Delusion, and his views of why it's important to promote reason over faith. I think it was a generally good interview, definitely not as hostile as some I have seen in the past. Whether you agree with him or not, I still recommend checking it out, as well you should check out his books! My favorites are The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker. (Thanks to pharyngula for posting the Cosmic Afterthoughts link!)

On another note, google has recently added a feature to blogger, in which readers can watch youtube and google videos without leaving the blog page. Pretty cool! And if you haven't noticed, I have added such a videobar to my blog. At the moment videos from Steven Pinker and Philip Zimbardo are on rotation, just because I have mentioned them a lot on this blog. I also threw in some banjo videos for good measure! To check them out, you just click on one of the videos and it'll load at the top of the page . . . well under my title that is. So anyways, check them out, let me know what you think . . . does it look messy? Should I keep them? Comments are welcome!

May 2, 2007

New Evolutionary Psychology Blog!

My good friend, and fellow grad student in the William & Mary psychology department, has just started a new blog about evolutionary psychology! You can find it over at brain and evolution. I'm pretty excited about it actually. He's a bright guy and has already came up with some interesting posts. He's new to the "blogosphere," so please go check out his site and say hello and all that stuff!

Well, on another note, this is the last week of classes! I'm pretty excited, but I just have loads of work to do . . . yeah, what else is new right? Well, exams are coming up next week, but in between now and then I'll fit in some time for new posts.

I'm not sure what I'll be doing after schools out, besides blogging of course. I know I'll be doing some research and working as a TA for a class during the second summer session and all . . . and I'll probably be working on topics for my Master's thesis. We'll see how that goes I guess. One thing that I am looking forward to is that the 19th annual conference for the Human Behavior and Evolution Society will be held here at The College of William and Mary around the end of this month. I'm siked! Well, that's all for now!

April 25, 2007

more Zimbardo . . .

Edge has another video of Philip Zimbardo. It's pretty good. He mostly talks about the Nazi killings and trials from a social psychological perspective and again refers to his "Stanford Prison Experiment."

How do seemingly "normal" people commit evil acts? What about the flip-side? How do normal people commit heroic acts? These are questions that interests Zimbardo.

Check it out!

April 21, 2007

MRI-enabled brain surgery

NewScientistTech has a cool post about a new device developed by researchers in Canada to help doctors perform risky surgeries.

"NeuroArm is the first surgical robot to be compatible with MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), its makers claim. This will enable neurosurgeons to perform their riskiest work while patients lie within an MRI machine, giving a clear 3D picture of even the smallest nerves. However, doctors are still on hand to intervene if serious complications arise."
I'm not really sure if this is what it really looks like or not. I just typed "neuroarm" in google images, and this is what I got.

Regardless, it seems like a really cool idea, but man it's expensive . . . $24 million in development. Wow!

Almost human?

There's a really interesting article in the Science section of the NY Times. It's basically a summary of the work on chimpanzees and their similarities to humans, covering work from Jane Goodall and Frans de Waal among others.

"Chimps display a remarkable range of behavior and talent. They make and use simple tools, hunt in groups and engage in aggressive, violent acts. They are social creatures that appear to be capable of empathy, altruism, self-awareness, cooperation in problem solving and learning through example and experience. Chimps even outperform humans in some memory tasks."

Overall, it's a really cool article, so check it out if you can!

You just get me . . .

Now this looks interesting. I received this link through an email from the listserv for the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. It's a social-networking site developed by social and personality psychologists as a tool for use by researchers interested in how well people can read each other's personalities.

"We know a ton about what people think of others, but hardly anything about whether they are right. In about a tenth of a second, people make up their minds whether others are likable and competent. But are they accurate? Not always. You can tell if someone is extraverted and disciplined quicker than if they are neurotic and competitive (Watson, 1989). Oddly, if you see someone's room or office, it helps you "get" them (Gosling, Ko, Mannarelli & Morris, 2002). And when you finally get close to someone, you are more accurate than when you were strangers, but few couples are ever perfect. How about online? Can you really judge what someone is like from their profile? And how about the other way around? Does your profile really tell people who you are? Research on this is only beginning (see Vazire & Gosling, 2004). Help us fill in this huge gap in our knowledge by trying - really trying - to guess what others are like. And see if you can make the most truthful profile you can. On our site, that's what it's all about."
Basically, it's a little online experiment where participants take a personality test (based upon the 5-factor theory of personality) and then they have to guess how each other scored on the test. All questions are scored using a real psychological formula too. As far as the "social-networking" is concerned, you can choose how accurate a person must be in guessing your personality before they can contact you.

It seems like a cool idea. I guess we'll see how it takes off.

April 17, 2007

unbelievably awful

I'm sure that everyone knows already, so there's no need to post any press about it, but I feel that I do need to say something.

Yesterday's massacre at Virginia Tech. seems so unreal. It's like a very bad dream. Being a Virginia resident all my life, this isn't something that I would have ever expected. My heart goes out to VT and all the friends and families of lost loved ones. It was a horrible incident. Virginia Tech is a great school, and it shouldn't go down in the history books as the place where the deadliest school shooting occurred.

Mostly everyone that I know that has gone to VT has graduated, so obviously I can't put myself into the position of those whose loved ones are currently at the school. But, for what it's worth, I'm sorry and I have nothing but the best wishes for all those at Tech.

For those interested, there's a compilation of scienceblogger posts over at Cognitive Daily concerning the murderous rampage.

April 15, 2007

Today in the history of psychology . . .

One of my all-time favorite psychologists was born this day in 1922. This is, of course, the great Stanley Schachter. Schachter was a prolific social psychologist, who studied a wide range of topics. He investigated such issues as social influence, obesity, situational influences on emotion, and the psychological correlates of birth order. But what I'm most fond of, is his work on the need for affiliation.

Ever hear the phrase, "misery loves company," or even, "misery loves miserable company?" Well, this comes from Schachter's work on the affiliative tendency.

The need for affiliation seems to be a core motive that influences our day to day interactions, and yet not much was known about it. That is, until 1959 when Schachter published his book called, The Psychology of Affiliation. This work described several of his experimental studies conducted on the topic. Most interestingly, he found
that in distressful situations, people tend to seek out others who are under similar circumstances. In other words, an increase of anxiety brings about an increase in the affiliative tendency.

In a creative experiment, he manipulated anxiety in two groups of participants. One group was the high anxiety group, while the other was the low anxiety group. Using deception, he told both groups that the experiment was about the effects of electric shock. Essentially, the high anxiety condition was shown the electrical apparatus and was told that they would receive extremely painful shocks. The low anxiety condition was not shown the electrical apparatus and was told that they would receive shocks, but the shocks would not hurt and instead would be more like a tickle. Then both groups were told that they could either wait in a waiting room by themselves while the experimenters got everything ready, or they could go into another waiting room with other people who were also participating in the experiment. Schachter found that those who were in the high anxiety condition chose to sit with people who were in the same situation as them. They chose this significantly more often than those in the low anxiety condition. These results were important for the field of social psychology, because not much was known, at the time, about the conditions that affected the need for affiliation.

I, myself, have always had an interest in social psychology, but it was coming across Schacter's work on affiliation in general that eventually led to my interest in social rejection and ostracism. It's not really even the "tip of the iceberg," when considering all the other major contributions that he had on the field. This just happens to be my favorite work of his. I mean, I could really write all day about it . . . but I won't. Well, anyways, if you're interested in the topic, pick up the book!


April 14, 2007

new way to view brain folds

A new tool has been developed by researchers from MIT, the Massachusetts General hospital and Havard Medical School to help investigate how the folds in the cerebral cortex develop and decay over time.

"By applying computer graphics techniques to brain images collected using magnetic resonance (MR) imaging, they have created a set of tools for tracking and measuring these folds over time. Their resulting model of cortical development may serve as a biomarker, or biological indicator, for early diagnosis of neurological disorders such as autism."
A new article describing their computational model of brain development has been published in the April issue of Transactions on Medical Imaging, a journal from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).

This seems like a pretty cool technology. It'll give scientists a better view of normal brain development. This development can then be compared with the abnormal development caused by various disorders, like schizophrenia. In effect, giving us a better picture of what is going wrong in these patients.

The press release can be found here.

April 7, 2007

A new journal

I just noticed that a new psychology journal is out. It is an open-access, peer-reviewed online journal called, The Journal of Social, Evolutionary & Cultural Psychology. And you can find it here.

And here's the brief description that the editors give:

"The Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology is an online initiative designed to bridge sub-disciplines of psychology in order to gain holistic insights into human behavior, emotion, cognition, and motivation. The perspectives of social, evolutionary, and cultural psychology each provide unique advantages for psychological investigation. Social psychology emphasizes individual functioning within the group; cultural psychology emphasizes the role of one's social environment and emergent cultural practice; and evolutionary psychology emphasizes the adaptive function of particular behaviors at the level of the individual. With this journal, we are providing a space for scholars interested in combining variations of these levels in the study of human psychology."
So far, there's only one article up, from the editors Rosemarie Sokol and Sarah Strout. It's a brief editiorial explaining the purpose of the journal in greater detail along a historical and philosophical perspective. The editors intend the journal to be a new home for theoretical and empirical articles that incorporate the three psychological perspectives to varying degrees. It looks promising to me, so if you have an interest in social, evolutionary or cultural psychology, then you should check it out on occasion. More articles are due out in May!

are these considered April showers?

Yeah, so it's snowing . . . in April! It's kind of weird. It hasn't really snowed in Virginia all winter, and now it's coming down like crazy. Oh well.

School's going pretty good. I've just been grading papers all week (and I'll be grading more this weekend!). Plus I've been collecting data for my first-year research project. I'm freaking excited about that!

Well, besides that, nothing new has really come up in the past week.

Except . . .

Going along with the last post, another Zimbardo interview is up on New York Times. It is mostly about his Standord Prison Experiment and its similarities with the abuses of Abu Ghraib. There's also an accompanying article with the video here. They're pretty good. Check them out if you haven't already done so!

March 31, 2007

Zimbardo on the Daily Show

I just found out over on Edge that Philip Zimbardo was interviewed by John Stewart on the Daily Show. Here's the link!

The interview was pretty cool. He mainly talks about his new book, The Lucifer Effect.

If you have ever taken an Introductory Psychology course, then you have probably heard of Dr. Zimbardo. He is basically one of the biggest, if not the biggest, figurehead in social psychology. Zimbardo is mostly known for his Stanford Prison Experiement. You can go to the website for extra details, but basically his study showed how ordinary, good people can be outrageously cruel. His study, along with others in social psychology (such as Milgram's obedience study), showed that people don't necessarily do bad things because they are just plain evil. Instead his study emphasizes the power of the situation. Anyone can be persuaded to hurt others, if one encounters the situational forces that provoke that behavior. At the same time, it seems that anyone can be an angel under circumstances that provoke that behavior.

Anyways, the interview was good, so check it out!

March 28, 2007

are we more violent now?

You may be quick to assume that violence is increasing around you. Heck, these are the days of the Iraq War and routine terrorist attacks right? Violence seems to be everywhere in our news, music, movies and games. Violence in the media might even be the problem. You might hold the view that men are naturally born peaceful and are corrupted by modern society (the Noble Savage). This also seems to be a popular view among many politicians and academics. But is this true?

Steven Pinker has written an excellent essay on this topic, which is featured on the Edge website. In it, he argues that violence has actually been decreasing as time has gone by, and, in fact, humans have become "kinder and gentler." He presents evidence from recent anthropological studies to support his argument:

"It is true that raids and battles killed a tiny percentage of the numbers that die in modern warfare. But, in tribal violence, the clashes are more frequent, the percentage of men in the population who fight is greater, and the rates of death per battle are higher. According to anthropologists like Lawrence Keeley, Stephen LeBlanc, Phillip Walker, and Bruce Knauft, these factors combine to yield population-wide rates of death in tribal warfare that dwarf those of modern times. If the wars of the twentieth century had killed the same proportion of the population that die in the wars of a typical tribal society, there would have been two billion deaths, not 100 million."
He also explains why many people think that modern times are more violent, even though the evidence points to the contrary. This actually has a lot to do with Tversky's availability heuristic that I wrote about the other day. Again, the availability heuristic is a cognitive illusion that makes us think an event is likely to occur just because we can easily recall similar events happening before. So, people might think that we are more violent today, just because it's easy to remember the mugging that was reported in the news last night.

Lastly he presents four possible theories for why humans are becoming less violent. To sum them up real quick: 1) we can't take the law into our own hands anymore, we have centralized governments for that, 2) as technology improves our lives, we put more value on living, 3) the importance of cooperation in trading goods and dividing labor leads us to the idea that our neighbors are more valuable alive than dead and finally 4) we evolved a sense of empathy that only applied to family members, but over time our moral circles slowly encompassed whole tribes, nations, both sexes, the various ethnicities and even animals . . . in other words, our moral circles are getting bigger and bigger.

I liked his essay and I think that I got a lot out of it, for instance I didn't know that the favorite pass-tiime of 16th century Paris was cat-burning:
"In sixteenth-century Paris, a popular form of entertainment was cat-burning, in which a cat was hoisted in a sling on a stage and slowly lowered into a fire. According to historian Norman Davies, '[T]he spectators, including kings and queens, shrieked with laughter as the animals, howling with pain, were singed, roasted, and finally carbonized.'"
That's pretty sadistic. I'm sure there's some variability around the world as far as human and animal rights are concerned, but I can't imagine anyone wanting to do that today. I mean, no one's ever had to tell me that burning a cat was wrong. I've always kind of just assumed that cats had the right not to be burned alive and all. Well, anyways, if you are interested in the topic of the history of violence in humanity, definitely check out Pinker's essay!