Tuesday, March 30, 2010

scary messages can backfire

from BPS

A short while ago there was a shocking advert on British TV that used slow motion to illustrate the bloody, crunching effects of a car crash. The driver had been drinking. Using these kind of scare tactics for anti drink-driving and other health issues makes intuitive sense. The campaigners want to grab your attention and demonstrate the seriousness of the consequences if their message is not heeded. However, a new study makes the surprising finding that for a portion of the population, scare tactics can back-fire, actually undermining a message's efficacy.

Steffen Nestler and Boris Egloff had 297 participants, 229 of them female, average age 35, read one of two versions of a fictional news report from a professional medical journal. The report referred to a study showing links between caffeine consumption and a fictional gastro-intestinal disease 'Xyelinenteritis'. One version was extra-scary, highlighting a link between Xyelinenteritis and cancer and saying that the participant's age group was particularly vulnerable. The other version was lower-key and lacked these two details. Both versions of the article concluded by recommending that readers reduce their caffeine consumption.

Before gauging the participants' reaction to the article and its advice, the researchers tested them on a measure of 'cognitive avoidance'. People who score highly on this personality dimension respond to threats with avoidance tactics such as distracting themselves, denying the threat or persuading themselves that they aren't vulnerable.

The key finding is that participants who scored high on cognitive avoidance actually rated the threat from Xyelinenteritis as less severe after reading the scary version of the report compared with the low-key version. Moreover, after reading the scary version, they were less impressed by the advice to reduce caffeine consumption and less likely to say that they planned to reduce their caffeine intake.

On the other hand, highly cognitive avoidant participants were more responsive to the low-key report than were the low cognitive avoidant participants. In other words, for people who are cognitively avoidant, scary health messages can actually back-fire.

'Practically, our results suggest that instead of giving all individuals the same threat communications, messages should be given that are concordant with their individual characteristics,' Nestler and Egloff said. 'Thus, the present findings are in line with the growing literature on tailoring intentions to individual characteristics, and they highlight the role of individual differences when scary messages are used.'

matthew Barney's Cremaster

we feel fine

the known universe

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

They were decoding the dream as it was being dreamt.

Why We Dream
Posted on: March 22, 2010 11:23 AM, by Jonah Lehrer

Over the weekend, I had a little essay in the Times on some new research on why dream at night.

When I can't sleep, I think about what I'm missing. I glance over at my wife and watch her eyelids flutter. I listen to the steady rhythm of her breath. I wonder if she's dreaming and, if so, what story she's telling to herself to pass the time. (The mind is like a shark -- it can't ever stop swimming in thought.) And then my eyes return to the ceiling and I wonder what I would be dreaming about, if only I could fall asleep.
Why do we dream? As a chronic insomniac, I like to pretend that our dreams are meaningless narratives, a series of bad B-movies invented by the mind. I find solace in the theory that all those inexplicable plot twists are just random noise from the brain stem, an arbitrary montage of images and characters and anxieties. This suggests that I'm not missing anything when I lie awake at night -- there are no insights to be wrung from our R.E.M. reveries.

While we're fast asleep, the mind is sifting through the helter-skelter of the day, trying to figure out what we need to remember and what we can afford to forget.

Unfortunately for me, there's increasing evidence that our dreams are not neural babble, but are instead layered with significance and substance. The narratives that seem so incomprehensible -- why was I running through the airport in my underwear? -- are actually careful distillations of experience, a regurgitation of all the new ideas and insights we encounter during the day.

Look, for instance, at the research of Matthew Wilson, a neuroscientist at the Picower Institute at M.I.T. In the early 1990's, Wilson was recording neuron activity in the brains of rats as they navigated a difficult maze. (The machines translated the firing of brain cells into loud, staccato pops.) One day, he left the rats connected to the recording equipment after they completed the task. (Wilson was preoccupied with some data analysis.) Not surprisingly, the tired animals soon started to doze off, slipping into a well-deserved nap. And that's when Wilson heard something extremely unexpected: although the rats were sound asleep, the sound produced by their brain activity was almost exactly the same as it was when they were running in the maze. The animals were dreaming of what they'd just done.

Wilson has spent the last few decades following up on this important discovery. In a 2001 paper published in Neuron, Wilson and Kenway Louie described the behavior of rats that had been trained to run on a circular track. As expected, running on the track generated a distinct pattern of neural firing in the rat hippocampus, a brain area essential for the formation of long-term memory. This is learning at its most fundamental: a flurry of electric cells, trying to make sense of a space.

Here's where things get interesting: as before, Wilson kept the electrodes in place while the rats drifted off to sleep. (The sleep of rats is very human, and consists of distinct stages, including R.E.M.) The scientists examined 45 dreams and found that 20 of the dreams repeated the exact same patterns of brain activity exhibited while running in a circle. In fact, the correlation between the dream and the reality was so close that Wilson could predict the exact position of the rodent on the track while it was asleep. They were decoding the dream as it was being dreamt.

Why does the brain replay experience? Wilson and others argue that the dreaming rats are consolidating their new memories, embedding these fragile traces into the neural network. While we're fast asleep, the mind is sifting through the helter-skelter of the day, trying to figure out what we need to remember and what we can afford to forget.

So why are dreams so much more than literal playbacks of the day just passed? Why the non-sequiturs, the long forgotten characters and the unexplained state of public undress? Wilson speculates that dreams are also an attempt to search for associations between seemingly unrelated experiences, which is why it's so important for the controlling conscious self to disappear. What does this maze have to do with that maze? How can we use the lessons of today to get more food pellets tomorrow? This suggests that the strangeness of our nighttime narratives is actually an essential feature, as our memories are remixed and reshuffled, a mash-up tape made by the mind.

But wait: for the sleep- and dream-deprived, the news gets even worse. In recent years, scientists have discovered that R.E.M. sleep isn't just essential for the formation of long-term memories: it might also be an essential component of creativity.

In a 2004 paper published in Nature, Jan Born, a neuroscientist at the University of L├╝beck, described the following experiment: a group of students was given a tedious task that involved transforming a long list of number strings into a new set of number strings. This required the subjects to apply a painstaking set of algorithms. However, Born had designed the task so that there was an elegant shortcut, which could only be uncovered if the subjects saw the subtle links between the different number sets. When left to their own devices, less than 25 percent of people found the shortcut, even when given several hours to mull over the task. However, when Born allowed people to sleep between experimental trials, they suddenly became much more clever: 59 percent of all participants were able to find the shortcut. Born argues that deep sleep and dreaming "set the stage for the emergence of insight" by allowing us to mentally represent old ideas in new ways.

Or look at a recent paper published by Sara Mednick, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego. She gave subjects a variety of remote-associate puzzles, which require subjects to find a word that's associated with three other seemingly unrelated words. (Here's a sample question: "broken," "clear" and "eye." The answer is "glass.") Then, she instructed the subjects to take a nap. Interestingly, subjects who lapsed into R.E.M. during their nap solved 40 percent more puzzles than they did in the morning, before their brief sleep. (Subjects who quietly rested without sleeping or took a nap without R.E.M. showed a slight decrease in performance.) According to Mednick, the dramatic improvement in creativity is due to the fact that R.E.M. "primes associative networks," allowing us to integrate new information into our problem-solving approach.

While Freud would certainly celebrate this research -- as he predicted, dreams have "a psychological structure ... which may be assigned to a specific place in the psychic activities of the waking state" -- it's worth pointing out that the stories we invent while sleeping are much more practical than he imagined. For the most part, they don't reflect the unleashed id, full of unfulfilled sexual desires. Instead, we dream about what we think about: the mazes and mysteries of everyday life.

All this knowledge about the important roles dreams play in our waking lives is fascinating. But it doesn't make me feel better about my insomnia. Obviously, my old consolation -- dreams are nothing but useless melodramas -- is clearly false. And though I eventually do fall asleep, lapsing into what I imagine is a rushed state of R.E.M., I can't help but be jealous of my wife's twitching eyelids at 2 a.m. She is busy remembering, processing, refreshing --and I am merely awake.

If you'd like a contrarian take on this dreaming research, be sure to check out Jerry Siegel's 2001 take on the REM-sleep memory consolidation hypothesis. A century after Freud, it's clear that our sleepy dreams remain mostly a mystery.

frontal cortex

Monday, March 15, 2010


Thirty years on - the babies judged negatively by their mothers
By Digest
If a mother has a negative perception of her baby when it's just one month old, there's a strong possibility that same baby will have attachment problems as an adult, thirty or forty years later. That's the claim of a longitudinal study that recommends screening new mothers to see if they have a negative perception of their child, so that any necessary action can be taken to stop the transmission of attachment problems from mother to child.

Elsie Broussard and Jude Cassidy recruited twenty-six adults in the area of Pittsburgh, whose mothers had signed up to a longitudinal study up to forty years earlier. Back then, in the 60s and 70s, the mothers had been asked to rate their one-month-old babies on factors like crying, spitting, sleeping, feeding and predictability, and then do the same for the 'average baby'. Twelve of the babies were judged to be at risk because their mothers had rated them more negatively than an average baby. Back to the present, and the researchers interviewed the adults using the Adult Attachment Interview, which includes questions about memories of their childhood, their memories of separation and loss and whether they felt affected by their parents' behaviour. Based on these kinds of questions, the participants were classified as being securely or insecurely attached, the latter classification suggesting that they have ongoing problems forming healthy emotional attachments to other people.

The key finding is that 9 of the 12 adults who, so many years earlier, had been perceived negatively by their mothers were today classified as insecurely attached adults, compared with just 2 of the 14 adults who'd been positively perceived by their mothers. '...These findings reflect transmission from one individual's representational world to that of another,' the researchers said. In other words, the researchers believe that a mother who views her baby negatively has attachment problems and these problems tend to be passed onto that baby, even affecting his or her attachment style thirty or forty years later.

How could a negative attachment style be transmitted in this way? Apparently, earlier work in Broussard's lab showed that 'mothers with a negative perception of their infants had limited awareness of their infant's states, had difficulties recognising their infant's signals, and lacked a flexible and effective range of responses.' Moreover, the researchers surmised, babies with mothers who perceive them negatively may fail to come to see their mother as a secure base and may come to feel 'rejected and unloved, feelings that may contribute to an insecure state of mind [in adulthood] with respect to attachment.' Given their results, Broussard and Cassidy suggested more professional support be given to new mothers, especially during the critical early period between hospital discharge and the next contact with medical staff.

As with so many studies that look for effects of parenting on children, this study contains a serious confound that's barely touched upon by the researchers. The effects that Broussard and Cassidy attribute to parenting and attachment style could well be genetic. We're not surprised when the children of tall parents grow up to be tall. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that the children of insecurely attached parents grow up to be insecurely attached themselves.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

writing for a popular audience

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

the spread of goodness

via frontal cortex

In recent years, it's become clear that much of our individual behavior depends on the dynamics of our social network. It doesn't matter if we're talking about obesity or happiness: they all flow through other people, like a virus or a meme. Last year, I profiled James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis in Wired, who have conducted several fascinating studies that demonstrate the power of social networks:
There's something strange about watching life unfold as a social network. It's easy to forget that every link is a human relationship and every circle a waistline. The messy melodrama of life--all the failed diets and fading friendships--becomes a sterile cartoon.
But that's exactly the point. All that drama obscures a profound truth about human society. By studying Framingham as an interconnected network rather than a mass of individuals, Christakis and Fowler made a remarkable discovery: Obesity spread like a virus. Weight gain had a stunning infection rate. If one person became obese, the likelihood that his friend would follow suit increased by 171 percent. (This means that the network is far more predictive of obesity than the presence of genes associated with the condition.) By the time the animation is finished, the screen is full of swollen yellow beads, like blobs of fat on the surface of chicken soup.
The data exposed not only the contagious nature of obesity but the power of social networks to influence individual behavior. This effect extends over great distances--a fact revealed by tracking original subjects who moved away from Framingham. "Your friends who live far away have just as big an impact on your behavior as friends who live next door," Fowler says. "Think about it this way: Even if you see a friend only once a year, that friend will still change your sense of what's appropriate. And that new norm will influence what you do." An obese sibling hundreds of miles away can cause us to eat more. The individual is a romantic myth; indeed, no man is an island.
In their latest paper, published this week in PNAS, Christakis and Fowler re-analyzed an earlier set of experiments led by Ernst Fehr and Simon Gachter, which investigated "altruistic punishment," or why we're willing to punish others even at a cost to ourselves.
Christakis and Fowler demonstrate that, when one of the students gave money to help someone else - they were cooperating - the recipients of that cash then became more likely to give their own money away in the next round. (Every unit of money shared in round 1 led to an extra 0.19 units being shared in round 2, and 0.05 units in round 3.) This leads, of course, to a cascade of generosity, in which the itch to cooperate spreads first to three people and then to the nine people that those three people interact with, and then to the remaining individuals in subsequent waves of the experiment.

The paper itself is filled with optimistic sentences, but it's worth pointing out that 1) selfishness is also contagious and 2) there's a big difference between lab experiments played with strangers and the messy social networks of real life. That said, altruistic cascades like this make me happy:
We report a chain of 10 kidney transplantations, initiated in July 2007 by a single altruistic donor (i.e., a donor without a designated recipient) and coordinated over a period of 8 months by two large paired-donation registries. These transplantations involved six transplantation centers in five states. In the case of five of the transplantations, the donors and their coregistered recipients underwent surgery simultaneously. In the other five cases, "bridge donors" continued the chain as many as 5 months after the coregistered recipients in their own pairs had received transplants. This report of a chain of paired kidney donations, in which the transplantations were not necessarily performed simultaneously, illustrates the potential of this strategy.
Update: I've gotten a few emails wondering what this means for free will. After all, if our decisions are so determined by the decisions of others, then where is there space for human autonomy? My first reaction is that the new science of social networks still leaves plenty of elbow room for individual decisions. We're talking about risk factors and tendencies and statistical correlations. Just because we're influenced by others doesn't mean we can't reject those influences. I asked James Fowler a related question last year and this was his eloquent response:
Everyone always tells me that this research is so depressing and that it means we don't have free will. But I think they're forgetting to look at the flipside. Because of social networks, your actions aren't just having an impact on what you do, or on what your friends do, but on thousands of other people too. So if I go home and I make an effort to be in a good mood, I'm not just making my wife happy, or my children happy. I'm also making the friends of my children happy. My choices have a ripple effect.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Orderly queue for the lifeboats...

This is from England:
The headmaster of the school where children are forced to listen to classical music as a punishment for bad behaviour said infractions of school rules have dropped by about 60 per cent since he began the special detentions.
"What he's saying in effect is children don't like classical music and we will exploit this fact by using it as a punishment against them," O'Neill said in an interview Wednesday with CBC's Q cultural affairs show.
The state school system seems to have abandoned the idea of educating children about great culture, he added.
- - [Technorati] Poemanias http://www.technorati.com/cosmos/search.html?url=http%3A%2F%2Fpoemanias.blogspot.com Technorati cosmos for Poemanias Wed, 09 Mar 2005 09:48:55 GMT 474652 2 3 Technorati v1.0 - http://static.technorati.com/images/logo_grey_reverse_sm.gif Technorati logo http://www.technorati.com support@technorati.com http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/tech/rss 60 - Mike Snider's Formal Blog and Sonnetarium: "Poemanias" http://radio.weblogs.com/0113501/2005/03/07.html#a487 http://radio.weblogs.com/0113501/2005/03/07.html#a487 ... Via Poemanias , I've found this tribute site to Michael Donaghy, surely one of the best poets of the late 20th century in English. There's video, audio, and links to poems and transcripts of talks. I met Michael only briefly ...
Mike Snider's Formal Blog and Sonnetarium View Technorati Cosmos
Mon, 07 Mar 2005 21:39:33 GMT 2005-03-07 20:34:58 GMT http://www.technorati.com/cosmos/search.html?url=http%3A%2F%2Fradio.weblogs.com%2F0113501%2F2005%2F03%2F07.html%23a487
- Silliman's Blog: "Edward Farrelly" http://ronsilliman.blogspot.com http://ronsilliman.blogspot.com/http://www.poemanias.blogspot.com//1110207046 ... Amanda Drew Joseph Duemer Cliff Duffy Jilly Dybka E Martin Edmond kari edwards Stuart Eglin AnnMarie Eldon Scott Esposito Steve Evans F Roberta Fallon & Libby Rosof (Philly Artblog) Edward Farrelly Rona Fernandez Caterina Fake Ryan Fitzpatrick Jim Flanagan Flarf Debby Florence Juan Jose Flores Paul Ford William Fox Gina Franco Suzanne Frischkorn G Jeannine Hall Gailey C.P. ...
Silliman's Blog View Technorati Cosmos
Mon, 07 Mar 2005 15:48:43 GMT 2005-03-07 14:50:46 GMT http://www.technorati.com/cosmos/search.html?url=http%3A%2F%2Fronsilliman.blogspot.com