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Wed, 16 Apr 2014   How kids' brain structures grow as memory develops

Our ability to store memories improves during childhood, associated with structural changes in the hippocampus and its connections with prefrontal and parietal cortices. New research is exploring how these brain regions develop at this crucial time. Eventually, that could give insights into disorders that typically emerge in the transition into and during adolescence and affect memory, such as schizophrenia and depression.

Wed, 16 Apr 2014   Cancer drugs block dementia-linked brain inflammation, study finds

A class of drugs developed to treat immune-related conditions and cancer -- including one currently in clinical trials for glioblastoma and other tumors -- eliminates neural inflammation associated with dementia-linked diseases and brain injuries, according to researchers. In their study, the researchers discovered that the drugs, which can be delivered orally, eradicated microglia, the primary immune cells of the brain. These cells exacerbate many neural diseases, including Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, as well as brain injury.

Wed, 16 Apr 2014   How smells stick to your memories: Your nose can be a pathfinder

Waves in your brain make smells stick to your memories and inner maps. Researchers have recently discovered the process behind this phenomenon. The brain, it turns out, connects smells to memories through an associative process where neural networks are linked through synchronized brain waves of 20-40 Hz.

Tue, 15 Apr 2014   Functional brain imaging reliably predicts which vegetative patients have potential to recover consciousness

A functional brain imaging technique known as positron emission tomography is a promising tool for determining which severely brain damaged individuals in vegetative states have the potential to recover consciousness, according to new research.

Tue, 15 Apr 2014   Brain anatomy differences between deaf, hearing depend on first language learned

In the first known study of its kind, researchers have shown that the language we learn as children affects brain structure, as does hearing status. 'What we've learned to date about differences in brain anatomy in hearing and deaf populations hasn't taken into account the diverse language experiences among people who are deaf,' says one of the authors.

BPS Research Digest Blog

   A photograph can be worth a thousand words

There has long been a tradition of using photographs to capture, reveal, and expose. A photograph has the ability to arouse emotion – oftentimes, some would argue, more effectively than a verbal or written description.

In a recent article in Social Dynamics, Rory du Plessis of the University of Pretoria (South Africa) has brought to life a case example of the power photographs can hold. In an analysis of two sets of photographs produced by the Grahamstown Lunatic Asylum between 1890 and 1907, du Plessis has revealed two very different faces of the institution – especially regarding the racial makeup of the patient population.

The Grahamstown Lunatic Asylum opened in 1875 in what is now the Eastern Cape Province. Like other South African asylums of the period, Grahamstown adopted the moral treatment philosophy from Europe which viewed all aspects of the institution and the activities in which the patients were engaged as therapeutic in nature. During the period of focus of this particular study, Grahamstown was working to rebuild its image after receiving heavy criticisms regarding its success as a therapeutic institution. A new superintendent, Dr. Thomas Duncan Greenlees, arrived in 1890 and introduced a series of new recreational activities including: “picnics at neighbouring seaside towns, dances, dramatic entertainments, concerns, magic lantern entertainments, social evenings, cricket, and instrumental band, and croquet and lawn tennis for the women.” At the same time, Greenless also created a system of differential treatment for the patient population of Grahamstown with only the White paying patients benefitting from these new activities and Black patients being engaged only in labour projects around the institution.

The photographs examined by du Plessis bring to light these two very different worlds of the Grahamstown Lunatic Asylum.

The first set of photographs were created explicitly for public consumption. These were published in annual reports and the institution’s own periodical (which was sometimes reprinted in medical journals). As du Plessis highlights, these images were carefully orchestrated in order to portray an image of a successfully curative environment. White patients were portrayed in decorated rooms, dressed respectfully, and engaged in recreational activities popular during the period. Black patients, conversely, were featured in drab environments, oftentimes engaged in manual work, in scenarios of passivity and docility. du Plessis describes this set of public photographs as a “marketing tool” intended to normalize the activities of a curative environment (and recruit paying patients). In this context, the success of the supposed curative environment for White paying patients was evaluated through representations of class and wealth whereas the curative environment for Black patients was evaluated through the level of compliance engendered.

Patients are seen being physically restrained by
the hands of unseen attendants and nurses
The second set of photographs reveal a very different component of the institution’s history: its stories of resistance, fear, and anxiety. These were created for internal use as part of the patient casebooks. From 1890 onwards, all patients of the Grahamstown Lunatic Asylum were photographed upon their admission. Much like the mug shots used by police departments, the admission photos focused on the face and upper body of the patient. In these silent portraits, du Plessis uncovered a range of powerful emotions exerted by the Black patients that were in stark contrast to the passivity represented in the first set of photographs. In acts interpreted as resistance, patients are seen in the casebook photographs being physically restrained by the hands of unseen attendants and nurses. In others, their gaze is averted as an act of defiance. A few other painful examples reveal the fear or anxiety expressed on the faces of those admitted to the institution.

As du Plessis highlights in his article: “the taking of a photograph is never neutral.” And more so: a picture may speak louder than words.

du Plessis, R. (2014). Photographs from the Grahamstown Lunatic Asylum, South Africa, 1890–1907 Social Dynamics, 1-31 DOI: 10.1080/02533952.2014.883784

Post written for the BPS Research Digest by Jennifer Bazar, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Toronto/Waypoint Centre for Mental Health Care and an Occasional Contributor to the Advances in the History of Psychology blog.

Further reading from The Psychologist: 'The house of cure', and 'Such tender years'.

2014-04-16   Have you exercised your memory lately?

We’ve often heard someone’s memory described as 'weak' or 'strong'. But with the majority of psychological memory models drawing on information processing analogies with terms like 'storage', 'retrieval', and 'input', where did the idea of memory’s strength come from?

In a recent article published in the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, Alan Collins of Lancaster University reviewed British and American texts dating between 1860 and 1910 that focused on improving human memory. By extending his analysis to include those texts aimed at popular audiences as well as those intended more specifically for academics, Collins noticed a trend during this period in which the importance of enhancing natural memory was emphasised over the creation of artificial memory systems.

The idea of 'artificial' memory was used to describe systems created with the intention of supporting or improving one’s memory capabilities – be they mnemonics or some other form of memory aid. The criticism of such systems at the time was that they require too much mental effort and have only limited value in the practical sense. 'Natural' memory, conversely, was used generally to describe our innate memory systems.

Collins explains that the increasing tendency towards discussions of natural memory in the latter decades of the 19th century paralleled a wider emphasis on understanding everything as being a part of nature and therefore subject to natural laws. Guidebooks of the period connected all aspects of one’s life to their general health: a healthy diet, good (moral) habits, pure air, and both a strong mind and a strong body were key to a good character. Natural memory became wrapped up in these recommendations, often described as similar to our bodily functions, especially our muscles. The argument put forth contended that just as our muscles require exercise, training, and discipline, so too does our memory.

But just how does one 'exercise'; their memory? In short: repeated practice. The memory improvement texts examined by Collins advised readers to block out a period of time each day to actively exercise their memories. This time could be spent learning lists, reciting poetry, or recounting the events of the previous day. Focused attention on the chosen task was considered to be an especially critical component.

As Collins highlights in his conclusion, today we no longer draw on the muscle metaphor explicitly in discussions of memory, but the concept of 'strength' has remained. However, if we think about the advent of computer games and apps intended to strengthen (or, dare I say 'exercise'?) the mind, perhaps the idea of working out one’s memory is not quite as foreign as it may seem. Besides, learning a verse of poetry sounds a great deal more appealing than hitting the treadmill.


Collins AF (2014). Advice for improving memory: exercising, strengthening, and cultivating natural memory, 1860-1910. Journal of the history of the behavioral sciences, 50 (1), 37-57 PMID: 24272820

Post written for the BPS Research Digest by guest host Jennifer Bazar, who is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Toronto/Waypoint Centre for Mental Health Care and an Occasional Contributor to the Advances in the History of Psychology blog.

2014-04-14   Does Psychology have its own vocabulary?

If you were to pick up the flagship journal from a discipline that is foreign to you and flip to an article at random, how much do you think you would understand? Put a different way: how much of the vocabulary employed in that article might you misinterpret?

The vocabularies used by any given discipline overlap with those of many other disciplines, although the specific meaning associated with a given term may be dissimilar from discipline to discipline. Anglophone psychology, for instance, has been previously shown to share much of its vocabulary with other disciplines, especially: biology, chemistry, computing, electricity, law, linguistics, mathematics, medicine, music, pathology, philosophy, and physics. But how much of psychology’s vocabulary may be said to be unique to itself?

In a recent article in History of Psychology, John G. Benjafield of the Department of Psychology at Brock University (Canada) compared the histories of the vocabularies of psychology and the 12 disciplines listed above. Constructing databases for each of the disciplines using entries in the Oxford English Dictionary, Benjafield examined the rate of primary vs secondary words (ie. how often a word was used for the first time by a discipline vs. how often a word was appropriated from the vocabulary of another discipline) along with the dates of first usage of these terms, and the polysemy of the vocabularies (i.e. the number of different meanings held by a given word).

So does psychology have its own vocabulary? The answer seems to be: somewhat. The majority of the vocabularies of all 13 disciplines were formed of secondary words; that is, the bulk of their vocabularies are formed of words that were first used in the English language by another discipline (often with another meaning). But, psychology was nonetheless found to have some unique characteristics with regards to its vocabulary that you may not have expected.

First, Benjafield found that computing and linguistics have the highest percentage of secondary words in their vocabularies (97 per cent and 94 per cent respectively) while psychology and chemistry had the lowest rates of the disciplines examined (65 per cent and 62 per cent). In light of these results, psychology’s vocabulary may been described as being less metaphorical in nature than previously assumed (especially when compared to computing and linguistics).

Moreover, whereas the other subjects in this study showed a collective tendency over time to increasingly assign new meanings to existing words, psychology has been following the opposite pattern – that is to say that, over time, psychology has tended more and more to invent new words for its purposes than the other disciplines.

Finally – and perhaps the most surprising conclusion to come out of Benjafield’s study – the history of the vocabulary of psychology has been shown to be most characteristically similar to chemistry. Personally, this one caught me by surprise: I would have expected closer connections to philosophy and physics based on the way the discipline of psychology developed over time. But Benjafield’s vocabulary analysis paints a different picture in which psychology has been strongly influenced by the naming practices of chemistry.

Benjafield JG (2014). Patterns of similarity and difference between the vocabularies of psychology and other subjects. History of psychology, 17 (1), 19-35 PMID: 24548069

Post written for the BPS Research Digest by guest host Jennifer Bazar, who is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Toronto/Waypoint Centre for Mental Health Care and an Occasional Contributor to the Advances in the History of Psychology blog.

Cognitive Daily

Wed, 20 Jan 2010   Cognitive Daily Closes Shop after a Fantastic Five-Year Run

Five years ago today, we made the first post that would eventually make its way onto a blog called Cognitive Daily. We thought we were keeping notes for a book, but in reality we were helping build a network that represented a new way of sharing psychology with the world. Cognitive Daily wasn’t the first…

Wed, 20 Jan 2010   Both musicians and non-musicians can perceive bitonality

Take a listen to this brief audio clip of “Unforgettable.” Aside from the fact that it’s a computer-generated MIDI performance, do you hear anything unusual? If you’re a non-musician like me, you might not have noticed anything. It sounds basically like the familiar song, even though the synthesized sax isn’t nearly as pleasing as the…

Thu, 14 Jan 2010   Synesthesia and the McGurk effect

We’ve discussed synesthesia many times before on Cognitive Daily — it’s the seemingly bizarre phenomenon when one stimulus (e.g. a sight or a sound) is experienced in multiple modalities (e.g. taste, vision, or colors). For example, a person might experience a particular smell whenever a given word or letter is seen or heard. Sometimes particular…