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Thu, 08 Oct 2015   Opposites don't attract when learning how to use a prosthesis

Upper limb amputees, who typically struggle to learn how to use a new prosthesis, would be more successful if fellow amputees taught them, new research suggests. Most usually learn by watching a non-amputee demonstrate the device during physical therapy and rehabilitation sessions. A study that measured arm movements and analyzed brain patterns found that people do better when they learn from someone who looks like them.

Thu, 08 Oct 2015   Scientists build a digital piece of a rat's brain

If you want to learn how something works, one strategy is to take it apart and put it back together again. For 10 years, a global initiative called the Blue Brain Project has been attempting to do this digitally with a section of juvenile rat brain. The project presents a first draft of this reconstruction, which contains over 31,000 neurons, 55 layers of cells, and 207 different neuron subtypes.

Thu, 08 Oct 2015   Researchers learn how to grow old brain cells

A new technique allows scientists to study diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's using cells from human patients. Historically, animal models -- from fruit flies to mice -- have been the go-to technique to study the biological consequences of aging, especially in tissues that can't be easily sampled from living humans, like the brain. Over the past few years, researchers have increasingly turned to stem cells to study various diseases in humans.

Thu, 08 Oct 2015   Difficulty processing speech may be an effect of dyslexia, not a cause

The cognitive skills used to learn how to ride a bike may be the key to a more accurate understanding of developmental dyslexia. And, they may lead to improved interventions. Scientists investigated how procedural learning how individuals with dyslexia learn speech sound categories. They found that learning complex auditory categories through procedural learning is impaired in dyslexia.

Thu, 08 Oct 2015   Preventing memory loss before symptoms appear

A clinical trial is looking at removing a key protein from the brain to prevent memory loss at least a decade before symptoms are noticed in healthy older adults. The trial is focused on an investigational treatment to reduce the impact of the protein beta amyloid.

BPS Research Digest Blog

   What is it like to experience mental illness?

Tomorrow, Saturday 10 October, is World Mental Health Day and to join in we've rounded up some of the research we've covered over the years that's explored what it's like to live with mental health problems, from obsessive compulsive disorder to hearing voices. Psychologists call these kind of studies "qualitative research", where the aim is not to put a score against particular symptoms, but to discover the first-hand perspective and experience of the people who take part, based on their own words. Such studies are often distressing to read, but their insights make a vital contribution to our understanding of the human condition.

Depression feels like a kind of emptiness

A recurring theme from interviews with seven people with depression was their sense of depletion and emptiness, both bodily and in thinking about the past and future. "It's like something's gone inside me and swept my happiness away," said one participant. "I feel like sometimes my life is on hold," said another. Isolation was another key theme, as captured by this man's description: "You get into a state I think mentally where, you're just like out on an island ... You can see from that island another shore and all these people are there, but there's no way that you can get across [ ] or there is no way that you want to get across." Writing in 2014, the researchers Jonathan Smith and John Rhodes said it was clear that all the interviewees had in common that they felt alone, empty and that they had no future.

Selective mutism does not feel like a choice
People with selective mutism can't speak in certain situations even though there is nothing physically wrong with their vocal chords and they don't have brain damage. Four people with the condition were interviewed via Skype's instant messenger interface. Their descriptions challenged the traditional idea that selective mutism is a choice. "It isn't me," said one participant. "I know who I am and I’m not shy or quiet, maybe that makes it harder. When I’m with my parents I can be myself but around everyone else it’s like it [selective mutism] takes over. I can get the words in my head but something won’t let me say them and the harder I try the more of a failure I feel like when I can’t." The interviewees also revealed how the condition became self-fulfilling as people came to expect them to stay silent. And they talked about the extreme loneliness they experienced. "It's like that scene from Scrooge where he looks through the window and he can see people having fun being together," said one interviewee. "I'll always be stuck outside looking in."

To be a refugee with psychosis is to feel there is no future
The first-hand experience of refugees with psychosis was documented for the first time in a heart-wrenching study published this year. Based on interviews with seven African refugees or asylum seekers, the researchers identified six main themes: bleak agitated immobility; trauma-related voices and visions (mostly the sounds or sights of lost relatives or attackers from the past); fear and mistrust; a sense of a broken self; the pain of losing everything; and the attraction of death. The last theme was captured by the words of 26-year-old Sando: "The worst part," he said, "is I keep harming myself, ... and you know knocking my head to the wall, kinda too much stuff in there, you know, I just want to open my head and finish with this."

Some people have a love-hate relationship with their OCD
Based on their hour-long interviews with nine people diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, the researchers Helen Murphy and Ramesh Perera-Delcourt identified three main themes: "wanting to be normal and fit in"; "failing at life"; and "loving and hating OCD." The first two themes were often related to the painful situations provoked by the interviewees' compulsions. One man who house-shared described how he had to scrub the entire bathroom with powerful cleaning product for an hour every day before he could use it. But at the same time, the interviewees explained how they actually feared losing the crutch that the condition provides. "I wish I could do that [stop checking], I wish I could stop," one man said, adding: "Well, not totally."

Being labelled as "schizophrenic" feels hugely stigmatising but also unlocks much-needed treatment
In a 2014 study, seven patients diagnosed with schizophrenia described their dilemma: they needed the diagnosis to access treatment, but had also feared and avoided the label because of the stigma associated with it. The interviewees said they tried to hide their diagnosis from people, and they noted how mental health professionals used alternative words like "psychosis" as if aware of the stigma of schizophrenia. "People are always afraid of saying that word to me," said said one woman, "... because it is a dirty word." The interviewees also described the chasm between their clinician's view of the illness as biological (a "chemical imbalance") and the perspectives of other people in their lives. "My mother ... all she said was 'I told you, it's because you're psychic ...," said another interviewee. The researchers said more needs to be done to overcome delays in treatment caused by ill people's fearful avoidance of a diagnosis.

For many self-harmers, seeing their own blood makes them feel calm
Among 64 self-harmers recruited from a mass screening of 1,100 new psychology students, just over half said that the sight of their own blood was important to them. The most common explanation the students gave was that seeing their blood made them feel calm. Other explanations were that it "makes me feel real" and shows that "I did it right/deep enough". Those students who highlighted the importance of seeing their blood tended to cut themselves more often than those who didn't (a median of 30 times compared with 4 times) and they were more likely to say they self-harmed as a way of regulating their own emotions. Another study from 2013 asked self-harming teenagers to carry a digital device for two weeks, in which to record their motives for self-harming as they occurred. Just over half the sample reported self-harming to achieve a particular sensation, the most common being "satisfaction", followed by "stimulation" and "pain".

Anorexia starts out feeling like a solution but then takes over
"Anorexia became a friend," said Natalie, one of 14 people recovering from anorexia who were interviewed as part of a study published in 2011. "When I was alone ... I knew that at least I had A." Eventually though, for Natalie and the others, anorexia became overpowering, almost like a separate entity which they had to fight against for control of their own mind. As Jon, another interviewee, put it: "It's like there are two people in my head: the part that knows what needs to be done and the part of me that is trying to lead me astray. Ana [his nickname for anorexia] is the part that is leading me astray and dominates me."

For people with Body Dysmorphic Disorder, mirrors are addictive and imprisoning 
A diagnosis of Body Dysmorphic Disorder is made when someone has a disabling and distressing preoccupation with what they see as their perceived physical flaw or flaws. In upsetting interviews that were published this year, 11 people with the condition described their complicated, troubling relationship with mirrors. One woman said she'd once stared into a mirror for 11 hours straight, searching for a perspective where she felt good enough about herself to be able to go out. Another interviewee, Jane, described mirrors as "f*cking bastards" and mirror gazing as a "form of self-harm". The interviewees also described what they perceived as the ugliness of the person staring back at them. "I look like a monster," said Hannah. Jenny said she is "truly hideous" and "repulsive". Lucy said: "Everyone else, everyone is beautiful. I just feel that I am that one ugly person."

People's experiences of hearing voices vary hugely 
Last year, researchers analysed seven previous studies that had explored people's first-hand experiences of hearing voices. Taken together, the most striking finding was that to hear voices that aren't there is not a homogenous condition. While most people described attributing an identity to the voices, they differed in whether they saw the voices as separate from their own thoughts or not, and in whether they felt in control of the voices. Those who subscribed to a biomedical account, believing that their voices were caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, tended to feel less in control of their voices. Similarly, heard voices could interfere with social relationships, for example by making critical comments about friends or family. But voices could also play a beneficial role by reducing loneliness. "I have not got many friends … so the only thing I can stay very close to are the voices and I do stay very close to them," said one interviewee.

Positive change is a gradual process that is realised suddenly
As well as asking people about their experiences of mental illness, psychologists also research what the process of recovery feels like. In 2007, researchers interviewed 18 women and 9 men with conditions like depression and anxiety about their experiences of positive change during Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. “It was gradual but the realisation was sudden," one interviewee said. Many of the participants could remember the exact moment: “I could actually hear it,” one said. Other themes in the clients' descriptions of how change happened were: motivation and readiness (“I was desperate to get back to my old self”); tools and strategies (“It's the changes in behaviour that I learned”); learning (“I would take a lot of stuff home to read about assertiveness”); interaction with the therapist (“...they don’t judge your character or think they know you”); changes to self-perception (“I am a strong person mentally”); and the relief of talking (“Let me get everything out, let me relieve myself of everything”).

--further reading--
What is mental illness?
World Mental Health Day 2015
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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2015-10-08   Psychologists study twins to learn more about the roots of procrastination

With so many digital distractions a mere mouse click away, procrastination is easier than ever. You want, nay need, to work on an important project, yet find yourself browsing Twitter, making coffee, checking email – basically anything other than doing what you should be doing. Daniel Gustavson and his colleagues – the authors of a new twin study of procrastination published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General – sum it up as "the irrational delay of an intended course of action".

Much has been written about why we fall prey to this habit in the moment (the all-important job is perceived as too challenging, the other tasks and distractions seem easier, and so on), but Gustavson and his colleagues wanted to learn more about why some of us are generally more prone to procrastination than others. Do we inherit a predisposition for procrastination in our genes, and what other mental abilities are related to the procrastination habit?

The researchers recruited 386 pairs of same-sex twins, 206 of whom were identical twins, meaning they have the same genes, and 179 were non-identical, meaning they share on average half their genes. After missing data were removed, the final sample included 401 women and 350 men (average age 23). The twins completed a questionnaire about their proclivity for procrastination (this involved rating their agreement with statements like "I am continually saying 'I'll do it tomorrow'"), and they answered questions about their proneness to "goal failures" (tested through questions like "Do you find you forget what you came to the shops to buy?").

The twins also completed several measures of their "executive function", including their powers of inhibition (e.g. one task involved resisting the reflex to glance at a square that appeared on-screen, and looking instead in the opposite direction), their ability to shift mind-sets (e.g. categorising shapes on a coloured background by their shape one minute, then by their colour, depending on changing task instructions), and their ability to juggle information in memory over short periods of time.

By comparing similarities in executive function performance, procrastination proneness and goal failures between identical and non-identical twins, the researchers were able to deduce how much of an influence genes have on these traits and abilities, and how much overlap there is in the genetic influence on the different measures. In simple terms, a higher correlation on a particular measure among identical twins compared with non-identical twins would indicate a greater role for genes.

Here are some of the key findings. The tendency to procrastinate was found to be partly inherited – 28 per cent of variability in this trait was explained by genetic influences (though note, this includes gene-environment interactions, such as a procrastinator choosing a job – like being a blog editor – that makes procrastination easier). Moreover, 17 per cent of the procrastination variability that was explained by genes overlapped with the genetic influences on goal failures – that is, many of the same genes influencing procrastination appear to play a role in the ability to manage goals. Also, environmental influences common to both procrastination and goal management explained a further 28 per cent of variation in procrastination.

The tendency to procrastinate also correlated with overall executive function ability – that is, people who said they procrastinated more tended to achieve an overall poorer score on the executive function tests. And again there was genetic overlap: many of the genetic influences on executive function were found to be the same as those shared by both procrastination and goal management.

There was one caveat in the association between procrastination proneness and executive function. Procrastinators actually tended to perform better on the ability to shift mind-sets, presumably because having a butterfly mind gives you a certain mental flexibility even though it makes it difficult to focus.

The findings help to pick apart the root causes of procrastination. At a genetic and behavioural level, they show that a tendency to procrastinate tends to go hand in hand with an ability to manage goals, and mostly a poorer ability to control one's own mind, in terms of inhibition and juggling information.

Gustavson and his team warned that identifying the actual genes involved in procrastination, executive function and goal management remains a long way of, and that many hundreds or thousands of gene variants are likely involved. They also cautioned that their study can't tell us about the causal relationships, if any, between the studied traits – it's tempting to assume that poor executive function or goal management causes procrastination, for example, but it's theoretically possible the influence could run the other way, both ways, and/or that other factors not studied here are more relevant, such as personality or intelligence. Nonetheless, the researchers did offer some brief practical advice on the back of their findings:
"Training subjects on how to set good goals may improve their ability to manage these goals and avoid procrastination ... Moreover, helping subjects retrieve their important long-term goals and use those goals to avoid getting side-tracked by short-term temptations (e.g. developing implementation intentions) might also be effective at reducing procrastination."

Gustavson, D., Miyake, A., Hewitt, J., & Friedman, N. (2015). Understanding the Cognitive and Genetic Underpinnings of Procrastination: Evidence for Shared Genetic Influences With Goal Management and Executive Function Abilities. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General DOI: 10.1037/xge0000110

--further reading--
The cure for procrastination? Forgive yourself!
Psychologists investigate a major, ignored reason for our lack of sleep - bedtime procrastination
Forgive yourself for relaxing in front of the TV and the couch time might actually do you some good

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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2015-10-07   Slot machines are more addictive when we see them as having human-like intentions

Slot machines are the great cash cow of the gambling industry, generating the bulk of income in casinos, and today they are also a feature of everyday life, found in high street pubs and bars and online. Slots are exquisitely designed with one purpose in mind, to encourage gamblers to "play to extinction" – that is, until they are penniless – as described at length in Natasha Dow Schüll's Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas.

Much has been written about the human weaknesses, such as the gambler’s fallacy (believing that a win is more likely after a run of losses), that lead people to fall prey to these machines. Now new research published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied has identified a hitherto unexplored factor that makes it so tempting for people to just keep playing: “anthropomorphism” – it turns out we squander more on the slots when think of them as intentional adversaries.

The research led by Paulo Riva from the University of Milano-Bicocca asked student participants to play online slot machines for at least one spin, but longer if they wished, supposedly as market research on their design. In one condition participants first read a general description of how the machine is guided by a payout algorithm that produces successes and failures. But crucially, those in the anthropomorphic condition got a different message:
“The slot machine can decide whether you will win or lose a series of bets any time she wants. Sometimes, she may choose to make fun of you, leaving you empty-handed for several bets; other times, she might want to reward you with a win. In any case, the slot machine will always choose what will happen.”
Participants in this condition played for significantly longer, often a third or more extra spins (although there was a lot of variability between players within each of the conditions).

Further studies established that even with real incentives not to play – i.e. when any remaining points were converted to sweets or cash prizes – the personified machines still encouraged longer play. One clue as to why this happens is that play with personified machines was associated with stronger positive emotions – fun, excitement and stimulation. Riva’s team argue that feeling socially connected to an object (more likely when the object seems human-like) amplifies related emotions, giving a bigger kick to wins and losses. (Note that a larger final study complicated this story: positive strong emotions were again associated with playing for longer, but in this instance the anthropomorphism of slots didn’t increase positive strong emotions – this may be due to the different measure of emotion employed, but in any case calls for more research.)

Reflecting on the way slots are typically designed, with icons, characters and fictional tie-ins from Spiderman to Michael Jackson, the researchers suggest that "the gambling industry is selling customers a challenge against a mind rather than just a machine," introducing a competitive and even intimate element to play that helps clear out bank balances.

Before any strong conclusions are drawn, it would be useful to see this paradigm turned from student participants to regular gamblers. Casual gamblers may be drawn into the illusion of competition, but one of the most striking arguments from Schüll’s book is that the most compulsive gamblers devote themselves to the slots without expecting or even desiring a fair fight. For these people, playing the slots is a retreat from a life that’s hard to control, as the machines give them the opportunity to surrender to a comfortably predictable process: as one interviewee put it, “you accept the certainty of chance: the proof is the zero at the end.”


Riva, P., Sacchi, S., & Brambilla, M. (2015). Humanizing Machines: Anthropomorphization of Slot Machines Increases Gambling. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied DOI: 10.1037/xap0000057

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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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…