Psychology – The Time Traveller’s Dog

February 21, 2015 by Mike

gossip-6957829Be honest, we all enjoy a bit of celebrity gossip now and again. Who was seen with someone they shouldn’t, perhaps somewhere they shouldn’t, and if they haven’t paid their taxes either… But have you noticed how the stories that attract the most attention are generally the more negative ones?  Magazine publishers know this… Good news is all very well, but bad news sells a lot more copy!  Why?!?

A new study by Peng and his colleagues over in the Journal of Social Neuroscience sheds a little more light on an old subject, thanks to the latest in brain imaging techniques. Subjects were scanned while being read gossip about themselves and about celebrities.  Some stories were positive and even humorous, others were more negative and downright salacious. The participants all reported different reactions to the stories they were exposed to and their brain scans suggested this is largely due to the different patterns of neural activity being triggered.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, we are all narcissistic egotists – we pay more attention to positive stories about ourselves, especially when they are funny or associated with some other positive emotional response.  So far, so good.  The most interesting findings, however, concerned the clear preferences expressed for celebrity gossip, even over that concerning our friends and colleagues.  It seems we are more likely to pay attention here when the stories are negative and scandalous, again beautifully reflected in the brain imagery.  Crucially, though, we are also likely to find such stories far more amusing than we are prepared to admit!

The scans show activation of areas strongly associated with humour, even when we swear blind that we don’t find the story funny at all.  Put another way, even if we don’t express this out loud or openly admit it, our brains at least are inclined to laugh at the misfortunes of others – especially the rich and famous.

February 1, 2015 by Mike

psicologiasuperheroesok-300x432-1263494One of my favourite blogs just has to be Under the Mask, brainchild of Dr Andrea Letamendi – a clinical psychologist into sci-fi, costume play and psychoanalysis.  As a doctoral student in San Diego, Letamendi first hit on the idea of psychoanalysing fictional characters and relating them to real-world mental health problems in order to improve recovery rates.

The rest, as they say, is history and Letamendi has become something of a celebrity in the world of both psychology and comic book conventions.  Her favourite character?  Batgirl, of course!  It’s nice to see such an innovative scholar and clinician gaining broader recognition, as evidenced in this recent and truly fascinating profile over on The Atlantic blog.  But don’t take my word for it – check out her site for yourself and learn just why that manic giggler The Riddler is really quite grim beneath the surface.

January 12, 2015 by Mike

imgid15057405-3322140One of the fastest growing trends on video sharing sites like YouTube is the phenomena that is the reaction video.  You know the sort of thing… a group of friends, usually equipped with beer and a pizza, point the camera at themselves as they watch a movie or TV show.

It’s kind of like the wonderful Gogglebox, but sadly without Scarlet or Leon or Dominic!  Can’t say I quite get it myself, but there you go…  An interesting book review in the Guardian on this very theme caught my eye, however, and it is one of those rare occasions when a review actually prompted me to buy!  The book in question is Flicker: Your Brain on Movies.

Written by Jeff Zacks, this is the story of why the brain responds to the cinematic and televisual image in quite the way it does.  If you’ve ever seen a punch thrown at James Bond or gone “ouch!” when Liam Neeson is hit on the head with a hammer, this is the book for you.  Flicker gives us the biology behind these reflex actions which seem to override the fact that we know the events aren’t real anyway.

Interestingly, Zacks also goes on to discuss these reflexes in the context of the reconstructive nature of memory.  We don’t recall events in full as we would watching a video or DVD.  Instead, we piece together what must have happened by joining up those fragments of events that we can remember and filling in the blanks through a process of deduction and reasoning.  The brain responses described here, it seems, compound and reinforce these effects to make them seem more real.  So, did we really learn at school about Bonnie Prince Charlie’s final escape in a little boat…or are we thinking about that old David Niven movie and simply recalling “faction”?

Fascinating stuff – looking forward to a good read!

December 31, 2014 by Mike

cuckoos-8177049Fairy tales have long been of interest to psychoanalysts. These fantastic stories we pass on to our children are deemed to be riddled with insights into the unconscious mind. When Hansel and Gretel return from the woods, this supposedly signifies their completion of some unspoken “rite of passage”, whilst the Freudian significance of Jack’s giant beanstalk features in many an undergraduate text book.

The recently released movie version of Sondheim’s musical Into The Woods has stimulated renewed interest in this particular stream of work and a number of blog posts have appeared over the past few weeks seeking to identify examples of Freud’s legacy in the movie’s key themes and imagery.  One particularly interesting example, however, draws upon Jung for inspiration, rather than Freud.  Over on the Psychology Today site, Susan Krauss Whitbourne presents her own interpretation of Sondheim’s work, relating it to our development as individuals rather than our supposedly repressed sexuality.  Again picking up on the rites-of-passage angle, Whitbourne draws on both Jung’s archetypes and Erikson’s “seasons of man” as concepts to tease out what the musical can tell us about our own journey to adulthood.  Not normally my cup of tea, I’m not a psychoanalyst by any stretch of the imagination, but this is well worth a read before viewing the movie, it’ll add a whole new dimension to the cinematic experience!

The conclusion?  Well, it seems we don’t really become adulthoods until we are about thirty years old. I rather like that idea, it means I haven’t been an adult for nearly as long as I thought I had, though there are some who know me who would say I’m not quite there even now. Still, to paraphrase Tom Baker in his debut performance as the definitive incarnation of Doctor Who, there’s no point in being a grown up if you can’t be childish…sometimes!

December 28, 2014 by Mike

ood-5787982Most people who know me are aware that I’m something of a fan of the BBC’s sci-fi series Doctor Who (as witnessed in the TARDIS mug, sonic screwdriver and vortex manipulator I found under the Christmas tree this year!).  It’s a brilliantly-written series, has been since 1963, and the character of the Doctor (“splendid chap, all of them”) is a masterful creation.

He can change his appearance to become young (or old) again, and his physiology is distinctive in that he has two hearts… but maybe that’s not as distinctive a feature as we assume!  As a “Whovian”, I was quite naturally drawn to a factual story on the BBC Future site recently.  It concerns the story of a (sadly now deceased) cardiac patient known as Carlos who briefly shared the Doctor’s physiological trait of a second heart.  In the case of Carlos, this addition to his cario-vascular system was mechanical, rather than organic, but it served a vital purpose in keeping the patient alive.  The intriguing thing about this story, however, was the effect the extra heart had on Carlos psychologically.

The piece on the BBC site has a really good summary of the role the heart plays in our psychological lives, with some interesting research cited.  For instance, the very act of being aware on the beating of our own heart (e.g. by feeling our pulse) tends to make us both more emotional ourselves and better able to read the facial expressions of others.  More intriguingly, perhaps, those with greater awareness of their own bodily sensations appear to have superior intuition, better able to identify and predict patterns in, say, playing cards drawn from a deck.  Under certain circumstances, then, the old adage “follow your heart” isn’t a bad strategy to follow at all.  But, would this give Time Lords such as the Doctor a long-term cognitive and emotional advantage?

The case of Carlos seems to suggest otherwise.  He was quite prone to depression following the implant and often attributed this to the fact that the sensation of the beating heart was coming from “the wrong place”.  The surgeons had fitted the pump roughly just above the abdomen, so the only cardiac sensation Carlos was really aware of was emanating from there.  This had a profound effect on him psychologically, alas.  He gradually became less emotional himself, for instance, and he was increasingly less empathetic toward others.  Crucially, Carlos also displayed signs of impaired decision-making skills and a steady decline emotional cognition.

So, following your heart is all very well…provided it is in the right place!

December 27, 2014 by Mike

sheldon-and-amy-2666590There’s quite a well-established literature in psychology that demonstrates the characteristics we find sexy in a prospective mate.  Leaving physical attributes aside, psychologists have long known that signs of intelligence also stimulate attraction, particularly when manifest in signs of creativity.

Composers and artists, for instance, always figure highly in lists of the “most attractive”, a phenomenon that appears to cross cultural boundaries.  A recent paper by Kaufman and his colleagues in the Journal of Creative Behavior endorses these findings further, reporting that the top “sexy” creative talents still appear to involve writing music, penning a short story and producing a painting or sculpture.  So far, so good.

What’s interesting about this particular study, however, is that it used psychometric measures of three domains of creativity to evaluate respondents; namely, ornamental-aesthetic (art, music), everyday-domestic (interior design, cookery) and applied-technological (engineering, science) creativity.  This additional dimension to Kaufman et al.’s research revealed some fascinating variations on previous work in this area.  It seems that the forms of creativity we find attractive in a prospective sexual partner can vary according to our own creative personalities, an effect especially pronounced among those scoring highly in the applied-technological domain (sometimes known as the “nerdiness” scale).  Specifically, those of us who would typically veer towards the geek category find geeky examples of creativity quite appealing, with individuals who can write computer programs and produce wonderful websites being particularly sexy!