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Meghan Holohan NBC News Most of us can't actually be as attractive as professional good-looking people like Kate Upton. But new research shows that an electrical shock to the brain can make people perceive other people to be more attractive. The research may one day point toward new treatments for neurological disorders like depression or Parkinson's. Another workday with your drab, dull-looking coworkers. If only your world was filled with the beautiful people - more Kate Uptons than Katie from accounting, more Jon Hamms than John from HR. Actually, technology exists that could almost make that possible -- provided you're OK with an electric shock to your brain. But the brain zap isn't some party game. Findings from a new California Institute of Technology study could one day help lead to new, noninvasive ways to study and treat mental disorders. The Caltech researchers found that people who receive a mild electrical shock deep within the brain ranked people as more attractive than they did before the jolt. It might sound like a silly thing to study, but Vikram Chib, lead author of the paper, explains that rating the attractiveness of faces is one of the hallmark tasks used to diagnose neurological problems like depression, schizophrenia or Parkinson's. Chib, a postdoctoral scholar at Caltech, wanted to know how an area nestled deep with the brain called the midbrain influenced mood and behavior, and if there were a way to manipulate it noninvasively. The midbrain is believed to be the source of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a role in disorders like depression, schizophrenia, and Parkinson’s disease. While drugs do treat these disorders, Chib and his colleague, Shinsuke Shimojo, hoped that noninvasive deep brain stimulation could change only the midbrain, without influencing the entire body.
MONKEYS may have a primitive version of the human ability to put ourselves in another's shoes. Intelligent animals such as apes can intuit others' intentions, suggesting they have some theory of mind capability. But only humans can reason that others may not hold their own beliefs. To study this difference, Rogier Mars of the University of Oxford and colleagues scanned 36 people's brains. Using an algorithm, they created a map of how an area associated with theory of mind is connected to brain regions linked to abilities such as face recognition and interpretation. Next, the researchers scanned 12 macaque brains for a similar pattern of connections. An area involved in facial recognition had a similar pattern, suggesting involvement in abstract thought. That doesn't necessarily mean the structures share a function, Mars says. Theory of mind is probably a spectrum of ways of thinking, he says, and humans got better at it as they evolved. Laurie Santos of Yale University says the structural differences may one day tell us why non-human primates lack the ability to think about others' beliefs. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
By Keith Payne It was a summer evening when Tony Cornell tried to make the residents of Cambridge, England see a ghost. He got dressed up in a sheet and walked through a public park waving his arms about. Meanwhile his assistants observed the bystanders for any hint that they noticed something strange. No, this wasn’t Candid Camera. Cornell was a researcher interested in the paranormal. The idea was first to get people to notice the spectacle, and then see how they understood what their eyes were telling them. Would they see the apparition as a genuine ghost or as something more mundane, like a bloke in a bed sheet? The plan was foiled when not a single bystander so much as raised an eye brow. Several cows did notice, however, and they followed Cornell on his ghostly rambles. Was it just a fluke, or did people “not want to see” the besheeted man, as Cornell concluded in his 1959 report? Okay, that stunt was not a very good experiment, but twenty years later the eminent psychologist Ulric Neisser did a better job. He filmed a video of two teams of students passing a basketball back and forth, and superimposed another video of a girl with an umbrella walking right through the center of the screen. When he asked subjects in his study to count the number of times the ball was passed, an astonishing 79 percent failed to notice the girl with the umbrella. In the years since, hundreds of studies have backed up the idea that when attention is occupied with one thing, people often fail to notice other things right before their eyes. When you first learn about these studies they seem deeply strange. Is it really possible that we are constantly failing to notice things right in front of us? Is there some mysterious force screening what we see and what remains hidden? © 2013 Scientific American
by Helen Thomson Sean O'Connor is a very rational man. But he also tried, unsuccessfully, to sever his spine, and still feels a need to be paralysed. Sean has body integrity identity disorder (BIID), which causes him to feel that his limbs just don't belong to his body. Sean's legs function correctly and he has full sensation in them, but they feel disconnected from him. "I don't hate my limbs – they just feel wrong," he says. "I'm aware that they are as nature designed them to be, but there is an intense discomfort at being able to feel my legs and move them." The cause of his disorder has yet to be pinpointed, but it almost certainly stems from a problem in the early development of his brain. "My earliest memories of feeling I should be paralysed go back to when I was 4 or 5 years old," says Sean. The first case of BIID was reported in the 18th century, when a French surgeon was held at gunpoint by an Englishman who demanded that one of his legs be removed. The surgeon, against his will, performed the operation. Later, he received a handsome payment from the Englishman, with an accompanying letter of thanks for removing "a limb which put an invincible obstacle to my happiness" (Experimental Brain Research, DOI: 10.1007/s00221-009-2043-7). We now think that there are at least two forms of BIID. In one, people wish that part of their body were paralysed. Another form causes people to want to have a limb removed. BIID doesn't have to affect limbs either – there have been anecdotal accounts of people wishing they were blind or deaf. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
By Bruce Bower In its idealized form, science resembles a championship boxing match. Theories square off, each vying for the gold belt engraved with “Truth.” Under the stern eyes of a host of referees, one theory triumphs by best explaining available evidence — at least until the next bout. But in the real world, science sometimes works more like a fashion show. Researchers clothe plausible explanations of experimental findings in glittery statistical suits and gowns. These gussied-up hypotheses charm journal editors and attract media coverage with carefully orchestrated runway struts, never having to battle competitors. Then there’s psychology. Even more than other social scientists — and certainly more than physical scientists — psychologists tend to overlook or dismiss hypotheses that might topple their own, says Klaus Fiedler of the University of Heidelberg in Germany. They explain experimental findings with ambiguous terms that make no testable predictions at all; they build careers on theories that have never bested a competitor in a fair scientific fight. In many cases, no one knows or bothers to check how much common ground one theory shares with others that address the same topic. Problems like these, Fiedler and his colleagues contended last November in Perspectives in Psychological Science, afflict sets of related theories about such psychological phenomena as memory and decision making. In the end, that affects how well these phenomena are understood. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2013
Linda Carroll TODAY contributor We all get lost or disoriented once in a while, but for Sharon Roseman, being lost is a way of life. A little quirk in her brain makes it impossible to recognize landmarks and find her way around neighborhoods that should have become familiar long ago. “I can literally see my house out the car window, but I have no clue that it’s my house,” Roseman told NBC’s Kristen Dahlgren. Roseman, 64, suffers from developmental topographical disorientation, or DTD, a disorder that had flown under brain researchers’ radar until very recently. DTD was first described as a single case study in a paper published online in 2008 in the journal Neuropsychologia. At the time, it was thought to be extremely rare, says the study’s lead author, Giuseppe Iaria, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Calgary. But since then, Iaria has discovered nearly 1,000 other people with DTD and he thinks there may be a lot more. He currently estimates that about 2 percent of the population may be constantly coping with orientation and navigation problems caused by the disorder. DTD is a profound and disabling deficit. Nothing, not even the layout of a house you’ve lived in for decades, ever becomes familiar. And for Roseman that has made life very trying. When her kids would cry in the night, she would struggle to find her way to them.
by Helen Thomson "I've been in a crowded elevator with mirrors all around, and a woman will move and I'll go to get out the way and then realise: 'oh that woman is me'." Heather Sellers has prosopagnosia, more commonly known as face blindness. "I can't remember any image of the human face. It's simply not special to me," she says. "I don't process them like I do a car or a dog. It's not a visual problem, it's a perception problem." Heather knew from a young age that something was different about the way she navigated her world, but her condition wasn't diagnosed until she was in her 30s. "I always knew something was wrong – it was impossible for me to trust my perceptions of the world. I was diagnosed as anxious. My parents thought I was crazy." The condition is estimated to affect around 2.5 per cent of the population, and it's common for those who have it not to realise that anything is wrong. "In many ways it's a subtle disorder," says Heather. "It's easy for your brain to compensate because there are so many other things you can use to identify a person: hair colour, gait or certain clothes. But meet that person out of context and it's socially devastating." As a child, she was once separated from her mum at a grocery store. Store staff reunited the pair, but it was confusing for Heather, since she didn't initially recognise her mother. "But I didn't know that I wasn't recognising her." © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd
by Lizzie Wade If you were a rat living in a completely virtual world like in the movie The Matrix, could you tell? Maybe not, but scientists studying your brain might be able to. Today, researchers report that certain cells in rat brains work differently when the animals are in virtual reality than when they are in the real world. The neurons in question are known as place cells, which fire in response to specific physical locations in the outside world and reside in the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for spatial navigation and memory. As you walk out of your house every day, the same place cell fires each time you reach the shrub that's two steps away from your door. It fires again when you reach the same place on your way back home, even though you are traveling in the opposite direction. Scientists have long suspected that these place cells help the brain generate a map of the world around us. But how do the place cells know when to fire in the first place? Previous research showed that the cells rely on three different kinds of information. First, they analyze "visual cues," or what you see when you look around. Then, there are what researchers call "self-motion cues." These cues come from how your body moves in space and are the reason you can still find your way around a room with the lights out. The final type of information is the "proximal cues," which encompass everything else about the environment you're in. The smell of a bakery on your way to work, the sounds of a street jammed with traffic, and the springy texture of grass in a park are all proximal cues. © 2010 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Related chapters from BP7e: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 19: Language and Hemispheric Asymmetry
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Consciousness; Chapter 15: Language and Our Divided Brain
Link ID: 18112 - Posted: 05.04.2013
Alison Abbott Thinking about a professor just before you take an intelligence test makes you perform better than if you think about football hooligans. Or does it? An influential theory that certain behaviour can be modified by unconscious cues is under serious attack. A paper published in PLoS ONE last week1 reports that nine different experiments failed to replicate this example of ‘intelligence priming’, first described in 1998 (ref. 2) by Ap Dijksterhuis, a social psychologist at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands, and now included in textbooks. David Shanks, a cognitive psychologist at University College London, UK, and first author of the paper in PLoS ONE, is among sceptical scientists calling for Dijksterhuis to design a detailed experimental protocol to be carried out indifferent laboratories to pin down the effect. Dijksterhuis has rejected the request, saying that he “stands by the general effect” and blames the failure to replicate on “poor experiments”. An acrimonious e-mail debate on the subject has been dividing psychologists, who are already jittery about other recent exposures of irreproducible results (see Nature 485, 298–300; 2012). “It’s about more than just replicating results from one paper,” says Shanks, who circulated a draft of his study in October; the failed replications call into question the underpinnings of ‘unconscious-thought theory’. © 2013 Nature Publishing Group
Related chapters from BP7e: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 15: Emotions, Aggression, and Stress
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Consciousness; Chapter 11: Emotions, Aggression, and Stress
Link ID: 18104 - Posted: 05.01.2013
By JAMES GORMAN TRONDHEIM, Norway — In 1988, two determined psychology students sat in the office of an internationally renowned neuroscientist in Oslo and explained to him why they had to study with him. Unfortunately, the researcher, Per Oskar Andersen, was hesitant, May-Britt Moser said as she and her husband, Edvard I. Moser, now themselves internationally recognized neuroscientists, recalled the conversation recently. He was researching physiology and they were interested in the intersection of behavior and physiology. But, she said, they wouldn’t take no for an answer. “We sat there for hours. He really couldn’t get us out of his office,” Dr. May-Britt Moser said. “Both of us come from nonacademic families and nonacademic places,” Edvard said. “The places where we grew up, there was no one with any university education, no one to ask. There was no recipe on how to do these things.” “And how to act politely,” May-Britt interjected. “It was just a way to get to the point where we wanted to be. But seen now, when I know the way people normally do it,” he said, smiling at the memory of his younger self, “I’m quite impressed.” So, apparently, was Dr. Andersen. In the end, he yielded to the Mosers’ combination of furious curiosity and unwavering determination and took them on as graduate students. They have impressed more than a few people since. In 2005, they and their colleagues reported the discovery of cells in rats’ brains that function as a kind of built-in navigation system that is at the very heart of how animals know where they are, where they are going and where they have been. They called them grid cells. © 2013 The New York Times Company
By YUDHIJIT BHATTACHARJEE One summer night in 2011, a tall, 40-something professor named Diederik Stapel stepped out of his elegant brick house in the Dutch city of Tilburg to visit a friend around the corner. It was close to midnight, but his colleague Marcel Zeelenberg had called and texted Stapel that evening to say that he wanted to see him about an urgent matter. The two had known each other since the early ’90s, when they were Ph.D. students at the University of Amsterdam; now both were psychologists at Tilburg University. In 2010, Stapel became dean of the university’s School of Social and Behavioral Sciences and Zeelenberg head of the social psychology department. Stapel and his wife, Marcelle, had supported Zeelenberg through a difficult divorce a few years earlier. As he approached Zeelenberg’s door, Stapel wondered if his colleague was having problems with his new girlfriend. Zeelenberg, a stocky man with a shaved head, led Stapel into his living room. “What’s up?” Stapel asked, settling onto a couch. Two graduate students had made an accusation, Zeelenberg explained. His eyes began to fill with tears. “They suspect you have been committing research fraud.” Stapel was an academic star in the Netherlands and abroad, the author of several well-regarded studies on human attitudes and behavior. That spring, he published a widely publicized study in Science about an experiment done at the Utrecht train station showing that a trash-filled environment tended to bring out racist tendencies in individuals. And just days earlier, he received more media attention for a study indicating that eating meat made people selfish and less social. © 2013 The New York Times Company
by Helen Thomson "I feel like I have been dropped into my body. I know this is my voice and these are my memories, but they don't feel like they belong to me." It happened out of the blue. Louise Airey was 8 years old, off sick from school, when suddenly she felt like she had been dropped into her own body. "It's just so difficult to verbalise what this feels like," she says. "All of a sudden you're hyper aware, and everything else in the world seems unreal, like a movie." She panicked, but told no one. The feeling soon passed but returned several times until, at the age of 19, a migraine triggered a sensation of being disconnected from the world that was to last 18 months. When she was in her 30s she was diagnosed with depersonalisation disorder – an altered sense of self with all-encompassing feelings of not occupying your own body, and detachment from your thoughts and actions. It has come and gone throughout her life, but since a traumatic pregnancy 20 months ago, these feelings have remained constant. "Other people seem like robots," Airey says. "It's like I'm watching a film, like I'm on my own in the centre of everything and nothing else is real. I'll be speaking to my children and I'll catch my voice talking and it seems really alien and foreign. It makes you feel very separated and lonely from everything, like you're the only person that is real." Depersonalisation disorder is not as rare as you might think, says Anthony David at King's College London and the Maudsley Hospital: it may affect almost 1 per cent of the British population (Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, DOI: 10.1007/s00127-010-0327-7). We've all probably experienced mild versions of it at some point, in the unreal, spaced-out feeling you might get while severely jet-lagged or hung-over, for example. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
Jennifer Raymond I have a bias against women in science. Please don't hold this against me. I am a woman scientist, mentor and advocate for women in science, and an associate dean in my school's Office of Diversity, with a budding field biologist as a daughter. Yet my performance on the Implicit Association Test (https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/demo), which measures unconscious associations between concepts, revealed that I have a tendency to associate men with science and career, and women with liberal arts and family. I didn't even need to wait for my score; I could feel that my responses were slower and that I made more mistakes when I had to group science words such as 'astronomy' with female words such as 'wife' rather than male words such as 'uncle'. The results from hundreds of thousands of people indicate that I am not an outlier — 70% of men and women across 34 countries view science as more male than female1. Gender bias is not just a problem in science. A host of studies shows that people tend to rate women as less competent than men across many domains, from musical abilities to leadership2, and that many individuals hold biases about competency on the basis of other irrelevant attributes, such as skin colour, body weight, religion, sexual orientation and parental status. Such biases have important consequences in the workplace. One study showed that mothers are 79% less likely to be hired and are offered US$11,000 less salary than women with no children3. By contrast, the same study shows that parenthood confers an advantage to men in the workplace. © 2013 Nature Publishing Group,
Related chapters from BP7e: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 12: Sex: Evolutionary, Hormonal, and Neural Bases
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Consciousness; Chapter 8: Hormones and Sex
Link ID: 17880 - Posted: 03.09.2013
by Trevor Quirk Many smartphones claim to filter out background noise, but they've got nothing on the human brain. We can tune in to just one speaker at a noisy cocktail party with little difficulty—an ability that has been a scientific mystery since the early 1950s. Now, researchers argue that the competing noise of other partygoers is filtered out in the brain before it reaches regions involved in higher cognitive functions, such as language and attention control. Their experiments were the first to demonstrate this process. The scientists didn't do anything as social as attend a noisy party. Instead, Charles Schroeder, a psychiatrist at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City, and colleagues recorded the brain activity of six people with intractable epilepsy who required brain surgery. In order to identify the part of their brains responsible for seizures, the patients underwent 1 to 4 weeks of observation through electrocorticography (ECoG), a technique that provides precise neural recordings via electrodes placed directly on the surface of the brain. Schroeder and his team, using the ECoG data, conducted their experiments during this time. The researchers showed the patients two videos simultaneously, each of a person telling a 9- to 12-second story; they were asked to concentrate on just one speaker. To determine which neural recordings corresponded to the "ignored" and "attended" speech, the team reconstructed speech patterns from the brain's electrical activity using a mathematical model. The scientists then matched the reconstructed patterns with the original patterns coming from the ignored and attended speakers. © 2010 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Related chapters from BP7e: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 9: Hearing, Vestibular Perception, Taste, and Smell
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Consciousness; Chapter 6: Hearing, Balance, Taste, and Smell
Link ID: 17876 - Posted: 03.07.2013
By George Johnson In the week since I wrote about Oliver Sacks and the idiot savant twins, I’ve been catching up with Season 2 of “Touch,” the TV series about an autistic boy named Jake who has an inexplicable ability to commune with a secret world of numbers — a buried skein of mathematics in which the Golden Mean, the fibonacci sequence, the genetic code, and the Kabbalah are all mysteriously connected. Jungian synchronicity, quantum entanglement, chaos theory — all turn out to be manifestations of an underlying order in which everything that perplexes us ultimately makes sense. It is the dream of both mystics and scientists, and I had wondered shortly after the show first began how the conceit was going to be sustained through more than a few episodes. The connecting thread has turned out to be a conspiracy by a shadowy corporation called AsterCorp — as secretive and powerful as Massive Dynamic, purveyors of the mind-enhancing medicine Cortexiphan in “Fringe” — to kidnap Jake and others like him in their attempt to control the world. Or the universe. It is too soon to tell. Dr. Sacks’s twins, with their power to see, hear, smell — somehow sense within minutes if a number was prime — would also have been on AsterCorp’s wish list. Something keeps pulling me back to Sacks’s story. That is how enchanting a writer he is. (His memoir, Uncle Tungsten, is my favorite of his books.) There are plenty of accounts in the psychiatric literature of amazing human calculators and mnemonists. Sacks describes some famous cases in his essay. But what he thought he saw in the twins went far beyond that. Somehow, as Sacks described it, they could recognize that a number is prime in the way that one might recognize a face. Something on the surface of 3334401341 told them it was prime while 3334401343 was not.
By Daisy Yuhas It's news chocolate lovers have been craving: raw cocoa may be packed with brain-boosting compounds. Researchers at the University of L'Aquila in Italy, with scientists from Mars, Inc., and their colleagues published findings last September that suggest cognitive function in the elderly is improved by ingesting high levels of natural compounds found in cocoa called flavanols. The study included 90 individuals with mild cognitive impairment, a precursor to Alzheimer's disease. Subjects who drank a cocoa beverage containing either moderate or high levels of flavanols daily for eight weeks demonstrated greater cognitive function than those who consumed low levels of flavanols on three separate tests that measured factors that included verbal fluency, visual searching and attention. Exactly how cocoa causes these changes is still unknown, but emerging research points to one flavanol in particular: (-)-epicatechin, pronounced “minus epicatechin.” Its name signifies its structure, differentiating it from other catechins, organic compounds highly abundant in cocoa and present in apples, wine and tea. The graph below shows how (-)-epicatechin fits into the world of brain-altering food molecules. Other studies suggest that the compound supports increased circulation and the growth of blood vessels, which could explain improvements in cognition, because better blood flow would bring the brain more oxygen and improve its function. Animal research has already demonstrated how pure (-)-epicatechin enhances memory. Findings published last October in the Journal of Experimental Biology note that snails can remember a trained task—such as holding their breath in deoxygenated water—for more than a day when given (-)-epicatechin but for less than three hours without the flavanol. Salk Institute neuroscientist Fred Gage and his colleagues found previously that (-)-epicatechin improves spatial memory and increases vasculature in mice. “It's amazing that a single dietary change could have such profound effects on behavior,” Gage says. If further research confirms the compound's cognitive effects, flavanol supplements—or raw cocoa beans—could be just what the doctor ordered. © 2013 Scientific American
Related chapters from BP7e: Chapter 4: The Chemistry of Behavior: Neurotransmitters and Neuropharmacology; Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 4: The Chemistry of Behavior: Neurotransmitters and Neuropharmacology; Chapter 14: Attention and Consciousness
Link ID: 17863 - Posted: 03.02.2013
By Ingrid Wickelgren How many times have you arrived someplace but had no memory of the trip there? Have you ever been sitting in an auditorium daydreaming, not registering what the people on stage are saying or playing? We often spin through our days lost in mental time travel, thinking about something from the past, or future, leaving us oblivious to what is happening right around us right now. In doing so, we miss much of life. We also make ourselves relatively miserable, and prone to poor performance and mishaps. peaceful scene, village by the water. The opposite mental state, mindfulness, is a calm, focused awareness of the present. Cultivating that state is associated with improvements in both mental and physical health, as you will learn from the current cover story of Scientific American Mind (see “Mindfulness Can Improve Your Attention and Health” by Amishi P. Jha). It can even ameliorate mental illness. It turns out that mindfulness training works in large part by training our ability to pay attention. As we learn to focus on the here and now, we also learn to manipulate our mental focus more generally. The ability to direct our own minds at will means we control what we think about. It is no wonder that honing such a skill can make us happier. It can also boost the performance of soldiers, surgeons, athletes and many others who need to maintain a tight focus on what they are doing. Some people are naturally more mindful than others, but it is possible to train yourself to enter this state more often. Simple exercises performed as little as 12 minutes daily can help you become more mindful. For a sample exercise, watch this video “Learn to Live in the Now.” © 2013 Scientific American
by Nic Halverson By studying a magic trick that has been around for thousands of years, neuroscientists have shed light on human attention and visual systems -- as well as on the trick, itself. "Magicians, in particular, are very intellectual performance artists. They are very interested in the mind and how behavior happens," Dr. Stephen Macknik, director of the Laboratory of Behavioral Neurophysiology at the Barrow Neurological Institute(BNI), told Discovery News. "What scientists are doing when we study perception is pretty much the same thing, except we're using the scientific method." The hope is that magicians' intuitive insight could help instruct the field of neuroscience and perhaps, even be applied in medicine to help people with attention deficit issues. In their study, recently published in the inaugural issue of PeerJ, the researchers focused upon a famous trick by a pair of very famous magicians. Penn & Teller's 10-year run at The Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino has made them one of the longest-running and most beloved acts in Las Vegas history. Their trick, "Cups and Balls," is a classic illusion performed by Roman magicians as far back as 2,000 years ago when gladiators still battled in the Colosseum. While the trick has many derivatives, the most common uses three brightly colored balls and three opaque cups. Using sleight-of-hand, the magician seemingly makes the balls pass through the bottoms of cups, jump from cup to cup, disappear and reappear elsewhere or turn into entirely different objects. In Penn & Teller's case, that different object is often a potato. © 2013 Discovery Communications, LLC. T
Wray Herbert The Invisible Gorilla is part of the popular culture nowadays, thanks largely to a widely-read 2010 book of that title. In that book, authors and cognitive psychologists Dan Simons and Christopher Chabris popularized a phenomenon of human perception—known in the jargon as “inattentional blindness”—which they had demonstrated in a study some years before. In the best known version of the experiment, volunteers were told to keep track of how many times some basketball players tossed a basketball. While they did this, someone in a gorilla suit walked across the basketball court, in plain view, yet many of the volunteers failed even to notice the beast. What the invisible gorilla study shows is that, if we are paying very close attention to one thing, we often fail to notice other things in our field of vision—even very obvious things. We all love these quirks of human perception. It’s entertaining to know that our senses can play tricks on us. And that’s no doubt the extent of most people’s familiarity with this psychological phenomenon. But what if this perceptual quirk has serious implications—even life-threatening implications? A new study raises that disturbing possibility. Three psychological scientists at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston—Trafton Drew, Melissa Vo and Jeremy Wolfe—wondered if expert observers are also subject to this perceptual blindness. The subjects in the classic study were “naïve”—untrained in any particular domain of expertise and performing a task nobody does in real life. But what about highly trained professionals who make their living doing specialized kinds of observations? The scientists set out to explore this, and in an area of great importance to many people—cancer diagnosis. © Association for Psychological Science
Ewen Callaway In the mid-1980s, Paul Moorcraft, then a war correspondent, journeyed with a film crew into Afghanistan to produce a documentary about the fifth anniversary of the Soviet invasion. The trip took them behind Soviet lines. “We were attacked every fucking day by the Russians,” says the colourful Welshman. But the real trouble started later, when Moorcraft tried to tally his expenses, such as horses and local garb for his crew. Even with a calculator, the simple sums took him ten times longer than they should have. “It was an absolute nightmare. I spent days and days and days.” When he finally sent the bill to an accountant, he had not realized that after adding a zero he was claiming millions of pounds for a trip that had cost a couple of hundred thousand. “He knew I was an honest guy and assumed that it was just a typo.” Such mistakes were part of a lifelong pattern for Moorcraft, now director of the Centre for Foreign Policy Analysis in London and the author of more than a dozen books. He hasn't changed his phone number or PIN in years for fear that he would never remember new ones, and when working for Britain's Ministry of Defence he put subordinates in charge of remembering safe codes. In 2003, a mistaken phone number — one of hundreds before it — lost him a girlfriend who was convinced he was out gallivanting. That finally convinced him to seek an explanation. At the suggestion of a friend who teaches children with learning disabilities, Moorcraft contacted Brian Butterworth, a cognitive neuroscientist at University College London who studies numerical cognition. After conducting some tests, Butterworth concluded that Moorcraft was “a disaster at arithmetic” and diagnosed him with dyscalculia, a little-known learning disability sometimes called number blindness and likened to dyslexia for maths. Researchers estimate that as much as 7% of the population has dyscalculia, which is marked by severe difficulties in dealing with numbers despite otherwise normal (or, in Moorcraft's case, probably well above normal) intelligence. © 2013 Nature Publishing Group