Category Archives: Research

Mindreading – Is It Really Possible?

Most of us read minds quite easily. Of course, I am not talking about true telepathy because we cannot directly access the content of someone else’s mind but we can readily infer what someone might be thinking given the circumstances of  the situation they are in. This allows us to understand their actions and predict what they might do next.

The classic demonstration of this mindreading that is taught to every psych undergraduate is the false belief task. For those of you who do not know, here is the scenario. Sally and Anne share an apartment. One day Sally comes home and places her hat in a bedroom drawer and then goes out. Meanwhile, Anne comes home, opens the bedroom drawer and decides to put Sally’s hat in the hall cupboard and then leaves. Now here is the crunch question. “When Sally comes home, where will she look for her hat?” Most children below the age of 3-4 years say that she will look in the cupboard. They fail to understand that Sally has a false belief. Older children understand that Sally holds a belief that just happens to be incorrect.

While most of us can easily pass the “Sally-Anne” task, unfortunately individuals with autism typically fail which has led to the conclusion that they suffer from “Mindlblindness” – an inability to infer the mental states of others. This  is thought to be one of the reasons that they find social interaction so distressing. Here is Alison Gopnik’s terrifying vision of what it must be like to have mindblindness at the dinner table,

“Around me bags of skin are draped over chairs, and stuffed into pieces of cloth, they shift and protrude in unexpected ways…Two dark spots near the top of them swivel restlessly back and forth. A hole beneath the spots fills with food and from it comes a stream of noises. Imagine that the noisy skin-bags suddenly moved towards you, and their noises grew loud, and you had no idea why, no way of explaining them or predicting what they would do next.”

I know what you're thinking!

I know what you're thinking!

However, help might be on the way. Physicist Michio Kaku writes in his latest book, “Physics of the Impossible” about possibility of using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to read the mental states of individuals as they think. At the moment, these fMRI machine are huge magnets that weigh several tons and cost millions. Kaku writes about the development of technology that would make handheld scanners possible.

But can you interpret brain activity in terms of the mental states at the time of recording? We learn that a UCLA/Rutgers study to be published in Psychological Science in October reports that it is possible to determine from the basis of brain activity measure, which of eight tasks an individual is undertaking at the time of recording. Sounds great. Maybe mindreading will be possible. However, the authors are a bit more realistic than Michio Kaku. While they got an 80% hit rate for identifying which of one of eight mental tasks, including reading words aloud, saying whether pairs of words rhyme, counting the number of tones they heard, pressing buttons at certain cues and making monetary decisions, the reality is that these are very discrete tasks and there is no mention of how we could determine the content. In other words, we would not be able to know whether the person thought that Sally believed her hat was in the bedroom drawer or hall cupboard in the Sally Anne task for example. Also each person may have too much variation in how their brain processes events so without the full history of an individual’s thoughts and the corresponding neural activity, it would be impossible to read their mind.

Still, such reductionist approaches to complex mental states may produce technological advances that stimulate the next round of cognitive neuroscience. So, I am all for it so long as I don’t have to wear the scanner.


Filed under Research

What’s in a Name?

I recently came across this report from the PsyBlog site that often produces nuggets of SuperSense relevent research. Apparently, people underperform in situations where poor outcomes are associated with the initials in their name. For example, researchers studied baseball records and found that baseball batters were much more likely to strikeout (that means failing to hit three pitched balls) if either their first or second name started with the letter “K.” K is used in baseball reports to denote a strikeout. Hmmmm must have been a chance coincidence.

But then the researchers found that people with names starting with A or B did better on academic performance than those whose names started with C or D. Surely not! Must just be a weird correlation. But here’s where it gets spooky. The researchers then performed an experiment where they gave participants an anagram solving test where the prizes either coincided with the participant’s own initials or not. The experimenters predicted that participants would be unconsciously drawn towards the lesser, consolation prize, if one of their initials coincided with the prize’s label. Consequently they would complete fewer anagrams. And would you believe it? That’s what they found.

So what’s going on? The claim is that we so love the sounds of our own names that we settle for outcomes that coincide alphabetically with our initials. This “implicit egotism” explains why researchers found that in a population of over 500,000 Belgians, people were significantly more likely to work for a company that shared the same initials. So that’s why I work at Bristol University after a brief spell at MIT and Harvard!


Filed under Research, supernatural

MSc in Woo

I was handed a prospectus for Schumacher College in Dartington when I gave a talk on supernatural beliefs at the Literary Festival there last week. Judging by the picturesque cottages in the glorious Devonshire countryside, I was reminded of Enid Blyton novels and wrongly assumed that the area had a sense of wealthy middle-class conservatism. But I was wrong. After Glastonbury, the epicentre for New Ageism in the West of England, is apparently nearby Totnes.

This may explain the content of some courses offered by Schumacher College. I was particularly drawn to the Masters Degree in Holistic Science (MSc) as this was the first course of its kind and is accredited in partnership with the University of Plymouth. The residential course integrates qualitative and quantitative approaches and explores methodologies that go beyond reductionism in understanding the dynamics of whole systems, from individual organisms to organisations and eco-systems to the Earth. This all sounds great but I wondered about the scientific rigour of the content. Also it seems expensive at £11,465 for home students and £14,105, for a one year course. Still I expect there should be some demand for this.

I have to be careful about slating a university-accredited graduate science degree but when it has contributions from astrologers and morphic resonance theorists, I guess I will leave it up to Ben Goldacre to investigate… now where did I put his email?


Filed under Research

SciFoo Frenzy


"Follow the Yellow Brick Road"

"Follow the Yellow Brick Road"

I just got back from SciFoo (Science camp for Friends Of O‘Reilly) held at Google headquarters in Mountain View, California. It was an invite-only for 200 scientists, thinkers, writers and geeks to get together and brainstorm. It started on Friday evening when we were dropped off at the Googleplex and followed the yellow brick road to registration (Yes it really was yellow brick).

We were photographed, asked to say 5 things about ourselves and then nominate 3 others for the meeting next year. Then we just ate and introduced ourselves to the otherwise strange faces around us. Not that all were strangers. If you are the founder of O’Reilly Media (Tim O’Reilly) or co-founder of Google and worth billions (Larry Page) or one of the few psychologists ever to be awarded a Nobel Prize (Daniel Kahneman) or simply that annoying science guy (Bill Nye), then you were off to a good recognition start. Bjork was supposed to be there but once again, she dissed me and did not make an appearance. (This is the last chance I give her!). 

The rest of us just milled about until we had the introduction from Larry Page about what the meeting was about and the etiquette of photographing Google headquarters and delegates. Then it was a free-for-all as we all rushed forward to sign up to give talks in a frenzied squash. Some of the talks were grim and surprisingly dull whereas others were really quite impressive. I even bumped into some old faces and heard the latest from Devi Patel and his study of the amazing dancing Cockatoo, “Snowball.” Devi has a paper in Current Biology where he shows that Snowball can adjust his dancing to different tempos and even “mash” it up when the beat gets too fast. Check this out –

Meanwhile my presentation went fine but the main plus for me was when Anne Triesman and Daniel Kahneman complimented me. Daniel said my talk was “fun.”Hoping that some genius will rub off on me!

Hoping that some genius will rub off on me!

I’ll take that in the best possible way.


Filed under General Thoughts, In the News, Research

Why We Don’t Like to Tempt Fate


Seven Years Bad Luck?

Seven Years Bad Luck?

One of the most common superstitions is related to tempting fate – you know the one where others turn round and say, “Why did you say that? Now we are never going to get there on time!”  That’s why is it consider ill-mannered to compliment newborn babies in various cultures for fear of jinxing. Why is this? Why are we reluctant to comment on how well things are going? Jane Risen and Tom Gilovich recently published an intriguing investigation of this superstition where students were told about two potential scenarios. Jon has applied to the prestigious Stanford and is awaiting his decision letter. His mother who is confident that he will get in sends him a Stanford t-shirt. Participants then read either one of these two endings to the story:

Jon wears it while he’s waiting for the decision from Stanford, thereby tempting fate (gods are angered).


Jon stuffs the t-shirt in the drawer, not tempting fate (gods are mollified).

When asked to rate Jon’s chances of getting accepted to Standford, participants were significantly less likely to say that he would get in if he wore the t-shirt. Why is this? Students know that wearing a t-shirt does not influence the outcome. Risen and Gilovich think that these scenarios trigger automatic intuitive processes that focus on negative outcomes. (They found that giving participants a secondary task that occupies the rational suppression of intuition led to more superstition as I have previously reported).

Negative outcomes are more accessible than positive ones in our mind and we are particularly biased to remember instances were we flout the “don’t tempt fate” convention and things go wrong. This in turn reinforces the strength of the belief in fate. Once a given superstition gains some acceptance in a social group, no matter how arbitrary (don’t break mirrors, don’t walk under a ladder, don’t comment on success), the thought of flaunting it makes the prospect of a negative outcome seem especially negative and especially likely.

This is a great paper and of course is more grist to my mill that our SuperSense is a collection of intuitively based processes that generate supernatural beliefs. However, Risen and Gilovich have elucidated how these beliefs operate in the individual and their paper explains why arbitrary superstitions transmit culturally. My only difference would be that most of these beliefs are not arbitrary but rather share commonalities that emerge as part of normal child development.


Filed under Research

Would You Accept the Heart of Killer?

2444291746_272fe079a4Would you willing accept an organ transplant from a murderer? This goes a bit further than wearing the clothing of a killer that I discuss in SuperSense. For many there is a fear of taking on the psychological states and even memories of the donor. As noted in an earlier post, such notions of cellular memories are surprisingly persistent. In 1988, Claire Sylvia a US woman in her forties with primary pulmonary hypertension had a heart and lung transplant to save her life. After the operation she reported a change in her personality that she attributed to taking on aspects of the personality from the donor. Her book, wittily entitled “A Change of Heart,” documented her experiences and was offered as evidence for the pseudoscientific theory of cellular memories, where psychological properties are thought to be encoded in organ tissue and can be transplanted into a new host.

One recent small study of transplant patients reported that one in three thought they had taken on some aspect of personality from the donor. There is also the case in 1999 of the terminally-ill British teenager who was forcibly given a heart transplant against her will because she feared she would lose her own identity with someone else’s heart. Clearly this belief is not a trivial issue.

I spoke with a leading Bristol transplant surgeon about this and he explained that there were many physiological reasons why patients experience a change in personality, not mention the simple fact that they have been given a second lease of life in a situation where it is difficult enough to find donor organs. However, Claire Sylvia didn’t just report a change in personality. She developed an inexplicable taste for beer, chicken nuggets and found herself strangely attracted to short blonde women. You guessed it. The 18-yr-old male who was the donor for her heart and lungs, liked his beer and chicken nuggets and had a short blonde girlfriend.

Some patients believe not only that they take on aspects of the donor’s personality but in some cases they form a psychic bond. This is what Ian and Lynda Gammons reported following the successful transplantation of one of Lynda’s kidneys in a life-saving operation for husband.

When I spoke with one of the coordinators for the National transplant programme that just happens to be based in Bristol, she was fairly dismissive of these reports and concerns. I am not sure whether she misunderstood my line of enquiry and thought that I really did believe in cellular memory or she was being evasive. Anyway, it was clear to me that this could be a sensitive issue.

Despite my fascination with this supernatural belief, I don’t think that it is ethically appropriate to interview transplant patients about whether they have concerns about cellular memories from their implanted organs. There are far more serious issues to consider. 

So we conducted a study of healthy adults just to get a sense of attitudes towards whether people would be concerned about the identity of the donor. We got them to rate 20 faces along a number of dimension including how happy would they be to receive a life-saving heart transplant from that person. This gave us our baseline scores. We then repeated the questions for the same 20 faces mixed among another 20 distractor faces. This time we told them that the potential donor was either a convicted murderer of voluntary worker. 

The study which is currently in press with the Journal of Culture & Cognition reveals that you get overall positive (halo) effects when you learn someone is a good person and overall negative (horns) effects when you discover that they are evil. The effect is strongest for the killer’s heart. A second study replicated the effect and found no difference between a potential heart versus liver transplant. Maybe people just think killers are more likely to have diseased organs. Except that the halo and horns effects are found for all questions that are irrelevant to lifestyle. Rather I would submit that psychological essentialism (the idea that identity and morality) are believed to be encoded in the body is the primary reason that people fear the heart of a killer.


Filed under Essentialism, Research

Cheesus, It’s Just a Type 1 Error

cheesus2Dan and Sara Bell have seen Jesus again. Once more, he has appeared in a convenience snack. In this case, the deity appears in the form of a “Cheeto” – a rather disgusting corn-based munchie from the US that sticks to the roof of your mouth and clogs the gaps in your teeth. We covered this tendency of seeing the divine in an earlier blog on pareidolia where Jesus turned up on the backside of a dog. No doubt, Dan and Sara will try their luck on eBay where other examples of divine apparitions in snacks such as cheese toasties and pizzas have sold for silly money. 

This nonsense bring me to Michael Shermer’s piece in this month’s Scientific American about what he calls “patternicity” – the human tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise. (He also gives, “SuperSense” a good plug in the article so I am hoping this mention will drive some of his readers over here). Patternicity is the consequence of a brain that automatically seeks out structure in the environment, looking for significant events. This tendency is particularly strong in the case of detecting people and faces as our brains readily interpret all manner of random configurations as evidence for others. As the Scottish philosopher Hume said, “We find human faces in the moon, armies in the clouds.”

The psychologist Stewart Guthrie has argued that this is a perceptual bias that means we are trip-wired to detecting the presence of potential enemies even when the evidence is so weak. It is better to assume that someone is hiding in the bushes rather than ignore them. So if you see a face in the bushes when there is none, this is know as a Type 1 error because you have inferred the presence of something which is not really there. On the other hand, if you ignore the face in the bushes when there really is an enemy hiding in there then that would be a Type 2 error. The evolutionary argument is that it is better to make a Type 1 error than a Type 2 error because the consequences of ignoring the evidence of a potential enemy are much greater than assuming that someone is there.

However, I don’t think you necessarily need an evolutionary argument based on potential threat for the person bias. All the evidence suggests that newborns (human and monkey) have built-in mechanisms for paying extra attention to faces so we are supersensitive to any face-like pattern to begin with. We even have special face processing areas in the visual parts of our brain. So having a perceptual bias could arise from a variety of different advantages, not necessarily enemy-detecting.

Shermer’s discussion of Type 1 and Type 2 is very relevant to one of my arguments developed in SuperSense – namely that individual propensity to supernatural belief is supported by their interpretation of ambiguous evidence. You can test this by presenting people with computer tasks where they have to detect a faint pattern that may or may not be present among random noise.

Individuals who score highly on scales that measure supernatural belief are also more likely to make Type 1 errors compared to those who score low on such measures who make Type 2 mistakes. So we vary in our susceptibility in detecting evidence and how we interpret it. If you already have a strong belief that there are significant patterns out there, then you will more readily find evidence for it. Beautiful theory, isn’t it. I can easily see all the evidence to support it! Or that might be my SuperSense at work.


Filed under book publicity, In the News, Research

Parrots Can Dance (but not Professors)

In a new study just out in the journal Current Biology, researchers at Harvard University has analysed over 1,000 youtube videos of dancing animals and concluded that at least 14 types of parrot and possibly one elephant have got rhythm. Here is the classic footage of the most famous cockatoo dancer, Snowball.

Aniruddh Patel of The Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, who led another study of Snowball’s performance, said that the bird had demonstrated an ability to adjust the tempo of his dancing to stay synchronized to the beat. 

In the scientific paper entitled, “Spontaneous motor entrainment to music in multiple vocal mimicking species,” Adena Schachner working with my old friend and colleague Marc Hauser, make the interesting conclusion that the capacity for vocal mimicry (as in the case of parrots) can provide the basis for synchronized movements, namely rhythmic dancing.

How ironic that academic professors who may have the capacity to research and write about synchronized movements are the least coordinated at the post-conference disco. You know who you are!


Filed under Research

Watch With Mother

girltvWith names like “Baby Einstein,” “Baby Bach,” and “Baby Newton” is it any wonder that new parents and especially new grandparents are going to be tempted to buy into this fad for “hot-housing” babies with DVDs designed to enhance brain development? Simply plonk infant down in front of TV, insert stimulating DVD and watch as brain grows. Simple.

Last year, developmental psychologist Andy Meltzoff got into trouble with the Disney Company who own the Baby Einstein range for publishing a study that showed that rather than enhancing infants’ brains, these DVD’s actually impaired language development. Disney threatened to sue the University of Washington for publishing the press release of the study though I doubt they could have found a better expert opinion than Meltzoff’s to refute his findings. 

However a study by a team from Harvard Medical School, published this month in “Pediatrics,” did not find that increased TV viewing in infants under  two years related to poorer cognitive development when all the socio-economic factors were considered. But there was no benefit either. Maybe they needed to be watching “Baby Einstein.”

I often get asked about the role of early environment on brain development as so many parents are concerned when they read about the effects of deprivation that come mainly from the animal research. Yes the early environment is important but the deprivation has to be pretty extreme to cause permanent problems. Moreover, giving extra stimulation is not going to create super-smart babies.


Filed under Research

Vampire Discovered in Mass Grave

mg20126985200-2_300Although we are more familiar with the “stake through the heart” method for disposing of vampires, it would appear that the medieval Venetians preferred a brick in the mouth technique. Excavations of the 1576 Venice plague pits revealed a skeleton of a woman with a small brick lodged in her mouth. At the time the woman died, many people believed that the plague was spread by “vampires” which, rather than drinking people’s blood, spread disease by chewing on their shrouds after dying. Grave-diggers put bricks in the mouths of suspected vampires to stop them doing this.

Dr. Matteo Borrini of the University of Florence reported his findings last week at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences meeting in Denver, claiming the first forensic evidence of vampires. However, this claim has been challenged by Prof. Moore-Jansen who has reported similar cases in the graves of Poland. Last month it was Zombie outbreaks, but now we have vampires popping up all over the place


Filed under Research, supernatural