Sunday, September 28, 2008

Katie, I want to use one of my lifelines.

Which one is funnier? You be the judge...

Sarah Palin Discusses Russia With Katie Couric (CBS Evening News)

Sarah Palin Discusses Russia With Katie Couric (SNL)

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Friday, September 26, 2008

This message has been sent to you because of your eminence in the field.

More Obsequious Science Spam...

This one's from Bentham Open. Maybe you or one of your friends have gotten a similar pitch. First, the story circa early 2007.

The Open Neuroscience Journal

Dear Scientist.

Bentham Science Publishers have gained a longstanding international reputation for their excellent standards and top quality science publications. Many journals published by Bentham Science Publishers have received high impact factors in their respective fields. For the current list of publications, please visit . Seven Nobel Laureates have endorsed a number of Bentham Science's journals...

The publishers are now undertaking a new publication venture by launching a number of Open Access journals in 2007, devoted to varied disciplines in the fields of science and technology. [NOTE: The number of "Open" journals has mushroomed to 231 as this writing. These include The Open Area Studies Journal (with a sad total of one article) and The Open Corrosion Journal which has zero articles as of today.]

Open Access Journals are freely accessible via the Internet for immediate worldwide, open access to the full text of research articles for the best interests of the scientific community... [NOTE: But see Black sheep among Open Access Journals and Publishers]

. . .

The journal aims to provide the most complete and reliable source of information on current developments in neuroscience. The emphasis will be on publishing quality articles rapidly and openly available to researchers worldwide. All published articles will be deposited immediately upon publication in at least one widely and internationally recognized open access repository (such as PubMed Central). [NOTE: this is not true, at least for PubMed Central]

The journal will be essential reading for scientists and researchers who wish to keep abreast of the latest developments in the field. The publishers are confident of the journal's rapid success.

Based on your eminent contributions in the field of neuroscience, I would like to invite you to join us as an Editorial Board Member of the journal. As an editorial board member, you may be required to occasionally review research papers, solicit articles from your colleagues/acquaintances and help promote the journal at conferences and meetings that you attend. [NOTE: You have to provide free advertising?] Submissions of manuscripts to the journal from Editorial Board Members will receive a discount of 50% off the total publication charges.
OK... Now it's a year and a half after their first pitch. What has changed since then (other than the appearance of critical blog posts such as A new model for open access: the pyramid scheme) and The Open Access Interviews: Matthew Honan)? Well, for starters, they don't expect you to provide free advertising any more. But now you must publish one article per year in the journal (at no cost, with a discount on subsequent papers) and send them your CV. They're still trying to appeal to your ego, however:
Based on your eminent contributions in the field of psychology, we would like to consider your possible nomination to the Editorial Board Membership of the journal. As an editorial board member, you may be required to occasionally review research papers. To make sure the Editorial Board of the journal consists of potential productive scientists, it is expected that all the board members will publish one article each year in the journal which will be published after the routine reviewing process. The first article received from the EBMs each year will be published free of charge while the subsequent ones will be entitled to a 50% discount off the publication fees for submission of their manuscripts to the journal. Should you be interested in being an Editorial Board Member, then please send us your CV and the list of publications for our consideration...
But here's the funniest part:
The journal aims to provide the most complete and reliable source of information on current developments in the field. The emphasis will be on publishing quality articles rapidly and making them freely available to researchers worldwide. All published articles will be deposited immediately upon publication in at least one widely and internationally recognized open access repository, such as PubMed Central. [NOTE: still not true.] Moreover, all articles are indexed by PubMed [NOTE: false], Google and Google Scholar, therefore providing the maximum exposure to the articles.
Wow, indexed by Google! Sign me up! But the reality is that articles in The Open X Journal are not indexed by PubMed.
The Open Psychology Journal, a peer-reviewed journal, aims to provide the most complete and reliable source of information on current developments in Psychology. The emphasis will be on publishing quality papers rapidly and freely available to researchers worldwide.

Indexed in
Chemical Abstracts, Google, Google Scholar


[This message has been sent to you because of your eminence in the field. If, however, you do not want to receive any email/offer/invitation in future from Bentham Open, then please click here]

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Obsequious Science Spam

How many of you have gotten this pitch in your e-mail?

Subject: Searching for Scientific and Medical Experts

Dear Scientist,

You are invited to join our global professional network of scientists.

The Science Advisory Board is a worldwide panel of life science professionals that convenes electronically to voice opinions on a wide range of topics.[NOTE: in other words, it's a focus group.] Our members range from Department Heads and Principal Investigators to Lab Technicians and graduate students from some of the world's finest universities, research centers and hospitals.

Why you? We continually look for scientists who have achieved recognition in their field. You have come to our attention as a result of one of our recent research projects. The point is, not just anyone gets in. Only really smart scientists. [NOTE: I must be a really smart scientist, then.]

What's in it for you? Here's how your colleagues answer that one:

"It's astonishing what one can find on the site now: recommendations, protocols, philosophy, humor, contacts, ethics, weblogs, and even jobs." - Michael Corey, Ph.D., of Chromos, Inc. and author of the "Scientist Errant" blog

. . .

What do you get? Maybe there's no such thing as a free lunch, but you really do get free stuff. We value your opinion - and are willing to trade you something for it. Share with other members - book reviews, Web reviews, articles, member spotlights, opinion studies - and shop (for free) in our online store. Choose from watches, cameras, toys, appliances, electronics - and for larger projects, enjoy significant cash rewards.

So how much does membership cost? Nothing. Membership is free.

Why now? Qualified scientists who register quickly (let's say... by next Wednesday, September 24) get 50 points toward free stuff just for joining.

So how do you register? Leave your credit card in your wallet and click on to apply for membership. Get connected to the largest network in the world of other people who do what you do.


Kat Henwood
SAB Membership Coordinator

P.S. Thinking about it? Log onto and explore. We think you'll like what you see. But don't take too long to decide. Register by Wednesday, September 24 and receive 50 free points to get you started.

Oh, darn! Looks like I missed out!!
Date: Tuesday, September 23, 2008
Subject: Reminder: Searching for Scientific and Medical Experts

Dear Scientist,

As I mentioned in my email to you last week, this Wednesday, September 24, is the last day to earn 50 free points when you apply for membership to The Science Advisory Board.
I will no longer earn 50 free points when I join The Science Advisory Focus Group.

Credit for the central image goes to Jeremy Kalgreen of WearScience.

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Saturday, September 20, 2008

Conservatives Are Neurotic and Liberals Are Antisocial

Since turnabout is fair play, we can no longer say that Liberals Are Neurotic and Conservatives Are Antisocial.

In fact, it's opposite day! But why?

It's because of a new Science article by Oxley et al. (2008). I'm sure you've seen the deluge of articles in the popular press saying that social conservatives1 are great big scaredy cats when it comes to loud noises and aversive pictures. The headlines are ranked in order of most to least sensationalistic:

Newsweek: Spiders, Maggots, Politics the conservative mind, illegal immigrants may =spiders = gay marriages = maggot-filled wounds = abortion rights = bloodied faces.
Wired Science: Conservatives Scare More Easily Than Liberals, Say Scientists
Deep-seated political differences aren't simply moral and intellectual: They're also biological.
BBC News: Political views 'all in the mind'
...people who are sensitive to fear or threat are likely to support a right wing agenda.
EurekAlert! (Rice University press release): Political attitudes are predicted by physiological traits
Is America's red-blue divide based on voters' physiology? A new paper in the journal Science, titled "Political Attitudes Are Predicted by Physiological Traits," explores the link.
Scientific American: Are you more likely to be politically left or right if you scare easily?
Here's a fun trick: scare someone you don't know, then guess whether they favor the death penalty and the war in Iraq based on how freaked out they got.2

People with stronger startle reactions are more likely to support ideologies associated with conservative American politics, including the Patriot Act, obedience and biblical truth — and less likely to favor gun control, foreign aid, abortion rights, gay marriage and pornography, according to research published in today's Science. Those who are slower to scare are more likely to harbor traditionally liberal politics.
NSF press release: Some Political Views May be Related to Physiology
People who react more strongly to bumps in the night, spiders on a human body or the sight of a shell-shocked victim are more likely to support public policies that emphasize protecting society over preserving individual privacy.
Before I add my $0.02 (which is worth even less now), I'd like to draw your attention to two critiques in the blogosphere. For a good discussion of behavior genetics and heritability issues, read Gene Expression on Conservatives Have More Fear:
By heritability, I mean that you can predict an X proportion of the variation on trait Y from the variation of genes. Does this mean that there was selection for conservatism and liberalism in the past? Does this mean that there are genes for conservatism and liberalism? NO!!! That's just plain retarded.
For another excellent critique, I highly recommend A spider on your face won't stop me from criticizing this article by John Hawks. He provides a list of 7 erroneous assumptions and methodological flaws:
1. Sampling: By going from a sample of over 1310 down to 46 individuals, the authors were in a position to cull the sample in many ways that might influence their outcome. ...
That was my number one question as well. There is nothing in the main paper or the supporting online material (PDF) about whether the authors excluded (or included) subjects with things like anxiety disorders, for instance. How they settled on the final n=46 is murky.
2. Presentation of results: The methods employed are multiple regressions, using the dependent as a continuous variable. Yet the graphs in the paper show the dependent as a dichotomous variable. The graphs are designed to show the result to be as visually large as possible, but in so doing, they don't report the actual results, which are visually much weaker (while still statistically significant).
I won't go through the list point by point, but other objectionable aspects include lumping together the moderates and the conservatives, having a "made-up category" as the dependent variable ("has the look of a fishing expedition"), and not controlling for religious attitudes (!!).

The only thing I can add to the conversation is a brief discussion of the published literature on startle and personality. But first let's return to the beginning with the inversion of this post's title. In a famous study from last year, David Amodio and colleagues showed that an EEG wave related to making mistakes in a speeded reaction time task (called the error-related negativity or ERN) was larger in liberals than it was in conservatives. The authors also wanted to relate the ERN wave to conflict monitoring to conclude that liberals were more flexible in their thinking:
...greater liberalism was associated with stronger conflict-related anterior cingulate activity, suggesting greater neurocognitive sensitivity to cues for altering a habitual response pattern.
OK, then. After questioning whether the ERN was even related to conflict monitoring, I reviewed the literature on ERN and psychopathology.3 Briefly, liberals and individuals with clinical diagnoses such as obsessive-compulsive disorder or major depressive disorder have larger ERN waves, while conservatives and individuals with schizophrenia or psychopathy show smaller ERN waves than control participants.
These findings extend to the normal population, i.e., people who do not fit the criteria for a clinical diagnosis, but who score higher or lower on certain traits. For example, people who score high on negative affect have bigger ERNs, while individuals with "externalizing psychopathology" have smaller ERNs. Does this mean that liberals are neurotic and conservatives are antisocial?
Well, no, if you look at startle response, it's the reverse. Although the difference was not statistically significant,4 conservatives high supporters of socially protective policies had a larger eyeblink startle response to random loud bursts of white noise than liberals.

Fig. 3 (Oxley et al., 2008). Mean blink amplitude in response to all seven startling noises for high supporters and low supporters of socially protective politics. Bars are mean blink amplitudes (in millivolts). Difference of means tests for overall means: t = 1.64, P = 0.10.

But is the startle reflex comparable to the ERN brain wave? Hajcak and Foti (2008) say they're related:
We found that (a) the defensive startle response was larger following errors than following correct responses, and (b) the magnitude of the ERN predicted the degree of startle potentiation following errors.
And what about the skin conductance response to aversive vs. neutral pictures? The SCR was recorded in another experiment that showed the participants pictures of bunnies and bloody faces. The conservatives' SCRs to aversive images were larger than those in the liberals, but the two groups were comparable for the nonthreatening images. How is the SCR related to the ERN? Hajcak (et al., 2004) again:
An enhanced ERN has consistently been observed in anxious subjects and there is some suggestion that the ERN is related to general negative affective experience (NA). The ERN has been source localized to the anterior cingulate cortex-a structure implicated in the regulation of affective, response selection, and autonomic resources. Thus, the findings that autonomic measures and affective distress are related to response monitoring are consistent with anterior cingulate cortex function. ... Results indicate that high NA was associated with significantly greater ERN and error-related SCR...
The only way to reconcile the findings from Oxley et al. (2008) and Amodio et al. (2007) is to postulate that the conservatives in the latter study were unaware of making errors in a very very simple task. Oh, OK, the other explanation is that the group classification schemes used by the two labs are not related.5

I do have a final question on the choice of physiological measures. It appears to be commonplace in the literature for studies to examine how prior presentation of aversive pictures affects the startle response. For example, unlike controls, psychopaths (Justus & Finn, 2007) do not show an enhanced startle to aversive pictures (compared to neutral pictures), while those with borderline personality disorder (Hazlett et al., 2007) show an exaggerated response.

Yet, Oxley et al. looked at these two measures separately. Why? Being more fearful (of certain things) does indeed come with being a xenophobic supporter of socially protective policies, but I would have liked to have learned how the startle response was affected by various pictures, not only of spiders and maggots, but also of undocumented immigrants and gay wedding scenes. But, I think we already know the answer to that question...


1 Oxley et al. (2008) expressly stated that they did not want to use the labels "liberal" or "conservative" -- preferring to describe the more easily startled group as those who
advocate policies that protect the existing social structure from both external (outgroup) and internal (norm-violator) threats.
2 The SciAm article does ask the question:
But what comes first: biology or politics? "It could be working either way," says study author John Alford...
3 See that post for a full list of references, which were removed here for brevity.

4 Or more precisely:
Although the difference was not significant in the bivariate analysis, when the sociodemographic controls were added to better specify the model, the coefficient for blink amplitude was again in the predicted (positive) direction, sizable (standardized regression coefficient = 0.286), and statistically significant (P = 0.03).
5 Amodio et al. simply asked subjects to rate their political attitudes on a -5 (extremely liberal) to +5 (extremely conservative) scale.


Amodio DM, Jost JT, Master SL, Yee CM. (2007). Neurocognitive correlates of liberalism and conservatism. Nature Neurosci. 10:1246-7.

Hajcak G, Foti D. (2008). Errors are aversive: defensive motivation and the error-related negativity. Psychol Sci. 19:103-8.

Hajcak G, McDonald N, Simons RF. (2004). Error-related psychophysiology and negative affect. Brain Cogn. 56:189-97.

Hazlett EA, Speiser LJ, Goodman M, Roy M, Carrizal M, Wynn JK, Williams WC, Romero M, Minzenberg MJ, Siever LJ, New AS. (2007). Exaggerated affect-modulated startle during unpleasant stimuli in borderline personality disorder. Biol Psychiatry 62:250-5.

Justus AN, Finn PR. (2007). Startle modulation in non-incarcerated men and women with psychopathic traits. Pers Individ Dif. 43:2057-2071.

D. R. Oxley, K. B. Smith, J. R. Alford, M. V. Hibbing, J. L. Miller, M. Scalora, P. K. Hatemi, J. R. Hibbing (2008). Political Attitudes Vary with Physiological Traits. Science, 321 (5896), 1667-1670 DOI: 10.1126/science.1157627

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The pseudonymous ‘quant bloggers’

While writing the previous post, this article in the October 2008 issue of the Journal of Medical Hypotheses caught my eye:


Figureheads, ghost-writers and pseudonymous quant bloggers: The recent evolution of authorship in science publishing

Bruce G. Charlton, Editor-in-Chief–Medical Hypotheses


Traditionally, science has been published only under the proper names and postal addresses of the scientists who did the work. This is no longer the case, and over recent decades science authorship has fundamentally changed its character. At one extreme, prestigious scientists writing from high status institutions are used as mere figureheads to publish research that has been performed, analyzed and ‘ghost-written’ by commercial organizations. At the other extreme ‘quant bloggers’ are publishing real science with their personal identity shielded by pseudonyms and writing from internet addresses that give no indication of their location or professional affiliation. Yet the paradox is that while named high status scientists from famous institutions are operating with suspect integrity (e.g. covertly acting as figureheads) and minimal accountability (i.e. failing to respond to substantive criticism); pseudonymous bloggers – of mostly unknown identity, unknown education or training, and unknown address – are publishing interesting work and interacting with their critics on the internet. And at the same time as ‘official’ and professional science is increasingly timid careerist and dull; the self-organized, amateur realm of science blogs displays curiosity, scientific motivation, accountability, responsibility – and often considerable flair and skill. Quant bloggers and other internet scientists are, however, usually dependent on professional scientists to generate databases. But professional science has become highly constrained by non-scientific influences: increasingly sluggish, rigid, bureaucratic, managerial, and enmeshed with issues of pseudo-ethics, political correctness, public relations, politics and marketing. So it seems that professional science needs the quant bloggers. One possible scenario is that professional scientists may in future continue to be paid to do the plodding business of generating raw data (dull work that no one would do unless they were paid); but these same professional scientists (functioning essentially as either project managers or technicians) may be found to lack the boldness, flair, sheer ‘smarts’ or genuine interest in the subject to make sense of what they have discovered. Some branches of future science may then come to depend on a swarm of gifted ‘amateurs’ somewhat like the current quant bloggers; for analysis and integration of their data, for understanding its implications, and for speculating freely about the potential applications.

The Neurocritic is not a pseudonymous quant blogger, but here's Charlton's list:
Steve Sailer’s iSteve Blog

Gene expression


Half Sigma

The Audacious Epigone

Engram. Back Talk

La Griffe du Lion

Climate Audit
All you pseudonymous ‘quant bloggers’ out there -- How do you feel about being on this list? The author makes some interesting points, but the editorial appears in his journal of Ejaculation and Nasal Decongestion...

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More Truly, Truly Outrageous Medical Hypotheses

For the gift that keeps on giving, peruse the table of contents for the August 2008 issue of the Journal of Medical Hypotheses. Neurotopia (version 2.0) did, and the result is:
Screw the sudafed: When your nose ain't great, masturbate!

I'm starting to think it must be a LOT of fun to be the editor of the Journal of Medical Hypotheses. First there was the one about groaning and hyperventilation decreasing blood to the cortex and enhancing the sexual experience, and now this...

Zarrintan, S "Ejaculation as a potential treatment of nasal congestion in mature males" The Journal of Medical Hypotheses, 71(2), 2008.

Oh man, this one's so good I almost just want to quote it verbatim. But I won't.

But I will (Zarrintan 2008, page 308):
The emission phase of the ejaculatory reflex is under control of the sympathetic nervous system, while the ejaculatory phase is under control of a spinal reflex at the level of the spinal nerves S2-4 via the pudendal nerve. A refractory period succeeds the ejaculation, in which the sympathetic nervous system counteracts the effects of the parasympathetic nervous system. As it is seen, ejaculation can be used as a potential treatment of nasal congestion because its emission phase provides a sympathetic stimulation and subsequent vasoconstriction and nasal decongestion.
Even better is a letter in reply to this fabulous article, as noted by The Lay Scientist:
WARNING: Ejaculation as a Treatment for Nasal Congestion is Inconvenient, Unreliable and Potentially Hazardous!

...the journal has now published a letter by Mohammad Fakhree angrily rejecting the claims, in the prelude to what could be the biggest medical controversy since MMR.

...Fakhree is far from convinced, citing a whole range of objections.

"First notable thing is that the process which leads to ejaculation makes significant changes in blood pressure and heart rate which can be as harmful as decongestants side effects."

Basically, you need to be fit. You don't want to end up like the stereotypical older guy who's shagged to death by his nubile younger lover. Especially if you don't even get the shagging part beforehand. That would suck. It's not even dignified... imagine how you'd be found?

Another consideration is that, in some males there are limitations in the number of ejaculation per day and also between two ejaculations.

I suspect, actually, that applies to all males. It's a penis, not a machine gun.

Furthermore there are some limitations in using of ejaculation or masturbation as treatment of nasal congestion such as not being applicable out of home and not having any sex partner.

Frankly, it's news to me that I needed to have a sex partner for masturbation, that kind of being the whole point of Britain's #1 hobby in the first place. If I was with a "sex partner", then I would be having sex.
What an epic battle of scientific titans! But as an astute commenter noted:
Having read both articles, I noticed that both Zarrintan and Fakhree are from the same city (perhaps the same university)! Which leads me to think whether this little handbag fight may in fact be a lovers' squabble?

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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Jumping Into the Encephalon

Encephalon 54 at Neurophilosophy.

Dive right in.

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Monday, September 15, 2008

Sarah Palin, Sarah Palin

"And I can see Russia from my house."

The incomparable Tina Fey as Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live.

Palin / Hillary Open - Gov. Palin and Senator Clinton address the nation.

It's almost as hilarious as her interview with Charlie Gibson:

CG: Do you agree with the Bush Doctrine?

SP: In what respect, Charlie?

So you might forgive for running an article with this gaffe:

Live from New York... it's Tina Fey as Sarah Palin

Updated Sun. Sep. 14 2008 1:53 PM ET

The Associated Press

NEW YORK -- Live from New York ... it's Tina Fey as Gov. Sarah Palin.

After wild conjecture over whom would play Sen. John McCain's running mate on "Saturday Night Live," Fey returned to her old show for an opening sketch featuring her and Fey's former "Weekend Update" co-host Amy Poehler as Sen. Hillary Clinton.

The NBC comedy show's season premiere opened Saturday with a "nonpartisan message" where the two pleaded for an end to sexism in the presidential campaigns -- which have seen Palin enjoy sudden popularity after Clinton's loss to Sen. Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination.

Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin (right) and comedian Tina Fey are seen in this combination image.

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Friday, September 12, 2008

Jumping Into the Salon on Cerebral Asymmetry and Sexual Orientation

In an article from, neurologist and novelist Dr. Robert A. Burton interviews1 fellow neurologist and "sometimes controversial gay activist"2 Dr. Jerome Goldstein about a recent study on gay brains and straight brains. The primary finding of the Savic and Lindström (2008) paper was that on measures of cerebral asymmetry and amygdalar connectivity, gay men were similar to straight women, and gay women were similar to straight men. The authors attributed these differences to alterations in sex hormones during fetal or postnatal development. They ruled out genetic factors, because...
...the current view is that they may play a role in male homosexuality, but they seem to be insignificant for female homosexuality. Genetic factors, therefore, appear less probable as the major common denominator for all group differences observed here.
They also ruled out environmental factors after brushing off the caveats:
Cerebral maturation continues after puberty, especially in boys, providing a substrate for effects of social/environmental factors. However, to attribute such effects to the present results would require a detailed comprehension of how specific environmental factors relate to the four groups investigated, and how they affect various cerebral circuits. In the light of currently available information this can only be speculative.
The article in Salon takes a strongly biological stance on homosexuality, as we'll see in a moment.

Born that gay

Do recent neurological studies prove once and for all that homosexuality is biological?

by Robert Burton

Sept. 12, 2008 | As the accuracy and resolution of brain imaging improve, we can expect virtually all behavior to be shown to be associated with demonstrable brain changes. It shouldn't come as a surprise that imaging studies of sexual orientation are increasingly revealing anatomic and functional differences between "straight" and "gay" brains. But demonstrating such changes doesn't answer the age-old question of how much our sexual preferences are innate and how much they are fueled by environmental exposure, cultural norms and conscious personal choices.

One way to distinguish the effects of nature from nurture would be to look at brain regions believed by neuro-anatomists to be fully formed at birth and impervious to subsequent environmental effects, both physical and psychological.
The problem with this approach is that functional connectivity of the human amygdala does not seem to be fully formed at birth. Instead, it appears to be rather plastic and influenced by things like personality dimensions and whether one is looking at faces with angry or neutral expressions (Passamonti et al, 2008). Furthermore, one can review the PTSD literature to see how life experiences can alter amygdala connectivity.

Thus, some observers were skeptical:

While the results were striking, they would be more convincing if the authors had matched the groups for IQ, education and measures of depression and anxiety, said Suzanne Corkin, a professor of behavioral neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology... Also, the authors are "overly dismissive'' of the potential role of environmental influences, Corkin said.

"In short, I would be reluctant to draw strong conclusions about heterosexual versus homosexual brain structure and connectivity from this single experiment,'' Corkin said. She wasn't involved in the study.

Back to Salon. Goldstein gives an overview of previous studies on the biological basis of homosexuality before examining the latest findings.

You've seen the studies. How impressive are the differences?

There are obvious-to-the-naked-eye differences in cerebral symmetry and in the functional connections in various portions of the limbic system, including the differing degrees of connectivity between amygdala and other brain regions critical for emotional responsiveness. It's as though you can actually see the brain changes that most gays have always suspected; and, believe me, it's a great relief to realize that these findings are clearly present at birth and aren't anyone's "fault." They simply are [present] in the same way that one has blue eyes or red hair. No more and no less.

In fact, there is absolutely no evidence that these differences were present at birth. In order to prove that, one would need to do a prospective neuroimaging study in newborn infants, then wait until puberty or young adulthood to assess sexual orientation.

As with all functional-brain-imaging studies, there is the very real problem of interpretation. Is it possible that the Savic studies are less than conclusive?

I've read some of the critiques. But to me, the statistical significance of her studies is beyond question. As to absolute proof, only time will tell.

See Jumping Into "The Fray" on Cerebral Asymmetry and Sexual Orientation for details on some of the methodological shortcomings.

Illustration by Fausto Fernós [slightly edited from the original]


1 For a recent interview with Burton, see Five minutes with Robert Burton by Dr. Vaughan Bell of Mind Hacks.

2 Burton described Goldstein that way in the article. The first question of the interview was "Jerry, you've been an outspoken gay activist for 40-plus years. Why the sudden interest in the biology of sexual orientation?" Goldstein answers by recounting some painful personal experiences of guilt and prejudice in his youth.


Savic I, Lindström P. (2008). PET and MRI show differences in cerebral asymmetry and functional connectivity between homo- and heterosexual subjects. PNAS 105: 9403-9408.

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Saturday, September 06, 2008

Pain & Paintings: Beholding Beauty Reduces Pain Perception and Laser Evoked Potentials

-Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2

Neuroesthetics, a term coined by Semir Zeki, is "the attempt to use neuroscience to understand art and aesthetic behaviour" (as defined in an excellent overview by BRAINETHICS). Some would say the venture is anathema, that reductionistic explanations of the sublime are misguided at best and destructive at worst. Others hold that since all qualia emanate from the brain, a neuroscientific approach is the only true way to understand aesthetic experience.

Here's an early manifesto on neuroesthetics and visual art:

Credo (manifesto of physiological facts)

All visual art must obey the laws of the visual system.

The first law is that an image of the visual world is not impressed upon the retina, but assembled together in the visual cortex. Consequently, many of the visual phenomena traditionally attributed to the eye actually occur in the cortex. Among these is visual motion.

The second law is that of the functional specialization of the visual cortex, by which we mean that separate attributes of the visual scene are processed in geographically separate parts of the visual cortex, before being combined to give a unified and coherent picture of the visual world.

The third law is that the attributes that are separated, and separately processed, in the cerebral cortex are those which have primacy in vision. These are colour, form, motion and, possibly, depth. It follows that motion is an autonomous visual attribute, separately processed and therefore capable of being separately compromised after brain lesions. It is also one of the visual attributes that have primacy, just like form or colour or depth.

We conclude that it is this separate visual attribute which those involved in kinetic art have tried to exploit, instinctively and physiologically, from which it follows that in their explorations artists are unknowingly exploring the organization of the visual brain though with techniques unique to them.

-S. Zeki and M. Lamb (1994), The Neurology of Kinetic Art (PDF).
The above passage serves as background to an exploration of how visual art can literally affect our bodies. A new paper by Tommaso et al. (2008) used the methods of neuroesthetics to examine whether the act of viewing beautiful art (as individually defined by each participant) would reduce the perception of pain as well as its physiological manifestations.

An earlier paper by Kawabata and Zeki (2004) studied the neural correlates of beauty. Prior to getting scanned,
each subject viewed 300 paintings for each painting category that were reproductions viewed on a computer monitor. Each painting was given a score, on a scale from 1 to 10. Scores of 1–4 were classified as "ugly," 5–6 "neutral," and 7–10 "beautiful." Each subject thus arrived at an independent assessment of beautiful, ugly, and neutral paintings. Paintings classified as beautiful by some were classified as ugly by others and vice versa with the consequence that any individual painting did not necessarily belong in the same category for different subjects. Based on these psychophysical tests, a total of 16 stimuli in each category (abstract, still life, landscape, or portrait) were viewed by subjects in the scanner... However, in the ugly and beautiful categories, only paintings classified as 1–2 and 9–10, respectively, were viewed in the scanner, whereas for paintings classified as neutral, paintings belonging to both categories 5 and 6 were viewed.
In the scanner, the participants performed the same aesthetic rating task. Paintings rated as beautiful were associated with greater activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex (when compared to ugly or neutral paintings). Additional activations were observed in anterior cingulate cortex and left parietal cortex for the beautiful vs. neutral contrast.

Adapted from Fig. 3 (Kawabata & Zeki, 2004). Statistical parametric maps rendered onto a standard brain showing judgment-specific activity in comparisons of (A) beautiful vs. ugly, and (B) beautiful vs. neutral. (A) shows medial orbito-frontal cortex only (Talairach coordinates –2, 36, –22). (B) medial orbito-frontal cortex (–2, 50, –20), anterior cingulate gyrus (–4, 48, 14) and left parietal cortex (–54, –68, 26).

In their study on beauty and pain, Tammaso and colleagues used the aesthetic rating methods of Kawabata and Zeki (2004) to classify the set of paintings for each participant. Several days after the rating task, the 12 subjects participated in an EEG experiment. Brain waves were recorded while they not only viewed the paintings, but also while a laser delivered unpleasantly hot stimuli to their hands.
Cutaneous heat stimuli were delivered on the dorsum of the left hand. ... The location of impact on the skin was adjusted slightly between two successive stimuli to avoid nociceptor sensitization and fatigue. A laser (7.5 W) was used in each case, with a duration of 25 ms. The subjects were requested to rate the quality of sensation (pain rating: PR) after each series of stimuli on a visual analogue scale (VAS) where 0 indicated no pain in white, increasing in a gradual scale of reds to 100, which indicated the worst possible pain.
So the subjects rated their level of pain on a visual analogue scale while looking at the various paintings and getting fried with a laser. Presentation of the painful stimuli evoked a specific type of EEG response, called laser evoked potentials (LEPs). A sequence of three LEPs were recorded in rapid succession, within the first 400 milliseconds after laser stimulation. These responses are called the N1, N2 and P2 potentials.
The first LEP component commonly identified is the N1, a negativity that is seen in temporal EEG-leads at about 150 ms following the laser stimulus (or later, depending on the type of laser). Its generator has been localized in the operculoinsular cortex, and this component has been demonstrated to be involved in focussed attention or spatial discrimination. The second is a large positive-negative complex named N2–P2 with its maximum amplitude at the vertex, generating from the posterior zone of the anterior cingulate cortex and expressing the variations in arousal and emotive reaction against pain.
Remarkably, the P2 potential was smaller when participants were viewing beautiful paintings, and their subjective pain ratings were lower than in the other conditions (baseline, neutral, ugly). The figure below shows LEPs from electrodes placed on the scalp over frontal, central, and parietal midline regions, and over the right temporal lobe.

Fig. 3 (Tommaso et al., 2008). Grand average of LEPs obtained by stimulation of the left hand in the different experimental phases. The Fz, Cz, Pz and contralateral temporal (T4) recordings are shown. Compared with the baseline condition, the amplitude of the vertex N2–P2 component is smaller while viewing beautiful pictures. No changes were observed in the middle-latency N1 amplitude throughout the experiment.

The authors concluded that
aesthetic perception can affect subjective sensation and pain-related cortical responses. It is generally accepted that distraction produces analgesia (Johnson, 2005). The present study revealed that there is a different effect of distraction on pain depending on the type of distracting stimulus used. The vision of beautiful images seemed to have the maximum distractive effect from pain, as is shown by the lower subjective pain rating and the inhibition of pain-related evoked responses.
Beauty is not only in the eye of the beholder, it modulates pain-related activity in the anterior cingulate cortex.1


1 Although the activity of the ACC was increased in the beautiful vs. neutral contrast of Kawabata and Zeki but reduced by beauty during painful laser stimulation, the precise regions might be different in the two studies.


Kawabata H, Zeki S. (2004 ). Neural correlates of beauty. J Neurophysiol. 91:1699-705.

M TOMMASO, M SARDARO, P LIVREA (2008). Aesthetic value of paintings affects pain thresholds. Consciousness and Cognition DOI: 10.1016/j.concog.2008.07.002

Zeki S, Lamb M. (1994). The neurology of kinetic art. Brain 117:607-36.

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Monday, September 01, 2008

Wrigley-Funded Study Finds Chewing Gum May Help Reduce Stress

In other news, a study funded by Smith & Wesson finds shooting guns may help reduce stress.

New research finds chewing gum may help reduce stress

WHAT: "An investigation into the effects of gum chewing on mood and cortisol levels during psychological stress," to be presented at the 2008 10th International Congress of Behavioral Medicine, found that chewing gum helped relieve anxiety, improve alertness and reduce stress among individuals in a laboratory setting.* The study examined whether chewing gum is capable of reducing induced anxiety and/or acute psychological stress while participants performed a battery of 'multi-tasking' activities. The use of chewing gum was associated with higher alertness, reduced anxiety and stress, and improvement in overall performance on multi-tasking activities.

WHO: Andrew Scholey, Ph.D., professor of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Swinburne University in Melbourne, Australia led the research study and can discuss the effect of chewing gum on stress relief and focus and concentration.

Gilbert Leveille, Ph.D., executive director, Wrigley Science Institute, will also be available to discuss research on the benefits of chewing gum related to stress relief and alertness and concentration in addition to other areas including weight management and oral health.

. . .

*Scholey, Andrew. An investigation into the effects of gum chewing on mood and cortisol levels during psychological stress. 10th International Congress of Behavioral Medicine. Tokyo, Japan. August 2008.

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