Monday, April 27, 2009

Twitter as an Incubator of Swine Flu Misinformation


Randall Munroe is not that far off... Foreign Policy's net.effect blog is one of many blogs with a story about this:
Swine flu: Twitter's power to misinform

Sat, 04/25/2009 - 5:56pm

Who knew that swine flu could also infect Twitter? Yet this is what appears to have happened in the last 24 hours, with thousands of Twitter users turning to their favorite service to query each other about this nascent and potentially lethal threat as well as to share news and latest developments from Mexico, Texas, Kansas and New York (you can check most recent Twitter updates on the subject by searching for “swine flu” and “swineflu”). And despite all the recent Twitter-enthusiasm about this platform's unique power to alert millions of people in decentralized and previously unavailable ways, there are quite a few reasons to be concerned about Twitter's role in facilitating an unnecessary global panic about swine flu.

. . .

However, in the context of a global pandemic – where media networks are doing their best to spice up an already serious threat – having millions of people wrap up all their fears into 140 characters and blurt them out in the public might have some dangerous consequences, networked panic being one of them. If you think that my concerns about context are overblown, here are just a few status updates from random Twitter users that would barely make you calmer (or more informed) about what's going on:

I'm concerned about the swine flu outbreak in us and mexico could it be germ warfare? (link)

In the pandemic Spanish Flu of 1918-19, my Grandfather said bodies were piled like wood in our local town....SWINE FLU = DANGER (link)

Good grief this swine flu thing is getting serious. 8/9 specimens tested were prelim positive in NYC. so that's Tx, Mexico and now Nyc. (link)

Short Ribs! How long before the Swine Flu hysteria crashes the pork market? 2 hours? 3? (link)

be careful of the swine flu!!!! (may lead to global epidemic) Outbreak in Mexico. 62 deaths so far!! Don't eat pork from Mexico!! (link)

Swine flu? Wow. All that pork infecting people....beef and chicken have always been meats of choice (link)


Be careful...Swine Flu is not only in Mexico now. 8 cases in the States. Pig = Don't eat (link)

Don't follow that crowd, follow @CDCEmergency instead:
Swine flu - 40 confirmed cases. New York count now at 28. confirmed cases of swine flu in U.S. 1 hospitalized. All have fully recovered. #swineflu
about 20 hours ago from web

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Friday, April 24, 2009

"All I need is a TV show..."

A Warm TV Can Drive Away Feelings of Loneliness & Rejection

Studies find that illusionary relationships with TV characters can give us real pleasure

Release Date: April 22, 2009

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Not all technology meets human needs, and some technologies provide only the illusion of having met your needs.

But new research by psychologists at the University at Buffalo and Miami University, Ohio, indicates that illusionary relationships with the characters and personalities on favorite TV shows can provide people with feelings of belonging, even in the face of low self esteem or after being rejected by friends or family members.

The findings are described in four studies published in the current issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology [Derrick et al., 2009].
However, after some sleuthing to uncover the classical literature on the topic, I've discovered that Rutherford et al. (1980) described this phenomenon nearly 30 years ago:

You're just another face that I know from the TV show
I have known you for so very long I feel you like a friend
Can't you do anything for me, can I touch you for a while
Can I meet you on another day and we will fly away

Turn It On Again
------Rutherford et al. 1980

Derrick et al., 2009 replicated this finding in a series of four experiments, all of which supported the Social Surrogacy Hypothesis, i.e.,
...that parasocial relationships provided by television programs can yield the experience of belonging. Specifically, we drew three primary predictions from the Social Surrogacy Hypothesis. If favorite television programs can yield the experience of belonging, we hypothesized that (1) events that typically elicit belongingness needs (e.g., threats to a relationship, a rejection experience) would elicit a desire to experience a favored television program, (2) thinking about a favored television program could buffer against threats to real-world belongingness, and (3) thinking about a favored television program should reduce the accessibility of loneliness related concepts.
In Study 1, 701 college students completed the lonely activities scale and the likelihood of feeling lonely scale. These scales were developed for the current study by asking 12 other undergraduates to list non-social activities that people might do when they feel lonely. A final list of 31 activities was given to the larger group, who were asked to rate the items on a scale of 1 (would definitely not do) to 7 (definitely would do). The top six items were:
  • Listen to music – a particular CD/tape
  • Watch television – a favorite TV program
  • Sleep
  • Surf the web
  • Eat
  • Exercise
Participants were also asked to rate their likeliness of feeling lonely when doing these activities, on the same 7 point scale. And not surprisingly (since we already know that all of the experiments supported the hypothesis), people felt significantly less lonely when watching TV.

Of course, this result was only correlational in nature, so Study 2 manipulated "belongingness needs". Half of the participants were asked to write an essay about a fight with a close other, and the other half were asked to list as many items at home as they could remember. I would have suggested a better neutral essay-writing condition than the residental list, along with a condition to deliberately reduce "belongingness needs" (like an essay about an enjoyable shared experience with a close other). But then again, I'm not a social psychologist, so what do I know?

After the first writing exercise, subjects were asked to write another essay about watching either a favorite show, or whatever was on at the time.
Participants in the Favored condition wrote about a time they watched their favorite television program, describing it in as much detail as possible. Participants in the Control condition wrote about a time when they had watched “whatever was on” television, describing it in as much detail as possible. Participants were asked to describe as much as they could about the content of the program and their experience watching it. Length of time writing this Parasocial essay served as the primary dependent measure.
Lo and behold, the predicted Belongingness Needs × Parasocial Essay interaction was obtained:

Fig. 1 (Derrick et al., 2009). Length of time spent writing television essay as a function of social needs condition and type of television program.

Study 3 was nearly identical to Study 2, except the Parasocial Essay component was limited to 6 min, and the dependent measures were self-esteem, mood, and feelings of rejection. Again, the predicted Belongingness Needs × Parasocial Essay interactions were obtained for state self-esteem, mood, and a trend for feelings of rejection.

Now the authors need to extend these findings to actually watching a favorite vs. a random TV show, instead of just thinking about watching.

See also:

TV Relieves Loneliness

Does Your TV Give You the Warm Fuzzies?


Derrick, J., Gabriel, S., & Hugenberg, K. (2009). Social surrogacy: How favored television programs provide the experience of belonging. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45 (2), 352-362. DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2008.12.003

Rutherford M, Collins P, Banks T. (1980). Turn It On Again. Duke.

All I need is a TV show, that and the radio
Down on my luck again, down on my luck again
I can show you I can show you some of the people in my life
I can show you I can show you some of the people in my life
It's driving me mad just another way of passing the day
I, I get so lonely when she's not there

Turn It On Again
------Rutherford et al. 1980

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Monday, April 20, 2009

Neural Correlates of Admiration and Compassion and Envy and Schadenfreude

In light of all the sensationalistic press coverage about a journal article that wasn't publicly available last week, it's worth taking a moment to look at the actual experiment. Of course, the savvy skeptics know by now that the paper in question (Immordino-Yang et al., 2009) has absolutely nothing to do with Twitter (see Recommended Reading below for a recap). Instead, the authors conducted a neuroimaging study to examine the brain's response to stories designed to elicit the emotions of admiration and compassion. To do this, the participants (n=13) first watched a series of mini-documentary narratives about real people (who were not celebrities). Each of the 50 narratives was 60-90 sec long, and incorporated audio, video, and still images to convey stories categorized as:

1. Admiration for virtue (AV), which involved people performing highly virtuous, morally admirable acts. The narratives emphasized the virtuous and morally admirable nature of the protagonist, such as dedication to an important cause despite difficult obstacles, and did not include displays of notable skill.

2. Admiration for skill (AS), which involved people adeptly performing rare and difficult feats, e.g., an athletic or musical performance, with both physical and cognitive components. No physically or socially painful acts were shown, and the skillful feats, although amazing, did not imply a virtuous protagonist or reveal a virtuous act.

3. Compassion for social pain (CSP), which involved people in states of grief, despair, social rejection, or other difficult psychological circumstances. No physical pain was evident in these narratives, and the troubling circumstances were discerned from the descriptions, rather than being apparent in the images shown.

4. Compassion for physical pain (CPP), which involved people sustaining a physical injury. The injuries were caused by sports and other mishaps and had no moral or social implications. The injuries were not the result of malevolence, and the participants were reassured that the injuries had no long-term implications....

5. Control narratives, which involved comparable living, mentally competent people engaged in or discussing how they felt about typical activities under commonplace social circumstances. These circumstances were engaging but not emotion provoking.
After each of the narratives, the subjects were asked to discuss how they felt about the protagonist's situation. This part of the study took 2 hrs, and was conducted outside the scanner. For the fMRI portion of the protocol, 5 sec recaps of all 50 scenarios were presented, and the task was to:
induce in themselves for each story, as strongly as possible, a similar emotional state to the one they had experienced during the preparation session and to push a button to indicate the strength of the emotion they achieved in the scanner (from 1 to 4...). Participants were asked to report candidly on the strength of their current feelings in the scanner, rather than on the strength of feeling they remembered from the preparation session.
OK, so the subjects were first asked to remember how they felt 2 hrs ago, then try to duplicate that feeling, and then report on how they feel now (rather than before). So there's a memory component and a decision component (i.e., to not confuse past feelings with the present). Each trial was sorted post hoc on the strength of the reported emotion, and only the effective trials were included in the analysis.

The comparisons of interest were pain (compassion) vs. non-pain (admiration), and emotional responses to other peoples’ social/psychological conditions (AV, CSP) vs. to their physical conditions (AS, CPP). One of the first issues discussed is the recruitment of homeostatic mechanisms when experiencing these social emotions:
It is well known that basic emotions such as fear, sadness, and happiness and limited social emotions such as moral indignation engage neural systems concerned with sensing and regulating body function with varying patterns, and it has been hypothesized that among those systems, the insula plays an especially prominent role. It is also known that engagement of social emotions and the consequent feeling for another’s social/psychological situation are described by poets and lay people alike in visceral and bodily terms and in terms of their heightening effect on one’s own self-awareness or consciousness.
Basically, people may have visceral responses to the circumstances of others. How do these responses differ across physical vs. psychological situations? For example, admiring a gymnast's skill on the balance beam vs. admiring a student's charity work with Habitat for Humanity? Or feeling compassion for a single mother who loses her job vs. feeling compassion for one who sprains her ankle? Although it's not mentioned in the paper, this idea draws on Antonio Damasio's somatic marker hypothesis (e.g., Damasio, 1996). Perhaps this omission occurred because two of the main regions implicated -- the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC) and the amygdala -- were not discussed in the paper [however VMPFC is difficult to image using fMRI because of susceptibility artifacts]. The somatic marker hypothesis is succinctly described by the title of one of Damasio's books: The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness (1999).

Other components in the somatic marker circuit include the insular cortex, a region implicated in interoceptive awareness of bodily states (Craig, 2009), and somatosensory cortices responsive to external stimuli. Because activity in the anterior insula features primarily in the Twitter-warped distortion of the story, I'll start here with the authors' third hypothesis:
3. that activation in the anterior insula would peak and dissipate more quickly for CPP than for CSP or varieties of admiration.
In a way, this is a trivial prediction, because one can evaluate the sprained ankle narrative more quickly than the job loss scenario. In fact, I will argue below that simple behavioral response time might be a more precise measure of how long it takes to generate the emotion in question than is the hemodynamic response (blood flow changes, measured by the BOLD signal in fMRI) in the insular cortex. One reason for this is because of the significant delay (5-6 sec at least) between initial neural firing and the peak of the hemodynamic response, which is estimated using a procedure that is not trivial for something as complex as an emotional response (for a more detailed discussion of this issue, I recommend this PPT file from Jodi Culham's excellent fMRI 4 Newbies site).

Let's start with a simpler example. The figure below shows the averaged hemodynamic response function (HRF) in the primary visual cortex to a series of flashes. The HRF peaks at ~5 sec after the flash, whereas neurons in primary visual cortex fire within 50 msec and drop off shortly thereafter. Thus, the hemodynamic response to even a simple sensory stimulus lags behind neuronal firing by 5 sec.

Fig. 2 (Calhoun et al., 1998). Time courses from four regions in the calcarine cortex (Pl-P4) and the averaged response (CIRQ). Amplitude units are normalized to a maximum of one and a baseline of zero.

The next example shows the HRFs in occipital regions and the insula while subjects viewed rotating objects. The precise details aren't important here, but note the peak latency for the HRF in the insula is around 6-8 sec, with the later peak for novel objects (compared to repeated objects).

Fig 2C (Weigelt et al., 2007). Event-related deconvolved BOLD fMRI responses (GLM parameter estimates averaged across trials and subjects for all voxels in each ROI) reported against time for each of the experimental conditions.

That brings us back to Immordino-Yang et al. and the emotional narratives. In the figure below, note that the HRF time course does peak earlier for the CPP condition compared to the others, as predicted. However, the CSP condition rises at the same time, albeit with a later (very broad) peak.

Fig. 3 (Immordino-Yang et al., 2009). Event-related averages for the time courses of admiration and compassion in the anterior insula, with standard errors. Units are percentage change in BOLD signal and time in seconds; time courses are not corrected for hemodynamic delay. For display purposes, BOLD data have been linearly interpolated to 1-s resolution. The volume of interest is displayed in pink. Conditions: AV (green): admiration for virtue; AS (yellow): admiration for skill; CSP (blue): compassion for social pain; CPP (red): compassion for physical pain. Note the rapid rise and dissipation of CPP versus the slower and more sustained rise of CSP, AV, and AS.

It's critical to note that the onset of a felt emotion is not as easy to determine as the onset of a visual object. Although more detailed methods are in the Supplementary Materials not available as of this writing, it seems that respiration and heart rate data were obtained in 7 of the 13 subjects to help with this. I would say these psychophysiological responses, in concert with the participants' own reaction times for rating their subjective responses, would provide a more accurate measure of how long it takes to feel an emotion than the fMRI data. It's hard to know what an insular HRF of 6 sec vs. 10 sec means when watching a fast-paced movie or reading the CNN news crawl or yes, spending too much time on Twitter. Nonetheless, on the basis of these imprecise latency measures, the authors speculate:
If replicated, this finding could have important implications for the role of culture and education in the development and operation of social and moral systems; in order for emotions about the psychological situations of others to be induced and experienced, additional time may be needed for the introspective processing of culturally shaped social knowledge. The rapidity and parallel processing of attention-requiring information, which hallmark the digital age, might reduce the frequency of full experience of such emotions, with potentially negative consequences.
And there's your "Twitter is evil" angle.

I'll leave you with this final thought: where's the line between admiration and envy, between compassion and schadenfreude? There actually is a recent paper on the Neural Correlates of Envy and Schadenfreude (Takahashi et al., 2009), and for now I'll refer you to this nice summary in Pure Pedantry.

ADDENDUM (Monday 4:20 PM): You can read more details about the Methods in the Supporting Information, which is now freely available to all on the PNAS website, as is the open access article itself.

Recommended Twitter Reading:

Social media threats hyped by science reporting, not science (Ars Technica)

Experts say new scientific evidence helpfully justifies massive pre-existing moral prejudice. (Bad Science)

For the last time: that "Twitter is Evil" paper is not about Twitter! (Bioephemera)

Is Twitter evil? (Cosmic Log at MSNBC - despite the ridiculous headline, it's one of the few popular science articles to talk about the actual study... it even included a figure from the paper)

The Neurology of Twitter (The Neurocritic proposes an actual fMRI study of Twitter, complete with predicted results)

The Neurology of Twitter, Part 2 (Yet another recap of the media circus, with a time line of certain events)


Craig AD. How do you feel--now? The anterior insula and human awareness. (2009). Nat Rev Neurosci. 10:59-70.

Damasio AR. (1996). The somatic marker hypothesis and the possible functions of the prefrontal cortex. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 351:1413-20.

Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, Andrea McColl, Hanna Damasio, and Antonio Damasio. (2009). Neural correlates of admiration and compassion. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Neurology of Twitter, Part 2

You think you've already seen the worst coverage of the "Twitter makes you amoral" scare [with a BONUS! overblown sound byte from the first author]...
Scientists warn of Twitter dangers

  • Story Highlights
  • USC study says rapid-fire Twitter and news updates are too fast for brain
  • Scans show humans respond rapidly to pain, but not compassion, admiration
  • Scientists say reliance on news snippets could harm moral compass
(CNN) -- Rapid-fire TV news bulletins or getting updates via social-networking tools such as Twitter could numb our sense of morality and make us indifferent to human suffering, scientists say.

New findings show that the streams of information provided by social networking sites are too fast for the brain's "moral compass" to process and could harm young people's emotional development.

Before the brain can fully digest the anguish and suffering of a story, it is being bombarded by the next news bulletin or the latest Twitter update, according to a University of Southern California study.

"If things are happening too fast, you may not ever fully experience emotions about other people's psychological states and that would have implications for your morality," said researcher Mary Helen Immordino-Yang.
But then Bad Science comes along with these gems from the British press:
Facebook and Twitter 'make us bad people'

Using Facebook or Twitter may make you a bad person because it ruins your moral compass, it has been claimed.
[Where did Miles Erwin get that quote? " has been claimed"? by whom?]
Twitter and Facebook could harm moral values, scientists warn

Today's fast-paced media could be making us indifferent to human suffering and should allow time for us to reflect, according to researchers.

They found that emotions linked to moral sense are slow to respond to news and events and have failed to keep up with the modern world.

In the time it takes to fully reflect on a story of anguish and suffering, the news bulletin has already moved on or the next Twitter update is already being read.
[Does anyone know of a rapidly changing Twitter news stream for anguish and suffering?]

Before you can fully process the heartbreak of the German girl not getting the car she wanted, you can fleetingly enjoy the vicarious thrill of being followed by Britney Spears.

And finally we have time-tested scare tactic, corruption of the youth of society:
Twitter can make you immoral, claim scientists

Social networks such as Twitter may blunt people's sense of morality, claim brain scientists.

New evidence shows the digital torrent of information from networking sites could have long-term damaging effects on the emotional development of young people's brains.

A study suggests rapid-fire news updates and instant social interaction are too fast for the 'moral compass' of the brain to process.

The danger is that heavy Twitters and Facebook users could become 'indifferent to human suffering' because they never get time to reflect and fully experience emotions about other people's feelings.
As has been covered elsewhere (The Frontal Cortex, Ars Technica), the connection between Twitter and a journal article entitled Neural correlates of admiration and compassion was originally made by the USC Press office.

That press release has since been changed to have the Tweet this subtitle removed, as well as having one sentence truncated:

Most of the usual regurgitated news outlets have kept the Tweet this: Rapid-fire media may confuse your moral compass headline, but EurekAlert! decided to take the nobler tact with an unacknowledged edit. [If you edit such things after press time, aren't you supposed to acknowledge that, or else change the date? I guess not.]

John Timmer at Ars Technica found some finger-pointing on both sides:
We contacted the press office at USC, which produced the release. The person who prepared the release told us that the authors of the paper had read and approved it prior to its dissemination, which is standard procedure for university press offices. More generally, he said that the broad focus on what the study might say about modern media was the product of the authors' desire to discuss the societal implications of their work.

We also managed to talk briefly with Antonio Damasio, one of the authors of the study who was quoted in the press release. Damasio sounded concerned about the presentation of the work in the press release, and asked for confirmation of its wording. He specifically stated, "I would not have used Twitter," and said that he intended to look over the contents of the press release after he got off the phone.
Maybe they're both right: perhaps the first author (Mary Helen Immordino-Yang) is the one who approved the anti-social-media message. Despite that possibility,

Immordino-Yang did not blame digital media. "It's not about what tools you have, it's about how you use those tools," she said.

Whichever way it happened, Timmer wisely notes:

Overall, it's not clear how the press release wound up straying so far from the scientific content of the paper. It's certainly fair for researchers to consider the social implications of their work, but a different thing entirely to imply that those implications are a direct outcome of rigorous, peer-reviewed research.

I think it's safe to say that the way this research reached the public did nobody any favors. The studies leant themselves to headlines that oversold the underlying research and, given the current attention span, it's likely that many readers never got much past the headline.
He goes on to discuss the lengthy embargo system employed by the journal that published the paper, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), and how a week-long delay between press coverage and access to the article by non-press scientific experts does no one any good. The Neurocritic has complained about PNAS's embargo policy for some time now (for instance, three years ago in The PNAS Word, and more recently here and here).

via Twistori [with some edits].

For the results of a hypothetical (fake) fMRI study of Twitter, read Part 1 in this series: The Neurology of Twitter.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Neurology of Twitter

It was bound to happen. Some neuroimaging lab will conduct an actual fMRI experiment to examine the so-called "Neural Correlates of Twitter" -- so why not write a preemptive blog post to report on the predicted results from such a study, before anyone can publish the actual findings?

For those of you who don't know, Twitter is a social media application that enables microblogging (140 characters or less) and revolutionizes the way that people communicate breaking news, raise funds for worthy causes, and organize meaningful protest movements. Or else it's the refuge of narcissists suffering existential crises of identity who must broadcast their every move in a pathetic attempt to find external validation and meaning in their crushingly boring lives.

We've seen a plethora of posts on the Psychology of Twitter, most notably at Psychology Today (part 1, part 2) and World of Psychology (part 1, part 2). Now, the time for the Neurology of Twitter has arrived! However, Professor Susan Greenfield has beaten me to the punch with her fake data, as quoted below in an alarmist article in the Daily Mail:
Social websites harm children's brains: Chilling warning to parents from top neuroscientist

By David Derbyshire

Last updated at 1:45 AM on 24th February 2009

Social networking websites are causing alarming changes in the brains of young users, an eminent scientist has warned.

Sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Bebo are said to shorten attention spans, encourage instant gratification and make young people more self-centred.

The claims from neuroscientist Susan Greenfield will make disturbing reading for the millions whose social lives depend on logging on to their favourite websites each day.

. . .

Baroness Greenfield, an Oxford University neuroscientist and director of the Royal Institution, believes repeated exposure could effectively 'rewire' the brain.

Computer games and fast-paced TV shows were also a factor, she said.

'We know how small babies need constant reassurance that they exist,' she told the Mail yesterday.

'My fear is that these technologies are infantilising the brain into the state of small children who are attracted by buzzing noises and bright lights, who have a small attention span and who live for the moment.'
Her "fear" is based on sheer speculation without a shred of evidence. Furthermore, other fear mongering reports (PDF) have cherry-picked the existing data to support the hypothesis that Twitter is harmful to your health. So why don't we do an experiment to see exactly what happens to the brain while reading Twitter streams in real time? The purpose and the methods of the study are summarized below.

A low-level baseline condition (viewing "+") and an active baseline condition (reading the public timeline of random tweets from strangers) will be compared to three active conditions:

(1) Celebrity Fluff

(2) Social Media Marketing Drivel

(3) Friends on your Following List

An example of the public timeline on Twitter is illustrated below. The hemodynamic response function to this active control condition will be compared to those from Conditions 1-3 above. Contrasts between each of these conditions and the low-level baseline will also be performed.

The major predicted results are as follows:

Fig. 2A. (Mitchell et al., 2006). A region of ventral mPFC showed greater activation during judgments of the target to whom participants considered themselves to be more similar.

  • Reading the stream of Celebrity Fluff will activate the frontal eye fields to a much greater extent than the control condition, as the participants will be engaged in rolling their eyes in response to the inane banter.

Figure from the wonderful website of Paul Pietsch, PhD (Professor Emeritus, School of Optometry, Indiana University). The frontal eye fields are in a stamp-sized zone at the posterior end of the middle frontal gyri (in both hemsipheres). The latter is part of Brodmann's Area 8. Frontal eye fields play a major role in stepwise and voluntary eye movements known as saccades.

  • Reading the stream of Social Media Marketing Drivel will tax the neural circuits involved in generating a feeling of disgust, including the anterior insula, ventrolateral prefrontal cortex-temporal pole, and putamen-globus pallidus (Mataix-Cols et al., 2008)

Fig. 1A (Jabbi et al., 2008). Coronal slice (y = 18) showing the location of the ROI (white) previously shown to be involved in the experience and observation of disgust.

In conclusion, we predict that the observed patterns of brain activity will be dependent on the nature of the Twitter material being read. These distinct neural networks are expected to reflect the cognitive, emotional, and visceral processes underlying the rapidly changing content of digital media, which ultimately results in "rewiring" of the brain.

Next on The Neurocritic: Ashton Kucher (@aplusk) deconstructs the outrageous headline that Twitter can make you immoral.

But that epic piece will have to wait until PNAS has lifted the embargo on the journal article (Immordino-Yang et al., in press) that inspired the headline (and others too):

Can Twitter Make You Amoral? Rapid-fire Media May Confuse Your Moral Compass

Twitter and Facebook could harm moral values, scientists warn

Tweet this: Rapid-fire media may confuse your moral compass

Citation (from Wired): "Neural correlates of admiration and compassion." By Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, Andrea McColl, Hanna Damasio, and Antonio Damasio. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 106, No. 15, April 13, 2009.

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Friday, April 10, 2009

Silly (and Sexist) Brain Analogies

Do you spend your days thinking about what the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, ventromedial prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate, and limbic system do? Have you ever stayed awake at night wondering where wisdom comes from? Well, now you'll know all the answers, courtesy of this silly 60-Second Science Blog entry, Is wisdom in the brain?
Dilip Jeste describes those regions' roles in wisdom this way: "The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is like a proverbial father: a disciplinarian, cold, calculating, rationale [sic]. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex is probably like a mother: kind, nice, helpful, sociable, emotional. The anterior cingulate is the proverbial uncle who when you have a fight between father and mother, you go to your uncle. The limbic striatum is a friend, a reward system."
OK then. Dr. Jeste gave this interview in response to his recently published review paper with Thomas W. Meeks on the Neurobiology of Wisdom. Mimi Belcher, a postdoc at the MacArthur Law and Neuroscience Project, wasn't particularly fond of either the 60-Second post or Jeste's familial similes/metaphors. Here she's quoted in the Neuroethics & Law Blog:
Although I can appreciate the blog writer's challenge of filling a "60-second science spot" with condensed information, it's frustrating to see that this synthesis takes the form of reducing the description of the science to animistic will-bearing brain structures. Arguably, the responsibility for this dribble resides with the author of the study, who would do well to stick to a description of the science that doesn't incorporate an episode of "All in the Family". But it's ultimately the responsibility of the author of the newspiece (Jordan Lite) to make sure that these soundbites don't occupy the space where proper science writing should occur. As if lay comprehension of neuroscience wasn't already riddled with problems... now we have brain areas starring as members of our very own family.
Although it's certainly not a stellar piece of science journalism [but what can you realistically expect in 60 seconds??], I personally think Jeste's more to blame for this one...

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Money, Money, Money: Gambling and Addiction Conference in Las Vegas

The National Center for Responsible Gaming is sponsoring the 10th Annual NCRG Conference on Gambling and Addiction, to be held at the Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas.

The best things in life are free
But you can give them to the birds and bees
I want money

(That's what I want)
That's what I want
(That's what I want)
That's what I want
(That's what I want)
That's what I want
(That's what I want)

Money (That's What I Want)
----B. Gordy/J. Bradford

Money don't get everything it's true
But what it don't get I can't use
I want money

(That's what I want)
That's what I want
(That's what I want)
That's what I want
(That's what I want)
That's what I want
(That's what I want)

I want money
I want lots of money
In fact I want so much money
Give me your money
Just give me money

Money (That's What I Want)
----Flying Lizards version

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Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The paper formerly known as "Voodoo Correlations in Social Neuroscience"

Voodoo no more!

The paper everyone loves (or loves to hate) has a new name.1 Through a number of channels [The Chronicle of Higher Education via @vaughanbell, Ed Vul's website, and Neuroskeptic], The Neurocritic has learned that the "Voodoo Correlations" have been downgraded to mere "Puzzlingly High Correlations." The field of social neuroscience has been spared as well, because the full title of the paper is now "Puzzlingly High Correlations in fMRI Studies of Emotion, Personality, and Social Cognition" (PDF).

By now, most neuroimagers and cognitive neuroscientists have heard about that controversial (some would say inflammatory) paper by Ed Vul and colleagues, summarized in this post.2 In the article, Vul et al. claimed that over half of the fMRI studies that were surveyed used faulty statistical techniques to analyze their data:
...using a strategy that computes separate correlations for individual voxels, and reports means of just the subset of voxels exceeding chosen thresholds. We show how this non-independent analysis grossly inflates correlations, while yielding reassuring-looking scattergrams. This analysis technique was used to obtain the vast majority of the implausibly high correlations in our survey sample.
Needless to say, authors of the criticized papers were not pleased. Two rebuttals were released online shortly thereafter: one by Jabbi et al. (PDF) -- here's the response to that rebuttal -- and an invited reply by Lieberman et al. (PDF).

That was back in January, after the manuscript had been accepted for publication by Perspectives on Psychological Science in late December 2008. Now [finally], the paper has been officially published in the May 2009 issue of the journal, with an introduction (PDF) by Ed Diener, the editor. Also included are six Commentaries by assorted authors and a Reply to the Commentaries by Vul et al. (PDF).

I haven't had time to read all the commentaries and rebuttals yet, but the Editor's Introduction is worth a quick mention for the issues it raises about peer review and publication in these modern times.

As soon as I accepted the Vul et al. article, I heard from researchers about it. People around the globe saw the article on the Internet, and replies soon appeared as well. Although my plan was to publish the article with commentary, the appearance of the article on the Internet meant that researchers read the article without the accompanying commentaries and replies that I had planned to publish with it.

In some fields such as economics, it is standard practice to widely disseminate articles before they are published, whereas in much of psychology this has been discouraged. An argument in favor of dissemination is that it speeds scientific communication in a fast-paced world where journal publication is often woefully slow. An argument against dissemination of articles before publication is that readers do not have the opportunity to simultaneously see commentary and replies. ... In the Internet age, the issue of prepublication distribution becomes all the more important because an article can reach thousands of readers in a few hours. Given the ability of the Internet to communicate so broadly and quickly, we need greater discussion of this issue.
Bloggers have discussed this specific issue months ago. For example, as noted in Mind Hacks,
The paper was accepted by a peer-reviewed journal before it was released to the public. The idea that something actually has to appear in print before anyone is allowed to discuss it seems to be a little outdated (in fact, was this ever the case?).
And The Neurocritic opined that...
[The aggrieved authors] are not keeping up with the way that scientific discourse is evolving. Citing "in press" articles in the normal academic channels is a frequent event; why should bloggers, some of whom are read more widely than the authors' original papers, refrain from such a practice? Is it the "read more widely" part?
...and in The Voodoo of Peer Review I asked:
Are blogs good or bad for the enterprise of scientific peer review? At present, the system relies on anonymous referees to provide "unbiased" opinions of a paper's (or grant's) merits. For today, the discussion will focus on peer review of papers in scientific journals...

[An] article [in Seed Magazine] begins:
"Few endeavors have been affected more by the tools and evolution of the internet than science publishing. Thousands of journals are available online, and an increasing number of science bloggers are acting as translators, often using lay language to convey complex findings previously read only by fellow experts within a discipline. Now, in the wake of a new paper challenging the methodology of a young field, there is a case study for how the internet is changing the way science itself is conducted."
Really? Maybe that's true for Biological and Social Sciences, but certainly not for Physics, Mathematics, Computer Science, Quantitative Biology, Quantitative Finance and Statistics (see
Diener then raises the point that online bloggers and commenters may be discussing various versions of the manuscript:
Another problem that has arisen in terms of Internet “publication” of the article and the Internet replies is that different individuals will have read different versions of the article. A single reader is unlikely to read more than one version of the article and will therefore often not see later corrections and changes. Furthermore, the commentaries are to some extent replies to different versions of the article and therefore might not be entirely on-target for the final version. This makes it difficult to fully understand the arguments because comments and replies might not be to the most current versions of articles, and it is impossible to fully correct this because the back-and-forth of revisions could continue indefinitely.
So there's never a final version of the article because revisions continue indefinitely?? Or are the accepted and final versions of the manuscript so radically different [why, I might ask] that a discussion of the initially accepted version is misleading? Or instead, is it the online commenters who are "revising" the article ad infinitum? Will Diener's editorial be clarified in a future edition, thus rendering moot my confusion in this particular post?

At any rate, Diener also discusses ethical issues surrounding the questionnaire that Vul et al. distributed to the authors. Some believed they were unwitting participants in Human Subjects research and did not give their informed consent (Diener disagreed). Not surprisingly, the "article tone" was another source of contention, and here Diener agreed to change the original "Voodoo" title. Finally, some of the aggrieved authors disputed the accuracy of the entire paper, suggesting that some (if not all) of their research was incorrectly classified. But in the end, the editor defers to the readers, who will judge the article and comments and form their own opinions.
I believe that the debate can itself stimulate useful discussions about scientific practices and communication. Further discussion of the issues should now take place in journals that are focused on imaging and neuroscience, so that the readers there can judge and benefit from the ensuing discussions.
I believe that further discussion of the issues can also take place on blogs that are focused on imaging and neuroscience. So feel free to discuss at length. Leave your questions and observations in the comments section of this post!


1 See The Voodoo of Peer Review for a preview of this issue.

2 You can also read a quick overview at Scan Scandal Hits Social Neuroscience, and more in-depth commentary in the post Voodoo Schadenfreude. And a comprehensive list of links about the the paper is located here.

Ed Diener (2009). Editor's Introduction to Vul et al. (2009) and Comments. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 4 (3).

Complete List of References

(from PERSPECTIVES ON PSYCHOLOGICAL SCIENCE, Vol. 4, Issue No. 3 · May 2009)

Editor's Introduction to Vul et al. (2009) and Comments
Ed Diener

Puzzlingly High Correlations in fMRI Studies of Emotion, Personality, and Social Cognition
Edward Vul, Christine Harris, Piotr Winkielman, and Harold Pashler

Commentary on Vul et al.'s (2009) "Puzzlingly High Correlations in fMRI Studies of Emotion, Personality, and Social Cognition"
Thomas E. Nichols and Jean-Baptist Poline

Big Correlations in Little Studies: Inflated fMRI Correlations Reflect Low Statistical Power--Commentary on Vul et al. (2009)
Tal Yarkoni

Correlations in Social Neuroscience Aren't Voodoo: Commentary on Vul et al. (2009)
Matthew D. Lieberman, Elliot T. Berkman, and Tor D. Wager

Discussion of "Puzzlingly High Correlations in fMRI Studies of Emotion, Personality, and Social Cognition" by Vul et al. (2009)
Nicole A. Lazar

Correlations and Multiple Comparisons in Functional Imaging: A Statistical Perspective (Commentary on Vul et al., 2009)
Martin A. Lindquist and Andrew Gelman

Understanding the Mind by Measuring the Brain: Lessons From Measuring Behavior (Commentary on Vul et al., 2009)
Lisa Feldman Barrett

Reply to Comments on "Puzzlingly High Correlations in fMRI Studies of Emotion, Personality, and Social Cognition"
Edward Vul, Christine Harris, Piotr Winkielman, and Harold Pashler

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Sunday, April 05, 2009

The Lovely Dr. ARINA K. BONES, PhD Strikes Again!

First, we had the groundbreaking Implicit Association Tests to identify the alien and the dead among us.

Now, Dr. ARINA K. BONES, PhD has presented her latest masterwork Do Social Psychologists Cause Priming Research, or Does Priming Research Cause Social Psychologists? (PDF) at the recent meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. porting in the Brainstorm blog:

For the first study, they submitted dozens of papers on priming research to top social psychology journal. "The absurdity of the findings were intended to prevent the articles from appearing in print." Nevertheless, all were accepted. This submission process was in itself a way to prime the peers acting as reviewers for the journals by exposing them to priming research. It turns out that the psychologists who reviewed the papers produced more subsequent social psychology research than did other psychologists. It appears that priming research may indeed cause social psychologists.

(Identifying the anonymous reviewers presented a hurdle, which Bones and Gosling overcame by analyzing the reviews for self-references and references to the psychologist Roy Baumeister. "Every human has a unique Baumeister/Self-reference (BS) index, providing a linguistic fingerprint," they write.)

I particularly enjoyed the fictitious journal articles...
Table 1: Examples of Made-up Articles

Chartrand, T. L., Dalton, A. N., Fitzsimons, G. J. (2007). Nonconscious relationship reactance: When significant others prime opposing goals. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43,719-726.

Dijksterhuis, A., Preston, J., Wegner, D.M., & Aarts, H. (2008). Effects of subliminal priming of self and God on self-attribution of authorship for events. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44, 2-9.

Weinberger, J., & Westen, D. (2008). RATS, we should have used Clinton: Subliminal stimulation in political campaigns. Political Psych, 29, 631-651.

Hassin, R. R., Ferguson, M. J., Shidlovsky, D., & Gross, T. (2007). Waved by invisible flags: The effects of subliminal exposure to flags on political thought and behavior. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104, 19757-19761.
Data collection is ongoing in Study 2, in which unsuspecting graduate students wear an Unobtrusive Head-Mounted Recorder (EAR) that recites descriptions of priming research at 12 random intervals during the day.

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Thursday, April 02, 2009

Heterotopagnosia: When I point at parts of your body

Heterotopagnosia is an unusual neurological syndrome, as described below by Laurent Cleret de Langavant and colleagues:
Heterotopagnosia is the acquired inability of brain-lesioned patients to point at someone else's body parts when prompted. The cognitive basis of this disorder is unclear. It might result from a biological function deficit critical for communication in human beings; alternatively, it could result from the disruption of a body representation. Here, we report three patients with heterotopagnosia following a recent left parieto-occipital stroke and a previous insular lesion. The patients were tested on their ability to name, point out and grasp several targets including body parts (own, real others’ and figurative others’). Language, visuo-spatial deficits or any confounding neuropsychological disorders were controlled for. We found that the patients erroneously pointed to their own body parts when asked to point at someone else's. Strikingly, their ability to grasp someone else's body parts was largely unimpaired. The dissociation between their grasping and communicative pointing abilities supports the hypothesis that heterotopagnosia is a disorder of communicative function conveyed by pointing but not by grasping. In addition, pointing performance in our patients varied according to the target: the more similar the target was to a real person, the worse the patients’ pointing performance. We suggest that communicative pointing might require a specific representation of the addressee's body and point of view, a heterocentric representation. In the patients described here this phenomenon resulted from a combined insulo-parietal lesion, which may explain why, in contrast to other patients described previously, the heterotopagnosia was long-lasting.
The area of maximum lesion overlap was a region in the left parieto-occipital cortex, as shown in this drawing depicting the area of damage shared by all three patients.

Fig. 3. (Cleret de Langavant et al., 2009). The overlap of the left parieto-occipital junction lesion (Brodmann area 19), common to all three patients. Note that there is no overlap within the insular region for the three patients since COG has a left insular lesion and ROM and BEG a right one.

What can explain this unusual disorder? First, the authors ruled out several possibilities:
The features of heterotopagnosia set this pointing disorder apart from any other known neurological disorder. The patients’ preserved performance in grasping and touching body parts rules out any causal visual or spatial impairment based on the size, type, complexity or componential analysis of the target. Likewise, a language deficit cannot account for the patients’ performance in pointing. The spared ability of patients in naming body parts they cannot point to, their use of possessive and demonstrative grammatical indices and their perfect understanding of pointing exclude a category-specific lexical impairment.
Instead, they suggested the patients exhibited a deficit selective for another person's body, problems with self-referencing behavior, and a dissociation between impaired pointing versus intact grasping/touching. The authors concluded by asking...
...why is pointing interesting if its impairment has no consequences in daily life? We suggest that pointing is a residual function that is fundamental in infant development. It marks the construction of the three-way relationship of communication (self-addressee-object or I-you-he/she/it), as a keystone for the development of language and theory of mind. In adults, its impairment is compensated by abilities that have integrated and supplanted it, leaving intact relationships with others (e.g. verbal communication and knowledge concerning others).
Cleret de Langavant, L., Trinkler, I., Cesaro, P., & Bachoud-Lévi, A. (2009). Heterotopagnosia: When I point at parts of your body. Neuropsychologia DOI: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2009.02.016

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