Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Marc Hauser lecture on morality. Not ironic or anything.

With the recent resignation of prominent Harvard psychology professor Marc Hauser, let's revisit the irony of an expert on morality -- and the author of a book called Moral Minds -- being found guilty of eight instances of research misconduct. The timing of last year's breaking news (August 10, 2010) relative to his participation in a conference on THE NEW SCIENCE OF MORALITY (July 20-22, 2010) was rather unfortunate.

Hauser was one of the "THE MORAL NINE" (now "THE MORAL EIGHT") in attendance at the conference. He delivered a keynote lecture that was captured on video but promptly removed from Edge's website when the charges against him came to light.1 This rare video is available here for your viewing pleasure, along with the opening quote:
"...a lot of us who have been working in this area are interested in the kind of connections between the is and the ought. I think one way that becomes of interest is in practical, applied issues, in terms of how the science that is being discovered has implications for how we behave as people, how law maybe sort of constructs itself [?], how educational systems work, how clinical problems get handled."
He then goes on to mention his conversation with New York Times columnist David Brooks, which was about...
" I think science is often caught in this weird position where we want people to be educated and engaged in science... so what we do is make our results very vivid. But the question is how do we both convey the excitement but not overstate what we understand?"
Did Hauser fail to heed his own advice? Did he overstate or misrepresent (or falsify) any of his research findings? What is known, specifically, about the extent of Hauser's research misconduct? Not too much. According to the Boston Globe:
His resignation brings some resolution to the turmoil on campus, but it still leaves the scientific community trying to sort out what findings, within his large body of work, they should trust. Three published papers led by Hauser were thrown into question by the investigation -- one was retracted and two were corrected. Problems were also found in five additional studies that were either not published or corrected prior to publication.
The retracted paper on rule learning by cotton-top tamarins was published in the journal Cognition. The editor, Gerry Altmann, concluded that Hauser must have fabricated data. His position was subsequently misrepresented by Nicholas Wade of the New York Times, who has been accused of being suspiciously sympathetic to Hauser. For example, Wade wrote that...
Harvard’s treatment of Dr. Hauser has occasioned some misgivings among other researchers, although he also has critics. The university raided his laboratory in 2007, after complaints by some of his students, and for the next 18 months Dr. Hauser did not know what he was being accused of.

Scientific misconduct is generally understood to connote grave offenses like fraud or plagiarism, but only three of Harvard’s charges were about published articles, and two of these concerned nothing more serious than missing data.
On the other hand, Gerry Altmann hints that the charges might be worse than expected:
So to set the cat amongst the pigeons, I have been told, and I shall not reveal more, that when the details of the investigation are eventually published, words such as “shocking” will flow freely.
For more coverage of the Hauser affair, see Marc Hauser News: A Settling, or Pre-Quake Tremors? and What Did Marc Hauser Do?

You can also watch the Q & A session with Hauser that took place at the 2010 Edge conference: The New Science of Morality - Marc D. Hauser Discussion.


1 Considering that the [confidential] Harvard investigation had been ongoing for 3 years, it seems unlikely that the conference organizers and other attendees were completely in the dark (since people do talk about such things, even as rumors).

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Saturday, July 23, 2011

Neuro Bliss and Neuro Codeine

Lindsay Lohan drinking Neuro Bliss.

NEUROBRANDS®, LLC is a company that markets a series of colorful and attractively designed "nutritional drinks", known as Neuro® Drinks.

Neuro Gasm Is Part Of The New Neuro Culture

For a company that has great product placement (with many celebrity endorsements), carefully crafted packaging, and regularly issued press releases, they sure are modest about their marketing efforts:
"Neuro Drinks® offer consumers an alternative to products that perpetuate our self-medicating caffeine-dependent society. Designed to sustain and enhance your active lifestyle with natural ingredients, each beverage is packed with essential vitamins, minerals, amino acids and botanicals at dosages backed by scientific research. Just real results — no marketing hype."
I recently purchased NeuroBliss® from a local store. As with other Neuro products, it's difficult to tell from the packaging what sort of flavor one should expect. From the white milky color it looks like it might be coconut, but smelling the brew yields a citrus-like odor (from citric acid). The taste is vaguely like grapefruit, or rather like grapefruit-flavored fizzy codeine.

The NeuroBliss® bottle claims there are no artificial colors or flavors, but I'm not sure which flavor is actually natural (other than chamomile and the generically listed "natural flavors"). There are a lot of vitamins along with chemical stabilizers and preservatives (gum acacia, ester gum, sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate), plus the unproven active ingredients that purportedly make you blissful.

Nutritional information for Neuro Bliss.

These unproven active ingredients include:
"L-Theanine, an amino acid found in green tea which has been clinically proven to help reduce stress, works by altering brain waves, shifting them from the beta spectrum to the alpha spectrum — where a person is focused and alert, but calm.
In contrast to this claim, a study by Gomez-Ramirez et al. (2009) found that a 250-mg dose of L-theanine significantly reduced background alpha power during a demanding attentional cueing task. There were no alterations in the cue-related, anticipatory changes in alpha activity. In other words, this compound may be considered activating but not calming. L-theanine is an analog to glutamate, an abundant excitatory neurotransmitter that crosses the blood-brain barrier.

Testimonial from consumer Sandra Kiume: "It did make me more alert and aware of the foul taste of the beverage."


Gomez-Ramirez, M., Kelly, S., Montesi, J., & Foxe, J. (2008). The Effects of l-theanine on Alpha-Band Oscillatory Brain Activity During a Visuo-Spatial Attention Task. Brain Topography, 22 (1), 44-51 DOI: 10.1007/s10548-008-0068-z

Origin Of The Term Fight Or Flight With Neuro Bliss

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Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Google Stroop Effect?

Notice the logo is multi-colored (as pointed out by Neurobonkers). Seeing "Google" printed in a solid color (or in any other font, for that matter) would likely result in a Stroop effect, or a slower response time in identifying the color of the font, relative to that of a neutral word.

Is Google making us stupid?

That question, and its original exposition in The Atlantic, has been furthering the career of Nicholas G. Carr. His subsequent book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, expanded upon his broader thesis that the internet is damaging to our cognitive capacity and the way we think. Numerous writers, both pro and con, have debated whether the internet and social networking sites (and computers in general) are harmful, so I won't belabor that point here. Instead, I'll cover a new article in Science that purportedly found Google Effects on Memory (Sparrow et al., 2011).

Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips

The paper by Sparrow et al. (2011) conducted four experiments to determine whether the ability to access previously learned information reduces the effort put forth in remembering and retrieving the information. Specifically, the authors view the internet as a form of transactive memory, a means to offload some of the daily cognitive burden from our brains to an external source. Or, as succinctly expressed in ars technica, why bother to remember when you can just use Google?

This is nothing new, nor is it something dependent on the internet. In 1985 Wegner et al. (PDF) examined the way that married couples can have a division of labor along the lines of which facts to remember (Bohannon, 2011):
For example, a husband might rely on his wife to remember significant dates, while she relies on him to remember the names of distant friends and family—and this frees both from duplicating the memories in their own brains. Sparrow wondered if the Internet is filling this role for everyone, representing an enormous collective act of transactive memory.
Another example is illustrated by the phenomenon of the open book test. If students know they can use their textbooks to answer questions on an exam, they may put forth less effort into rote memorization of facts, and may instead learn the organization of each chapter, familiarizing themselves with where particular facts are located within the text. That indeed is what was demonstrated in Experiments 3 and 4, but in terms of accessing the information online or from a computer's hard drive.

The Google Stroop Effect

Experiment 1 asked whether the participants were primed to access computer-related words when faced with difficult trivia questions, relative to when they answered easy trivia questions (examples below).
Appendix A: Easy Questions

1. Are dinosaurs extinct?
2. Was Moby Dick written by Herman Melville?
3. Is the formula for water H20?
4. Is a stop sign red in color?
5. Are there 24 hours in a day?
. . .
16. Does a triangle have 3 sides?

Appendix B: Hard Questions

1. Does Denmark contain more square miles than Costa Rica?
2. Did Benjamin Franklin give piano lessons?
3. Does an Italian deck of card contain jacks?
4. Did Alfred Hitchcock eat meat?
5. Are more babies conceived in February than in any other month?
. . .
16. Is a quince a fruit?
The way the authors assessed automatic priming of internet- and computer-related words is by using a modified version of the ever-popular Stroop test. Name the font color of these words but don't read the words themselves:
  • RED
  • BLUE
Now do the same for this set of words:
  • RED
  • BLUE
Bet you were faster for the first set. That's because reading is a much more automatic process than naming the ink color in which the words are printed. This conflict between response options produces interference and slows reaction times (RTs) in the task.

The modified Stroop task used by Sparrow et al. relied on attentional salience rather than response conflict. Instead of color words, the participants viewed words related to computers and search engines, or words not related to these things:
This color naming contained 8 target words related to computers and search engines (e.g., Google, Yahoo, screen, browser, modem, keys, internet, computer), and 16 unrelated words (e.g., Target, Nike, Coca Cola, Yoplait, table, telephone, book, hammer, nails, chair, piano, pencil, paper, eraser, laser, television).
First off, you'll note that there are twice as many control words as there are computer words1. More importantly, you'll also notice that the unrelated words included prominent brand names (some of which are strongly associated with a particular color) and a grab bag of nouns from different semantic categories (furniture, tools, writing implements, musical instrument, etc.). The Google logo is multi-colored (as we've said before), and the current Yahoo logo is purple (it used to be red).

Hmm. So already we're looking at quite a confound. Nonetheless, the authors expected a larger Stroop effect for the search engines for different reasons:
In this case, we expect participants to have computer terms in mind, because they desire access to the information which would allow them to answer difficult questions. Participants are presented with words in either blue or red, and were asked to press a key corresponding with the correct color. At the same time, they were to hold a 6 digit number in memory, creating cognitive load.
Why? Why oh why did the authors want to create a cognitive load during the Stroop? This turns the whole study into a dual task experiment, requiring the participants to multi-task: a key press for red or blue (which requires retrieval of stimulus-response mappings) while remembering a 6 digit number. A rationale was not given for this particular manipulation. In addition, the more classic Stroop task measures voice onset times, or the RTs to verbally name the color. In that case, the participants don't have to remember which key corresponds to a red or blue response. However, this latter issue is much less objectionable than the choice of brand names.

Target is strongly associated with the color red, as is Coca Cola. On the other hand, Nike is most often seen in black, but can also be found in other colors.

Thus, we have color-consistent Target and color-inconsistent Target as experimental stimuli while Google and Yahoo are always color inconsistent (unless you remember the red Yahoo logo from before May 2009). The branded experimental stimulus displays might have looked something like this (but with the words presented one at a time):

If attention is drawn to the search engine words to a greater extent in the difficult trivia condition, this would be manifest as slower RTs compared to the other brands (i.e., the Google Stroop effect). And that's more or less what was observed (with important caveats).

Fig 1 (Sparrow et al., 2011). Accessibility of brand names (as measured by color-naming reaction time) following blocks of easy or hard test items. Error bars are ±SEM.

RTs were substantially slower for Google/Yahoo when the questions were hard than when they were easy, suggesting the terms were more accessible in the former condition. As well, Google/Yahoo RTs were slower than Nike/Target in the hard condition (p<.003), BUT this was also true after the easy condition (p<.005). This could be because of the ridiculous color confound, but the authors state:
Although the concept of knowledge in general seems to prime thoughts of computers, even when answers are known; not knowing the answer to general knowledge questions primes the need to search for the answer, and subsequently computer interference is particularly acute.
This interpretation dilutes their hypothesis, because who needs to access the internet to know there are 24 hours in a day? At any rate, although the Google Stroop Effect did not provide strong evidence for Google's specific effects on memory, the other experiments demonstrated that the concept of transactive memory can be extended beyond families and co-workers to include the internet and computer hard drives. Is this a bad thing? No, said Sparrow and colleagues, who are realistic about the desire to remain online:
It may be no more that nostalgia at this point, however, to wish we were less dependent on our gadgets. We have become dependent on them to the same degree we are dependent on all the knowledge we gain from our friends and coworkers—and lose if they are out of touch. The experience of losing our Internet connection becomes more and more like losing a friend. We must remain plugged in to know what Google knows.


1 This would generally work against the Stroop effect, because the subjects would more easily habituate in the condition with fewer words.


Bohannon J (2011). Searching for the Google Effect on People's Memory. Science 333:277.

Sparrow, B., Liu, J., & Wegner, D. (2011). Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1207745

Wegner, D. M., Giuliano, T., & Hertel, P. (1985). Cognitive interdependence in close relationships. In W. J. Ickes (Ed.), Compatible and incompatible relationships (pp. 253-276). New York: Springer-Verlag. PDF

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Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Psychiatric Twilight Zone

CBS News has published a collection of 22 rare photos from 19th and 20th century psychiatry. This particular example reminded me of something out of The Twilight Zone:
Patient polygraph for examination

With all the technological advances for the field of psychiatry towards the mid-20th century, doctors started using technology to diagnose patients. Here, a patient is strapped into a polygraph machine at the government-operated Lexington Narcotic Hospital in Kentucky. Lie detectors were part of patient evaluations when this picture was taken in 1940.

On the other hand, this photo reminded me of something you'd see in a Medieval Torture Museum.

Restraint chair for violent patients

This chair was used to control violent patients at the New York State asylum in the early 20th century. An unruly patient's arms were strapped into the wooded wells, feet secured to the floor, and a belt tied around the boy - sometimes a patient's head was covered with a hood.

Credit: Dr. Stanley B. Burns

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Monday, July 11, 2011

Underwear Models and Low Libido

Erotic or not? (from Hot Chicks with Douchebags)

Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (HSDD) is a controversial diagnosis given to women who have a low (or nonexistent) libido and are distressed about it. The International Definitions Committee (a panel of 13 experts in female sexual dysfunction) from the 2nd International Consultation on Sexual Medicine in Paris defined HSDD, which has also been called Women's Sexual Interest/Desire Disorder (Basson et al., 2004), in the following fashion:
There are absent or diminished feelings of sexual interest or desire, absent sexual thoughts or fantasies and a lack of responsive desire. Motivations (here defined as reasons/incentives) for attempting to have sexual arousal are scarce or absent. The lack of interest is considered to be beyond the normative lessening with life cycle and relationship duration.
Dr. Petra Boynton has written extensively about the problematic aspects of the HSDD diagnosis and the screening tools used to assess it, as well as the medicalization of sexuality for pharmaceutical marketing purposes.

Today, however, we'll examine a recent neuroimaging study that compared a group of heterosexual women diagnosed with HSDD to a group of non-HSDD control women (Bianchi-Demicheli et al., 2011). The authors set out to determine whether there were differences in brain activity while the two groups viewed erotic male photos, relative to when they viewed non-erotic photos. The experimental stimuli were all pictures of male underwear models that were not pornographic (i.e., not Anthony Weiner shots), as shown below in Figure 1. The models were rated as erotic or non-erotic by two of the experimenters (one heterosexual male, one heterosexual female)!!

Figure 1 (Bianchi-Demicheli et al., 2011). Experimental paradigm. Procedure: each trial consisted of the following sequence: a 500 ms-fixation cross was followed by a 1,500 ms-target stimulus (here an exemplar of the erotic condition is presented). A random 1,500–4,000 ms inter-stimulus interval separated each target presentation. Participants performed a one-back task requiring the detection of occasional immediate repetitions of the same picture.

After the scanning session, participants rated each picture from 1 to 10. Scores for the non-HSDD group were 6.57 ± 1.59 (mean ± SD) for erotic and 4.45 ± 1.43 for non-erotic photos. For the HSDD group, the scores were 5.24 for erotic and 4.08 for non-erotic. Note that the standard deviations were not given for the HSDD group, nor was an analysis performed to determine whether the erotic/non-erotic difference was statistically significant. What we do know is that the non-HSDD participants reliably distinguished the two classes of subjectively rated stimuli (p=.001), and that erotic photos were rated more highly by non-HSDD than by HSDD (p=.03).

OK, so now we know that heterosexual women without HSDD rated the "erotic" male underwear models as more erotic than did the women with HSDD, but is this very surprising? And what can the brain imaging results say about low libido in HSDD beyond behavioral ratings and symptom reports? Since we already know that the women with hypoactive sexual desire aren't very thrilled by the guy in Figure 1, one would expect differences in neural activity between this group and the controls while viewing these pictures. And the differences are displayed in the figure below.

Figure 2 (Bianchi-Demicheli et al., 2011). Surface rendering of NHSDD (green) and HSDD (red) group average brain activations for the Erotic stimuli > Non-Erotic stimuli contrast. BOLD responses are shown on lateral views of the flat PALS left and right of the human brain (P < 0.01 uncorrected). Overlap of activation appears for the two groups as yellow.

The brain regions in the controls that showed greater activation for erotic vs. non-erotic pictures included high-level visual processing areas such as the fusiform and middle temporal gyri (Brodmann areas 37 and 19), and the extrastriate body area (EBA) in the lateral occipitotemporal cortex. Also showing greater activation for the sexier models were entorhinal and perirhinal regions in the medial temporal lobe (important for memory), the superior parietal lobule, the inferior frontal gyrus, and the mid-cingulate cortex. For the HSDD group, the erotic vs. non-erotic contrast revealed greater activation in some of the same regions: fusiform gyrus, superior parietal lobule, inferior frontal gyrus, and medial occipital gyrus.

The comparisons above were significant at either p < 0.05 with a family-wise error correction for multiple comparisons, or at p < 0.001 uncorrected. Once we get to the key findings, the group differences for the erotic vs. non-erotic contrast, the significance level dropped to p<0.01 uncorrected. The brain regions that met this lesser standard for the NHSDD > HSDD comparison were the intraparietal sulcus, the dorsal anterior cingulate gyrus, and the entorhinal/perirhinal region. How do the authors interpret these results?
We therefore interpret the activations in the anterior cingulate gyrus and ento/perirhinal region as reflecting a greater recruitment of motivational and associative multimodal memory processes for emotional events, respectively, presumably because of a more attentive processing of erotic stimuli in healthy participants.
. . .
Similarly, the present involvement of BA 7 [superior parietal lobule] in NHSDD participants suggests a greater recruitment of attentional and appraisal processes elicited by erotic stimuli in this group.
Conversely, areas that showed greater activation in HSDD than in NHSDD were the inferior parietal lobule, the medial occipital gyrus, and the inferior frontal gyrus.
This distinct pattern of neural changes in HSDD participants might potentially reflect different subjective interpretations (e.g., different scenario) during the processing of stimuli. Indeed, our results show that participants with HSDD differentially recruit brain areas mediating high-level cognitive functions such as social perception and visual analysis. Increased activation in the inferior frontal areas is consistent with previous findings in HSDD patients that also suggested greater activity in brain areas mediating inhibitory executive control, self-focus attention, and judgments about one's own subjective experience.
However, the inferior parietal lobule is also related to attention (including attention to another person's gaze), so one cannot conclude that the non-HSDD participants were paying greater attention to the erotic stimuli than the HSDD group. Likewise, the anterior cingulate cortex is related to a boatload of processes and functions, so one cannot conclude that greater activity there is related to greater sexual responsiveness. And really, the relatively tame photos used in this particular study were probably not all that potent in producing sexual arousal and desire in the first place, which are the core problems in hypoactive sexual desire disorder.

This wasn't the first study to report brain imaging results for women with HSDD.1 Arnow and colleagues (2009) showed erotic videos from the Sinclair Intimacy Institute (likely from The Better Sex Video Series), more specifically "erotic videos geared toward women depicting heterosexual couples engaging in various sexual activities and intercourse." Although there were problems with this particular experiment,2 the participants underwent assessments of subjective sexual arousal and peripheral sexual response (using a vaginal photoplethysmograph), as well as scans at three separate time points. Interestingly, the findings that replicated were greater activation in the entorhinal cortex and less activation in the inferior frontal gyrus for controls, relative to the HSDD group.

In the end, it is not clear how the present neuroimaging results will inform diagnosis and treatment of HSDD in women who are disturbed by their low libidos. Examining the causes of diminished sexual desire is critical, as Dr Petra tells us:
Let’s not lose sight of what are the main causes of desire problems in women – see how many of these you consider to be a ‘medical’ condition:
* Concerns over body image
* A lack of sex education or knowledge how your body works
* Not knowing what turns you on, or the inability to share what does turn you on with a partner
* Psychological or physical health problems (including sexually transmitted infections)
* Past or present sexual abuse or domestic violence
* A partner who has a sexual problem
* A partner who does not know how to turn you on effectively
* Relationship difficulties including arguments or jealousy
* Being overworked and lacking support from family and/or partner


1 An unpublished study was covered in a previous post, Media HSDD: "Hyperactive Sexual Disorder Detection".

2 As pointed out by Bianchi-Demicheli et al., these problems included a failure to match the duration of the porn and non-porn videos.


Arnow BA, Millheiser L, Garrett A, Lake Polan M, Glover GH, Hill KR, Lightbody A, Watson C, Banner L, Smart T, Buchanan T, Desmond JE. (2009). Women with hypoactive sexual desire disorder compared to normal females: a functional magnetic resonance imaging study. Neuroscience 158:484-502.

Basson R, Leiblum S, Brotto L, Derogatis L, Fourcroy J, Fugl-Meyer K, Graziottin A, Heiman JR, Laan E, Meston C, Schover L, van Lankveld J, Schultz WW. (2004). Revised definitions of women's sexual dysfunction. J Sex Med 1:40–8.

Bianchi-Demicheli, F., Cojan, Y., Waber, L., Recordon, N., Vuilleumier, P., & Ortigue, S. (2011). Neural Bases of Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder in Women: An Event-Related fMRI Study. The Journal of Sexual Medicine DOI: 10.1111/j.1743-6109.2011.02376.x

Aladdin as an underwear model
(from the series
Disney Heroes by David Kawena)

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