Wednesday, January 30, 2008

...always sardonic (and occasionally scathing).

The Neurocritic is very pleased about this wonderful review from Nikhil Swaminathan in the February 2008 issue of Scientific American Mind:

Blogs on the Brain
by Nikhil Swaminathan

Scientific American Mind offers up a hearty helping of science, but for the most voracious brain buffs six issues a year may not be enough. Fortunately, plenty of extra crumbs of brain candy can be picked up online in the blogosphere.

. . .

For a blog with more personality, try The Neurocritic, which is always sardonic (and occasionally scathing). According to his bio, the anonymous author has led a hard-knock life, and he works out his hostility by excoriating scientists and journalists who dare to sensationalize findings. In November he jumped on the authors of a New York Times op-ed over the dubious results of their fMRI study regarding people’s perceptions of the 2008 presidential candidates.


Also reviewed are these terrific blogs: Cognitive Daily, Mind Hacks, PsyBlog, The Frontal Cortex, and Channel N.

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Sunday, January 27, 2008

Cost of the War in Iraq

What is the cost of the war in Iraq? In financial terms, it's...

In human terms, how does one even begin to calculate the horrific toll? The New York Times is running
A series of articles and multimedia about veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who have committed killings, or been charged with them, after coming home.
This special series, "War Torn," has revealed this startling statistic:
The New York Times found 121 cases in which veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan committed a killing in this country, or were charged with one, after their return from war.
Here's just one horrifying example that appears to go well beyond PTSD:
Specialist Brandon Bare, a soldier who saw fierce combat in Iraq, was sent home early after suffering head injuries from a grenade attack. He was placed in an intensive outpatient psychological treatment program, where he told counselors about the difficulty he was having controlling his anger toward his wife, Nabila Bare, 18. On July 12, 2005, after Mr. Bare saw his wife e-mailing another man, he stabbed her more than 71 times, carved a pentagram into her stomach and wrote a message with her blood on the refrigerator: "Satan said she deserved it." After confessing to Army investigators, Mr. Bare was convicted of premeditated murder and sentenced to life with the possibility of parole. A military psychiatrist said Specialist Bare exhibited the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. The victim's parents -- her father was a soldier, too -- were angered by defense efforts to portray Specialist Bare as a scarred war veteran betrayed by his wife. "He is not a hero," said Irene Neverette, the victim's mother. "He is a monster, a criminal."
18 year old Nabila Bare, savagely murdered by her husband, who appeared to have experienced a psychotic break after returning from Iraq

Here's another:
Jacob Burgoyne, a Fort Benning soldier who served as an Army gunner in Iraq, pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in the killing of Specialist Richard Davis in Georgia in 2003. Two other soldiers were convicted of murder in the case, which inspired the 2007 film, "In the Valley of Elah."
How do judges and juries and families on both sides fairly consider the role that post-traumatic stress disorder [see also PTSD Information Center] played in some of these 121 cases?
An Iraq Veteran’s Descent; a Prosecutor’s Choice

Published: January 20, 2008

Not long after Lance Cpl. Walter Rollo Smith returned from Iraq, the Marines dispatched him to Quantico, Va., for a marksmanship instructor course.

Mr. Smith, then a 21-year-old Marine Corps reservist from Utah, had been shaken to the core by the intensity of his experience during the invasion of Iraq. ...

... Raising his rifle, he stared through the scope and started shaking. What he saw were not the inanimate targets before him but vivid, hallucinatory images of Iraq: “the cars coming at us, the chaos, the dust, the women and children, the bodies we left behind,” he said.

Each time he squeezed the trigger, Mr. Smith cried, harder and harder until he was, in his own words, “bawling on the rifle range, which marines just do not do.” Mortified, he allowed himself to be pulled away. And not long afterward, the Marines began processing his medical discharge for post-traumatic stress disorder...

The incident on the firing range was the first “red flag,” as the prosecutor in Tooele County, Utah, termed it, that Mr. Smith sent up as he gradually disintegrated psychologically. At his lowest point, in March 2006, he killed Nicole Marie Speirs, the 22-year-old mother of his twin children, drowning her in a bathtub without any evident provocation or reason.

. . .

Nobody believes that Mr. Smith’s killing of Ms. Speirs can be justified. But many involved in the case have wondered aloud, at some point, whether Ms. Speirs’s life might have been spared if the marine’s combat trauma had been treated more aggressively.

Ms. Speirs’s parents do not engage in such speculation. They view their daughter as a victim of fatal domestic violence and not as an indirect casualty of the war in Iraq.

Two years ago, this blog was launched with a post entitled, Men are Torturers, Women are Nurturers... It was about a paper by Singer et al. (2006) and the overblown press coverage that followed.
Revenge 'more satisfying for men'

"This investigation would seem to indicate there is a predominant role for men in maintaining justice and issuing punishment."

-- Lead researcher Dr Tania Singer
At the time, I said...
Well then, that explains why the public outrage directed at Lynndie England was so much greater than that directed at the Abu Ghraib ringleader (and father of Ms. England's child), former prison guard Charles A. Graner.
...and quoted this commentary:
Lyndie England, the Right and Feminism
Equal Opportunity Torture


Right wing pundits have been seeking to draw special notice to Private Lynndie England. Though only one of many sadistic individuals involved in the horrific acts at the prison who were photographed, England has been on the receiving end of the most invective. Though her fellow sadists were just as cruel, England is getting all of this extra attention because she is an easier target. England is an easier target because she is a woman.
Where am I going with all this? I don't know. What have Human Brain Imaging and Cognitive Neuroscience told us about preventing torture, murder, war?

I can't go on, I'll go on.
I've started a blog to critique some of the most outrageous claims published in high-profile journals and discussed in the popular press:

Because The Neurocritic is not a member of the all-powerful Editorial Boards at Science, Nature, or Neuron, The Neurocritic is published under an assumed identity. Your comments are most welcome.

Enjoy the inaugural posting! [we'll see how long it lasts.]
The Unnamable

You must go on.

I can't go on.

I'll go on.

-- Samuel Beckett

Visit the Psychologists for Social Responsibility website. PsySR uses psychological knowledge and skills to promote peace with social justice at the community, national, and international levels.


Singer T, Seymour B, O'doherty JP, Stephan KE, Dolan RJ, Frith CD. (2006). Empathic neural responses are modulated by the perceived fairness of others. Nature 439:466-9.

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Saturday, January 26, 2008

Does It Look Painful or Disgusting? Ask Your Parietal and Cingulate Cortex


Figure 1 (Benuzzi et al., 2008). Sample frames extracted from some video clips representing painful (left), disgusting (middle), and neutral (right) stimuli. All video clips began with 200–400 ms of a static hand or foot picture, followed by a stimulus rapidly approaching and contacting the skin. Needles and knifes apparently punctured the hand or foot, but actually they did not: the images were digitally corrected to simulate bleeding. [NOTE: blood not shown here. Perhaps the authors made use of this classic site, Jarrett's Blood Splatter Photoshop Tutorial.]

Think I made up the title of this post? No, it's the real title of a journal article published in the latest issue of the Journal of Neuroscience:
Francesca Benuzzi, Fausta Lui, Davide Duzzi, Paolo F. Nichelli, and Carlo A. Porro. (2008). Does It Look Painful or Disgusting? Ask Your Parietal and Cingulate Cortex. J. Neurosci. 28:923-931.

Looking at still images of body parts in situations that are likely to cause pain has been shown to be associated with activation in some brain areas involved in pain processing. Because pain involves both sensory components and negative affect, it is of interest to explore whether the visually evoked representations of pain and of other negative emotions overlap. By means of event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging, here we compare the brain areas recruited, in female volunteers, by the observation of painful, disgusting, or neutral stimuli delivered to one hand or foot. Several cortical foci were activated by the observation of both painful and disgusting video clips, including portions of the medial prefrontal cortex, anterior, mid-, and posterior cingulate cortex, left posterior insula, and right parietal operculum. Signal changes in perigenual cingulate and left anterior insula were linearly related to the perceived unpleasantness, when the individual differences in susceptibility to aversive stimuli were taken into account. Painful scenes selectively induced activation of left parietal foci, including the parietal operculum, the postcentral gyrus, and adjacent portions of the posterior parietal cortex. In contrast, brain foci specific for disgusting scenes were found in the posterior cingulate cortex. These data show both similarities and differences between the brain patterns of activity related to the observation of noxious or disgusting stimuli. Namely, the parietal cortex appears to be particularly involved in the recognition of noxious environmental stimuli, suggesting that areas involved in sensory aspects of pain are specifically triggered by observing noxious events.
Image credit: Jarrett Heather

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Friday, January 25, 2008

I'm Alive I'm Dead

Standing on the beach
With a gun in my hand
Staring at the sea
Staring at the sand

-The Cure

Are you Dead or Alive? To find out, now you too can take another Implicit Association Test (IAT)!

Are you alive? Are you sure?

The Neurocritic is NEITHER Dead NOR Alive. Or both Dead AND Alive. Plus, as promised, today we'll cover "Tips for Manipulating the IAT."

You have completed the study.

Your Result

Your data suggest little to no automatic identification with Alive compared to Dead.

Your results, summarized above, are an implicit indicator of whether you are alive or dead. Implicit measures are superior to self-report because the latter is notoriously unreliable. People may report being alive because social pressures suggest that it is more desirable to be alive. Also, people may not have introspective access to their animate-status, making such self-report untrustworthy.

In a prior study, we found that self-report was particularly unreliable for people who were dead suggesting that implicit measures will be especially useful for this population.

Importantly, your results may be influenced by cultural norms rather than your personal animate status. Cultural norms are strongly biased toward "alive" so if you show a stronger identity with alive over dead, you should be suspicious that the result may be due to this extrapersonal influence.

Also, these associations are inherently "relative" meaning that we cannot estimate your alive associations separately from your dead associations. So, if you are both or neither, we cannot tell the difference. Finally, if you hang out with a lot of dead people, then your effects might be due to strong associations of others with dead rather than yourself with alive.

Cautions aside, this implicit measure of dead identity shall become the new standard assessment. For too long, the low-reliability finger-finding-pulse method has errantly allowed dead people to continue 'living' among us. This must stop.

A Professor Dr. Arina Bones Ph.D. production.

If you are otherwise confused or uncertain about your results, you may wish to evaluate whether you are Human or Alien.

I'm alive
I'm dead
I'm the stranger
Killing an arab

-The Cure, Killing An Arab

it was a short poetic attempt at condensing my impression of the key moments in 'l'etranger' (the outsider) by albert camus
(R. Smith, cure news number 11, October 1991).

The Implicit Association Test (IAT) is all the rage in social psychology as a measure of hidden "unconscious" biases or prejudices that most people are afraid to admit to themselves (or to reveal in polite company within academic settings). The Situationist linked to an article in the APS Observer:
The IAT: How and When It Works

By Jesse Erwin

. . .

In a time where social desirability confounds are of pervasive concern in psychological research, one of the IAT’s greatest merits appears to be resistance to faking. Studies have demonstrated that participants rarely devise a successful faking strategy. It appears that taking one’s time is the easiest way to doctor results. “It does work,” Greenwald says of the strategy, “but it also tends to be detectable statistically.”
In Monday's entry, The Neurocritic was Human, All Too Human (AND Alien). My "faking" strategy was simple, and relied on neither deliberate slowing of response times nor a long-standing affiliation with aliens. When SELF and ALIEN were mapped to the same key, I merely said to myself, "I'm an alien." This strategy was transient, applied only when those stimulus-response mappings were the same, not when SELF and ALIEN were mapped to different keys. I used the same strategy for the Dead or Alive IAT. In both cases, I responded as quickly and as accurately as possible. So what's up?

A recent study by De Houwer and colleagues (2007) demonstrated that participants can easily fake their results in an IAT for newly-acquired attitudes about fictitious social groups (Niffites and Luupites), when instructed to do so by the experimenters. The subjects were able to manipulate both the magnitude and the direction of the IAT effect. The authors raised the general point that "implicit" measures of attitudes may not be entirely implicit. Furthermore,
The present study is the first to demonstrate successful faking in the IAT when participants perform an IAT for the first time during an experimental session. One explanation for this apparent discrepancy is that we focussed on novel attitudes whereas previous studies looked at overlearned attitudes and associations. It could be that it is easier to fake novel attitudes because it is not necessary to counteract well-established existing attitudes toward those same attitude objects. However, before strong conclusions can be drawn about this issue, new studies are needed in which faking attitudes toward novel and familiar attitude objects are compared directly.
Granted, it's preferable that IAT-takers are naïve to the purposes of the study, which is why "Bones & Johnson" (2007) lamented the fact that
the population of new participants available to take IATs will expire by the year 2023. Shrill, doomsday proposals from IAT experts involve rationing the precious pool of remaining IAT novices or other naive strategies. ... Building on our prior experience of adapting the IAT for measuring infant cognition and rooting out aliens among us, we demonstrate that new pools of participant resources—the unborn and passed on—are available, if we take the time to develop the methods to exploit them.
But if one is fully cognizant of the true purpose of any IAT, does that render your results invalid, since the test is not immune to manipulation? What do the experts say about that? Here's Brian A. Nosek in The Bias Finders (Bower, 2006):
Several investigations suggest that it's difficult to initially manipulate one's IAT score. However, people who take the IAT many times or who receive explicit cheating instructions can fake their scores. "I've taken the IAT so many times that I know how to get any score I want to on it," Nosek says.
Wah! I'm not so SPECIAL, after all (even though my prior IAT tally for all of the 21st century is 10 at most [not 100] -- and zero in the last few years). At any rate, I'm not a social psychologist, so I was was initially unaware of the [nearly] true extent of this edict:
With the Association for Psychological Science's new ethical standards requiring that all research studies include an Implicit Association Test (IAT)...
...but really, any issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology has at least 5 articles using some IAT or another! Everybody loves the IAT! Or not (see Criticism and controversy). According to Mixing Memory:
While the IAT has been publicized (by its authors!) as a measure of implicit attitudes, and even more, as a measure of implicit prejudice, there is no real evidence that it measures attitudes, much less prejudices. In fact, it's not at all clear what it measures, though the fact that its psychometric properties are pretty well defined at least implies that it measures something. On top of that, the IAT (like all of the other implicit tests) has serious methodological flaws that are currently being discussed in the literature. It's just irresponsible to publicize work, and claim that it does something very particular, when the work is still in the early stages and it's not at all clear what it's actually doing...
Welcome to "The Disturbing World of Implicit Bias..."


Bones AK, Johnson NR. (2007). Measuring the immeasurable: Or "Could Abraham Lincoln Take the Implicit Association Test?" Perspectives on Psychological Science 2:406-411.

Bower B. (2006). The bias finders. Science News 169(16):250.

De Houwer J, Beckers T, Moors A. (2007). Novel attitudes can be faked on the Implicit Association Test. J Exp Social Psychol. 43:972-978. [PDF for those without journal access.]

We asked participants to imagine that a researcher would provide them with positive or negative information about fictitious social groups. Half of the participants were asked to act in such a way that they would conform to the expectations of the researcher. The other participants were asked to behave in the manner opposite to what the researcher expected. Participants then completed an IAT designed to measure the newly formed attitudes toward the fictitious social groups. The direction of the IAT effect depended on the faking instructions. The results call for caution when using the IAT to study the development of implicit attitudes.

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Monday, January 21, 2008

Human, All Too Human (AND Alien)

Are You an Alien?

To find out, now you too can take the latest Implicit Association Test (IAT)!

Human or Alien?

The Neurocritic is Human AND Alien. Coming soon: "Tips for Manipulating the IAT."

You have completed the study.

Your Result

Your data suggest little to no automatic identification with Human compared to Alien.

If your results, provided above, indicate a stronger identity with alien relative to human, then you are probably an alien. Self-reports of humanness sometimes differ from the results revealed by the IAT because either aliens do not want to admit to being an alien either because of plans for world domination or because of low collective self-esteem. Also, one's implicit alien identity can be a surprise to the test taker because "he" or "she" did not know previously about being an alien. These cases are surprisingly common and are likely due to memory impairment or alieodissociative identity disorder (not yet recognized by the APA diagnostic manual).

A few humans - mostly bleeding heart liberals - implicitly identify with aliens more than humans because of a uncontrollable need to disidentify with the ingroup.

In either case, if you show an implicit alien identity, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is interested to speak with you.

If you instead show an implicit human identity, then it is likely that you are in implicit denial. Why would you have taken this test if you were not an alien? Please report yourself to DHS anyway.

A Professor Dr. Arina Bones, Ph.D. production. If you are otherwise confused or uncertain about your results, you may wish to evaluate whether you are Dead or Alive.

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Sunday, January 20, 2008

I Look Terrible! My Right mIFG Is SO Embarrassed!

Imagine being part of a psychology study in which you are filmed making short speeches in front of a camera. You're told that the purpose of the study is to investigate the eye movements that people make while speaking. You wear a plain black t-shirt and sit opposite the exerimenter, who records you when you talk about three themes related to your own history and experience (e.g., your hometown) for about a minute each.

Then it turns out the real purpose of the study is to record your reactions to less-than-flattering still images of yourself gleaned from the videos! How were these embarrassing images selected?
We established the following six criteria for the "badness" of each image: first, whether the eyes were totally or partly closed (eyes); second, whether the gaze was averted (gaze); third, whether the mouth was unnaturally open (mouth); fourth, whether the lip stuck out (lip); fifth, whether the chin stuck out (chin); and sixth, whether the expression was strange (expression). "Bad" images that met some of these criteria contained awkward facial expressions, such as those in which the participants showed the whites of their eyes or had their mouths wide open. By contrast, "good" images did not meet any of the criteria, and appeared as if the subjects had posed for a photograph rather than the images having been taken from a video recording. These sets of 21 images were used as the stimuli for the SELF condition in the subsequent fMRI experiment. By contrast, in the OTHERS condition, 21 face images that were selected from three gender-matched unfamiliar individuals (seven images per person) were used.
You can see where this is going: the authors (Morita et al., 2008) wanted to see how the brain reacts to seeing a terrible picture of yourself. They were also interested in how this relates to a bunch of hyphenated "self-" words: self-recognition, self-face recognition, self-consciousness, self-conscious emotions, "public self-consciousness", self-awareness, "public self-awareness", "meta self-awareness", self-esteem, and self-evaluation. I think I'll stick to embarrassment, rather than a meta-meta discussion of self-*.

In the scanner, the task was to rate, from 1 to 7, how photogenic each face was, for images of both SELF and OTHER (i.e., other participants in the experiment). After scanning, the subjects performed a self-paced task in which they rated the same faces on photogenic-ness (again), embarrassment, valence, and arousal.

To make a long story short, some of the results were not surprising at all:

Figure 2 (Morita et al., 2008). Relationship between the ratings of embarrassment and the photogenic scores for each face.

People are quite embarrassed by bad pictures of themselves, but of others...not so much. The key fMRI finding was from the SELF vs. OTHERS contrast, as shown below, namely that greater activity in the right middle inferior frontal gyrus (mIFG) was associated with lower embarrassment scores.

Figure 5 (A) Brain activity in the right mIFG negatively correlated with the embarrassment ratings for individuals' own faces. A random effects statistical parametric activation map (SPM{t}) was overlaid on a canonical transverse section. The height threshold was set at p < .01 at each voxel level for display purposes. The light blue outlines indicate areas that were significantly activated by the SELF versus OTHERS contrast.

So really, the title of this post should be "I Look Terrible! My Right mIFG Is SO Embarrassed and Suppressed!" Hmm. The authors have a string of "self-" words to explain this finding:
As the standard for an individual's face appears to be recognized as one's own representative face, it could be the most self-relevant stimulus. Individuals whose own faces are rated as "good" tend to be close to the standard and these individuals experience relatively little embarrassment. Therefore, in the current study, an increase in the right mIFG activity associated with reduced embarrassment would reflect increased relevance to the standard self, which could be regarded as self-relevance. In addition, the activity of the right mIFG did not depend on public self-consciousness; this was in agreement with our finding that the extent of embarrassment was not associated with public self-consciousness. Taken together, our results suggest that the right mIFG is selectively engaged in the self-evaluation, reflecting self-relevance.
OK, then. Did any brain region show a positive correlation with embarrassment ratings? No...

At any rate, the present experiment was conducted with Japanese participants. The cultural contributions to the degree of embarrassment, self-consciousness, self-evaluation, self-*, etc. -- and whether the participants are early rejects from Pop/Pinoy/Deutschland/Canadian/American Idol, and how this influences right frontal activation -- would be interesting topics for future study.

Ashlee Simpson caught lip-syncing on Saturday Night Live.


Morita T, Itakura S, Saito DN, Nakashita S, Harada T, Kochiyama T, Sadato N. (2008). The Role of the Right Prefrontal Cortex in Self-evaluation of the Face: A Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Study. J Cog Neurosci. 20:342-355.

Individuals can experience negative emotions (e.g., embarrassment) accompanying self-evaluation immediately after recognizing their own facial image, especially if it deviates strongly from their mental representation of ideals or standards. The aim of this study was to identify the cortical regions involved in self-recognition and self-evaluation along with self-conscious emotions. To increase the range of emotions accompanying self-evaluation, we used facial feedback images chosen from a video recording, some of which deviated significantly from normal images. In total, 19 participants were asked to rate images of their own face (SELF) and those of others (OTHERS) according to how photogenic they appeared to be. After scanning the images, the participants rated how embarrassed they felt upon viewing each face. As the photogenic scores decreased, the embarrassment ratings dramatically increased for the participant's own face compared with those of others. The SELF versus OTHERS contrast significantly increased the activation of the right prefrontal cortex, bilateral insular cortex, anterior cingulate cortex, and bilateral occipital cortex. Within the right prefrontal cortex, activity in the right precentral gyrus reflected the trait of awareness of observable aspects of the self; this provided strong evidence that the right precentral gyrus is specifically involved in self-face recognition. By contrast, activity in the anterior region, which is located in the right middle inferior frontal gyrus, was modulated by the extent of embarrassment. This finding suggests that the right middle inferior frontal gyrus is engaged in self-evaluation preceded by self-face recognition based on the relevance to a standard self.

Ashlee Simpson walks off the SNL stage.

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Tears of a...

Book review of Scary Clowns at The Clown Blog.
Clowns say kids do NOT find them scary

LONDON (Reuters) - Unhappy clowns from around the world say a study that reported that children didn't like them has wiped the big smile from their faces, and have been falling over their large shoes to put their case.

A poll by researchers looking at what decor to put in hospital children's wards found that youngsters do not like clowns on the walls and even older ones think they are scary.

"We found that clowns are universally disliked by children. Some found them quite frightening and unknowable"...
"There are those who are afraid of clowns, this is unavoidable, the same way that there are those afraid of dogs and spiders," she [Heather Myers, aka PipSqueakTheClown] said.

"It is the responsibility of the clown to know his environment, and take the necessary steps when confronted with a phobia."
And from Alabama Kitchen Sink:
Coulrophobia is what you call fear of clowns and it’s real. Noted sufferers include Johnny Depp, my husband and Bart Simpson who said, “Can’t sleep, clown will eat me.”
See also:

The Unintentionally Scary Clowns Pool at Flickr

Am I a Scary Clown Or Not? - vote on creepy, evil clown pics at

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Delineation of the Two Buck Chuck Neocortical Circuitry

Two Buck Chuck

A very important study appeared online yesterday in PNAS, as reported in this erroneously-titled AP story:
Raising Prices Enhances Wine Sales


WASHINGTON (AP) — Apparently, raising the price really does make the wine taste better. At least that seems to be the result of a taste test. The part of the brain that reacts to a pleasant experience responded more strongly to pricey wines than cheap ones — even when tasters were given the same vintage in disguise.

Antonio Rangel and colleagues at California Institute of Technology thought the perception that higher price means higher quality could influence people, so they decided to test the idea.

They asked 20 people to sample wine while undergoing functional MRIs of their brain activity. The subjects were told they were tasting five different Cabernet Sauvignons sold at different prices.

However, there were actually only three wines sampled, two being offered twice, marked with different prices.

A $90 wine1 was provided marked with its real price and again marked $10, while another was presented at its real price of $5 and also marked $45.

The testers' brains showed more pleasure at the higher price than the lower one, even for the same wine, Rangel reports...
In their tricky fMRI experiment, the authors weren't really interested in delineating the neocortical (or subcortical) circuitry underlying marketing actions. Instead, their interest was in one particular cortical region within the frontal lobes, hypothesizing that
higher taste expectations would lead to higher activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex (mOFC), an area of the brain that is widely thought to encode for actual experienced pleasantness.
Lo and behold, that is what they found! Panel A shows the time course of mOFC activation, with greater BOLD signal change when consuming the cheap $5 wine disguised as a $45/bottle wine. Panel D shows with greater BOLD signal change when consuming the expensive $90/bottle wine marketed as such, and much less activity when it masquerades as the $10 wine.

Fig. 2 of Plassmann et al. (2008). Activation maps are shown at a threshold of P less than 0.001 uncorrected and with an extend threshold of five voxels.

So they've demonstrated that "pleasantness" (i.e., mOFC activity) is influenced by price. Similar activations in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, visual cortex, middle temporal gyrus, and cingulate gyrus for wine 1 and in the amygdala, lateral OFC, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, inferior and middle temporal gyrus, and posterior cingulate cortex for wine 2 were under rug swept.

What else have we learned?
...when tasters didn't know any price comparisons, they [20 Cal Tech students] rated the $5 wine as better than any of the others sampled.

"We were shocked," Rangel said in a telephone interview. [NOTE: why were you shocked? Did you think your subjects would be wine connoisseurs?] "I think it was because the flavor was stronger and our subjects were not very experienced."

He added that wine professionals would probably be able to differentiate the better wine — "one would hope."


1 Who paid for this $90 wine? Perhaps it was the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation (Neurobiological Reward - $5,998,512 - Jun. 2006), as opposed to the National Science Foundation (SES-0134618).


Plassmann H, O'Doherty J, Shiv B, Rangel A. (2008). Marketing actions can modulate neural representations of experienced pleasantness. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. Published online before print January 14, 2008.

Despite the importance and pervasiveness of marketing, almost nothing is known about the neural mechanisms through which it affects decisions made by individuals. We propose that marketing actions, such as changes in the price of a product, can affect neural representations of experienced pleasantness. We tested this hypothesis by scanning human subjects using functional MRI while they tasted wines that, contrary to reality, they believed to be different and sold at different prices. Our results show that increasing the price of a wine increases subjective reports of flavor pleasantness as well as blood-oxygen-level-dependent activity in medial orbitofrontal cortex, an area that is widely thought to encode for experienced pleasantness during experiential tasks. The paper provides evidence for the ability of marketing actions to modulate neural correlates of experienced pleasantness and for the mechanisms through which the effect operates.

See also:

EP & neuroeconomics: how thinking about the price of wine tweaks your brain's sensation of pleasure

Higher price makes cheap wine taste better

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Miracle Cure For Alzheimer's Disease?

Speaking of ethics, from the Bureau of Irresponsible Press Releases comes this headline:
Reversal Of Alzheimer's Symptoms Within Minutes In Human Study

ScienceDaily (Jan. 9, 2008)
— An extraordinary new scientific study, which for the first time documents marked improvement in Alzheimer’s disease within minutes of administration of a therapeutic molecule, has just been published in the Journal of Neuroinflammation.
Have any of the credulous commentators raving about this finding actually read the journal article in question? It's Open Access, so it's freely available to all when you click on a link in the Science Daily piece. Even a cursory perusal will indicate that the manuscript could not have been reviewed by anyone who follows the scientific method.
... The study focuses on one of these cytokines, tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF), a critical component of the brain’s immune system. Normally, TNF finely regulates the transmission of neural impulses in the brain. The authors hypothesized that elevated levels of TNF in Alzheimer’s disease interfere with this regulation. To reduce elevated TNF, the authors gave patients an injection of an anti-TNF therapeutic called etanercept [aka Enbrel, used to treat rheumatoid arthritis]. ...

The new study documents a dramatic and unprecedented therapeutic effect in an Alzheimer’s patient: improvement within minutes following delivery of perispinal etanercept, which is etanercept given by injection in the spine. Etanercept (trade name Enbrel) binds and inactivates excess TNF. Etanercept is FDA approved to treat a number of immune-mediated disorders and is used off label in the study.
Although suppressing inflammation with an anti-TNF agent may indeed be a promising treatment (e.g., Ryu & McLarnon, 2007), I think one must test its efficacy against a placebo. And what mechanism of action would mediate cognitive improvement within minutes, in a disease with complex pathology that takes years and years to develop?

The actual article (Tobinick & Gross, 2008) reads like physician's notes, not a research study or clinical trial. Here's the extent of their "immediate effect" (with absolutely no placebo condition, of course):
Ten minutes after dosing the patient was reexamined. He was noticeably calmer, less frustrated, and more attentive. He was able to correctly identify the state as California, and he identified the year as 2006. His responses to questioning seemed less effortful and more rapid, with less latency. He left for author HG's office for further testing.
See also Etanercept Improves Alzheimer's Disease In Minutes for a critical discussion of this single-case study -- including the lack of a formal research protocol, the lack of any patient selection criteria (the gentleman in question may not be a typical dementia patient), the fact that the authors patented an off-label treatment [how can they do that? was it for the perispinal route of adminstration?], and links to a video interview with family members, for starters.


Ryu JK, McLarnon JG. (2007). Thalidomide inhibition of perturbed vasculature and glial-derived tumor necrosis factor-alpha in an animal model of inflamed Alzheimer's disease brain. Neurobiol Dis. Sep 15; [Epub ahead of print].

Tobinick EL, Gross H. (2008). Rapid cognitive improvement in Alzheimer's disease following perispinal etanercept administration. J Neuroinflammation Jan 9;5(1):2 [Epub ahead of print].

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Monday, January 14, 2008

Adventures in Ethics and Romania

Unfortunately, these particular adventures in Romania did not involve visiting Peleş Castle.

Dr. Janet D. Stemwedel, a philosophy professor at San Jose State and author of the blog Adventures in Ethics and Science, has a great two-part piece on the ethics of a developmental psychology research study conducted with abandoned Romanian children (Nelson et al., 2007) and published recently in Science. The abstract of the paper begins in a way that set off alarm bells (at least in my head):

In a randomized controlled trial, we compared abandoned children reared in institutions to abandoned children placed in institutions but then moved to foster care.
Young children living in institutions were randomly assigned to continued institutional care or to placement in foster care, and their cognitive development was tracked through 54 months of age.

Tens of thousands of children grew up in Romania's institutions
BBC News)

Being neither a developmental psychologist nor an ethics expert1,
I thought it best to consult a professional in at least one of those topics. The posts below are essential reading for those interested in human subjects research issues, such as informed consent, standard of care, and "clinical equipoise."
Research with vulnerable populations: considering the Bucharest Early Intervention Project (part 1).
. . .

...My aim in these two posts will be to lay out the recognized ethical guidelines for research with human subjects as they apply to the Bucharest Early Intervention Project (BEIP), and to identify the worries we might raise about this kind of research -- and, by extension, with the prevailing standards.
Research with vulnerable populations: considering the Bucharest Early Intervention Project (part 2).

In an earlier post, I looked at a research study by Nelson et al. [1] on how the cognitive development of young abandoned children in Romania was affected by being raised in institutional versus foster care conditions. Specifically, I examined the explanation the researchers gave to argue that their work was not only scientifically sound but also ethical.

In this post, I examine the accompanying policy forum article, Millum and Emmanuel, "The Ethics of International Research with Abandoned Children" [2]. Millum and Emanuel are in the Department of Bioethics at the Clinical Center of the National Institutes of Health. As such, it's not unreasonable to assume that they are not coming to their understanding of this research -- and to the question of whether it rises to the appropriate ethical level -- from the point of view that good science should trump all other interests.


1 Not that The Neurocritic is unethical or anything...


[1] Charles A. Nelson, III, Charles H. Zeanah, Nathan A. Fox, Peter J. Marshall, Anna T. Smyke, and Donald Guthrie, "Cognitive Recovery in Socially Deprived Young Children: The Bucharest Early Intervention Project," Science 21 December 2007: Vol. 318. no. 5858, pp. 1937 - 1940.

[2] Joseph Millum and Ezekiel J. Emanuel, "The Ethics of International Research with Abandoned Children," Science 21 December 2007: Vol. 318. no. 5858, pp. 1874 - 1875.

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Saturday, January 12, 2008


If you live in New York, there's an ongoing cultural festival with numerous events that combine art, music, psychology, and neuroscience:

BRAINWAVE asks how art, music, and meditation affect the brain and offers countless answers in more than a hundred public events, ranging from an exhibition of contemporary art and a cinema series to cutting-edge concerts, performances, talks, and panels.

This "only in New York" cultural festival is organized by six New York institutions: Rubin Museum of Art, Exit Art, Science & the Arts at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, The Philoctetes Center at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute, and the School of Visual Arts, in association with the Public Programs/American Museum of Natural History.

The festival runs from January to June, and here are only a few of the highlights:

BRAINWAVE: Common Senses
February 16-April 19, 2008
Exit Art

The group exhibition BrainWave: Common Senses responds to current neurological discourse by visualizing and investigating the brain’s capacity for perception, memory, emotion and logic—the forces that drive creativity. It brings together work by artists involved with research in cognition, artists that respond critically to the new technologies in neuroscience, and projects in which artists and scientists have collaborated to advance understanding of the mysteries of the brain.

Monday, March 24, 6:30 PM
Science & the Arts at CUNY

What is the explanation for our love of music, rhythm and dance? In this evening of erudition and performance, Columbia University neuroscientists Dave Sulzer (a.k.a. composer Dave Soldier) and John Krakauer will discuss the brain activity that makes us groove to the beat of music. Krakauer co-directs the Motor Performance Laboratory and Soldier investigates synaptic connections that underlie memory, learning and behavior. Featuring the premiere of Soldier’s "Quartet for percussion and brain waves," a live performance/experiment with drummers and electroencephalographs.

Optical Illusions and the Brain
School of Visual Arts
Tuesday, January 29, 6:30pm

Research scientist Susana Martinez-Conde discusses optical illusions and what they tell us about the brain. Her talk is informed by her research at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, Arizona and "The Magic of Consciousness," a symposium of leading neuroscientists and magicians at the Imperial Palace in Las Vegas. Presented by the BFA Fine Arts Department, SVA.
Plus these two events on the same day:
Secret Life of the Brain
Part IV: The Adult Brain
RMA Wednesday, January 30, 1 p.m.

The brain is the seat of both intellect and emotion, and this episode chronicles the critical balance between these processes and explores what happens when the balance is lost. Scientists draw insight from the stories of a stroke victim and a sufferer of post-traumatic stress disorder, and break new ground in the struggle to understand and treat depression. Discussion moderator: Michael Shea, PhD.

Lou Reed: Hudson River Wind Meditations
RMA Wednesday, January 30, 7 p.m.

Lou Reed introduces his latest meditation compositions and discusses them with mind science scholar Rob Hogendoorn.

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Can You Read My Mind?

On the corner of main street
Just tryin' to keep it in line
You say you wanna move on and
instead of falling behind

Can you read my mind?
Can you read my mind?

Read My Mind
------The Killers

A recent study in PLoS One (Shinkareva et al., 2008) received some wildly overblown coverage in the media:
Scientists can read your mind... sort of

THOUGHTS are successfully being read for the first time by scientists using nothing but a modified MRI scanner and a special computer program.
Very briefly, subjects viewed pictures of 10 different objects: 5 tools (drill, hammer, screwdriver, pliers, saw) and 5 dwellings (apartment, castle, house, hut, and igloo). Previous work had shown that these two object categories activate some unique brain regions (e.g., ventral premotor cortex and parahippocampal gyrus, respectively). Machine learning methods were used to classify the patterns of activity obtained while subjects viewed each of these pictures, with a goal of identifying individuals objects (not just the categories) by the distinctive neural activity associated with each.

But is it humans who are doing the mind-reading, or is it...THE COMPUTERS!! Ahh, they're taking over!
CMU computers seek where thoughts originate

By Allison M. Heinrichs
Friday, January 4, 2008

Computers are reading minds at Carnegie Mellon University.

In a small two-year study, computer scientists and cognitive neuroscientists teamed up to teach computers to recognize patterns in brain activity and identify objects that people are looking at.

Scientists call it the first step toward identifying where people's thoughts originate, while ethicists see it as a sign of the need for new public policy.

Colossus - The Forbin Project takes place in the 50s during the height of the cold war. Dr. Charles Forbin, a genius scientist who has lost trust in humanity’s ability to logically address emotional issues, has developed a very special computer to perform the Strategic Air Command and Control functions for the military. This computer, code named Colossus, is developed based on incredible advances in Artificial Intelligence, and has a logical process for determining when to launch the ICBMs. With much fanfare, the President of the US “turns on” Colossus to take over responsibility for the US nuclear armament. [from Cyberpunk Review]
"I want a complete mapping of brain states and thoughts," Dr. Just said. "We're taking tiny baby steps, but anything we can think about is represented in the brain."

In coming years, researchers will be able to develop a fairly complex mapping of brain states and thoughts, he said.

"It's a little science fiction-y, and I don't think we'll do it in one year, but five to 10 is plausible," he said.

Unfortunately, shortly after being turned on, Colossus learns the presence of another AI command and control system. It turns out that the Soviet Union, independently has developed their own system call the Guardian. Both computers “insist” that they be linked to ensure no attacks will take place...

Wikipedia defines machine learning as a broad subfield of artificial intelligence,
concerned with the design and development of algorithms and techniques that allow computers to "learn". ... Inductive machine learning methods extract rules and patterns out of massive data sets. The major focus of machine learning research is to extract information from data automatically, by computational and statistical methods. Hence, machine learning is closely related not only to data mining and statistics, but also theoretical computer science.
Things begin to go downhill when Professor Forbin realizes that the rate of learning for the machines is increasing at an exponential rate – he recommends detaching the connection between the two computers. When they attempt to do this, both computers threaten an immediate launch of nuclear weapons. Quickly, the government’s realize their situation – the machines are now in power. Worse, they proceed to take complete control of human society.

In the PLoS One article, Shinkareva et al. (2008) describe this approach to analyzing functional imaging data as involving
identification of a multivariate pattern of voxels and their characteristic activation levels that collectively identify the neural response to a stimulus. These machine learning methods have the potential to be particularly useful in uncovering how semantic information about objects is represented in the cerebral cortex because they can determine the topographic distribution of the activation and distinguish the content of the information in various parts of the cortex. In the study reported below, the neural patterns associated with individual objects as well as with object categories were identified using a machine learning algorithm applied to activation distributed throughout the cortex. This study also investigated the degree to which objects and categories are similarly represented neurally across different people.
And wouldn't you know it, people [Carnegie Mellon students] are people.
CMU finds human brains similarly organized

Carnegie Mellon University has taken an important step in mapping thought patterns in the human brain, and the research has produced an amazing insight: Human brains are similarly organized.

Based on how one person thinks about a hammer, a computer can identify when another person also is thinking about a hammer. It also can differentiate between items in the same category of tools, be it a hammer or screwdriver.

Results revealed the typical-ish distributed activity patterns underlying object representations, and high classification rank accuracies for object exemplars:
Reliable (p less than 0.001) accuracies for the classification of object exemplars within participants were reached for eleven out of twelve participants, and reliable (p less than 0.001) accuracies for the classification of object exemplars when training on the union of data from eleven participants were reached for eight out of twelve participants.
From Table 1 (Shinkareva et al., 2008). Anatomical regions (out of 71) that singly produced reliable average classification accuracies across the twelve participants for category identification.

L Precentral gyrus
L Superior frontal gyrus
L Inferior frontal gyrus, triangular part
L Insula, rolandic operculum
L/R Calcarine fissure
L/R Cuneus, superior occipital, middle occipital gyri
L/R Inferior occipital, lingual gyri
L/R Fusiform gyrus
L Postcentral gyrus
L/R Superior parietal gyrus, precuneus, paracentral lobule
L/R Inferior parietal, supramarginal, angular gyri
L/R Intraparietal sulcus
L/R Posterior superior temporal, posterior middle temporal gyri
L/R Posterior inferior temporal gyrus
L/R Cerebellum

"This part of the study establishes, as never before, that there is a commonality in how different people's brains represent the same object," said Mitchell, head of the Machine Learning Department in Carnegie Mellon's School of Computer Science and a pioneer in applying machine learning methods to the study of brain activity. "There has always been a philosophical conundrum as to whether one person's perception of the color blue is the same as another person's. Now we see that there is a great deal of commonality across different people's brain activity corresponding to familiar tools and dwellings."

"This first step using computer algorithms to identify thoughts of individual objects from brain activity can open new scientific paths, and eventually roads and highways," added Svetlana Shinkareva, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of South Carolina who is the study's lead author. "We hope to progress to identifying the thoughts associated not just with pictures, but also with words, and eventually sentences."

In contrast to this last statement are the results from a new paper (Sanai et al., 2008) showing that language representation in the brain is highly variable across individuals:
Background: Language sites in the cortex of the brain vary among patients. Language mapping while the patient is awake is an intraoperative technique designed to minimize language deficits associated with brain-tumor resection. ...
Results: ...Cortical maps generated with intraoperative language data ...showed surprising variability in language localization within the dominant [left] hemisphere.
During surgery to remove gliomas, the patients in the mapping study performed three different speech/language tasks (including object naming) while various regions of cortex were stimulated to test for language deficits. Guess the neurosurgeons couldn't read their minds...


Sanai N, Mirzadeh Z, Berger MS. (2008). Functional outcome after language mapping for glioma resection. N Engl J Med. 358:18-27.

Shinkareva SV, Mason RA, Malave VL, Wang W, Mitchell TM, Just MA. (2008). Using fMRI Brain Activation to Identify Cognitive States Associated with Perception of Tools and Dwellings. PLoS ONE. Jan 2;3(1):e1394.

Previous studies have succeeded in identifying the cognitive state corresponding to the perception of a set of depicted categories, such as tools, by analyzing the accompanying pattern of brain activity, measured with fMRI. The current research focused on identifying the cognitive state associated with a 4s viewing of an individual line drawing (1 of 10 familiar objects, 5 tools and 5 dwellings, such as a hammer or a castle). Here we demonstrate the ability to reliably (1) identify which of the 10 drawings a participant was viewing, based on that participant's characteristic whole-brain neural activation patterns, excluding visual areas; (2) identify the category of the object with even higher accuracy, based on that participant's activation; and (3) identify, for the first time, both individual objects and the category of the object the participant was viewing, based only on other participants' activation patterns. The voxels important for category identification were located similarly across participants, and distributed throughout the cortex, focused in ventral temporal perceptual areas but also including more frontal association areas (and somewhat left-lateralized). These findings indicate the presence of stable, distributed, communal, and identifiable neural states corresponding to object concepts.

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Tuesday, January 08, 2008

World Telekinesis Competition

Since we're on the topic of ESP and other psi phenomena, you'll be glad to learn that the first World Telekinesis Competition will be held in Spring 2008 in Victoria, British Columbia.

Telekinesis (also known as psychokinesis) is "the process of moving or otherwise affecting physical objects by the mind only, without making any physical contact," famously employed by Shannen Dougherty's character in Charmed, the eponymous high school student in Carrie, and as one manifestation of The Force. Like many people, The Neurocritic used to dream of having telekinetic powers as a kid, and was always disappointed when I awoke and couldn't really move things around by sheer force of will.
To dream that you are telekinetic, represents a higher level of awareness and consciousness. You are not utilizing your full potential and need to start putting your stored energy levels and mental abilities to use. In other words, your dream may imply that you need to put your thoughts into action. For some, dreams of telekinetic powers may indicate your latent paranormal abilities.
What is going on here, you say? Has The Neurocritic become a Jungian? No, not really. The telekinesis competition/ performance art piece is sponsored by Noxious Sector,
an ongoing collaborative endeavor by Canadian artists Ted Hiebert, Doug Jarvis and Jackson 2Bears, dedicated to the exploration of alternative cognitive function, the paranormal and the absurd. Conceived as a formalized forum for informal inquiry, Noxious Sector projects take the form of performances, curatorial initiatives and artistic collaborations.
Another interesting collaborative work is

Magnetically Inclined
Ted Hiebert & Doug Jarvis, 2007

Magnetically Inclined is a performance and documentary project exploring the relationship between brainwaves and high-powered earth magnets. Currently in developmental stages, this project will include various magnetic interventions into such brain wave activities as dreaming, meditating and concentration exercises.
-via Beyond Robson

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