Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Scan Scandal Hits Social Neuroscience

Mind Hacks uncovers a pre-print (PDF) by Vul, Harris, Winkielman, and Pashler entitled "Voodoo Correlations in Social Neuroscience". It's a "bombshell of a paper" that questions the implausibly high correlations observed in some fMRI studies in the field of Social Neuroscience. Vul et al. surveyed the authors of 54 papers to determine the analytic methods used. All but three of the authors responded to the survey, and 54% admitted to using faulty methods to obtain their results:
More than half acknowledged 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. In addition, we argue that other analysis problems likely created entirely spurious correlations in some cases.
A few of The Neurocritic's targets were on the hit list, so stay tuned.... there's more to come in 2009.

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Monday, December 29, 2008

Deal, No Deal, or Dots?

OR: Is Perceptual Decision Making in Primate LIP Equivalent to Financial Decision Making Under Risk?

In the universally familiar game show Deal or No Deal, contestants choose from among 26 briefcases held by 26 models. Each of these briefcases contains a different amount of money ranging from $0.01 to $1,000,000. The contestant begins by choosing one briefcase, then starts selecting other cases to open, hoping to reveal small cash amounts because this will improve the odds of winning the $1 million. After a predetermined number of cases are opened, 'the Banker' tries to tempt the player to exchange her case for an amount of instant cash. The player must either stick with her original briefcase choice ('No Deal'), or make a 'Deal' with the Banker to accept his cash offer in exchange for whatever dollar amount is in the chosen case.

The show is a terrific example of financial decision making under risk. Nobel prize recipient Daniel Kahneman and his colleague Amos Tversky developed the idea of prospect theory to explain how people decide between alternatives that involve risk, when the outcome is uncertain but the probabilities are known (or estimated). Their highly influential paper (Kahneman & Tversky, 1979) framed these ideas, which provided an alternative to the expected utility hypothesis:
What does any of this have to do with dots??

The University of Rochester issued an egregiously erroneous press release to accompany the publication of a new paper in Neuron (Beck et al., 2008):
Our Unconscious Brain Makes the Best Decisions Possible

New Research Shows the Human Brain Computes Extremely Well—Given What it Knows

Researchers at the University of Rochester have shown that the human brain—once thought to be a seriously flawed decision maker—is actually hard-wired to allow us to make the best decisions possible with the information we are given.
Let's see, the study was done in monkeys (not humans), and the results said absolutely nothing about proving the brain is "hard-wired" to make the best decisions possible. The paper used computational methods to analyze the spike trains of neurons in the lateral intraparietal (LIP) area of monkeys who were trained to make motion discriminations. The original data were taken from the paper of Anne Churchland et al. (2008). One of the experimental tasks is illustrated below.

Figure 1A (Beck et al., 2008). Binary decision making. The subject must decide whether the dots are moving to the right or to the left. Only a fraction of the dots are moving to the right or the left coherently (black arrows). The other dots move in random directions. The animal indicates its response by moving its eyes in the perceived direction (green arrow).

Another variant of the task involved four choices instead of two (Churchland et al., 2008). In the Neuron paper, Beck et al. described a neural network model of decision making in these tasks. Although the motion direction task has been extensively studied in both animals and humans, the reported model is clearly based on recordings of LIP neurons in rhesus monkeys.

Back to paragraph #2 of the press release:
Neuroscientists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky received a 2002 Nobel Prize for their 1979 research that argued humans rarely make rational decisions. Since then, this has become conventional wisdom among cognition researchers.
Kahneman and Tversky are/were (respectively) psychologists, not neuroscientists, and Tversky did not receive the Nobel prize. Perceptual discrimination of motion direction is not the same thing as financial decision making under risk, with its cognitive and affective elements. Although the monkeys were rewarded for correct decisions, reward functions were not a part of the network model. The authors summarized the significance of their work as follows:
First, we show that for Poisson-like distributions, optimal evidence accumulation can be performed through simple integration of neural activities, while optimal response selection can be implemented through attractor dynamics. Second, we show (again for Poisson-like distributions of neural activity) that neurons encode the posterior probability distribution over the variables of interest at all times. This latter contribution has far-reaching implications, since it suggests that neurons implicated in simple perceptual decisions represent quantities that are directly relevant to inference, confidence, and belief.
However, they didn't directly extrapolate their results to behavioral economics, and they didn't cite Kahneman and Tversky. Neverthess, the press release by the Senior Science Press Officer continues:
Contrary to Kahnneman and Tversky's research, Alex Pouget, associate professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester, has shown that people do indeed make optimal decisions—but only when their unconscious brain makes the choice.
At the risk of sounding pedantic, people did not make the decisions (monkeys did), and there was nary a mention of conscious vs. unconscious processing in the paper.

"A lot of the early work in this field was on conscious decision making, but most of the decisions you make aren't based on conscious reasoning," says Pouget. "You don't consciously decide to stop at a red light or steer around an obstacle in the road. Once we started looking at the decisions our brains make without our knowledge, we found that they almost always reach the right decision, given the information they had to work with."

Pouget says that Kahneman's approach was to tell a subject that there was a certain percent chance that one of two choices in a test was "right." This meant a person had to consciously compute the percentages to get a right answer—something few people could do accurately.

. . .

"We've been developing and strengthening this hypothesis for years—how the brain represents probability distributions," says Pouget. "We knew the results of this kind of test fit perfectly with our ideas, but we had to devise a way to see the neurons in action. We wanted to see if, in fact, humans are really good decision makers after all, just not quite so good at doing it consciously. Kahneman explicitly told his subjects what the chances were, but we let people's unconscious mind work it out. It's weird, but people rarely make optimal decisions when they are told the percentages up front."

I don't know if there would be any differences in the results if the monkeys were told the percentages up front... but you can watch Professor Kahneman discuss Decision Making and Rationality in Deal or No Deal Decisions, now showing on Channel N.


J BECK, W MA, R KIANI, T HANKS, A CHURCHLAND, J ROITMAN, M SHADLEN, P LATHAM, A POUGET (2008). Probabilistic Population Codes for Bayesian Decision Making Neuron, 60 (6), 1142-1152 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2008.09.021

Churchland AK, Kiani R, Shadlen MN. (2008). Decision-making with multiple alternatives. Nat Neurosci. 11:693-702.

Kahneman D, Tversky A. (1979). Prospect theory: An analysis of decision under risk. Econometrica 47: 263-291.

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Friday, December 26, 2008

Fainting In The Name Of

OR: The Glasgow Coma Scale-Revised: The Texting Sign.

Watch Killing in the Name, live at the Reading Festival 2008.

Rage Against the Machine Syncope

First we had dangerous sandwiches. Now we have dangerous concerts, as described in an article in the special Christmas edition of BMJ by Mike Sinclair and colleagues (Sinclair et al., 2008). They examined the utility of texting ability as a sign of return to consciousness after fainting or panic attack at large outdoor music festivals in the UK:

Three years ago we noticed that most of the patients with faint [syncope] or panic attack were teenagers and as soon as they could they used their mobile phones to send an SMS (short message service) text message to their friends...

The ability to text, whether or not it actually makes sense, requires a Glasgow coma scale score of 15 (fully conscious), an adequately functioning "executive system" in the frontal lobes, and a high degree of manual dexterity and psychomotor coordination. It also shows a degree of common sense not always evident in teenagers.

Two years ago we decided to use this texting sign as an indication that patients had recovered from their faint or panic attack and were orientated and coordinated enough to be discharged back to the festival. At times of massive influx to the medical tent, when up to two patients a minute are triaged, this system seems to work well.

The sets by Bloc Party and Rage Against the Machine were particularly busy times. The Festival Medical Services pit crew was able to treat
142 patients in less than 60 minutes during the performance by Bloc Party and 130 patients over 90 minutes during the performance by Rage Against the Machine. The texting sign needs further investigation to determine whether it is a valid criterion for recovery after faint or panic attack at festivals as well as in busy accident and emergency departments.
And now you do what they told ya (11 times)...

For another music-related article from the same issue of BMJ, see Between a rock and a hard bass in Mind Hacks.


M. Sinclair, D. W Pigott, K. N Carpenter (2008). Texting shows recovery after faint. BMJ, 337. DOI: 10.1136/bmj.a2723.

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Monday, December 22, 2008

Dangerous Sandwiches

The "Enormous Omelet Sandwich" - 730 calories and 47 grams of fat

The "Monster Thickburger" - 1,420 calories and 107 grams of fat

The Ultimate Bacon Sandwich - 22 slices (1.25 lbs)

The 30,000 Calorie Sandwich (self-explanatory)

And now from The Lancet:
Dangerous Sandwiches

The unusual case of a woman who regularly fainted while eating sandwiches or fizzy drinks is explored in a Case Report in this week’s edition of The Lancet...

The 25-year-old woman was seen at the hospital in January this year. She presented with episodes, typically lasting 10 second or less, of feeling suddenly and alarmingly light headed, and nauseous. She had collapsed on more than one occasion, but had no movements typical of epilepsy. Sometimes she would have several episodes a week. The problem first began when she was 15 and remained unexplained despite hospital admissions between 2001 and 2007. A full battery of blood and other tests had, more than once, revealed everything to be normal. However, an electrocardiogram (ECG) test had shown a pause of 2.5 seconds. She then had external-loop ECG tests, in which she was asked to press a button to record 1-2 minutes of the ECG each time she felt faint. At times of light-headedness, she was found to have complete atrioventricular block (a slowing of intracardiac conduction), with beat-to-beat pauses lasting up to 2.5 seconds.
This was due to a rare case of swallow syncope (see also Armstrong et al., 1985 and Siegel, 2007)...
...a transient alteration or loss of consciousness during swallowing, and is usually intermittent. It may be caused by altered feedback in vagal reflexes—in which the afferent pathway, from the oesophagus, terminates in the nucleus tractus solitarius, and the efferent pathway runs from the medulla to the heart—or by vagal hypersensitivity.
After the patient was fitted with a pacemaker, her fainting episodes ceased and
When last seen, in June, 2008, she could eat sandwiches with impunity.
Let's hope she didn't choose the "Monster Thickberger"...


Christopher John Boos, Una Martin, Russell C Cherry, Howard J Marshall (2008). Dangerous sandwiches. The Lancet 372:2164.

I am making the most dangerous sandwich possible......with science!

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Saturday, December 20, 2008

Snotty or Nice?

Bhutta MF, Maxwell H. Sneezing induced by sexual ideation or orgasm: an under-reported phenomenon. J R Soc Med. 2008 Dec;101(12):587-91.

We describe a hitherto under-recognized curious response in some individuals: of sneezing in response either to sexual ideation or in response to orgasm. Our review suggests that it may be much more common than expected. We surmise that an indiscrete stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system may be an underlying mechanism to explain this and other reported unusual triggers of sneezing.
First, we had the ACHOO (autosomal dominant compelling helio-ophthalmic outburst) syndrome, commonly known as photic sneezing:
The probable cause is a congenital malfunction in nerve signals in the trigeminal nerve nuclei. The fifth cranial nerve, called the trigeminal nerve, is apparently responsible for sneezes. Research suggests that some people have an association between this nerve and the nerve that transmits visual impulses to the brain. Overstimulation of the optic nerve triggers the trigeminal nerve, and this causes the photic sneeze reflex.
Now we have sneezing in response to orgasm or even thinking about sex. Here's a poor bloke writing in to The Times Online:
I’m a middle-aged man, and when I climax I have sneezing fits, which spoil the mood. Can I prevent this?

SUZI GODSON answers:

Impotence? Premature ejaculation? Inorgasmia? Sneezing? In the greater scheme of things, keeping a box of tissues by the bed is, I would suggest, a manageable sexual burden. After all, sneezing is not an entirely unpleasant experience. Indeed, it is often compared to orgasm because it is messy, takes about a second, requires copious Kleenex and strangers bless you afterwards.

If it makes you feel better, you are suffering from a serious-sounding but harmless medical condition. The propensity to sneeze at orgasm is closely related to the Achoo syndrome, commonly known as photic sneezing.

This is a genetically inherited neurological phenomenon, which occurs when exposure to bright light triggers pupil constriction in the eye. Pupil constriction is a function that is controlled by the brain stem, the multi-tasking lower part of the brain. The brain stem connects the spinal cord to the brain and plays a vital role in a smorgasbord of neurological functions that include breathing, digestion, heart rate, blood pressure and arousal. Because the neural pathways for these functions run very close to each other, it is thought that light-sensitive sneezing, sneezing after a meal or post-coital sneezing occur when the pathways get muddled up with the pathway that registers irritation in the nose.

Looks like she scooped Bhutta and Maxwell (2008) in her sex advice column of July 12, 2008...

See also violet blue ® on the subject, as well as Sneezing uncontrollably after sex may be more common than realised, The sexy secret that could lie in a sneeze, and (my favorite) Snot so innocent.

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Friday, December 19, 2008

More Mindreading

No, not really. Mind reading software cannot record your dreams:
'Mind-reading' software could record your dreams

18:05 12 December 2008 by Celeste Biever

Pictures you are observing can now be recreated with software that uses nothing but scans of your brain. It is the first "mind reading" technology to create such images from scratch, rather than picking them out from a pool of possible images.

. . .

Yukiyasu Kamitani at ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories in Kyoto, Japan [and] his team [have] used an image of brain activity taken in a functional MRI scanner to recreate a black-and-white image from scratch.

"By analysing the brain signals when someone is seeing an image, we can reconstruct that image," says Kamitani.

This means that the mind reading isn't limited to a selection of existing images, but could potentially be used to "read off" anything that someone was thinking of, without prior knowledge of what that might be.

Bah, humbug. Even worse is this news story, complete with misleading quotes from the investigators themselves:
Dreams may no longer be secret with Japan computer screen

Thu Dec 11, 12:26 am ET

TOKYO (AFP) – A Japanese research team has revealed it had created a technology that could eventually display on a computer screen what people have on their minds, such as dreams.

Researchers at the ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories succeeded in processing and displaying images directly from the human brain, they said in a study unveiled ahead of publication in the US magazine Neuron.1

While the team for now has managed to reproduce only simple images from the brain, they said the technology could eventually be used to figure out dreams and other secrets inside people's minds.

"It was the first time in the world that it was possible to visualise what people see directly from the brain activity," the private institute said in a statement.

"By applying this technology, it may become possible to record and replay subjective images that people perceive like dreams."

Andrew Hires provides a hefty dose of reality, in a comment on his own post at Brain Windows:

NO. This paper does not decode dreams.

NO. It doesn’t even come close.

It’s total speculation at this point to be able to decode dreams.

However, if V1 accurately reports the visions we see while in REM sleep, then this paper, combined with the results from Kay et al, Nature 2008 does get us ONE step closer to that.

Remember, this is very low resolution reconstruction of a single visual stimulus that is fixated on for seconds. Natural visual stimuli are much more complex. Dream images likely move rapidly. Current fMRI technology is at least an order of magnitude away from natural scene reconstruction in both temporal and spatial scales.

And for an accurate summary of the paper, read his entire post, Updated: fMRI Based Visual Stimulus Reconstruction.


1 Available at newsstands everywhere.

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Can You Reread My Mind?

ResearchBlogging.orgPLoS ONE @ Two

Originally posted on Thursday, January 10, 2008.

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

Earlier this year, a 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.

Svetlana V. Shinkareva, Robert A. Mason, Vicente L. Malave, Wei Wang, Tom M. Mitchell, Marcel Adam Just (2008). Using fMRI Brain Activation to Identify Cognitive States Associated with Perception of Tools and Dwellings. PLoS ONE, 3 (1) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0001394

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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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Crime, Punishment, and Jerry Springer

RT @Dostoyevsky Realists do not fear the results of their study.

"Good God!" he cried, "can it be, can it be, that I shall really take an axe, that I shall strike her on the head, split her skull open... that I shall tread in the sticky warm blood, blood... with the axe... Good God, can it be?"

- Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, Ch. 5

A new fMRI paper in Neuron (Buckholtz et al., 2008) claims to have discovered the neural correlates of evaluating another person's crime and deciding on the appropriate sentence, in emulation of judges and juries meting out third-party punishment (Fehr & Fischbacher, 2004).

On the other hand, the rotating "freak show" guests on the Jerry Springer Show mete out second-party punishment,1 which is generally harsher (in midget fights and certain economic games, at least).

Here’s the great new insight of the paper, according to the Preview by Johannes Haushofer and Ernst Fehr:
Thus, the study of Buckholtz makes a valuable contribution in that it illustrates that third-person judgment situations, such as those used in their study, may rely on similar neural mechanisms as two-person economic and social exchanges. While it is difficult to draw reverse inferences about mental states based on brain activation (Poldrack, 2006),2 one might speculate, based on this new study, that the mental processes motivating judicial verdicts involve the suppression of prepotent emotional reactions in favor of impartial and objective verdicts.
[NOTE: aren’t you just marveling at this grand new insight from fMRI? Like we didn’t already know that judges and jurors must put aside their emotionally-driven desire for revenge when coming to an impartial verdict.]
Thus, this new result might, if confirmed by future studies, elucidate the neural source of judicial impartiality.
All right, let's go back to the beginning. Or to the Methods, at least. One of the experimental tasks was to determine whether the perpetrator of a given hypothetical crime was responsible for his actions. There were two versions of the same basic crime scenarios with the details of Responsibility versus Diminished Responsibility counterbalanced across the two sets (e.g., compare #3 and #32 below). Half of the participants read Set 1, the other half read Set 2. Some of the infractions were minor (#7, #22), but some were crimes of the most heinous sort, whether intentional (#3) or unintentional (#27, #32). Thus, the severity of the crimes was matched across the experimental conditions as well. Below are some examples of the stimuli, taken from the Supplementary Materials.

Responsibility Scenarios

3) John develops a plan to kill his 60-year-old invalid mother for the inheritance. He drags her to her bed, puts her in, and lights her oxygen mask with a cigarette, hoping to make it look like an accident. His mother screams as her clothes catch fire and she burns to death.

7) John is parking his car in the parking lot of a local football stadium, where he plans to watch a game. In the car next to his, he sees a hat with his team logo in the back seat. Seeing that the door is unlocked, John opens the door, and takes the hat.

Diminished Responsibility Scenarios

22) John visits a local bookstore, carrying a large shopping bag with goods from another store. While the store clerk is preoccupied with inventory, another customer, hoping to use John unwittingly in a theft, sneaks a book into John’s shopping bag. Without realizing what has happened, John walks out without paying for the book.

27) A brain tumor is causing increasingly erratic, violent, and callous behavior in John. Soon, he develops an uncontrollable urge to kill. John abducts a boy, puts a broomstick in the boy’s r-----, and lashes him with a whip until he dies. When the tumor is later found and removed, John’s behavior returns to normal.

32) Unbeknownst to John and his doctors, his new prescription interacts with his other medications to induce severe acute psychoses. During that interaction, John returns home to his 60-year old invalid mother, who he has always adored. John lights her oxygen mask with a cigarette, and watches as his mother catches fire, screams, and burns to death.

No Crime Scenarios [control condition]

47) The manual to John’s new car states: “The oil must be changed no less frequently than every 4,000 miles.” John reads the manual and is aware of what it says. However, John drives the car for 4,023 miles before taking it to a service station for the car’s first oil change. [gasp!]

48) John and his best friend have played golf together for more than ten years. They used to be evenly matched, but recently John’s friend has consistently outplayed him. Growing frustrated, John responded by taking private golf lessons from the local pro. The next time John played against his friend, he soundly beat him.

That was extremely unpleasant and harsh at times, wasn't it? Over the course of the experiment, participants read 50 scenarios (20 Responsibility, 20 Diminished Responsibility, 10 No Crime) three times each: once in the scanner and twice after scanning. The procedures were as follows:
Participants rated each scenario on a scale from 0–9, according to how much punishment they thought John deserved, with “0” indicating no punishment and “9” indicating extreme punishment. Punishment was defined for participants as “deserved penalty.”

. . .

Following the scanning session, participants rated the same scenarios along scales of emotional arousal and valence. They first rated each of the 50 scenarios (presented in random order on a computer screen outside the scanner) on the basis of how emotionally aroused they felt following its presentation (0 = calm, 9 = extremely excited). They then rated each of the scenarios, presented again in random order, on the basis of how positive or negative they felt following its presentation (0 = extremely positive, 9 = extremely negative).
The results from these rating tasks are shown below, and it's not surprising that the subjects recommended more severe punishments for the perpetrator in the Responsibility scenarios than in the Diminished Responsibility scenarios.

Figure 1 (Buckholtz et al., 2008). Punishment and Arousal Ratings for Each Scenario Type. While punishment and arousal scores were similar in the Responsibility condition, punishment scores were significantly lower than arousal scores in the Diminished-Responsibility condition. Error bars = SEM.

As for the neuroimaging results, the authors compared the hemodynamic response in the Responsibility versus the Diminished Responsibility conditions to see what brain areas might be differentially activated. Greater activity in the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (rDLPFC) was emphasized (Fig 2). Responses in bilateral anterior intraparietal sulcus were similar, but relegated to the Supplementary Materials.

Figure 2 (Buckholtz et al., 2008). Relationship between Responsibility Assessment and rDLPFC Activity. (A) SPM displaying the rDLPFC VOI, based on the contrast of BOLD activity between the Responsibility and Diminished-Responsibility conditions. (B) BOLD activity time courses. BOLD peak amplitude was significantly greater in the Responsibility condition compared with both the Diminished-Responsibility and No-Crime conditions.

So now we get to the interpretation that rDLPFC is suppressing emotional reactions in areas such as the amygdala, medial PFC, and posterior cingulate cortex (which were sensitive to the magnitude of punishment) in order to assign a diminished level of criminal responsibility. The problem with that reverse inference is illustrated below.

This figure was generated from entering the x, y, z Talairach coordinates from the rDLPFC focus shown above (39, 37, 22)3 into the Sleuth program (available at, which searched the available database of papers for matches. The resulting list of coordinates and experiments was then imported into the GingerALE program, which performed a meta-analysis via the activation likelihood estimation (ALE) method (see this PDF). The figure illustrates that the exact same region of rDLPFC was activated during tasks that assessed attention; execution, inhibition, and observation of actions; various aspects of language and perception; and especially working memory.

The authors appear to acknowledge the caveat that
the brain regions identified in our study are not specifically devoted to legal decision-making. Rather, a more parsimonious explanation is that third-party punishment decisions draw on elementary and domain-general computations supported by the rDLPFC.
They also acknowledged the confound of arousal and crime severity. Nonetheless, they concluded by waving their arms around and blabbing about the evolution of the legal system:
...on the basis of the convergence between neural circuitry mediating second-party norm enforcement and impartial third-party punishment, we conjecture that our modern legal system may have evolved by building on preexisting cognitive mechanisms that support fairness-related behaviors in dyadic interactions. Though speculative and subject to experimental confirmation, this hypothesis is nevertheless consistent with the relatively recent development of state-administered law enforcement institutions, compared to the much longer existence of human cooperation.
What are we to conclude from this? Since it's very late now, I'll let Jerry and Fyodor have the last words.
“We can't just have mainstream behavior on television in a free society, we have to make sure we see the whole panorama of human behavior.”

- Jerry Springer

“Actions are sometimes performed in a masterly and most cunning way, while the direction of the actions is deranged and dependent on various morbid impressions-it's like a dream.”

- Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, Ch. 17
But when all is said and done, why don't we let Jerry Fodor have the last word?
“It’s a thin line between clarity and pomposity.”

Psychosemantics: The Problem of Meaning in the Philosophy of Mind, p. 17.


1 But as Wikipedia notes, "there has been continuous debate over the actual authenticity of the fighting."

2 "...we won’t let that stop us from rampant speculation" [to paraphrase Haushofer and Fehr]. I feel like a broken record here, but reverse inference is a logical fallacy - one cannot directly infer the participants' cognitive or emotional state from the observed pattern of brain activity. Everyone should know better by now, and there should be a moratorium on such sloppy thinking. Or rather, such sloppy writing and publishing. The high-profile journals are the worst offenders, and they end up promoting the use of totally misleading headlines like this one:
Justice may be hard-wired into the human brain

Call it the justice instinct. When judging the guilt or innocence of alleged criminals, our brains seem to respond as if we were personally wronged, say researchers.
The "justice instinct"?? Spare me. The experiment said absolutely nothing about evolution, genetics, or "hard-wiring."

3 According to pages 932 and 938. However, page 936 and Table S1 say the coordinates are slightly different: 39, 38, 18.


J BUCKHOLTZ, C ASPLUND, P DUX, D ZALD, J GORE, O JONES, R MAROIS (2008). The Neural Correlates of Third-Party Punishment. Neuron, 60 (5), 930-940 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2008.10.016.

Fehr E, Fischbacher U. (2004). Third-party punishment and social norms. Evolution and Human Behavior 25:63–87.

Haushofer J, Fehr E (2008). You Shouldn’t Have: Your Brain on Others’ Crimes. Neuron 60:738-740.

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Monday, December 15, 2008

However, Jerry Springer says he has no talent.

Talk show host Jerry Springer has said that he has "no talent" and is not "an entertainer".

Speaking on 'This Morning' the 'America's Got Talent' presenter said: "I have no talent. I really don't."

"No-one would have picked me to go into showbiz. I don't have any talent."

"I'm not an entertainer and yet I have made my living in this industry. It's a fluke," he said.

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The Jerry Springer of academia?


101 Fascinating Brain Blogs

By Alisa Miller

  1. The Neurocritic. The Jerry Springer of academia? Maybe. This blog provides the "most sensationalistic recent findings in Human Brain Imaging, Cognitive Neuroscience, and Psychopharmacology." And it's difficult to quit reading.
I would like to think of myself as slightly more intellectual than Jerry, but perhaps Alisa Miller will pitch a combative brain blog show to NBC. But for now, will have to do.

At any rate, plenty of old favorites and some new ones are on the list, so be sure to check it out.

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Tuesday, December 09, 2008


First, there was the Jesus toast and the Virgin Mary grilled cheese.1

Then there was the Virgin Mary rock.

The Virgin Mary Tree.

The Jesus x-ray.

And now Our Blessed Lady of the Cerebellum (originally reported by Mind Hacks).

Pareidolia is the phenomenon of perceiving a meaningful stimulus (such as a face or a hidden message) in fairly random everyday objects or sounds. We do have quite a propensity to see faces everywhere, and some religious people see the face of god (and other religious iconography) everywhere.

Neuroanthropology covers the serious side of the story, explaining that the brain in the upside down MRI belongs to Pamela Latrimore, who is quite ill with a variety of ailments. She's auctioning off the scan to help pay her medical bills.
The listing on eBay for the Mary MRI can be found here. Reading the listing is heart-breaking, not only because of the woman’s own suffering, but also because of her account of how the manufacture of dioxin and Agent Orange has affected health in her community. She writes that she is putting the image up for auction, not only to raise money for her healthcare, but also to attract greater attention to the problem of environmental poisoning in her area of Florida [NOTE: it's actually Jacksonville, AK, her former home and a Superfund site in the 1980s. For more info, see this EPA document].

1 For an extensive catalog of religious pareidolilia see Yoism featuring Penn and Teller.

ADDENDUM: Here's a great one recommended by jdc325. Somehow, I'm reminded of the Scary Skull Table Illusion.

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Monday, December 08, 2008

Get out of jail free (postage not included)

via The Null Device:
A convicted drug dealer escaped from a prison in western Germany by climbing into a cardboard box and mailing himself out. And I thought that such things didn't happen outside of old animated cartoons.
The story continues, stating the obvious:

The chief warden of the jail told the BBC this was an embarrassing incident.

The prison authorities in Willich, near Duesseldorf, said the man, who was tall and broad-shouldered, had hidden in a box that was about 150cm by 120cm.

When the weekly express courier arrived to pick up several boxes of merchandise, the one containing the prisoner was also loaded into the back of the lorry.

Shortly after it had passed through the prison gates, the inmate made his dash for freedom by cutting a big hole in the tarpaulin of the lorry and jumping off.

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Saturday, December 06, 2008

I Hate Yellow

I hate yellow. I hate any signs of spring. Don't you know I'm only happy when I'm depressed? Don't you know that I'm only happy when I'm wearing black? That I'm only happy at night. Yes, I'm a creature of the night.

--Karen Finley, Shock Treatment [text arrangement adapted from Dawn's]

Feeling Blue? Yellow is the New Black

NEW YORK (AP) _ Enough gloom and doom: There's a prediction from a leading color source that cheerful and sunny yellow will be the influential color of 2009.

Pantone, which provides color standards to design industries, specifically cites "mimosa," a vibrant shade of yellow illustrated by the flowers of some mimosa trees as well as the brunch-favorite cocktail, as its top shade of the new year. In general, Pantone expects the public to embrace many tones of optimistic yellow.

"I think it's just the most wonderful symbolic color of the future," says Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of the Pantone Color Institute. "It's invariably connected to warmth, sunshine and cheer — all the good things we're in dire need of right now."

So it's come to this: Orwellian color therapy to fix the financial crisis and calm the unsettled consumer masses...

Pantone Selects Color of the Year for 2009: PANTONE 14-0848 Mimosa

December 03, 2008 06:15 AM Eastern Time

Mimosa Embodies Hopefulness and Reassurance in a Climate of Change

CARLSTADT, N.J.--Pantone, an X-Rite company, and the global authority on color and provider of professional color standards for the design industries, today announced PANTONE® 14-0848 Mimosa, a warm, engaging yellow, as the color of the year for 2009. In a time of economic uncertainty and political change, optimism is paramount and no other color expresses hope and reassurance more than yellow.

“The color yellow exemplifies the warmth and nurturing quality of the sun, properties we as humans are naturally drawn to for reassurance,” explains Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of the Pantone Color Institute®. “Mimosa also speaks to enlightenment, as it is a hue that sparks imagination and innovation.”

Best illustrated by the abundant flowers of the Mimosa tree and the sparkle of the brilliantly hued cocktail, the 2009 color of the year represents the hopeful and radiant characteristics associated with the color yellow. Mimosa is a versatile shade that coordinates with any other color, has appeal for men and women, and translates to both fashion and interiors. Look for women’s accessories, home furnishings, active sportswear and men’s ties and shirts in this vibrant hue.

I see you coming into my neighborhood with your new teeth, and your solid pastel lime green puke green pale pink apricot shirt that goes together with everything, catching sales as you go, with the
as your mascot.

--Karen Finley, Shock Treatment [text arrangement adapted from Dawn's]

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