Thursday, September 18, 2014

Can "Memories" be Implanted and Removed?

At the turn of the twentieth century, Ivan Pavlov conducted the experiments that turned his last name into an adjective. By playing a sound just before he presented dogs with a snack, he taught them to salivate upon hearing the tone alone, even when no food was offered. That type of learning is now called classical—or Pavlovian—conditioning. Less well known is an experiment that Pavlov was conducting at around the same time: when some unfortunate canines heard the same sound, they were given acid. Just as their luckier counterparts had learned to salivate at the noise, these animals would respond by doing everything in their power to get the imagined acid out of their mouths, each “shaking its head violently, opening its mouth and making movements with its tongue.” For many years, Pavlov’s classical conditioning findings overshadowed the darker version of the same discovery, but, in the nineteen-eighties, the New York University neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux revived the technique to study the fear reflex in rats. LeDoux first taught the rats to associate a certain tone with an electric shock so that they froze upon hearing the tone alone. In essence, the rat had formed a new memory—that the tone signifies pain. He then blunted that memory by playing the tone repeatedly without following it with a shock. After multiple shock-less tones, the animals ceased to be afraid. Now a new generation of researchers is trying to figure out the next logical step: re-creating the same effects within the brain, without deploying a single tone or shock. Is memory formation now understood well enough that memories can be implanted and then removed absent the environmental stimulus? more

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Concept of Time May Predict Impulsive Behavior, Research Finds

Obesity, gambling, substance abuse and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are just some disorders that have been linked to impulsive behavior, but the factors contributing to that impulsivity are still a mystery. Research from Kansas State University suggests that understanding the concept of time could predict an individual's impulsive choices. [Kimberly] Kirkpatrick; Aaron Smith, department of psychology at the University of Kentucky; and Andrew Marshall, doctoral student in psychology at Kansas State University, published "Mechanisms of Impulsive Choice: I. Individual Differences in Interval Timing and Reward Processing" in the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior. The researchers studied rats to determine if particular factors affect individual choices, particularly looking at how long rats can wait to earn a larger reward. Rats were given two different levers to push. One lever produced a small treat after a short time, the other lever produced a larger treat that required waiting longer — a scenario Kirkpatrick said was common for humans. more

Monday, September 15, 2014

Nicotine Withdrawal Reduces Response to Rewards Across Species

Cigarette smoking is a leading cause of preventable death worldwide and is associated with approximately 440,000 deaths in the United States each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population continues to smoke cigarettes. While more than half of U.S. smokers try to quit every year, less than 10 percent are able to remain smoke-free, and relapse commonly occurs within 48 hours of smoking cessation. Learning about withdrawal and difficulty of quitting can lead to more effective treatments to help smokers quit. In a first of its kind study on nicotine addiction, scientists measured a behavior that can be similarly quantified across species like humans and rats, the responses to rewards during nicotine withdrawal. Findings from this study were published online on Sept. 10, 2014 in JAMA Psychiatry. Response to reward is the brain's ability to derive and recognize pleasure from natural things such as food, money and sex. The reduced ability to respond to rewards is a behavioral process associated with depression in humans. In prior studies of nicotine withdrawal, investigators used very different behavioral measurements across humans and rats, limiting our understanding of this important brain reward system. more

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Evolutionary Explanation for Why Some Lessons are More Easily Learned Than Others

Animals are flooded with stimuli, but survival often depends on their ability to form specific associations that enhance fitness while ignoring others entirely. Psychologists have a name for it: the Garcia Effect. In the 1960s, John Garcia showed that rats are primed to learn certain associations (taste and illness) and not others (light and illness). "Different learning abilities evolved in different environments, and we had a hypothesis about how that should happen," says Stephens. "What we wanted to know the general properties that cause natural selection to favor some learned associations over others." Dunlap and Stephens tested their hypothesis using techniques associated with experimental evolution. "Experimental evolution is different than artificial selection," says Stephens. Instead of selecting for specific traits, the idea is to create specific environments and ask whether they generate selection in the predicted way. more

Monday, September 08, 2014

Parents, Listen Next Time Your Baby Babbles

Pay attention, mom and dad, especially when your infant looks at you and babbles. Parents may not understand a baby’s prattling, but by listening and responding, they let their infants know they can communicate which leads to children forming complex sounds and using language more quickly. That’s according to a new study by the University of Iowa and Indiana University that found how parents respond to their children’s babbling can actually shape the way infants communicate and use vocalizations. The findings challenge the belief that human communication is innate and can’t be influenced by parental feedback. Instead, the researchers argue, parents who consciously engage with their babbling infants can accelerate their children’s vocalizing and language learning. “It’s not that we found responsiveness matters,” says Julie Gros-Louis, assistant professor of psychology at the UI and corresponding author on the study, published in the July/August edition of the journal Infancy. “It’s how a mother responds that matters.” more

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Scientists Switch "Good" and "Bad" Memories in Mice

"Recording a memory is not like playing a tape recorder, it's a creative process," Susumu Tonegawa, director of the RIKEN-MIT Center for Neural Circuit Genetics at MIT and senior author of the paper, said in a Nature news conference...The researchers used genetically engineered mice who expressed a light-sensitive protein, allowing the scientists to activate different neurons by targeting them with a laser. They exposed half of them to a positive stimuli (interaction with a female mouse) and half to a negative one (small electric shocks). This activated both the neurons that form the structure of a memory, which are found in the hippocampus, and the neurons that determine the emotional value of a memory, in the amygdala. Then the mice were placed in a box with two sides that the mice could move freely between. When the mice moved to one particular end of the box, a light would shine down on them — activating the neurons that had been active during their conditioning. So for the mice who'd been shocked, the "target" end of the box meant an activation of the fearful memory. For the mice who'd spent time with a female, the same target end meant and activation of the pleasurable memory. Sure enough, the shocked mice avoided the target, while the others spent more time there than the side without a laser light. more

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Is Psychology's Focus Becoming Too Narrow?

In the past 20 or so years, there have been major advances in our understanding of the role of genetics, neural processes, and physiological processes (e.g., hormones, respiratory sinus arrhythmia) in human functioning. These domains of research have contributed immensely to our understanding of an array of issues in psychology and will no doubt continue to do so. However, as a consequence of the visibility and excitement about biologically oriented work, I have noticed a tendency toward reductionism by some individuals in the field and by some funding agencies. There seems to be an increasing tendency to assume that studying genetic/neural/physiological processes is more important than research on behavior and psychological processes per se because biological findings will eventually explain most of human psychological functioning. This belief is especially evidenced in the funding priorities at some of the National Institutes of Health. It can also be seen in the hiring patterns of many psychology departments that place a priority on hiring people who study biological processes or aspects of cognition that can be tied to neuroscience...Direct measures of behavior seem to be valued no more, and perhaps less, than self-report data and other types of nonbehavioral data collected in artificial experimental contexts. Yet the crux of what many of us want to understand is real-life human behavior. more

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Evidence-Based Medicine Actually Isn’t

In medical practice, the concept of evidence shares a lot with Saint Augustine’s understanding of time. He understood time perfectly well, of course, until somebody asked him to explain it. Medical evidence is similar. Everybody thinks they know what evidence means, but defining what counts as evidence is about as easy as negotiating peace in the Middle East. As a result, demands for “evidence-based medicine” pose some serious practical problems. In fact, the label “evidence based” applied to medicine has been confused, abused and misused so much lately that some experts suggest that the evidence-based medicine movement is in a state of crisis. more

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Managing to Results Isn’t Enough; Focus on Behaviors

In a results-only culture, managers do whatever is necessary to achieve the desired outcomes. That can include doing things that are illegal or unsafe, such as at GM, or, as at the VA changing numbers to boost results while endangering the lives of veterans. In these situations, employees made choices to avoid the consequences of failing to meet set results. Meanwhile, leaders put their organizations at risk because they managed only to outcomes instead of attending to the underlying employee behavior. Unfortunately, results often mangle the truth, putting blinders on the people who should be in charge. Managing to results alone is like managing by looking at last month’s newspaper. The old newspaper doesn’t tell you what is happening, only what has happened...Leaders and managers need to understand the underlying behaviors involved in achieving results, good or bad. Then they must know how to effectively use positive reinforcement for the behaviors involved in directly improving performance. more

Monday, August 25, 2014

Apps that Help You Help Yourself: Do Incentives Work?

The ‘help me help myself’ concept is nothing new. Humans have always sought to improve themselves. We vow, again and again and especially on New Year’s Day, to quit smoking, take up running, go green, save more cash, consume fewer calories—in short, to nix bad habits and establish good ones. Until recently, we relied mostly on willpower to keep those New Year’s resolutions. But now, consumers are discovering new ways to nudge themselves toward better habits. The behavioral psychology approach by B.F. Skinner developed in the 1920’s suggested that by repeatedly rewarding good choices and punishing bad ones, it’s possible to condition permanent behavior change. This concept endured some harsh criticism and fell out of favor for several decades, but it’s enjoying a renaissance today—only with a few twists. This time, participants are willingly choosing to have their behaviors modified. Moreover, they’re relying on modern tools to do so, particularly through the use of digital apps. Brands can get in on the action by developing the ‘nudges’ they need to stay on track. more

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Memory Factory

For those of you who missed The Amazing Meeting 2014, we present another lecture from that event, by Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, an expert on memory in the field of cognitive psychology. One of the biggest myths in the history of psychology is that memory is like a video tape that can be played back for everyone to see what “really happened.” In this lecture, Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, one of the world’s leading experts on memory, shows how we all edit our memories from the moment they are formed to the last time we recall them. That editing process is based on a number of emotional, psychological, and social factors that shape our memories. more

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The End of Dyslexia?

In 2005 Julian Elliott contributed to a television programme, The Dyslexia Myth, that highlighted the many misuses and misunderstandings of the dyslexia construct and the corresponding failure of professional services to cater for all who encounter reading difficulties. In the subsequent fallout he was repeatedly accused of undermining efforts to help children with dyslexia and setting back years of hard-fought-for advances. Indeed, in the programme itself he was criticised by a number of teachers on the grounds that parents who have fought for their children for years will be rendered puzzled and distraught by such arguments. Here Julian Elliott and his collaborator Elena Grigorenko ask, What is understood by the term dyslexia? and Is there really any value in the construct? To what extent is it professionally acceptable for psychologists to use diagnostic labels that they know to be scientifically questionable on the grounds that discontinuing their use would reduce the salience of very real difficulties that many people experience, and undermine the influence of lobby groups in highlighting the need for action? In essence, this is a key question that has occupied our thinking since The Dyslexia Myth was broadcast in 2005. more

Monday, August 18, 2014

Tortoises Master Touchscreen Technology

Tortoises have learned how to use touchscreens as part of a study which aimed to teach the animals navigational techniques. The research, which was led by Dr Anna Wilkinson, from the School of Life Sciences, involved red-footed tortoises, which are native to Central and South America. The brain structure of reptiles is very different to that of mammals, which use the hippocampus for spatial navigation. Instead, it is thought that the reptilian medial cortex serves as a homologue, however very little behavioural work has actually examined this...Dr Wilkinson carried out the initial training while at the University of Vienna, giving the tortoises treats such as strawberries when the reptiles looked at, approached and then pecked blue circles on the screen. more

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Secret To Productivity, In One Sentence

All behavior is a function of consequences. That's not my brilliant, original thought, although I wish it were. That idea belongs to B.F. Skinner, who some call the father of behavioral psychology. Eighty-some-odd years ago, Skinner was a professor at Harvard, trying to crack open the mysteries of human behavior. Much later, when I was trying to unlock the mysteries of starting up my own business, I read quite a bit on Skinner. I realized how much of his theories applied to entrepreneurship, and how much I was already practicing it from my career in football. Skinner was most noted for his studies of the power of positive reinforcement. Skinner realized, and proved through psychological experiments, one of the most basic functions of reinforcement: It's not so much about what happens before the behavior, but it's what you say after that makes all the difference in the world. more

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Open-Access Website Gets Tough

When Lars Bjørnshauge founded a website to index open-access journals in 2003, just 300 titles made the list. But over the next decade, the open-access publishing market exploded, and Bjørnshauge’s Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) along with it. Today the DOAJ comprises almost 10,000 journals — and its main problem is not finding new publications to include, but keeping the dodgy operators out. Now, following criticism of its quality-control checks, the website is asking all of the journals in its directory to reapply on the basis of stricter criteria. It hopes the move will weed out ‘predatory journals’: those that profess to publish research openly, often charging fees, but that are either outright scams or do not provide the services a scientist would expect, such as a minimal standard of peer review or permanent archiving. “We all know there has been a lot of fuss about questionable publishers,” says Bjørnshauge. The reapplication process will also create one of the largest ‘whitelists’ of acceptable open-access journals, helping the DOAJ to become a more useful tool for funders, librarians and researchers who want to look up information on a publication or import its metadata into their catalogues. Those journals meeting the highest criteria — expected to be about 10–15% of the total — will also be given a ‘seal’ of best practice. more

Monday, August 11, 2014

Dog Training, Animal Welfare, and the Human-Canine Relationship

Many people are concerned that aversive-based dog training methods can have side-effects. A new study by Stéphanie Deldalle and Florence Gaunet (in press in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior) observes dogs and their humans at training classes using either positive or negative reinforcement. The results support the idea that positive reinforcement is beneficial for the canine-human bond and better for animal welfare...The findings do not demonstrate causality, but are a valuable step in our understanding of the effects of different training methods on dogs. more

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Online Behavioral Intervention Improves Weight Loss Outcomes

While adding in-person group support sessions to a weight loss program produces the best results, adding just an online behavioral intervention can produce results nearly as good, at a much lower cost. Those are the findings from a 230-person trial from social wellness platform ShapeUp, recently published in the American Journal of Public Health. “The findings of this study are significant in that they reveal substantial progress in identifying cost-effective, scalable, online behavioral weight loss interventions that are capable of significantly improving outcomes,” Dr. Rajiv Kumar, founder and CEO of ShapeUp and one of the co-authors of the study, said in a statement. more

Monday, August 04, 2014

Why Thoughts Aren't Causes

There is a lot of rubbish spouted about behaviourism, often by people who should know better. Claims that behaviourists deny the existence of internal psychological events like thoughts and emotions might not be ridiculous if you’re thinking about the behaviourism of of John B. Watson, but virtually no behaviour analysts today are thinking about him. Watson’s behaviourism is often called methodological behaviourism and it stands in stark contrast to Skinner’s more recent radical behaviourism. Skinner explicitly was interested in thinking and feeling. Indeed, he wrote an entire book about it (which arguably lead to the falling out of favour of this school of psychology). Claims that behaviour analysts routinely punish their clients into compliance are simply bullshit. (I’m using the word here in the sense of Harry G. Frankfurt’s classic text where he defines bullshit as making knowledge claims when you have insufficient familiarity with the knowledge domain. So there.) more

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Logarithms Celebrate Their 400th Birthday

You may find this hard to believe, but there are people still alive today who once did their mathematical calculations by sliding sticks back and forth. No keypads, no batteries, no LEDs. Just sticks. Yes, it sounds like a device from the Stone Age, but as late as the 1970s scientists and engineers commonly used such a stick-sliding device, known as a slide rule, to perform multiplication and division and other tasks like extracting square roots. Working versions of these instruments still are on display in museums today. But as primitive as they sound, slide rules could not have been invented in the Stone Age or even in ancient Greece. They owe their existence to a much later mathematical development that is celebrating its 400th anniversary this year: the invention of logarithms. more

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Gene That Turns Worms Into Pavlov’s Dogs

Like Pavlov’s dogs, most organisms can learn to associate two events that usually occur together. Now, a team of researchers says they have identified a gene that enables such learning. The scientists, at the University of Tokyo, found that worms could learn to avoid unpleasant situations as long as a specific insulin receptor remained intact. Roundworms were exposed to different concentrations of salt; some received food during the initial exposure, others did not. Later, when exposed to various concentrations of salt again, the roundworms that had been fed during the first stage gravitated toward their initial salt concentrations, while those that had been starved avoided them. But the results changed when the researchers repeated the experiment using worms with a defect in a particular receptor for insulin, a protein crucial to metabolism. Those worms could not learn to avoid the salt concentrations associated with starvation. more

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Monetary Reward Speeds Up Voluntary Saccades

Past studies have shown that reward contingency is critical for sensorimotor learning, and reward expectation speeds up saccades in animals. Whether monetary reward speeds up saccades in human remains unknown. Here we addressed this issue by employing a conditional saccade task, in which human subjects performed a series of non-reflexive, visually-guided horizontal saccades. The subjects were (or were not) financially compensated for making a saccade in response to a centrally-displayed visual congruent (or incongruent) stimulus. Reward modulation of saccadic velocities was quantified independently of the amplitude-velocity coupling. We found that reward expectation significantly sped up voluntary saccades up to 30°/s, and the reward modulation was consistent across tests. These findings suggest that monetary reward speeds up saccades in human in a fashion analogous to how juice reward sped up saccades in monkeys. We further noticed that the idiosyncratic nasal-temporal velocity asymmetry was highly consistent regardless of test order, and its magnitude was not correlated with the magnitude of reward modulation. This suggests that reward modulation and the intrinsic velocity asymmetry may be governed by separate mechanisms that regulate saccade generation. more

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History

In his new book, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History, science writer Nicholas Wade claims that race is real—that Darwinian natural selection has resulted in a number of biologically separate human populations characterized by distinct, genetically determined social behaviors. He asserts that many of these differences have emerged over the last 10,000 years and that they explain much of human history. He writes that recent science has “established that human evolution has been recent, copious, and regional” and uses this framework to account for regional variations in economic power and cultural pursuits. As soon as it appeared, Wade’s book touched off a firestorm of controversy—as he surely knew it would...Early reviews of Wade’s book show a familiar division: Anthropologists mostly take a critical view, whereas psychologists and economists generally like the book...So is Wade right? Are there human races? Is the variation seen between different cultures and locations best explained by genetic differences between human populations? And have anthropologists been turning a blind eye to the evidence in front of them? There is no shortage of scientific information, and it gives a clear answer: no. more

Friday, July 18, 2014

Crack Down on Scientific Fraudsters

Ong-Pyou Han needed impressive lab results to help his team at Iowa State University move forward with its work on an AIDS vaccine — and to continue receiving millions of dollars in federal grants. So Dr. Han did what many scientists are probably tempted to do, but don’t: He faked the tests, spiking rabbit blood with human proteins to make it appear that the animals were responding to the vaccine to fight H.I.V. The reason you’re reading about this story, and not about the glowing success of the therapy, is that Dr. Han was caught... Even though research misconduct is far from rare, Dr. Han’s case was unusual in that he had to resign. Criminal charges against scientists who commit fraud are even more uncommon. In fact, according to a study published last year, “most investigators who engage in wrongdoing, even serious wrongdoing, continue to conduct research at their institutions.” As part of our reporting, we’ve written about multiple academic researchers who have been found guilty of misconduct and then have gone on to work at pharmaceutical giants. more

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Operant Conditioning of Spinal Reflexes: From Basic Science to Clinical Therapy

New appreciation of the adaptive capabilities of the nervous system, recent recognition that most spinal cord injuries are incomplete, and progress in enabling regeneration are generating growing interest in novel rehabilitation therapies. Here we review the 35-year evolution of one promising new approach, operant conditioning of spinal reflexes. This work began in the late 1970’s as basic science; its purpose was to develop and exploit a uniquely accessible model for studying the acquisition and maintenance of a simple behavior in the mammalian central nervous system (CNS). The model was developed first in monkeys and then in rats, mice, and humans. Studies with it showed that the ostensibly simple behavior (i.e., a larger or smaller reflex) rests on a complex hierarchy of brain and spinal cord plasticity; and current investigations are delineating this plasticity and its interactions with the plasticity that supports other behaviors. In the last decade, the possible therapeutic uses of reflex conditioning have come under study, first in rats and then in humans. The initial results are very exciting, and they are spurring further studies. At the same time, the original basic science purpose and the new clinical purpose are enabling and illuminating each other in unexpected ways. The long course and current state of this work illustrate the practical importance of basic research and the valuable synergy that can develop between basic science questions and clinical needs. more

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Scientists’ Grasp of Confidence Intervals Doesn’t Inspire Confidence

Sometimes it’s hard to have confidence in science. So many results from published scientific studies turn out to be wrong. Part of the problem is that science has trouble quantifying just how confident in a result you should be. Confidence intervals are supposed to help with that. They’re like the margin of error in public opinion polls. If candidate A is ahead of candidate B by 2 percentage points, and the margin of error is 4 percentage points, then you know it’s not a good bet to put all your money on A. The difference between the two is not “statistically significant.” Traditionally, science has expressed statistical significance with P values, P standing for the probability that the result you observe is a fluke. P values have all sorts of problems...Consequently many experts have advised using confidence intervals instead, and their use is becoming increasingly common. While there are some advantages in that, it is sadly the case that confidence intervals are also not what they are commonly represented to be. more