Thursday, January 31, 2013

Pavlovian Mice Help Neuroscientists Locate Fear "Memory" In The Amygdala

A new study released by a neuroscience group at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) examines how fear responses are learned, controlled and memorized, showing that a particular class of neurons in a subdivision of the amygdala place an active role in these processes...The team trained a strain of mice to respond in a Pavlovian manner to auditory cues, in order to examine the behavior of the animals undergoing a fear test. When the mice heard one of the sounds they had been taught to fear, they began to “freeze,” a very common fear response. The team wanted to study the particular neurons involved. They employed several methods to do this, and to understand the neurons in relation to the fear-inducing auditory cue. One method involved delivering a gene that encodes for a light-sensitive protein into the specific neurons they wanted to examine. The team then implanted a very thin fiber-optic cable directly into the area with the photosensitive neurons. This allowed them to shine colored laser light with pinpoint accuracy onto the cells, activating them. This technique is known as optogenetics. Changes in the behavior of the mice in response to the laser were monitored. more

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Carrots for Doctors

With its ambitious proposal to pay doctors in public hospitals based on the quality of their work — not the number of tests they order, pills they prescribe or procedures they perform — New York City has hopped aboard the biggest bandwagon in health care. Pay for performance, or P4P in the jargon, is embraced by right and left. Pay for performance, or P4P in the jargon, is embraced by right and left. It has long been the favorite egghead prescription for our absurdly overpriced, underperforming health care system. The logic seems unassailable: Reward quality, and you will get quality. Stop rewarding waste, and you will get less waste. QED! P4P!

If only it worked...

Critics, who have evidence from a host of pilot programs, say that the bonuses are typically too small to change behavior; New York’s would be a maximum of 2.5 percent of a doctor’s salary, and most P4P programs pay less than that. Often the performance indicators measure things that are not within the doctor’s control. more

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Pavlov's Rats? Rodents Trained to Link Rewards to Visual Cues


In experiments on rats outfitted with tiny goggles, scientists say they have learned that the brain's initial vision processing center not only relays visual stimuli, but also can "learn" time intervals and create specifically timed expectations of future rewards...Results of the study, in the journal Neuron, suggest that connections within nerve cell networks in the vision-processing center can be strengthened by the neurochemical acetylcholine (ACh), which the brain is thought to secrete after a reward is received. Only nerve cell networks recently stimulated by a flash of light delivered through the goggles are affected by ACh, which in turn allows those nerve networks to associate the visual cue with the reward. Because brain structures are highly conserved in mammals, the findings likely have parallels in humans, they say. more

Friday, January 25, 2013

Changing Behavior: You're Doing It Wrong

Shifting to sustainability will involve more than changing laws. Inevitably, it will involve changing behavior: the way people get around, where they live, what they eat, and so on. I was semi-obsessed with this topic for a while...and I still think it gets far too little attention from climate wonks and activists. At it happens, Stanford University has a whole Persuasive Tech Lab devoted to the subject of behavior change (and the ways technology changes behavior). The team there has put together a short, sweet slideshow on the “Top 10 Mistakes in Behavior Change.” No matter what your job or purpose, on some level I bet it involves trying to get people to change their behavior. So almost everyone can learn from this. more

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Resolutions, Exercise Trackers & Operant Conditioning

“… To get in shape” is one of the most common New Year’s resolutions, and arguably the one most often broken. For some, the solution may lie in the new wave of exercise trackers. Wristbands and other gadgets rely on operant conditioning — the potential for feedback from the environment to affect desired (or undesired) behavior. Depending on the gadget, trackers provide can provide personalized information about information including: the number of steps taken per day (which is then converted into miles traversed or calories burned); total calories consumed; and the length and depth of nightly sleep. Some of these trackers also will provide daily, weekly, or monthly trends. more

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Myth of Self-Correcting Science

Over the last two years, the field of psychology has endured a wave of scandal bookended by fraud cases involving Harvard primatologist Marc Hauser and Dutch social psychologist Diederik Stapel. Even researchers desensitized by scandal-fatigue did a double take when the final report on Stapel's case came out last month. The extent of his creative misinterpretation of the facts make the Hauser case look like child's play. Stapel not only manipulated and fabricated data, he invented entire schools where said data was allegedly collected...It's easy to revel in the high drama surrounding the downfall of a Hauser or Stapel, but what about the journals that published these scholars? Stapel was a widely cited and highly revered figure. His fraud went undetected for decades in spite of eerily perfect data sets and improbable statistical values. According to Tilburg University's final report, Flawed Science, "There was a general neglect of fundamental scientific standards and methodological requirements from top to bottom."...Almost more alarming than the few individuals committing academic fraud are the high percentage of researchers who admitted to more common questionable research practices, like post-hoc theorizing and data-fishing (sometimes referred to as p-hacking), in a recent study led by Leslie John. more

Monday, January 21, 2013

Teaching Kids to Give Themselves a Timeout

When Cara Bernal read a story to her kindergarten class on a recent winter day, she ignored a crying girl, another one wandering around the room and a boy laying his head down on his desk. Instead, she called attention to the one student who was on task, as she has been trained to do by psychologists. "Randy is looking at the story," said Ms. Bernal, a longtime teacher at the League School in Brooklyn.
When the other students behave as she wants, she praises their conduct as well. "Good raising your hand," she said when one boy stopped tapping her on the shoulder and instead returned to his chair to get her attention. Such "active ignoring" and other techniques Ms. Bernal uses are part of a treatment known as teacher-child interaction therapy. Its goal is to improve educators' ability to reduce disruptive classroom behaviors so that they can focus on teaching. more

Friday, January 18, 2013

Study Strategies That Make The Grade

Students everywhere, put down those highlighters and pick up some flashcards! Some of the most popular study strategies — such as highlighting and even rereading — don’t show much promise for improving student learning, according to a new report published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science...[S]preading out your studying over time and quizzing yourself on material before the big test are highly effective learning strategies. Both techniques have been shown to boost students’ performance across many different kinds of tests, and their effectiveness has been repeatedly demonstrated for students of all ages. In contrast, five of the techniques received a low utility rating from the researchers. Notably, these techniques are some of the most common learning strategies used by students, including summarization, highlighting and underlining, and rereading. more

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Wired Up! Ready to Go!

Festooned with digital accessories that track everything from his heart rate to his footsteps to his sleep patterns, the author has plugged into the Quantified Self movement. Farewell to gut instinct, and hello to the “data-driven” life: a new path to personal and social enlightenment. more

Program for the 39th Annual ABAI Convention Available Online

Now available online: The complete program for the Association for Behavior Analysis, International 39th Annual Convention, to be held May 24-28, 2013, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. more

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

You Probably Don't Have Free Will

Humans have debated the issue of free will for millennia. But over the past several years, while the philosophers continue to argue about the metaphysical underpinnings of human choice, an increasing number of neuroscientists have started to tackle the issue head on — quite literally. And some of them believe that their experiments reveal that our subjective experience of freedom may be nothing more than an illusion. Here's why you probably don't have free will. more

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Why You Shouldn’t Work Less, Even If You Prefer Spending Time With Your Family

Would I be happier if I spent less time at work? Surely we have all asked ourselves this at one time or another. Perhaps during a fit of pique about a ridiculous deadline or the idiot who works in the next cubicle over. But even when things are going well, you might still wonder: Would I be happier if I worked less? After all, there are other things in life one might want to do during the daytime hours—hang out with the children, climb Mt. Everest, sit in a cafĂ© and read a book—all of which seem, in theory, more pleasurable than racking up more hours at the office...Isn’t it obvious that the activity that gives you the most happiness should be the one you do the most? It turns out that happiness doesn’t work that simply, and the answer lies in a principle that economists call “diminishing marginal utility.” more

Monday, January 14, 2013

Darwin Was Wrong About Dating

A couple of evolutionary psychologists recently published a book about human sexual behavior in prehistory called “Sex at Dawn.” Upon hearing of the project, one colleague, dubious that a modern scholar could hope to know anything about that period, asked them, “So what do you do, close your eyes and dream?” Actually, it’s a little more involved. Evolutionary psychologists who study mating behavior often begin with a hypothesis about how modern humans mate: say, that men think about sex more than women do. Then they gather evidence — from studies, statistics and surveys — to support that assumption. Finally, and here’s where the leap occurs, they construct an evolutionary theory to explain why men think about sex more than women, where that gender difference came from, what adaptive purpose it served in antiquity, and why we’re stuck with the consequences today. more

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Language Learning Begins in Utero, Study Finds; Newborn Memories of Oohs and Ahs Heard in the Womb

Newborns are much more attuned to the sounds of their native language than first thought. In fact, these linguistic whizzes can up pick on distinctive sounds of their mother tongue while in utero, a new study has concluded. Research led by Christine Moon, a professor of psychology at Pacific Lutheran University, shows that infants, only hours old showed marked interest for the vowels of a language that was not their mother tongue. "We have known for over 30 years that we begin learning prenatally about voices by listening to the sound of our mother talking," Moon said. "This is the first study that shows we learn about the particular speech sounds of our mother's language before we are born." more

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Setting Up a Reward System for the Kids Made Our Lives Easier

...I talked to my kids teacher about  reward systems and positive reinforcement. In my kids classroom they have what’s called a “bean jar.” The kids get a dried bean to put in their jar when they do something awesome like cleaning their toys, listening well etc. They have set guidelines for what will get a bean and what won’t. When they fill the jar up, the class is rewarded with a popcorn party. So, we started the same system at home. We got dried black beans, a jar with each of their names on them and have them right next to the TV in the livingroom so the kids can see them at all times. We set out what will get a bean and what won’t, and when the kids so something above and beyond than they will get a bean as well. more

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Monkey See, Monkey Do: Visual Feedback Is Necessary for Imitating Facial Expressions

Research using new technology shows that our ability to imitate facial expressions depends on learning that occurs through visual feedback...In one experiment, the researchers found that participants who were able to see their imitation attempts through visual feedback improved over successive attempts. But participants who had to rely solely on proprioception -- sensing the relative position of their facial features -- got progressively worse. These results are consistent with the associative sequence-learning model, which holds that our ability to imitate accurately depends on learned associations between what we see (in the mirror or through feedback from others) and what we feel. more

Monday, January 07, 2013

Science Must Be Seen To Bridge The Political Divide

To prevent science from continuing its worrying slide towards politicization, here’s a New Year’s resolution for scientists, especially in the United States: gain the confidence of people and politicians across the political spectrum by demonstrating that science is bipartisan. That President Barack Obama chose to mention “technology, discovery and innovation” in his passionate victory speech in November shows just how strongly science has come, over the past decade or so, to be a part of the identity of one political party, the Democrats, in the United States. The highest-profile voices in the scientific community have avidly pursued this embrace. For the third presidential election in a row, dozens of Nobel prizewinners in physics, chemistry and medicine signed a letter endorsing the Democratic candidate...But even Nobel prizewinners are citizens with political preferences. Of the 43 (out of 68) signatories on record as having made past political donations, only five had ever contributed to a Republican candidate, and none did so in the last election cycle. If the laureates are speaking on behalf of science, then science is revealing itself, like the unions, the civil service, environmentalists and tort lawyers, to be a Democratic interest, not a democratic one. This is dangerous for science and for the nation. more

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Cleaning Up Science

Even if cases of scientific fraud and misconduct were simply ignored, my field (and several other fields of science, including medicine) would still be in turmoil. One recent examination of fifty-three medical studies found that further research was unable to replicate forty-seven of them. All too often, scientists muck about with pilot studies, and keep tweaking something until they get the result they were hoping to achieve. Unfortunately, each fresh effort increases the risk of getting the right result for the wrong reason, and winding up with a spurious vision of something that doesn’t turn out to be scientifically robust, like a cancer drug that seems to work in trials but fails to work in the real world. How on Earth are we going to do better? Here are six suggestions, drawn mainly from a just-published special issue of the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science. Two dozen articles offer valuable lessons not only for psychology, but for all consumers and producers of experimental science, from physics to neuroscience to medicine. more