Thursday, May 30, 2013

Pigeons Peck for Computerized Treat

Go to about any public square, and you see pigeons pecking at the ground, always in search of crumbs dropped by a passerby. While the pigeons' scavenging may seem random, new research by psychologists at the University of Iowa suggest the birds are capable of making highly intelligent choices, sometimes with problem-solving skills to match. The study by Edward Wasserman and colleagues centered on the "string task," a longstanding, standard test of intelligence that involves attaching a treat to one of two strings and seeing if the participant (human or animal) can reel in that treat by pulling the correct string. In this case, the UI researchers took the pigeons into the digital age: The birds looked at a computer touch screen with square buttons connected to either dishes that appeared to be full or empty. If the bird pecked the correct button on the screen, the virtual full bowl would move closer, ultimately to the point where the pigeon would be rewarded with real food. more

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

B. F. Skinner: Pigeon Patriot

In May 1937, Life magazine featured an innovative University of Minnesota psychologist and his clever lab rat. B.F. Skinner had taught Pliny, a white rat, to earn and spend “money.” Pliny learned to pull a chain at the top of his wire cage in order to release a marble—the cash in this exercise. A series of photos show Pliny picking up the marble between his little paws and hopping it over to a slot in the floor of the cage. When Pliny inserted the marble, a lever triggered a mechanism that produced a bit of biscuit. Like working a vending machine, Pliny slipped his coins into the appropriate slot and got a snack in exchange.  The tone of the Life story is precious, and Burrhus Frederic Skinner, the young U of M psychology professor who devised the experiment, is mentioned only briefly—and then only to suggest that even he believes the experiment proves merely “how much can be done with an animal if proper patience were taken.” But the article could also be counted as the beginning of B.F. Skinner’s public career and a nod to the direction psychology research would take. more

Friday, May 24, 2013

Shades of Grey and the Risky Oversimplification of Science for Public Health

The political mantra on public-health advice is clear: don’t send mixed messages. The media and those who get their information from the media prefer things in black and white: red wine is good for you; chocolate is bad for you. But, of course, science does not deal in black and white, hence the common criticism that scientists cannot make up their minds. One week, one group argues that extreme exercise is positive for health; the next week, a different set of researchers says the opposite. Scientists like to believe that they can operate in shades of grey. But simple messages and themes are seductive. more

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Trust Your Memory? Maybe You Shouldn't

You probably feel pretty attached to your memories -- they're yours, after all. They define who you are and where you came from, your accomplishments and failures, your likes and dislikes. Your memories help you separate friends from enemies. They remind you not to eat too much ice cream or drink cheap tequila because you remember how horrible it felt the last time you indulged. Or do you? One conversation with Elizabeth Loftus may shake your confidence in everything you think you remember. Loftus is a cognitive psychologist and expert on the malleability of human memory. She can, quite literally, change your mind. more

Monday, May 20, 2013

New Study Recommends Using "Exergaming" to Improve Children's Health

Emerging research shows that exergaming – using active console video games that track player movement to control the game (e.g., Xbox-Kinect, Wii) — can increase physical activity in kids. In the study, scheduled for publication in The Journal of Pediatrics, researchers from The University of Western Australia, and Swansea University evaluated 15 children, 9-11 years of age. Participants performed 15 minutes each of high intensity exergaming (Kinect Sports – 200m Hurdles), low intensity exergaming (Kinect Sports – Ten Pin Bowling), and a graded exercise test (treadmill). The researchers measured energy expenditure and an individual’s vascular response to each activity using flow-mediated dilation (FMD) — a validated measure of vascular function and health in children. They found that high intensity exergaming elicited an energy expenditure equivalent to moderate intensity exercise; low intensity exergaming resulted in an energy expenditure equivalent to low intensity exercise. more

Friday, May 17, 2013

Learning from Experiences: Brain Rewires Itself After Damage or Injury

When the brain's primary "learning center" is damaged, complex new neural circuits arise to compensate for the lost function, say life scientists from UCLA and Australia who have pinpointed the regions of the brain involved in creating those alternate pathways -- often far from the damaged site. The research, conducted by UCLA's Michael Fanselow and Moriel Zelikowsky in collaboration with Bryce Vissel, a group leader of the neuroscience research program at Sydney's Garvan Institute of Medical Research, appears this week in the early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences....For the study, Fanselow and Zelikowsky conducted laboratory experiments with rats showing that the rodents were able to learn new tasks even after damage to the hippocampus. While the rats needed more training than they would have normally, they nonetheless learned from their experiences -- a surprising finding. more

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

How Individuality Develops: Experience Leads to Growth of New Brain Cells

The adult brain continues to grow with the challenges that it faces; its changes are linked to the development of personality and behavior. But what is the link between individual experience and brain structure? Why do identical twins not resemble each other perfectly even when they grew up together? To shed light on these questions, the scientists observed forty genetically identical mice that were kept in an enclosure offering a large variety of activity and exploration options. "The animals were not only genetically identical, they were also living in the same environment," explains principal investigator Gerd Kempermann, Professor for Genomics of Regeneration, CRTD, and Site Speaker of the DZNE in Dresden. "However, this environment was so rich that each mouse gathered its own individual experiences in it. Over time, the animals therefore increasingly differed in their realm of experience and behavior." more

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

"Conscious" Computing: How to Take Control of Your Life Online

To explain what makes the web so compelling – so "addictive" in the colloquial sense, at least – the advocates of conscious computing usually end up returning to the psychologist BF Skinner, who conducted famous experiments on pigeons and rats at Harvard University in the 1930s. Trapped inside "Skinner boxes", equipped with a lever and a tray, the animals soon learned that pushing or pecking at the lever caused a pellet of food to appear on the tray; after that, they'd start compulsively pecking or pushing for more. But Skinner discovered that the most powerful way to reinforce the push-or-peck habit was to use "variable schedules of reward": to deliver a pellet not every time the lever was pushed, but only sometimes, and unpredictably. more

Friday, May 10, 2013

When Money Talks, People Walk

It was a controversial move when a health insurer began requiring people who were obese to literally pay the price of not doing anything about their weight – but it worked, a new study finds. When people had to choose between paying up to 20 percent more for health insurance or exercising more, the majority of enrollees met fitness goals one step at a time via an Internet-tracked walking program, according to a joint study by the University of Michigan Health System and Stanford University. Researchers evaluated a group of people insured by Blue Care Network who were enrolled in a pedometer-based program as a requirement to receive insurance discounts. After one year, nearly 97 percent of the enrollees had met or exceeded the average goal of 5,000 steps a day – including the most resistant participants who disagreed with the financial incentives and found the program "coercive." more

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Psychiatry’s Guide Is Out of Touch With Science, Experts Say

Just weeks before the long-awaited publication of a new edition of the so-called bible of mental disorders, the federal government’s most prominent psychiatric expert has said the book suffers from a scientific “lack of validity.” The expert, Dr. Thomas R. Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, said in an interview Monday that his goal was to reshape the direction of psychiatric research to focus on biology, genetics and neuroscience so that scientists can define disorders by their causes, rather than their symptoms...“As long as the research community takes the D.S.M. to be a bible, we’ll never make progress,” Dr. Insel said, adding, “People think that everything has to match D.S.M. criteria, but you know what? Biology never read that book.” more

Monday, May 06, 2013

Pediatric Specialists Not Following Clinical Guidelines When Treating Preschoolers With ADHD

A recent study by pediatricians from the Cohen Children's Medical Center of New York examined to what extent pediatric physicians adhere to American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) clinical guidelines regarding pharmacotherapy in treating young patients with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). The results showed that more than 90 percent of medical specialists who diagnose and manage ADHD in preschoolers do not follow treatment guidelines recently published by the AAP... Current clinical guidelines for pediatricians and child psychiatrists associated with the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) recommend that behavior therapy be the initial treatment approach for preschoolers with ADHD, and that treatment with medication should only be pursued when counseling in behavior management is not successful. more

Friday, May 03, 2013

Moist Robots: Philosophy That Stirs the Waters

The new book, largely adapted from previous writings, is also a lively primer on the radical answers Mr. [Daniel] Dennett has elaborated to the big questions in his nearly five decades in philosophy, delivered to a popular audience in books like “Consciousness Explained” (1991), “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” (1995) and “Freedom Evolves.” The mind? A collection of computerlike information processes, which happen to take place in carbon-based rather than silicon-based hardware. The self? Simply a “center of narrative gravity,” a convenient fiction that allows us to integrate various neuronal data streams. The elusive subjective conscious experience — the redness of red, the painfulness of pain — that philosophers call qualia? Sheer illusion. Human beings, Mr. Dennett said, quoting a favorite pop philosopher, Dilbert, are “moist robots.” more

The Latest Issue of The Current Repertoire is Now Available

The latest issue of The Current Repertoire (Spring 2013) is now available online.  The Current Repertoire is the official newsletter of the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies. more

This issue includes:
  • Science, Fads and ABA:  The Treatment of Communication Disorders: A Review of Soma® Rapid Prompt Method - Contributed by Dr. Thomas Zane
  • Look for Helpers -Dr. Timothy Ludwig shares Mr. Rogers’ advice on looking for the helpers, reminding us to notice the helpers doing their small and large acts each and every day 
  • Are Women Really the Fairer Sex? Gender and Ethics at Work - Dr. Darnell Lattal questions "Do women think and behave differently than men when making ethical decisions?" 
  • Think Different! Align Your Observation Checklists and Safety Committees by Dr. Terry McSween
  • 7 Things that Separate Weight-Loss Winners & Losers - Megan Coatley gives behavioral health advice

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Disputed Results a Fresh Blow for Social Psychology

Thinking about a professor just before you take an intelligence test makes you perform better than if you think about football hooligans. Or does it? An influential theory that certain behavior can be modified by unconscious cues is under serious attack. A paper published in PLoS ONE last week reports that nine different experiments failed to replicate this example of ‘intelligence priming’, first described in 1998 by Ap Dijksterhuis, a social psychologist at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands, and now included in textbooks. David Shanks, a cognitive psychologist at University College London, UK, and first author of the paper in PLoS ONE, is among skeptical scientists calling for Dijksterhuis to design a detailed experimental protocol to be carried out indifferent laboratories to pin down the effect. Dijksterhuis has rejected the request, saying that he “stands by the general effect” and blames the failure to replicate on “poor experiments." more

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Signs of Culture in Whales and Monkeys

The phrase “monkey see, monkey do” applies to humpback whales. Vervet monkeys and humpback whales both copy behaviors from their neighbors, researchers report April 25 in Science. The two studies suggest that, like humans, some wild animals pick up new habits from each other. Accurately imitating one another’s actions is a “potential building block of culture,” says cultural evolutionist Peter Richerson of the University of California, Davis, who was not involved with the work. Complex culture builds upon people learning skills from each other, he says. more