Intuitive Thinking

Psychology research, articles, opinions, insights, and general words about everything related to human behavior.

The Death Penalty and Internet Activism

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Two Men Sent to Die

Yesterday, 9/21/11, two men were sent to die. One of them was a white supremacist in Texas, convicted for the murder of a black man in perhaps the most horrific manner from 1998. The other was Troy Davis, a man more than likely innocent of the crime of killing a police officer in 1989. The evidence in the case of Lawrence Brewer, the white supremacist, was overwhelming, was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. The evidence in the case of Troy Davis, based on eyewitness testimony (which has been shown again and again that it is the most unreliable piece of evidence to rely on ) was limited. Yet he was still convicted and sentenced to death despite the overwhelming possibility that he was an innocent man. I am sure many of the people reading this have some knowledge about the case, so I will not go into it further.

In my personal belief, no matter the case of Brewer or Davis, guilt vs innocence, the use of capital punishment is flawed and in the simplest terms, wrong. The State should not be the ones to decide who lives or who dies, period. An archaic system of “eye for an eye” being fed by us, the taxpayers, unwillingly to determine who in society is “fit to live.” This is perhaps mostly a moral and emotionally driven argument to simply say “it is not right for the government to sentence people to death,” though on a rational scale, the idea that death, a natural part of the human life cycle, is in the hands of the State, is reprehensible and irresponsible. But these two men are not alone, as there are over 3000 people currently sitting on death row in the United States. Innocent or guilty, there is something wrong with this picture. Are there people who probably don’t deserve to live? Perhaps. Is this something that should be decided upon by a government system? Of course not. Brewer’s case was particularly horrific, and the evidence was overwhelming in showing that he participated in such a horrible murder, but while one group condemns the system for the execution of an innocent man - and possibly many more innocent people along the way - I cannot imagine why people would support the system being used in any form.

Internet ADD and Activism

I also write this because I am interested in the internet activism side of this coin. Online petitions were written for Troy Davis, Facebook posts, tumblr rebloggings, Twitter exploding with trending topics (although some claim Twitter banned the #TroyDavis hashtag from trending), while the old-fashioned vigils and protests were being held. Troy Davis became highlighted in the annuls of internet activism, next to the struggles of Iranians, the victims of the Norway shootings, and so on. However, at my most cynical, many will probably forget him and the cause against the death penalty when another activist trend will begin. Which is a shame, but it is a point to be spoken of in the case of making a difference with the tools of the internet.

The internet has made it possible for activism to highlight the struggles of many in different parts of the world, especially in the times of Twitter, Facebook, and tumblr (my bias against Facebook states that more people would rather use it to talk about That Funny Thing Their Kid Did, How Annoying Was That Commute to Work, or find out what their exes are doing these days and dammit they better be miserable). The problem is it has also created Internet ADD. There are so many injustices and crimes in this world, from a national scale of government corruption, to natural disasters, to the world of high school bullying and homophobia, that when gathering a group together to try to make a difference, the focus is scattered. With the world being blown up and exposed on the forces of internet blogs, you’re not fighting for one cause, you’re fighting for a thousand.

End the Use of the Death Penalty

I bring it back to the death penalty. This is the sort of archaic method that should be protested because it can be stopped. It shouldn’t be forgotten and only brought up again when a man such as Troy Davis is being sentenced to die. It shouldn’t be cheered on or ignored even when someone such as Lawrence Brewer is being strapped to the gurney. It shouldn’t be a here today, gone tomorrow cause, it should be put to an end. If not for moral reasons, than for simple, practical reasons such as saving the taxpaying citizen a few bucks.

The Flashed Face Distortion Effect

Abstract. We describe a novel face distortion effect resulting from the fast-paced presentation of eye-aligned faces. When cycling through the faces on a computer screen, each face seems to become a caricature of itself and some faces appear highly deformed, even grotesque. The degree of distortion is greatest for faces that deviate from the others in the set on a particular dimension (eg if a person has a large forehead, it looks particularly large). This new method of image presentation, based on alignment and speed, could provide a useful tool for investigating contrastive distortion effects and face adaptation.

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You’re So Vain: Narcissism May be on the Rise

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Charming, charismatic, exciting and attractive are words often used to describe people who at the same time are selfish, manipulative, egomaniacal and lack empathy.

Reality TV shows are filled with people with these traits. Perhaps you’ve dated the captivating man who is also paranoid and overly sensitive. Or have a friend who is the life of every party but grows inordinately depressed without constant praise and admiration.

The descriptions are traits of narcissistic personality disorder, a mental disorder of people who have an inflated sense of their own importance.

Personalities in the center of two high-profile cases both have been described in media reports as narcissists: Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former International Monetary Fund chief accused of sexual abuse and rape, and Casey Anthony, who was acquitted Tuesday of the murder of her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee Marie.

The nation’s attention may have been held by these two cases because while our friends, family and co-workers may not fall to the extreme end of the spectrum, we all know and are drawn to narcissists — at least at first, until their dark side emerges. And, psychologists maintain, deep within we all have a healthy dose of narcissism in our blood.

The problems start when narcissism, which bolsters positive attributes such as confidence and self-esteem, becomes unhealthy and out of control and the individual is unable to maintain healthy personal and professional relationships.

New studies indicate that narcissism may be on the rise. “Almost twice as many college students are answering the majority of the questions in the narcissistic direction in the nationwide sample,” Jean Twenge, co-author of The Narcissism Epidemic Living in the Age of Entitlement, said Wednesday. “It was 17 percent in 1982; and in 2009 - which is the latest data we have - it was 30 percent.”

The results were based on Narcissistic Personality Inventory tests given college students, said Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and a Psychology Today blogger.

Stephen Diamond has written about the Anthony case in his Evil Deeds blog on the Psychology Today website. Although the forensic psychologist had no direct involvement in the case and has never interviewed Anthony, he said testimony in the trial showed she exhibits many of the traits of NPD. “It can get complicated, and we my never know,” Diamond said Tuesdayin a phone interview. “Egoism is very powerful. When we talk about narcissism, it’s that extreme of egoism and egotism. We all have an ego; we are all narcissists to some extent.”

Disordered behaviors begin and become chronic, he said, when individuals are unable to recognize and take responsibility for their narcissism. It can be hard to treat, and Diamond said it takes time and work with a therapist to get it under control.

The Mayo Clinic defines those with NPD as believing “that they’re superior to others and have little regard for other people’s feelings.” But behind an ultra-confident mask “lies a fragile self-esteem, vulnerable to the slightest criticism.”

Narcissists construct a false self that is meant to hide and protect a hurt and wounded self, Diamond explained. Narcissism can be the result of childhood physical or mental trauma and either too much praise and coddling or too much criticism and neglect, he said.

Scott Barry Kaufman, a personality psychologist and teacher at New York University, explored what he called “the peacock paradox” in the August issue cover story of Psychology Today.

"Narcissists will be thrilled to hear that as a group, they are rated as more attractive and likeable than everyone else at first appearance," Kaufman wrote. He points to a Washington University study in which researchers found that narcissists are "considered more stylishly clad, cheerful and physically appealing at first sight than those who score lower in narcissism."

As adolescents we are at the height of our natural narcissism, his article noted. Then as we age, the tendency declines and remains at a healthy level.

Many like to point the finger for the rise in narcissism at social media sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, which allow users to be even more narcissistic and self-absorbed.

"The change has been going on long enough, that it can’t be solely due to social media," Twenge said. "We definitely think that’s one of the causes, but it’s not the only one."

In her book, she identified other possible causes: a change in parenting toward focusing on the individual and feeling good about yourself all of the time; celebrity culture, TV and other media; and easy credit, which allows people to look better off than they actually are.

Diamond agreed that narcissism is a large and growing problem in our culture.

"In the culture we’ve come to value, this narcissistic persona - this being special, this being unique, this being high-status, this kind of arrogance, this preoccupation with being super-successful, super-beautiful, super-sexy - we’ve come to identify with that," he said. "The problem is, we’ve gotten away from knowing who we are."

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A Brief History of MDMA (Ecstasy)

Dream Sleep May Be an Indicator of Parkinson’s Disease

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During a large-scale study of the socioeconomic costs of this neurodegenerative disease, Danish researchers, some from the University of Copenhagen, discovered that very early symptoms of Parkinson’s disease may be revealed in dream or REM sleep.

Parkinson’s disease is a brain disease best known for the trembling it causes. It is an incurable, chronic disease and gradually affects the muscles and mental capacity, seriously afflicting the lives if the patient and his or her immediate relatives.

“In the study we saw that eight years before diagnosis, Parkinson’s sufferers exhibited work and health indications that something was wrong,” says Poul Jennum, professor of clinical neurophysiology at the Center for Healthy Ageing, University of Copenhagen, and the Sleep Centre at Glostrup Hospital.

Among the very early symptoms is the sleep disorder RBD, or REM sleep behaviour disorder. REM is a particular stage of sleep in which we dream, and our eyes flicker rapidly behind our eyelids, hence the term REM, or Rapid Eye Movement. To prevent us from actually acting out our dreams the body usually shuts down our muscle movement during REM sleep, but in RBD it is still active, and REM sleepers with RBD display a range of behaviours from simple arm and leg spasms to kicking, shouting, seizing or jumping out of bed.

“In some cases their behaviour may be violent and result in injuries to the patients or their partners,” Professor Jennum explains.

Early symptoms of Parkinson’s may be other brain disorders

“Our hypothesis is that the very earliest stages of Parkinson’s disease show up as various other diseases such as RBD,” Jennum says.

In recent years, great advances have been made in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease, but we still do not have therapies to mitigate the later symptoms, costs and increased mortality of the disease.

“This may become possible if we are able to intervene earlier, and if we are able to find clear indications of Parkinson’s disease eight years sooner than we are now, this may give us an important tool. The question is of course whether we can actually say that RBD is always a very early marker for Parkinson’s disease. That is what we are now investigating at the Sleep Centre at Glostrup Hospital,” says Jennum. Parkinson’s disease has considerable costs

Not surprisingly the study showed that Parkinson’s sufferers are more often in contact with all sections of the health service, more often unemployed, more often on benefits, and on average cost the health service DKK 50,000 a year more than healthy control subjects.

For the study, researchers used the National Patient Register to identify all the patients diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease between 1997 and 2007. 13,700 patients were compared to 53,600 healthy patients of the same sex, social class, educational background etc.

The study was carried out by researchers from the Center for Healthy Ageing, the Danish Center for Sleep Medicine, University of Copenhagen, Glostrup Hospital, Bispebjerg Hospital and the Danish Institute of Health Research, and was published in the Journal of Neurology, February 2011.

An On-Off Switch for Anxiety

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Researchers discover a brain circuit that can instantly dampen—or exacerbate—anxiety in mice

With the flick of a precisely placed light switch, mice can be induced to cower in a corner in fear or bravely explore their environment. The study highlights the power of optogenetics technology—which allows neuroscientists to control genetically engineered neurons with light—to explore the functions of complex neural wiring and to control behavior.

In the study, Karl Deisseroth and collaborators at Stanford University identified a specific circuit in the amygdala, a part of the brain that is central to fear, aggression, and other basic emotions, that appears to regulate anxiety in rodents. They hope the findings, published today in the journal Nature, will shed light on the biological basis for human anxiety disorders and point toward new targets for treatment.

"We want to conceptualize psychiatric disease as real physical entities with physical substrates," says Deisseroth. "Just like people who have asthma have reactive airways, people with anxiety disorders may have an underactive projection in the amygdala."

The researchers engineered mice to express light-sensitive proteins in specific cells in the amygdala that send out neural wires, known as axons, to different substructures. Using a specially designed fiber-optic cable implanted in the animal’s brain, researchers found that aiming the light to activate one specific circuit had an immediate and potent effect on the animal’s behavior.

"I’ve never seen anything like it," says Kay Tye, a postdoctoral researcher in Deisseroth’s lab and lead author on the study. Mice are naturally fearful of exploring open areas, she explains. Under normal circumstances, the animal “will poke its nose out and then scurry into a corner,” says Tye. “But when you turn on the light, the animal begins exploring the platform with no visible signs of anxiety. Then you turn the light off, and it scurries back in to the corner.”

The researchers could induce the opposite effect using a light-sensitive protein that silences the cells instead of activating them.

Shining light on the bodies of the cells, which in turn activates axons in multiple circuits, had no effect on the animals’ behavior, highlighting how important it is to be able to target individual circuits in the brain.

"Our understanding of the more precise circuitry within the amygdala is just now beginning to take off," says Kerry Ressler, a neuroscientist at Emory University who was not involved in the study. "Optogenetics, where scientist can activate specific cell populations and even parts of cells, is a powerful approach to dissect how the amygdala modulates fear and anxiety."

Ki Ann Goosens, a neuroscientist at MIT who was not involved in the study, says the research could help explain individual variation in baseline anxiety levels. "The findings tell us that this circuit contributes to an individual set point for anxiety," she says.

"It may be a theme that some major sources of dysfunction in psychiatric disorders lie in the flow of information between different brain regions," says Deisseroth. "This is something that optogenetics is uniquely suited to address."

Researchers hope the discovery will ultimately enable the development of new treatments for anxiety disorders that are free of the side effects of existing drugs. Benzodiazepines, such as valium, are sedating and carry the risk of addiction. Mice given benzodiazepenes become less fearful and more exploratory, but the drug also affects their movement, making them sluggish, says Tye. Activating the circuit with light doesn’t seem to elicit this problem. “These animals are sniffing, grooming, doing everything normally,” she says.

To make more selective anti-anxiety drugs, scientists would need to target only the subset of cells that make up this circuit, which may prove difficult to do chemically. But Deisseroth is already working on another approach, using a noninvasive method of stimulating the brain called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS).  The technology uses magnetic fields to activate neurons on the surface of the brain, and is approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat depression. By combining TMS and functional brain imaging, Deisseroth is now examining whether it’s possible to noninvasively stimulate specific circuits in the human brain. His first study, which has just begun, will focus on a circuit that his team has previously linked to Parkinson’s disease.

Tye is working to better understand the role that the circuit identified in the current study plays in fear as opposed to anxiety. While the two terms tend to be interchangeable in everyday usage, neuroscientists define fear as a response to a specific thing—a loud sound, for instance, or oncoming traffic. Anxiety, on the other hand, is chronic, generalized fear. "Fear can be important for survival, but anxiety disorders are maladaptive," says Tye.

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"Altruistic" brain region found

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Scientists say they have found the part of the brain that predicts whether a person will be selfish or an altruist.

Altruism - the tendency to help others without obvious benefit to oneself - appears to be linked to an area called the posterior superior temporal sulcus.

Using brain scans, the US investigators found this region related to a person’s real-life unselfish behaviour.

The Duke University Medical Center study on 45 volunteers is published in Nature Neuroscience.

Selfless tendencies

The participants were asked to disclose how often they engaged in different helping behaviours, such as doing charity work, and were also asked to play a computer game designed to measure altruism.

The study authors say their work could have important implications.

They are now exploring ways to study the development of this brain region in early life and believe such information may help determine how altruistic tendencies are established.

Researcher Dr Scott Huettel explained: “Although understanding the function of this brain region may not necessarily identify what drives people like Mother Theresa, it may give clues to the origins of important social behaviours like altruism.”

Reciprocal helping

Dr George Fieldman, member of the British Psychological Society and principal lecturer in psychology at Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College, said it was conceivable that there would be a region of the brain involved with altruism.

He added: “If you can educate from an early stage to be more altruistic that would be good for the community, and if you could also show that had an impact on brain development that would be very interesting.”

He said true altruism was a rare or even intangible thing.

"Altruism is usually reciprocal - you do something for someone and you expect something back ultimately.

"The other types are kin altruism, giving to ones relatives, and being cheated or cuckolded."

He said it would be interesting to study people at the extremes of altruism and selfishness and see if their brains differed significantly.

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Empowered women smoke more

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THE roaring twenties in the US: hemlines rose, women got the vote and the accessory du jour was a cigarette hanging nonchalantly out the corner of a lipsticked mouth.

In the west, smoking among women has long been associated with empowerment. Now this pattern looks set to repeat itself as women in poorer countries become more liberated, says a report in this week’s Bulletin of the World Health Organization (WHO).

Sara Hitchman and Geoffrey Fong at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, analysed the relationship between gender inequality and smoking prevalence in women compared to men in 74 countries. It is estimated that, worldwide, men are five times as likely to smoke as women, but the results showed that in countries where women are more empowered their smoking rates are catching up or exceeding men’s, regardless of the country’s wealth.

"Tobacco industry marketing strategies over the years have targeted women in countries where their independence is growing," says Deborah Arnott, chief executive of the charity Action on Smoking and Health in London. She cites the example of a cigarette brand from the 1960s whose slogan read: "You’ve come a long way, baby".

"This study highlights the need to act quickly to curb smoking among women, particularly in developing countries where female smoking rates are quite low," says Douglas Bettcher, director of the Tobacco Free Initiative at the WHO.

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"The Hollow Mask Illusion"

Telling the front from the back of a mask can be more difficult than it seems. Thanks to an effect called the hollow-mask illusion, the brain can have trouble deciding if the image is convex or concave.

But, it seems, not everyone struggles to correctly determine the mask’s orientation. New research shows that people with schizophrenia are immune to the effect – a finding that means the illusion could provide a diagnostic test for the condition.

In the study, volunteers were monitored in an fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scanner as they looked at photos. Some of these were normal pictures of faces, but others had been inverted as in the hollow-mask illusion. All the participants with schizophrenia could distinguish between the two types of photos, whereas control volunteers without the condition were fooled 99 per cent of the time.

People with schizophrenia, which affects about 1 per cent of the population, are already known to be immune to certain visual illusions. Immunity to the hollow-mask illusion, says Danai Dima, of Hannover School of Medicine in Germany, suggests that the “bottom-up” process of collecting incoming visual information from the eyes, and the “top-down” process of interpreting this information is different in people with schizophrenia.

"The term ‘schizophrenia’ was coined almost a century ago to mean the splitting of different mental domains, but the idea has now shifted more towards connectivity between brain areas," says Dima.

The prevailing theory is that perception comprises three main components: sensory input (bottom-up); the internal production of concepts (top-down); and a control component, which covers interaction between the two first components. “Our study provides further evidence of ‘dysconnectivity’ between these components in the brains of people with schizophrenia.

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I mostly wanted to post this because I started seeing the Charlie Chaplin mask in .gif form floating around the internet a bit lately.