Posted by: Ed Darrell | February 28, 2009

Synesthesia – in every school?

Do the math:  930,000 U.S. kids with synesthesia, out of 60 million students.  (Okay, “synaesthesia” for the British search programs.)

You might have one. A pyschologist in Britain did the research.

For the first time, psychologists have documented the prevalence of a form of synaesthesia – the condition that leads to a mixing of the senses – in a large sample of children. Over a twelve month period, Julia Simner and colleagues tested 615 children aged six to seven years at 21 UK schools and conservatively estimated that 1.3 per cent of them had grapheme-colour synaesthesia, in which letters and numbers involuntarily trigger the sensation of different colours.

“[This] implicates over 170,000 children age 0–17 in the UK alone, and over 930,000 in the USA,” the researchers said, “and suggests that the average primary school in England and Scotland (n = 168 pupils) contains 2.2 grapheme-colour synaesthetes at any time, while the average-sized US primary school (n = 396 pupils) contains 5.1.” Inevitably, the prevalence for synaesthesia as a whole, considering all the sub-types, would be even higher.

A hall-mark of grapheme-colour synaesthesia is that the colour triggered by a given letter or number is always the same – a fact the researchers exploited to identify the condition in school children.

Indeed, when asked to associate letters with colours, the children identified as synaesthetes showed more consistency over a 12-month-period than the other children did over a ten second period!

Researchers calculated about 5 such students in the average U.S. school, assuming a student population of about 400.

400!  In Texas that’s a tiny high school that may have difficulty fielding a football team.

In Brain, a journal of neurology (abstract available, full text with subscription).

ResearchBlogging.orgJ. Simner, J. Harrold, H. Creed, L. Monro, L. Foulkes (2008). Early detection of markers for synaesthesia in childhood populations. Brain, 132 (1), 57-64 DOI: 10.1093/brain/awn292

Tip of the old scrub brush to Research Digest Blog.


Cross posted from Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub, with permission.

Posted by: Ed Darrell | December 24, 2008

Robert Zajonc, pioneer in social behavior research, dead at 85

The Situationist brings the sad news:  Psychologist Robert Zajonc died on December 3. (It’s a repost of a story by Adam Gorlick from Stanford News Service.)

Zajonc wasn’t a household name (I didn’t even know it rhymes with “science”), but his research was.

Psychologist Robert Zajonc, pioneer of social psychology

Psychologist Robert Zajonc, pioneer of social psychology

Plus, he led a stunning, dramatic and sometimes wonderful life, surviving horrors in the Holocaust and contributing great things to science.

Gorlick’ s memorial may be best read there, and I encourage you to click over there to read it.

Several of  Zajonc’s articles are listed as “Classics” at Science Magazine, including his 1981 defense of research spending, in the first year of the Reagan administration.

I also urge you to consider what teachers might do with some of Zajonc’s findings, things that propagandists and dastardly politicians (and a few nice politicians) have already used:

  • People like images they see over and over, the “mere exposure” effect  (It’s important what pictures you post in your classroom, yes?)
  • Parental contact with older children can raise their IQs — well, parental contact does raise the IQs of older children, but having less time for younger children tends to keep the younger kids’ IQs from developing as much.  (Did you read to your youngest kid last night?)
  • Challenging kids to tell why things work the way they claim makes them smarter. (This was the same research:  The younger kids’ challenging the older kids made the older kids smarter.  Heck, their challenging of the parents probably make the parents smarter, too.  Do we make students defend their views to other students?)
  • Facial expression affects emotions (”Emotions and Facial Expression,” Zajonc, Science 8 November 1985: 608-687; DOI: 10.1126/science.230.4726.608-b)
  • People who perform tasks well, perform them even better in front of an audience.
  • People who perform an unknown task before an audience tend to make more mistakes than they would if they practiced it in private.

Some of Professor Zajonc’s most influential work concerned “social facilitation” — the effect of the presence of others on a person’s performance of a specific task. Previous research on the subject appeared contradictory, suggesting that spectators helped performers in some cases but not in others. But in which cases?

What Professor Zajonc found was that when performers have mastered a skill at a high level, they are helped by the presence of an audience. (Think of professional musicians or athletes.) But he also found that when a performer has mastered a skill only imperfectly, the existence of onlookers is a hindrance. (Think of Sunday duffers in any arena.)

Elsewhere in his work, Professor Zajonc explored the nexus between psychology and physiology. In one widely reported study, he found that smiling or frowning can alter blood flow to the brain as facial muscles relax or contract. This in turn affects the parts of the brain that regulate feelings, helping induce happy or sad emotional states.

And do you ever wonder about why old couples tend to resemble each other so much?  Zajonc worked that out, too.

Why didn’t he get a Presidential Medal of Freedom?


Cross-posted from Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub with permission.

Posted by: Ed Darrell | July 29, 2008

Dealing with dementia in a loved one

Cross-posted from Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub, with permission

If your family has not been touched by a member with Alzheimer’s Disease, senile dementia, or some other form of memory-killing disease, you’re in a lucky minority.

A good friend told how her brother-in-law eased her mother’s slide into dementia with little lies. The mother developed an invisible friend who had to accompany her on most outings. The problem was that the invisible friend was also invisible to the mother. The brother-in-law, frustrated at the mother’s refusal leave her room for an outing because the friend was not apparent to accompany them, finally told the mother that the friend was already in the car. Mom happily scooted to the car and forgot about the friend completely by the time they got to the car.

The friend was “already there” for much of the rest of the mother’s life. It was a lie, a falsehood, but it made things so much easier.

CBS Evening News tonight featured a story on a potential new treatment for dementia. In one segment, a husband was quizzing his dementia-affected wife, and she could not recall what he had told her just a few minutes before, how many years they had been married. Frustrating for the victim as well as the family.

A British psychologist, Oliver James, has a new book out that suggests such quizzes do more damage, and are unnecessary. Help the victim along with cues, he says. It’s a trick he got from his own mother-in-law, Penny Garner, from her experience working with her mother.

In Dorothy’s case, Garner found that while she [Dorothy] had no idea what she had done moments before, she automatically tried to make sense of her situation by matching it to past experiences. Dorothy had always enjoyed travelling, and so if she was asked to sit with other people for any length of time, she assumed she was in the Heathrow departure lounge. By not challenging this assumption, Garner found that her mother would sit peacefully for long periods. If she did wander off, Garner found she could encourage her to return by reminding her of her former skill as a bridge-player, telling her that the other players were waiting for her. “Given a properly set up bridge table, my mother would spend hours happily looking at her cards and waiting to play,” she says.

People with dementia are often exhausting to care for because they forget what they are doing during routine activities. Garner found that she could enable her mother to remain relatively independent by providing cues. “If while getting ready for bed, I noticed she had lost track of whether she was buttoning up the cardigan ready to go out or taking it off to go to bed, I would fiddle with my buttons alongside her and say ‘Oh good! No more travelling for us today! Glad we’ve got a bed for the night!’ I found that this simple cue was all she needed. Without it, she was inclined to get half-way through undressing and then start getting dressed again.”

We all look for such cues in everyday life, and we use them to remind us of what we are doing, where we are going, and why. Why not make it easier for victims of dementia?

Who is president of the United States? Half the time I’d prefer to forget it’s George W. Bush. Don’t quiz me on it. Ask me if it isn’t great that we’re electing someone to replace him, this fall.

Smart human tricks.


Posted by: Ed Darrell | May 6, 2008

Pictures of schizophrenia

Researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles published photos of schizophrenia affected brains, in 2001.  Those photos are available here.

Additionally, the site at features a lot of additional information in different forms — go see what is there.

Posted by: Ed Darrell | April 16, 2008

Psychology Project

Your task is to profile one of the following people:

Mary Whiton Culkins
Jane Goodall
Jean Piaget
Erik Erikson
Elizabeth Kübler Ross
Roger Wolcott Sperry
Franz Anton Mesmer
Gustav Theodor Fechner
Ivan Petrovich Pavlov
Elizabeth Loftus
Noam Chomsky
Paul Ekman
Howard Gardner
Carl Rogers
Deepak Chopra
Abraham Maslow
Dorothea Dix
Sigmund Freud
Linda L. McCarley
Oliver Sacks
Antonio Damasio
B. F. Skinner
Ellen Langer
William James
Carl Jung
Frederick Taylor

I want you to be able to tell why that person is important in the study of psychology, and a bit about their work.

So, tell who the person is, succinctly, and why they are important to psychology. Tell the key points of their work, or theory, or grand idea, or tell something about the “why.” Freud is the “father of psychoanalysis,” sure — but what is psychoanalysis?

You may tell your story

  • in a movie
  • in an essay
  • on a poster
  • in a diorama
  • in a video
  • in a radio-style production
  • in a magazine-style article
  • in a newspaper-style article
  • in a stand-alone slide presentation
  • in a presentation designed for a presenter (with fewer words on the slides, for sure)
  • or in any other way the student and Mr. Darrell agree upon before hand.

We’ll spend a couple of days in the library, to give you access to computers and the internet — and to the resources of the library. The project is due on Thursday, April 24.

Any questions, please ask! Ask early. You may ask questions in the comments here.

Posted by: Ed Darrell | April 11, 2008

Worst case of amnesia ever

Clive Wearing has what Dr. Oliver Sacks calls the worst ever case of amnesia. Mr. Wearing literally cannot remember what happened from one blink of the eye to the next — it’s a totally new world to him every time he blinks.

Here is the link to the Radiolab program of June 8, 2007, that we listened to in class: “Clive” (or scroll down to the story, “Clive”).

See also these links from Radiolab (the New Yorker article is particularly good):

Deborah’s book about Clive: Forever Today
Oliver Sacks’ new book: Musicophilia
Oliver Sacks’ website
Sacks’ article about Clive in the New Yorker

Radiolab noted the music played during the piece:

The music used during the Clive segment comes from Orlando Lassus, performed by the London Lassus Ensemble and conducted by Clive Wearing himself. Check out for more information on the composer. And if anyone needs a specific playlist, hit us at and we’ll send it to you!

Posted by: Ed Darrell | April 8, 2008

Superstitions: Cargo cults

Physicist Richard Feynman gave a commencement address at the California Institute of Technology in 1974 in which he spoke about “cargo cult” science, science practiced by doing what looks like science, but is devoid of real substance.  The story tells a lot about how scientists can be misled, how people who fail to understand what is going on in natural processes can be misled, and about superstition.

It’s a good read.  You’ll find it here.  And here’s a short excerpt:

During the Middle Ages there were all kinds of crazy ideas, such as that a piece of rhinoceros horn would increase potency. Then a method was discovered for separating the ideas–which was to try one to see if it worked, and if it didn’t work, to eliminate it.  This method became organized, of course, into science. And it developed very well, so that we are now in the scientific age. It is such a scientific age, in fact that we have difficulty in understanding how witch doctors could ever have existed, when nothing that they proposed ever really worked–or very little of it did.

But even today I meet lots of people who sooner or later get me into a conversation about UFOS, or astrology, or some form of mysticism, expanded consciousness, new types of awareness, ESP, and so forth. And I’ve concluded that it’s not a scientific world.

Most people believe so many wonderful things that I decided to investigate why they did. And what has been referred to as my curiosity for investigation has landed me in a difficulty where I found so much junk that I’m overwhelmed. First I started out by investigating various ideas of mysticism, and mystic experiences.  I went into isolation tanks and got many hours of hallucinations, so I know something about that. Then I went to Esalen, which is a hotbed of this kind of thought (it’s a wonderful place; you should go visit there). Then I became overwhelmed. I didn’t realize how much there was.

Read the rest of the speech; it’s worth it.

Posted by: Ed Darrell | April 8, 2008

Suckered by 1207468165327

At this moment, the top post on more than two million WordPress blogs is a cryptic post titled “1207468165327” on a blog about gaming, Fallout 3 – A Post Nuclear Blog.

If you go to the blog, however, you get a note that there is no post there.

Are there that many curious people out there who would click to a cryptic blog title to make it the hottest post on WordPress?

What else is going on?  Please tell us in comments.

Posted by: Ed Darrell | April 4, 2008

This is your brain on jazz

Ain’t brain research fun?

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore created a special keyboard that jazz musicians can play while having their brains scanned in a magnetic resonance imager (MRI).

Brain scans made while the musicians improvised music show they turn off their inhibitions and turn on their creativity to improvise. The research was an interesting marriage of work at the Peabody Institute and work in Hopkins’ medical research corridors.

Can any of this research be applied to general creativity, or to learning?

Here is the Hopkins press release:

The joint research, using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, and musician volunteers from the Johns Hopkins University’s Peabody Institute, sheds light on the creative improvisation that artists and non-artists use in everyday life, the investigators say.
It appears, they conclude, that jazz musicians create their unique improvised riffs by turning off inhibition and turning up creativity.

In a report published Feb. 27 in Public Library of Science (PLoS) ONE, the scientists from the University’s School of Medicine and the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communications Disorders describe their curiosity about the possible neurological underpinnings of the almost trance-like state jazz artists enter during spontaneous improvisation.

“When jazz musicians improvise, they often play with eyes closed in a distinctive, personal style that transcends traditional rules of melody and rhythm,” says Charles J. Limb, M.D., assistant professor in the Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and a trained jazz saxophonist himself. “It’s a remarkable frame of mind,” he adds, “during which, all of a sudden, the musician is generating music that has never been heard, thought, practiced or played before. What comes out is completely spontaneous.”

Though many recent studies have focused on understanding what parts of a person’s brain are active when listening to music, Limb says few have delved into brain activity while music is being spontaneously composed.

Curious about his own “brain on jazz,” he and a colleague, Allen R. Braun, M.D., of NIDCD, devised a plan to view in real time the brain functions of musicians improvising.

For the study, they recruited six trained jazz pianists, three from the Peabody Institute, a music conservatory where Limb holds a joint faculty appointment. Other volunteers learned about the study by word of mouth through the local jazz community.

The researchers designed a special keyboard to allow the pianists to play inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine, a brain-scanner that illuminates areas of the brain responding to various stimuli, identifying which areas are active while a person is involved in some mental task, for example.

Because fMRI uses powerful magnets, the researchers designed the unconventional keyboard with no iron-containing metal parts that the magnet could attract. They also used fMRI-compatible headphones that would allow musicians to hear the music they generate while they’re playing it.

Each musician first took part in four different exercises designed to separate out the brain activity involved in playing simple memorized piano pieces and activity while improvising their music. While lying in the fMRI machine with the special keyboard propped on their laps, the pianists all began by playing the C-major scale, a well-memorized order of notes that every beginner learns. With the sound of a metronome playing over the headphones, the musicians were instructed to play the scale, making sure that each volunteer played the same notes with the same timing.

In the second exercise, the pianists were asked to improvise in time with the metronome. They were asked to use quarter notes on the C-major scale, but could play any of these notes that they wanted.

Next, the musicians were asked to play an original blues melody that they all memorized in advance, while a recorded jazz quartet that complemented the tune played in the background. In the last exercise, the musicians were told to improvise their own tunes with the same recorded jazz quartet.

Limb and Braun then analyzed the brain scans. Since the brain areas activated during memorized playing are parts that tend to be active during any kind of piano playing, the researchers subtracted those images from ones taken during improvisation. Left only with brain activity unique to improvisation, the scientists saw strikingly similar patterns, regardless of whether the musicians were doing simple improvisation on the C-major scale or playing more complex tunes with the jazz quartet.

The scientists found that a region of the brain known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a broad portion of the front of the brain that extends to the sides, showed a slowdown in activity during improvisation. This area has been linked to planned actions and self-censoring, such as carefully deciding what words you might say at a job interview. Shutting down this area could lead to lowered inhibitions, Limb suggests.

The researchers also saw increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, which sits in the center of the brain’s frontal lobe. This area has been linked with self-expression and activities that convey individuality, such as telling a story about yourself.

“Jazz is often described as being an extremely individualistic art form. You can figure out which jazz musician is playing because one person’s improvisation sounds only like him or her,” says Limb. “What we think is happening is when you’re telling your own musical story, you’re shutting down impulses that might impede the flow of novel ideas.”

Limb notes that this type of brain activity may also be present during other types of improvisational behavior that are integral parts of life for artists and non-artists alike. For example, he notes, people are continually improvising words in conversations and improvising solutions to problems on the spot. “Without this type of creativity, humans wouldn’t have advanced as a species. It’s an integral part of who we are,” Limb says.

He and Braun plan to use similar techniques to see whether the improvisational brain activity they identified matches that in other types of artists, such as poets or visual artists, as well as non-artists asked to improvise.

This research was funded by the Division of Intramural Research, National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, National Institutes of Health.

For additional information, go to:

The fMRI scanner looks similar to this device, in a photo from Siemens:

fMRI scanner, from Siemens

Posted by: Ed Darrell | March 31, 2008

Psychology as magic: Beware! (pheromones)

Psychology is the study of human and animal behavior. Inevitably someone will want to guide human behavior in a specific direction, for less-than-noble reasons — and they will ask for help from psychologists and other scientists.

Case in point: Bug Girl* is an entomologist, a scientist who studies insects. She uses the name for her weblog.

Insect behavior, we know from research, is heavily influenced by phermones — scent chemicals emitted by other insects. For some insects, this is the sole way they find a mate. For other insects, like ants, pheromones are used as important means of communication to forage for food, defend the colony, and so on.

So, Bug Girl got a letter from a company selling a chemical they claim is a human pheromone, and they asked her evaluation. Here is her account, with the response. The post shows how scientists think, and how they limit their conclusions to what they really know. And, her post offers several links to good sources about the effects of human pheromones.

Now, there are a few human chemicals that do seem to meet the definition of a pheromone. You can read a nice introduction to what is known about human pheromones in this APA article. The pioneer in human pheromone research is Martha McClintock, who first isolated and showed that a pheromone was responsible for synchronizing women’s menstrual cycles.

This is probably not the compound for sale at the commercial website. At least, I hope not–I really don’t think a guy dousing himself in that compound will get the response he wants.

There are some other compounds that do seem to induce changes in human physiology. The compounds that have been studied most are steroid musks (androstenol and related compounds) produced by glands in men’s underarms. Yummy!

For your information, enrichment, and enjoyment — and warning, against getting ripped off by people preying on your human insecurities.


* Don’t you just love internet handles? She’s a reputable scientist in my experience, despite the pseudonym.

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