This mental quirk could explain why you’re always running late

young businessman running in a city streetBy Christian Jarrett

We all have routes that are part of our daily lives, whether it’s the way to the local convenience store, school or the office. How does this deep familiarity affect the way our brains represent the space and our ability to move through it?

Based in part on what we’ve learned from studies of so-called “grid cells” in rats’ brains, Anna Jafarpour at the University of California, Berkeley and Hugo Spiers at University College London predicted that greater familiarity with an area would lead us to overestimate its physical extent – in essence, they thought a more detailed neural representation would make that space seem larger. In turn, they predicted that same detail would make us more likely to exaggerate the walking time to destinations reached through that familiar space.

In fact, while their new findings published in Hippocampus suggest spatial familiarity does indeed stretch our perception of the magnitude of physical distance, it has the opposite effect on our judgments of travel times through that space – that is, we underestimate how long it will take us to travel through highly familiar routes. It’s a mental quirk that might just provide us with a new excuse for why we’re so often running late.  Continue reading “This mental quirk could explain why you’re always running late”

Photos taken by autistic people and neurotypicals differ in intriguing ways

Image via Wang et al, 2016.

By Christian Jarrett

People with autism have social difficulties and this manifests in simple psychological tests – for example, if you ask them to look at photographs of faces, they will typically spend less time looking at the eye region. But what about if we turned things around and asked autistic people to take photographs of other people – what might this reveal?

That’s exactly what a team of US researchers has done for a small study in Current Biology, and they found autistic people chose to take “strikingly different” kinds of photograph from neurotypical controls – for example, they took fewer photographs of people posing, facing the camera, and more repetitive photographs of objects. Tellingly, people with autism actually took more photographs of other people than did the controls, challenging the mistaken notion that all autistic people are unsociable and uninterested in others.  Continue reading “Photos taken by autistic people and neurotypicals differ in intriguing ways”

Researchers have identified a simple bias that makes forgiveness so hard

Two cupped hands holding a stone with forgive written on itBy Alex Fradera

Tom Tate’s second visit to the German town of Pforzheim was a return to somewhere he hadn’t seen in fifty years. After bailing from a burning plane, he and his RAF squad had landed there, been captured, and his comrades executed by a Hitler Youth group incensed by the bombing the town had suffered. Tate himself had only escaped by moments, and swore never to return to a place that he believed bore only hate against him. But spurred by a magazine article that mentioned an annual service held to commemorate the atrocity, he decided to make the journey. Once there, he found himself welcomed by a population who deeply regretted their actions.

This story opens a new article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which investigates whether we underestimate how much our persecutors seek forgiveness. Relevant here is classic research that suggests a difference of perspective in how we judge people’s actions – we see our own actions as being strongly influenced by the situation we’re in, but when judging other another person’s actions we seem him or her as more directly responsible (sometimes described as the actor-observer bias). Researchers Gabrielle Adams and M. Ena Inesi thought that the same bias might be relevant to when one person harms another – that victims will typically assume the perpetrator intended his or her actions and will therefore remain unrepentant. Continue reading “Researchers have identified a simple bias that makes forgiveness so hard”

A highly skilled opponent can lead you to underestimate yourself

Friends cheering their friend while throwing bowling ballBy Alex Fradera

Whether we’re testing our mettle on a video game, on the golf course, or at the bowling alley, it’s good to have a realistic sense of our ability, so we attempt things that are feasible – and don’t accept unwise bets. But how accurate are we at judging ourselves in this way? In a new study in Neuron, researchers from Oxford University have shown that our sense of our own ability is coloured by the other players around us. Specifically, their findings suggest that when we’re competing with a strong player, we tend to downgrade our own ability. Conversely, when that player is on our team, we see ourselves as better than we really are. Continue reading “A highly skilled opponent can lead you to underestimate yourself”

Family support crucial for helping people to stop self-harming

9482286976_62bdfd1872_kBy Christian Jarrett

As newly obtained figures from the NHS show a dramatic increase in the number of young people being hospitalised following self-harm, a timely study in Archives of Suicide Research has reviewed what we know so far about how people who self-harm manage to stop. Tess Mummé and her colleagues identified 9 relevant studies to review – three quantitative, four qualitative, and two using a combination of these approaches – together involving hundreds of people aged 12 to 60, the majority female. Among the key insights, the researchers found family support is crucial for stopping self-harming, perhaps more than support from friends or professionals. But ultimately the review concludes that we need more research. Continue reading “Family support crucial for helping people to stop self-harming”

Religious and supernatural belief linked with poor understanding of the physical world

Satellite view of planet Earth
By Alex Fradera

The number of people who claim to have “No religious belief” is fast-growing in America and Europe, but the number expressing religious belief is growing faster. What’s more, the irreligious category includes fans of astrology, tarot reading or the paranormal. The tenacity of supernatural belief has prompted scientists to try understand its basis, and so far their answers have mostly implied a defect in believers: the religious have a bias in their visual attention; people with supernatural belief fall for bullshit statements. Now, in a study in Applied Cognitive Psychology, comes the suggestion that believers struggle to understand the physical world. Continue reading “Religious and supernatural belief linked with poor understanding of the physical world”

Link feast

screen-shot-2016-09-09-at-18-20-33Our editor’s pick of this week’s 10 best psychology and neuroscience links:

There’s Such a Thing as Too Much Neuroscience
NYT Op-ed by John Markowitz.

Maybe Trump Is Explained by His Disastrous Sleep Habits
“Trump Syndrome”: “a ravenous late-night craving for stimulation that results in a sometimes sporadic, often slender sleep schedule,” explains Drake Baer at New York’s Science of Us.

‘Rubber Hand illusion’ Reveals How The Brain Understands The Body
Scientists use a trick with a fake hand to explore how the mind combines information from the senses to create a feeling of body ownership. Ian Sample at The Guardian.

Continue reading “Link feast”

Walking lifts your mood, even when you don’t expect it to

By Christian Jarrett

The mere act of putting one foot in front of the other for a few minutes has a significant beneficial impact on our mood, regardless of where we do it, why we do it, or what effect we expect the walk to have. That’s according to a pair of psychologists at Iowa State University who claim their study, published in Emotion, is the first to strip away all the many confounds typically associated with exercise research – things like social contact, fresh air, nature, the satisfaction of reaching fitness goals, and the expectation of the activity being beneficial – to show that the simple act of walking, in and of itself, is a powerful mood lifter.

The reason, argue Jeffrey Miller and Zlatan Krizan, is connected with how we evolved to move to find food and other rewards, which means positive emotions are closely linked with our movement. In essence, the psychologists write, “movement not only causes increased positive affect [emotional feelings] … but movement partially embodies, or in a sense reflects, positive affect.” Continue reading “Walking lifts your mood, even when you don’t expect it to”

Teens reject junk food when healthy eating is framed as rebellion

Fit young woman fighting off fast foodBy guest blogger Julia Gottwald

Crisps, coke, and chocolate bars. What might be a special treat for some of us, is now a multi-billion pound industry and a staple of many people’s diets. Advertising campaigns from the snack food companies, often starring sports stars, send the message that we can offset any adverse effects of consuming their products simply by getting more physical exercise. But you can’t really “run off” a burger – recent studies show a lack of exercise is not to blame for rising obesity rates, bad diets are the real driver.

Interventions to help reduce junk food consumption are especially important for children and adolescents – prevention is better than cure in this context because obesity is so difficult to treat. Unfortunately, while health education in the classroom has shown some success among young children, adolescents have been notoriously hard to reach.

But now a large-scale study published in PNAS has tried an innovative approach to change teenagers’ attitudes towards healthy eating, and the results are promising. The researchers, led by Christopher Bryan at the University of Chicago and David Yeager at the University of Texas at Austin, argued that previous interventions have probably been unsuccessful because of a major flaw: they focused on a future, healthier you and assumed that this would be enough motivation for adolescents. In contrast, the new intervention cleverly exploits teenagers’ instinct for rebelliousness and autonomy, and the value they place on social justice. Continue reading “Teens reject junk food when healthy eating is framed as rebellion”

This is what eight weeks of mindfulness training does to your brain

Head x-ray, brain in MRIBy Christian Jarrett

Practising mindfulness – spending time paying attention to your current mental experiences in a non-judgmental way – has been associated with many beneficial outcomes, including reduced anxiety and improved decision making (although note, there could be some adverse effects for some people). What are the neural correlates of these effects? A new systematic review in Brain and Cognition has looked at all studies published prior to July this year that investigated brain changes associated with eight weeks of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction or Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy. The combined results suggest that a short course of secular mindfulness training leads to multiple brain changes similar in nature to those seen in people who have practised religious or spiritual meditation for a lifetime. Continue reading “This is what eight weeks of mindfulness training does to your brain”