If you have healthy vision, there will be a specific region of your brain (in the visual cortex) that responds most strongly whenever you look at faces, and similar regions that are especially responsive to the sight of words or natural scenes. What’s more, in any two people, these face, word and scene regions are located in pretty much the same spot in the brain. However, there is not a specific region for every possible category of visible stimulus – there are no “car” or “shoe” regions, for example (at least, not that have been identified to date). Is that because childhood experience is critical for training the visual cortex – we spend a lot of time looking at faces, say, but not cars? And, if so, in theory, could a lot of childhood time spent looking at a different type of object generate its own dedicated, individual category region?
The answer is “yes”, at least according to an ingenious study, published in Nature Human Behaviour, of people who played a Pokémon game for years of their childhood.
You should take just under two-and-a-half minutes to finish reading this blog post. That’s going by the findings of a new review, which has looked at almost 200 studies of reading rates published over the past century to come up with an overall estimate for how quickly we read. And it turns out that that rate is considerably slower than commonly thought.
Of the various estimates of average reading speed bandied around over the years, one of the most commonly cited is 300 words per minute (wpm). However, a number of findings of slower reading rates challenge that statistic, notes Marc Brysbaert from Ghent University in Belgium in his new paper released as a preprint on PsyArxiv.
Picture in your mind a futuristic, technologically enhanced human. Perhaps you imagined them with a subcutaneous device in their arm for phone calls and browsing the internet. Maybe they are wearing smart glasses for augmented reality. What I’d wager you didn’t think of is the presence of an artificial sixth digit attached to each hand. However, a breakthrough open-access study in Nature Communications – the first to study the physiology and sensorimotor mechanics of polydactyly volunteers (people born with extra fingers) – shows the feasibility and practical advantages that would be gained from such an extra appendage. The results also have implications for the medical treatment of polydactyl people, who often have their extra finger removed at birth on the presumption that it will be of no benefit to them.
Psychologists have noticed that aspiring leaders generally pursue one of two different approaches for getting to the top of the social food-chain. Some people exert influence by building up skills or knowledge that command respect and deference from their peers – known as the prestige strategy. Others prefer to rule by fear instead, forcing others to fall into line – the dominance strategy. This dichotomy has even been suggested to account for the vastly different leadership styles of Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
But many of the studies that have looked at the dynamics of prestige and dominance have done so in artificial social situations, examining groups of strangers brought together for a short time in the lab. So in a new study published open-access in Royal Society Open Science, Charlotte Brand and Alex Mesoudi went out into the world and looked at how hierarchies based on prestige and dominance affected the behaviour of real social groups.
In a world with magic, how much effort do you think it would take to cast a spell to make a frog appear out of nowhere? What about to turn a frog invisible? Or make it levitate? And would it be easier to levitate a frog than a cow?
The researchers John McCoy and Tomer Ullman recently put such questions to hundreds of participants across three studies and found they were in remarkable agreement. The findings, published in PLOS One, suggest that we invoke our intuitive understanding of the physical world – our “folk physics” – to make sense of imaginary worlds. And they help explain why fantasy TV shows and books can lose their magic as soon as it feels like anything goes. “Superman leaps tall buildings in a single bound, but a building takes more sweat than an ant-hill,” the researchers said. “And even for Superman, leaping to Alpha Centauri is simply silly.”
The novelist David Foster Wallace famously told a story of two young fish swimming in the sea, whereby an older fish glides by and asks, “how’s the water?”, to which they look at each other in puzzlement and say, “What’s water?” The central point of the parable is that we are constantly immersed in contexts to which we give little thought or consideration, but which nevertheless influence us profoundly. Among the most powerful of such contexts is language. A century of research on the linguistic relativity hypothesis (LHR; also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) has shown that the language we speak profoundly affects our experience and understanding of life, impacting everything from our perception of time and space to the construction of our self-identity.
What might the implications of the LHR be for psychology itself? As a science, the field generally aims to be neutral and objective, and to discover universal truths about the human mind. Yet it is surely consequential that the field mostly conducts its business in English, this being the default language in international journals and conferences. For instance, if a phenomenon has not been identified in English – even if it has in other languages – it is unlikely to be a topic of concern, and may not even “exist” for English-speaking scholars at all.
One way that the field has sought to address this limitation is by “borrowing” words from other languages and cultures.To ascertain the extent of this cross-cultural borrowing, I analysed a sample of words in psychology and recently published my results in the Journal of Positive Psychology.
The question is an old favourite – if you could travel back in time, what advice would you give to your younger self? Yet despite the popularity of this thought experiment, no one has, until now, actually studied what people would tell themselves.
Reporting their findings in The Journal of Social Psychology Robin Kowalski and Annie McCord at Clemson University have done just that in two surveys of hundreds of participants on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk website. Their findings show that people’s advice to their younger selves is overwhelmingly focused on prior relationships, educational opportunities and personal worth, echoing similar results derived from research into people’s most common regrets in life. Moreover, participants who said they had followed the advice they would give to their younger selves were more likely to say that they had become the kind of person that their younger self would admire. “…[W]e should consult ourselves for advice we would offer to our younger selves,” the researchers said. “The data indicate that there is much to be learned that can facilitate wellbeing and bring us more in line with the person that we would like to be should we follow that advice.”
It’s well-established in psychology that intense emotion and physiological arousal interfere with people’s ability to think straight. Most theories explain this in terms of anxiety consuming mental resources and focusing attention on potential threats. Although it’s tricky to study this topic in the psych lab, a handful of field studies involving parachutists and emergency simulations have largely supported this picture. However, a team at the Autonomous University of Barcelona believe that not enough consideration has so far been given to what they call the “valence” of intense situations – whether or not the person sees the intense experience as positive or negative. To find out whether this makes a difference, Judit Castellà and her colleagues tested dozens of bungee jumpers (most of them first-timers) three times: 30 minutes before a 15M free fall jump; immediately afterwards; and again eight minutes after that.
The surprising findings, reported in Cognition and Emotion, suggest that when an intensely arousing experience is perceived positively, it may actually enhance cognition rather than be impairing. “Although we expected some degree of moderation, that is, an attenuation of the negative impact of high arousal reported in the literature, we did not predict an actual improvement or a total lack of impairment,” the researchers said.
The idea that more talkative parents have children with superior language or cognitive skills has a long – and sometimes controversial – history. An influential study from the early 1990s claimed that American children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds have poorer language development because they hear fewer words from their parents. But scientists have pointed out several issues with this early research – including that it involved researchers going into people’s homes to record them, potentially affecting the language they used.
Since then, other researchers in the United States have researched families’ use of language in a less intrusive way – and found that any effects may be more subtle than originally claimed. Now, in what they say is the “largest naturalistic observation study of early life home environments to date”, scientists have brought these methods across the pond. A study of more than 100 London families, published recently in Developmental Psychology, has found that the quantity of language used by parents is related to children’s cognitive skills – but exactly why remains unclear.
We move house, change jobs, begin new relationships, yet most of the time, most of us still experience a thread of inner continuity – a constant feeling of me-ness that transcends the various chapters of our lives. Indeed, there’s evidence that having a stable, constant sense of self and identity is important for psychological wellbeing. However, this thread can rupture, leading to an uncomfortable disconnect between who we feel we are today, and the person that we believe we used to be – a state that psychologists recently labelled “derailment”.
Now in a paper in Clinical Psychological Science a group led by Kaylin Ratner at Cornell University has explored the possibility that derailment both precipitates, and is a consequence of, depression. After all, people with depression often struggle with motivation, losing the will to pursue goals they previously held dear. They also frequently withdraw from their relationships and social roles. All of these changes could trigger sensations of derailment. Or perhaps derailment comes first, with the inner disorientation leaving one vulnerable to depression. Surprisingly these questions have been little studied before now. “We nominate derailment as a new feature of the depressive landscape and underscore the need for greater empirical and practical attention at the crossroads of mental health and human development,” Ratner and her team write.