Brain Parasites And Super-Recognisers: The Week’s Best Psychology Links

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Our weekly round-up of the best psychology coverage from elsewhere on the web

Researchers from tech company DeepMind have drawn inspiration from their own AI research to develop a new theory of how reinforcement learning works in the brain. Dopamine neurons respond to the difference between a predicted reward and the reward that an animal actually receives: so if the reward is greater than predicted, for instance, more dopamine will be released. But the team found that dopamine neurons in mice don’t all produce the same level of response, reports Donna Lu at New Scientistinstead, they show a distribution of responses, similar to techniques used in machine learning.

The parasite Toxoplasma gondii can only reproduce in the digestive tract of cats, so it’s developed an ingenious solution: when it infects the brains of rats and mice, it makes them less scared of felines. But a new study suggests that T. gondii isn’t the “genius” it was previously believed to be. Instead, researchers have found that the parasite causes rodents to lose fear towards predators generally, rather than cats specifically, reports Kelly Servick at Science though not everyone is convinced by the findings.

An increasing body of psychological literature suggests that meditation and mindfulness may boost feelings of empathy and altruism (though it is not without its downsides). If that’s the case, asks Sigal Samuel at Vox, do we all have a moral obligation to start meditating?

“Super-recognisers” people who are particularly adept at recognising faces are often employed by the police and border agencies. But recent studies reveal their skills are limited when it comes to recognising people of different ethnic groups. Researchers found that white super-recognisers were better than white controls at recognising Egyptian and Asian faces but they were still worse than native Egyptian or Asian non-super-recognisers. “[A]gencies seeking to recruit super-recognisers will see a performance boost,” write the researchers at The Conversation. “But if they are assessing a particular ethnic group, they will need to seek the help of native observers as well.”

“Environmental issues are not just technical challenges that can be solved with a new invention. To tackle climate change we will need insight from psychology and sociology. Scientific and technological innovations are necessary, but enabling them to make an impact requires an understanding of how people adapt and change their behaviour.” At Nature, Hetan Shah welcomes recent calls for scientists to be at the heart of the civil service but cautions that the government should not overlook the vital role of experts from the humanities and social sciences.

Finally, a couple of radio recommendations. In this week’s episode of All in the Mind, Claudia Hammond talks to clinical neuropsychologist Annie Hickox and her daughter Jane about their experiences after Jane began suffering from depression (you can also read Annie Hickox’s moving account in The Psychologist here). And Sophie Scott and Richard Wiseman join The Infinite Monkey Cage this week to talk about the science of humour.

Compiled by Matthew Warren (@MattbWarren), Editor of BPS Research Digest