Coming up with the perfect recipe for crisps or the ideal marketing strategy for a soft drink used to depend on explicit measures. In focus groups and surveys, consumers were asked which product tasted best or which commercial was most appealing. But these measures are imperfect: consumers may choose to hide their true opinions or they might not be fully aware of their own preferences. Food and drinks companies need more objective measures. Currently their best hope is functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
The idea is that somewhere in the brain, a “buy button” is hidden away: a region (or combination of regions) that influence your purchase decision. The promise of neuromarketing is that one day, we will be able to find this region, record its activity when you watch an ad or sample a product, and then predict how well this product will sell. So far, the success has been limited. But in a recent study in NeuroImage, Simone Kühn from the University Clinic Hamburg-Eppendorf and her colleagues claim to have found “multiple ‘buy buttons’ in the brain”.
Deep brain stimulation is a medical procedure that involves implanting electrodes permanently into the brain and using them to alter the functioning of specific neural networks. A battery inserted subcutaneously in the chest provides the device with power. One application of the technology is as a treatment for Parkinson’s Disease, a neurodegenerative condition that causes tremors and difficulties moving. While the treatment can bring about an impressive alleviation of symptoms, research suggests that Parkinson’s patients often struggle to adjust psychologically. Now a case study published in the British Journal of Health Psychology has provided some of the first insights into what it’s like for a patient to contemplate undergoing surgery for deep brain stimulation, and then to adjust in the immediate aftermath.
The traffic lights turn amber: should you brake or accelerate on through? If there’s a teenager at the wheel, the chances are he or she will put their foot down and keep going. Teenagers love taking risks, more so than any other age group. This is partly down to the immaturity of the teen brain: they do not yet show the same connectivity between frontal decision making areas and deeper reward-related brain areas, as compared with adults. But there’s also a social element. When an adult is around, teens tend to take fewer risks, and their brains show less reward-related activity after taking a risk, a phenomenon that psychologists call “social scaffolding” because it is as if the adult presence is helping the teen to attain adult-like behaviour. A new study in Developmental Science builds on these findings and makes the claim that a teenager’s brain is influenced to a greater extent by the presence of his or her mother than by an unfamiliar adult. Continue reading “Teenagers’ brains process risk differently when Mum is around”→
If you want to maximise a person’s intellectual potential, the general consensus for a long time has been that you need to start young. According to this traditional view, early childhood offers a precious “window of opportunity” or “sensitive period” for learning that closes slowly as we reach adolescence. It’s the reason that toddlers find it easier to master the accent of a foreign language, for instance.
Sarah-Jayne Blakemore at University College London has spent the last decade over-turning some of these assumptions, showing that the adolescent brain is still remarkably flexible as it undergoes profound anatomical changes. “The idea that the brain is somehow fixed in early childhood, which was an idea that was very strongly believed up until fairly recently, is completely wrong,” she told Edge in 2012. The transformation is particularly marked in the prefrontal lobes (located behind the forehead) and the parietal lobes (underneath and just behind the top of your head): two regions that are involved in abstract thought.
The upshot is that teenagers may go through a second sensitive period, in which they are particularly responsive to certain kinds of intellectual stimulation. A new paper from Blakemore’s lab, published in Psychological Science, builds on this idea, showing that our ability to learn certain kinds of analytical skills doesn’t diminish after childhood, but actually increases through adolescence and into early adulthood.
Poets have long described the mind-altering effects of a passionate relationship – “my love’s a noble madness” wrote John Dryden. “Of all the emotions,” said Cicero, “there is none more violent than love. Love is a madness.” Psychology research is beginning to back this up. A recent study found that students in the early days of a passionate relationship exhibited reduced cognitive control in basic psychological tests. Now brain researchers in Japan have started to look for the neural correlates of these effects. Writing in Frontiers in Psychology, Hiroaki Kawamichi and his colleagues report the results of their brain imaging experiment showing that participants in the relatively early stages of a romantic relationship had reduced grey matter in a region of the brain involved in processing reward, which might suggest their brains had adjusted to the intensity of their love affair.
It’s popularly believed that left-handers are uncommonly blessed with talents like high intelligence or an artistic temperament, but this is a myth. In fact, some studies even show cognitive deficits in lefties (though other research has failed to confirm this) and in terms of their take-home salaries, surveys suggest that left-handers lag behind the right-handed by as much as ten per cent, possibly indicating a difficulty in competing under commercial conditions. In a recent study in PLOS One, Marcello Sartarelli from the Universidad de Alicante attempted to replicate this deficit under controlled laboratory conditions using a simulated labour market. Lefties actually competed more strongly than expected, but they also exhibited some intriguing performance quirks linked with personality that set them apart from the right-handed majority.
Imagine a person is terrified of dogs because they once suffered a terrible bite. Following long-established techniques, their psychologist might gradually expose them to dogs in a safe setting, until their fear gradually faded away. This “exposure therapy” can be effective but it has some serious drawbacks, including the fact that the person might at first find it traumatic to be close to dogs again.
What if there were a way to remove this person’s fear of dogs at a subconscious level, without the need for any traumatic exposure? Such an approach has now come much closer to clinical reality thanks to a new study reported recently in Nature Human Behaviour. The findings suggest that neurofeedback can be used to unlearn a fear by pairing relevant non-conscious neural activity with a reward, such as money. Significant technical hurdles remain before this becomes a real-life treatment, but it’s an exciting breakthrough. Continue reading “Neuroscientists use neurofeedback to erase fear in the brain”→
Besides problems with social interactions, it has been known for a while that many people with autism experience sensory difficulties, such as hypersensitivity to sounds, light or touch. With sensory impairment now officially included in diagnostic manuals, researchers have been trying to see if there’s a link between the sensory and social symptoms. Such a link would make intuitive sense: For instance, it is easy to imagine that if someone experienced sensory stimuli more strongly, they would shun social interaction due to their complexity. More specifically, you would expect them to struggle with filtering out and making sense of social cues against the backdrop of sensory overload.
Past research has suggested that tactile hyper-responsiveness in particular may be relevant. The correct processing of tactile information plays an important role in differentiating yourself from others (so-called “self-other discrimination”), a crucial requirement for social cognition. In fact, touch may be unique among the senses because there is a clear difference in the tactile feedback received when you touch something compared to when you see someone else touch something. Now a study in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience has used recordings of participants’ brain waves to provide more evidence that tactile sensations are processed differently in people with autism and that this may contribute to their social difficulties.
Flick through any neuropsychology textbook and you’ll hear about the nineteenth century pioneers Paul Broca and Carl Wernicke, who showed that language production and comprehension are subserved by two distinct brain regions, which came to be known as Broca’s and Wernicke’s area, respectively. You’ll learn too about another neurology pioneer, Norman Geschwind who described how these two regions are joined by a key connective tract – the arcuate fasciculus.
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”→