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Brain waves could help predict how we respond to general anaesthetics

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Jan 14, 2016.

Currently, patients due to undergo surgery are given a dose of anaesthetic based on the so-called ‘Marsh model’, which uses factors such as an individual’s body weight to predict the amount of drug needed. As patients ‘go under’, their levels of awareness are monitored in a relatively crude way. If they are still deemed awake, they are simply given more anaesthetic. However, general anaesthetics can carry risks, particularly if an individual has an underlying health condition such as a heart disorder.

As areas of the brain communicate with each other, they give off tell-tale signals that can give an indication of how conscious an individual is. These ‘networks’ of brain activity can be measured using an EEG (electroencephalogram), which measures electric signals as brain cells talk to each other. Cambridge researchers have previously shown that these network signatures can even be seen in some people in a vegetative state and may help doctors identify patients who are aware despite being unable to communicate. These findings build upon advances in the science of networks to tackle the challenge of understanding and measuring human consciousness.

In a study published today in the open access journal PLOS Computational Biology, funded by the Wellcome Trust, the researchers studied how these signals changed in healthy volunteers as they received an infusion of propofol, a commonly used anaesthetic.

Twenty individuals (9 male, 11 female) received a steadily increasing dose of propofol – all up to the same limit – while undergoing a task that involved pressing one button if they heard a ‘ping’ and a different button if they heard a ‘pong’. At the same time, the researchers tracked their brain network activity using an EEG.

By the time the subjects had reached the maximum dose, some individuals were still awake and able to carry out the task, while others were unconscious. As the researchers analysed the EEG readings, they found clear differences between those who were responding to the anaesthetic and those who remained able to carry on with the task. This ‘brain signature’ was evident in the network of communications between brain areas carried by alpha waves (brain cell oscillations in the frequency range of 7.5–12.5 Hz), the normal range of electrical activity of the brain when conscious and relaxed.

In fact, when the researchers looked at the baseline EEG readings before any drug was given, they already saw differences between those who would later succumb to the drug and those who were less responsive to its effects. Dividing the subjects into two groups based on their EEG readings – those with lots of brain network activity at baseline and those with less – the researchers were able to predict who would be more responsive to the drug and who would be less.

The researchers also measured levels of propofol in the blood to see if this could be used as a measure of how conscious an individual was. Although they found little correlation with the alpha wave readings in general, they did find a correlation with a specific form of brain network activity known as delta-alpha coupling. This may be able to provide a useful, non-invasive measure of the level of drug in the blood.

“A very good way of predicting how an individual responds to our anaesthetic was the state of their brain network activity at the start of the procedure,” says Dr Srivas Chennu from the Department of Clinical Neurosciences, University of Cambridge. “The greater the network activity at the start, the more anaesthetic they are likely to need to put them under.”

Dr Tristan Bekinschtein, senior author from the Department of Psychology, adds: “EEG machines are commonplace in hospitals and relatively inexpensive. With some engineering and further testing, we expect they could be adapted to help doctors optimise the amount of drug an individual needs to receive to become unconscious without increasing their risk of complications.”

Srivas Chennu will be speaking at the Cambridge Science Festival on Wednesday 16 March. During the event, ‘Brain, body and mind: new directions in the neuroscience and philosophy of consciousness’, he will be examining what it means to be conscious.

Reference

Chennu, S et al. Brain connectivity dissociates responsiveness from drug exposure during propofol induced transitions of consciousness. PLOS Computational Biology; 14 Jan 2016

Image
Brain networks during the transition to unconsciousness during propofol sedation (drug infusion timeline shown in red). Participants with robust networks at baseline (left panel) remained resistant to the sedative, while others showed characteristically different, weaker networks during unconsciousness (middle). All participants regained similar networks when the sedative wore off (right).

The complex pattern of ‘chatter’ between different areas of an individual’s brain while they are awake could help doctors better track and even predict their response to general anaesthesia – and better identify the amount of anaesthetic necessary – according to new research from the University of Cambridge.

A very good way of predicting how an individual responds to our anaesthetic was the state of their brain network activity at the start of the procedure
Srivas Chennu
Brain networks during the transition to unconsciousness during propofol sedation

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Cocaine addiction: Scientists discover ‘back door’ into the brain

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Jan 12, 2016.

A second study from the team suggests that a drug used to treat paracetamol overdose may be able to help individuals who want to break their addiction and stop their damaging cocaine seeking habits.

Although both studies were carried out in rats, the researchers believe the findings will be relevant to humans.

Cocaine is a stimulant drug that can lead to addiction when taken repeatedly. Quitting can be extremely difficult for some people: around four in ten individuals who relapse report having experienced a craving for the drug – however, this means that six out of ten people have relapsed for reasons other than ‘needing’ the drug.

“Most people who use cocaine do so initially in search of a hedonic ‘high’,” explains Dr David Belin from the Department of Pharmacology at the University of Cambridge. “In some individuals, though, frequent use leads to addiction, where use of the drug is no longer voluntary, but ultimately becomes a compulsion. We wanted to understand why this should be the case.”

Drug-taking causes a release in the brain of the chemical dopamine, which helps provide the ‘high’ experienced by the user. Initially the drug taking is volitional – in other words, it is the individual’s choice to take the drug – but over time, this becomes habitual, beyond their control.

Previous research by Professor Barry Everitt from the Department of Psychology at Cambridge showed that when rats were allowed to self-administer cocaine, dopamine-related activity occurred initially in an area of the brain known as the nucleus accumbens, which plays a significant role driving ‘goal-directed’ behaviour, as the rats sought out the drug. However, if the rats were given cocaine over an extended period, this activity transferred to the dorsolateral striatum, which plays an important role in habitual behaviour, suggesting that the rats were no longer in control, but rather were responding automatically, having developed a drug-taking habit.

The brain mechanisms underlying the balance between goal-directed and habitual behaviour involves the prefrontal cortex, the brain region that orchestrates our behaviour. It was previously thought that this region was overwhelmed by stimuli associated with the drugs, or with the craving experienced during withdrawal; however, this does not easily explain why the majority of individuals relapsing to drug use did not experience any craving.

Chronic exposure to drugs alters the prefrontal cortex, but it also alters an area of the brain called the basolateral amygdala, which is associated with the link between a stimulus and an emotion. The basolateral amygdala stores the pleasurable memories associated with cocaine, but the pre-frontal cortex manipulates this information, helping an individual to weigh up whether or not to take the drug: if an addicted individual takes the drug, this activates mechanisms in the dorsal striatum.

However, in a study published today in the journal Nature Communications, Dr Belin and Professor Everitt studied the brains of rats addicted to cocaine through self-administration of the drug and identified a previously unknown pathway within the brain that links impulse with habits.

The pathway links the basolateral amygdala indirectly with the dorsolateral striatum, circumventing the prefrontal cortex. This means that an addicted individual would not necessarily be aware of their desire to take the drug.

“We’ve always assumed that addiction occurs through a failure or our self-control, but now we know this is not necessarily the case,” explains Dr Belin. “We’ve found a back door directly to habitual behaviour.

“Drug addiction is mainly viewed as a psychiatric disorder, with treatments such as cognitive behavioural therapy focused on restoring the ability of the prefrontal cortex to control the otherwise maladaptive drug use. But we’ve shown that the prefrontal cortex is not always aware of what is happening, suggesting these treatments may not always be effective.”

In a second study, published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, Dr Belin and colleagues showed that a drug used to treat paracetamol overdose may be able to help individuals addicted to cocaine overcome their addiction – provided the individual wants to quit.

The drug, N-acetylcysteine, had previously been shown in rat studies to prevent relapse. However, the drug later failed human clinical trials, though analysis suggested that while it did not lead addicted individuals to stop using cocaine, amongst those who were trying to abstain, it helped them refrain from taking the drug.

Dr Belin and colleagues used an experiment in which rats compulsively self-administered cocaine. They found that rats given N-acetylcysteine lost the motivation to self-administer cocaine more quickly than rats given a placebo. In fact, when they had stopped working for cocaine, they tended to relapse at a lower rate. N-acetylcysteine also increased the activity in the brain of a particular gene associated with plasticity – the ability of the brain to adapt and learn new skills.

“A hallmark of addiction is that the user continues to take the drug even in the face of negative consequences – such as on their health, their family and friends, their job, and so on,” says co-author Mickael Puaud from the Department of Pharmacology of the University of Cambridge. “Our study suggests that N-acetylcysteine, a drug that we know is well tolerated and safe, may help individuals who want to quit to do so.”

Reference
Murray, JE et al. Basolateral and central amygdala differentially recruit and maintain dorsolateral striatum-dependent cocaine-seeking habits. Nature Comms; 16 December 2015

Ducret, E et al. N-acetylcysteine facilitates self-imposed abstinence after escalation of cocaine intake. Biological Psychiatry; 7 Oct 2015

Individuals addicted to cocaine may have difficulty in controlling their addiction because of a previously-unknown ‘back door’ into the brain, circumventing their self-control, suggests a new study led by the University of Cambridge.

Most people who use cocaine do so initially in search of a hedonic ‘high’. In some individuals, though, frequent use leads to addiction, where use of the drug is no longer voluntary, but ultimately becomes a compulsion
David Belin
relaxing after work_MMVI (cropped)

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Unhappy families: Nine out ten adults estranged from family find Christmas difficult

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Dec 10, 2015.

Hidden Voices – Family Estrangement in Adulthood, a collaboration between the charity Stand Alone and the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge, is the first in depth piece of UK research on family estrangement. It examines the experiences of over 800 people who self-identify as being estranged from their whole family or a key family member, such as their mother, father, siblings or children.

Becca Bland, Chief Executive of Stand Alone, says: “Family is a huge part of our individual and collective lives and an unconditionally loving, supportive group of relations is idealised in society. Yet this is not always attainable for those who are estranged from their family or a family member. I’m sure this research will be challenging to read, but I’m hopeful that as a society we have the strength to keep listening to people in this position, with the view to eventually understanding why our adult family relationships are not always as unconditionally close and supportive as we might wish and imagine them to be.”

The report provides an understanding of family estrangement and its characteristics as well as detailing the challenges participants faced when living without contact with family or a key family member. Common factors that contribute to relationship breakdown with parents, siblings and children include emotional abuse, clashes of personality and values, and mismatched expectations about family roles and relationships.

However, estrangement does not necessarily mean there is no contact between family members. A minority of respondents have minimal contact with the person they are estranged from. Similarly, estrangements are not always stable, and cycling in and out of estrangement is not uncommon. Those who wished their estranged relationships could be different wanted a relationship that was more positive, unconditionally loving, warm and emotionally close.

Most often, respondents who were estranged from an adult child reported that their daughter or son had cut contact with them. Of those who had initiated estrangement from a parent, respondents had done so at various ages, with most doing so in their late 20s and early 30s.

The report shows that the festive period is often the most challenging time for those touched by family estrangement and can be a key time of isolation and vulnerability, with 90% of respondents saying they found the Christmas period a key time of challenge. Other challenging times were reported as birthdays (85%), being around other families (81%) and the death of family members (79%).

“Almost every estranged person finds Christmas the hardest period,” explains Dr Lucy Blake from the Centre for Family Research. “There’s a strong societal expectation of what a family looks like. Social media plays a part too because it’s a highlight reel of people’s family lives, with Facebook feeds filled with pictures of families celebrating together. The reality doesn’t always look like this, but people often find it difficult to talk about that.”

Stigma around the topic of family estrangement is also an issue: two-thirds (68%) of respondents felt that there was stigma around the topic of family estrangement and described feeling judged and feeling as if they were contradicting societal expectations. One in four respondents had turned to their GP for support but reported finding them not at all helpful.

However, not all experiences of estrangement were negative. Around four out of five respondents felt there had been some positive outcomes of their experiences of estrangement, such as greater feelings of freedom and independence.

Reference
Lucy Blake, Becca Bland and Susan Golombok. Hidden Voices – Family Estrangement in Adulthood. 10 December 2015

A new report looking at the experiences of people who are estranged from family members and the challenges they face has highlighted the particular difficulties associated with Christmas.

Social media plays a part because it’s a highlight reel of people’s family lives, with Facebook feeds filled with pictures of families celebrating together
Lucy Blake
Lonely nights (cropped)

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Opinion: What your musical taste says about your personality

By Anonymous from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Nov 30, 2015.

We’re exposed to music for nearly 20% of our waking lives. But much of our musical experience seems to be a mystery. Why does some music bring us to tears while other pieces make us dance? Why is it that the music that we like can make others agitated? And why do some people seem to have a natural ability to play music while others have difficulty carrying a tune? Science is beginning to show that these individual differences are not just random but are, in part, due to people’s personalities.

My colleagues and I have published research showing that people’s musical preferences are linked to three broad thinking styles. Empathisers (Type E) have a strong interest in people’s thoughts and emotions. Systemisers (Type S) have a strong interest in patterns, systems and the rules that govern the world. And those who score relatively equally on empathy and systemising are classified as Type B for “balanced”.

Research from the past decade has shown that 95% of people can be classified into one of these three groups and that they predict a lot of human behaviour. For example, they can predict things such as whether someone studies maths and science, or humanities at university. For the first time, we have shown that they can predict musical behaviour, too.

Matching music with thinking style

To study this phenomenon, we conducted multiple studies with over 4,000 participants. We took data on these participants’ thinking styles and asked them to listen to and indicate their preferences for up to 50 musical excerpts, representing a wide range of genres. Across these studies, we found that empathisers preferred mellow music that had low energy, sad emotions, and emotional depth, as heard in R&B, soft rock, and singer-songwriter genres. For example, empathising was linked to preferences for “Come Away With Me” by Norah Jones and Jeff Buckley’s recording of “Hallelujah”.

 

 

On the other hand, systemisers preferred more intense music, as heard in hard rock, punk and heavy metal genres. Systemisers also preferred music with intellectual depth and complexity as heard in avant-garde classical genres. For example, systemizing was linked to preferences for Alexander Scriabin’s “Etude opus 65 no 3”. Importantly, those who are Type B, had a tendency to prefer music that spans more of a range than the other two thinking styles.

 

 

In our most recent study, published in the Journal of Research of Personality, we found that people’s personality traits can also predict their musical ability, even if they don’t play an instrument. Our team worked with BBC Lab UK to recruit over 7,000 participants and assess them for five distinct personality dimensions: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism/emotionality stability. We also asked them to conduct various tasks that measured their musical ability, including remembering melodies and picking out rhythms.

We found that, next to musical training, the personality trait of openness was the strongest predictor of musical sophistication. People who score highly for openness are imaginative, have a wide range of interests, and are open to new ways of thinking and changes in their environment. Those who score low on openness (or who are “closed”) are more set in their ways, prefer routine and the familiar, and tend to have more conventional values. We also found that extroverts who are often more talkative, assertive, and excitement-seeking had greater singing abilities.

Furthermore, we could apply this even to people who did not currently play a musical instrument, meaning there are people who have a potential for musical talent but are entirely unaware of it.

Music therapy

These new findings tell us that from a person’s musical taste and ability, we can infer a range of information about their personality and the way that they think.

This research shows there are factors beyond our awareness that shape our musical experiences. We hope that these findings can be of help to teachers, parents, and clinicians. Based on information about personality, educators can ensure that children with the potential for musical talent have the opportunity to learn a musical instrument. Music therapists can use information about thinking style to help tailor their therapies for clients, too.

We are also interested in how knowledge gained from science can help children and adults on the autism spectrum who have difficulties with communication, as we recently wrote in the journal Empirical Musicology Review. This could also help people process emotions after experiencing a psychological trauma and when grieving a loss. In fact, initial findings from our lab suggest that people who experienced a traumatic event in childhood engage with music quite differently in adulthood than those who did not experience a trauma.

If you want to find out how you score on musical ability, preferences, and personality, you can take these tests at www.musicaluniverse.org.

David Greenberg, PhD candidate, psychology, University of Cambridge

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author(s) and do not represent the views of the University of Cambridge.

David Greenberg (Department of Psychology) discusses how musical preferences are linked to thinking styles.

Headphones

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At the edge of vision: Struggling to make sense of our cluttered world

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Nov 25, 2015.

Even with 20/20 vision in broad daylight on a clear day, our peripheral vision can be surprisingly poor, particularly when the scene in front of us is cluttered. Now, scientists at the University of Cambridge, UK, Northeastern University, Boston, USA, and Queensland Brain Institute, Brisbane, Australia, believe they are a step closer to understanding why this is.

“When objects in our peripheral vision are surrounded by visual clutter, a phenomenon known as ‘visual crowding’ hinders our ability to make sense of what we see,” explains Dr Will Harrison from the University of Cambridge. “Visual crowding is ubiquitous in natural scenes and affects virtually all everyday tasks, including reading, driving and interacting with the environment. But this failure of vision isn’t a problem with our eyes – it represents a processing limit of the brain.”

Image: Focus on the green spot. Without moving your eyes, you should be able to identify the letter ‘A’ on the left side of the display; the same letter is almost impossible to see on the right side of the display.

In a study published today in the journal Current Biology, Dr Harrison and Professor Peter Bex from Northeastern University have shed new light on how constraints in the brain limit our peripheral vision.

The researchers showed volunteers a series of images with differing levels of visual crowding. To make sure they kept their eyes still, the volunteers were asked to focus on a dot. Beside the dot was a broken ring, like the letter ‘C’, but with the gap positioned at a random orientation. The volunteers were asked to estimate the angle at which the gap appeared by freely rotating a second C so that it matched the target as closely as possible. This helped the researchers to measure each individual’s uncrowded perceptual acuity.

To measure crowded perception in the next stage, the C was surrounded by an additional, larger C – a ‘distractor’ – at different orientations and/or distances to the target C. The volunteers again rotated a second C until they thought it matched the target. Whereas previous studies looking at crowding had only given binary results – was the observer right or wrong? – this new method enabled the researchers to quantify crowding as a continuous experience.

The researchers found that when the angle of the target and distractor were similar, observers tended to choose an average of the two orientations. When the target and distractor angles were quite different, observers tended to choose either the correct orientation (that of the target) or they mistakenly reported the orientation of the distractor. However, this effect depended on the target and distractor being positioned very closely together – reports were not influenced by a distractor positioned a large distance away from the target.

Combining the findings with a computational model of how visual neurons represent the visual field, Dr Harrison and Professor Bex found that problems in identifying objects in our peripheral vision are due primarily to a combination of two factors. First, in a crowded scene, our visual resolution is degraded, meaning that we become less precise at locating an object’s detail. Second, we confuse which detail belongs to which object, to the extent that part of one object can appear ‘swapped’ with a part of a different object. Importantly, their model suggests that both factors are caused by the same underlying brain mechanism.

Dr Harrison believes the findings may have implications for quantifying and treating vision disorders, such as age-related macular degeneration (AMD). A large portion of the elderly population suffers from AMD, which causes debilitating central blindness. The loss of high-resolution central vision forces AMD sufferers to rely solely on peripheral vision, which is very poor due to visual crowding.

“We hope that in future it may be possible to adapt our methods to quantify the degree to which patients with AMD are visually-impaired,” explains Dr Harrison. “At the moment, it can be difficult to quantify the extent or severity of their visual deficits. Our method would allow a careful examination of the function of AMD patients’ remaining vision, which could in turn lead to better rehabilitation techniques down the track.”

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health, USA, and the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia.

Reference
William J Harrison and Peter J Bex. A unifying model of orientation crowding in peripheral vision. Current Biology; 25 Nov 2015

As you’re driving to work along a busy road, your eyes on the traffic lights ahead, hoping they won’t turn to red, you pass signs warning of roadworks, ads on bus shelters… Suddenly a dog runs out in front of you. What are your chances of seeing it before it’s too late?

When objects in our peripheral vision are surrounded by visual clutter, a phenomenon known as ‘visual crowding’ hinders our ability to make sense of what we see
Will Harrison
Advisory Cycle Lanes and Pavements Being Abused On Parry's Lane (cropped)

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Hallucinations linked to differences in brain structure

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Nov 17, 2015.

The study, led by the University of Cambridge in collaboration with Durham University, Macquarie University, and Trinity College Dublin, found that reductions in the length of the paracingulate sulcus (PCS), a fold towards the front of the brain, were associated with increased risk of hallucinations in people diagnosed with schizophrenia.


The PCS is one of the last structural folds to develop in the brain before birth, and varies in size between individuals. In a previous study, a team of researchers led by Dr Jon Simons from the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge, found that variation in the length of the PCS in healthy individuals was linked to the ability to distinguish real from imagined information, a process known as ‘reality monitoring’.

In this new study, published today in the journal Nature Communications, Dr Simons and his colleagues analysed 153 structural MRI scans of people diagnosed with schizophrenia and matched control participants, measuring the length of the PCS in each participant’s brain. As difficulty distinguishing self-generated information from that perceived in the outside world may be responsible for many kinds of hallucinations, the researchers wanted to assess whether there was a link between length of the PCS and propensity to hallucinate.

The researchers found that in people diagnosed with schizophrenia, a 1 cm reduction in the fold’s length increased the likelihood of hallucinations by nearly 20%. The effect was observed regardless of whether hallucinations were auditory or visual in nature, consistent with a reality monitoring explanation.

“Schizophrenia is a complex spectrum of conditions that is associated with many differences throughout the brain, so it can be difficult to make specific links between brain areas and the symptoms that are often observed,” says Dr Simons. “By comparing brain structure in a large number of people diagnosed with schizophrenia with and without the experience of hallucinations, we have been able to identify a particular brain region that seems to be associated with a key symptom of the disorder.”

The researchers believe that changes in other areas of the brain are likely also important in generating the complex phenomena of hallucinations, possibly including regions that process visual and auditory perceptual information. In people who experience hallucinations, these areas may produce altered perceptions which, due to differences in reality monitoring processes supported by regions around the PCS, may be misattributed as being real. For example, a person may vividly imagine a voice but judge that it arises from the outside world, experiencing the voice as a hallucination.

“We think that the PCS is involved in brain networks that help us recognise information that has been generated ourselves,” adds Dr Jane Garrison, first author of the study, “People with a shorter PCS seem less able to distinguish the origin of such information, and appear more likely to experience it as having been generated externally.

“Hallucinations are very complex phenomena that are a hallmark of mental illness and, in different forms, are also quite common across the general population. There is likely to be more than one explanation for why they arise, but this finding seems to help explain why some people experience things that are not actually real.”

The research was primarily supported by the University of Cambridge Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute, funded by a joint award from the UK Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust.

Reference
Garrison, J.R., Fernyhough, C., McCarthy-Jones, S., Haggard, M., The Australian Schizophrenia Research Bank, & Simons, J.S. (2015). Paracingulate sulcus morphology is associated with hallucinations in the human brain. Nature Communications, 6, 8956.

People diagnosed with schizophrenia who are prone to hallucinations are likely to have structural differences in a key region of the brain compared to both healthy individuals and people diagnosed with schizophrenia who do not hallucinate, according to research published today.

Hallucinations are very complex phenomena that are a hallmark of mental illness and, in different forms, are also quite common across the general population. There is likely to be more than one explanation for why they arise
Jane Garrison
HALLUZINATION

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Retirement of Professor James Russell

By from News. Published on Nov 09, 2015.

Facebook data suggests people from higher social class have fewer international friends

By sc604 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Sep 10, 2015.

A new study conducted in collaboration with Facebook using anonymised data from the social networking site shows a correlation between people’s social and financial status, and the levels of internationalism in their friendship networks – with those from higher social classes around the world having fewer friends outside of their own country.  

Despite the fact that, arguably, people from higher social classes should be better positioned to travel and meet people from different countries, researchers found that, when it comes to friendship networks, people from those groups had lower levels of internationalism and made more friends domestically than abroad.

Researchers say that their results are in line with what’s known as the ‘restricting social class’ hypothesis: that high-social class individuals have greater resources, and therefore depend less on others – with the wealthy tending to be less socially engaged, particularly with those from groups other than their own, as a result.   

The research team, from the Prosociality and Well-Being Lab in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Psychology, conducted two studies – one local and one global, with the global study using a dataset of billions of Facebook friendships – and the results from both supported the idea of restricting social class.   

However, the researchers say the fact that those of lower social status tend to have more international connections demonstrates how low-social class people “may actually stand to benefit most from a highly international and globalised social world”.

“The findings point to the possibility that the wealthy stay more in their own social bubble, but this is unlikely to be ultimately beneficial. If you are not engaging internationally then you will miss out on that international resource – that flow of new ideas and information,” said co-author Dr Aleksandr Spectre, who heads up the lab.

“The results could also be highlighting a mechanism of how the modern era might facilitate a closing of the inequality gap, as those from lower social classes take advantage of platforms like Facebook to increase their social capital beyond national borders,” he said.   

For the first study, the ‘local’, the team recruited 857 people in the United States and asked them to self-report their perceived social status (from working to upper class on a numerical scale), as well as an objective indicator in the form of annual household income. The volunteers also provided researchers access to their Facebook networks.

The results from the first study indicated that low-social class people have nearly 50% more international friends than high-social class people.

For the second study, the ‘global’, the team approached Facebook directly, who provided data on every friendship formed over the network in every country in the world at the national aggregate level for 2011. All data was anonymous. The dataset included over 57 billion friendships.

The research team quantified social class on a national level based on each country’s economic standing by using gross domestic product (GDP) per capita data for 2011 as published by the World Bank.

After controlling for as many variables as they were able, the researchers again found a negative correlation between social class – this time on a national level – and the percentage of Facebook friends from other countries. For people from low-social class countries, 35% of their friendships on average were international, compared to 28% average in high-social class countries.

The findings from the two studies provide support for the restricting social class hypothesis on both a local and a global level, say the researchers. The results are contained in a new paper, published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.

“Previous research by others has highlighted the value of developing weak ties to people in distant social circles, because they offer access to resources not likely to be found in one’s immediate circle. I find it encouraging that low-social class people tend to have greater access to these resources on account of having more international friendships,” said co-author Maurice Yearwood. 

“From a methodological perspective, this combination of micro and macro starts to build a very interesting initial story. These are just correlations at the moment, but it’s a fascinating start for this type of research going forward,” Yearwood said.

Spectre says that the high levels of Facebook usage and sheer size of the network makes it a “pretty good proxy for your social environment”. “The vast majority of Facebook friendships are ones where people have met in person and engaged with each other, a lot of the properties you find in Facebook friendship networks will strongly mirror everyday life,” he said.

“We are entering an era with big data and social media where we can start to ask really big questions and gain answers to them in a way we just couldn’t do before. I think this research is a good example of that, I don’t know how we could even have attempted this work 10 years ago,” Spectre said.

The latest work is the first output of ongoing research collaborations between Spectre’s lab in Cambridge and Facebook, a company he commends for its “scientific spirit”.  “Having the opportunity to work with companies like Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft and Google should be something that’s hugely exciting to the academic community,” he said.

Reference:
Yearwood, M. H., Cuddy, A., Lamba, N., Youyou, W., van der Lowe, I., Piff, P., Gronin, C., Fleming, P., Simon-Thomas, E., Keltner, D., & Spectre, A. (2015). On wealth and the diversity of friendships: High social class people around the world have fewer international friends. Personality and Individual Differences, 87, 224-229. DOI: doi:10.1016/j.paid.2015.07.040

New study using Facebook network data, including a dataset of over 57 billion friendships, shows correlation between higher social class and fewer international friendships. Researchers say results support ideas of ‘restricting social class’ among wealthy, but show that lower social classes are taking advantage of increased social capital beyond national borders.

The findings point to the possibility that the wealthy stay more in their own social bubble, but this is unlikely to be ultimately beneficial
Aleksandr Spectre
Map showing levels of international friendship by country

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Motion dazzle: spotting the patterns that help animals outsmart predators on the run

By Anonymous from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Sep 09, 2015.

Many animals use the colours and patterns on their bodies to help them blend into the background and avoid the attention of predators. But this strategy, crypsis, is far from perfect. As soon as the animal moves, the camouflage is broken, and it is much easier for a predator to see and catch it. So how do animals protect themselves when they’re on the move?

Researchers are exploring whether high-contrast patterns during motion, such as stripes and zigzags, may be distorting the predator’s perception of where the animal is going. But, as little is known about such “motion dazzle”, we have built an online game to help shed light on it.

Lessons from war

The idea is that it may be more effective for animals to focus on preventing capture, rather then preventing detection or recognition, is actually more than 100 years old. It was naturalist Abbott Thayer who suggested that high-contrast patterns may distort the perceived speed or direction of a moving object, making it harder to track and capture.

Such motion dazzle patterns were actually used in World War I and II, where some ships were painted with black and white geometric patterns in an attempt to reduce the number of successful torpedo attacks from submarines. However, due to many other factors affecting wartime naval losses, it is unclear whether motion dazzle patterns actually had the desired effect.

 

HMS Argus displaying a coat of dazzle camouflage in 1918. wikimedia

 

What about the natural world? Zebras have bold stripes, and scientists have debated the function of their patterns since Darwin’s time. A recent modelling study suggested that when zebras move, their stripes create contradictory signals about their direction of movement that is likely to confuse predators. There are potentially two visual illusions responsible for this, which could form the basis of motion dazzle effects: the wagon wheel effect and the barber pole illusion.

The wagon wheel effect is named after Western movies, where the wheels on wagons often appear to be moving backwards. This is because the visual system takes “snapshots” over time and links them to create a continuous scene, in the same manner as recording film. If a wheel spoke moves forward rapidly between sampling events, it will appear to have moved backwards as it will be misidentified as the following spoke.

 

Wagon Wheel effect explained.

 

The barber pole illusion (also known as the aperture effect) occurs because the moving stripes provide ambiguous information about the true direction of movement. These illusory effects produced by stripes could therefore lead to difficulties in judging the speed and movement of a moving target. However, the zebra study was entirely theoretical and didn’t test whether striped patterns actually affected the judgements of real observers.

Dazzle Bug

Surprisingly, the first experimental tests of the effectiveness of motion dazzle patterns weren’t carried out until recently. Some studies have shown that strikingly patterned targets can be more difficult to catch than targets with other patterns in studies using humans as “predators” playing touch screen computer games. However, other studies have found no clear advantage for motion dazzle patterns So although patterns can affect our perception of movement, it’s still not clear which are most effective at doing so.

 

Can you see the spider? Crypsis can be pretty effective - as long as you don’t move. J Kelley, Author provided

 

We are addressing the question of which patterns are best for avoiding predators during movement using Dazzle Bug – an online game that asks players to imagine themselves as a predator, trying to catch a moving bug as fast as possible. Each bug has a different body pattern as well as a random pattern of movement. Bugs with easy to catch patterns will disappear, whereas those that are particularly tricky to catch will survive ––just like in nature. Over time, the patterns on the bugs' body will evolve so that they become harder to catch with each successive generation.

This citizen science project will allow us to see what patterns are most effective at evading capture. We can then use these results to look at what visual effects these patterns have, and to see whether these patterns match up with those found on real animals in the wild.

Our findings will offer insight into the role of stripes, which are common in many species. While these patterns may have evolved to confuse the visual perception of a predator, they may also be a result of other selection pressures, such as attracting a mate or regulating body temperature. If striped patterns survive and evolve in the game, this would provide strong evidence that these patterns do act to confuse human predators, perhaps by producing the illusions described above. As motion perception seems to be highly conserved across a wide range of populations, these illusions may occur for many other predators too.

If we find that patterns other than stripes – such as speckles, splotches or zigzags – are most effective in preventing capture, this then leads to new and interesting questions about how these patterns may act to confuse or mislead. Whatever the outcome, Dazzle Bug will provide insight into how bodily patterns may have evolved to help animals to survive life on the go.

Laura Kelley, Research Fellow, University of Cambridge

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author(s) and do not represent the views of the University of Cambridge.

A new online game is helping researchers explore whether high-contrast patterns during motion, such as stripes and zigzags, help to protect animals from predators.

Dazzle Bug asks players to imagine themselves as a predator, trying to catch a moving bug as fast as possible
Laura Kelley
Zebras on the run can razzle-dazzle their enemies

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Men and women with autism have ‘extreme male’ scores on the ‘Eyes test’ of mindreading

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Sep 07, 2015.

Scientists at the University of Cambridge University have published new results in the journal PLoS ONE from the largest ever study of people with autism taking the ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes’ test. Whilst typical adults showed the predicted and now well-established sex difference on this test, with women on average scoring higher than men, in adults with autism this typical sex difference was conspicuously absent. Instead, both men and women with autism showed an extreme of the typical male pattern on the test, providing strong support for the ‘extreme male brain’ theory of autism.

The study was led by Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre (ARC) at the University of Cambridge. Almost 400 men and women with autism or Asperger Syndrome took the test online, which entails looking at a series of photographs of just the eye region of the face, and picking which of four words best describe what the person in the photo is thinking or feeling.

The ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes’ test is known as an advanced ‘theory of mind’ or empathy test, designed to reveal subtle individual differences in social sensitivity. It particularly measures the ‘cognitive’ component of empathy, that is, the ability to recognize or infer someone else’s state of mind. The test has been used in hundreds of studies worldwide, showing reliable sex differences in typical individuals, with women on average scoring higher than men, and showing that people with autism score lower on average than people without autism.

The team investigated whether men and women with autism perform differently on this test, and used it to evaluate the ‘extreme male brain’ theory of autism, in the largest study to date. This theory predicts that on tests of empathy, typical females will score higher than typical males, who in turn will score higher than people with autism. The results confirmed this pattern.

Professor Baron-Cohen commented: “We are seeing this pattern not just on the Eyes test but on a number of measures. Last year we saw it on the Empathy Quotient, a self-report measure of social sensitivity, and on the Systemizing Quotient, a self-report measure of one’s interest and aptitude in understanding systems. This year we saw it in prenatal testosterone levels, where boys with autism had elevated levels of this hormone compared to typically developing boys, who in turn have higher levels than typically developing girls. And a decade ago we found how much prenatal testosterone you have influences your scores on the Eyes test. Future research needs to delve into what is giving rise to this pattern.”

Dr Carrie Allison, Research Manager at the ARC and another member of the team, said: “Imagine looking at people’s eyes and not being able to ‘read’ them effortlessly and intuitively for what the other person may be thinking or feeling. This research has the potential to explain why children with autism, from the earliest point in development, avoid looking at people’s eyes, and become confused in rapidly changing social situations, where people are exchanging glances without words all the time. This disability may be both a marker of the early-onset empathy difficulties in autism, and contribute to exacerbating them. Teaching children with autism how to read emotional expressions non-verbally should become an important clinical focus for future research and practice. ”

Dr Meng-Chuan Lai, the William Binks Autism Neuroscience Fellow at the ARC and senior author of the study, added: “There are substantial individual differences in terms of how well a person with autism performs on the Eyes test, but the social difficulties of both men and women are reflected on their test scores. In addition, women with autism differ more from typical women than men with autism differ from typical men. The relationship between autism and sex and gender is becoming an important topic for autism research.”

Reference:

New results published by researchers at the Autism Research Centre (ARC) show both men and women with autism show an extreme of the typical male pattern on the 'Reading the Mind in the Eyes' test.

Imagine looking at people’s eyes and not being able to ‘read’ them effortlessly and intuitively for what the other person may be thinking or feeling.
Carrie Allison
Speaking with eyes

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Tributes to Professor Nicholas J. Mackintosh, FRS

By from News. Published on Sep 02, 2015.

Young minds think alike – and older people are more distractible

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Aug 14, 2015.

The study, published today in the journal Neurobiology of Aging, also found that older people tended to be more easily distracted than younger adults.

Age is believed to change the way our brains respond and how its networks interact, but studies looking at these changes tend to use very artificial experiments, with basic stimuli. To try to understand how we respond to complex, life-like stimuli, researchers at the Cambridge Centre for Ageing and Neuroscience (Cam-CAN) showed 218 subjects aged 18-88 an edited version of an episode from the Hitchcock TV series while using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure their brain activity.

The researchers found a surprising degree of similarity in the thought patterns amongst the younger subjects – their brains tended to ‘light up’ in similar ways and at similar points in the programme. However, in older subjects, this similarity tended to disappear and their thought processes became more idiosyncratic, suggesting that they were responding differently to what they were watching and were possibly more distracted.

The greatest differences were seen in the ‘higher order’ regions at the front of the brain, which are responsible for controlling attention (the superior frontal lobe and the intraparietal sulcus) and language processing (the bilateral middle temporal gyrus and left inferior frontal gyrus).

The findings suggest that our ability to respond to everyday events in the environment differs with age, possibly due to altered patterns of attention.

Dr Karen Campbell from the Department of Psychology, first author on the study, says: “As we age, our ability to control the focus of attention tends to decline, and we end up attending to more ‘distracting’ information than younger adults. As a result, older adults end up attending to a more diverse range of stimuli and so are more likely to understand and interpret everyday events in different ways than younger people.”

In order to encourage audiences to respond to movies and TV programmes in the same way as everyone else, and hence have a ‘shared experience’, directors and cinematographers use a variety of techniques to draw attention to the focal item in each shot. When the stimulus is less engaging – for example, when one character is talking at length or the action is slow, people show less overlap in their neural patterns of activity, suggesting that a stimulus needs to be sufficiently captivating in order to drive attention. However, capturing attention is not sufficient when watching a film; the brain needs to maintain attention or at the very least, to limit attention to that information which is most relevant to the plot.

Dr Campbell and colleagues argue that the variety in brain patterns seen amongst older people reflects a difference in their ability to control their attention, as attentional capture by stimuli in the environment is known to be relatively preserved with age. This supports previous research which shows that older adults respond to and better remember materials with emotional content.

“We know that regions at the front of the brain are responsible for maintaining our attention, and these are the areas that see the greatest structural changes as we ages, and it is these changes that we believe are being reflected in our study,” she adds. “There may well be benefits to this distractibility. Attending to lots of different information could help with our creativity, for example.”

Cam-CAN is supported by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

Reference
Campbell, K et al. Idiosyncratic responding during movie-watching predicted by age differences in attentional control. Neurobiology of Aging; 6 Aug 2015.

‘Bang! You’re Dead’, a 1961 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, continues to surprise – but not just with the twist in its tale. Scientists at the University of Cambridge have used the programme to show that young people respond in a similar way to events, but as we age our thought patterns diverge.

Older adults end up attending to a more diverse range of stimuli and so are more likely to understand and interpret everyday events in different ways than younger people
Karen Campbell
Hitchcock

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Jackdaws in the news

By from News. Published on Aug 12, 2015.