Enjoy this strange new audiovisual illusion from Caltech scientists

Caltech researchers developed the illusion above to illustrate postdiction, a sensory phenomenon "in which a stimulus that occurs later can retroactively affect our perceptions of an earlier event." From Caltech Matters:

"Illusions are a really interesting window into the brain," says first author Noelle Stiles (PhD '15), a visitor in biology and biological engineering and a postdoctoral scholar–research associate at USC. "By investigating illusions, we can study the brain's decision-making process. For example, how does the brain determine reality with information from multiple senses that is at times noisy and conflicting? The brain uses assumptions about the environment to solve this problem. When these assumptions happen to be wrong, illusions can occur as the brain tries to make the best sense of a confusing situation. We can use these illusions to unveil the underlying inferences that the brain makes...."

Postdictive processing has been demonstrated within individual senses, but this work focuses on how the phenomenon can bridge multiple senses. The key to both of the new illusions is that the audio and visual stimuli occur rapidly, in under 200 milliseconds (one-fifth of a second). The brain, trying to make sense of this barrage of information, synthesizes the stimuli from both senses to determine the experience, using postdiction to do so.

Read more in the researchers' scientific paper: "What you saw is what you will hear: Two new illusions with audiovisual postdictive effects" (PLoS ONE) Read the rest

Sans Forgetica, a font to make you remember

Sans Forgetica is a free-to-download font that supposedly helps you "remember your study notes", designed by typographer Stephen Banham and the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology's Behavioural Business Lab. It's a remakably hostile mindhack: the letterforms are designed to be difficult to read without losing their legibility, thereby "prompting your brain to engage in deeper processing" and "question the gestalt understanding of type".

I'd like it more if it were a deliberate prank, a typographical equivalent of the Jimmy Kimmel skit where he tricked Fashion Week attendees into praising a model wearing a watermelon on his head. It's called semiographic closure, honey, look it up. Read the rest

The art (and science) of lying

Now seems like a fine time to read this Scientific American article titled The Art of Lying by Theodor Schaarschmidt. According to a study conducted by UC Santa Barbara psychologist Bella M. DePaulo and referenced in the article, people make up around two stories every day. Apparently, children "initially have difficulty formulating believable lies, but proficiency improves with age. Young adults between 18 and 29 do it best. After about the age of 45, we begin to lose this ability." From Scientific American:

Current thinking about the psychological processes involved in deception holds that people typically tell the truth more easily than they tell a lie and that lying requires far more cognitive resources. First, we must become aware of the truth; then we have to invent a plausible scenario that is consistent and does not contradict the observable facts. At the same time, we must suppress the truth so that we do not spill the beans—that is, we must engage in response inhibition. What is more, we must be able to assess accurately the reactions of the listener so that, if necessary, we can deftly produce adaptations to our original story line. And there is the ethical dimension, whereby we have to make a conscious decision to transgress a social norm. All this deciding and self-control implies that lying is managed by the prefrontal cortex—the region at the front of the brain responsible for executive control, which includes such processes as planning and regulating emotions and behavior.

"The Art of Lying" (Scientific American)

image: screenshot of Pinocchio film trailer, public domain Read the rest

Large scale psych study identifies "homo economicus" as the source of all evil in the world

A German-Danish study of more than 2,500 people, published in the APA's Psychological Review, investigates the correlates of the "dark traits" in human personality ("egoism, Machiavellianism, narcissism, psychopathy, sadism, spitefulness" and more) seeking the underlying "tendency" that they all share. Read the rest

"Meaningless rituals" boost self-control

Research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (paywalled, no Sci-Hub mirror) describes a fascinating experimental outcome in which subjects were asked to enact "meaningless rituals" ("knocking the table with their knuckles, closing their eyes and counting, among other things") before being confronted with a self-control challenge (eating two carrots, then deciding between a third carrot and a chocolate truffle). Read the rest

With the number of people living under dictatorships up by a billion, a reminder of dictators' deceptively humanizing traits

Stalin was an incredibly devoted father; Saddam Hussein was fantastically charming; Hitler was a streetfighter who risked his personal safety in the fray; and a surprising number of dictators, monsters and autocrats have careers in the arts, and are described by their childhood friends are not exceptionally cruel or sociopathic. Read the rest

Yale's most popular course ever: Happiness

When Yale psych professor Laurie Santos offered a course in how to be happy -- based on the latest peer-reviewed science -- she hoped that a reasonable number of students would sign up (after all, the literature suggested that there is an epidemic of depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation among US college students); the course was the most successful in Yale's history, with one in four students enrolling Read the rest

Eye tracking and fMRI confirm that we don't even perceive security warnings before clicking past them

A team of computer scientists, psychologists and neuroscientists used eye-tracking and fMRI to measure how users perceived security warnings, such as warnings about app permissions and browser warnings about insecure pages and plugin installations. Read the rest

Why these scientists are teaching robots to give good hugs

Five years ago, my artist/engineer pal Kal Spelletich drew at crowd at an Institute for the Future conference by demonstrating his "Huggerer," a pneumatic robot that delivers free hugs. Now robot hugs are the subject of new scientific research! At a recent human-robot interaction conference, researchers from Stuttgart, Germany's Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems presented their efforts to explore "how robots can be more effectively designed and taught to give the kinds of hugs that humans will love." From Evan Ackerman's fascinating interview with lead researcher Alexis Block in IEEE Spectrum:

IEEE Spectrum: Why is research on robot hugs important?

Alexis Block: Robot hugs are important because people love to give and receive hugs. Virginia Satir, a well-known family therapist, was famous for saying, “We need four hugs a day for survival. We need eight hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.” Sometimes, we are put in new or uncomfortable situations where we might not be near our loved ones, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need the support and calming effects that a hug provides. Research on robot hugs is important so we can one day use technology to provide the emotional support and health benefits of hugs to many people, wherever or whenever they need it.

What makes a good hug?

The results from our experiment suggest that to make a good hug whoever/whatever you hug should be compliant, warm, squeeze you, and release you immediately when you indicate you’re ready for the hug to end.

Read the rest

Dentists can smell fear and it may impair their performance

New research suggests that dentists may unconsciously smell fear and that their patients' anxiety can hurt their performance. How did the scientists control for the fact that a patient's anxiety in the dental chair is pretty obvious? First, Valentina Parma and her colleagues at the International School for Advanced Studies in Trieste, Italy collected t-shirts worn by students who had sat for a difficult exam or a calm lecture.

From New Scientist:

The team then doused the T-shirts with a chemical that masks body odour, so that it wasn’t possible to consciously smell any body odour on them. When the T-shirts were presented to a different group of 24 dental students, they said they couldn’t detect any difference between those taken from the stressful or the relaxed situations.

Next, mannequins were dressed in the donated T-shirts, and the second group of students had to perform dental treatments on them. Each student was graded on their performance by examiners – and they performed significantly worse when treating mannequins wearing T-shirts from people who’d been stressed. Mistakes included being more likely to damage neighbouring teeth, for example.

Parma thinks the scent of anxiety could be triggering the same emotions in those who subconsciously smell it. “It’s quite fascinating,” says Pamela Dalton at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. “It helps us understand how we can communicate without language.”

"Smelling Anxiety Chemosignals Impairs Clinical Performance of Dental Students" (Chemical Senses via Weird Universe)

image: David Shankbone, CC Read the rest

How Wim Hof, "The Iceman," withstands such extreme temperatures

Dutch extreme athlete Wim Hof is known for chilly feats like the world's longest ice bath and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in just a pair of shorts. (Hof is the subject of the recent New York Times bestseller "What Doesn't Kill Us: How Freezing Water, Extreme Altitude, and Environmental Conditioning Will Renew Our Lost Evolutionary Strength" by Scott Carney.) Now, researchers from Wayne State University’s School of Medicine recently used an MRI scanner to explore the science behind Hof's dangerous stunts. From Smithsonian:

Hof attributes his success to what he has dubbed the Wim Hof Method, a type of conditioning that involves a series of breathing exercises he says anyone can replicate. Rather than by luck or accident, Hof says he learned his technique by trial and error while going out into nature: “I had to find the interconnection of my brain together with my physiology...."

Musik found that, when exposed to cold, Hof activates a part of the brain that releases opioids and cannabinoids into the body. These components can inhibit the signals responsible for telling your body you are feeling pain or cold, and trigger the release of dopamine and serotonin. The result, Musik says, is a kind of euphoric effect on the body that lasts for several minutes.

“Your brain has the power to modify your pain perception,” he says, adding that this mechanism is particularly important for human survival. Pain, and the feeling of cold, are basically your body’s way of telling you something is wrong.

Read the rest

Secret history of classic TV's laugh tracks

When I watched the Brady Bunch as a youngster, there was one particular deep guffaw that always caught my attention. I knew the laughs were pre-recorded but always assumed that there was just a laugh track tape and they'd press play at the appropriate times. I liked (and still like) the faux communal experience that laugh tracks provide when watching the Bradys, Bewitched, the Beverly Hillbillies, and other great vintage sitcoms from the 1960s an early 1970s.

Turns out, that the rise of the laugh track was due to Charles Douglass (1910-2003), a Navy-trained electronics engineer/maker who went on to build a custom "Laff Box" of several dozen tape loops triggered by keys and dials. After its initial use on the Jack Benny Program, the machine, officially called the "Audience Reaction Duplicator," took the TV industry by storm. Douglass "played" the Laff Box like a proto-sampler and for years had the monopoly on TV laugh tracks. It was a process that the TV show producers and Douglass himself liked to keep secret.

It wasn't until 1992 that Douglass and his pioneering work at the intersection of media, psychology, and technology was recognized with a lifetime Emmy award for technical achievement.

For the whole story on Douglass and the Laff Box, don't miss this episode of the Decoder Ring podcast.

And here is an Antiques Roadshow segment appraising a Laff Box.

Read the rest

MDMA can help treat PTSD, yet another study shows

The active ingredient in Ecstasy, MDMA, is safe and can help to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, a new clinical psychotherapy trial shows. Read the rest

Why humans are so enchanted with cats

We think cats are our pets but we are mistaken. The New Yorker interviews Abigail Tucker, author of The Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World:

She explains how “cats domesticated themselves”—essentially by choosing proximity to people as their survival strategy—and then proceeded to infect one in three humans on Earth with a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii, which affects our behavior in ways that are still not entirely understood, although there is speculation that one of the symptoms might be an attraction to cats. Scientists estimate that there could be as many as a billion cats in the world, and their number continues to grow. So, if you feel like you live under your cat’s paw, you might as well get used to it. As Tucker says, “We’re never going to get control over these animals.”

(The New Yorker) Read the rest

Why swearing can be a good fucking way to sound convincing

Emma Byrne, a science writer and artificial intelligence researcher, has just published a new book called Swearing is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language and it sounds fucking great. "If you ask people what they think about swearing, they tend to insist that it diminishes the speaker’s credibility and persuasiveness—-especially if the speaker is a woman," Byrne writes. But actually, a presenter's swears can sometimes make them damn more convincing. From Smithsonian:

In the book, Byrne cites one study that examined the rhetorical effects of swearing on an audience that was already sympathetic to the speaker’s message. For the study, psychologists Cory Scherer of Penn State University and Brad Sagarin from Northern Illinois University showed videotaped speeches to 88 undergraduate students. Participants listened to one of three different versions of a speech about lowering tuition rates at a university—one with no swearing, one that had a “damn” thrown in the middle, and one that opened with a “damn.” The rest of the speech was unchanged.

“The students who saw the video with the swearing at the beginning or in the middle rated the speaker as more intense, but no less credible, than the ones who saw the speech with no swearing,” Byrne summarizes in her book. “What’s more, the students who saw the videos with the swearing were significantly more in favor of lowering tuition fees after seeing the video than the students who didn’t hear the swear word.”

Byrne delineates between what she calls propositional swearing, which is deliberate and planned, and non-propositional swearing, which can happen when we’re surprised, or among friends or confidants.

Read the rest

What is the slowest music humanly possible?

While the typical answer is 33 beats per minute, musician Adam Neely's answer morphs into a great primer on the "perceptual present," a concept widely discussed in both the philosophy of music and of consciousness. Read the rest

Why incompetent people think they're amazing

People have a tendency towards "illusory superiority," that is, they imagine themselves to be better than others. Interestingly, the more incompetent you are, the more superior you feel. It comes down to the fact that people who are bad at something "lack the very expertise needed to recognize how badly they're doing." This phenomenon is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, and is explained in this TED-Ed video.

[via Open Culture] Read the rest

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