Man has alligator as emotional support animal

Joei Henney, 65, of Strinestown, Pennsylvania has an alligator as his registered emotional support animal. According to Henney, the 5-foot alligator, named Wally, helps Henney manage his depression. Apparently, the reptile is very generous with his hugs. From the Philadelphia Inquirer:

A man who answered an e-mail from a reporter about Wally from the web site Service Dog Registration of America said, "Our therapist would never approve a client to have an alligator as an emotional support animal. "

Henney’s doctor did.

“My doctor wanted to put me on depression medicine, and I hate taking medicine. I had Wally, and when I came home and was around him, it was all OK," he said. “My doctor knew about Wally and figured it works, so why not?”

Wally, Henney cautioned, is still a wild animal, one that could tear his arm off now, and do worse later...

“He has never tried to bite no one,” Henney said. “I don’t push him on to people. I tell people to respect him, not fear him. He will not hurt you.”

images: Joie Henney/Facebook Read the rest

Rigorous new scientific study: Link between kids screen time and their well-being is highly overstated

In a heavy-duty new scientific paper published this week, University of Oxford researchers argue that the association between adolescent well-being and digital technology use is tiny. Really tiny. From Scientific American:

(The paper by experimental psychologist Andrew Przybylski and grad student Amy Orben) reveals the pitfalls of the statistical methods scientists have employed and offers a more rigorous alternative. And, importantly, it uses data on more than 350,000 adolescents to show persuasively that, at a population level, technology use has a nearly negligible effect on adolescent psychological well-being, measured in a range of questions addressing depressive symptoms, suicidal ideation, pro-social behavior, peer-relationship problems and the like. Technology use tilts the needle less than half a percent away from feeling emotionally sound. For context, eating potatoes is associated with nearly the same degree of effect and wearing glasses has a more negative impact on adolescent mental health...

“We’re trying to move from this mind-set of cherry-picking one result to a more holistic picture of the data set,” Przybylski says. “A key part of that is being able to put these extremely miniscule effects of screens on young people in real-world context.”

Not surprisingly though, your mileage may vary. Not surprisingly, it all depends on the kid and what they're actually doing on the screen.

In a previous paper, Przybylski and colleague Netta Weinstein demonstrated a “Goldilocks” effect showing moderate use of technology—about one to two hours per day on weekdays and slightly more on weekends—was “not intrinsically harmful,” but higher levels of indulgence could be.

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Visual Disturbances: what eye-tracking and 187 unlicensed clips reveal about change blindness and our perception of films

My most recent essay film, Visual Disturbances, premiered in the open access journal [in]Transition yesterday. This open access journal features peer reviewed academic video essays and showcases a wide variety of film and media analysis. Visual Disturbances uses some cutting-edge eye tracking visualizations to explore how film audiences both perceive and mis-perceive movies. Read the rest

The neuroscience of creativity (and yes, right brain/left brain is mostly bullshit)

Anna Abraham literally wrote the book on creativity and the brain. The Leeds Beckett University psychology professor is the author of a new textbook titled The Neuroscience of Creativity. From an interview with Abraham by psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman in Scientific American:

SBK: Why does the myth of the “creative right brain” still persist? Is there any truth at all to this myth?

AA: Like most persistent myths, even if some seed of truth was associated with the initial development of the idea, the claim so stated amounts to a lazy generalization and is incorrect. The brain’s right hemisphere is not a separate organ whose workings can be regarded in isolation from that of the left hemisphere in most human beings. It is also incorrect to conclude that the left brain is uncreative. In fact even the earliest scholars who explored the brain lateralization in relation to creativity emphasized the importance of both hemispheres. Indeed this is what was held to be unique about creativity compared to other highly lateralized psychological functions. In an era which saw the uncovering of the dominant involvement of one hemisphere over the other for many functions, and the left hemisphere received preeminent status for its crucial role in complex functions like language, a push against the tide by emphasizing the need to also recognize the importance of the right hemisphere for complex functions like creativity somehow got translated over time into the only ‘creative right brain’ meme. It is the sort of thing that routinely happens when crafting accessible sound bites to convey scientific findings.

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Is it better to read a book or listen to it?

Daniel Willingham, a University of Virginia psychologist who wrote "The Reading Mind," says that the most common question he receives these days is the following: “Is it cheating if I listen to an audiobook for my book club?” In a New York Times essay, Willingham parses the benefits and drawbacks of both formats. Which one is better? Of course personally preference and convenience matter, but Willingham argues that generally right now when it comes to listening or reading a book, there is "equivalence for easy texts and an advantage to print for hard ones." For example, audio books provide prosody, the intonation, tone, and rhythm of the words. Sometimes, hearing those cues helps us understand the material. But not always. From the NYT:

For example, one study compared how well students learned about a scientific subject from a 22-minute podcast versus a printed article. Although students spent equivalent time with each format, on a written quiz two days later the readers scored 81 percent and the listeners 59 percent.

What happened? Note that the subject matter was difficult, and the goal wasn’t pleasure but learning. Both factors make us read differently. When we focus, we slow down. We reread the hard bits. We stop and think. Each is easier with print than with a podcast.

Print also supports readers through difficult content via signals to organization like paragraphs and headings, conventions missing from audio. Experiments show readers actually take longer to read the first sentence of a paragraph because they know it probably contains the foundational idea for what’s to come.

Read the rest

Why some people hate Jews and Asian-Americans

Social psychologist Amy Cuddy and her colleagues have developed a "theory of prejudice" that goes deeper than a simplistic us-versus-them mindset. According to her research, when the world feels volatile or the economy is tanking, groups that are stereotyped as both "cold" ("unfriendly" and "untrustworthy") and "competent" ("ambitious, intelligent and skillful") are more likely to be targeted for, um, extermination. According to Cuddy's op-ed in the the New York Times, "a widespread stereotype of Jewish people, like that of other socioeconomically successful minorities such as Asian-Americans, falls in the competent-but-cold quadrant."

People assume that socioeconomically successful groups must be competent and that disadvantaged groups must be incompetent. Likewise, groups that are viewed as competitors — for status, for resources — get stereotyped as cold, whereas groups that are viewed as allies get stereotyped as warm...

In-groups and “cultural reference” groups (the middle class and Christians are common examples in the United States) are stereotyped as warm and competent — a wholly positive category. In stark contrast, groups on society’s margins who are blamed for their plight and viewed as a drain on resources (common examples include homeless people and drug addicts) are stereotyped as cold and incompetent — a wholly negative category. Discrimination against groups stereotyped in this way is typically expressed through disregard, stigmatizing and ostracizing...

But when times get tough, envious prejudices can ignite. Societal breakdown, harsh economies or political turmoil can activate resentment toward high-status minorities, who are seen as competitors for limited resources or even dangerous enemies.

Read the rest

Scientists study the psychology of death metal

Psychology professor William Forde Thompson of Australia's Macquarie University and his colleagues have published a series of scientific papers about the appeal of death metal. The scientists were surprised to learn that death metal fans aren't particularly angry or violent people and actually in a happy place whilst head-banging to the likes of Morbid Angel (above) and Cannibal Corpse (below). The research reminds me of how my dad was always so surprised at my love for goth music even though I was a generally happy teen. From Scientific American:

“It’s the paradox of enjoying a negative emotion that I was interested in,” says Thompson, a professor at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. “Why are people interested in music that seems to induce a negative emotion, when in everyday life we tend to avoid situations that will induce a negative emotion?” A number of studies have explored the emotional appeal of sad music, Thompson notes. But relatively little research has examined the emotional effects of listening to music that is downright violent.

Thompson’s work has produced some intriguing insights. The biggest surprise? “The ubiquitous stereotype of death metal fans—fans of music that contains violent themes and explicitly violent lyrics—[is] that they are angry people with violent tendencies,” Thompson says. “What we are finding is that they are not angry people. They’re not enjoying anger when they listen to the music, but they are in fact experiencing a range of positive emotions...."

Chris Pervelis, a founding member and guitarist of the band Internal Bleeding (whose songs include Gutted Human Sacrifice [below] and The Pageantry of Savagery), is confident that the positive emotions he experiences when he plays and listens to Death Metal are the real thing.

Read the rest

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

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