We can forget it for you wholesale

Paul Raven @ 08-07-2011

Via Technovelgy, some research that supports one of Freud’s more controversial assumptions, namely that we can choose to forget things we’d rather not remember:

Waldhauser’s tests are carried out in a laboratory environment where volunteers are asked to practise forgetting, or attempting to forget facts. Through EEG measurements, Waldhauser shows that the same parts of the brain are activated when we restrain a motor impulse and when we suppress a memory. And just as we can practise restraining motor impulses, we can also train ourselves to repress memories, i.e. to forget.

Waldhauser points out several situations in which forgetting could be helpful. People suffering from depression often dwell on negative thoughts which might best be repressed or forgotten in order for the individual to emerge from the depression. The same thing goes for people with post-traumatic stress disorder; the trauma makes it difficult for the affected person to act rationally and to resolve his or her situation. But the possible consequences of a deliberate repression of memories are still not clearly established.

“We know that ‘forgotten’ or repressed feelings often manifest themselves as physiological reactions”, says Waldhauser, who is careful to point out that the volunteers were trained to forget neutral information in a controlled laboratory environment. Training to forget a traumatic event would be more complex.

Waldhauser has not only shown that we can deliberately forget things. Through EEG measurements, he has also managed to capture the exact moment when the memory is inhibited, that is when the forgetfulness is imposed.

Great news, right? Well, that depends on whether you want to forget things permanently or not:

… the more often information is suppressed, the more difficult it becomes to retrieve it, as Waldhauser has shown through studies in a laboratory environment.

“If the memories have been suppressed over a long period of time, they could be extremely difficult to retrieve”, says Waldhauser.

And no word as to what sort of effect wholesale memory suppression might have on the psyche. I guess I’ll have to put off erasing my mid-teens until I can be sure I won’t a) lose the good stuff I want to keep or b) go postal.


The cognitive benefits of sadness

Paul Raven @ 11-05-2011

Jonah Lehrer at Wired has been looking into recent research into depression, and wondering whether it isn’t in fact a sort of evolutionary advantage.

The study itself was simple: A large group of subjects ranging from healthy to clinically depressed played a decision-making task on a computer. Their goal of the task was to hire the best applicant in a simulated job search. Each applicant was assigned a monetary value – some were much better than others – and presented in random order to the subjects.

While this task might seem somewhat arbitrary, the scientists note that it closely resembles a common everyday dilemma. It doesn’t matter if we’re shopping for clothes or going on dates — it’s often unclear when we’ve explored enough options, when we should stop searching and just make a damn decision. Furthermore, this task was designed so that it has a known optimal strategy, with the best decision-makers sifting through a certain number of alternatives.

Here’s where things get interesting: depressed patients approximated the optimal strategy much more closely than non-depressed participants did. The main problem with healthy subjects is that they proved lazy, unwilling to search through enough applicants. Those with depression, on the other hand, were much more willing to keep on considering alternatives, which is why they performed far better on the task. While this study comes with many caveats, it remains an interesting demonstration that depression, at least in specific situations, seems to enhance our analytical skills, making us better at focusing on social dilemmas.

It’s a very seductive idea for anyone who has ever experienced clinical depression (which I have and still do), but a decade of hanging around on the internet has made me leery of what I think of as “wish-fulfilment science” – these are bits of science journalism, usually psychological diagnoses, that make you feel that your particular affliction actually makes you a superior snowflake rather than simply a special one.

(For an extreme version of such, see Gary Westfahl’s earnest but extraordinarily ill-advised Aspergers confessional at Locus Online; “fans are Slans”, indeed. It’s one thing to “own” your afflictions, but very much another to claim they put you in the evolutionary vanguard.)

But as Lehrer points out, the prevalence of depression suggests there must be some evolutionary benefit to it, and my own experiences of rumination match up strongly with what he’s discussing, with respect to obsessing over social dilemmas and so forth. Does that make depressed people somehow “better” than everyone else? I don’t think so; the price is pretty high, and the insights gained into oneself and the world aren’t necessarily the sort of insights that make it any easier to sleep at night. (Quite the opposite, in fact.)

That said, I’ve always refused pharmacological treatments for it… partly because I’ve seen what antidepressants have done to people I’ve known for years (I don’t see chronic anxiety, character change and mood swings as a “cure”, I’m afraid), but mostly because, as Tennessee Williams put it, I worry that killing my demons might kill my angels as well.


The physiology and psychology of living in space

Paul Raven @ 01-04-2011

Via BigThink, Robert Lamb of Discovery News has compiled an overview of the physical and mental adjustments a human being makes to living in the microgravity of an orbital space station:

Stage Three: Sometime between week six and week 12, you can expect things to get a little moody aboard the old space station. Russian observations found that a number of the symptoms were linked to boredom and isolation. You become hypertensive, irritable and less motivated. Expect to fly off the handle whenever a crew member drifts into your personal space or borrows your iPod without asking. You can also expect increased sensitivity to loud noises, changes in musical preferences, exhaustion, sleep disturbances and loss of appetite. It should come as no surprise that this sometimes results in an “accusation of negative personality traits.”

Mundane/hard SF writers, take note – plenty of scientifically verifiable story triggers in there. Especially in Stage Four, which is all about “prevailing feelings of euphoria” and “new insights into the meaning of life and the unity of mankind”… so, kinda like watching 2001 with a headful of Owsley’s Old Original, then. (I’m kidding, of course. Well, mostly.)

Of course, the above research can, perforce, only describe the effects of a relatively short tenure at the top of the gravity well; for anything longer than a five-moth stretch, you’re probably gonna want to go cyborg


Affetto: Child of the Uncanny Valley

Paul Raven @ 15-02-2011

You can thank IEE Spectrum and a bunch of roboticists from Osaka University for this excursion into the Uncanny Valley. Meet Affetto, a robot child designed for research into social development psychology. The fully-skinned version is moderately disturbing:

But the skinless facial motion test? Aaaaaaaarrrrgh!

And now I’ve been reminded of it (and we’re all in that creeped-out-by-supposedly-cuddly-technology frame of mind), bring some nineties-retro toy-based trauma to your Tuesday with the naked Furby orchestra:

Bonus material: mechanical “FurbyGurdy” sequencer/synth with MIDI control.

Enjoy your nightmares!


Bikers, car accidents, anti-authoritarianism and cat shit

Paul Raven @ 10-02-2011

This post at NextNature rounds up some of the latest reseach into my all-time favourite parasitic lifeform, Toxoplasma gondii. Toxoplasma, so the theories go, has an effect on the psychology of its hosts; as part of its original lifescycle, it makes rats less afraid of cats, thus increasing its chance of finding a new feline host to colonise. But it gets into us people-monkeys, too, where the effects appear to be a mild version of B-movie bodysnatching:

The effects are sex-dependent. Toxo makes men more distrustful of authority, more jealous, and more likely to engage in rule-bending and breaking. Male motorcyclists are disproportionately affected.  In a perverse twist, motorists of either sex who have T. gondii are three to four times more likely to die in car accidents, either from their increased disregard of the speed limit, or because the parasite wears down reaction times. There’s even shaky evidence that T. gondii correlates with success on the football field, at least in predicting the winners of the World Cup.

Women get the sweeter half of the brain parasite. Women harboring T. Gondii are considered by others to be more cheerful, warmhearted, and sexually attractive. They are also outspend their uninfected sisters when it comes to clothing. In some ways Toxo is the microbial mascot of romantic comedies, turning women into spendy social butterflies, and their dates into over-masculine dolts. But take care: Before you go out to find some infectious cat feces to gussy up your social appeal, it’s important to point out that the personality changes are statistically significant but still only minor. Researchers still disagree as to how and even if Toxo alters behavior. It could be that the personality predisposes people to the infection, and not the other way around.

This is the more cautious end of Toxoplasma theory, especially when compared to the notion that it might be the root cause of schizophrenia (which has also been blamed on retroviral gene-jacking). I still find it to be a massive (if rather creepy subspecies of) sensawunda kick; unnoticed civilisational symbiosis FTW!

Bonus points to NextNature for including two amazing images in that post: the first is the well-known wall-of-death-motorcyclist-with-lion-in-sidecar shot, which is one of my all-time favourite images of all time; the second is of two scientists watching a woman with a towel tied across her face shoving her head into a well-used kitty litter-tray. SRSLY.


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