April PsychNotes

Harvesting the spaghetti crop, 1957The first mass media April Fool joke was reportedly the BBC’s 1957 Panorama segment on spaghetti harvesting, for which a cameraman hung “pounds of spaghetti over trees in a little Swiss village” and persuaded locals to harvest the crop. The BBC was inundated with calls. “[T]he majority either wanted to know where they could see a spaghetti harvest, or obtain information to start a spaghetti farm” (Humphrys 1999).

It was a simpler time. Here are some research goodies from last month.

1) Have I Already Shown You This Article?
If déjà vu is a state of prescience, then it should allow us to predict events during those moments when we feel we’re reliving an experience. Unsurprisingly, déjà vu doesn’t appear to be connected to anything mystical, but instead to situations that spatially resemble previous experiences. Anne Cleary’s video on the subject has nice visual examples around the 6:45 mark.

2) Who’s a Good Boy!
People tend to speak to dogs in a manner similar to the way we speak to infants. You know how it sounds: high pitched, with lots of emotion and a strong rhythm. It helps infants focus on the speaker, develop language, and forge emotional bonds. That cadence appears to have a similar effect with puppies, and less so with older dogs who attend to the message as well as the tone. “[A]dult dogs need to hear dog-relevant words spoken in a high-pitched emotional voice in order to find it relevant.”

3) You’ll Remember This Better if You’re a Little Anxious
This study seems to be a useful extension of the Yerkes-Dodson curve, which proposes an optimal level of anxiety for optimal performance. Lower levels of anxiety are best for tasks demanding concentration, while higher anxiety (but not high enough to create problems like tunnel vision) are better for tasks requiring stamina. We already know that a bit of anxiety improves long-term memory. This new study found that excessive anxiety (the boundary of which varies from person to person) during learning tasks can lead to memory being tainted with negativity. This would have been useful information for my daughter’s third-grade math teacher.

4) What Makes a Brain Conscious?
One of the big challenges in defining how the brain produces consciousness has been uncovering how the brain merges different kinds of sensory inputs into a coherent representation of the world. We may see a basketball, and hear a basketball, and feel a basketball, but how does our brain translate those inputs into a conscious representation of an object we can manipulate? Just as importantly, how do we track that object in the environment and predict its behavior? Science Daily has a nice summary of two recent studies on the posterior parietal cortex that moves researchers closer to answers.

5) What Makes a Brain Unconscious?
George Mashour’s theory of cognitive unbinding holds that anesthesia functions not by turning the brain “off” but by disrupting communication first between regions of the brain, then between neurons within those regions. Science reporting generally isn’t the popular media’s strong suit, but Newsweek has a nice summary of Mashour’s work, along with some cool, sciency-looking stock images.

Self-Indulgent Social Media Update
I’m moving from Facebook to Twitter. It’s not due to whatever crisis-of-the-moment is unfolding, over which I’m sure we should all be very upset. I’m weary of Facebook’s platform in general, but I would still like to keep in touch with folks. Twitter seems a reasonable alternative.

You can follow me @ironshrink. Or not. Maybe you have better things to do, like checking your spaghetti trees for pasta weevils. Hope you have an excellent month!

Humphrys, G. 1999. “Fooled by the Media.” Contemporary Review 274:209–210.