Face Perception

Imagine if you couldn’t recognise a person’s face without getting close enough and at the right angle. This would be a very disadvantageous way for humans to perceive the world. We need to be able to communicate with each other, and in the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation (EEA) nonverbal communication must have been in frequent use, otherwise it would not have carried on into modern humans. For example, a quick raising of the eyebrows toward another person is a sign of greeting and affection (Allyn and Bacon, 2002).

So, being duped by innate perceptions such as the hollow face illusion would be better than being duped into seeing real faces as things that are not, but how does this illusion work? (To have a look at the illusion click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rc6LRxjqzkA)

The hollow face illusion still hasn’t been precisely explained, but we know that it has something to do with the human perception of faces. It has been found that when the hollow mask is turned upside down, the effect dwindles, as it does when the face is replaced with hollow, non-objects. Hill and Johnston (2007) used a typical jelly mold, a hollow pineapple and a hollow teddy bear in their experiment, and arguably found that the more human the hollow object, the more affect the illusion had on participants.

Of course there are problems with this, as a pineapple is rarely described as more human than a traditional jelly mold. Also, this is not what Hill and Johnston originally set out to find. They were really just looking at the effect of this illusion on random hollow objects. There is also the problems of only a small amount of participants having been used.

All in all, though, it seems as if the more like a human face a concave object is, the more potent the illusion, and I am sure that this is because of an evolutionary adaptation to nonverbal communication.

Problems with “Pleasure and Brain Activity in Man”

This week I will be looking at Heath’s (1972) study, “Pleasure and Brain Activity in Man”. This is a study that took place at around the same time as some of Milgram’s, as well as Zimbardo’s experiments that have since been judged as unethical. Heath’s study in particular involved surgically implanting devices that created electrical impulses in areas associated with orgasms in order to reduce symptoms of schizophrenia.

His reasoning was that people with schizophrenia don’t feel pleasure, that they are incapable of it, and that causing them to feel pleasure by stimulating previously inactive parts of the brain would cure them of their disorder. Participants (with schizophrenia) were implanted with these devices and the effects of this on them was what was being investigated. This is where my main problem with this study comes in; the hypothesis was indirect.

An indirect hypothesis is, no doubt, useful in that it paves the way for a more scientific (less researcher bias) hypothesis in the future. However, when patients are involved I think that there should be more care taken, and that a logical, believable, directional hypothesis should be put in place. If a directional hypothesis was used and Heath had great conviction in his potential treatment, it would be better in that vulnerable human beings wouldn’t be debased to the level of lab rats. A study by Kelly and Conley (2006) did a more ethical job, in my opinion. Acting on the information that people with schizophrenia actually complain about sexual dysfunction, trials of drugs were given at a gradually increasing, safe rate.

So, although Heath’s study was in some way logical and helpful to the psychological community, I feel that it was carried out in a way that is more representative of a disturbing horror movie than a scientific community (especially one specialising in the wellbeing of people).


  • Heath, R. G., (1972). Pleasure and brain activity in man. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. 154(1).
  • Kelly, D. L. & Conley, R. R., (2006). A randomized double-blind 12-week study of quetiapine, risperidone or fluphenazine on sexual functioning in people with schizophrenia. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 31(3)340-346.


It used to be believed by some that consciousness could be explained by a little man that lives in each of our heads, controlling everything that we do. Each of these little men was known as a homunculus. This is, of course, absurd. Brain scans don’t show little men, open up anyone’s head and you will not find a little man, and if you had a little man controlling your consciousness, who would be controlling his? This would lead to an infinite amount of little men and wouldn’t logically explain the existence of consciousness. The idea of dualism was popular during early psychology, and this approach potentially allows the inexplicable to be left alone as something not of this earth. So, if these little men are in control of everyone, the dualist approach would allow them to be seen as purely spiritual beings that can’t be seen by us as humans.

What I would like to put forward is that, although the idea of a homunculus is in itself ridiculous, it was a useful explanation for a time in which technology and neurobiology hadn’t developed enough to give an intricate explanation for behaviour. Nowadays, the idea of a little man controlling our bodies is much less popular, but aspects of psychology have been influenced by it. A study by Logan and Bundesen (2003) that looks at the possibility of a built-in act of control when performing various complex tasks gave credit (in jest) to the idea of a homunculus (titling the article “Clever homunculus”). If this part of psychology can be explained (even in jest) as being under the control of a homunculus, then what harm could have come from people believing in these little men before they could have known any better?


  • Logan, G. D., & Bundesen, C., 2003. Clever homunculus: Is there an endogenous act of control in the explicit task-cuing procedure? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance,29(3), 575-599.

Adrenaline and Memory

Do people with smaller amygdalas remember stressful events as clearly as people with regularly sized ones?

In most cases, we all remember acutely stressful times in our lives more clearly than a lot of other memories (“acutely” meaning immediately stressful, for example a haunted house or a near-death experience). These acute stressors lead to a surge of adrenaline that is to do more with our base instincts than any conscious thought. The amygdala plays a large part in this, and does lead to more clear memory of the stressful experience. As Cahill and McGaugh (1998) have explained, the link between the amygdala and memory is not causal, but its activation is what leads to these distinctly clear memories.

Does this mean that those with smaller amygdalas remember acutely stressful events less clearly, then? According to Welch, et al. (2009) people with learning disabilities and a small amygdala are more susceptible to suffering from schizophrenia. Interestingly, this could support a link between the amygdala and memory. Those that cannot remember will inevitably find it difficult to learn, so those with smaller amygdalas would naturally suffer from disorders in learning. This is supported by Exner, et al. (2004), who found that those in their sample of people with schizophrenia and smaller amygdalas characteristically had trouble learning.

So there is a definite link between the amygdala and memory, but is there a precise link between the two?


  • Cahill, L., & McGaugh, J. L., (1998). Mechanisms of emotional arousal and lasting declarative memory. Trends in Neurosciences21(7). 294-299.
  • Exner, C., Boucsein, K., Degner, D., Irle, E., & Weniger, G, (2004). Impaired emotional learning and reduced amygdala size in schizophrenia: a 3-month follow-up. Schizophrenia Research, 71(2-3). 493-503.
  • Welch, K. A, Stanfield, A. C. The link to this journal article no longer works. I cannot find it anywhere else, so cannot finish citing it. Here is the link: http://journals.cambridge.org/abstract_s0033291709990870

Do Women Prefer Emotionally Stable Men?

It is reasonable to assume that female orgasms occur to increase the chance of impregnation. So, surely it would be advantageous for these chances to occur more often with “better” males, but what is better? In regards to such a base instinct as sexual desire, we would expect an equally instinctual sense of judging possible mates.

A questionnaire given to 86 sexually active heterosexual couples by Thornhill, Gangestad and Comer (1995) found that couples where the male was more symmetrical reported more orgasms from the female. Similarly, Gangestad, Thornhill and Yeo (1993) looked at the symmetry of 72 students, mathematically, took photographs of their faces and had others rate them on attractiveness. It was found that symmetry near enough equates to attractiveness. How does male symmetry play on the female mind, then?

Seeing as we are looking at evolutionary explanations, looking at the behaviour of nonhuman primates seems appropriate. According to Fernandez-Carriba, Loechus, Morallo and Hpkins (2002), chimpanzees’ faces become asymmetrical when expressing emotion (with the left side of the mouth acting differently due to emotion). 36 chimps from the USA and Spain were filmed in their enclosures over two nine-month periods, and their faces were analysed using Adobe Photoshop. With an inter observer reliability of 93%, the findings can be taken seriously.

So, we could say that an important trait that human females look for in human males is the ability to deal with stressful situations calmly and practically. This would all be purely correlational, with no real way of showing that one causes the other. Of course this is also all assuming that female orgasms are beneficial to impregnation.


Fernandez-Carriba, S., Loeches, A., Morullo, A. & Hopkins, W. D., 2002. Asymmetry in facial expression of emotions by chimpanzees. Neuropsychologia. 40(9). 1523-1533.

Gangestad, S. W., Thornhill, R. & Yeo, R. A., 1994. Facial attractiveness, developmental stability, and fluctuating asymmetry. Ethology and Sociobiology. 15(2). 73-85.

Thornhill, R., Gangestad, S. W. & Comer, R., 1995. Human female orgasm and mate fluctuating asymmetry. Animal Behaviour. 50(6). 1601-1615.

Nuns Prove Nothing

The title given to the journal article, “Neural correlates of a mystical experience in Carmelite nuns” (Beauregard, M. and Paquette, V., 2006) is a perfectly sound one. This is because the study looks only at correlations (not causations) between the neurological activity of Carmelite nuns and their mystical experiences. It is an accurate title. The way that the findings are explained in this article also seems to be justified, as the explanation sticks to the facts of the findings. There is a small amount of speculation in the discussion section, though.

For example, the involvement of the right SPL led to the speculation that this involvement led to the feeling of being enveloped by something more than one’s self in a mystical experience. This is what is expected in a discussion section though, and this was justified by explaining that this specific part of the brain deals with spatial perception of self.

The news report, “Nuns prove God is not figment of the mind”, however, bastardises this study. I’m sure that this is what happens on a regular basis in media explanations of scientific articles, but this is the first time that I’ve looked into it, so I’m finding it a little bit ridiculous. The headline actually contradicts the content of the report (“This latest research discredits such theories”). Also, in one paragraph, the article manages to make a statement and contradict it. It states that Beauregard “said” that the “God module” is a mirage, then goes on to quote Beauregard to the contrary (“…neither does it confirm or disconfirm the existence of God”). This is not to mention the headline claiming that something had been scientifically proven, which is impossible, let alone that nuns carried out the research. There is much more wrong with the news report, but I feel like my gentle heart is being perverted by evil hatred whenever I look at it for too long.

The journal article, though, brings forward some interesting ways of thinking. I’ve never come across an article on the neurological explanations for religious experience, and it makes some things a little bit clearer. All of it good, all of the newspaper article bad.

A New Way to Research. (“A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind”)

While browsing the internet I came across a study looking into whether the human mind is prone to wandering, and whether or not this affects happiness. This study, by Killingsworth and Gilbert (2010) was published in an article called “A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind“, and besides being interesting in its content, is also interesting in its methodology. This is because Killingsworth and Gilbert used a smartphone App to collect their data.

The App popped up throughout the participants’ day during the experiment and asked them whether they were thinking about real tasks at hand or if their minds were wandering. They were also asked how this made them feel. For more information, check out sciencemag’s article (http://www.sciencemag.org/content/330/6006/932.full).

Initially I thought that this would make an interesting blog topic because it was so easy to cut down. However what this methodology seemingly does is improve upon the questionnaire method of collecting data. It does still have the general problems that all self report methods are criticised for, but makes the data collected more applicable to the real world, as many people frequently use their smartphones throughout the day anyway. The same cannot be said for paper questionnaires handed out to a sample population.

So, is this the future of questionnaires? Are there any better ways to collect quantitative data? I challenge anyone reading this to put one forward.

Can we justify the psychodynamic approach?

The closest thing to the psychodynamic approach being scientific is the evidence-based approach to psychotherapy, where cases are compared with each other to improve the practice. However, could there not also be some stretch of scientific findings that might support each of us having parts of the brain that might adhere to the idea of an id, ego and superego?

We can look at evidence from the findings of Hariri, Bookheimer and Mazziota (2000) and come to the conclusion that the limbic system is responsible for base, animalistic reasoning such as fear. We can look at the findings of research conducted by Kimberg and Farah (1993) and conclude that the frontal lobe is responsible for higher reasoning in humans. We can then assume that, as humans exhibit both of these kinds of behaviours as well as mixtures of the two, there is a kind of mediating factor at play, possibly these different parts of the brain interacting and competing with one another. From this we can say that the limbic system may be the id, that the frontal lobe may be the superego and that the interaction of these two parts of the brain may be the ego. This would be great, but it is not scientific. It is what is known as a post-hoc analysis.

A post-hoc analysis is when you try to fit evidence with a preconceived idea, in this case Freud’s. This is the kind of approach to science that Karl Popper protested against. I did not aim to disprove the psychodynamic approach, I aimed to prove it, which can never be done. In fact, the psychodynamic approach cannot be seen as scientific by Popper’s definition because those who subscribe to it do not lend to it being disproved, and therefore it cannot move toward an objective truth.

So, is it worth the psychodynamic approach existing? It does help people to recover from mental trauma, albeit not in any way scientifically. Or, should psychologists attempt to remove this approach from the label of psychology and step away from the “art” side of the field?

The Evolutionary Approach to Self Deception.

Deceiving ourselves into believing our own lies is probably evolutionarily beneficial. After all, everyone does do this on some level. According to Robert Trivers, an evolutionary biologist, we believe our own lies in order to better deceive others. This way we can excel in various social situations with very little effort. This makes good sense, until you take into account the lack of falsifiability that is present in all evolutionary hypotheses.

Then again, there is evidence to support the idea that self deception has been beneficial to our survival. Sackeim and Gur (1979) devised categories or deception to test the amount of impact that self deception has on people. They found that self deception held more influence over most people than any other form of deception that they measured. That this was true for their participants suggests that it is true for humans in general, and this would suggest that there was some evolutionary advantage to the behaviour (and perhaps this advantage is still present). However, this study only had 250 participants so can’t possibly be generalised to wider society, let alone across the history of our species. Another problem with this experiment is that the categories that they created may not be ecologically valid.

Trivers has also said that self deception has the drawback of making people more susceptible to manipulation by others. The idea that humans are intrinsically flawed is supported by Forgas and Williams (2003), who say that our judgement among other things is terribly imperfect. This doesn’t go against the evolutionary approach, as evolution doesn’t create perfect species, and the fact that most people have the tendency to deceive themselves shows that evolution has at the least kept this trait alive by coincidence. I disagree that there is necessarily an advantage to every trait that human beings have, though, which is what the evolutionary approach seems to put forward.


Is the use of child participants ever ethical?

Informed consent is commonly used by psychological researchers to make sure that their research is ethical. How, though, can a researcher obtain informed consent from someone who could not possibly be completely informed. The use of children in research, for example,can be seen as unethical because most children can’t comprehend the intent of the research, let alone fully understand every aspect of what is asked of them. This problem is usually resolved by obtaining informed consent from the children’s parent or guardian, but does this suffice?

John Money’s cruel experimentation in the case of David Reimer (http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/horizon/2000/boyturnedgirl.shtml) is a prime example of a child being used to prove a theory after having been accounted for by parents. I won’t go into detail, so have left the link for you to read, but this person’s life was effectively ruined because his parents gave “informed” consent to John Money. However, this case is an extreme one, and there are examples of research on children that are less harsh on their psyches.

Albert Bandura’s experiment on social learning theory and aggression (1978) was famous for its use of children participants. Although the children showed aggression, there was no traumatic experience involved in it, and the findings were useful in putting forward that aggression is copied by young children when they see it in the media. Then again, I am not putting forward that only studies that are mentally scarring to children are unethical. What I am putting forward is that the use of informed consent from people other than those being subjected to participating (i.e. parents or guardians) is in itself unethical.

I do understand that research using children participants is useful, and I agree with using them in that research. I am simply questioning the moral reasoning behind this ethical loophole. Where does it end? With this reasoning it could be seen as acceptable to obtain informed consent from family of adult participants, because there are certainly adults that might not comprehend the full meaning behind psychological research. We could subject the mentally handicapped, the old aged, or (using the logic of informed consent from someone who better understands the research) any adult who might not have a comprehensive understanding of scientific research. This could mean anyone, even other scientists, because nobody has a truly comprehensive understanding of all scientific research and might therefore not understand the research that they could potentially be signed up for unwittingly.

This opens many possibilities, and many morally wrong studies, but the ethical guidelines that psychologists use don’t read black and white. There are many shades of grey which could be seen as acceptable for at least a short while.