Friday, October 03, 2008

Social psychology: "Only the lonely"? Yes, abstract concepts can indeed generate physical sensations - for better or worse

In Scientific American's Mind Matters, Jonah Lehrer interviews the University of Toronto's Chen-Bo Zhong on how mental states can create physical sensations (Metaphors of the Mind: why Loneliness Feels Cold and Sins Feel Dirty, September 25, 2008).

Zhong had demonstrated that when people are excluded from a group they feel colder. They believe that a room is colder and they prefer hot coffee and soup to cold food. When Lehrer asked him how he had got interested in this line of research, he explained,

I came across this popular 1970s song on YouTube called Lonely This Christmas written by Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman. It goes, “It'll be lonely this Christmas, lonely and cold, it'll be cold so cold, without you to hold.” It just occurred to me that maybe what the song describes is more than a metaphor but a real psychological connection between loneliness and coldness. This research is consistent with recent theories on embodied cognition as well as general research on the connection between mind and body.

Another connection he studies is the link between washing one's hands and relieving oneself of moral guilt.

(Pontius Pilate and Lady MacBeth, please check your mail.)

He warns, however, that
... physical cleansing may actually be effective in mentally getting rid of moral sins. In another study, in which participants who recalled unethical behaviors were either given a chance to cleanse their hands or not, we found that washing hands not only assuaged moral emotions such as guilt and regret but also reduced participants’ willingness to engage in prosocial behaviors such as volunteering Thus physical washing can actually wash away sins. Perhaps this effect is why most world religions practice some form of washing rituals to purify souls. We should be cautious, however, knowing that if our sins are so easily “washed away” we might not be as motivated to engage in actual compensatory behaviors to make up for our mistakes.
Interesting! Of course, A more useful goal than "compensatory behaviors" is "Strive to become someone who does not hurt others." Rituals can help us achieve that to the extent that they keep our worthy goals before us.


Pontius Pilate: When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. "I am innocent of this man's blood," he said. "It is your responsibility!" (Matthew 27:24, NIV)

Lady MacBeth: Lady M. Here’s the smell of the blood still; all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh, oh, oh! (MacBeth, Act V Scene I)

And here's Only the Lonely, if you can stand it. (I find it a tad schmaltzy and would be more likely to reach for ear plugs than a sweater, but to each their own.


Near death experiences: Large project to study up to 1500 cases

The "Random Samples" feature in Science Magazine (Sept. 26, 2008) highlights Sam Parnia's large-scale project to study near-death experiences.
The study of Awareness During Resuscitation, sponsored by the University of Southampton, U.K., was announced this month at a United Nations symposium on consciousness by project leader Sam Parnia, a resident at New York-Presbyterian Medical Center. Parnia has recruited 25 hospitals, mostly in the United States and the United Kingdom, to monitor as many as 1500 people during cardiac arrest who then survive to tell about it. "About 10% of such people report some kind of cognitive process" while "dead" for a few seconds to more than an hour, Parnia says.
Doctors' ability to maintain people in a state of clinical death for long periods and then revive them has produced this interesting result, which may change our understanding of the relationship between the mind and the brain.

See also Near death experiences: Interview with near death researcher in Time Magazine

Sci Pho show posstcast featurs researcher on near death experiences

Near deaht experience gaining recognition in medical journals

Reader asks: By what mechanism are near death experiences transmitted?


Evolutionary psychology: Do people see faces in cars?

Once upon a time (1955), when I was five years old, I woke up in a fright:

A car had been chasing me down the sidewalk.

No driver, just the car - a metal monster, bug-eyed with rage and shouting through its grille:

You know you are not supposed to play on the road. But you played on the road!

Now I have the right to chase you down the sidewalk!
Of course, I woke up just before the car caught up with me ...

The peculiarly frightening thing was that the car's position appeared fair to me.

I had no one to blame but myself for my chrome-plated judgment day.

I recalled that dream when I read "Human Or Animal Faces Associated With At Least 90 Percent Of Cars By One-third Of Population", which tells us (ScienceDaily, September 24, 2008):

One-third of the subjects associated a human or animal face with at least 90 percent of the cars. All subjects marked eyes (headlights), a mouth (air intake/grille), and a nose in more than 50 percent of the cars. Overall, people agreed which type of car possesses certain traits. The authors found that people liked cars most which had a wide stance, a narrow windshield, and/or widely spaced, narrow headlights.
according to Truls Thorstensen (EFS Consulting Vienna), Karl Grammer (Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Urban Ethology) and other researchers at the University of Vienna.

ScienceDaily also advises,

Throughout evolution, humans have developed an ability to collect information on people's sex, age, emotions, and intentions by looking at their faces. The authors suggest that this ability is probably widely used on other living beings and maybe even on inanimate objects, such as cars.
Well, it won't be the auto makers fault if it isn't. Auto makers around the world have spent billions creating personalities for cars.

Think of Uncle Yaris, for example (pictured above). For weeks, I couldn't even figure out from the ads that Yaris was actually a car, not a star. (That marketing strategy was panned in the industry, but it shows you how much auto makers assume people associate their products with personality types). And remember Herbie the Love Bug, anyone? For that matter, some like the famous Jaguar hood ornament better than the drive train underneath it.

This story illustrates a common tendency of evolutionary psychology: Its proponents claim that it sheds light on things on which it sheds no light. For example, the fact that humans can pick out the outlines of a face in an inanimate object is prettty well documented. But no one knows for sure when, where, how, or why we first started doing this. It may not even be possible to find that out. And it wouldn't make a whole lot of difference anyway because through the ages people like the auto makers have simply acted as if it were true. One interesting finding:

The better the subjects liked a car, the more it bore shape characteristics corresponding to high values of what the authors termed "power", indicating that both men and women like mature, dominant, masculine, arrogant, angry-looking cars.
Well, I can't say I liked the "mature, dominant, masculine, arrogant, angry-looking car" of my dream. But it did dissuade me from using the road as a playground again.

(Note: At a conscious level, at five years old, I knew perfectly well that cars require drivers in order to move. But I could not think in an abstract way. The metal monster was, of course, my own conscience reproaching me in imagery rather than abstraction.)

See also:

Evolutionary psychology: Misunderstanding superstition

Evolutionary psychology: Why evolutionary explanations of religion don't work

Mind: Current science less and less precise as it approaches the mind?

Evolutionary psychology: British physicist targets theory-of-the-month on "how religion got started"

Evolutionary psychology: Women prefer men with stubble? Oh, no wait - beards - but we can explain that too ...

Evolutionary psychology: The selfish gene in the art world

Evolutionary psychology: Key concept of "memes" trashed as "one of the bigger crocks hatched in recent decades"

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