And the Oscar goes to…Science!?

And the Oscar goes to…Science!?

"I'd just like to thank my project supervisor..."

Hollywood has never had a particularly good reputation for scientific accuracy. However, recently its science acumen has received a boost. It is currently the first time that the ‘reigning’ best actor and actress have been both been scientifically published.

Colin Firth, has taken time out from swimming in country lakes and stuttering to co-author a paper in Current Biology. The research looked into whether there are any structural differences in the brains of young adults with different political affiliations.

His co-Oscar winner Natalie Portman has been published twice. Credited as Natalie Hershlag, her family name, she published a paper on sugar chemistry whilst in high school and another entitled “Frontal Lobe Activation during Object Permanence: Data from Near-Infrared Spectroscopy” whilst completing her psychology degree at Harvard.

Figure 1. Individual Differences in Political Attitudes and Brain Structure

Both also seem to have made valuable contributions to scientific knowledge with their research. Firth’s paper showed that “Liberalism was associated with the gray matter volume of anterior cingulate cortex” and that “Conservatism was associated with increased right amygdala size” as can been seen in Figure 1.

The question of whether or not it is psychological or environmental factors that influence political stance has been debated for many years. The findings of the paper side with recent studies in twins which claims that “a substantial amount” of political opinion is influenced by genetics.

The neuroscience paper published by Natalie Portman looked into the progress of ‘object permanence’ in child development. Object permanence is the understanding that objects continue to exist even when they cannot be seen, heard, or touched. Her research used near-infrared spectroscopy to monitor the levels of oxy and deoxyhaemoglobin. The research revealed that the rise in object permanence occurs simultaneously to a rise in the levels of haemoglobin concentration in the frontal cortex.

Whilst, these two members of the Hollywood A-list have dabbled in a bit of science it seems that they aren’t going to give up on their day jobs. Portman most recently graced our screens in the decidedly unscientific Thor, whilst Colin Firth was most recently seen in the tense spy film “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”.

New Research Idicates How OCD Behaviours Are Formed

New Research Idicates How OCD Behaviours Are Formed

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a debilitating condition affecting millions everyday. It is estimated that, in the UK, 2% of people aged between 18 and 56 suffer from some form of obsessive compulsive behaviour. Despite this widespread occurrence, however, there is much we do not know about the condition.

Historically, OCD has been dismissed as having no physiological cause, but scientists have shown that there are underlying biological factors in the condition. Functional magnetic resonance imaging studies have shown that the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, normally responsible for goal-based decisions, is implicated in the condition. Neurologists have also suggested several other areas play a role.

But how these physiological deficits manifest themselves is only just beginning to be understood. A recent study carried out in the Department of Experimental Psychology at Cambridge University indicates that the compulsions are due to overactive habit forming mechanisms.

Clair Gillan, a lead researcher in the study, said: ‘The goal was to look at the habit hypothesis of OCD, to see if [sufferers] had a greater predisposition to habit formation than control subjects’. The researchers were able to analyse this by comparing the abilities of control and OCD participants. Each subject was trained to use a computer programme to gain points by clicking on the correct boxes of fruit that appeared on screen. The fruits that gained the participants points were then changed. The OCD patients showed they were significantly less able than the controls to change the habit they had learned. They did not achieve their goals as successfully and thus gained fewer points. One participant, ‘Mr J’ (a severe OCD sufferer), commented that when he saw the fruits it was as if his ‘hands knew what to do’ and followed the earlier training goals, not the newer goals.

There are several different techniques currently used to treat OCD. These include the drastic (such as surgery), the experimental (such as psychedelic drugs) and the psychological (such as behavioural therapy). ‘I think it’s a very important validation of cognitive behavioural therapy’ said Gillan commenting on her study. She highlighted in particular the ‘exposure and response prevention technique’, also known as Pavlovian extinction. Patients undergoing this therapy are exposed to their feared situation.

Whilst our knowledge of OCD has no doubt improved, there is still much to discover.
Gillan CM, Papmeyer M, Morein-Zamir S, Sahakian BJ, Fineberg NA, Robbins TW, & de Wit S (2011). Disruption in the Balance Between Goal-Directed Behavior and Habit Learning in Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. The American journal of psychiatry PMID: 21572165

Say Cheese #1: Challenge Accepted!

Say Cheese #1: Challenge Accepted!

A bit of a challenge is always good. So I have decided to set myself one, which I intend to help motivate me to gain a new skill. That new skill is photography.

The challenge is to post up and blog about a photo I have taken, once a week (initially). As my back catalogue of photos isn’t particularly extensive, I will run out of pics pretty quickly! This will force me to do something I have been meaning to do for ages, learn all the technical stuff involved with photography.

The photos may not always be science related, but I will strive to attempt to get some science in there no matter how tenuous the link is!

So, here we go…number 1:

Click for the full image

This photo was taken from the top of the Empire State Building looking south at the night lights of Manhattan. So, now time for a little bit of science to go along with this. The science question is, will a penny dropped from the top of the Empire State Building really kill/maim someone on the ‘side-walk’ below? The answer, unsurprisingly is no.

This oft quoted fact has been dis-proven so many times that I would hope that it isn’t viewed as a fact by anyone. Because, the fact of the matter it is likely to  hurt a little bit. But, it is unlikely to cause any major damage to you. This is because pennies generate a lot of aerodynamic resistance as they fall. As a result, they have a rather low terminal velocity of 100mph which it will reach in about 10 seconds. This coupled with the low weight of the penny (about 1 g) means that it will be able to impart about 1.35 J of energy on impact and as described in my previous post depending on the area of the skull 14.1 – 68.5 J would be needed to fracture it.

So there we have it, a photo and a bit of science.

Life’s a Game: Video Games as a Model for Behaviour

Life’s a Game: Video Games as a Model for Behaviour

Crouching amongst the wreckage of an apartment block I look through a shattered window and see an enemy running and trying to find a place to hide. I pick up my Intervention M-200, take a breath, get his head lined up in the cross hair and pull the trigger.

I have at various points in my life gone through phases of being, what you might call, a ‘gamer’. The scenario above was a frequent one that occurred when I used to play the previous Call of Duty game, Modern Warfare 2. I amassed an ‘on-line kill’ total of around 10,000. My ‘real life kill’ total is thankfully 0. So, it would seem that if you want to find out about me, monitoring my activities in the game would be not the most accurate way of finding information!

However, scientists have been using video games to look at real world psychology. In research published in ‘Cyberpsychology, Behaviour , and Social Networking’ virtual reality (VR) has been used to look at high-level social phenomena. The researchers, from Cardiff, outlined several advantages of using a virtual reality situation including, enhanced control, easy content modification and relative low cost.

Figure 1: A VR re-enactment of the Milford experiment

The study aimed to look at the reduced likelihood of helping bystanders whilst under varying time pressure during a task. This study is similar to the famous ‘Good Samaritan Study’ carried out by Darley and Baston, but places removes the focus on religion and instead looks at the virtual realm. Other studies that have crossed the VR-real life divide includes the infamous Milford experiment.

The participants were placed in the world of the popular game Half Life 2. This allowed the researchers more controll than other VR worlds such as SecondLife or World of Warcraft.

The study had two main parts. In experiment 1 the subjects were asked to complete a simple task (get to the exit of the 3D Maze), whilst (like the Good Samaritan study) the amount of time pressure they are placed under varies (24 participants were given time pressure, with 20 given less time pressure). Whilst completing this task the patients were given several opporunities to help virtual characters that requested assistance, both in the presence of ‘by standers’ and without. 

Figure 2: The VR environment from experiment 2

In the second experiment, they looked more at the ‘bystander effect’  (the theory that when there are more bystanders there is a decreased individual responsibility to help as ‘someone else will do it’). To do this they increased the number of virtual characters in the maze and asked the participant to pretend as if they were real (although, surely a better way to have this effect would have been to have said they were being controlled by real people).

In both situations the maze was made up of 4 different sorts of rooms, an instruction room, 2 obsevation rooms, 14 assistance  rooms and an exit room. In the observation room the participants could see one character helping another by smashing crates behind which they were stuck. In the assistance rooms the participants had the choice of whether they would help in a similar way. In both experiments half of the assistance rooms were populated with bystanders. But, experiment 2 had in each room as 19 opposed to the 4 in expiment 1. The bystanders “displayed various casual movements like turning their heads but ignored requests for assistance”.

The results interestingly were similar to those of their real world equivalents. Experiment 1 showed that increased time pressure decreases the help given to those in need (Figure 3), as in the Good Samaritan Study. Although the presence of bystanders had no significant effect in each time situation.

Figure 3: A graph showing that in a VR world increased time pressure decreases helpfulness

 The lack of bystander effect in this experiment was attributed by the researchers to the VR bystanders not being convincing enough meaning that there was no “diffusion of responsibility ad fear of embarassment”. This was seens as the major drawback of the VR method.

However, in contrast to the findings of experiment 1, experiment 2 did show a significant difference between the bystander and non bystander rooms. This could be attributed to either of the two variables between the experiments, the number of bystanders or the participants being asked to pretend they were real.

The authors of the paper, Kozlov and Johanssen argue that VR is a useful tool in measuring factors that are difficult or impossible to control in the real, such as behaviour when escaping a burning building. However, I can’t help but feel that despite the success of the experiment a real world experiment, money no object, would be better at monitoring psychology as the lack of real world consequences is an issue for VR experimentation.

So, would I be a merciless killing machine if WW3 ever descends? No, I think most likely I would be sat quivering in a corner. But, the research does raise some very interesting questions about virtual behaviour.  

To sum up my closing point here is a funny little video about killing your characters on the Sims, something which as a young teen thought was very funny (dont judge me!):

Kozlov MD, & Johansen MK (2010). Real behavior in virtual environments: psychology experiments in a simple virtual-reality paradigm using video games. Cyberpsychology, behavior and social networking, 13 (6), 711-4 PMID: 21142998

Darley, J., & Batson, C. (1973). “From Jerusalem to Jericho”: A study of situational and dispositional variables in helping behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 27 (1), 100-108 DOI: 10.1037/h0034449

Slater M, Antley A, Davison A, Swapp D, Guger C, Barker C, Pistrang N, & Sanchez-Vives MV (2006). A virtual reprise of the Stanley Milgram obedience experiments. PloS one, 1 PMID: 17183667

Science of Dating: Topics of Conversation

Science of Dating: Topics of Conversation

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for

So, your attempts at chat-up lines have gone well (the topic of the first post in this theme) and you have gotten yourself a date. But what now? What do you talk about? Well it appears science has the answer to that too!

An investigation conducted at the Edinburugh Science Festival by psychologists James Houran, Caroline Watt and Richard Wiseman looked into what topics of conversation are the most sucessful in a dating situation. One hundred randomly selected participants (50 men and 50 women) engaged in the scientific speed dating.

The subjects were sat on 5 long tables facing a member of the opposite sex. Four of the tables were given a topic to discuss (film, travel, hobbies or books), while the fifth control table were allowed to talk about whatever they wanted. After 3 minutes of conversation each participant rated their potential suitor based on physical attraction, chemistry, how quickly they made their mind up and if they would see the other person again. The  participants then swapped and had introductions with more people.

Those who said that they wanted to meet again were given each others numbers. Around 60% left with at least 1 number and 20% got 4 or more numbers. But, it was differences in success of the topic of conversation that was the really interesting statistic.

Talking about films was the least successful topic with only 9% saying that they would like to see the other person again, whilst 18% who discussed travel (the most popular topic) wanted to meet again. The poor showing for film was attributed to the differences in film tastes between men and women, also Wiseman observed that whenever he walked past the film table the participants were just arguing!

Also discovered was that 45% of womens descisions were made during the first 30 seconds, whilst only 22% of men made their descision in that time.

Whatever you talk about though it appears that humour plays a very important role. A 2004 study by Arthur Aron and Barbra Fraley got pairs of strangers to undergo tasks. One part of the study half the participants were paired up with one blindfolded and the other asked to speak with a straw in their mouth to give themselves a funny voice. The individual with a straw was asked to instruct the blindfolded individual to do a dance routine. The control group  learnt the dance without the blindfold and speaking normally. The second part of the study had the ‘comedy group’ act out commercials using a made up language while the controls acted them out in english.

Unsurprisingly the participants involved in the siller actions had more fun. But, importantly they also rated themselves as feeling closer and more attracted to their partners.

So, what can we gather from this? Well, the implactions seem to be, be funny, enthuse about your travels, but for God sake don’t go on about how much you hate the other persons favourite film!


Fraley, B., & Aron, A. (2004). The effect of a shared humorous experience on closeness in initial encounters Personal Relationships, 11 (1), 61-78 DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-6811.2004.00071.x

Wiseman R. Quirkology: The Curious Science of Everyday Lives. Macmillan. 2007

The Science of Dating: Pick-Up Lines

The Science of Dating: Pick-Up Lines

As a bit of a break from my usual blogging routine, this weeks blogs will all be on a theme. The science of dating, moving from pick-up lines through to the biochemistry of long term relationships. I will go through the staggering amount of research in this area and attempt to find out if you can use science to orchestrate a perfect date! [Note: Appologies for the poor formatting word press went a tad crazy when I put the tables in!]


“If I could be any enzyme I would be DNA Helicase so I could unzip your genes”



There is more to the science of chat-up lines than utilising some classic science puns on an unsuspecting individual. A surpring amount of research has been done into why we attempt pick-up lines and which have the greatest chance of a positive reception, a 1986 study by Chris Kleinke sought to answer the latter.

The study was divided into two parts, one looking at lines that men use to meet women and the other looking at the inverse. In the first part of the study 137 men and 163 women (90% of participants were under 27) were asked to list ‘lines’ that they thought would be successful. These were then ranked by women on a 7 point scale (from 1-Terrible to 7-Excellent). The lines were then grouped into types, ‘Cute-Flipant’, ‘Direct Approach’ or ‘Innocuous’. From this it was observed that women prefer direct or innocous lines compared to cute-flipant, although the most direct lines (such as “I’m easy, are you?”) unsurprisingly ranked very poorly! But what lines in particular were ranked at the best and worst?

The Best Rated Lines:



Responses rated as good to excellent (%)





Do you want to dance?



I haven’t been here before, what’s good on the menu?



Can I help you with those bags?



Want to go and grab a beer or cup of coffee while we’re waiting?



Want to play Frisbee?


The Worst Rated Lines:
Line Responses rated as poor to terrible (%)
General – Is that really your hair? 89
Bar – (Looking at a woman’s jewellery) Wow it looks like you’ve just robbed a Woolworths. 89.6
Laundrette – A man shouldn’t have to wash his own clothes 83.5
Supermarkets – Do you really eat that junk? 89.6
Beach – Did you notice me throwing that football? Good arm, huh? 88.2

But what about women? Well, when the study looked at the lines used by women they asked, 93 male and 112 female, students from the Universities Of California and Massachusetts for what liens women might use. They were ranked on the same 7 point scale and the following:

The Best Rated Lines:


Responses rated as good to fantastic (%)

Since we’re both sitting alone would you like to join me?




I’m having trouble getting my car started. Will you give me a hand?


I don’t have anyone to introduce me, but I’d really like to get to know you more.


Can you give me directions (to anywhere)?


The Worst Rated Lines:


Responses rated as poor to terrible (%)

It’s been a long time since I’ve had a boyfriend


Didn’t we meet in a previous life?


Hey baby, you’ve got a gorgeous chassis. Mind if I look under the hood?


I’m easy, are you?


What’s your sign?


Being aware of which lines are deemed good and which are deemed bad begs the question, why do we do it? A separate more recent study from Edinburgh University commented on this. They also found that direct approaches for sex (such as ” I’m not Fred Flintstone but i’ll make your bed rock”) and hyperbole compliments were treated with great disdain, commenting that it is a wonder why we had evolved to aproach the opposite sex in this way. In the end they theorised that it may be “used by men to identify sociosexually uninhibited women”, a polite way of saying they are looking for easy girls!

As far as I can tell the only studies that have been done into pick-up lines have been questionnaire filled in surveys then statistically analysed. Does this really tell us what works and what doesnt work in the real world? I think anthopologists should actually go to bars and use lines and observe their effects. If only for the pure amusement I would get from a scientists approaching someone on a beach and saying:

“Let me see your strapmarks?” … 86.8 % of girls rated this as poor to terrible!

BALE, C., MORRISON, R., & CARYL, P. (2006). Chat-up lines as male sexual displays Personality and Individual Differences, 40 (4), 655-664 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2005.07.016

Kleinke, C., Meeker, F., & Staneski, R. (1986). Preference for opening lines: Comparing ratings by men and women Sex Roles, 15 (11-12), 585-600 DOI: 10.1007/BF00288216

The Sound of Science: Results & Explanation

The Sound of Science: Results & Explanation

First of all a big thank you to everyone who took part in this little experiment. Secondly, sorry this post is a little later than I originally said it would be.

I was inspired to try this after listening to the sound and reading about what its effects should be. I was surprised to find that it’s effects worked on me, but I was curious as to whether that was the placebo effect because I knew what was supposed to happen. So that was the motivation for the experiment. The results were very interesting, 21 votes were recorded and were as follows:

What Effect Did the Sound Have On You?

None – 6 – 29%

Made me feel energised – 8 – 38%

Made me feel strange – 6 – 29%

Made me feel sleepy – 1 – 5%

But, what was the sound? Well, this experiment looked at the effects of binaural beats. An EEG detects different frequency waves in the brain during different mental states. The theory of binaural beats is that by listening to a particular frequency the brain enters the state of mind corresponding tp the EEG , as below:

> 40 Hz Gamma waves Higher mental activity, including perception, problem solving, fear, and consciousness
13–39 Hz Beta waves Active, busy or anxious thinking and active concentration, arousal, cognition, and or paranoia
7–13 Hz Alpha waves Relaxation (while awake), pre-sleep and pre-wake drowsiness, REM sleep, Dreams
4–7 Hz Theta waves deep meditation/relaxation, NREM sleep
< 4 Hz Delta waves Deep dreamless sleep, loss of body awareness

The sound in the experiment was a Theta wave. Therefore, should have created feelings of being tired  and sleepiness. The poll on my original post found very different results with feeling “energised” the most popular feeling due to the sound and feeling “sleepy” the least popular.

This is obviously not a 100% accurate study. I have no idea how long the people who voted listened for, what they listened with (supposedly headphones makes the effect much more pronounced) or what environment they were in. As a result, with a small sample size and these big unknowns the inverse of the expected results is, ironically, not unexpected!

There have been lots of suggested (and unproven) uses and effects of binaural beats including improving memory, sporting performance, stopping smoking, dieting help and tackling erectile dysfunction. Some have even referred to it as an “auditory alternative medicine”! Even more bizarrely some people are claiming that this technology can be used to create drug like effects known as “i-dosing”. The effects of these sounds are still being studied and their actual effects is hotly debated with some maintaining that it is all placebo.

To me, without being able to find sufficient research on the effects of the sounds, I find it hard to draw a conclusion about the effects. I am willing to accept that binaural sounds may have a real effect on alertness. However, the more outlandish claims are really just ridiculous, and should be ignored.

To see an alarmist US news report on “i-doping” watch this video (sorry about the poor syncing of the audio):