News and Media

Including the first (and only?) photo of Phineas Gage discovered; confabulatory hypermnesia; Recording tomorrow’s history; A weighty bias and much more.

Face to face with Phineas Gage
A pair of photograph collectors in Maryland, USA, have uncovered what they believe to be the first and only ever photographic record of Phineas Gage – the railway worker who survived an iron tamping rod passing straight through the front of his brain, following an explosives accident in 1848.

The story of Gage and the effects his injury on his behaviour and personality has become one of the most famous case studies in the history of psychology, inspiring plays, books and songs.

The photograph is a daguerreotype, named after the Parisian photographic pioneer Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre.

It was the photographic process of choice in America from the early 1840s until the mid-1850s. Jack and Beverly Wilgus have had it in their possession for over 30 years, but have only just confirmed its identity.The photograph shows Gage as a scarred, handsome, proud man, smartly dressed, with one eye closed, wielding the tamping iron that made him famous. Jack and Beverly Wilgus originally thought the image was of a whaler with his left eye stitched shut after an encounter with an angry whale. But after posting the picture on Flick-r in 2007, they soon learned from expert whaling commenters that this was not the case (it was not a harpoon that he was holding). In December 2008, an anonymous visitor to the site posted: ‘... maybe you found a photo of Phineas Gage? If so, it would be the only one known.’

By carefully comparing the photograph with a life mask taken of Gage’s head when he was alive, and the actual tamping iron, both of which areat the Warren Anatomical Museum, the Wilguses confirmed that the photo is indeed of Gage. For example, an inscription on the real-life tamping iron is visible in the photograph, and the distinct scar on the forehead on Gage’s life mask perfectly matches up with the scar shown in the photograph.

The new photo is bound to intensify the debate over the effects of Gage’s injuries on his personality and behaviour (see www.bps.org.uk/gage). Writing in the Journal of the History of Neurosciences, the Wilguses said: ‘One theory about Gage — that his personality might have changed because his appearance was made grotesque by the accident... no longer seems credible to us’.

Professor Malcolm Macmillan, Gage expert and co-editor of the journal, told us: ‘On the basis of a single (and inaccurate) article in the LA Times the discovery has had a considerable impact on the general reading public, but as yet little on professional readers. That is unfortunate because the Gage we now see is, in my opinion, assured and self-confident, and certainly not the kind of man who would hide himself in Chile or have the long-term problems that myth-makers attribute to him.’

The authors also commented: ‘Our experience reinforces our enthusiasm for the Internet as a vehicle for research and the sharing of information. If we had never posted this image where millions could view it, its subject would probably have remained ‘The Whaler’ forever. Without the Internet, gathering information and making contact with others knowledgeable about Gage would have been much slower and more laborious.’

-   See http://brightbytes.com/phineasgage. The Society’s Research Digest blog (www.researchdigest.org.uk/blog) broke the news in the UK.

 

Making up the past
Neuropsychologists have documented the first-ever case of what they’ve called ‘confabulatory hypermnesia’ – a tendency to provide extraordinarily specific answers to obscure autobiographical questions (Cortex: tinyurl.com/kt5xpj).

Patient LM was diagnosed with Korsakoff’s syndrome, which is a form of memory loss caused by dietary deficiencies associated with alcoholism. Many people with amnesia confabulate, meaning they make things up. But LM’s confabulation was highly unusual in that he gave very specific answers to questions that healthy people and other confabulators wouldn’t usually even attempt to address.

For example, when Gianfranco Barba at Inserm in Paris and Caroline Decaix at Hôpital Saint Antoine asked LM ‘Do you remember what you were wearing on the first day of summer of 1979?’, he answered ‘Shorts and a T-shirt’. Asked about his activities on a specific day in 1985, he said he spent the day at Senart Forest with his family. His answers were always plausible and never bizarre or fantastical as is observed with some patients who confabulate.

Barba and Decaix aren’t sure why LM behaves in this way but they think his answers somehow reflect a breakdown of what they call ‘temporal consciousness (TC)’ leading him to confuse memories of habits for unique personal episodes. Another possibility
is that LM may have adopted unusual cognitive strategies even before his illness, but this hasn’t been corroborated by his wife.

‘This leaves us with a number of open questions,’ the researchers said. ‘What are the cognitive and neural correlates of confabulatory hypermnesia? How are the boundaries of TC normally determined? In the absence of further experimental evidence these remain unanswered, indeed, “I don’t know” questions.’
 

Recording tomorrow’s history
A Wellcome Trust-funded research project to record interviews with prominent neuroscientists has borne fruit, in the form of online videos, podcasts and transcripts.

‘Today’s neuroscience, tomorrow’s history’, directed by Professor Tilli Tansey (University College London) and Professor Les Iversen (University of Oxford), with interviews by Mr Richard Thomas, aims to provide resources about contemporary neuroscience for the use of present and future historians, as well as journalists, policy makers and others. One of the major themes selected for study was psychiatry/ neuropsychology, and interviewees include Michael Rutter, Uta Frith, Elizabeth Warrington and Richard Gregory.

Neuroscience has been one of the key areas of biomedical science that the Wellcome Trust has fostered and sponsored for nearly 60 years – the very first ‘fellowship’ grant awarded by the Wellcome Trust in 1937 was to Otto Loewi, who shared the 1936 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Sir Henry Dale for their work on the elucidation of chemical neurotransmission.

‘This is a rare opportunity’, Professor Tansey told us, ‘to hear from the scientists themselves, speaking informally about their lives, careers, inspirations and setbacks. Some of the participants have done work of particular clinical significance, such as Uta Frith’s neurocognitive investigations of developmental disorders, Michael Rutter’s influence on the development of the specialty of child psychiatry, and Elizabeth Warrington’s diagnostic studies of the injured and degenerating brain. Richard Gregory, on the other hand, has focused on experimental and applied psychology, especially visual perception and artificial intelligence. These very different scientists, with their very different careers, provide fascinating, engaging accounts which go behind the formal presentations of science in academic books and papers.’

I    The interviews and transcripts are in the Wellcome Library, London, and are freely available at www.ucl.ac.uk/histmed/audio/neuroscience. A limited number of copies for teaching purposes are available from Professor Tilli Tansey
(e-mail: [email protected]; tel: 020 7679 8124).
 

A weighty bias
Psychologists in the United States have exposed two flaws in the way that we think about body weight and the calorie content of meals – findings they say could help inspire strategies to increase healthy eating (Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied – in press).

In an initial experiment, Andrew Geier and Paul Rozin at the University of Pennsylvania, asked hundreds of students to judge the weight of women displayed in photographs (which provided no cues as to height). The students’ estimates showed their near total disregard for the women’s height. For example, only 10 out of 475 of students opted not to provide an estimate when height wasn’t given, even though it is logically impossible to estimate weight without height information. ‘It is akin to providing the number of square inches on a billboard after only measuring one of the two required dimensions,’ the researchers said.

For some of the photographs, the students were split into two groups and given contrasting height information. For example, one group of students were told the same woman was 10 inches taller than the other group were led to believe. Remarkably, despite this contrasting height information, the two groups still made similar weight estimates. Similar, but less dramatic results, were found for estimating the weight of live models. Geier and Rozin said these errors were an example of univariate bias – our tendency to rely on just one dimension when more are needed.
Univariate bias is related to another thinking error, dubbed the default standard unit bias – the standard size we expect an exemplar to be, such as a can of coke or a slice of cake. In the case of women’s weight, this bias was reflected in the participants’ tendency to assume that a woman is generally around five feet four in height. A second experiment showed how these two thinking errors combine to bias people’s judgement of the calorie content of a meal.

Hundreds of students entered a competition to judge the number of calories in one of two versions of the same meal: two slices of meat loaf, a baked potato and string beans. Some students saw the large version, about 86 per cent greater in size, and containing about 368 calories more than the smaller version seen by the other students. The larger version was similar in size to a typical serving at the refectory.

Taking a random sample of 265 students who saw the large meal version and comparing their average calorie judgement with the average judgement made by the 265 students who saw the small version, revealed no difference. Indeed, 101 of the two sets of judgements were identical. It’s as if the students judging the small meal made their calorie judgement based on a standard meal size and disregarded the visual evidence showing the meal was smaller than usual.

‘Creative packaging and other framings could take advantage of the distortions shown in this paper to reduce intake and weight,’ the researchers said. ‘Our results suggest that modest decreases in portion size may go unnoticed and have no effect on estimated calories consumed. Because voluntary dieting is notoriously unsuccessful, more subtle forms of involuntary and unnoticed dieting, such as small decreases in portion size, might prove to be a promising intervention.’

 

Online brain repository
The brain of HM – the amnesic patient who became the most famous case study in the neuropsychology of memory – is to be sliced and scanned and turned into the first exhibit at a fully searchable, open-access online brain repository.

HM died in December last year and scientists immediately got to work preserving and scanning his brain for posterity. According to the latest issue of Science (see tinyurl.com/n76d6v), among those involved was neuroanatomist Jacapo Annese of the University of California at San Diego, the man now responsible, with the help of funding from the Dana Foundation and the National Science Foundation, for turning HM’s grey matter into a digital brain atlas. It’s envisaged that web visitors will be able to study fully zoomable, 3-D images of HM’s brain, together with histological images down to the level of individual cells.

The brains of patients studied by memory expert Larry Squire and neuroscience doyenne Vilayanur Ramachandran are also planned to become additions to the online exhibition. Annese told Science that he sees the future website as becoming an experiment in open science – somewhere that researchers will blog and provide advice, and also somewhere that amateurs can access and research brain material, hopefully imitating the way that amateur archaeologists have made breakthroughs using Google Earth.

I    For the Science profile, news, projects, contacts and much more, see the website at http://thebrainobservatory.ucsd.ed
 

People are the main event 

Focusing on technology instead of people is a key factor in events going wrong, according to a major series of reports into crowd behaviour and management, published last month.

Compiled for the Cabinet Office by researchers from Leeds University Business School, the Understanding Crowd Behaviours reports also claim that over-reliance on technical and IT solutions means we fail to learn the lessons from past disasters. The researchers cite the opening of Heathrow’s Terminal Five as a prime example of a situation where faith in the power of new software and other technology meant that the importance of people – in this case, training and familiarisation in the new building and systems and involving those on the front line in decision making – was overlooked.

The research was led by organisational psychologist and Society member Rose Challenger, supported by Professor Chris Clegg and Mark Robinson. ‘A systems approach is widely seen as best practice in organisational management, particularly in managing change,’ she said. ‘It is clearly applicable in crowd and event management as well.’ The reports highlight gaps in knowledge and areas where further research is needed, including more detailed analysis of the different types of crowd and their behaviour and better simulation models that take this complexity of behaviour into account.

The reports are the first to bring together sociological and psychological research on events and crowd behaviour, reviewing over 550 academic papers and drawing on in-depth interviews with 27 specialists in the field (police, emergency planners and event managers) to produce detailed guidelines for organisers of events such as the 2012 Olympics.

I    The reports are available to download at www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/ukresilience/news/crowd-behaviour.aspx

 

Addressing shortcomings in autism service provision
The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Autism, which is made up of backbench MPs and Peers from all sides of both Houses, has published the findings of its inquiry into the transition into adulthood of young people on the autism spectrum. The British Psychological Society was among the organisations that contributed to the inquiry. In total 220 stakeholders submitted evidence, including people with autism, parents and professionals.

Tommy MacKay, Co-Director of the National Centre for Autism Studies at Glasgow Strathclyde University, was lead author of the Society’s written submission to the inquiry. He welcomed the timeliness of the report: ‘The transition to adulthood is a crucial stage for young people on the autistic spectrum, and one at which many slip through the net of service provision.’

According to the inquiry there are a number of shortcomings in the services available to help young people with autism make the transition from school to adulthood. There is currently a lack of planning and, whilst many agencies are involved, none takes overall responsibility for a person’s future. The inquiry finds that more training is needed for the professionals who are involved in helping people with autism during this phase of their life. Young people with autism and their parents also need to be better informed about the options available to them.

There is particular concern for high-functioning young people with autism, for whom lack of transition planning may be especially harmful. In its submission, the Society cited research indicating that there is a particularly high incidence of mental health issues among the more able autism spectrum population (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed18645422).

The inquiry makes a number of specific recommendations to government and local authorities. For example, directors of children’s services are advised to maintain a database of the numbers of children with autism in their area and to share this information with adult services. Primary care trusts, meanwhile, are advised to put in place protocols for transferring clinical mental health care for young people with autism who are currently in child and adolescent mental health services.

Tommy MacKay commented: ‘It is gratifying to see the weight given to the evidence submitted by the Society. Many of the key issues we raised, such as continuity of service provision, the need for training, mental health needs and support for employment, relationships and social and leisure activities, are woven into the fabric of the report and its recommendations. The outcome should be a better quality of life for young people with autistic spectrum disorders as they enter adult life.’

I    The report is at tinyurl.com/nnkxae

 

Two psychologists recognised by Queen

Two psychologists were recognised in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List published in June. Hamish MacPhee, Principal Psychologist with Fife Council, was appointed MBE for services to children and families, and Gillian Bowden, Manager of Norfolk and Waveney Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust, was appointed MBE for services to mental health care in Great Yarmouth.

‘To be nominated for an MBE has come as a considerable shock,’ MacPhee said. ‘Such honours are seen to be awarded to individuals but in this case I believe that it is an acknowledgement of hard work done by a group of colleagues over many years within Fife Council Psychological service.’ Looking to the future, MacPhee told us that a priority was ensuring that his team’s thinking regarding assessments and interventions was relevant for implementing the Scottish Parliament initiatives ‘A Curriculum for Excellence’ and ‘Getting It Right for Every Child’ and ‘in particular that we have an impact on outcomes for those who are at most risk’.

Bowden has been developing services at Norfolk and Waveney Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust for the past six years. ‘In the current economic climate there are social and financial challenges for many people in many places and Great Yarmouth is no exception. However, what is often overlooked is that Great Yarmouth is a place where people have many personal resources,’ she told us.

‘I believe that mental health is about enabling people to use their personal and social resources in order to reach their potential. This is important for people who live in the communities we serve and for those who use and staff our services. In mental health, this involves working in different ways to make our services have relevance for different communities. This is some of the work I feel most proud of.’

Genetic influences on talent

We know a great deal about the relative genetic and environmental influences on average intelligence and on learning disabilities, but far less about the role of genes in exceptional cognitive ability – in lay terms what we might call genius or innate talent. Now a series of studies published in a new special journal issue of Behavior Genetics (see tinyurl.com/kjfvpr) suggest that genes exert a significant influence on exceptional cognitive ability, similar in magnitude to their influence on the normal range of intelligence. The findings challenge versions of the ‘discontinuity hypothesis’ – the idea that the relative contribution of nature and nurture changes for exceptional ability.

The special issue is described by the guest editors Robert Plomin and Claire Haworth of the Institute of Psychiatry as ‘the first-ever collection of papers focused on the genetics of high cognitive abilities’ – a topic they say has ‘great societal importance’. This is a view supported by the issue’s opening paper by David Lubinski of Vanderbilt University, in which he describes longitudinal research showing that children with exceptionally high cognitive ability, as measured at age 12, are dramatically more likely than average to earn a doctorate or obtain a patent later in life.

‘Understanding the role of both nature and nurture in promoting high cognitive ability will provide valuable insights into the ways we can support high achievers, as well as encourage more individuals to reach these levels,’ Haworth told us.

The special issue proceeds with a ‘mega-analysis’ by Haworth and colleagues of the newly-established Genetics of High Cognitive Abilities (GHCA) consortium, involving 11,000 twin pairs in six studies, from four countries – the UK, the Netherlands, Australia and United States. Combining so much data together allowed the researchers to restrict their analyses to participants in the top 15 per cent for intelligence performance, whilst still maintaining enough power for statistical tests.

By comparing intelligence differences between pairs of identical twins (who share all their genes) and non-identical twins (who share half their genes like normal siblings), the study showed that genetic differences explained approximately half the variation found in high intelligence, whilst shared environmental factors – those experienced by both twins in a pair, such as education and parenting style – explained just 28 per cent of the variation. The remaining influence is down to unique environmental influences (experienced
by one twin but not the other) and other unknown factors.

The observed level of genetic influence on exceptionally high intelligence is similar to that found by the researchers for the normal range of intelligence in the same sample of twin pairs, and supports the idea that exceptional cognitive ability is on a continuum with the normal range of intelligence, and is likely subject to the same genetic and environmental influences. However, final proof that the same genes affect high intelligence and the normal distribution won’t be found until specific genes are identified through DNA testing of gifted and control participants – a project that the GHCA is currently undertaking with participants in the United States.

It should be noted that the cited contributions of genes and the environment aren’t necessarily fixed. Rather these estimates reflect the amount of variation explained by genetic and environmental factors for this particular group of twin participants at one particular time. The generalisability of the findings are, however, enhanced by the large size and cross-national nature of the sample. Another caveat is that investigating the top 15 per cent of intelligence test performers may not be high enough to capture any influences that uniquely affect exceptional cognitive ability. When Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton explored this issue in Victorian times, he focused on the top 1 per cent, who he described as ‘able’ and the top 0.01 per cent, who he described as ‘exceptionally able’.

Even with genetic influences explaining half the variation in exceptional cognitive performance, this still leaves a significant role for environmental factors. In an attempt to identify some of the shared environmental factors that influence exceptional cognitive ability, Robert Kirkpatrick and colleagues at the University of Minnesota looked at variations in exceptional intelligence among thousands of adolescent twin pairs, some of whom had been adopted out to different families. The researchers looked at the possible influence of parental occupational status, parental education and disruptive life events (such as parents divorcing) but found an influence only for parental education.

In reality of course, environmental and genetic factors interact to affect behaviour, including cognitive ability. Several of the new papers explored these interactions. To take one example, Angela Friend at  the University of Colorado at Boulder and colleagues tested reading ability in hundreds of identical and non-identical American and British twin pairs, and in both countries found that genes explained more of the variance in performance among children with less educated parents than they did among children with parents who’d been in education longer. In other words, genes seem to have a greater influence on superior reading ability when environmental support is not so strong.

Other papers focused on specific areas of cognitive expertise such as maths performance, finding that here too, the influence of genes was similar in magnitude to that found for the normal range of performance.
What about the notion of generalist genes? This is the finding, for the normal range of ability, that there is a large overlap in the genes that influence one domain of cognitive ability, such as reading, and those that influence other cognitive abilities, such as memory or maths. In a study of 4000 twin pairs in the UK, Haworth and colleagues found that generalist genes are just as evident for exceptional cognitive ability (performance in the top 15 per cent of the distribution). This suggests that when molecular genetic studies are conducted, they are likely to find that the same genes that influence high ability in one cognitive domain will also influence high ability in other domains.

Reflecting on publication of this special issue, much of it supported by the John Templeton Foundation, Claire Haworth told us she was surprised that, in contrast to learning disabilities, the study of genetic and environmental pathways to exceptional cognitive ability had received so little attention to date, especially given the societal and economic relevance of talent. ‘We hope that this special issue will stimulate further research in this area in multiple disciplines including psychology, education, neuroscience and biology,’ she said.

 

Testing times ahead
The Training and Development Agency for Schools has announced its intention to set psychometric tests for teacher training applicants, to examine whether they have the right blend of ‘resilience, communication skills and empathy’ to survive in the profession.

A company appointed by the TDA is writing the diagnostic tool for a pilot scheme, which will start this September. The news was met with a mixed response. James Noble Rogers, executive director of the Universities’ Council for the Education of Teachers, said his members would be in favour of the pilot, as long as testing did not become mandatory. Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, told the BBC: ‘Psychometric tests are hugely dubious, there is no scientific justification for them, and they are culturally biased. Why is the TDA wasting public money on expensive gimmicks when it should be providing proper support for trainee teachers going into hugely challenging jobs?’ Deb Gajic, a psychology teacher and Chair of the Association for the Teaching of Psychology, told the TES that ‘one of the major problems with the tests is that people see what they want to, and the tests are hard to answer honestly if you want to give a certain impression.’

However, Dr Pat Lindley, Chair of the British Psychological Society’s Steering Committee on Test Standards, told us that ‘well-developed tests and instruments combined with trained and qualifiers users identify and minimise impression management. Those are the key aspects in using tests and instruments wisely in selection: they should be sound and the user should be trained and qualified in using them.’The TDA is believed to be keen to reduce costly problems with retention, and qualified teachers not taking up posts. The Psychologist put it to Dr Lindley that this might be one way in which the recession could actually drive an upsurge in psychometric testing. ‘Most test publishers and distributors have noted a fall in sales of test materials since the start of the recession,’ Dr Lindley replied. ‘Therefore the investment in developing a new instrument at this time could demonstrate a confidence in all the research on utility, that does show that structured selection gets good results and thus saves money in the long run.’

 

RESEARCH FUNDING NEWS
The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Service Delivery and Organisation programme has a call for research on ‘Research utilisation and knowledge mobilisation by healthcare managers’. This focuses on how managers use research and how research interacts with other forms of knowledge within the organisation contexts in which managers’ work, their decision making and the way managers support and encourage the use of research by others. Outline proposals should be submitted by 20 August 2009.tinyurl.com/lnq4up

The Leverhulme Trust has funding available to support Artists in Residence. Artists can be visual artists, creative writers, musicians, poets or other producers of original creative work. Higher education institutions are eligible to apply and applications should be made by the institution and the artist. The next closing date for applications is 1 September 2009.
tinyurl.com/5hlotg

The Wellbeing of Women charity has research grants available to fund research into health problems that affect women. These included stillbirth, pregnancy, childbirth, quality-of-life issues and gynaecological cancer. Grants of up to £150,000 over a two- to three-year period are available. The closing date for applications is 7 September 2009.
tinyurl.com/m4pa4x

The National Institute of Mental Health has a call for the ‘Identification and Characterization of Sensitive Periods for Neurodevelopment in Studies of Mental Illness’. They are particularly interested in research that addresses the sensitive period in the development of normal function or psychopathology, sensitive periods for intervention to prevent, pre-empt and/or treat mental illness, and the mechanisms underlying the interaction between genetics, experience and development. Letters of intent should be submitted by 20 September 2009.
tinyurl.com/lvygo4

Fondation Jérôme Lejeune offers funding for research into treatments to improve the abilities of patients suffering from gene

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