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santa tracker

We’re taking a break until 2016 so we’ll see you in January!

Most of us grew up watching the weather report on TV and seeing a NORAD ‘Santa Tracker’ showing where Santa and his sleigh were on their way for a long night of work. But this is 2015 and if you celebrate the holiday, you likely want something a bit more scientific to show you that there is a “Christmas spirit” if not a Santa Claus. Thankfully, we can rely on the annual December issue of the British Medical Journal to enlighten us on holiday traditions and offer a light-hearted look at important questions on many of our minds.

In this case, the researchers wanted to figure out if there was a “Christmas spirit” within the human brain. The authors are neurology researchers, neuroimaging researchers, a professor of clinical physiology, and a medical physicist. A quick glance at the author names on this paper will show you that they are presenting, as they describe it themselves, “a cross cultural group study with functional magnetic resonance imaging” to “detect and localize the Christmas spirit in the human brain”. Participants were 10 “healthy people from Copenhagen who routinely celebrate Christmas and 10 healthy people living in the same area who have no Christmas traditions”. Some further research into whether this project was the result of typical, careful funding proposals or left over slush funds that were set to expire by Christmas morning seems warranted. But our skepticism at this time of year has an unfortunate “Scrooge-like” quality, so we won’t look very hard.

The participants completed a questionnaire about their Christmas traditions, feelings associated with Christmas and their ethnicity. The researchers are careful to let us know “no eggnog or gingerbread was consumed prior to the scans”. While the participants were in the MRI, they were shown 84 images (displayed for 2 seconds each and organized so there would be six Christmas associated images and then six images devoid of Christmas symbolism).

The researchers say they found a “cerebral response when people view Christmas images, and there are differences in this response between people who celebrate Christmas compared to those with no Christmas traditions”. They also greatly contribute to science in this area by saying there is a “functional Christmas network comprising several cortical areas, including the parietal lobules, the premotor cortex, and the somatosensory cortex”. These areas of the brain have been shown in previous studies (according to the authors) to be related to spirituality and transcendence, experiencing emotions shared by others, and “observation of ingestive mouth actions” which the researchers think is likely related to recall of shared meals with loved ones. All in all, they say, “these cortical areas possibly constitute the neuronal correlate of the Christmas spirit in the human brain”.

The researchers have carefully thought through their study design and interpretations and have compelling rejoinders to any of their colleagues whom they “suspect could be afflicted by the aforementioned bah humbug syndrome”. They would like further research on this issue—perhaps with subjects who’ve been given “tacky jumpers” (known here in the US as ‘ugly Christmas sweaters’) as gifts since they may well have different brain activity than those who received more attractive gifts for the holiday. They close with this comment in the acknowledgements section…

“We call ‘dibs’ on any profitable non-invasive or even invasive treatment of the bah humbug syndrome. We are currently preparing a patent application on a Santa’s hat you can buy for family members with symptoms. When they start grumbling at Christmas dinner, with the touch of a button you can give them electric stimulation right in the Christmas spirit centers.”

Hougaard A, Lindberg U, Arngrim N, Larsson HB, Olesen J, Amin FM, Ashina M, & Haddock BT (2015). Evidence of a Christmas spirit network in the brain: functional MRI study. BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 351 PMID: 26676562

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We are now in ABA’s Blawg 100 Hall of Fame!

Monday, November 30, 2015
posted by Douglas Keene

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We’ve recently been informed that The Jury Room has been inducted into the ABA Journal Blawg 100 Hall of Fame! Okay, it’s not a Pulitzer, but we are wildly happy about it. To our way of thinking, it is the greatest honor The Jury Room could be given. We appreciate the recognition. Closer to truth, we are shocked. Every December from 2010-2014 we have been delighted to be included in the Blawg 100, but this was not even on our radar screen. Here’s a link to the 2015 ABA Blawg Hall of Fame and a link to the 2015 Blawg 100 honorees.

Here’s how the ABA describes the Blawg 100 Hall of Fame:

In 2012, we established the Blawg 100 Hall of Fame for those blogs which had consistently been outstanding throughout multiple Blawg 100 lists. The inaugural list contained 10 inductees; this year, we added 10 more, bringing the total to 40.

And here is how they described this blog on their roster:

Trial consultants Douglas Keene and Rita Handrich find the research to alternately back up what you think you already know about human psychology (Is rudeness contagious? Yes.) and alert you to the unexpected (Are “beer goggles” real? No.) Posts are both fascinating reads and lessons on how not to base your cases on stereotypical assumptions.

We were inspired to begin blogging by Anne Reed (formerly of Deliberations blog and now leading the charge at the Wisconsin Humane Society). Once we got started blogging, we realized it was a wonderful way to keep up with the changing literature and to share what we were learning along the way. Looking back over the 900+ posts, we still find it interesting to blog as well as a great impetus for our own continuing education. Thank you, ABA Journal, for your recognition of our work over the last 6-1/2 years.

Doug and Rita

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five minutesThere are many things we read and discard rather than sharing them (and our take on them) with you, but other things we read and grin and think you might want to know. We’ve described these before as odd facts for sharing over drinks or dinner or around the office. It isn’t the most pivotal research we’ve read, but it is usually amusing. These are not the really “important” things, but they might make you grin and result in others looking at you with awe (or at least curiosity).

Altered consciousness using the person next to you (if they will cooperate)

Tina Fey and Steve Martin did this in a fairly unmemorable movie, but only for five minutes. However, if you want to go beyond “rewarding” someone with five minutes of uninterrupted eye contact, you can actually experience “dissociation and hallucinations”. Is that cool or what? The lights must be dim to better bring on a “natural” altered state and if you choose to question whether this is a real study, the citation is at the bottom of this post.

An easy test to see if your new friend is secretly a psychopath

We’ve written before about psychopaths but never seen such a quick-and-dirty test to see if your new friend is someone from whom you want to quickly distance yourself. According to a new study from researchers at Baylor University, people with psychopathic tendencies are less likely to be “affected by contagious yawning”. Yes. You know how when someone yawns and then you yawn back? It’s contagious. Except, the act itself is apparently based in empathy (which the psychopath does not have). The researcher cautions us to NOT presume that “if you yawn and someone else doesn’t, the other person is a psychopath”.

Another way to tell if someone is suicidal

In 2012, we wrote up a study that seemed strange to us on being able to simply look at someone’s face and determine if they were suicidal. Here’s another one where they look at blood tests to assess changes in genes that appear to indicate suicidal thoughts. According to a press release, a questionnaire and blood test together predicted with 92% accuracy which of 108 men receiving psychiatric treatment would develop suicidal feelings over the next year. That is pretty accurate.

Fool people into thinking you are younger than you really are (online anyway)

We’ve all heard the saying “no one knows you’re a dog on the internet”—although, we told you back in 2012 that common wisdom really isn’t true. But this is a way to fool people online into thinking you are younger than your real age. LOL is often used as internet shorthand for “laughing out loud”. By old people anyway. Researchers analyzed Facebook posts for how people expressed laughter and as it turned out, LOL is used by old folks. If you want to be seen as young and tuned in—remove LOL from use and write “haha” or “hehe” instead. Read the researchers blog post here.

Strangers in your mirror and Donald Trump in your refrigerator?

Here are two odd things. One, if you ever see a stranger (who closely resembles you) in your mirror—there’s a name for that: Capgras syndrome for ones own mirror image. A recent publication highlights a case study of a man who came to believe the reflection in the mirror was someone else who lived behind the mirror glass (because he talked to the stranger and the man knew an awful lot about him). And if that isn’t weird enough for you—did you hear about the woman who saw Donald Trump in her refrigerator? Apparently it was pretty shocking for her when she opened a new tub of spreadable butter and saw Donald Trump’s face on her butter. Researchers call this “pareidolia”—it’s when we see familiar patterns that really do not exist or when we see faces in random patterns. They say it’s like the people who see Jesus or the Virgin Mary in their food. Somehow we think the Donald would like joining this small but highly regarded group.

Caputo, G. (2015). Dissociation and hallucinations in dyads engaged through interpersonal gazing Psychiatry Research, 228 (3), 659-663 DOI: 10.1016/j.psychres.2015.04.050

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beer goggles and coffeeWe write blog posts about so many different topics that you would be surprised how much ends up on the metaphorical cutting room floor. Here are a few more that didn’t make the cut but with whom we thought you might want to have a passing familiarity.

How is coffee good for you? Let us list the ways…

We’ve written about coffee so much here that Doug has accused me of pandering to the coffee industry. This time, however, we are showing you an infographic with a must-see summary of how coffee “really affects your health”. Sure it’s written by someone who appears to be in the coffee industry but we’re sure it’s all true! Did we say “must see”?

Want more life satisfaction? 

We’ve just found a secret to how you can make that happen. Researchers think life satisfaction is really largely about how much you are able to achieve your goals and “assert your will” on circumstances. They call this “primary control”. New research tells us that “secondary control” may be an avenue for life satisfaction as well. You might think of secondary control as adjusting yourself to accommodate your circumstances. And the researchers (cited at the end of this post) say adapting and accommodating can enhance your life satisfaction!

It’s 2015. Do women and men agree on workplace equity for gender?

No.

If you need more than that concise—yet accurate— answer, here’s a Gallup poll from less than two weeks ago. Gallup says nothing has really changed since 2013. Women remain twice as likely as men to feel overlooked for promotion and 17% of women feel they’ve been denied a raise at work due to gender while only 4% of men feel the same way. So. No. Okay? (This might be a good time to refill that coffee cup since coffee is so good for you.)

Do beer goggles really exist?

These researchers took their research to the “real world” of pubs in the United Kingdom. They chose three different pubs and walked in between 5pm and 11pm and recruited volunteers. Altogether, they recruited 311 pub customers and performed breathalyzer tests to determine blood alcohol level. Then they asked them to rate the attractiveness of various photographs of people. They found no relationship at all between alcohol use and how attractive the participants found the photographed faces. It’s good to see this sort of naturalistic research being done. Of course, others are doing this too. Did you hear about the social psychologists who wanted to measure male testosterone levels? Naturally, you may think, they went to a “adult social club”. The researchers do not name the club but they do say it is also referred to as a “swingers club” or a “sex club”—and they describe it as 18,000 square feet so if you want to do your own naturalistic research, it shouldn’t be hard to find.

Helzer, E., & Jayawickreme, E. (2015). Control and the “Good Life”: Primary and Secondary Control as Distinct Indicators of Well-Being Social Psychological and Personality Science, 6 (6), 653-660 DOI: 10.1177/1948550615576210

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random little tidbits 0610Every once in a while we find tidbits that we don’t wish to devote an entire post to but that we think worth sharing. Think of these as party trivia or sound bytes to help you seem intriguing and perhaps more well-read.

The importance of moving:

You’ve seen that infographic on how sitting is killing us all? New research says there are simple ways to counteract that deadly habit. To make it even better—it’s free and something everyone can do. Move. The research itself focuses on walking and you may prefer running, rowing, biking, yoga, or some other activity that suits your fitness and ability level. The formula is simple: Two minutes of walking offsets health harms of an hour sitting. Just standing alone doesn’t do it. You have to move.

You are unique. Your parents are the ones who are so predictable:

Privacy on the internet is really not a thing. But a couple of websites purporting to be able to guess your age (here and here) could make you think you are embarrassingly predictable. They ask for your given name and then tell you how old you are—it’s mortifying. But. We are here to support you. You, yourself are a truly unique and spontaneous creature. Your parents, though? Totally predictable. There are other websites that will (given your responses to a few questions) guess your educational level, your gender (this one pegged me incorrectly), and pretty much anything else you plug into an internet search (e.g., guess my __________). It’s all based on statistical algorithms but still often a bit unnerving.

Online harassment in the form of menacing behavior:

There is an online debate as to whether online harassment truly exists. Of course it exists. According to a new survey from the Pew Research Center, up to 40% of adult internet users have experienced some form of harassment online (mostly involving name-calling or attempts to embarrass someone). Pew offers a nicely designed graphic looking at how men and women experience differing varieties of online harassment. Women are more distressed than men by online harassment. This is a good data-based evidence of the existence of online harassment. Although, one might consider that the person who says online harassment does not exist is likely not worthy of the effort expended to educate.

online harassment

Is it worth your time to publish in academic journals?

It may seem an odd question given the imperative of publication in peer-reviewed journals if you want to achieve tenure at nearly all universities. The answer to the question appears to be “it depends on whether your goal is sharing the knowledge”. Recently, an opinion column on this issue saying only about 10 people ever actually read papers in academic journals. And just last year, a more comprehensive paper argued that sometimes only the editor(s) and the actual author(s) of the paper actually read articles published in academic journals. That’s a pretty sad (and lonely) number of people who are not racing to the library to read your hard work. We know a place (The Jury Expert) that does a whole lot better than that at seeing your hard work to print and getting it read. You might want to think about doing two versions of your work: one for tenure and one for people to actually read and learn from your efforts.

Banish the ear worm!

Finally! In January of 2013 we wrote about some ways to get rid of an ear worm (that thing that happens when a song gets stuck in your head). The recommendations for removing the pesky ear worm just didn’t seem that credible but it was the findings from the research study so we went ahead with it. Now, science marches on and finally, two years and some months later, we have a new study saying you don’t have to not play Sudoku or take on mentally challenging tasks. Instead of depriving yourself, buy some gum and chew it. As the abstract explains so very clearly: “The data support a link between articulatory motor programming and the appearance in consciousness of both voluntary and unwanted musical recollections.”. (All that means is you now have a research-backed reason for chewing gum: It helps remove ear worms.)

Beaman, C., Powell, K., & Rapley, E. (2015). Want to block earworms from conscious awareness? B(u)y gum! The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 68 (6), 1049-1057 DOI: 10.1080/17470218.2015.1034142

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