Skepticism, Medicine and Science News

The Perception of Pain

A recent study shows that pain hurts more of the person hurting you really means it (or rather, if the person being hurt believes the person really means it). The study was led by Kurt Gray along with Daniel Wegner, and published in Psychological Science

In the study, they paired up 48 participants with a partner who could either choose to give the other an electric shock or just play a audible tone for them. In the first set-up, the subjects received a shock when their partner chose this option (and to eliminate the factor of surprise, they were told in advance which option the partner picked). In the second set-up, the subjects were given a shock when the partner chose the tone, and vice versa. The resulting data showed that the subjects rated the pain from the intentional shocks significantly higher then that of the unintentional ones. This suggests that the perception of pain is closely tied with emotion, and that the latter can influence the first.


December 21, 2008 Posted by | General Science, Medicine, Psychology | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Placebo Gene

Most people are familiar with the placebo effect, and in general terms it is the therapeutic effect of an inert/ineffective treatment. People tend to get better just because they believe they will, and placebos are therefore used in double-blind trials as a way of eliminating the placebo effect from the final results. 

It is not really surprising that the effect is as substantial as it has been shown to be. Of course, a placebo will do you no good when treating a bacterial infection for example, but for non-specific, general symptoms such as pain, they tend to do very well. The perception of pain is highly regulated in the brain, and I’m sure everybody has experienced that the amount of pain felt varies greatly according to whether you know something painful is about to happen or not. 

Even though the placebo effect is well known and widely used in clinical medicine and research, it is not thoroughly understood. In a recent article though, scientists have managed to link a specific gene to increased susceptibility to the placebo effect. The research was done by researchers at Uppsala University in Sweden, and published in the Journal of Neuroscience. The study looked at 25 patients with social anxiety disorder, and over an 8-week period they recieved a placebo that they were told would help improve their condtition (of course, neither the patients nor the doctors knew the drug was a placebo). At the end of the period, a positron emission tomography (PET) scan was done and compared with one done 8 weeks prior. 10 of the patients responded to the placebo treatment, and 8 of these varied genetically from the others. The researchers found that these 8 had two copies of a particular G-variant of the gene that codes for tryptophan hydroxylase-2, an enzyme involved in the process of synthesizing the neurotransmitter serotonin. None of the other participants had two G-copies of the gene, and Tomas Furmark, lead scientist, believe the effect of this gene may extend to other phenomena associated with the amygdala, such as depression and pain disorders. 

The sample size of the study was not, however, very impressive, and the results would have to be externally replicated before any real conclusions could be made. Also, the general consensus is that there is no single placebo effect, but a lot of different mechanisms that together make up the whole, including genetic factors. Still, a nice advance in placebo research. Full paper can be found here.

December 3, 2008 Posted by | Medicine, Neuroscience, Psychology | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Body Swapping

Scientists at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm have managed to create the illusion of “body swapping” in the lab. They were able to fool volunteers into perceiving the bodies of both mannequins and other people as their own by using CCTV cameras and physical stimulation. Pretty cool….

December 2, 2008 Posted by | Neuroscience, Psychology | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Psychics at Nursing Home in Norway – A Bad Idea

One of the larger tabloid newspapers in Norway recently ran a story about a nursing home that employed two alleged psychics to deal with some “unexplainable” phenomena being reported by the patients. The specifics were extremely vague, but one official at the nursing home described the phenomena as things unexplainably falling down, the sense of another presence in an empty room, the sense of a weight on their bodies etc. All the common ghost/daemon/spirit/poltergeist “signs” in other words.

I think bringing these psychics in to take a look at this is just a complete waste of money. What are they supposed to do about this? Let’s just entertain the notion that things are, in fact, falling down more often than is the norm at this nursing home. If so, the psychics can cleanse the house all they want and it will do absolutely jack. What they should do is bring in the janitor to tighten some screws. And if things are not falling down more often than normal, the problem really lies within the psychology of the patients. If that is the case, sure, maybe the psychics “cleansing” will appease them a little bit, but it will not be a permanent fix. A week later and they will most likely be just as nervous as they were before, and the way to help them would really be for them to talk to a psychologist/psychiatrist. 

As for the other phenomena mentioned, there are a lot of possible, real-world explanations to them. One example is the Old Hag Syndrome, otherwise known as sleep paralysis. This is a condition where you are sort of in limbo between asleep and awake, so your body will be paralysed but you are still totally conscious. People who experience this have described feeling a large weight on their chest, and the presence of someone/something malevolent in the room with them. Well gee, that sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it? Sleep paralysis have also been found to correlate with depression and even previous substance usage. And guess what, the nursing home in question currently specifically treats patients with a history of substance abuse…

This is just one possible explanation for these events, but it just shows that there is always a lot more to be gained by investigating all the possible real-world explanations before defaulting to paranormal ones. 

John Henry Fuseli – The Nightmare

November 6, 2008 Posted by | General Skepticism, Other, Psychology | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Science Quickies

New study finds that instant messaging, in fact, effectively communicates what you are feeling, and that your mood can affect the mood of the person you are chatting with. 

A survey shows that overweight women who seek medical help often end up feeling embarrassed, less than human and dismissed. This was mainly due to the dismissive attitude of health care personnel, and the difficulties with finding equipment that fit their size.

Thinking actually makes you hungry. A study using Canadian students showed that performing mental tasks increased their appetite significantly.

October 25, 2008 Posted by | General Science, Medicine, Psychology | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Christian Pastors Dismiss Mental Illness

A study showed that 32% of Christian church members who came to the church asking for help with a personal or family member’s diagnosed mental illness were told by the pastor that the person in question did not really have a mental illness, but that their problem only was a spiritual one. Now, the really scary part is that most people, when having mental problems, turn to church and ministers for help, and not psychologists. If they are then told that they do not really have a mental disorder, this could have extremely serious consequences. They could choose not to seek further help, and even stop taking previously prescribed medication. Shockingly, mental illness dismissal occurred more frequently in conservative than liberal churches. And just to make it clear, all of the subjects in this study had been previously diagnosed with extremely serious mental disorders, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Here is a list of papers discussing the link between bipolar disorder and suicide to put things in perspective.

October 18, 2008 Posted by | Psychology | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

More Wiseman

These really cool videos were created by Richard Wiseman for the release of his book Quirkology. I just love these…

More videos inside…

Continue reading

October 5, 2008 Posted by | Other, Psychology | , , | Leave a comment

Online Psychological Experiments

Richard Wiseman is a professor of psychology, and he has set up a website for his latest book Quirkology – The Curious Science of Everyday Life. On this site he links to several cool online psychological experiments that he is conducting, and anybody can take part. It doesn’t take more than a few minutes, and you can sign up to get an update on the results via mail. The experiments are:

The psychology of romance

The psychology of laughter

He also explains some simple self-experiments you can do.

October 5, 2008 Posted by | Psychology | , , | Leave a comment