Category Archives: Psychology


Is porn bad for you?

Gary Wilson of (I’m sure you can guess how I feel about that website name!) believe that it is.

The empirical evidence for this is getting there but still somewhat thin. There’s a hilarious reason for that — researchers can’t find enough men who haven’t watched porn in order to form a comparison group! However, there’s some mileage to the idea and it warrants further study.

You should see the other pics I considered using.

Wilson’s premise is one that I discussed previously in the Tugging the Human Instinct post from a while back. Actually the same reasoning can be applied to much that’s fucked up about modern life (and points to the solutions too). It goes like this:

Our culture has evolved far more quickly than our biology. We’re no longer living in the environment that we’re most suited for. Parts of our brain are wired to respond to certain things that were beneficial to our survival and replication. Our culture now rewards people (monetarily) if they can find ways to activate these areas with superstimuli, which tend to come with negative side effects. Pornography, particularly online pornography, is one such superstimulus.

To be more specific, we’re adapted for life in 100-150 strong tribes, who would occasionally come into contact with other similarly sized wandering tribes (this is where our instincts towards in-group out-group behaviour stems from, be it my sports team is better than yours, my marital art is more effective than yours, my religion is the true one, and so on). I don’t know how many tribes you’d bump into as a hunter-gatherer, but given a life expectancy of around 30 and excluding women below breeding age, you’d probably see no more than a few thousand women, and only maybe 60 or so on a regular basis.

If you go to a porn site, you can see 60 women of above-average attractiveness in a few minutes. This overloads your brain in a sense, tricking it into thinking you’re part of the hottest tribe ever!

And if you get bored of one woman, you can load another up in a second. This level of novelty is also a superstimulus. It’s this combination of availability and instant novelty that creates the dependence and the psychological issues.

There’s a little more to it that that neurologically, but that’s the gist of it. If you’re interested in learning more, check out Wilson’s TED talk, conveniently located right here:

It’s ironic that he did a TED talk, since if there’s such a thing as “Information Porn,” that site is its biggest pimp!


Is food addictive?

Last year an edition of the Journal “Addiction” was dedicated to food addiction. But whether food addiction actually exists is not an easy question to answer.

Sometimes the definition is that use of a substance or participation in an activity continues even after if has a detrimental effect on your life. So you keep taking heroin instead of eating, and that’s detrimental. Could the same be said about food? Certainly, some people are unable to control their eating to the point that it becomes detrimental, indeed self-control is so inadequate in some that they look into procedures like a tummy tuck, leaving scars on their body as evidence that food is affecting them in ways it does not to others.

Because of course, not everyone who takes drugs becomes addicted, and likewise not everyone who eats does so to consistent excess. Interaction between the substance or activity and the body – some people’s brains react differently. The brain has reward pathways which trigger a dopamine release whenever we do something that was, in our ancestral past, beneficial to out survival and replication.

Have you noticed this trend in “food porn,” where people are taking photos of their food and posting it online? Photo by SteFou

For example, because sugar was rare back then (there was no Cave Mart), and because it was contained in food that was nutritious (that is, fruit), our ancestors who gorged on sugary food when they found it did better – they got more nutrition than those who ate a couple of berries and left it at that.

But now of course, sugary food is not only plentiful, but its correlation with nutrients has diminished greatly. Yes, you can get any fruit you want, but who satisfies their sweet tooth with an apple? No one, we head for the cake and chocolate, and take the fat and other crap that goes with it.

Yet for some people, food isn’t much of a big deal. The reason for that might be variation in this desire to seek out food – when some people eat, they get a bigger dopamine release, a bigger reward response than other people, which encourages eating and keeps calories high.

This has been demonstrated in neuroimaging studies – obese people tend to show altered reward and tolerance responses to food. Though it’s not the whole story as insulin resistance and variations in other hormones also tends to be present. Furthermore, it’s hard to say if the food itself is what’s triggering the changes in reward response, because it’s hard to find people who eat junk food but aren’t also exposed to marketing messages, stress, or have dieted in the past, all of which may mess around with things.

Also, maybe “food addiction” is too broad a term. You don’t see people whose lives have been affected by their inability to stop eating vegetables, for instance. Although sugar addiction has not been demonstrated in humans, fat and salt may have some addictive potential, though there isn’t much data on that yet. And that’s not even mentioning additives and other junk that gets put in food.

So you’ve got a few issues here. First, you have inherent variation in the way people respond to food, neurologically. Then you have environmental factors that change the way people do the same. The people who have a high reward response to food are perfectly fine in certain environments, such as the proverbial active hunter-gatherer lifestyle, but put them in the modern world and things are different because of the things I mention above. Only by combining the two can you get a sensible idea of who’s at risk.

Remember, what we consider to be obviously addictive now was once up for debate a while back, including nicotine and cocaine, and now we’re discussing things like food, gambling, sex and even the internet. Maybe one day we’ll look back and say, yes, when a person has addictive potential x and their in food-abundant-marketing-heavy environment y, they have z per cent chance of displaying addiction. Or in other words, put human population x in environment y will find z per cent of people becoming addicted. Or maybe psychologists are just looking for another disease they can cure you of. 🙂

See also:

Is fast food addictive


What is synesthesia like?

Synesthesia is a condition in which people senses become entangled, such that a person might see colours when listening to music or feel a certain sensation while tasting something. It’s a really interesting phenomena, and people who have this ability often go a long time before realising it, as it is not necessarily debilitating and they just assume everyone else is the same!

It’s not an area I know much about so, I found this video by Robert Sims very interesting, and well made.

Unlucky Kasparov

Can being an expert undermine your performance?

As with bilingualism, it’s generally assumed that being an expert completely beneficial and has no downsides to performance. However we know that expertise tends to be domain specific, for example, chess grand masters can memorise chess boards far more quickly and easily that novices, but on standard cognitive tests tend to fare no better. In fact, if you arrange chess pieces to positions that would never be encountered in an actual game, again their recall is no better than chess novices, showing just how domain-specific expertise can be. But surely within a given domain, expertise can only be beneficial?

Unlucky Kasparov

Castel, McCabe, Roediger and Heitman suggest not. They gave 40 students a memory test consisting of eleven animal names and eleven body parts. The twist here was that all the animal names were also NFL team names, like dolphins, colts, seahawks and bears. After the memory test, participants were given an NFL quiz, and the group was split into two, those scoring above and below the median on this test, to give high expertise and low expertise groups in the domain of NFL knowledge.

The results on the memory test for the two groups was then compared. Indeed, the NFL experts remembered more of the animal names than the non-experts, while there was no difference between groups on the body parts test. So far so good, however, the researchers also tested for incorrect answers — NFL animal team names and body parts that were not part of the original test. The results indicated that the experts were much more likely to make incorrect guesses than the non-experts. The authors suggest that this represents memory errors, the domain-relevant information of the experts got in the way of their accurate recall of the animal names. Since there was no difference between groups in body part experience, false answers were about even between groups on that test.

Is this really the case though? Or was it that the experts consciously noticed that the animal names belonged to the NFL teams and simply reeled off as many as they could remember during recall. Perhaps it was not a case of the existing schema interfering with memory, but a recognition that they already know these names, so why bother taking the extra effort to think back and recall? Why not just reel off my schema? I wonder if the results would be the same if participants were told that they would score 1 point for a correct guess, but minus 1 point for an incorrect guess, which might increase the incentive to actually recall. In other words, maybe this effect is a conscious strategy used in situations where there’s no cost to an incorrect answer.

However, there are other studies that support the authors’ conclusions, which I haven’t read so perhaps my question has been answered before or since. Either way, it’s an interesting thought that the knowledge base acquired by experts might be detrimental in certain tasks.

Castel AD, McCabe DP, Roediger HL 3rd, & Heitman JL (2007). The dark side of expertise: domain-specific memory errors. Psychological science, 18 (1), 3-5 PMID: 17362368


Where is my mind? Is the materialistic model of reality incorrect?

My belief about the nature of reality is that the only “thing” that exists is matter. That is, there is no soul, no heaven and no hell. Effects aren’t caused without an interaction with different pieces of matter, and consciousness exists within the confines of the physical head that gives rise to it.

However, although I used to be extremely firm in this position, now I am less sure, because of one question. I don’t know how to answer this from a materialist perspective. Maybe there’s just a really simple answer that I’m missing, but I’ve spoken to many people on this and no one has given it to me. Maybe you can. So here’s the question.

Where is the cat?

“HAHAHA puny humans you will never find me. (Photo by Tambako the Jaguar

I can make a picture of a cat in my head; I can close my mind and think of it. So I’m perceiving this image of a cat.

Where is the image? Where is the cat?

I first heard this question (well, I added the cat part myself) in a lecture on the mind/body problem, and my initial answer is that the cat is simply a 1:1 correlate of certain neurological activity in the brain. That is, if you open up my head you won’t see a picture of a cat, but you’d see something that’s the equivalent of it, sort of like the dots and dashes of Morse code are not English characters, but they are equivalents of them. From a materialistic perspective, you’d theoretically be able to interpret the activity in my brain through some technology, and recreate the image of the cat that I am picturing on a screen.

In fact, we’re past theorising on this, as a famous experiment last year that was widely reported as “Mind Reading” in the media demonstrated. Here’s what they did:

1) Measured brain activity as someone watched a load of YouTube videos
2) Linked up the brain imaging data with the image on the screen, creating a sort of database whereby such-and-such brain activity relates to, say, a red object in the middle of the screen, such-and-such relates to certain shape moving to the left, and so on. I’m probably over-simplifying, but that’s the gist.
3) Get the same person to watch a new set of YouTube videos, again while in the scanner measuring brain activity.
4) Use the database created in step 2 to predict what the person was seeing in step 3.

Here’s how the reconstructions compared to the original videos:

It’s important to note that the brain may not code imagined images in the same way as those you see with your own eyes, and also that each person’s brain will likely code the image of the cat in different ways (hence the need for steps 1 and 2), but, since all of the activity of the mind is thought to have a direct neural correlate, the principle is the same.

So when I was asked “where” my mental image of the cat is, that’s why I responded in this way — the image is located in the brain – it’s just in a different format.

But really, I’m not satisfied with that answer. Because in my mind I can see (well maybe not see, but certainly perceive) the cat; not the equivalent neural ‘code’, but the actual cat. I know where the neural code is, but I don’t know where the cat is.

I can’t think how the materialistic model can explain where the cat is. Doesn’t this mean then that there’s more to reality than the purely materialistic? That the materialistic model is incomplete? What am I missing?

To use a computer analogy, the words you are reading now (hello!) are represented in a chip in a computer as a string of 0’s and 1’s. That’s like the neural code in your brain. But the actual words are represented on the screen in front of your eyes. What’s the equivalent of the screen in the case of the cat? Where is it?

I’m actually asking this to you – do you know where the cat is? Am I making a simple mistake? Please leave a comment and help me out!

Where is reality?

That’s probably enough for one day, but just to take this one step further; we know that what we see is not the world. The image we see is a mental construction of the world, and psychology has identified numerous examples of how we each see the world a little differently. An obvious example is colour-blindedness. Since the brain is constructing the world we see around us, and if we assume that the neural code and the image are different things… where is reality?


Nishimoto S, Vu AT, Naselaris T, Benjamini Y, Yu B, & Gallant JL (2011). Reconstructing visual experiences from brain activity evoked by natural movies. Current biology : CB, 21 (19), 1641-6 PMID: 21945275