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Welcome to the statsART blog where we highlight recent research, mainly work that has been discussed in the media.
Please note that the views expressed here only represent the views of the statsART blogger.
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Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Do I look fat in this???

Lots of papers have reported a recent piece of research with headlines such as:Why women think they are fat: brain 'thinks body is two thirds bigger than it is'

This is a perfect example of journalists taking the findings of a good study and drawing conclusions about twenty squillion miles ahead of the what the study actually did and found.

The study asked participants to estimate the location of 10 different points on their hands and found that the participants overestimated these locations.

The key thing to notice is that the research only looked at the estimation of hands. The newspapers are reporting as if the study looked at the entire body, but this is not the case at all.

In fact, the logical conclusion of the study actually would be the exact opposite of the interpretation of the newspapers. The authors explain their results with reference to the homunculus. The parts of our brain that feel the sensations from the entire body and control our motor movements are not proportionately related to the parts of the body. You can see this clearly in a picture of the homunculus.

Large parts of our brain are dedicated to the hands, face and mouth. The torso and legs are represented by far smaller parts. This is why the authors claim that the hands are overestimated - because they are over represented in the brain. By this logic, the shoulders, trunk, hips and legs should be underestimated - certainly not overestimated!!! If anything - this research would predict that when a woman thinks about her body she would think that she's smaller than she really is.

Another error in the reporting - they got the name of the lead researcher wrong. This work was conducted by Matthew Longo, not Michael as the papers call him!!!

Monday, 28 June 2010

Vader - BPD or not?

In a recent blog I discussed a paper in which it was suggested that Darth Vader has Borderline Personality Disorder.

A new blog from Psychology Today argues quite convincingly that this diagnosis is wrong.

An interesting read!

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Recovering from brain injury...

There's a really interesting piece in the Guardian today about recovery from brain injury.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Book now out...

The book on face processing that I co-authored is now available to buy. You can get it from Amazon.


Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Diagnosing fictional characters...

A new paper considers whether Anakin Skywalker (Darth Vader) has borderline personality disorder. Apparently he does.

This reminds me of a slightly older paper where they consider each character living in Hundred Acre Wood and diagnose them as and when appropriate.

The full version of the Winnie the Pooh one is available for free. Unfortunately the Star Wars paper isn't.

If you know of any other papers giving diagnoses to fictional (or non-fictional) characters, please pass them on to me - great reading!!!

Monday, 14 June 2010

Genetics and autism...

There has been a lot in the press over the past few days about an amazing study showing some strong evidence for a range of genes that may be involved in autism. The paper is published in Nature, and (unusually) they have made the paper freely available here.

Although this study has found out amazing things about the genetic basis of autism, some of the press has gone a little far talking about there being a "Blood test to diagnose autism could be ready in three years" and there being gene therapy for autism.

The idea of diagnosis and treatment is perhaps going a little beyond what the study actually shows, but there is no doubt that this work has moved forward our understanding of the role of genetics in autism.

It's unlikely that we will ever find "the cause" of autism which we can then "treat", but by examining the complex interactions between genetics, environment and hormones, we might be getting closer to understanding this complex disorder.

Friday, 11 June 2010

The great chocolate debate...

Straight away I will admit that it is difficult for me to give an unbiased opinion given my ultra chocoholic tendencies. So I will just present the evidence (media and published journal papers) and let you decide for yourself...

The good: CNN reported that plain chocolate is good for the heart, milk chocolate less so and white chocolate not at all - I knew white chocolate was a fraud!!! Here is the abstract for the paper. Discovery News have done an interesting piece giving a nicely balanced view of the paper.

More good, but only for some apparently: Both Reuters and the BBC talked about a study showing that, for some people, small amounts of chocolate consumption can reduce cholesterol. The benefits did not show up for healthy people and you should only eat one square of chocolate a day - more than that reverses the good done! Here's the paper. One good thing about the paper is that it combines the results across eight trials, but there are still only 215 participants included.

The bad: Eating junk food, such a chocolate, may "highjack" your brain apparently! Nice headline sensationalism. The original study does actually have some quite compelling findings, but the research was conducted on rats. That's not to say that the same neurochemical reactions to junk food addiction wouldn't be found in humans though.

I'm off to have some chocolate now...

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Daily Mail sensationalism...

Yesterday, the Daily Mail ran a scare story on its front page suggesting that children born just one week early have special needs later in life.

So what did they actually find? First, it's important to understand what they did. They looked at children born at different weeks of gestation, looked at the frequency (%) of those who were registered for special needs and then compared this to the frequency for children born at 40 weeks.

Here are some figures taken from the paper:
- Odds ratio for children born at 40 weeks: 1 (so this is our baseline)
- Odds ratio for children born at 39 weeks: 1.09
- Odds ratio for children born at 38 weeks: 1.24
- Odds ratio for children born at 37 weeks: 1.43

Now let's look at the odds ratios for children born very premature
- Odds ratio for children born at 28-32 weeks: 3.21
- Odds ratio for children born at 24-27 weeks: 9.14

I hope it's clear that, while the paper did find an increased risk of special needs in children born one week early, this is actually quite a small increase. Yes, it is significant, but the increased risk is still very small.

This is a real example of journalists taking science and using it to scare women so that they can increase their sales, web hits and comments on their forums. There is nothing wrong with the science has been done, but the risks have really been blown out of all proportion.

So if you have your child a week early, you really shouldn't worry yourself too much. The increased risk of special needs is very small and what is included within the category of "special needs" is very broad and includes many things, not just autism, ADHD, dyslexia and deafness - the special needs that the Daily Mail chooses to emphasise.

The full scientific paper can be found here.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Brain scans as lie detectors...

Not really a piece of research, but the BBC have and interesting piece discussing the possible misuse of brain scanning for lie detection by courts, insurance companies, etc.

I wonder if the Jeremy Kyle show will be investing in an fMRI scanner?!

Children raised by lesbians...

The Telegraph have reported on a study that looks at psychological adjustment of children who have been raised by lesbian parents.

What is totally amazing about this study is that it began in 1986 and the researchers have been working with the families since they were pregnant. When testing the children aged either 10 or 17 years old, they found that the children performed better than children with heterosexual parents on a wide range of social, emotional and academic measures.

Unusually, the full academic paper is available for free and can be found here.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

The psychology of penalty taking...

In the run up to the World Cup, how about some football related research?

A study published last year looked at the eye movements of experienced footballers whilst taking penalties. Interestingly they also look at how anxious the players were feeling and found that those who are more anxious are more likely to look at the goalie rather than where they're kicking the ball.

Keep calm boys!

Friday, 4 June 2010

Research, media and hysteria...

This is a fantastic cartoon which tells the story of the highly publicised MMR research conducted by Dr Andrew Wakefield.

Not only does it clearly explain why the research was so flawed, but it also really nicely documents the reaction to the research in the media and public.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Coffee addicts...

New research appears to suggest that the pick-me-up that we get from a cup of coffee isn't real. This has been reported in lots of places including the BBC, Times and Daily Mail.

The research is presented by most as showing that coffee does nothing to wake you up, but that is not quite what the actual study found. The paper can be found here.

What is really interesting about the study is that they tested two groups of participants: a no or low consumption group and a medium to high consumption group. After being without coffee for 16 hours, they were then either given a shot of espresso or a shot without caffeine (a placebo).

They found totally different results for each group. For the medium to high consumption group, tiredness and headaches were reported after the placebo coffee and no change after the real coffee. What was really interesting was that after the real coffee, the alertness levels in the medium to high group were similar to the no/low group who had the placebo.

So - rather than suggesting that coffee does nothing, it seems that coffee very much does something for frequent coffee drinkers. It keeps you at "baseline" and you slip below this and suffer tiredness and headaches without it.

Maybe coffee doesn't really perk us up? Maybe it is more that with regular use, coffee is needed just to reach "normal" levels of alertness and attention.

This would fit well with anecdotal evidence that people really suffer when giving up coffee, but once the cold turkey is finished they have high levels of energy again without coffee assistance.

OK - now I fancy a coffee...

Funding mental health research...

Very scary statistics reported today about the funding of mental health research.

As the article points out: "Only 5% of medical research in the UK is into mental health, despite 15% of disability resulting from disease being due to mental illness."