Welcome Back Everyone!

Spring Semester 2014 is here! Welcome back! This semester the Blog will be hosting the GRC projects from PSYC375 Cognitive Neuroscience. Related materials will be posted later this semester, so check back!

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Goodbye Everyone! Have A Great Break!

indexHi all, the Blog is on winter break!  Have a wonderful holiday!

Important Announcements for PSYC370 End-of-semester Logistics

Hi, everyone.

As we are beginning our last week of classes, here are a few important reminders and related announcements:

(1) Final Blog Post grades: Thanks to all of you for an interesting online discussion on the topic of consciousness. This was the last Blog Post for the semester. Your grades for this last post will be posted by Thursday 5/9.

(2) Blog Post grades: As mentioned in class, if you completed more than the required 4 Blog Posts during the semester, we will count your highest 4 grades for your final grade for the course pertaining to this assignment (a collective 10%, 2.5% for each post).

(3) Mini Course Grades: Your grades for the mini-courses will be posted by 11:50pm on Tuesday 5/7. These will be broken down by your attendance grade for the mini-course and your grade for the 500-word summary. Your mini-course grade will be worth 20% of your final course grade.

(4) Course Attendance: Your final attendance grade for the course will be posted by Monday 5/13 and it will be 5% of your final course grade.

(5) Extra Credit Participation: You are still able to participate in studies for extra credit or complete the mini-papers for extra credit. Remember, you need to have accumulated 4 credits to obtain the extra credit points. No partial credit will be given. No credit will be given in addition to the 4 points. For detailed information on extra credit please visit the course syllabus here or the course blog here. The deadline for extra credit participation/mini-paper submission is Friday, May 10 11:59pm.

(6) Extra Credit Points on Blackboard: We will post your extra credit points by sometime Tuesday 5/14, to allow enough time for researchers to update credit assignments on SONA and Yana to enter your extra credit points on the course records. I will send a separate announcement when these are posted on Blackboard, so that you can check whether they are accurate and let us know of any inconsistencies.

(7) Last Pre-class quiz Reminder: Note that the last pre-class quiz on Ch. 15 will be available until Tuesday, 5/7 @ 11:30am.

(8) Final Exam: The final exam is scheduled for Monday, May 13 1:30pm-4:00pm in our regular classroom. We will be checking IDs, as usual, a few minutes before the exam begins. You will have the entire 2.5-hour period for the exam, which will consist of 50 multiple choice questions on the last section of the course.

(9) Final Exam Study Guide & Review Slides: The Exam III Study Guide and Review slides are now posted on the blog here.

(10) Classes this Week: During this week’s classes, we will finish Ch. 14 and we will also cover Ch. 15. Note that information covered in class for these chapters is not necessarily covered in the book, so please make sure to attend these last sessions. We will also highlight some critical issues for the final exam, as we wrap up Thursday’s class. Make sure to be there!

(11) Extended Office Hours/Review Hours for Final Exam: I will hold extended office hours during which I will review information regarding the final exam, as needed, on Thursday, May 9th, 5:30pm-7:00pm in Fraser 547, so feel free to stop by with questions! If you would prefer to meet with Yana on Friday May 10 (stop day), please email her for an appointment.

If you have any questions, feel free to email me.

See you all in class,

~Dr. Chrysikou

#PSYC370: The Mind of A Psychopath (Post#5 Open for Course Credit Comments)

On the evening of July 22, 2007 in Cheshire, Connecticut, two habitual criminals chose a family of two parents and their 17- and 11-year-old daughters at random after spotting them in a shopping center parking lot. The men invaded the home of the family, putting them through an ordeal of beatings and sexual abuse for several hours until the following morning, ending in the deaths of the mother and the two daughters. The father had been beaten with a baseball bat in his sleep; the mother was raped and strangled; the 11-year-old daughter was sexually assaulted and the two girls, still alive, were strapped to their beds, when the men poured gasoline over them and their mother, spread it around the house, and set the house on fire—moments before the police arrived. Only the father managed to escape. The two suspects Steven J. Hayes, 44, and his partner, Joshua Komisarjevsky, 26, were arrested a few minutes later. In November 2010, a jury voted to impose the death penalty on Hayes, the elder suspect.  Komisarjevsky was sentenced to death  in January 2012.

How can human beings engage in such heinous crimes? Are some people inherently bad? Psychologists have used the term psychopathy to describe a constellation of certain personality traits and behaviors that appear to be associated with antisocial behavior. These traits are not unique to Western societies; for example, they have also been observed in non-Western cultures like the Yupik-speaking Inuits. Psychopaths are superficially charming and they tend to make a good first impression on others, commonly referred to as the ‘mask of sanity.’ However, they are self-centered, dishonest, and undependable; they frequently engage in behaviors that could be deemed irresponsible or dangerous without apparent motivation. They lack empathy, the ability to feel love or guilt, and they do not take responsibility for their actions, indifferent to social rules. They rarely learn from their mistakes or benefit from negative feedback, and they have difficulty inhibiting their impulses.

Due to their impulsive and, often, criminal behaviors, a significant number of psychopaths are typically incarcerated. It is estimated that between 15-35% of U.S. prisoners are psychopaths. Psychopaths tend to offend earlier in life, they are often repeated offenders, they commit more violent crimes, and they are 4-8 times more likely to commit new crimes upon release. Although typically not in the forefront of research and funding related to mental health, the costs of prosecuting and incarcerating psychopaths, combined with the consequences of their actions for others, amounts to a staggering $250 billion to $400 billion a year.

Recent research in psychology and neuroscience has allowed researchers to explore the possible biological and psychosocial circumstances associated with psychopathy, research which may shed light on the making of a psychopath, thus allowing for the prevention and treatment of psychopathy in the future. For example, recent findings involving functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) would suggest that the brains of psychopaths show underdevelopment in an area deep in the brain known as the paralimbic system (ranging from the orbital frontal cortex to the posterior cingulate cortex) that registers feelings and may be implicated in assigning emotional valence to one’s experiences. In addition, a defective amygdala might underlie their difficulty processing emotional stimuli, and—in some cases—the fact that not only are they not concerned about inflicting pain to others, but they don’t fear pain for themselves. Finally, recent research would suggest that specific genes might be responsible for such structural and functional brain alterations that may predispose someone to psychopathy, if triggered by environmentally determined risk factors (e.g., nutrition in the first 3 years of life, low IQ).

Is there a treatment for psychopathy? Some studies would suggest that psychopaths are untreatable, particularly in the context of their ability to deceive and manipulate others (i.e., a therapist) to achieve their goals and terminate treatment. Others have proposed that intensive one-on-one therapy can be beneficial for incarcerated youths, which in turn can prevent future offenses. Finally, early environmental interventions may decrease the presence of environmental triggers, despite biologically-determined predispositions for psychopathy. Nevertheless, several questions remain open: Are psychopaths suffering from a ‘disease’? What is the direction of causality with respect to research findings involving the brain? Should they be held responsible for their actions? Should they be punished? Should considerations regarding the origins of psychopathy be introduced during trials of crimes like the Connecticut murders discussed above?


Further Resources

Scientific American Mind: Inside the Mind of a Psychopath

Scientific American Mind: What “Psychopath” means

The Frontal Cortex: Psychopaths & Rational Morality

New York Times: When A Personality Disorder Wears Camouflage

The New Yorker: Suffering Souls

Time Magazine: Bad To The Bone

New York Times: The Brain on The Stand

New York Times: Brain Abnormality Linked to Pathology

Further Readings

Andreson, N. E., & Kiehl, K. A. (2012). The psychopath magnetized: Insights from brain imaging. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 16, 52-60.

Raine, A. (2008). From genes to brain to antisocial behavior. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17, 323-328.

Kiehl, K.A. (2006). A cognitive neuroscience perspective on psychopathy: Evidence for paralimbic system dysfunction. Psychiatry Research, 142, 107-128.

Caldwell, M.F., Vitacco, M., Van Rybroek, G. J. (2006). Are violent delinquents worth treating? A cost–benefit analysis. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 43, 148-168.


#PSYC370 Exam II: Pencils & Photo IDs!

Hi folks, just a couple of reminders about tomorrow’s Exam:

(1) You will be required to show valid official photo ID to take the exam. Your KU ID, an official state ID, or state driver’s license will work. You will NOT be allowed to take the exam without a valid photo ID.

(2)  You will need to have a #2 pencil to complete the exam. Remember to bring a couple with you along with an eraser!

We will begin checking IDs around 12:30 tomorrow. If you can be at Malott earlier than 1:00, please do so, so that the process can move along as fast as possible.

If you have any questions, just send me an email!

Study Guide for Exam II Now Posted!

Exhausted Student Falling Asleep While CrammingFolks, as promised, the study guide for Exam II has now been posted on the Blog. You can download it from the PSYC370 resources page here. I have also posted links to the key animations you need to revisit next to the lecture notes from each section. Note that Exam II is scheduled for next Tuesday, April 9 1:00-2:15pm. Remember to bring questions with you tomorrow for the review discussion in class. Happy studying!

#PSYC370: Seeing Without Vision (Post#4 Open for Course Credit Comments)

Blindsight is an ability to perceive and respond to visual information without conscious awareness. People with blindsight are technically blind, meaning that they are unconscious of their surroundings and they can’t tell the light from the dark. Nevertheless, these people are able to use non-conscious knowledge to make decisions about their environment and act accordingly. Blindsight brings into question the actual process of “seeing.” If humans can see without conscious awareness, then what defines vision and how important is it for us to be aware of what we are looking at?

When discussing blindness, one usually assumes retinal blindness, which results from damage to the eye. Blindness can also follow damage to the visual cortex. The visual cortex is located in the occipital lobe and is divided into the striate (V1) and extrastriate regions (V2, V3, V4, V5). Blindsight typically occurs in patients with striate damage following head trauma, stroke, or removal of tissue. When both hemispheres of the visual cortex are damaged, patients lose their ability to see in both visual fields. If the damage is limited to one hemisphere, this condition is referred to as hemianopia: inability to perceive half of the visual field contralateral to the damaged hemisphere. Although only a small number of patients with occipital cortex damage have blindsight, existence of this phenomenon indicates that not all aspects of vision depend on the visual cortex.

In order to study blindsight researchers use “forced-choice” tasks. Patients are shown shapes of different contrasts, sizes, or colors, and they have to choose between two options (Was the shape moving up or down?). In some experiments patients have to guess, point, or manipulate objects (see Ramachandran video below). Although they deny any conscious awareness of what they see on the screen, the rate of correct responses is above chance, in some cases reaching 100%. Cortically blind patients can detect flickers, movement, discriminate between shapes and colors, and they adjust their grasp to match the shape and size of an object they claim not to see. Blindsight also helps patients navigate through space. An amazing example of blindsight comes from patient TN, who has bilateral damage to his primary visual cortex (V1). TN was able to walk through a corridor full of obstacles without running into them while claiming that he could see nothing (see Scientific American video).

The phenomenon of blindsight is not, however, accepted across all investigators. Some researchers have argued that blindsight may be an artifact of testing or serve as evidence that some of the primary visual cortex is still functioning. The latter argument is countered by evidence that patients with no primary visual cortex still perform well above chance on the forced-choice tasks. Also, those patients who retain parts of their primary visual cortex show no metabolic activity in the spared region when they respond correctly in forced-choice tasks. Another problem with blindsight is how one defines awareness. It is not clear whether blind patients are truly unaware of the visual stimuli or whether they have a higher threshold for awareness. It is possible that although they may consciously be aware of seeing something, they deny awareness because it’s not what it could be. Despite the criticisms, experimental evidence continues to support that vision is not entirely dependent on the visual cortex.

Why does blindsight happen? Scientists argue that people with visual cortex damage retain connections between the retina of the eye and the superior colliculus. The superior colliculi play a role in orienting visual attention towards sudden changes in the environment. For example, you can thank your superior colliculus the next time you duck out of the way of a Frisbee before you see it. Thus, people with blindsight retain the ability to respond to attention grabbing changes. However, new research suggests that the lateral geniculate nucleus (LGN) in the thalamus plays a more crucial role in blindsight. In a recent fMRI experiment, monkeys with intact LGN were able to discriminate between high contrast stimuli and they showed activity in extrastriate cortical regions, whereas those with damaged LGN were not. Although it is still not clear whether it is the superior colliculus or the LGN that are necessary for blindsight, both represent an evolutionary older visual pathway that humans share with lizards, birds, and rodents.

Blindsight can perhaps be viewed as an example of implicit knowledge. Implicit knowledge is the non-conscious information that humans use to navigate space, communicate with others, and make decisions. Both healthy and cortically blind people show evidence of affective blindsight: they respond to emotional information without being consciously aware of it. Imaging experiments with cortically blind adults show activation in the amygdala, the part of the brain associated with emotional processing, when they are exposed to happy or fearful faces. People with normal vision also show amygdala activation to emotional information that is flashed at them below the threshold of awareness. Thus, all of us possess blindsight to a degree.

The fact that implicit knowledge affects our decisions and behavior is hardly surprising considering that healthy people process and respond to a lot of information subliminally. As Dr. Ramachandran points out in the video, we spend most of our day on autopilot, unaware of our actions. For example, as you are reading, you might be snacking, tapping your foot, or fidgeting with a pencil. Although your consciousness is engaged with the reading, your brain is able to execute the necessary motor plans for you to perform extraneous tasks.

Is blindsight a window into the nature of consciousness? How does the phenomenon of blindsight relate to other instances of cognitive or emotional processing we are not aware of? Can you think of examples? How can blindsight inform our understanding of the organization of the human brain?



The New York Times: Blind, Yet Seeing: The Brain’s Subconscious Visual Sense

Blindsight: Seeing without knowing it

Scientific American movie on Patient TN 

Ramachandran on how “blind-sight” gives us clues about the nature of consciousness

Additional Readings

Cowey, A. (2010). The blindsight saga. Experimental Brain Research, 200(1), 3-24.

Cowey, A., & Stoerig, P. (1991). The neurobiology of blindsight. Trends in neurosciences, 14(4), 140-145.

Schmid, M. C., Mrowka, S. W., Turchi, J., Saunders, R. C., Wilke, M., Peters, A. J., et al. (2010). Blindsight depends on the lateral geniculate nucleus. Nature, 466(7304), 373-377.