Team McCallum

R&D for Lifetime of Life

How smart is your dog?

John W Pilley and Alliston K Reid decided they would like to find out how much a dog can learn, given extensive training over a long period. The dog in question was a border collie called Chaser. Pilley and Reid couldn’t find Chaser’s limit after 3 years, when the dog could remember the names of over a thousand different objects and was still learning new ones.

The 1,022 objects were toys that Chaser used, each with a different name. However, Chaser also understood verbs, so the dog could combine the correct object with what was supposed to be done with that toy.

Further, Chaser understood a few groups. For example, there were objects that collectively could be referred to as balls, while others fell into the frisbee group.

Finally, Chaser could remember, at least for a short while, that a particular toy was excluded from the group to which it apparently belonged. For example, a particular ball was not to be counted as a ball. This remembering for a short time then forgetting is displayed by children when they learn.

As noted, Pilley and Reid did not find Chaser’s limit. They simply stopped trying to find it after the 3 years was up.

The other point of interest is that these things were toys to Chaser – fun, enjoyment, a real incentive to learn, and this be the main carry over message for humans.

But the next time you talk to your dog just be aware that the dog may understand more than you think.


January 9, 2011 Posted by | Activity, Brain, Exercise, Fun, Health, Language, Learning, Nature, Psychology, Success | Leave a comment

Udiet: The Designer Diet.

2010 was stuffed with research published on the topic of weight management – how best to take weight off and how best to keep it off.

Udiet is a look at the most interesting findings from 2010, and to kick the story off, 2011 has already seen further work published on the first topic – why a diet has to be designed around you.

Medical research is full of studies that mention ‘responders’ and ‘non-responders’. A particular course of treatment should work for the general population, but in practice some respond as predicted, and some simply don’t, or worse.

Two days ago it was announced that Johnson and Johnson agreed to commercialise an invention of Dr Daniel Haber and colleagues. They have found a way to take a small blood sample and scan it for signs of a number of different cancers. The device gives results in 8 hours and also supplies information of the genetic profile of any cancer.

The device was invented over 2 years ago but Haber and team have been working to take it out of the lab setting and make it general purpose. Other teams are developing other devices with the same aim in mind.

Currently, a number of cancer treatments are on the basis of applying treatment then waiting several weeks to see if the patient is a responder. The aim of these new devices is to get the correct profile in advance, so you know what the cancer will respond to. Cancer treatment designed around you.

Yesterday, it was the turn of hepatitis-C to figure in the news. Standard treatment works for responders, but only about half of patients fall into this category. Non-responders need different treatment. Dr Matthew L Albert and Dr Stanislas Pol have found a biomarker that predicts whether a patient is a responder or not, and they are working with Rules Based Medicine Inc to bring this to the market.

2010 showed that the idea of responders and non-responders works in weight management. What works for one person, or for most, may not work for you.

Hence the Udiet – the diet designed around you. We publish the findings of 2010. Keeping in mind the concept of responders and non-responders, you apply the ones that work for you.

January 6, 2011 Posted by | Diet, Obesity, Psychology, Success, Weight management | Leave a comment

Beauty v personality.

The next time you are trying to sum up someone’s personality, first ask yourself how attractive you rate that person.

A team from the University of British Columbia has found that though people tend to rate attractive people somewhat generously, they seem to pay more attention to them and so get the overall personality more accurate than they do for people they don’t find attractive.

80 men and women were split into groups of about 8 people. Each person in a group did a round robin, spending 3 minutes with each other before rating that person’s attractiveness, and how they placed their personality in psychology’s big 5 personality framework. OCEAN stands for openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism (or need for stability).

The results were then compared against how the individuals rated themselves in terms of OCEAN.

Prof Jeremy C Biesanz and team reported in the journal Psychological Science that “Overall, people do judge a book by its cover, but a beautiful cover prompts a closer reading, leading more physically attractive people to be seen both more positively and more accurately.”

December 29, 2010 Posted by | Big 5 - OCEAN, Psychology, Success | Leave a comment

Make mine a placebo!

In double-blind trials, placebos have been found to be linked to improvements in a number of conditions, particularly those where the patient self-reports severity of the illness, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), anxiety, depression and chronic pain.

A recent US national survey of internists and rheumatologists found that 50% were routinely prescribing medication they thought produced no specific effect other than that patients believed they worked – a form of placebo.

Dr Ted J Kaptchuk and team ran a study in IBS using people who were told in advance that they would be randomly assigned to get either a placebo or no medicine at all, and they would know which group they were in from the start.  The team wanted to find out what would happen to the placebo effect if people knew what they were getting was just a placebo.

80 patients were recruited via adverts for “a novel mind-body management study of IBS”. During enrollment, they were told that they would get “placebo pills made of an inert substance, like sugar pills, that have been shown in clinical studies to produce significant improvement in IBS symptoms through mind-body self-healing processes” or no-treatment.

The study ran for 21 days. Before being randomly assigned into the two groups, everyone was told exactly the same four points. 1. The placebo effect is powerful. 2. The body can respond automatically to placebo’s, just like the trained association of Pavlov’s dogs. 3. A positive attitude helps but is not necessary. 4. Taking the pills faithfully is critical.

Start statistics on symptoms were then taken, and at this point the patient (and physician) found out whether treatment was to be no intervention or the placebo.

Check on symptoms were carried out at 11 days and 21 days, using standard clinical questionnaires.

It was found that the placebo effect worked, even though the patients knew they were on a placebo. In fact, as 59% reported significant improvement, the effect was larger than normally found for placebos, which is typically in the 30 to 40% range. And 59%  makes this placebo result comparable to the response rate for current best-treatment medicines for IBS – alosetron and tegaserod.

December 28, 2010 Posted by | IBD, Placebo, Psychology, Success | 1 Comment

Pay attention to be happy?

What’s the recipe for being happy? The media have recently reported that research shows when our minds wander we tend, on average, to be unhappy. So should we simply pay attention to improve our happiness? The same research shows the answer is most definitely not. And buried in the detail is what we should really do for more happiness.

According to Matthew A Killingsworth and Prof Daniel T Gilbert, both of Harvard University, as published in Science, “We developed a smartphone technology to sample people’s ongoing thoughts, feelings, and actions and found (i) that people are thinking about what is not happening almost as often as they are thinking about what is and (ii) found that doing so typically makes them unhappy.”

2,250 people took part. Their smart phone went off and they answered whether they were focussed, or if they weren’t, whether they were happy, neutral or sad. Plus they said what they were doing.

Just under half had minds-a-wandering when phoned. Out of 22 possible activity answers, 21 resulted in thinking of other things at least 30% of the time.

The only exception was sex. When people who were involved in sex were phoned – at least of those who actually answered the call – most were focussed on – sex.

Killingsworth and Gilbert concluded from another check they ran that mind wandering did indeed cause unhappiness, as we worked on more unhappy things than happy things. If so, it might make sense to pay attention to be happy, though the researchers recommended otherwise.

Here’s a quite different view that has been around for a while. It’s called creativity, or ‘flow‘. If you are being really inventive, really creative, having a much better time, or simply much more into the activity, what do you do when your smart phone goes off?

Perhaps you’ll just ignore it. Perhaps you’ll answer, and say you were really involved in what you were doing. After all, the activity that headed up this list was having sex. More people who reported having sex said their mind was on the job than for any other activity.

This research may show up something much simpler, and something much more important. Forget paying attention to scrape out a tiny little bit of extra happiness. Focus on sorting out the activities people were doing that caught their attention, and the ones where their minds wandered (to an even less happy place).

The 3 activities at the bottom the pile, where minds wandered the most, were resting, working, and using a home computer.

Out of the 22 activities surveyed, here are the top 3. Sex – exercise – having a chat.

Take your pick. It’s whatever you prefer most that will do you most good.

November 14, 2010 Posted by | Activity, Exercise, Health, Positive Psychology, Social networks, Success | Leave a comment

Kids expectation predicts grades.

Professor Lisa J Crockett and Sarah J Beal followed over 300 US students from an average age of 15 until early adulthood to see what factors predicted their educational achievement. They found that what the students’ expected to get and their occupational desires, plus their non-work extracurricular activites were the keys.

Part-time work was not associated with educational achievement, possibly because it was viewed simply as a means of making some money.

Volunteering was not a predictor either.

Destructive behaviour including substance abuse and delinquency was tied to lower educational achievement.

The particular type of social extra-curricular activity was not important.  However, the authors suggest that the teenagers’ aspirations might influence their choice of activity, in turn feeding back in to their achievement.

So what the kids expect, and participate in, counts towards what they achieve.

The research was published in Developmental Psychology.

November 3, 2010 Posted by | Learning, Psychology, Success | Leave a comment

Truth v belief v propaganda.

Two professors at the Ohio State University have carried out a study regarding the proposed mosque at the 9/11 Ground Zero site in New York that illustrates the relative merits of truth and propaganda when it comes to changing beliefs.

750 adults participated in a survey conducted between 14 Sep and 19 Sep 2010.

The core concept was a prevailing belief that Feisal Abdul Rauf, the Imam behind the proposed mosque, is a terrorist sympathiser who has refused to condemn extremist Islamic attacks on civilians.

Professors R Kelly Garrett and Erik Nisbet checked this using two services specialising in checking the truth (FactCheck and PolitiFact) and found this rumour to be false.

Then they took this information and presented it in different ways to those surveyed. Some got a bald rebuttal while others saw this accompanied by additional contextual information.

No matter what they did, only about one third of people surveyed who believed the rumour to be true actually modified their view, and only just over a quarter actually agreed the rumour was false.

Adding a photograph of the Imam with others when all were dressed in typical Arab clothes weakened the positive response.

Adding information that is true but might be objectionable to some US citizens, (that the Imam has said that the US bears some responsibility for the harm caused by its policies towards the Middle East though terrorism was never justified), meant the rebuttal had no impact. This point is of interest as balanced media sources would try to provide a report that was wider than a simple rebuttal.

The ‘propaganda’ effect also worked the other way. Adding a photo of the Imam and those around him in typical Western clothes meant the rebuttal was more likely to be effective.

So it seems that when it comes to belief, propaganda may outweigh the truth.

October 27, 2010 Posted by | Psychology, Success, United States | Leave a comment

Doctors and weight loss.

Dr Kathryn I Pollak and team studied 40 primary care physicians and 460 overweight patients over an 18 month period. The participants were told it was to record how the doctors talked about health, but in reality it was to see what was going on between the doctors’ chat and the patients’ weight.

They found that the physicians discussed weight management with their patients on about 70% of visits, spending about 15% of each visit on the topic.

At first cut the data showed that there was no difference in weight loss between those patients who received counseling and those who did not.

However, Dr Pollak found that success in weight management related to the style of communication used by the doctors. Those using motivational interviewing techniques, including collaborating and reflective listening, were successful in promoting weight loss, while those who were judging or confronting found their patients stayed the same or gained weight.

Dr Pollak found that just over a third of the physicians in the study reported having some training in behavioural counseling.

October 4, 2010 Posted by | Diet, Kathryn I Pollak, Obesity, Psychology, Success, Weight management | Leave a comment

Gender v stress.

Prof Mara Mather has found that when stressed, the brains of men and women handle recognition of emotions from another person’s face in completely opposite ways.

To process facial emotions requires activity in the basic visual processing area of the brain (the fusiform face area) and connectivity to interpretation areas. Without stress, this is the same for both men and women.

Add stress, in the form of the cold pressor test, a standard method where your hand is dipped in iced water for a significant length of time. Then look at a photo of an angry face or a fearful face and repeat the brain activity scan.

Men were found to shut down the basic visual processing area and disconnect this from the emotional interpretation areas.

Women did the opposite. They ramped up visual processing activity and increased connectivity to the interpretation areas.

According to Prof Mather “Under stress, men tend to withdraw socially while women seek emotional support.”

September 29, 2010 Posted by | Brain, Gender, Mara Mather, Psychology, Relationships, Stress, Success | Leave a comment

Kids & Tools of the Mind

Professors Claire Valloton and Catherine Ayoub have been studying kids aged 14 months to 3 years old to see how words fit into their ability to self-regulate.  This is important as lower self-regulation is linked to poorer results at school, with an impact that may be larger than IQ or socio-economic status.

They conducted detailed assessments at age 14 months, 2 years and 3 years. (Studies above this age already exist).

14 months is when the ability to self-regulate (to express feelings and emotions rather than acting them out, and to understand and act according to societal norms) starts to develop. Kids with low self-regulation have difficulty in focussing on a task, are more disruptive and are less likely to allow others to take turns.

A key finding was that boys and girls develop quite differently, with girls going steadily up from 14 months to 3 years, while boys actually dropped from 14 months to the 2 year mid-point.

While talkativeness had a minor connection to self-regulation, the major predictor was range of vocabulary – a larger number of different words in use, thus different ways of expressing the same thing.

The professors found that current vocabulary and past vocabulary taken together were predictors of self-regulation, so an early start is better.

They were also able to show that it is specifically this richer ability to express yourself that mattered, rather than general cognitive capability.

Finally, boys with a richer vocabulary would recover to reach the same level as high scoring girls.

A theory of the psychologist Lev Vygotsky is that an extended vocabulary gives more ability to use inner speech to control thoughts and behaviour. Tools of the Mind is based on this approach and attempts to accelerate kids’ success pre-school an in the earliest school days.

September 22, 2010 Posted by | Brain, Catherine Ayoub, Claire Valloton, Gender, Learning, Lev Vygotsky, Success, Tools of the Mind | Leave a comment