Lady Gaga not only one misinterpreting ideal “poker face”

I recently spent a night in Atlantic City with some friends to celebrate my birthday. As far as I knew, my brain was simply trying to decide between red or black, hit or stay, keep playing or walk away. Little did I know this was only a fraction of the activity going on in my head.

Two recent studies have delved into the psychology of gambling. The results of one of the studies are in line with my casino visits. The other, however, clashes a bit with my experience. I’ll start with the study that I found to be more congruent with my opinions.

Spanish psychologist Josep Marco-Pallares paired partners to play a very simple computer gambling game. Only one participant was doing the actual wagering, while the other either (1) had money on the same outcome as the gambler, (2) had money on the opposite outcome, or (3) was a neutral observer.

As expected, the brain responses of the active gamblers were distinct for wins and losses. The researchers were interested in the partner’s brain activity, though, and in the first two scenarios those responses were as expected: in the first, it mirrored the gambler’s; in the second, it was the opposite.

However, even when the gambling partner had no stake in the outcome, the brain responses of the two were the same when the gambler lost money. In other words, the observer reacted as if he/she had lost money as well. Interestingly, this similarity of responses was not evident when the gambler won.

I have certainly noticed this behavior in the casino, even if I could only go by outward reactions as opposed to brain scans. Last weekend, my friends and I huddled around another friend who was playing blackjack. I was certainly happy when he won, and congratulated him for a good hand. But I didn’t truly feel all that happy for him. I guess I was just happy he didn’t lose.

When he lost a hand, though—which, unfortunately, happened far more frequently—my empathy was definitely authentic. In fact, at times it seemed like I was more upset than he was over a losing hand (perhaps because I’m a more conservative gambler than he is).

Later in the night we played Pai Gow poker, and the results of Marco-Pallares’ study were happening before my eyes. With just one seat open at the table, I was the only one who sat down. However, two of my friends and I pooled our money to buy some chips. When my hand won, we split the profits three ways. Likewise, we all took a financial hit when we lost. It was clear we were all experiencing the same emotions—the joys of winning and the devastation of defeat.

After about an hour of playing, our other two friends joined us at the table. They stood with the two friends who were betting with me, but they simply observed. When I revealed a weak hand, all four shook their heads in disappointment. But when I had a monster hand, only my two fellow bettors seemed to show excitement.

The second study, conducted by Wellesley College psychologist Erik Schlicht, deals with how our opponents’ facial expressions influence the way we bet in poker. Participants were pitted against a computer opponent displaying a variety of facial expressions (as represented on the screen by a photo of a human). By giving participants similar hands and making them wager the same amount, researchers were able to isolate distinct facial expressions to record their effect.

They discovered that a trustworthy face gave players the most difficulties. When facing a computer opponent with such an honest countenance, players made more mistakes and were more likely to fold (the thought being, if someone looks trustworthy and bets, that person must have a good hand). The neutral “poker face,” the researchers found, did not make much of a difference.

Although poker was at the heart of the study, the implications don’t apply to actual poker. In the study’s FAQ section written by Schlicht, he admits that this experiment doesn’t carry over to casino poker. “I purposefully ‘strip away’ many of the factors that contribute to decisions in a ‘real’ poker game,” he writes.

At the same time, he also notes that “research is important as it allows for implicit (unconscious) effects to be uncovered, whereas poker [players] who are exclusively relying on experience need to be consciously aware of effects in order [to realize they exist].” This brings up the possibility that I’m simply not always aware of why I’m betting/folding at the poker table.

Either way, both studies have implications beyond a simple wager at a casino, according to the Scientific American article. The first can help learn more about gambling addictions—recovering addicts could relapse simply by observing others play—while the study on faces could aid in our understanding of how we assess certain people/situations, not just at the poker table but in the real world.

–Andrew Kahn

PTSD in Haiti: Expert warns on post-quake mental health

With efforts in Haiti currently focusing on basic necessities and medical emergencies, the stage is set for a mental health epidemic. Lack of food, water, shelter and medical attention has left little time and effort for grieving or for psychological treatment. David Spiegel, a psychiatry professor at Stanford University, researches post-traumatic stress disorder and in a recent interview shed some light on what we should expect in the coming months in Haiti.

Half of the Haitian population will eventually show some signs of PTSD or depression, expects Spiegel, who has received brain and immuno-imaging grant funding from the Dana Foundation in the past. Witnessing deaths or severe injuries, as well as dealing with disease, hunger, dehydration and violence, are all stressors that lead to PTSD, he points out. The loss of a daily routine that included loved ones, friends, work and school, along with a lack of identification or proper burial for many quake casualties, can contribute to the onset of depression.

Symptoms of PTSD typically begin no less than a month after a trauma, Spiegel says. That means that there is still time for emotional support and organized mental health relief. The National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder lists cognitive and exposure therapy, medication, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, and counseling as some potential treatments for PTSD.  According to news reports, thousands of volunteers have shown up in Haiti on their own without clear direction or organization. Although these people have shown compassion to grieving children and adults and are doing their best to offer emotional support, they are not the mental health professionals that many Haitians currently need.

Spiegel points out that after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Virginia, trauma symptoms resolved pretty quickly because of an abundance of resources offering emotional and social support to onlookers and victims. The situation in Haiti, on the other hand, more closely resembles the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, in which a delayed response by the government increased feelings of despondency and desperation. “I expect plenty of that in Haiti,” Spiegel says, “since the government has all but evaporated.”

-Angie Marin

Can Tetris shape the brain?

While reading “How
to Forget Fear
,” a Times Online article
by Alice Fishburn and science writer Ed Yong, a study on using Tetris to control fear responses caught
my eye.

University of Oxford researcher Emily Holmes asked
people to play the block-arranging game while watching a grisly film full of
surgery and accidents. “She found that while these volunteers remembered just
as many details of the film as those who did not play Tetris, a week later they had fewer flashbacks and were less
affected emotionally by what they had seen,” the article says.

This led Holmes to hypothesize that playing the game “hogs
the brain’s processing power,” preventing the grisly images in the film from
becoming powerful memories. Yong and Fishburn write, “Tetris acts as a mental vaccine that protects against the creation
of strong fear memories and removes their emotional burden.”

Several studies
have found
that multitasking can lead to an inefficient use of brain power, but in this
case it had a positive effect and might have potential clinical applications
for people dealing with traumatic memories and phobias. This echoes the
conclusions of a recent
Cerebrum article
summarizing work
in the area, which argues that video games can have both beneficial and harmful
effects but that more research is needed to fully understand these changes.

Although we have been
covering
the potential influences of various video games on the brain for years, in a
bit of a coincidence, Tetris itself
is featured in our most recent news article, “Your Brain On . . .
line
.”

Along with more recent work, the article mentions a 1992
study in which Richard Haier of the University of California, Irvine “measured
the rate of glucose use in the cerebrum before the volunteers practiced [Tetris] and after four to eight weeks of
practice.” As scores rose, glucose use declined, indicating that the brain
became more efficient at playing the game over time.

A search for “Tetris and brain” in PubMed returned five
additional studies, two from 2009, on topics ranging from amnesia
to cortical
thickness
. The brain-research uses of the game may only be beginning.

-Johanna Goldberg

Dearth of depression treatment

If you’re feeling down and out but struggling to get through
it on your own, you’re not alone.

A large new survey has found that only half of those in the
United States with depression
are receiving any sort of treatment for the condition—many because they have
not been formally diagnosed.

For the study,
which appears in the January issue of Archives
of General Psychiatry,
researchers assessed nearly 16,000 people to study
how commonly depression occurs in the United States and what kinds of treatment
people with the disorder receive. Because the participants were carefully
selected from three large national surveys instead of from hospital records,
the survey represents a snapshot of the U.S. population as a whole, the
scientists say.

“We can talk about population estimates for the whole of the
U.S. Ours is a cross-sectional, nationally representative sample,” says lead
author Hector
González
, an assistant professor of family medicine and public health
sciences at Wayne State University in Detroit. “That’s the beauty of our
study.”

Approximately 9 percent of the participants either met the
criteria for depression or had met them sometime within the past 12 months. Of
those with depression, only half had received any treatment for the condition
and only one-fifth had received treatment that conformed to the American Psychological Association’s recommended
guidelines.

Because the survey team assessed each person independently
for depression based on data and interviews, those numbers include many people
who have not been officially diagnosed by a physician, González says. He does
not have firm numbers on how many people that might be but expects they
represent a significant proportion of the U.S. population.

If the sample is indeed representative, then the country holds
roughly 14 million untreated residents. People with untreated depression are
not only in danger of jeopardizing their jobs, personal relationships, and
general health, but many also have an increased risk of harming or killing
themselves. According to the Dana Guide to Brain
Health
, approximately 20 percent of depressed people will make a suicide
attempt and around 6 percent will ultimately succeed.

The survey also found that therapy is used to treat
depression more often than drugs. Although the study didn’t directly address
the reasons, one cause for the disparity might be that antidepressants seem to
work only for those patients with the most severe cases of depression. A study released
yesterday
in the Journal of the
American Medical Association
found that for mild to moderate cases of
depression, drug treatment was similar to treatment with a placebo pill. “Only
15 percent of people in the U.S. with depression have very severe depression,” González
says. “So 85 percent don’t respond to antidepressants better than placebo.”
This doesn’t mean that the drugs have lost favor, though, he adds; half of the
antidepressant prescriptions doctors now write are for conditions other than
depression.

The scientists also looked at whether incidence and
treatments differed among particular ethnic subgroups. While overall rates of
depression were similar to the national average among all groups, González
says, African and Mexican Americans had a notably reduced chance to receive
both any care at all and the recommended treatment.

The scientists plan to use their results and additional data
to see what kinds of treatments are most effective against depression.
“Depression is a leading cause of disability worldwide,” González says. “We
think we can help meet the health needs of Americans and others, by seeing how
well these people are supported.”

—Aalok Mehta

Video games stay on the brain?

Thinking of sneaking in a few rounds of Halo during your lunch break? You may want to reconsider—the video games we play may have long-lasting effects on how we study and work.

According to a new study in the journal Perception, different genres of video games “prime” us for certain ways of thinking. Scientists at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass., found that, after playing Unreal Tournament, a fast-action first-person shooting game, people were faster but less accurate at spatial and perception tasks. In contrast, after sitting down to Portal, which involves solving puzzles, people became more accurate but slower at the follow-up tasks.

In some ways, this is not too surprising. Scientists have long known that, over time, video games—like any form of entertainment—cause changes in the brain. As Douglas Gentile
writes in a recent Cerebrum piece
, these effects are many and can have both positive and negative influences. Fast-paced games can increase reaction times and perceptual discrimination, just as violent video games can blunt typical brain reactions to the suffering
of others.

But psychology professor Rolf Nelson, who led the study, speculates that the priming effect might have significant effects on our day-to-day work and school lives, since the changes show up after only an hour of play. Such a short chunk of time, he says, suggests that action fans may return to homework assignments with increased speed at the cost of making more mistakes; puzzle aficionados might become more methodical and accurate at work but fail to meet deadlines.

Determining whether that is actually the case will require significantly more study, of course. Video games are complex and varied and rarely have a single mode of play, while the tasks presented to research subjects don’t really reflect what goes on in the modern workplace. It’s also unclear how long the effect lasts and whether people can become “immune” to it. But such studies demonstrate the usefulness of research that parses out the exact effects of video games and other technologies on the brain. If confirmed, Nelson’s work suggests that some frantic Call of Duty action might help me meet pending afternoon deadlines—OK as long as my editor ensures an extra-sharp eye with some rounds of Tetris and Minesweeper.

-Aalok Mehta

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