Feature

More than 1,500 psychologists and students gathered at the Western Psychological Association's annual conference in Vancouver in Mayto hear presentations from experts in the fields of neurology, comparative, cognitive and other areas of psychology. Attendees considered the effects of trauma on memory, the frontal lobe'scontribution to social behavior and the significance of animal play, among other topics.

Animals at play

Birds do it-at least some of them. Bees don't, but wasps may. In fact, contrary to traditional theory, many animal species play, noted evolutionary psychologist Gordon Burghardt, PhD, in his APA Distinguished Scientist Lecture, "The Challenge of Animal Play."

"Most evolutionary psychologists discount the role of our ancient vertebrate ancestors, and they also ignore play," said Burghardt.

But research by Burghardt and other comparative psychologists is changing that. For instance, while many believe that play is limited to juveniles, in fact, many animals continue to play into adulthood, he said. And it's not just primates or household pets such as dogs and cats that play-some amphibians, reptiles, insects and invertebrates play, too.

Complex animal social play includes postures, facial expressions, vocalizations, odors, role reversal and self-handicapping. For example, some fish physically tease each other, soft-shelled turtles play with objects in their environment and wasps engage in mock fighting.

"Play behavior is not completely functional," said Burghardt. "That is, it includes elements or is directed toward stimuli that do not contribute to current survival."

The presence of play in a wide array of animals-including invertebrates such as octopus and possibly wasps and non-mammals such as the Komodo dragon, Vietnamese mossy frog and freshwater stingray-suggests that it may serve as an evolutionary pump by speeding the advance of adaptive behaviors, said Burghardt.

"It may be a more rapid way to change behavior," he said.

Burghardt also argues that behavioral play in animals has evolved into mental play in human beings, giving us creativity and imagination.

Emotion and memory

Most people have a story about where they were and what they were doing on 9/11, and are likely to say that memory is as clear as it was six years ago, said psychologist Ira E. Hyman, PhD, in his presentation "Memory for Emotional Events."

That finding fits with psychologists Roger Brown, PhD, and James Kulik, PhD's, idea of "flashbulb memory," which states that events like 9/11, the Challenger disaster and John F. Kennedy's assassination create memories that are almost photographic in their clarity and accuracy.

However, research by Hyman, published in a 2000 article in Memory (Vol. 8, No. 4, pages 209-216), has shown otherwise.

"We have found that they are no more accurate than other memories," said Hyman.

Five hours after the O.J. Simpson verdict was issued, for example, Hyman and colleagues asked 35 undergraduate students where they were when they heard about the acquittal. One week after the verdict, they asked another group of 30 undergraduates about their impressions. Hyman then brought both groups back eight weeks later to ask what they remembered. The one-week group's memories were more consistent with their previous accounts than those of the five-hours group, suggesting that the instant "picture" didn't stick. Hyman believes that over the course of the week following the verdict, but before they gave their accounts, students in the delayed group were talking about the event-in effect rehearsing and rewriting. This establishes a narrative that's easier to remember, but not quite accurate.

In fact, Hyman believes negative emotions may make people less likely to rehearse events such as sexual abuse or a car accident. After such incidents, the mind avoids making a narrative, and so the memory has fewer details to hold onto. Retrieval cues go missing and the memory is lost.

Underpinnings of social behavior

One of the most famous cases of brain damage to the orbitofrontal cortex involves Phineas Gage, the 19th century man who survived after a railroad spike lodged into his brain and left him functional but changed his personality-particularly his social behavior. In modern times, damage to this area is usually caused by serious car collisions, because as the brain shifts forward on impact it grinds up against the orbital ridges in the skull, noted psychologist Jennifer S. Beer, PhD. "If you have this damage, do you have emotions as we normally think of them?" she asked.

Beer designed a study where a group of people with damage in this region looked at a series of video clips designed to elicit emotions and reported how they felt. At the same time, researchers analyzed their facial expressions and found no differences between the two groups, she noted.

While the patients experienced appropriate emotions when focused on the task, Beer wondered whether they would keep up their performance in more realistic situations.

To test that theory, Beer used two social interaction tasks-a teasing task and an overpraising task. In the overpraising task, participants received an undeserved compliment on their task performance. People normally are embarrassed by overpraising, notes Beer, but the participants with orbitofrontal damage reacted with "modest pride." In the second part of the study, participants were instructed to tease the researchers administering the test. Those with the damaged brains engaged in inappropriate teasing by insulting with sexual language and invading personal space-a level of teasing that is not acceptable with strangers, she explained. What's more, participants with damage felt that they had done well on the task-indicating that they were unaware of their social mistakes, Beer added.

In a follow-up study, Beer's team asked participants-including control subjects, those with orbitofrontal damage and some with other types of brain damage-questions that most people wouldn't feel comfortable answering with a stranger, such as, "If you were to die tonight, who haven't you said something important to, and why?" Subjects with orbitofrontal brain damage were more likely to answer with personal and emotional information not normally shared with strangers than the two other groups. In a question session before the test, researchers determined that this group understood which questions were inappropriate and were told that they didn't have to answer anything they weren't comfortable with. However, they still disclosed inappropriately and when asked about it, were not embarrassed.

Taken together, the research suggests that people with orbitofrontal cortex damage can generate emotions, but lack insight into their behavior, concluded Beer.