The traditional image of a psychological study involves a bearded fellow observing and waving inkblots at someone lying on a couch or pondering the movement of rats through a maze. Look more deeply, and you can encounter the much more sinister Milgram or Stanford Prison experiments…but psychology can get a lot stranger than that.
Here are 10 psychology studies you might not have heard of…
10 Brain Hacking
Virtually every website and bank tells customers not to write down their passwords, instead recommending you keep them locked in the safety of your head. Unfortunately, this might be less secure than you would think. Using an EEG (electroencephalogram) cap, researchers were able to detect a P300 response—a large spike of brain activity that occurs when we recognize something. It sounds harmless until you consider the fact that you would recognize your phone number, credit card number, address, passwords…all kinds of personal information. By comparing these spikes in brain activity to what you were currently looking at, an unscrupulous individual could extrapolate many of the security details you would want to keep hidden.
To make things worse, other researchers have created a prototype glucose fuel cell that could sit in (and feed off) your cerebrospinal fluid, potentially powering a small computer or sensor. Implanting someone with a P300 sensor and fuel cell could let you steal personal data without the victim ever knowing they were being observed.
9 Animal Mind Control
Researchers at Harvard have developed a brain-to-brain interface that uses an EEG to read specific brainwaves from a human whenever they look at a pattern. These brainwaves can then be transmitted to a rat using focussed ultrasound. By aiming the ultrasound at a specific part of the rat’s brain, the human can force the rat’s tail to twitch. It is not that impressive as “mind control” goes, but it does demonstrate the potential of the technology. There is even talk of performing the procedure in reverse, though it doesn’t seem appealing to be piloted around by a rat.
A more invasive procedure has been tested on sharks, allowing dogfish, a small shark species, to be piloted by manipulating their sense of smell. Because sharks use scent to find both food and mates, activating the part of the brain responsible for detecting scent can pilot the shark, causing it to seek the source of the smell. Mounting a camera on a remote-controlled shark could potentially let it act as a biological drone, great for naval espionage.
8 Remote Killing
The advent of drone warfare has raised questions about the ethics of remote control missile strikes—and the effects on the psychology of an operator. Researchers at California State University, Northridge, looked at the willingness of people to (purportedly) kill ladybugs with a remote-controlled machine. Participants were told that the device would help produce dyes or biological samples and were asked to operate it. The machine was a conveyor belt that fed boxes of “ladybugs” into a grinder. In one condition, participants sat in the same room as the machine, while in another, they remotely operated it via a Skype call.
Participants who believed they were operating the machine at a greater distance were willing to “kill” more of the harmless creatures and reported fewer negative emotions—guilt, for example—after the experiment. Just to clarify, the machine didn’t actually kill any insects. But they did gain some insight into a human’s connection with a moral dilemma based on the distance from the subject.
7 Split Brain
One particularly extreme treatment for epilepsy is to sever the corpus callosum or the bridge between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Psychologist Roger Sperry conducted a series of experiments on eleven individuals that had undergone the procedure.
Human brains are cross-wired, with objects seen in our right field of vision or held in our right hand processed by the left hemisphere of the brain. Sperry set up a tachistoscope (like a wooden frame with a “focal point” suspended in the middle) that his participants would stare at. He would then present unusual objects or symbols to either the left or right visual field. He would then show the object again, either in the same or the other visual field. Participants would only recognize objects if they appeared in their original visual field.
A second experiment obscured vision entirely, relying on the participants’ hands to explore an object. He found that participants could describe objects held in their right hand (and thus processed by their left brain) using speech or writing. The same objects held in the left hand resulted only in guesses or denial that they were holding anything. Perhaps strangest of all, Sperry gave each hand an object to hold before burying them in a pile of other objects. Each hand was able to seek out the object they had held, recognizing it by touch. It was as though two separate people were in the same body.
6 Animal Narcolepsy
Narcolepsy is a disorder characterized by sleepiness and the sudden onset of muscle atonia—the paralysis of skeletal muscles that occurs during REM sleep—when in an emotional state. In effect, an individual suffering the disorder may slump to the ground and be rendered unable to move, simply from meeting someone they like.
What is less well-known is that the disorder occurs in animals as well—Stanford University even collected a colony of narcoleptic dogs to study, with the poor creatures collapsing as soon as they met each other or were presented with a treat. Despite looking like it was just researchers trying to make funny videos for YouTube, the dog colony did serve a purpose—not only were they useful for modeling the disorder, they could help explain and demonstrate narcolepsy to young sufferers.
5 False Witness
Psychologists Elizabeth Loftus and John Palmer were interested in the reliability of human memory. Their study was based on Bartlett’s schema theory, which claims that a person’s prior knowledge can affect their memory. To support their idea, they showed people films of traffic accidents, then asked them how fast they thought the cars were going. They changed the verb used in the question between each person to see what would happen. For example, they asked, “When the car ‘smashed’…” vs. “When the car ‘contacted’….”
The results showed that estimates of speed were affected by the verb used. More dramatic verbs led to higher estimated speeds. A second experiment involved showing 150 people a short film of another traffic accident, followed by one of the following question conditions: 1. How fast were the cars going when they hit each other? 2. How fast were the cars going when they smashed each other? 3. No question asked.
A week later, the participants were asked a few follow-up questions, including “Did you see any broken glass?” It turned out that participants who were initially asked the “smashed” question were significantly more likely to report the presence of broken glass, despite seeing the same video.
Psychologists supported by the Beckley Foundation dosed 20 participants with LSD on one day and a placebo—something inactive like plain table salt—on another for a point of comparison. Scans were taken of the brain activity of each participant to see the effects of LSD on the brain.
It turns out that the stereotypical “open your mind” speech may have some basis in reality. The results indicated that LSD seemed to increase the “connectedness” of the brain, with normally separate sections influencing each other. The visual cortex, in particular, seemed to be thrown into overdrive, perhaps explaining some of the hallucinations experienced by LSD users.
3 Foster Monkey
Psychologist Harry Harlow wanted to investigate the effects of social isolation in monkeys. He offered young rhesus monkeys (separated from their kin at birth) a choice of surrogate mothers—one made of metal mesh attached to a milk bottle and one made of warm, soft terry cloth. He found that the young monkeys spent more time with the cloth mother, despite the lack of milk. In fact, a monkey would only go to the wire mother when hungry.
In further experiments, he found that the infant monkeys would grow up socially stunted if they were stuck with the wire surrogate rather than having something they could cling to for comfort. Needless to say, this (along with his other work) is considered a very ethically suspect study.
2 Sleep Deprivation
There have been a large number of studies by psychologists looking at sleep deprivation. A review (Link 17) found that sleep deprivation has a severe negative effect on both working memory and attention. It also seems that younger people deal with sleep deprivation less easily.
It is often said that sleep deprivation can kill you, but it turns out that humans have an inbuilt safety measure called a “microsleep.” These consist of a few seconds of sleep (typically, the sleeper doesn’t even notice it occurred) and can help us stave off some of the damage caused by deprivation. Other animals aren’t so lucky—multiple experiments have found that dogs and puppies develop lesions in the brain and die within a matter of weeks of forced wakefulness.
1 Primate Junkies
This bizarre study in the 2000s involved putting a monkey in a stressful situation and seeing if they would choose food…or cocaine. The subjects were placed in a cage surrounded by the cages of unfamiliar monkeys. This meant they were physically safe but surrounded by aggression as the surrounding monkeys tried to establish dominance.
The monkey would then be allowed to choose between two levers, one of which they knew from experience would dispense food, the other cocaine. Monkeys that were less dominant in their own social group were more likely to choose cocaine than they normally would. Meanwhile, the more dominant animals didn’t seem as stressed and typically chose food.
Other experiments have found that monkeys can get addicted to morphine, caffeine, and more. Perhaps this primate cocaine habit isn’t as strange as it sounds—animals have been known to indulge in substance abuse in the wild. Given a chance, many animals seem to enjoy consuming fermenting fruits.