Bird Songs Provide Insight into How Developing Brain Forms Accurate Memories

Sarah London, Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology

A multi-year study from the Department of Psychology demonstrated for the first time that a key protein complex in the brain is linked to the ability of young animals to learn behavioral patterns from adults. The findings, published in July in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show that a specific neural signal called mTOR regulates the ability of juvenile zebra finches to form accurate memories of songs taught to them by adult birds.

The results of the study, co-authored by Psychology professor Sarah London and postdoctoral fellow Somayeh Ahmadiantehrani, improve understanding of how early life experiences affect brain function and behavior, and provide potential new insight into neurodevelopmental disorders in human children. Disruptions related to mTOR have previously been associated with autism.

“Zebra finches hear song all day, every day, their whole lives, but there’s something special that happens in this [juvenile phase],” London said. “The zebra finch is an extreme example of how experience, in combination with some particular properties of the brain, gives rise to long-term behavioral patterns.”

Scholars Take Aim at False Positives in Research

John List, Kenneth C. Griffin Distinguished Service Professor, Department of Economics

Changing a single century-old statistical standard would dramatically improve the quality of research in many scientific fields. That’s the consensus of 72 scholars worldwide, including UChicago economist John List, in a paper published in Nature Human Behavior in August.

List and his co-authors suggest that scientists reset a statistical benchmark that has been used as a standard of evidence for claiming new discoveries since the 1920s. Known as the p-value, it measures the probability that a given study’s results are due merely to random chance. Findings that meet the current p-value threshold of 0.05 are considered in most fields to be statistically significant, and are more likely to be widely disseminated and accepted.

List said the 0.05 threshold is allowing many research findings to influence economic and political decisions even though they may not be reproducible. He and his co-authors believe lowering the p-value threshold to 0.005, or from 5% to .5%, will help shrink the number of false positives.

“You want more results that go into policy to be true results, to be replicable,” List said. “Under 0.005, more of them would be.”

Study Challenges Perception that Empathy Erodes During Medical School

Jean Decety, Irving B. Harris Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology and Psychiatry

A new study led by Jean Decety, the Irving B. Harris Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology and Psychiatry, challenges the common perception that empathy declines during medical training. Previous studies reported an erosion of empathy based on one self-reported assessment of cognitive empathy, which enables physicians to understand how their patients feel without sharing in their emotions. Affective empathy, which does involve attunement to other’s emotions, has long been thought to impede a physician’s effectiveness in diagnosing and treating patients.

In their findings published Sept. 7 in Medical Education, Decety and his colleagues Greg Norman, Assistant Professor in Psychology, and graduate student Karen Smith contend that both kinds of empathy are important in patient-physician interactions, as doctors must be able to both accurately perceive and respond to their patients’ emotional states. Based on a more nuanced series of questionnaires than previous studies, their three-year assessment of 129 medical students showed improvements in measures of both cognitive and affective empathy.

“We found that changes in empathy during medical training are not necessarily negative,” the authors wrote. “The narrative appears to be much more complicated than we initially thought and illustrates how problematic it is to rely on a single, subjective measure to evaluate a complex psychological construct.”

Communicating in a Foreign Language Takes Emotion out of Decision-Making

Boaz Keysar, Professor, Department of Psychology

If you could save the lives of five people by pushing another bystander in front of a train to his death, would you do it?

Past studies have found that people facing such a dilemma while communicating in a foreign language are far more willing to sacrifice the bystander than are people using their native tongue. In a new paper published August 14 in Psychological Science, the same researchers took a major step toward understanding why that happens. In a series of experiments, Psychology professor Boaz Keysar and colleagues in his lab analyzed whether people’s choices in the train dilemma are due to reduced aversion to breaking ingrained taboos, a heightened utilitarian sense of maximizing the greater good, or some combination of the two.

“We discovered that people using a foreign language were not any more concerned with maximizing the greater good,” said doctoral student and lead author of the paper Sayuri Hayakawa, “but, rather, were less averse to violating the taboos that can interfere with making utility-maximizing choices.” The researchers propose that using a foreign language gives people emotional distance, and that allowed them to take the more utilitarian action.