No, it's not the same. Photo: Ken Piorkowski / Flickr
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Study shows people prefer pain to their own thoughts – except it doesn’t

"A few bored students gave themselves an unpleasant tingle, but most preferred to sit around instead." Snappy or what?

Take a few dozen students, stick them alone in empty rooms and ask them to do nothing for fifteen minutes. Wait! First connect up electrodes to their ankles and give them the power to zap themselves when bored. This is what researchers in America did, in a study that’s been widely reported – because zap themselves those students did. It looks, on first glance, like proof that people would prefer anything – even pain – to boredom.

Writing in the journal Science, the authors concluded:

What is striking is that simply being alone with their own thoughts for 15 minutes was apparently so aversive that it drove many participants to self-administer an electric shock that they had earlier said they would pay to avoid."

Sounds bad, right? Students were so bored by their thoughts they decided to electrocute themselves, with a shock so painful they’d previously said they’d actually pay money (money!) not to receive it. They couldn’t even last 15 minutes with inside their own head. It makes for a bleak conclusion – except, it’s not really true. Let’s take a look at what actually happened.

The experiment had two stages. Firstly, the 42 students rated a series of external stimuli from one to nine on how pleasant they were. These ranged from gentle guitar music and a photo of a river scene to a cockroach picture and a mild electric shock. In Part 2, they were told to sit alone in a room and entertain themselves with their thoughts as best they could. They weren’t allowed to fall asleep or leave the chair, but they had the option of experiencing one of the previously-given stimuli.

Over the next 15 minutes, 18 of the 42 students gave themselves at least one shock. The psychologists from Harvard and the University of Virginia didn’t publish any data on how the electric shock – or any of the other stimuli – fared on the ‘pleasant’ scale in Part 1.

Let’s make this clear. 58 percent of the students did not press the button. And even of the ones who did, they didn’t do it often – excluding the one outlier who managed to squeeze in 190 shocks within the quarter-of-an-hour. The average number of shocks was 1.5 for men and just 1 for women.  

In addition, the intensity of the shock was pretty weak: 4 milliamperes (mA) for men and 2.3mA for women. Participants were told the shock is designed to be “unpleasant but not painful”. This chart shows from the Centre of Disease Control and Prevention gives a bit of perspective:

Lodged somewhere between a "faint tingle" and a "slight shock", you can see it's a bit of a stretch to claim painful electrocutions. And as for saying that the volunteers would pay to avoid that pain, exaggeration again. After the participants had experienced the shock, researchers asked how much of an imaginary $5 they’d spend to not receive the shock, to which most people answered about a dollar. The pain was valued at a meagre 58p.

So what does this all mean if you're locked in an empty room with just a zapper for entertainment? If we're going to extrapolate generic conclusions from a really small study, let's at least stick to the results. Chances are, you're not going to shock yourself. And if you did, once would be quite enough. Not because you're scared of your thoughts or you're unhappy in your own company, but because when you've got nothing else to do that big button screaming 'shock me' is just too tantalising to resist - and when is anyone ever in a situation like this in real life? If anything, it's a surprise so few people did actually press it. 

The whole thing might seem like a huge non-issue, but in fairness to the researchers there's a lot of interesting stuff going on here. For instance, take a look at the gender aspect: two thirds of the men shocked themselves but just a quarter of the women did – despite being subject to a weaker current. It's certainly worth further investigation. But don't be fooled by the attention-snatching headlines.

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Not just a one-quack mind: ducks are capable of abstract thought

Newborn ducklings can differentiate between objects that are the same and objects that are different, causing scientists to rethink the place of abstract thinking.

There’s a particular loftiness to abstract thought. British philosopher and leading Enlightenment thinker John Locke asserted that “brutes abstract not” – by which he meant anything which doesn’t fall under the supreme-all-mighty-greater-than-everything category of Homo sapiens was most probably unequipped to deal with the headiness and complexities of abstract thinking.

Intelligence parameters tail-ended by “bird-brained” or “Einstein” tend to place the ability to think in abstract ways at the Einstein end of the spectrum. However, in light of some recent research coming out of the University of Oxford, it seems that the cognitive abilities of our feathery counterparts have been underestimated.

In a study published in Science, led by Alex Kacelnik – a professor of behavioural psychology – a group of ducklings demonstrated the ability to think abstractly within hours of being hatched, distinguishing the concepts of “same” and “different” with success.

Young ducklings generally become accustomed to their mother’s features via a process called imprinting – a learning mechanism that helps them identify the individual traits of their mothers. Kacelnik said: “Adult female ducks look very similar to each other, so recognising one’s mother is very difficult. Ducklings see their mothers from different angles, distances, light conditions, etc, so their brains use every possible source of information to avoid errors, and abstracting some properties helps in this job.”

It’s this hypothesised abstracting of some properties that led Kacelnik to believe that there must be more going on with the ducklings beyond their imprinting of sensory inputs such as shapes, colours or sounds.

The ability to differentiate the same from the different has previously been used as means to reveal the brain’s capacity to deal with abstract properties, and has been shown in other birds and mammals, such as parrots, pigeons, bees and monkeys. For the most part, these animals were trained, given guidance on how to determine sameness and differences between objects.

What makes Kacelnik’s ducklings special then, as the research showed, was that they were given no training at all in learning the relations between objects which are the same and object which are different.

“Other animals can be trained to respond to abstract relations such as same or different, but not after a single exposure and without reinforcement,” said Kacelnik.

Along with his fellow researcher Antone Martinho III, Kacelnik hatched and domesticated mallard ducklings and then threw them straight into an experiment. The ducklings were presented pairs of objects – either identical or different in shape or colour – to see whether they could find links and relations between the pairs.

The initial pairs they were presented served as the imprinting ones; it would be the characteristics of these pairs which the ducklings would first learn. The initial pairs involved red cones and red cylinders which the ducklings were left to observe and assimilate into their minds for 25 minutes. They were then exposed to a range of different pairs of objects: red pyramid and red pyramid, red cylinder and red cube.

What Kacelnik and his research partner found was that the ducklings weren’t imprinting the individual features of the objects but the relations between them; it’s why of the 76 ducklings that were experimented with, 68 per cent tended to move towards the new pairs which were identical to the very first pairs they were exposed to.

Put simply, if they initially imprinted an identical pair of objects, they were more likely to favour a second pair of identical objects, but if they initially imprinted a pair of objects that were different, they would favour a second pair of differing objects similar to the first.

The results from the experiment seem to highlight a misunderstanding of the advanced nature of this type of conceptual thought process. As science journalist Ed Yong suggests, there could be, “different levels of abstract concepts, from simple ones that young birds can quickly learn after limited experience, to complex ones that adult birds can cope with”.

Though the research doesn’t in any way assume or point towards intelligence in ducklings to rival that of humans, it seems that the growth in scientific literature on the topic continues to refute the notions that human being as somehow superior. Kacelnik told me: “The last few decades of comparative cognition research have destroyed many claims about human uniqueness and this trend is likely to continue.”