Psychologist’s research supports gay marriage decision

When a panel of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down gay marriage bans in Wisconsin and Indiana this week, the justices cited work by UC Davis professor of psychology Gregory Herek.

In the 40-page opinion, Judge Richard A. Posner wrote, “…there is little doubt that sexual orientation, the ground of the discrimination, is an immutable (and probably an innate, in the sense of in-born) characteristic rather than a choice.” Posner cited a paper published by Herek and colleagues in 2010, which found that 95 percent of gay men and 84 percent of lesbians perceived they had little or no choice about their sexual orientation.

How brain structures grow as memory develops

Our ability to store memories improves during childhood, associated with structural changes in the hippocampus and its connections with prefrontal and parietal cortices. New research from UC Davis is exploring how these brain regions develop at this crucial time. Eventually, that could give insights into disorders that typically emerge in the transition into and during adolescence and affect memory, such as schizophrenia and depression.

Located deep in the middle of the brain, the hippocampus plays a key role in forming memories. It looks something like two curving fingers branching forward from a common root. Each branch is a folded-over structure, with distinct areas in the upper and lower fold.

Obama’s BRAIN Initiative: UC Davis reaction

President Obama yesterday announced the broad outlines of a major new plan to study the human brain. The President is proposing a budget of about $110 million in 2o14 for the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies initiative, drawn from the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

UC Davis of course is a major center for brain research, with three complimentary research centers — the Center for Neuroscience, Center for Mind and Brain and MIND Institute — as well as researchers in the Departments of Psychology, Neurobiology, Physiology and Behavior, Neurology and Psychiatry.

Memorial Day special: Let There Be Light

In 1945, legendary director John Huston was assigned by the US Army to make a documentary about men returning from war with “shell shock” or “psychoneurosis” — what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder. But after the documentary, “Let There Be Light,” was completed, the Army refused to allow it to be shown and it disappeared from view. It was shown in a poor quality print in 1980, but not widely appreciated by critics.

Now the National Film Preservation Foundation has released a new, restored version of the film, available online. Scott Simmon, professor and chair of English at UC Davis and a well-known film historian, supplied notes for the NFPF site.

Routing brain traffic for maximum alertness

A new UC Davis study shows how the brain reconfigures its functional connections to take best advantage of our knowledge of situations and minimize distractions.

“In order to behave efficiently, you want to process relevant sensory information as fast as possible, but relevance is determined by your current behavioral goals,” said Joy Geng, assistant professor of psychology at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain. For example, a flashing road sign alerts us to traffic merging ahead; or a startled animal might cue you to look out for a hidden predator.

Video: Paul Ekman on compassion, deceit and facial recognition

Paul Ekman, a world-renowned behavioral neuroscientist and the inventor of the Facial Action Coding System (FACS) visited the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain last week. In this video, Clifford Saron talks to Ekman about his work on compassion and deceit, beginning with Ekman’s conversations with the Dalai Lama.

Watch the full video here.

Ekman’s work is the basis for the television series “Lie to Me,” starring Tim Roth.

An interesting nugget: At about 35 minutes, Ekman is talking about ‘sentient compassion’ for all living things, and notes that none of the Abrahamic religions have this as a moral value. The exception is Buddhism — and the same idea was put forward by Charles Darwin, before he had learned anything of Buddhism.

UC Davis expert testifies at Prop 8 trial

UC Davis psychology professor Gregory Herek is testifying today for plaintiffs seeking to overturn Proposition 8, the state ballot measure passed in 2008 that bans gay marriage in California. Herek, an internationally recognized authority on prejudice against lesbians and gay men, testified this morning that for gays and lesbians, the distinction between ‘marriage’ and a ‘domestic partnership’ was about more than just words. He also testified that research shows that gays and lesbians do not choose their sexual orientation and that they are subject to stigma.

Pride, before or after a fall

Keeping up appearances — continuing to take pride, even when your circumstances are down — might seem shallow, but it has real psychological benefits, according to this article in today’s New York Times. Recent research shows that people who look pleased with themselves are perceived by others as being more high-ranking, and that people who have a feeling of pride about a task are better motivated for other challenges.

Obama transition: expectations, pressures and pitfalls

(Contributed by Clifton Parker)

President-elect Barack Obama will inherit an agenda of staggering uncertainty as the nation struggles with a fading economy while stuck in two wars overseas.

His success, UC Davis scholars say, depends in large measure on temperament and the decisions he makes after taking office Jan. 20. Some historians compare Obama’s challenges to the grave ones facing Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt when they took the reins of White House power.

Dean Simonton, psychology professor and the author of the books “Why Presidents Succeed,” and “Greatness: Who Makes History and Why,” says a president’s personality is as critical to how they perform on behalf of the country as the situational factors involved.

Tennis and visual perception

Disputing line calls has sometimes seemed like a second sport at tennis tournaments, especially Wimbledon. Now a detailed study by UC Davis psychologist David Whitney and colleagues at the Center for Mind and Brain shows that umpires are pretty good at getting those calls right — but when they do err, they are more likely to wrongly call an “out” when the ball is in, thanks to an optical illusion.

The researchers studied tapes from 57 matches from the Wimbledon tournaments in 2007 and 2008, more than 4,000 points in all. Of those, they found 83 incorrect rulings, 70 of which were balls called “out” when they were actually in play.