A Rush of Blood to the Brain

An article from Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry that discusses the concept of ‘moral disability’ and brain trauma in Victorian times includes a fascinating section on what was presumably thought to be the science of ‘knocking some sense into the brain’.

The piece is by medical historian Brandy Shillace who researches Victorian scientific ideas and how they affected society.

Sadly, the article is locked (quite rightly, humanities can kill if not used correctly) but this is the key section:

While eighteenth-century French philosopher François Bichat had suggested that a blow suffered to one side of the head might restore the good senses of the disordered side, Wigan’s work suggested that “where such mental derangement depends on inflammation, fever, impoverished or diseased blood, or other manifestly bodily disease,” it could be cured by actively seeking and rooting out the source, by trephining the brain or otherwise subduing the offending hemisphere… The Lancet was replete with unusual cases of brain trauma and its curious results, many that seemed to support Wigan in his assumptions about physical trauma, variously applied.

I performed a survey from 1839 to 1858 and discovered a case of brain trauma in numerous issues, eight of which were particularly revelatory of the unusual nature of the brain and its hemispheres. The 1843 account of Dr. Peter S. Evans, “Derangement of the Brain by a Sudden Shock and Its Recovery,” claims that a boy was beaten into idiocy, and then beaten out of it again (regaining his full senses after being whipped by a cart driver). One of Wigan’s cases describes a young gentleman in a “paroxysm of maniacal delirium” who shot himself sane.

Not recommended.
 

Link to locked article in Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry

Hallucinating astronauts

I’ve got a piece in The Observer about the stresses, strains and mind-bending effects of space flight.

NASA considers behavioural and psychiatric conditions to be one of the most significant risks to the integrity of astronaut functioning and there is a surprisingly long history of these difficulties adversely affecting missions.

Perhaps more seriously, hallucinations have been associated with the breakdown of crew coherence and space mission stress. In 1976, crew from the Russian Soyuz-21 mission were brought back to Earth early after they reported an acrid smell aboard the Salyut-5 space station. Concerns about a possible fluid leak meant the replacement crew boarded with breathing equipment, but no odour or technical problems were found. Subsequent reports of “interpersonal issues” and “psychological problems” in the crew led Nasa to conclude the odour was probably a hallucination. Other Russian missions were thought to be have been halted by psychological problems, but the US space programme has not been without difficulties. During the Skylab 4 mission, long hours, exhaustion and disagreements with mission control resulted in the crew switching off their radio and spending a day ignoring Nasa while watching the Earth’s surface pass by.

The piece also tackles a curious form of hallucination caused by cosmic rays and the detrimental effects of zero-gravity of brain function, as well as some curious Freudian theories from pre-space flight 1950s about the potential psychological consequences of leaving ‘Mother Earth’.

Enjoy!
 

Link to Observer article on psychological challenges of astronauts.

Spike activity 05-10-2014

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

Dropping science: neuroscientists throw down epic / excruciating rap battle on Twitter. Bring the line noise.

The New Yorker has an interesting piece on the neuroscientific legacy of the Vietnam War. In neuroscience terms, it was America’s World War One.

The latest edition of Nature NeuroPod is particularly good: psychosis, detecting animacy, network theory for brains.

Livescience covers an interesting study finding that the uncanny valley effect is affected by loneliness.

The US Government spend $300 million on BRAIN initiative projects and the news coverage is remarkably poor. Here’s the best of a bad bunch: reporting from MIT Tech Review.

Nautilus has some postcards from the edge of consciousness. On the science of sensory deprivation.

Guy breaks captcha on Silk Road 2.0 and scrapes the site for trends in the dark net drug trade.

Slate covers ‘Sluggish cognitive tempo’ – another in a long-line of vague and unhelpful psychiatric disorder-hopefuls to sell medication for.

A peculiar prevalence of p-values below p=.05 in Psych Science? Not so fast. Great piece from Daniel Lakens blog.

Most People With Addiction Simply Grow Out of It: Why Is This Widely Denied? Excellent piece in Substance.

This week in bad neuroscience reporting: beer and curry ‘heal the brain’. Next week: wanking and funfairs cure Parkinson’s disease.

A review of Susan Greenfield’s “Mind Change”

I was asked to write a review of Susan Greenfield’s new book “Mind Change” for the October edition of Literary Review magazine which has just been published.

You can read the review in the print edition and I did have the full text posted here but the good folks at the magazine have also put it online to read in full, so do check it out at the link below.

Mind Change marshals many published sources to address these claims. However, this provides little scientific insight owing to Greenfield’s difficulty with synthesising the evidence in any meaningful sense, while she also makes some glaring mistakes in her interpretation of it. Although she makes much of her use of peer-reviewed evidence, surveys done by companies for marketing campaigns are often given the same weight as scientific studies and opinions from self-appointed pundits as those of specialists.

As an end-note, what’s most interesting is that Greenfield is essentially making an argument about public health but doesn’t really have the conceptual tools to do so and consequently doesn’t seem to understand how, and how strongly, to draw real world inferences from different types of evidence.

However, in terms of Greenfield’s evolution, she is at least tackling some of the relevant evidence, but this really isn’t up to a standard that merits any of the media attention it gets.
 

Link to review of “Mind Change”.

Buggin’ Out

Sociology journal Transition has a fascinating article giving a history of the surprisingly frequent appearance of schizophrenia in rap music.

In psychiatric circles, schizophrenia is considered a serious mental illness that causes delusions, hallucinations, and social withdrawal. But in rap, schizophrenia means something else: a mode of defiance, a boast, or a threat. The term appears frequently when describing competition between rappers. In “Speak Ya Clout,” the duo Gang Starr rhymes that they are “schizophrenic with rhyme plus we’re well organized” as a way of warning that they are “stepping rugged and tough.”

Schizophrenia also enhances claims of competitive violence—in “16 on Death Row,” 2Pac famously warned that, “I’m kind of schizophrenic, I’m in this shit to win it.” Schizophrenia also helps rappers describe collective responses to racism or injustice. In the multi-artist hit “Everything,” Busta Rhymes calls for action by rapping, “Panic and schizophrenic, sylvy-Atlantic / Wrap up your face in ceramic, goddamit we controllin the planet.”…

Yet something much larger than mere sampling is at play in rap’s use of the terms schizophrenia and schizophrenic. Rap lyrics are the latest installments in a political debate that has evolved over the past century (at least) regarding the contested relationships between race, madness, violence, and civil rights… At stake is a series of existential and material questions about the causes, actions, and implications of sanity itself.

The article is locked but a pdf has made its way online.

It’s a fantastic piece that traces how schizophrenia and psychosis have become deeply politicised, racially charged concepts.

They were used to pathologise black civil rights protesters, whose demand for equal rights were considered part of a ‘protest psychosis’, and have been used in civil rights discourse to symbolise the effects of a racist society.

And this is how it seems to have ended up as a borrowed badge of pride for generations of MCs.

The piece is by psychiatrist Jonathan Metzl who also wrote the definitive history of the so-called ‘protest psychosis’ and it serves as a great introduction to an important chapter in the bitter history of race, psychiatry and psychosis.
 

Link to locked Transition article in JSTOR.
pdf of full-text.

Spike activity 26-09-2014

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

Why most scientists don’t take Susan Greenfield seriously. A serious rebuttal for some poor scientific claims over at BishopBlog.

The Guardian has a good profile of food and flavour scientist Charles Spence who specialises in sensory integration.

Couvade syndrome: some men develop signs of pregnancy when their partners are pregnant. The Conversation has a piece on a genuinely intriguing condition.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an interesting piece on Why Freud Still Haunts Us.

‘GCHQ employs more than 100 dyslexic and dyspraxic spies’ according to some covert recruiting PR slipped out as news in The Telegraph.

The New York Times has a retrospective on the life and times of Prozac.

There’s an excellent concise introduction to RDoC in Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavia that is essential reading if you’re interesting in the future of psychiatric neuroscience.

Rewriting the Rules has an interesting reflection from relationship psychologist Meg Barker on 10 years of researching open relationships and non-monogamy.

Pipe-wielding philosopher of mind Pete Mandik occasionally puts out great educational videos. This on Daniel Dennett’s ‘multiple drafts’ theory of consciousness is excellent.

Why our faith in cramming is mistaken

You may think you know your own mind, but when it comes to memory, research suggests that you don’t. If we’re trying to learn something, many of us study in ways that prevent the memories sticking. Fortunately, the same research also reveals how we can supercharge our learning.

We’ve all had to face a tough exam at least once in our lives. Whether it’s a school paper, university final or even a test at work, there’s one piece of advice we’re almost always given: make a study plan. With a plan, we can space out our preparation for the test rather than relying on one or two intense study sessions the night before to see us through.

It’s good advice. Summed up in three words: cramming doesn’t work. Unfortunately, many of us ignore this rule. At least one survey has found that 99% of students admit to cramming.

You might think that’s down to nothing more than simple disorganisation: I’ll admit it is far easier to leave things to the last minute than start preparing for a test weeks or months ahead. But studies of memory suggest there’s something else going on. In 2009, for example, Nate Kornell at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that spacing out learning was more effective than cramming for 90% of the participants who took part in one of his experiments – and yet 72% of the participants thought that cramming had been more beneficial. What is happening in the brain that we trick ourselves this way?

Studies of memory suggest that we have a worrying tendency to rely on our familiarity with study items to guide our judgements of whether we know them. The problem is that familiarity is bad at predicting whether we can recall something.

Familiar, not remembered

After six hours of looking at study material (and three cups of coffee and five chocolate bars) it’s easy to think we have it committed to memory. Every page, every important fact, evokes a comforting feeling of familiarity. The cramming has left a lingering glow of activity in our sensory and memory systems, a glow that allows our brain to swiftly tag our study notes as “something that I’ve seen before”. But being able to recognise something isn’t the same as being able to recall it.

Different parts of the brain support different kinds of memory. Recognition is strongly affected by the ease with which information passes through the sensory areas of our brain, such as the visual cortex if you are looking at notes. Recall is supported by a network of different areas of the brain, including the frontal cortex and the temporal lobe, which coordinate to recreate a memory from the clues you give it. Just because your visual cortex is fluently processing your notes after five consecutive hours of you looking at them, doesn’t mean the rest of your brain is going to be able to reconstruct the memory of them when you really need it to.

This ability to make judgements about our own minds is called metacognition. Studying it has identified other misconceptions too. For instance, many of us think that actively thinking about trying to learn something will help us remember it. Studies suggest this is not the case. Far more important is reorganising the information so that it has a structure more likely to be retained in your memory. In other words, rewrite the content of what you want to learn in a way that makes most sense to you.

Knowing about common metacognitive errors means you can help yourself by assuming that you will make them. You can then try and counteract them. So, the advice to space out our study only makes sense if we assume that people aren’t already spacing out their study sessions enough (a safe assumption, given the research findings). We need to be reminded of the benefits of spaced learning because it runs counter to our instinct to relying on a comforting feeling of familiarity when deciding how to study

Put simply, we can sometimes have a surprising amount to gain from going against our normally reliable metacognitive instinct. How much should you space out your practice? Answer: a little bit more than you really want to.

This my BBC Future article from last week. The original is here

Problems with Bargh’s definition of unconscious

iceberg_cutI have a new paper out in Frontiers in Psychology: The perspectival shift: how experiments on unconscious processing don’t justify the claims made for them. There has been ongoing consternation about the reliability of some psychology research, particularly studies which make claims about unconscious (social) priming. However, even if we assume that the empirical results are reliable, the question remains whether the claims made for the power of the unconscious make any sense. I argue that they often don’t.

Here’s something from the intro:

In this commentary I draw attention to certain limitations on the inferences which can be drawn about participant’s awareness from the experimental methods which are routine in social priming research. Specifically, I argue that (1) a widely employed definition of unconscious processing, promoted by John Bargh is incoherent (2) many experiments involve a perspectival sleight of hand taking factors identified from comparison of average group performance and inappropriately ascribing them to the reasoning of individual participants.

The problem, I claim, is that many studies on ‘unconscious processing’, follow John Bargh in defining unconscious as meaning “not reported at the time”. This means that experimenters over-diagnose unconscious influence, when the possibility remains that participants were completely conscious of the influence of the stimili, but may not be reporting them because they have forgotten, worry about sounding silly or because the importance of the stimuli is genuinely trivial compared to other factors.

It is this last point which makes up the ‘perspectival shift’ of the title. Experiments on social priming usually work by comparing some measure (e.g. walking speed or reaction time) across two groups. My argument is that the factors which make up the total behaviour for each individual will be many and various. The single factor which the experimenter is interested in may have a non-zero effect, yet can still justifiably escape report by the majority of participants. To make this point concrete: if I ask you to judge how likeable someone is on the 1 to 7 scale, your judgement will be influenced by many factors, such as if they are like you, if you are in a good mood, the content of your interaction with the person, if they really are likeable and so on. Can we really expect participants to report an effect due to something that only the experimenter sees variation in, such as whether they are holding a hot drink or a cold drink at the time of judgement? We might as well expect them to report the effect due to them growing up in Europe rather than Asia, or being born in 1988 not 1938 (both surely non-zero effects in my hypothetical experiment).

More on this argument, and what I think it means, in the paper:

Stafford, T. (2014) The perspectival shift: how experiments on unconscious processing don’t justify the claims made for them. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 1067. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01067

I originally started writing this commentary as a response to this paper by Julie Huang and John Bargh, which I believe is severely careless with the language it uses to discuss unconscious processing (and so a good example of the conceptual trouble you can get into if you start believing the hype around social priming).

Full disclosure: I am funded by the Leverhulme Trust to work on a project looking at the philosophy and psychology of implicit bias. This post is cross-posted on the project blog.

An earlier death

Journalism site The Toast has what I believe is the only first-person account of Cotard’s delusion – the belief that you’re dead – which can occur in psychosis.

The article is by writer Esmé Weijun Wang who describes her own episode of psychosis and how she came to believe, and later unbelieve, that she was dead.

It’s an incredibly evocative piece and historically, worth remembering.

Somatic details figure heavily in these recollections: what I wore, what I looked like. I told myself, through mirrors and dressing-up and Polaroids and weighing myself, You have a body. The body is alive.

But the more that I tried to remind myself of the various ways in which I did, in fact, seem to have a body that was moving, with a heart that pumped blood, the more agitated I became. Being dead butted up against the so-called evidence of being alive, and so I grew to avoid that evidence because proof was not a comfort; instead, it pointed to my insanity.

 

Link to ‘Perdition Days: On Experiencing Psychosis’

Spike activity 12-09-2014

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

New Scientist reports that sleeping brains can process and respond to words. Forward directly to boss.

“Cyranoids” – Stanley Milgram’s Creepiest Experiment. Neuroskeptic covers the science behind a little known Milgram experiment and a curiously common TV trope.

The Neurocritic reports on a case of mistakenly garnishing your dish with hallucinogenic flowers.

America’s New Bedlam. Genuinely disturbing BBC Radio Assignment documentary on mental illness in US prisons. Podcast at this mp3 link.

Science News reports on the lack of research on the science of potty training.

Well, what do you know. The Fix reports that anti-marijuana academics are being paid by makers of prescription opiates.

io9 reports on a woman with no cerebellum – one of the few known cases on congenital cerebellar agenesis.

Brain surgeon Henry Marsh, who has had a long relationship with Ukraine, writes in The Guardian of his experience of being there during the recent upheaval.

Mental health debates without the stress

If you work in mental health, you could do much worse than reading the editorial in today’s Lancet Psychiatry about unpleasant debates and how to avoid them.

Unfortunately, debates in mental health tend to get nasty quite quickly – but I’ve seen no part of the debate spectrum which has a monopoly on bigotry or a blessed surplus of consideration.

But instead of throwing up their hands in despair, the editorial team wrote some sensible guidance on bringing some respect to moving mental health forward.

The first is to assume the best of one’s opponent: that their argument proceeds not from self-interest, financial interest, or wilful ignorance, but from genuine curiosity and a desire to improve the lives of people with mental health problems. There is a view that so-called punching up to perceived figures of authority is justifiable and necessary, but punching up is still punching someone. There is always potential in the discussion of mental health issues to trigger distress, as everyone, patient or professional, has an unseen personal history and sensitivity.

Second, it is worth questioning whether one line of investigation or treatment necessarily diminishes the other. Although a holistic medical perspective on mental distress is useful, alternative types of assistance might also be of value. Such services need to be taken seriously, evaluated thoroughly, and, when appropriate, considered for public funding. Perhaps some arguments about which model of research or practice should be prioritised would be better resolved by a united campaign for better funding across the board.

Third, as Sun Tzu advised, know your enemy. Do not dismiss biological data as an irrelevant folly, nor philosophical and sociological analysis as a form of obscurantism. Take some time to consider your opponent’s intellectual discipline, and how his or her work might be criticized on its own terms. This might be a long, difficult, and tedious process, but it is what patients, and the public, deserve.

The final point is to ensure that those whose voices are not listened to enough are given the space and opportunity to be heard. Their numbers include individuals such as mental health nurses and social workers, who provide a large amount of care but who are given little time compared with psychologists and psychiatrists. Most important, the voices of patients must be “airtime” respected in all their diversity. If a new form of mental health care is to be built, all involved would do well to remember the three principles of James Madison, President of the USA and father of its constitution: compromise, compromise, compromise.

A tip of the hat to you.
 

Link to Lancet Editorial ‘Duel diagnosis’ (via @PsychiatrySHO)

Agents, social encounters and hallucinated voices

I’ve written a piece for the new PLOS Neuro Community about how the social aspects of hallucinated voices tend to be ignored and how we might go about making it more central in psychology and neuroscience.

It came about because the PLOS Neuro Community have asked authors of popular papers to write a more gentle introduction to the topic, so the piece is based on a PLOS Biology paper I wrote last year.

I’ve met a lot of people who hear hallucinated voices and I have always been struck by the number of people who feel accompanied by them, as if they were distinct and distinguishable personalities. Some experience their hallucinated entourage as hecklers or domineering bullies, some as curious and opaque narrators, others as helpful guardians, but most of the time, the voice hearer feels they share a relationship with a series of internal vocal individuals.

The piece discusses psychology and neuroscience but in the post, I also mention some work I’ve been doing with philosopher of mind Sam Wilkinson. As luck would have it, Sam just published a post about what we’re working on, on the excellent Imperfect Cognitions blog.

It looks at hallucinated voices and the representation of agency and agents. If you’re not used to these terms they can be slightly opaque but they refer to how the mind and brain represents autonomous individuals – be they human, animal, presumed or imaginary – and how that might relate to the experience of having hallucinated voices.
 

Link to A Social Visit with Hallucinated Voices.
Link to The Representation of Agents in Auditory Verbal Hallucinations.

Talk, 28 Oct 2014: The power of reason

I am giving a talk on 28th October at Off the Shelf, Sheffield’s festival of words. Here is the blurb:

Is it true that “you can’t tell anybody anything”? From pub arguments to ideology-driven party political disputes it can sometimes people have their minds all made up, that there’s no point trying to persuade anybody of anything. Popular psychology books reinforce the idea that we’re emotional, irrational creatures, but Tom Stafford argues against this bleak portrait of human irrationality. He has investigated the psychological science of persuasion by rational argument, interpreting old studies and reporting some new ones which should give hope to those with a faith in reason. Tom tells you how to most effectively change someone’s mind, when people are persuaded by evidence (and when they aren’t) and why evolution might have designed our thinking to work best in groups rather than on our own.

sleep_of_reason

Mostly I’ll be picking up on ideas I outlined in my Contributoria piece: What’s the evidence on using rational argument to change people’s minds? Tickets are £7.50/£6 (cons), the venue is the Showroom Cinema, Paternoster Row, S1 and we start at 7pm (I talk for 45 minutes then there is time for questions). Book tickets by calling the Showroom on 0114 275 7727 or go to showroomworkstation.org.uk The full festival programme is available as a PDF.

Psychoactive plants in season at Kew Gardens

The Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, or London’s Kew Gardens if you’re not from the 1800s, has a fantastic season of events on the science of psychoactive plants that starts on 20th September.

It covers everything from coffee to opium to magic mushrooms and discuss the pharmacology, public policy and ethnobotany of intoxicating plants.

There are a number of installations, exhibitions and events that you can access by paying to get into the gardens as normal, as well as some dedicated talks that require specific tickets.

The full details of the daily talks and films haven’t been announced yet but a few highlights from the published programme seem to be a talk on plant intoxicants in history and culture with the ever-interesting Mike Jay, a living display of mind-altering plants, and a talk on the neuroscience on intoxicating plants.

If you’re going to visit the gardens it’s worth taking a day for it as the tickets are a bit pricey (£15) but as the place is so huge you get good value if you’re there long enough to see plenty of it.
 

Link to details of Kew’s Intoxication season.

Implicit racism in academia

teacher-309533_640Subtle racism is prevalent in US and UK universities, according to a new paper commissioned by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education and released last week, reports The Times Higher Education.

Black professors surveyed for the paper said they were treated differently than white colleagues in the form of receiving less eye contact or requests for their opinion, that they felt excluded in meetings and experienced undermining of their work. “I have to downplay my achievements sometimes to be accepted” said one academic, explaining that colleagues that didn’t expect a black woman to be clever and articulate. Senior managers often dismiss racist incidents as conflicts of personalities or believe them to be exaggerated, found the paper.

And all this in institutions where almost all staff would say they are not just “not racist” but where many would say they were actively committed to fighting prejudice.

This seems like a clear case of the operation of implicit biases – where there is a contradiction between people’s egalitarian beliefs and their racist actions. Implicit biases are an industry in psychology, where tools such as the implicit association test (IAT) are used to measure them. The IAT is a fairly typical cognitive psychology-type study: individuals sit in front of a computer and the speed of their reactions to stimuli are measured (the stimuli are things like faces of people with different ethnicities, which is how we get out a measure of implicit prejudice).

The LFHE paper is a nice opportunity to connect this lab measure with the reality of implicit bias ‘in the wild’. In particular, along with some colleagues, I have been interested in exactly what an implicit bias, is, psychologically.

Commonly, implicit biases are described as if they are unconscious or somehow outside of the awareness of those holding them. Unfortunately, this hasn’t been shown to be the case (in fact the opposite may be true – there’s some evidence that people can predict their IAT scores fairly accurately). Worse, the very idea of being unaware of a bias is badly specified. Does ‘unaware’ mean you aren’t aware of your racist feelings? Of your racist behaviour? Of that the feelings, in this case, have produced the behaviour?

The racist behaviours reported in the paper – avoiding eye-contact, assuming that discrimination is due to personalities and not race, etc – could all work at any or all of these levels of awareness. Although the behaviours are subtle, and contradict people’s expressed, anti-racist, opinions, the white academics could still be completely aware. They could know that black academics make them feel awkward or argumentative, and know that this is due to their race. Or they could be completely unaware. They could know that they don’t trust the opinions of certain academics, for example, but not realise that race is a factor in why they feel this way.

Just because the behaviour is subtle, or the psychological phenomenon is called ‘implicit’, doesn’t mean we can be certain about what people really know about it. The real value in the notion of implicit bias is that it reminds us that prejudice can exist in how we behave, not just in what we say and believe.

Full disclosure: I am funded by the Leverhulme Trust to work on project looking at the philosophy and psychology of implicit bias . This post is cross-posted on the project blog. Run your own IAT with our open-source code: Open-IAT!

Freaky brain tongue graffiti

You wait all year for neuroscience themed graffiti and then two come along in a week. This was found on Carrera 31 in Medellín yesterday morning.

It turns out that over the years I’ve managed to collect a fair amount of brain-themed graffiti for Mind Hacks, which you can browse at your pleasure here.

And with that, I leave the booming, buzzing confusion of Medellín and head back to the sustained attention of London.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 23,473 other followers