Indie reports on surprising structure of artists’ brains

Artists brains are ‘structurally different’ according to The Independent, who report on a small, thought-provoking but as yet quite preliminary study.

The image used to illustrate the article (the one on the right) is described as showing “more grey and white matter in artists’ brains connected to visual imagination and fine motor control”.

This could be a bit alarming, especially if you are an artist, because that’s actually a map of a mouse brain.

Whether artists have ‘different brains’ or not, in any meaningful sense, is perhaps slightly beside the point, but you can be rest assured that they’re not so different that they will give you a sudden desire to scamper around looking for cheese.

It’s your own time you’re wasting

CC Licensed photo by Flickr user alamosbasement. Click for source.British teachers have voted to receive training in neuroscience ‘to improve classroom practice’ according to a report in the Times Educational Supplement and the debate sounded like a full-on serial head-desker.

The idea of asking for neuroscience training at all sounds a little curious but the intro seemed like it could be quite reasonable:

Members of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) at the union’s annual conference narrowly voted for a motion calling for training materials and policies on applying neuroscience to education and for further research on how technology can be used to develop better teaching.

Now, this could be just a request to be kept up-to-date with the latest educational neuroscience developments. Sounds fascinating but probably not that practically useful as neuroscience doesn’t really have much to offer your average classroom teacher.

Enter Julia Neal, a member of the council for the union’s leadership division and leading member of the head-desk working group:

“It is true that the emerging world of neuroscience presents opportunities as well as challenges for education, and it’s important that we bridge the gulf between educators, psychologists and neuroscientists.”

Neuroscience could also help teachers tailor their lessons for creative “right brain thinkers”, who tend to struggle with conventional lessons but often have more advanced entrepreneurial skills, Ms Neal said.

Entrepreneurial skills being a well known function of the ‘right brain’. It’s why Bill Gates always veers slightly to the left when he walks. So why this sudden interest in neuroscience in the classroom I wonder?

Earlier this year, the government-backed Education Endowment Foundation and the Wellcome Trust launched a £6 million scheme that will fund neuroscientific research into learning.

Kerching! But the best bit of the debate is where a neuropsychologist stands up and goes ‘well, I don’t think it’s as simple as you’re making out’:

However Joanne Fludder, a classroom teacher in Reading with a doctorate in neuropsychology, opposed the motion.

She told the conference that the field was “very complicated” and theories were “still in flux” as research was carried out.

Boo! Get her off!
 

Link to article in the Times Educational Supplement

The biases of pop psychology

I just found this great piece at Scientific American that makes a fascinating point about how pop psychology books that inform us about our biases tend not to inform us about our most important bias – the effect of making things into stories – despite the fact that they rely on it to get their message across

The piece starts by quoting economist Tyler Cowen:

“There’s the Nudge book, the Sway book, the Blink book… [they are] all about the ways in which we screw up. And there are so many ways, but what I find interesting is that none of these books identify what, to me, is the single, central, most important way we screw up, and that is, we tell ourselves too many stories, or we are too easily seduced by stories. And why don’t these books tell us that? It’s because the books themselves are all about stories. The more of these books you read, you’re learning about some of your biases, but you’re making some of your other biases essentially worse. So the books themselves are part of your cognitive bias.”

The crux of the problem, as Cowen points out, is that it’s nearly impossible to understand irrationalities without taking advantage of them. And, paradoxically, we rely on stories to understand why they can be harmful.

‘Great story!’ you might say, instantly causing a cognitive bias loop from which you might never emerge.
 

Link to ‘The Paradox of Popular Psychology’ (via @JNNP_BMJ)

Spike activity 11-04-2014

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

Things I’ve learned since being sectioned. Good piece on the appropriately named Sectioned blog.

The New York Times covers the latest in rising fads in proposed psychiatric diagnoses: sluggish cognitive tempo.

Don’t Throw Out The Baby With The Dead Salmon. Neuroskeptic discusses critiques of fMRI.

Slate has a eulogy to a man with amnesia taught us how memories become personal through scientific studies where he was known as ‘KC’ – now known to be Kent Cochrane.

Suspect in the disturbingly weird ‘selling stolen human brains on eBay’ case faces new charges, reports The Courier Journal.

The Independent reports on the recent release of new 3D maps of genes expression and pathways in the… yes, yes, you can just check the pretty pictures.

Here’s How Neuroscientists in the 1800s Studied Blood Flow in the Brain. Clever, clever study covered by The Smithsonian Magazine.

Aeon Magazine has an excellent piece on soldiers, guilt and post-deployment trauma.

‘Brain cells linked to autism’ reports the Star Tribune who should fire their headline writer.

Gizmodo has an excellent new visual illusion.

Creativity and the Brain: What We Can Learn From Jazz Musicians? asks KQED. Practice, collaborate and stay off the smack?

Coma alarm dreams

Intensive Care Medicine has published a wonderfully written and vivid account from a teenager who spent time brain injured and hallucinating in an intensive care unit.

The writer describes how he was admitted to intensive care at the age of 15 after suffering a head injury and had intense and bizarre hallucinations which are, as we know now, surprisingly common in critical care patients.

My experience of the time under sedation can be split into two. There was what I could perceive of the real world around me, and then there was my dream world.

In the real world, the most constant feature was sound. I could hear the nurses talking, understanding everything they said. They always spoke their names. They were always kind, conscious I think that I might hear them. They helped me to relax. I could hear the noises of the ward, tones of voices and alarms. The alarms made me tense. I can remember Mum talking to me a lot and Dad reading me ‘The Hobbit’, although I still can’t remember the names of all the dwarves. Mum and Dad’s voices always came from the left.

My other senses were not wholly switched off either. Things were put in my mouth: tubes, sucky things, wet watery pads and a toothbrush. Someone moved my hair about. I felt furry and silky toys placed under my fingers. My brother and sisters had brought a knitted tortoise and a horse for me. My feet were moved about and stretched, which felt really good. I remember that the rolled-up bed sheets were uncomfortable.

Other sensations were less good. The constant, repetitive shining of a bright light in my remaining eye really annoyed me – I am sure I can remember every single time.

Then there was my dreaming. I lived in the dream world nearly all the time and it went on and on. The dreams were vivid, terrifying and very disturbing. There were some good ones but unfortunately for me a lot of really bad ones. I can still remember most of them even now, more than a year since.

At the sound of an alarm, a giant monster appeared with a meat cleaver and pursued me around the sports hall. I had to protect a girl and prevent an army from crossing a river. The whole river and hall were aflame. I was burning from the heat.

In another I had to stop an alarm-driven colossal centipede from crossing a bridge. I could see the shadow of monsters looming towards me behind a curtain. I knew the monsters were there and about to consume me, but I lay transfixed, unable to move, and I remember feeling myself sweating with excruciating fear. I was then on the bridge of a nuclear submarine with maniacs trying to blow up the world, there was a huge explosion. Then it ended.

I was aboard a flying craft. I was there to stop green-coated aliens from creating human missiles. The aliens were forcing people into missile tubes. They were going to drop the human bombs from the aircraft.

Then there was a shape-shifter leopard beast chasing me and my friends. We were working in a fast-food place on a ship. It cornered us, and the Kentucky Fried Chicken sign burst into red lightning.

But I knew when something really nasty was going to happen. I could always hear the same alarm going off. It was a signal for the monsters to appear, for the centipede to attack, for bombs to be dropped, I would be sacrificed…I was very afraid. Tension would build to some hideous climax. Looking back, I suspect the pressure in my brain was causing both the nightmares and the alarm to go off.

I have made a great recovery from my injuries due in large part to the excellent care that was taken of my brain in intensive care. I have been into see the team a few times but I never stay too long. Those alarms still make me feel nervous!

As I noted in a recent article, these sorts of hallucinations were thought to be a distressing but ultimately irrelevant part of recovery but more recent studies suggests that have longer-term psychological impact that can be problematic in its own right.
 

Link to locked article ‘Coma alarm dreams on paediatric intensive care’

Circumstances of the life and brain

Neurosurgeon Henry Marsh has written a philosophical, incisive and exasperated book about brain surgery called Do No Harm.

It’s a hugely entertaining read as Marsh takes us through the practical and emotional process of operating, or not operating, on patients with neurological disorders.

He does a lot of moaning – about hospital management, computerisation, administration – sometimes quite enjoyably it must be said, but in some ways he does reflect the stereotype of the bellowing “I’ve got lives to save!” surgeon that stalks hospital corridors.

Most strikingly though, Marsh is clearly aware of his faults and he is a tough critic of himself and his decisions, often to the point of guilt. But it is through the many battles won and lost where you can see the wisdom shine through.

It is a brilliant insight, more than anything, into the decision-making involved in neurosurgery and the emotional impact these professional choices have on patients and professionals alike.

It’s interesting to compare in tone to Katrina Firlik’s neurosurgical biography Another Day in the Frontal Lobe which is equally candid about the fog of surgery but relentlessly optimistic in conclusion.

In contrast, Marsh is a man trying his best in difficult circumstances. Some of those circumstances just happen to be several centimetres deep in the brain.

The book is also wonderfully written by the way. One not to miss.
 

Link to details of book Do No Harm.

This is how stigma works

Sussex Police issue a statement about ‘Concern for missing Chichester man’, ITN News report it as ‘Police warn public over missing mental health patient’.

Sussex police:

Police are appealing for information about missing 43-year old Jason Merriman, who left The Oaklands Centre for Acute Care in Chichester on unescorted leave at 12.45pm on Friday 11 April. He was due back the same afternoon but has so far failed to return.
There are concerns for Jason’s welfare as he has mental health problems, and police advise that he is not approached by members of the public.

ITN News:

A mental health patient who has been missing from a care unit in Chichester for more than a day should not be approached by the public, police have warned.

Amazing really – (via @Sectioned_)

Is there creative accounting in behavioural economics?

The Financial Times has an excellent article on the future of behavioural economics.

Despite the fact that it is an incisive piece on a form of applied psychology that won Daniel Kahneman the Nobel Prize and has revolutionised political thinking, the FT has entitled the article ‘Behavioural economics and public policy’, to ensure it doesn’t arouse any passions which could bias your understanding of the text.

Ignore the title though, and it’s a fascinating and astutely critical piece on how the promises of behavioural economics haven’t always delivered and where it needs to go next.

So popular is the field that behavioural economics is now often misapplied as a catch-all term to refer to almost anything that’s cool in popular social science, from the storycraft of Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point (2000), to the empirical investigations of Steven Levitt, co-author of Freakonomics (2005).

Yet, as with any success story, the backlash has begun. Critics argue that the field is overhyped, trivial, unreliable, a smokescreen for bad policy, an intellectual dead-end – or possibly all of the above. Is behavioural economics doomed to reflect the limitations of its intellectual parents, psychology and economics? Or can it build on their strengths and offer a powerful set of tools for policy makers and academics alike?

It’s by economist Tim Harford who also does good things on the Twitter.
 

Link to FT article ‘Behavioural economics and public policy’.
Link to alternate copy on Tim Harford’s blog.

Does the unconscious know when you’re being lied to?

The headlines
BBC: Truth or lie – trust your instinct, says research

British Psychological Society: Our subconscious mind may detect liars

Daily Mail: Why you SHOULD go with your gut: Instinct is better at detecting lies than our conscious mind

The Story
Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have shown that we have the ability to unconsciously detect lies, even when we’re not able to explicitly say who is lying and who is telling the truth.

What they actually did
The team, led by Leanne ten Brinke of the Haas School of Business, created a set of videos using a “mock high-stakes crime scenario”. This involved asking 12 volunteers to be filmed while being interrogated about whether they had taken US$100 dollars from the testing room. Half the volunteers had been asked to take the $100, and had been told they could keep it if they persuaded the experimenter that they hadn’t. In this way the researchers generated videos of both sincere denials and people who were trying hard to deceive.

They then showed these videos to experimental participants who had to judge if the people in the videos were lying or telling the truth. As well as this measure of conscious lie detection, the participants also completed a task designed to measure their automatic feelings towards the people in the videos.

In experiment one this was a so-called Implicit Association Test which works by comparing the ease with which the participants associated the faces of the people in the videos with the words TRUTH or LIE. Experiment two was a priming test, where the faces of the people in the videos changed the speed at which people then made judgements about words they were then given related to truth-telling and deception.

The results of the study showed that people were no better than chance in their explicit judgements of who was telling the truth and who was lying, but the measurements of their other behaviours showed significant differences. Specifically, for people who were actually lying, observers were slower to associate their faces with the word TRUTH or quicker to associate it with the word LIE. The second experiment showed that after seeing someone who was actually telling the truth people made faster judgements about words related to truth-telling and slower judgements about words related to deception (and vice versa after a video of someone who was actually lying).

How plausible is this?
The result that people aren’t good at detecting lies is very well established. Even professionals, such as police officers, perform poorly when formally tested on their ability to discriminate lying from truth telling.

It’s also very plausible that the way in which you measure someone’s judgement can reveal different things. For example, people are in general notoriously bad at reasoning about risk when they are asked to give estimates verbally, but measurements of behaviour show that we are able to make very accurate estimates of risk in the right circumstances.

It fits with other results in psychological research which show that over thinking certain judgements can reduce their accuracy

Tom’s take
The researchers are trying to have it both ways. The surprise of the result rests on the fact that people don’t score well when asked to make a simple truth vs lie judgement, but their behavioural measures suggest people would be able to make this judgement if asked differently. Claiming the unconscious mind knows what the conscious mind doesn’t is going too far – it could be that the simple truth vs lie judgement isn’t sensitive enough, or is subject to some bias (participants afraid of being wrong for example).

Alternatively, it could be that the researchers’ measures of the unconscious are only sensitive to one aspect of the unconscious – and it happens to be an aspect that can distinguish lies from an honest report. How much can we infer from the unconscious mind as a whole from the behavioural measures?

When reports of this study say “trust your instincts” they ignore the fact that the participants in this study did have the opportunity to trust their instincts – they made a judgement of whether individuals were lying or not, presumably following the combination of all the instincts they had, including those that produced the unconscious measures the researchers tested. Despite this, they couldn’t guess correctly if someone was lying or not.

If the unconscious is anything it will be made up of all the automatic processes that run under the surface of our conscious minds. For any particular judgement – in this case detecting truth telling – some process may be accurate at above chance levels, but that doesn’t mean the unconscious mind as a whole knows who is lying or not.

It doesn’t even mean there is such as thing as the unconscious mind, just that there are aspects to what we think that aren’t reported by people if you ask them directly. We can’t say that people “knew” who was lying, when the evidence shows that they didn’t or couldn’t use this information to make correct judgements.

Read more
The original paper: Some evidence for unconscious lie detection”

The data and stimuli for this experiment are freely available – a wonderful example of “open science.”

A short piece I wrote about how articulating your feelings can get in the way of realising them.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Spike activity 28-03-2014

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

Can charisma and leadership be taught? Matter looks at the history of ‘charm consultants’.

Mental health stigma: where’s my cheesecake? A piece on the Brain Flapping discusses how people react when you’re depressed.

Science News has an odd story about how 1 in 68 American 8-year-olds are diagnosed with autism and this shows how diagnosis is ‘working well’. No mention of diagnostic inflation.

The inimitable Ed Yong does a fantastic TED talk on mind-controlling parasites.

The New Yorker discusses how artificial intelligence is being applied to the board game Go.

You can’t dismiss brain imaging as just an academic gimmick. A sterling defence of fMRI in The Conversation.

The BBC has an excellent piece on the legacy of the treatment of ‘shell shock’ during the First World War on mental health.

What does it mean to say that your mind and brain are ‘at rest‘? Interesting piece in The Guardian.

Digital Trends discusses a tiny implanted brain chip for brain-computer interfaces.

Why Light Inspires Ritual. Interesting anthropological piece in Nautilus.

Bomb disposal for the brain

New Statesman has an excellent profile of the wise, funny and acerbic neurosurgeon Henry Marsh.

Marsh was the subject of the fantastic 2007 documentary The English Surgeon but he’s now one year away from retirement and has clearly decided that diplomatic responses are no longer a tactical necessity.

The piece also gives a vivid insight into the working life and daily challenges of a consultant neurosurgeon.

It’s also wonderfully written. This is pure joy:

When he finally went to medical school, at the Royal Free Hospital in London, he wasn’t sure about his choice. “I thought medicine was very boring,” he says bluntly. Henry is not a man to refrain from speaking his mind. “I didn’t like doctors. I didn’t like surgeons. It all seemed a bit dumb to me.” In Do No Harm he writes of his revulsion at what much surgery generally entails: “long bloody incisions and the handling of large and slippery body parts”.

But while working as a senior house officer, he observed a neurosurgeon use an operating microscope to clip off an aneurysm – a small, balloon-like blowout on the cerebral arteries that can cause catastrophic haemorrhages. It is intensely delicate work, using microscopic instruments to manipulate blood vessels just a few millimetres in diameter. It is also, as Henry says, like bomb disposal work, in that it can go very badly wrong – with the crucial difference that it is only the patient’s life at risk, not the surgeon’s. If this or any other kind of serious neurosurgery goes right, however, the doctor is a hero. “Neurosurgery,” he smiles, “appealed to my sense of glory and self-importance.”

Marsh has just written an autobiography called Do No Harm which I’ve just started reading. I’m only part way through but it’s already gripping and wonderfully indiscreet.
 

Link to New Statesman profile of Henry Marsh.

The genes are to blame game

The media love ‘your genes are to blame’ stories despite the fact that genetics is, in most cases, just one, often small, influence on a behaviour or trait.

Here’s a few lowlights:

Glass always half-empty? Your genes may be to blame
Lazy? Your Genes May Be to Blame
Have math anxiety? Your genes may be to blame
Couch potato? Your GENES could be to blame
Are You Forgetful? Your Genes Might Be To Blame
Are your genes to blame for not being rich?
Can’t do well in exams? Your genes are mostly to blame
Are Genetics to Blame for Poor Driving?
Genes to blame for boozy night

Spoiler: your genes are not to blame.

Firstly, it’s interesting that these stories are almost always framed around difficulties or negative characteristics. Rarely do you read stories along the lines of ‘Good looking? Compassionate? Healthy? Your genes may be to blame’.

In other words, they rely on people’s interest in discounting negative characteristics about themselves to attract readers / advertising targets at the expense of biasing the sorts of scientific results that get media attention.

So here would be a a more accurate if not slightly less catchy version of all these headlines: ‘Have this specific trait or behaviour? Your genes may typically contribute a small to moderate amount to the difference between people if you are similar to the population used in the study to estimate this effect – bearing in mind the caveats about the need to independently replicate the results to be confident in the reliability of the conclusions’

Yes, it doesn’t have quite the same impact as the ‘blame your genes’ headlines but you can still illustrate it with a stock photo of a blonde girl with an exaggerated expression of frustration on her face. Not all bad news, is it editors?

It’s worth saying that these sorts of stories are almost always about traits or behaviours where genetics contributes only a partial amount to the overall outcome but this is not a feature of genetics per se, it depends on what you’re looking at.

On one end of the spectrum are highly penetrant single gene disorders like Huntingdon’s disease where if you have the gene you’ll get the disorder. On the other end are much of human behaviours and traits where there are likely many genes that contribute a varying amount indirectly to the overall difference depending on the population being studied.

No-one has yet done a study on genetic contributions to differences in the likelihood of writing ‘your genes are to blame’ stories – probably due to a fear of opening a recursive media loop from which we may never emerge.

A balanced look at brain scanning

Bioethics think tank The Hastings Center have published an excellent open-access report on ‘Interpreting Neuroimages: The Technology and its Limits’ that takes a critical but balanced look at the use of brain scans for understanding the mind.

They’ve commissioned leading cognitive neuroscientists to write chapters including Geoffrey Aguirre, Martha Farah and Helen Mayberg, as well as having a chapter by some legal folks who discuss whether neuroimaging can teach us anything about moral and legal responsibility.

The chapter by the brilliant Martha Farah is particularly good and takes a level-headed look at the critiques of fMRI and is essential reading if you want to get up to speed on what brain scans are likely to tell us about the mind and brain.

The report is all in academic writing but if you’re a dedicated neuroscience fan, it probably won’t pose too much of a problem.

 

Link to ‘Interpreting Neuroimages: The Technology and its Limits’.

Spike activity 21-03-2014

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

The thrill of cutting into a human brain says The Spectator, who have clearly never tried to operate on themselves after reading a HOWTO on the internet.

The Loom has collected some brain visualisation fly-throughs and give the low-down and what they’re about.

It turns out the Daily Mail is obsessed with brain tumours – to quite a weird extent.

Time magazine reports that after having pharmaceutical companies refuse to provide drugs for lethal injection, Texas announces it has found a new supply of execution drugs but won’t say from where.

fMRI – through the medium of song. Neurocritic finds a musical number on brain imaging.

Science News has an interesting interview on the science of unconsciousness.

Does the brain speak the truth of the self? Somatosphere with a wordy but rewarding essay.

Nature reports that the US BRAIN initiative and European Human Brain Project are to join forces. Rebel neuroscientists, striking from a hidden base…

A modern psychiatry

If you want to know how your average reasonable mainstream medical psychiatrist thinks about mental illness, Aeon magazine has a good piece that captures where many are coming from.

Now before you (yes you) Dr average reasonable mainstream medical psychiatrist, says that you don’t agree with all of it, I’m not suggesting it’s a manifesto, but it does cover a great deal of the mainstream.

We could argue a few points over some of the empirical claims, but it’s a surprisingly good snapshot in the round.

Probably the most important thing it underlines is that most psychiatrists are less obsessed with diagnosis than people who are are obsessed about the fact that psychiatrists make diagnoses.

Most psychiatrists typically don’t think that ‘every diagnosis is a disease’ and recognise the fuzziness of the boundaries – as indeed, do most medical professionals.

The article also highlights the fact that the medicalisation of emotional distress is driven as much by public demand as it is by drug company profiteering. People like pill-shaped convenience and drug companies make it their business to take advantage of this.

I would also say that the piece reflects mainstream psychiatric thinking by what it leaves out: a sufficient discussion of the psychiatric deprivation of liberty and autonomy – and its emotional impact on individuals.

Considering that this is the thing most likely to be experienced as traumatic, it is still greatly under-emphasised in internal debates and it remains conspicuous by its absence.
 

Link to ‘A Mad World’ on Aeon magazine.

Frozen nightmares

The Devil in the Room is a fantastic short film about the experience of hallucinatory sleep paralysis – a common experience that has been widely mythologised around the world.

Sleep paralysis is the experience of being unable to move during the process of waking – when you have regained consciousness but you’re brain has not re-engaged your ability to control your muscles.

The reason the experience has been widely associated with mythological creatures is because in some people it can lead to intense emotions and hallucinations.

The name ‘sleep paralysis’ is a bit confusing because this also refers to normal sleep paralysis – where your brain disengages control of your muscles during REM sleep to stop you ‘acting out’ your dreams.

The film is part of the Sleep Paralysis Project, which has much more about the experience on their website.
 

Link to ‘Devil in the Room’ on vimeo.

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