Psychopharmacological brain graffiti found on a car park wall in Dalston in East London.
Psychopharmacological brain graffiti found on a car park wall in Dalston in East London.
I’ve got an article in The Observer about how behavioural science is being put at the centre of military operations and how an ‘influence-led’ view of warfare is causing a rethink in how armed conflict is managed.
Techniques such as deception and propaganda have been the mainstay of warfare for thousands of years, but there is a growing belief that the modern world has changed so fundamentally that war itself needs to be refigured. Confrontations between standing armies of large nation states are becoming rare while conflicts with guerrilla or terrorist groups, barely distinguishable from the local population, are increasingly common. In other words, overwhelming firepower no longer guarantees victory…
Mackay and Tatham argue that researching what motivates people within specific groups and deploying informed, testable interventions on the ground will be central to managing modern conflict.
It also discusses how ‘information operations’ thinking has spread into the military’s work in the civilian realm.
Link to ‘How to win wars by influencing people’s behaviour’.
Neuroscape Lab, we salute your next generation of brain visualisation, that looks like something out of a sci-fi film where the director is a bit obsessed with correctly representing the anatomy of the brain.
They describe the visualisation like this:
This is an anatomically-realistic 3D brain visualization depicting real-time source-localized activity (power and “effective” connectivity) from EEG (electroencephalographic) signals. Each color represents source power and connectivity in a different frequency band (theta, alpha, beta, gamma) and the golden lines are white matter anatomical fiber tracts. Estimated information transfer between brain regions is visualized as pulses of light flowing along the fiber tracts connecting the regions.
But honestly, who cares? It’s a glowing rotating brain with golden streaks of light flowing through it.
In fact, after 25 years, science has finally scanned the brain from The Orb’s ambient techno classic ‘A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules from the Centre of the Ultraworld’.
It’s as if the rave generation stumbled out of life’s warehouse at 7am and ended up being neuroscientists.
The BBC World Service has a fascinating radio programme on hearing loss and how it’s spurring the move towards auditory enhancement technology for everybody.
The documentary, called Hack My Hearing, was created by science writer Frank Swain who is suffering hearing loss. He explores different forms of hearing disturbance and looks at technologies that aim to enhance hearing and how they soon might provide ‘super human’ auditory abilities.
One of the best things about the documentary is that it has been brilliantly engineered so you can experience what most of the forms of hearing loss and hearing enhancement in the documentary sound like.
It is definitely one to be listened to on headphones and it sounds wonderful.
Sadly, it’s only available as streamed audio at the moment, but you can listen to the full programme at the link below.
Update: The programme is now also available from the BBC as a podcast – downloadable directly as an mp3.
Link to Hack My Hearing streamed audio.
If you’re in London on Sunday 16th March, there’s an amazing stage show at King’s Place about psychosis called Parting.
The performance has been created by talented twin sister composers Effy and Litha Efthymiou and, along with folks with first-person experience of psychosis, I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with them during the development of the piece.
I met Effy and Litha when they asked me to give some input into the 2008 play Reminiscence about life through memory and temporal lobe epilepsy, and it’s been brilliant working with them again
This work is quite different, spread across five stages, and includes dance, video, two sopranos, theatre, a string quartet and a range of other musicians and is inspired by everything from personal experience to clinical case studies of people experiencing the world through altered beliefs and perceptions.
New contemporary art music, dance, theatre and film come together to create five ‘living-through’ experiences of psychosis. Developed alongside a clinical psychologist and focused on the very essence of the psychotic experience (i.e. the hearing of the voice, the seeing of the object, having the false belief), Parting is a multi-sensory, abstract stage show that is a poetic look at what it feels like to live with psychosis.
As you can imagine, it’s a massive synchronised piece from a range of fantastic artists and should be quite an experience.
There’ll also be an after-show discussion where I’ll be discussing the themes of the piece with the directors, producers and the artists involved in the show.
You can get more details and tickets at the link below.
Link to Parting at King’s Place.
Biomedical charity The Wellcome Trust have launched a new online science magazine called Mosaic which is rammed full of mind and brain stories for its launch.
As part of their role is medical education, the idea is that they get writers to produce in-depth articles about science and then give them away for free (welcome to the barricades, do help yourself to a gas mask).
The launch issue has an interview with dandelion-haired cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, an excellent piece on whether it will ever be possible to understand Alzheimer’s disease, a 30-minute documentary about the science of normality (entirely focused on average white people as far as I could work out) and a brief article on the surprisingly complex science of keeping your brain off the pavement with cycle helmets.
There’s also some articles about other areas of science but I have blanked them from my memory.
Importantly, they’re publishing all their material under a specific creative commons license which means you can republish and re-edit the stories for your own blog or multinational media organisation for free if you wish.
They also asked a few people, including me, about some ‘Big Questions’ facing science and have put them up for a vote on their Facebook page (it’s like Twitter but with more baby photos apparently). If the question gets enough votes, they might commission an article on the topic.
My question was “Can we replace damaged brain parts with computational devices?’ (i.e. computers)” so if you’d like to see a Mosaic article on this and you use the Facebook, you can vote here by liking or leaving a comment.
Link to Mosaic.
Last month I proposed an article for Contributoria, titled What’s the evidence on using rational argument to change people’s minds?. Unfortunately, I had such fun reading about the topic that I missed the end-of-month deadline and now need to get backers for my proposal again.
So, here’s something from my proposal, please consider backing it so I can put my research to good use:
Is it true that “you can’t tell anybody anything”? From pub arguments to ideology-driven party political disputes it can sometimes seem like 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 (Dan Ariely “Predictably irrational”, David McRaney “You Are Not So Smart”). This piece will be 3000 words on the evidence from psychological science about persuasion by rational argument.
Back the proposal: What’s the evidence on using rational argument to change people’s minds?
Full disclosure: I’ll be paid by Contributoria if the proposal is backed
Update:: Backed! Thanks all! Watch this space for the finished article. I promise I’ll make the deadline this time
The man who discovered the Stroop effect and created the Stroop test, something which is now a keystone of cognitive science research, never realised the massive impact he had on psychology.
J. Ridley Stroop was born on a farm 40 miles from Nashville and was the only person in his family to attend college. He began preaching the gospel when he was 20 years old and continued to do so throughout his life. He spent nearly 40 years as a teacher and administrator at David Lipscomb College, now Lipscomb University, in Nashville….
According to his son, Stroop was unaware of the growing importance of his discovery when he died in 1973. Toward the end of his life, he had largely abandoned the field of psychology and immersed himself in Biblical studies. “He would say that Christ was the world’s greatest psychologist,” Faye Stroop recalled.
The task is very simple and relies on the fact that we automatically process word meaning when we see words. We don’t have to recognise each letter, consciously string them together, and ‘work out’ what word it is, it just happens straight away.
Stroop’s insight was to wonder what would happen if he asked people to do something that directly conflicted with this automatic processing.
So if I ask you to name the colour the following word is written in: blue; or name the colour this word is written in: red; you do it a little more slowly than naming the colour that these words are written in: blue, red.
This is because you have to inhibit or consciously ‘get round’ the word’s automatically recognised meaning.
There are many variations, all based on the fact that word meanings can relate to many different forms of psychological process, bias or experience.
For example, the ‘emotional Stroop‘ asks people to name the ‘ink colour’ of either emotionally neutral words (like ‘apple’, ‘soap’) and more emotionally intense words (like ‘violence’ or ‘torture’).
People who have been traumatised, will be more affected by these sorts of emotionally intense words and so they will identify the ‘ink colour’ of trauma-related words more slowly than when compared to non-traumatised people.
The same happens for people with spider phobia when they read spider-related words, and so on.
And because it allows experimenters to measure the interaction between attention and meaning, it has become a massively useful and popular tool.
Link to piece on the history of the Stroop task.
The BBC Radio 4 Exchanges at the Frontier series has just concluded and it includes interviews with the likes of Kay Redfield Jamison and Human Brain Project leader Henry Markram. They’re all online as podcasts.
All the interviews are done by philosopher A.C. Grayling and for a BBC talking shop are remarkably good fun.
Even the non-cognitive scientists interviewed in the series may be of interest to mind and brain aficionados as one tackles how swarming behaviour emerges and another discusses the link between the economy and happiness.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb is even in there, being his usual grouchy self, and it all makes for a fascinating series.
Link to BBC Exchanges at the Frontier podcast page.
The Guardian has an article on technologist Ray Kurzeil’s move to Google that also serves to review how the search company is building an artificial intelligence super lab.
Google has gone on an unprecedented shopping spree and is in the throes of assembling what looks like the greatest artificial intelligence laboratory on Earth; a laboratory designed to feast upon a resource of a kind that the world has never seen before: truly massive data. Our data. From the minutiae of our lives.
Google has bought almost every machine-learning and robotics company it can find, or at least, rates. It made headlines two months ago, when it bought Boston Dynamics, the firm that produces spectacular, terrifyingly life-like military robots, for an “undisclosed” but undoubtedly massive sum. It spent $3.2bn (£1.9bn) on smart thermostat maker Nest Labs. And this month, it bought the secretive and cutting-edge British artificial intelligence startup DeepMind for £242m.
And those are just the big deals…
They are all experts in machine learning – which some would say is quite a limited form of AI that doesn’t specifically aim to model itself on human thinking.
But it is clearly the most useful in allowing machines to make conceptual connections from fuzzy data. In particular, a technique called deep learning has proved to be a huge leap forward.
It works best when it has large data sets to work on. Essentially, large data sets make deep learning useful and this is why Google sees its future in AI.
Link to Guardian article on Kurzweil and Google engineering.
The Society of Mutual Autopsy was an organisation formed in the late 1800s to advance neuroscience by examining dead members’ brains and to promote atheism by breaking sacred taboos.
It included some of the great French intellectuals and radicals of the time and became remarkably fashionable – publishing the results in journals and showing plaster-casts of deceased members brains in world fairs.
In October 1876, twenty Parisian men joined together as the Society of Mutual Autopsy and pledged to dissect one another’s brains in the hopes of advancing science. The society acquired over a hundred members in its first few years, including many notable political figures of the left and far left. While its heyday was unquestionably the last two decades of the century, the society continued to attract members until the First World War. It continued its operations until just before World War II, effectuating many detailed encephalic autopsies, the results of which were periodically published in scientific journals.
The quote is from a fascinating but locked academic article by historian Jennifer Michael Hecht and notes that The Society was partly motivated by self-nominated ‘great minds’ who wanted to better understand how brain structure related to personal characteristics.
It was no backwater project and attracted significant thinkers and scientists. Most notably, Paul Broca dissected brains for the society and had his brain dissected by them, despite apparently never joining officially.
Part of the motivation for the society was that, at the time, most autopsies were carried out on poor people (often grave robbed) and criminals (often executed). The intellectual elite – not without a touch of snobbery – didn’t think this was a good basis on which to understand human nature.
Also, these bodies usually turned up at the dead of night, no questions asked, and no one knew much about the person or their personality.
In response to this, the Society of Mutual Autopsy functioned as a respectable source of body parts and also requested that members write an essay describing their life, character and preferences, so that it could all be related to the shape and size of their brain when autopsied by the other members.
There was also another motive: they were atheists in early secular France and they wanted to demonstrate that they could use their remains for science without consideration of religious dogma.
As with most revolutionary societies, it seems to have fallen apart for the usual reasons: petty disagreements.
One person took exception to a slightly less than flattering analysis of his father’s brain and character traits. Another starting flirting with religion, causing a leading member to storm off in a huff.
In a sense though, the society lives on. You can donate your body to science in many ways after death:
To medical schools to teach students. To forensic science labs to help improve body identification. To brain banks to help cure neurological disorders.
But it’s no longer a revolutionary act. Your dead body will no longer reshape society or fight religion like it did in 1870′s France. The politics are dead. But neither will you gradually fade away into dust and memories.
Jennifer Michael Hecht finishes her article with some insightful words about The Society of Mutual Autopsy which could still apply to modern body donation.
It’s “both mundane – offering eternity in the guise of a brief report and a collection of specimens – and wildly exotic – allowing the individual to climb up onto the altar of science and suggesting that this act might change the world”.
Link to locked and buried article on The Society of Mutual Autopsy.
Pete Mandik is a professor of philosophy and was due to give a class on neurophilosophy before his class got snowed out. Instead of ditching the class he made a fantastic and funny video lecture for his students.
The pipe-chewing Mandik gives a great introduction to this particular philosophical approach to integrating neuroscience and concepts of mind – most associated with the work of Patricia and Paul Churchland.
The lecture is called ‘Two Flavors of Neurophilosophy’ and comes in three parts.
If this is what happens when it snows in New Jersey, let it snow.
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