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.

Spray can happy pills

Psychopharmacological brain graffiti found on a car park wall in Dalston in East London.

How to win wars by influencing people

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’.

Spike activity 14-03-2014

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

The Conversation has an excellent piece on how the study of brain injury, not brain scans, have told us the most about how the brain works.

How light affects the brain. Only Human discusses a fascinating study on how a recently discovered form of human light receptor affects cognitive function.

Retraction Watch covers how the researcher behind discredited findings on the link between chronic fatigue and the XMRV virus has written a book, and has rewritten history in the process. Negative findings you say? Pifflebuymybook.

The New York Times has an excellent retrospective report about the trial that unleashed hysteria over child abuse and a thousand false memories.

Is religion good for your brain? asks Discovery News before writing an article that seems to have been thought through while huffing butane.

Science News take a critical look at studies on the link between good looks and enhanced abilities. Sadly, still no studies on the link between irresistible allure and an in-depth knowledge of early 90s PC operating systems. Cognitive scientists, you know where to find me.

Aeon magazine has an interesting piece on the relentless pre-march of humanoid robots into society.

Modern life damaging infant brains, according to some evidence-free hand-wringers contacted by BBC News. Quotes the “Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology”. Pro-tip for faux neurocampaigners: choose a name which doesn’t immediately announce I KNOW NOTHING ABOUT THE BRAIN.

New Scientist report on early research suggesting D-cycloserine might enhance psychotherapy for anxiety disorders.

Loving you is easy because you’re beautiful

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.
 

Link to Neuroscape Lab’s awesome brain visualisation.
Link to the original Orb track (or the classic Orbital remix)

From under-hearing to ultra-hearing

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.

Parting – art through psychosis – at King’s Place

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.

Spike activity 07-03-2014

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

Drug dependence has two faces — as a chronic disease and a temporary failure to cope. Interesting piece from Science News.

Friend of Mind Hacks Christian Jarrett bids a fond farewell to the BPS Research Digest at 11 years at the helm.

Matter has an excellent piece about rebel psychologist Roy Baumeister and the myths of self-esteem.

Mighty anthropology blog Somatosphere has an excellent piece on the DSM diagnostic manual and its place in culture.

Neuroskeptic discusses a curious new paper on hormones and women voters as a very modern scientific controversy.

What Really Happened The Night Kitty Genovese Was Murdered? The facts behind a classic psychology study examined by NPR.

The Washington Post asks why chronic pain patients are not included in the debate about addiction to prescription opioids.

Why do some languages sound more beautiful than others? Fascinating piece from The Smart Set.

The New York Times has an piece on the philosophy of the movie ‘Her’ – looking at consciousness, AI and disembodied cognition.

Mind Mosaic

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.

What’s the evidence for the power of reason to change minds?

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.

All you need to do to back proposals, currently, is sign up for the site. You can see all current proposals here. Written articles are Creative Commons licensed.

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

Stroop: an unrecognised legacy

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.

A short but fascinating news item from Vanderbilt University discusses its creator, the psychologist and preacher J. Ridley Stroop.

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.

This inhibition of automatic responses turns out to be a key function of attention and is heavily linked to the workings of the pre-frontal cortex.

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.

Interviews at the Frontier

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.

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