Cushing’s abandoned brains

I’ve just found a great short documentary about the abandoned brain collection of pioneering neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing.

The video describes how Cushing’s archives, which genuinely involved hundreds of brains in jars, as well as rare slides and photos of the early days of brain surgery, were rediscovered in the basement of Yale University and restored to public view.

Cushing is often called the ‘father of modern neurosurgery’ and spent a lot of time studying brain pathology by archiving and classifying tumours, bleeds and post-mortem brains in jars for others to learn from, as well as creating amazing medical illustrations – including the one below.
 


This archive became less necessary as technology moved on and the brain collection was moved into the basement below the medical school dormitories at Yale University and forgotten about.

The archives were eventually found again and restored as the Cushing Center which is now open to the public.

While the video focuses on the brains, Morbid Anatomy put some of the photos of patients from the archive online which are quite striking in themselves.
 

Link to Cushing’s Brains documentary on YouTube.
Link to Morbid Anatomy gallery of Cushing’s photos.

Evidence based debunking

Fed up with futile internet arguments, a bunch of psychologists investigated how best to correct false ideas. Tom Stafford discovers how to debunk properly.

We all resist changing our beliefs about the world, but what happens when some of those beliefs are based on misinformation? Is there a right way to correct someone when they believe something that’s wrong?

Stephen Lewandowsky and John Cook set out to review the science on this topic, and even carried out a few experiments of their own. This effort led to their “Debunker’s Handbook“, which gives practical, evidence-based techniques for correcting misinformation about, say, climate change or evolution. Yet the findings apply to any situation where you find the facts are falling on deaf ears.

The first thing their review turned up is the importance of “backfire effects” – when telling people that they are wrong only strengthens their belief. In one experiment, for example, researchers gave people newspaper corrections that contradicted their views and politics, on topics ranging from tax reform to the existence of weapons of mass destruction. The corrections were not only ignored – they entrenched people’s pre-existing positions.

Backfire effects pick up strength when you have no particular reason to trust the person you are talking to. This perhaps explains why climate sceptics with more scientific education tend to be the most sceptical that humans are causing global warming.

The irony is that understanding backfire effects requires that we debunk a false understanding of our own. Too often, argue Lewandowsky and Cook, communicators assume a ‘deficit model’ in their interactions with the misinformed. This is the idea that we have the right information, and all we need to do to make people believe is to somehow “fill in” the deficit in other people’s understanding. Just telling people the evidence for the truth will be enough to replace their false beliefs. Beliefs don’t work like that.

Psychological factors affect how we process information – such as what we already believe, who we trust and how we remember. Debunkers need to work with this, rather than against if they want the best chance of being believed.

The most important thing is to provide an alternative explanation. An experiment by Hollryn Johnson and Colleen Seifert, shows how to persuade people better. These two psychologists recruited participants to listen to news reports about a fictional warehouse fire, and then answer some comprehension questions.

Some of the participants were told that the fire was started by a short circuit in a closet near some cylinders containing potentially explosive gas. Yet when this information was corrected – by saying the closet was empty – they still clung to the belief.

A follow-up experiment showed the best way to effectively correct such misinformation. The follow-up was similar to the first experiment, except that it involved participants who were given a plausible alternative explanation: that evidence was found that arson caused the fire. It was only those who were given a plausible alternative that were able to let go of the misinformation about the gas cylinders.

Lewandowsky and Cook argue that experiments like these show the dangers of arguing against a misinformed position. If you try and debunk a myth, you may end up reinforcing that belief, strengthening the misinformation in people’s mind without making the correct information take hold.

What you must do, they argue, is to start with the plausible alternative (that obviously you believe is correct). If you must mention a myth, you should mention this second, and only after clearly warning people that you’re about to discuss something that isn’t true.

This debunking advice is also worth bearing in mind if you find yourself clinging to your own beliefs in the face of contradictory facts. You can’t be right all of the time, after all.

Read more about the best way to win an argument.

If you have an everyday psychological phenomenon you’d like to see written about in these columns please get in touch @tomstafford or ideas@idiolect.org.uk. Thanks to Ullrich Ecker for advice on this topic.

This is my BBC Future column from last week, original here

An earlier illusory death

For such an obscure corner of the medical literature, Cotard’s delusion is remarkably well known as the delusion that you’re dead. This was supposedly first described by Jules Cotard in 1880 but I seem to have found a description from 1576.

It’s worth noting that although Cotard’s delusion has come to represent ‘the delusion that you’re dead’, Jules Cotard’s original description was not actually that – it was a delusion of negation where the patient believed, as noted by Berrios and Luque, that she had “no brain, nerves, chest, or entrails, and was just skin and bone”, that “neither God or the devil existed”, and that she did not need food for “she was eternal and would live forever”.

In its modern use, Cotard’s delusion typically refer to the belief that you’re dead, you don’t exist, or that your body is rotting or absent. It is rare but can occur in severe psychosis.

While spending my weekend reading Basil Clarke’s book Mental Disorder in Earlier Britain (yes kids, I’m like Snoop Dogg but for out of print history of psychiatry books), I found a mention of not one but possibly two cases of Cotard delusion.

They were apparently described Levinus Lemnius’s 1576 book The Touchstone of Complexions, as Clarke recounts:

A ‘Hypochondriake person’ was unshakeably convinced that frogs and toads were eating his entrails. This was accepted, and he was given purges and enemas, the doctor slipping ‘crawlynge vermyne’ into the pot to satisfy him. A case of a man who thought his buttocks were made of glass was incomplete. Another patient had fallen into ‘such an agonie, & fooles paradise’ that he thought he was dead and gave up eating. After a week, friends came into the dark parlour in shrouds and settled down for a meal. The ‘Passioned Party’, on asking, was told that they were dead and that dead men ate and drank. ‘Straightwayes skipped this Pacient out of his Bedde and joined them.’ After supper he was given a sleeping draught.

The mention of the man who believed he had glass buttocks is also interesting as this is the glass delusion, the belief that you are made of glass and might shatter.

This was apparently common in cases of madness during the Late Middle Ages but is now virtually non-existent. Famously, it affected Charles VI of France.

More on the enigma of blindness and psychosis

A long-standing enigma in psychiatry has been why no-one has been able to find someone who has both congenital blindness and a diagnosis of schizophrenia. The newest and most comprehensive archive study to date has just been published on exactly this issue although it raises more questions than it answers.

Evelina Leivada and Cedric Boeckx from the University of Barcelona in Spain conducted an extensive medical literature search and did come up with some cases of congenital blindness and schizophrenia – 13 in total, although only two case studies (outlining a total of four cases) were found which were convincing enough to be unaffected by other serious problems, like severe genetic disorders.

And these remaining four were hardly straightforward and as one report was from 1943 and the other from 1967 where standards of both vision and psychiatric assessment were significantly short of modern standards.

Notably, all cases of co-occurrence were from blindness due to eye problems or where blindness happened relatively late (after 6 years of age). No cases were found were people had a diagnosis of schizophrenia and were congenitally cortically blind – where blindness was caused by problems with the brain’s visual system.

What this new study provides is weak evidence for the possibility of certain sorts of blindness coexisting with a diagnosis of schizophrenia and more comprehensive support for the curious finding that blindness seems to reduce the risk of developing psychosis.

It’s worth noting that what is really needed is a prospective epidemiological study of psychosis in blind people. However, researchers have been searching for congenitally blind people with psychosis since the issue of non-co-occurrence was first seriously raised in the 1980s and none have been found. Based on the rates of occurrence for each condition, the combination should be fairly common. This suggests that hypothesis of protective effects of congenital blindness needs to taken seriously.

The Leivada and Boeckx paper goes on to speculate about neuropsychological reasons why congenital blindness might protect against schizophrenia (essentially, changes in the interaction between key visual system components and the language system) and, somewhat less convincingly, genetic reasons – as just extrapolating likely genes from case studies is very speculative and both the eye and brain develop from the same cells during embryo development so it’s not clear shared genes won’t just reflect generally impaired neurodevelopment.

I have to say, I find the concept of schizophrenia to be a fairly useless, but if the increasingly plausible hypothesis that congenital blindness protects against psychosis is confirmed, it has interesting implications for those that argue that psychosis is nothing but the result of marginalisation, stigma or difficult life circumstances where biological explanations are irrelevant.

Blindness, clearly would increase your chances of all of these, and so on this theory, we would expect an increased rate of psychosis, but this doesn’t seem to be the case.

It’s not that marginalisation, stigma or difficult life circumstances aren’t causal factors in developing psychosis, they clearly are, but ignoring neuro-level explanations outside these effects is equally as narrow as suggesting that they are the only relevant influences.
 

Link to ‘Schizophrenia and cortical blindness’ in Frontiers.

Spike activity 14-11-2014

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

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an excellent piece arguing for more focus on developing good theories of the brain amid the cascade of cash for neuroscience methods.

Moving Beyond Left Brain, Right Brain, Neuroskeptic goes in-depth with Michael Corballis. More neuronerd goodness from PLOS Neuro.

Nature magazine has a special open-access special on depression.

The Air Loom is short film based on the madness of James Tilly Matthews.

Neuroskeptic has some more wonderful etymological maps of the brain.

When we lie to children, are we teaching them to be dishonest? Interesting piece from the BPS Research Digest.

BBC News reports on a colour blind artist who had a camera implanted in his skull to allow him to hear colours.

There’s a good post on Providentia on Barnum statements and the psychology of vague complements.

Trifles make the sum of life

I’ve just found a curious scientific paper that looks at whether computational models of neural function are of relevance to clinical psychiatry. Oddly, it is written as a debate between two Charles Dickens characters.

The paper was published in the journal Neural Networks and is entitled “Are computational models of any use to psychiatry?”.

It starts entirely normally and then suddenly introduces two characters from the novel David Copperfield who begin to discuss the cognitive science of computational psychiatry.

Wise old Dr. Strong (Dickens, 1850) will now put the case against CMs [computational models] from the point of view of a psychiatrist. Our optimistic – or maybe unrealistic – friend Mr. Micawber will try to enthuse him about their cause. He is also a fan of reinforcement learning models.

It’s worth noting that in the original version of David Copperfield, Mr. Micawber barely mentions his admiration of computational reinforcement learning models (reading between the lines, he always seemed more of learning mechanism agnostic autoassociative memory man to me – but hey, I’m no English literature scholar).

Dr. Strong: First and foremost, CMs have failed to influence clinical practice.

Mr. Micawber: I would agree, Dr. Strong, that CMs have not influenced clinical practice to date; but neither have most advances in neurosciences. In fact, we believe that CMs will be instrumental in helping to bridge the gap between neurobiology and psychiatry because CMs are able to link levels of descriptions and make well-founded predictions at one level based on information at another level.

Dr. Strong: I disagree. The question is: are they clinically relevant, not will they be at some point in the future. All the models omit the very centre of psychiatry: subjective experiences. No one I have met believes that computers feel duty, personal bonds, or sexual titillation.

Weirdly, this is not the first cognitive science paper to be presented as a debate between two rather unexpected people.

Jerry Fodor’s paper “Fodor’s Guide to Mental Representation: The Intelligent Auntie’s Vade-Mecum” involves a discussion between him and his aunty about the finer points of mental representation.

Sadly, the paper is behind a pay-wall because Elsevier know that the cognitive science / Dickens combination can be deadly in the wrong hands.
 

Link to locked article “Are computational models of any use to psychiatry?”

Hearing WiFi

New Scientist has a fascinating article on Frank Swain who has hacked his hearing aid to allow him to hear WiFi.

It’s a great idea and riffs on various attempts to ‘extend’ perception into the realm of being able to sense the usually unnoticed electromagnetic environment.

I am walking through my north London neighbourhood on an unseasonably warm day in late autumn. I can hear birds tweeting in the trees, traffic prowling the back roads, children playing in gardens and Wi-Fi leaching from their homes. Against the familiar sounds of suburban life, it is somehow incongruous and appropriate at the same time.

As I approach Turnpike Lane tube station and descend to the underground platform, I catch the now familiar gurgle of the public Wi-Fi hub, as well as the staff network beside it. On board the train, these sounds fade into silence as we burrow into the tunnels leading to central London.

I have been able to hear these fields since last week. This wasn’t the result of a sudden mutation or years of transcendental meditation, but an upgrade to my hearing aids. With a grant from Nesta, the UK innovation charity, sound artist Daniel Jones and I built Phantom Terrains, an experimental tool for making Wi-Fi fields audible.

Do also check out a fantastic radio documentary by Swain we featured earlier this year which is a brilliant auditory journey into the physics and hacking of hearing and hearing loss.
 

Link to NewSci article ‘From under-hearing to ultra-hearing’

Spike activity 07-11-2014

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

The odd beauty of 60-Year-old preserved brains from the Texas State Mental Hospital. Photo series from the Washington Post.

The Concourse has an interesting piece by an ex-con who discusses violence as a social currency in the US prison system. Interesting contrast between forensic treatment and inmate views of how violence works.

The latest series of BBC Radio 4’s All in the Mind has just started and has hit the wires.

‘Taboo’ sexual fantasies are surprisingly common according to a study covered by Pacific Standard – see also the epidemiology of internet pornography.

The Scientist has an interesting and extensive piece on advances in face perception research.

Robots for the brain and neuroprosethics for the mind. Interesting Olaf Blanke talk.

Excellent retrospective of 50 years of methadone in Washington Monthly.

We’re Sexist Toward Robots. Sounds trivial but stay with it, actually quite an interesting piece in Motherboard.

Reddit AMA with Vanessa Tolosa – neuroscientist who develops implantable neural devices.

Fascinating BBC News article on the prehistoric population of Europe and the mystery group who brought farming with them.

Beautiful online neuroscience learning

The Fundamentals of Neuroscience is a free online course from Harvard and it looks wonderful – thanks to them employing animators, digital artists and scientists to lift the course above the usual read and repeat learning.

The course is already underway but you can register and start learning until mid-December and you can watch any of the previews to get a feel for what’s being taught.

As you can see from the syllabus it focuses on the fairly low-level operation of the biology of brain but it’s all essential knowledge that will undoubtedly be a joy to encounter or re-acquaint yourself with.

You need to register to access the full content but there’s plenty of trailers online. Great stuff.
 

Link to ‘Fundamentals of Neuroscience’ course.

Hallucinogenic bullets

An article in the American Journal of Forensic Medicine & Pathology discusses the history of ‘modern toxic antipersonnel projectiles’ and it has a short history of ammunition designed to introduce incapacitating hallucinogenic substances into the body.

As you might expect for such an unpleasant idea (chemical weapon hand guns!) they were wielded by some fairly unpleasant people

The Nazi Institute of Criminology then ordered a batch of more powerful 9-mm Parabellum cartridges that could be used with the Walther P38. This time the bullets contained Ditran, a mixture of 2 structural isomers comprising approximately 70% 1-ethyl-2-pyrrolidinylmethyl-alpha-phenylcyclopentylglycolate and 30% 1-ethyl-3-piperidyl-alpha-phenylcyclopentylglycolate (also known as Ditran B). Ditran B is the more active of the 2 isomers, both of which are strong anticholinergic drugs with hallucinogenic properties similar to those of scopolamine. Victims are thrown into such a state of mental confusion that they are incapable of reacting appropriately to the situations they find themselves in…

3-Quinuclidinyl benzilate, also known as QNB and coded BZ by NATO, is a military incapacitating agent. Like Ditran, it is an anticholinergic causing such intense mental confusion as to prevent any effective reaction against an enemy. These bullets were featured in the arsenal of the Serbian forces invading Bosnia-Herzegovina, particularly in Srebrenica in the 1990s.

 

Link to locked article ‘Modern Toxic Antipersonnel Projectiles’

Mind Hacks – Live!

At the end of November, we’ll be celebrating 10 years of Mind Hacks, and we’re putting on a live event in London to celebrate. You are cordially invited.

Mind Hacks – Live! will be like the blog, but live, and with less scrolling.

Some of the details are still under construction, but here’s what we know:

Tom and Vaughan have hired London’s Grant Museum of Zoology. which will be like having the event inside a Victorian display case of science. But instead of looking at the exhibits, they’ll be looking at us. Awesome and wonderfully weird venue which you shouldn’t miss.

It’s in Central London, and Mind Hacks – Live! will be on Thursday 20th November 7pm to 9pm.

We’ve also got some fantastic speakers lined up:

  • Science wrangler Ed Yong will be talking about the real science behind media favourite oxytocin.
  • We’re hoping neuroscientist Sophie Scott is going to give us a whirlwind tour of the neuroscience of laughter.
  • Blogger, neuroscientist and international man of mystery Neuroskeptic will be talking about “something cool”.
  • Neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore is going to be debunking myths about the neuroscience of education and the teenage brain.
  • Cognitive scientist and Mind Hacks mastermind Tom Stafford is going to talk on ‘The Game': Are ‘Pickup Artists’ the ultimate Mind Hackers?

And we’re going to end on a serious note that should also serve as a stark warning to us all.

The sex scene from Susan Greenfield’s future-noir novel 2121 will be given a dramatised reading with Neuroskeptic and Vaughan Bell playing the protagonists who struggle to remember how to have sex because their brains have been mashed by the internet. Live and direct, people.

If you miss a ticket for the event, come have a drink with us after anyway. We’ll be just round the corner at The Marlborough Arms on Torrington Place (WC1E 7HJ) after the event and we’d love to see you.

Tickets for the event will cost £4 to cover costs, and you’ll receive a free commemorative email with every purchase.
 

Link to buy tickets for Mind Hacks – Live!

Spike activity 31-10-2014

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

Nautilus has an interesting piece on how artificial intelligence systems are getting better at strategy.

Two neuroscientists explain why zombies have so much trouble walking in Slate

Vice magazine talks to a psychologist working in the Ebola outbreak in Liberia.

Neuroscientists manage to get past the blood-brain barrier for the first time potentially opening the way for getting new sorts of drugs to the brain. Covered in New Scientist.

The Neurocritic has an excellent piece on neuropsychological disorders involving mirrors.

The British are born to be miserable, according to a dreadful science story published in The Indepedent. Please note: The fact the conclusion happens to be true doesn’t mean it’s automatically good science.

Social psychology has lost its balance

Images by DeviantArt user bakablue08. Click for source.The New Yorker has an interesting article about a lack of political diversity in social psychology and how that may be leading to a climate of bias against conservative researchers, ideas and the evidence that might support them.

Some of the evidence for a bias against conservative thinking in social psychology goes back some years, and the article gives a good account of the empirical work as well as the debate.

However, the issue was recently raised again by morality researcher Jonathan Haidt leading to a renewed reflection on the extent of the problem.

There is a case to be made that, despite the imbalance, no formal changes need to be made, and that, on the whole, despite its problems, social psychology continues to function remarkably well and regularly produces high-quality research. Controversial work gets done. Even studies that directly challenge the field—like Haidt’s—are publicized and inspire healthy debate…

And yet the evidence for more substantial bias, against both individuals and research topics and directions, is hard to dismiss—and the hostility that some social psychologists have expressed toward the data suggests that self-correction may not be an adequate remedy.

A timely reminder of the eternal truth that bias is entirely non-partisan, and if you’ve not heard it before, a pointer to a great BBC Radio documentary that outlines how it works equally across people of every political stripe.

 
Link to ‘Is Social Psychology Biased Against Republicans?’

Quasi-stability

Yesterday, before I got here, my dad was trying to fix an invisible machine. By all accounts, he began working on the phantom device quite intently, but as his repairs began to involve the hospice bed and the tubes attached to his body, he was gently sedated, and he had to leave it, unresolved.

This was out-of-character for my father, who I presumed had never encountered a machine he couldn’t fix. He built model aeroplanes in rural New Zealand, won a scholarship to go to university, and ended up as an aeronautical engineer for Air New Zealand, fixing engines twice his size. More scholarships followed and I first remember him completing his PhD in thermodynamics, or ‘what heat does’, as he used to describe it, to his six-year-old son.

When he was first admitted to the hospice, more than a week go, he was quite lucid – chatting, talking, bemoaning the slow pace of dying. “Takes too long,” he said, “who designed this?” But now he is mostly unconscious.

Occasionally though, moments of lucidity dodge between the sleep and the confusion. “When did you arrive?” he asked me in the early hours of this morning, having woken up wanting water. Once the water was resolved he was preoccupied about illusory teaspoons lost among the bedclothes, but then chatted in feint short sentences to me and my step-mum before drifting off once more.

Drifting is a recent tendency, but in the lucidity he has remained a proud engineer. It’s more of a vocation, he always told his students, than a career.

Last week, when the doctors asked if he would speak to medical trainees, he was only too happy to have a final opportunity to teach. Even the consultants find his pragmatic approach to death somewhat out of the ordinary and they funnelled eager learners his way where he engaged with answering their questions and demonstrating any malfunctioning components.

“When I got here”, he explained to them, “I was thermodynamically unstable but now I think I’m in a state of quasi-stability. It looks like I have achieved thermal equilibrium but actually I’m steadily losing energy.”

“I’m not sure”, I said afterwards, “that explaining your health in terms of thermodynamics is exactly what they’re after.”

“They’ll have to learn,” he said, “you can’t beat entropy.”


Postscript

My dad finally returned to entropy on the afternoon of Friday 31st October, with his family and a half-read book on nanoscience by his side.

Dr Murray Alan Bell, 30th January 1945 – 31st October 2014, Engineer (by vocation as much as by career)

Spike activity 24-10-2014

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

A Victorian lunatic asylum begins to reveal its secrets. The Wellcome Library now has the first of many digitised asylum records online.

Narratively has an excellent piece on legendary San Francisco eccentric Emperor Norton.

The marketers latest fad – make it seem it’s a feminist social campaign – has been taken on as an attempt to sell a rejected antidepressant as a treatment for the invented ‘female sexual dysfunction’. In-depth and important article in the BMJ.

Time magazine has a special features that looks inside the quasi-legal science-free world of medical marijuana for children.

Russian artist cuts off earlobe to protest use of forced psychiatry on dissidents reports The Guardian.

BBC Radio 3 has an interesting doco called Como Songs about families’ experience of having a loved-one in a coma or coma-like state.

Decades of lie detection research has been unrealistic. Interesting piece from the BPS Research Digest.

IEEE Spectrum magazine has an interview with machine learning ninja Michael Jordan who grit blasts the hype off big data and deep learning.

The latest RadioLab is on the wonderful vagaries of translation / traducción / tradução.

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

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