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.

Spike activity 28-02-2014

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

Can Baby Brain Scans Predict Later Cognitive Development? asks Neuroskeptic.

The Economist debates the difference between a dialect and a language.

Love with Robots. An interesting piece of graphic novel-esque reporting from Narratively about intimacy with digital beings and robots.

Interesting new neuroscience blog by computational neuroscientist Gabriela Tavares.

The Times Educational Supplement discusses whether brain scans will help the classroom teacher. Quick answer: they won’t, unless you are teaching about brain scans.

New Scientist has a piece on how the science of the chilli’s burn may be opening doors to understanding neuroreceptors and heat regulation.

Two species of human ancestors are found at an archaeology dig in the nation of Georgia as reported by Science News

The Independent has a piece on the curious and tragic phenomenon of ‘self-bullying’.

Internet trolls are also real-life trolls. The Headquarters blog on a study of internet bottom feeders.

Building the greatest artificial intelligence lab on Earth

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…

Google has also hired some of the world’s leading artificial intelligence researchers: Geoff Hinton, Demis Hassabis, Andrew Ng and Ray Kurzweil just for starters.

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

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.

Snow-fuelled neurophilosophy

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.
 

Link to part one.
Link to part two.
Link to part three.

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