Berlin Hallucinations Talk, Thursday 8th May

I’m going to be doing a public talk on the science of hallucinations in Berlin next week. This thoroughly awesome poster has been made for the event.

A big tip of the hat to illustrator Eoin Ryan for that one.

The talk will take place in the Villa Neukölln bar, is part of the Big Data Week programme and there are more details on the Facebook page.

I got invited to do the talk thanks to Candice Gordon, who I first met in a pub in Dublin while doing a neuroscience talk. She now does professional rock n’ roll, plays with ferrofluids and organises neuroscience talks in Berlin pubs when she’s not on tour.

That makes me cool by association so have some of that high school doubters.

A reality rabbit-hole from the dream world

I’ve got an article in The Observer about how the science of lucid dreaming is being pushed forward by the development of ‘in-dream’ experiments.

A lucid dream is where you become aware you are dreaming and where you can potentially change elements of the dream as it happens.

The piece discusses how eye movements allow communication from within dreams to researchers in the sleep lab and how this has led to studies involving people doing experimental tasks in the dream world.

One of our most mysterious and intriguing states of consciousness is the dream. We lose consciousness when we enter the deep waters of sleep, only to regain it as we emerge into a series of uncanny private realities. These air pockets of inner experience have been difficult for psychologists to study scientifically and, as a result, researchers have mostly resorted to measuring brain activity as the sleeper lies passive. But interest has recently returned to a technique that allows real-time communication from within the dream world.

The article also touches on the ‘dream hacking’ community who borrow from the scientific literature to try an increase their chances of having a lucid dream, sometimes using psychiatric medication for which vivid dreams are considered a side-effect.

The full piece is at the link below.
 

Link to article in The Observer.

Spike activity 25-04-2014

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

Induced hallucination turns doctors into pizza chefs. New Scientist on a recent brain stimulation study that sadly didn’t actually get doctors to make pizza.

The Telelgraph has an interesting piece on human vision and its impossibilities.

There’s an excellent piece in The Guardian asking whether misused developmental neuroscience is defining early years and child protection policy.

New Republic has a fascinating piece on how different personality traits are in expressed when multi-linguals speak in different languages.

Drama in the teenage brain! The excellent science journal for kids – Frontiers for Young Minds – covers how the brain develops during adolescence.

TV Needs to Stop Treating Mental Illness as a Superpower says New Republic. It’s a step-up from treating it as a horror but still a poor cliché.

Nautilus has a fascinating piece on the quest to build the perfect painkiller – which doesn’t get you addicted.

Could the menstrual cycle have shaped the evolution of music? asks Science News.

Emotion Review has a meta-analysis of menstrual cycle effects on women’s mate preferences and finds little except publication bias.

The Face Recognition Algorithm That Finally Outperforms Humans. The Physics arXiv Blog covers the latest advance in face recognition AI.

Research Digest #3: Getting to grips with implicit bias

My third and final post at the BPS Research Digest is now up: Getting to grips with implicit bias. Here’s the intro:

Implicit attitudes are one of the hottest topics in social psychology. Now a massive new study directly compares methods for changing them. The results are both good and bad for those who believe that some part of prejudice is our automatic, uncontrollable, reactions to different social groups.

All three studies I covered (#1, #2, #3) use large behavioural datasets, something I’m particularly keen on in my own work.

Link:  Getting to grips with implicit bias

Heartbreak among the roses

British Pathé, the vintage news organisation, have released all of their archive online including some fascinating newsreels on psychiatric institutions of times past.

A particularly interesting film is Inside Rampton! a 1957 newsreel which focuses on Rampton Secure Hospital – which was, and still is, one of England’s three highest security psychiatric hospitals.

The others are Ashworth and the more widely known Broadmoor Hospital – all three of which are designed to treat mental illness in people who pose a serious risk to the public.

On of the points of the film is to report on the hospital following accusations, common at the time, that people were admitted to the institution despite having ‘nothing wrong with them’ and that patients were subject to harsh treatment.

You can read about the controversy in this 1957 Spectator article that talks about the classic and still relevant tension in forensic mental health services between treatment and legal sanction.

Both the film and the article mention the case of Marie Mayo, who was sent to the hospital due to an ‘administrative error’ causing a significant scandal. One of the other Pathé films is a brief report on her release and return home.

There was widespread public concern at the time that psychiatric institutions were randomly locking people up and that residents were subject to abuse.

The Inside Rampton! film is the first wave of serious concern that subsequently led to Enoch Powell’s ‘water tower’ speech and the political moves to bring down the asylum system, as well as the anti-psychiatry movement and its push for a radical approach to mental distress.
 

Link to Inside Rampton! on YouTube.
Link to Spectator article ‘Heartbreak among the roses’.

Research Digest post #2

My time in the BPS Research Digest hotseat continues. Today’s post is about a lovely study by Stuart Ritchie and colleagues which uses a unique dataset to look at the effect of alcohol on cognitive function across the lifespan. Here’s the intro:

The cognitive cost or benefit of booze depends on your genes, suggests a new study which uses a unique longitudinal data set.

Inside the laboratory psychologists use a control group to isolate the effects of specific variables. But many important real world problems can’t be captured in the lab. Ageing is a good example: if we want to know what predicts a healthy old age, running experiments is difficult, even if only for the reason that they take a lifetime to get the results. Questions about potentially harmful substances are another good example: if we suspect something may be harmful we can hardly give it to half of a group of volunteer participants. The question of the long-term effects of alcohol consumption on cognitive ability combines both of these difficulties.

You can read the rest here: Alcohol could have cognitive benefits – depending on your genes.

See also, Tuesday’s post: A self-fulfilling fallacy?

Research Digest posts, #1: A self-fulfilling fallacy?

This week I will be blogging over at the BPS Research Digest. The Digest was written for over ten years by psychology-writer extraordinaire Christian Jarrett, and I’m one of a series of guest editors during the transition period to a new permanent editor.

My first piece is now up, and here is the opening:

Lady Luck is fickle, but many of us believe we can read her mood. A new study of one year’s worth of bets made via an online betting site shows that gamblers’ attempts to predict when their luck will turn has some unexpected consequences.

Read the rest over at the digest, I’ll post about the other stories I’ve written as they go up.

Why all babies love peekaboo

Peekaboo is a game played over the world, crossing language and cultural barriers. Why is it so universal? Perhaps because it’s such a powerful learning tool.

One of us hides our eyes and then slowly reveals them. This causes peals of laughter from a baby, which causes us to laugh in turn. Then we do it again. And again.

Peekaboo never gets old. Not only does my own infant daughter seem happy to do it for hours, but when I was young I played it with my mum (“you chuckled a lot!” she confirms by text message) and so on back through the generations. We are all born with unique personalities, in unique situations and with unique genes. So why is it that babies across the world are constantly rediscovering peekaboo for themselves?

Babies don’t read books, and they don’t know that many people, so the surprising durability and cultural universality of peekaboo is perhaps a clue that it taps into something fundamental in their minds. No mere habit or fashion, the game can help show us the foundations on which adult human thought is built.

An early theory of why babies enjoy peekaboo is that they are surprised when things come back after being out of sight. This may not sound like a good basis for laughs to you or I, with our adult brains, but to appreciate the joke you have to realise that for a baby, nothing is given. They are born into a buzzing confusion, and gradually have to learn to make sense of what is happening around them. You know that when you hear my voice, I’m usually not far behind, or that when a ball rolls behind a sofa it still exists, but think for a moment how you came by this certainty.

The Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget called this principle ‘object permanence’ and suggested that babies spent the first two years of their lives working it out. And of course those two years are prime peekaboo time. Looked at this way, the game isn’t just a joke, but helps babies test and re-test a fundamental principle of existence: that things stick around even when you can’t see them.

Maybe evolution fixed it so that babies enjoy peekaboo for its own sake, since it proved useful in cognitive development, but I doubt it. Something deeper than mere education is going on.

Surprise element

Peekaboo uses the fundamental structure of all good jokes – surprise, balanced with expectation. Researchers Gerrod Parrott and Henry Gleitman showed this in tests involving a group of six-, seven- and eight-month-olds which sound like more fun than a psychology experiment should be. Most of the time the peekaboo game proceeded normally, however on occasion the adult hid and reappeared as a different adult, or hid and reappeared in a different location. Videos of the infants were rated by independent observers for how much the babies smiled and laughed.

On these “trick trials” the babies smiled and laughed less, even though the outcome was more surprising. What’s more, the difference between their enjoyment of normal peekaboo and trick-peekaboo increased with age (with the eight-month-olds enjoying the trick trials least). The researchers’ interpretation for this is that the game relies on being able to predict the outcome. As the babies get older their prediction gets stronger, so the discrepancy with what actually happens gets larger – they find it less and less funny.

The final secret to the enduring popularity of peekaboo is that it isn’t actually a single game. As the baby gets older their carer lets the game adapt to the babies’ new abilities, allowing both adult and infant to enjoy a similar game but done in different ways. The earliest version of peekaboo is simple looming, where the carer announces they are coming with their voice before bringing their face into close focus for the baby. As the baby gets older they can enjoy the adult hiding and reappearing, but after a year or so they can graduate to take control by hiding and reappearing themselves.

In this way peekaboo can keep giving, allowing a perfect balance of what a developing baby knows about the world, what they are able to control and what they are still surprised by. Thankfully we adults enjoy their laughter so much that the repetition does nothing to stop us enjoying endless rounds of the game ourselves.

This is my BBC Future column from last week. The original is here

A history of the mind in 25 parts

BBC Radio 4 has just kicked off a 25-part radio series called ‘In Search of Ourselves: A History of Psychology and the Mind’.

Because the BBC are not very good at the internet, there are no podcasts – streaming audio only, and each episode disappears after seven days. Good to see the BBC are still on the cutting edge of 20th Century media.

The series looks fantastic however and it aims to cover psychology, psychiatry, neuroscience and the diverse history of dealing with mental distress.

The first episode is already online so worth tuning in while you can.
 

Link to In Search of Ourselves: A History of Psychology and the Mind.

Detecting inner consciousness

CC Licensed photo by Flickr user hernán. Click for source.Mosaic has an excellent in-depth article on researchers who are trying to detect signs of consciousness in patients who have fallen into coma-like states.

The piece meshes the work of neuroscientists Adrian Owen, Nicholas Schiff and Steven Laureys who are independently looking at how to detect signs of consciousness in unresponsive brain-injured patients.

It’s an excellent piece and communicates the key difference between various states of poor response after brain injury that are crucial for making sense of the ‘consciousness in coma’ headlines.

One of the key concepts is the minimally conscious state which is where patients show signs of fleeting and impaired consciousness but which is nonetheless verifiably present.

However, MCS is still a very impaired state to be in and this is sometimes missed by news reports.

For example, lots of coverage of a recent Lancet study suggested that ‘one third of patients in persistent vegetative state (a state with no reliable signs of consciousness) may be conscious’ as if this meant they were fully conscious but trapped in their bodies, when actually they just reached criteria for minimally conscious state.

My only point of contention with the Mosaic article is that it’s a little too enthusiastic about sleeping pill zolpidem, which has been reported to lead to a ‘miraculous’ recovery in some case reports but where results from early systematic studies still look bleak.

Nevertheless, an excellent piece that’s probably one of the best accounts of this important and innovative area of research you’re likely to read for a long-time.
 

Link to Mosaic article ‘The Mind Readers’.

Spike activity 18-04-2014

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

Wired has a fascinating interview with psychopath researcher Kent Kiehl. He of the mobile brain scanner.

Scanning brain energy could help predict who will wake from vegetative state. Interesting piece on preliminary research covered by The Conversation

Contrary to news stories, a recent study did not tell us that smoking weed damages your brain, reports The Daily Beast.

Gay genes? Yeah, but no, well kind of… but, so what? Excellent piece from Wiring the Brain. You guys all read Wiring the Brain right?

The Association for Psychological Science has an archive of interviews with legends of psychological science. Harlow’s wire monkey, the Bobo doll, Mischel’s uneaten marshmallow…

In Search of Ourselves: A History of Psychology and the Mind. An extensive 25-part radio series on the history of psychology kicks off on Monday 21st April on BBC Radio 4.

The United Nations release a report that has everything you ever wanted to know about your chance of being murdered. Pro-tip: don’t be male.

The evolutionary psychology of facial furniture. Scicurious on the behavioural science of beards.

Scientific American Mind reports on highlights from the recent Cognitive Neuroscience Society Annual Meeting.

Irrationality ninja Dan Ariely has a kickstarter to make a documentary on dishonesty. 20 days left, a few more backers and it could make it. Looks fascinating.

Bloomberg on the booming business in behavioral finance. Although why not apply it to bankers rather than consumers to stop them fucking the economy? You can put the economics Nobel in the post.

A fascinating piece on the social and biopolitical role of bleach in a Nicaraguan community from the ever excellent Somatosphere.

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’

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