Spike activity 09-01-2015

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

Game theorists crack poker according to a fascinating report from Nature. First nuclear war, now poker. Whatever next!

Harvard Business Review has a genuinely interesting piece on the psychology of office politics.

Child mental health services have been secretly cut by £50m according to BBC News. What we need is some important politician to tell us how important mental health is to make this right again.

British Journal of Psychiatry puts a psychedelic portrait of the Shulgins on its front cover. Rumour has it that if you lick the pages your hallucinations disappear.

There’s an interesting piece in Wired about images specifically generated to mislead AI image recognition algorithms.

The New York Times has an extended and interesting profile of innovative neuroscientist Sebastian Seung.

Can deaf people hear hallucinated voices? An interesting piece in Mosaic tackles the issue.

The scan says we add fries and call it a special

Photo from Flickr user Daniel Go. Click for source.Marketing magazine has an interview with the marketing director of KFC who explains why he thinks neuroscience holds the key to selling deep-fried junk food.

“Marketing as a whole is undergoing transformation,” he says. “We now know through neuroscience how people’s brains work and what affects their decision-making. So what we’re trying to do is take the new knowledge and say – this is how we put it together, this is how a brain actually works – and this is how we should be marketing.”

Somebody, please, find me a pizza.
 

Link to Marketing interview.

Excellent NPR Invisibilia finally hits the wires

A sublime new radio show on mind, brain and behaviour has launched today. It’s called Invisibilia and is both profound and brilliant.

It’s produced by ex-Radiolab alumni Lulu Miller and radio journalist Alix Spiegel – responsible for some of the best mind and brain material on the radio in the last decade.

The first episode is excellent and I’ve had a sneak preview of some other material for future broadcast which is equally as good.

It’s on weekly, and you can download or stream from the link below, and you can follow the show on the Twitter @nprinvisibilia.

Recommended.
 
Link to NPR Invisibilia.

Is public opinion rational?

There is no shortage of misconceptions. The British public believes that for every £100 spent on benefits, £24 is claimed fraudulently (the actual figure is £0.70). We think that 31% of the population are immigrants (actually its 13%). One recent headline summed it up: “British Public wrong about nearly everything, and I’d bet good money that it isn’t just the British who are exceptionally misinformed.

This looks like a problem for democracy, which supposes a rational and informed public opinion. But perhaps it isn’t, at least according to a body of political science research neatly summarised by Will Jennings in his chapter of a new book “Sex, lies & the ballot box: 50 things you need to know about British elections“. The book is a collection of accessible essays by British political scientists, and has a far wider scope than the book subtitle implies: there are important morals here for anyone interested in collective human behaviour, not just those interested in elections.

Will’s chapter discusses the “public opinion as thermostat” theory. This, briefly, is that the public can be misinformed about absolute statistics, but we can still change our strength of feeling in an appropriate way. So, for example, we may be misled about the absolute unemployment rate, but can still discern whether unemployment is getting better or worse. There’s evidence to support this view, and the chapter includes this striking graph (reproduced with permission), showing the percentage of people saying “unemployment” is the most important issue facing the country against the actual unemployment rate . As you can see public opinion tracks reality with remarkable accuracy:

Unemployment rate (source: ONS) and share of voters rating unemployment as the most important issue facing the country (source: ipsos-MORI), from Will Jenning's chapter in "Sex, lies & the ballot box" (p.35)

Unemployment rate and share of voters rating unemployment as the most important issue facing the country, from Will Jenning’s chapter in “Sex, lie & the ballot box” (p.35)

The topic of how a biased and misinformed public can make rational collective decisions is a fascinating one, which has received attention from disciplines ranging from psychology to political science. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the book to get more evidence based insights into how our psychological biases play out when decision making is at the collective level of elections.

Full disclosure: Will is a friend of mine and sent me a free copy of the book.

Link: “Sex, lies & the ballot box (Edited by Philip Cowley & Robert Ford).

Link: Guardian data blog Five things we can learn from Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box

Bringing us closer to the blueprints of the brain

I’ve got a piece in today’s Observer about the amazing science of doing functional brain imaging and behavioural studies with babies while they are still in the womb to see the earliest stages of neurocognitive development.

Brain development during pregnancy is key for future health, which is why it gets checked so thoroughly during prenatal examinations. But neuroscientists have become increasingly interested in how the activity of the brain becomes progressively integrated and synchronised during development to support human experience, something developmental neuroscientist Moriah Thomason calls “bringing us closer to the blueprints of the brain”.

It’s difficult to state how remarkable this is, both technically and scientifically, as researchers have managed to measure the unborn brain in action as it responds to the outside world through the womb.

The article looks at how this science is developing and what it’s telling us about the earliest stages of the developing brain.

Exciting stuff.
 

Link to ‘Prenatal blueprints give an early glimpse of a baby’s developing brain’

A new year with an old friend

I’ve just found a curious article in the scientific journal Clinical Anatomy which reprints a Victorian story called ‘Celebrating new year in Bart’s dissecting room’ where the corpses come to life. It finishes with some interesting observations about the psychological impact of dissecting a dead body as a rite of passage for medical students.

The story is of “a somewhat desultory student” who has been treating the body on which he has been working disrespectfully and is reminded of its humanity as it comes to life. “As a result, he resolves to behave differently in the future”.

The authors of the article, which reprints the story, discuss its modern day relevance for young medical students faced with a dead body they have to cut up.

In some dissecting rooms, even into the twentieth century, the dead were still being treated with irreverence and levity (Smith, 1984).

Today, it is understood that some of these behaviors may result from unresolved tensions. Recent studies by Hafferty (1991), Horne et al. (1990), and Gustavson (1988), have shown that first reactions to the dissecting room and to dissection itself may include faintness, physical symptoms of unease, even flight. Anxiety may be expressed as embarrassment, levity, or bravado.

Coping mechanisms include the bestowal by students of fictitious names or speculative personalities or life stories upon the dead. A curious sort of bond can develop between the student and the “person” of the dead body. The emotional experience contrasts with and supplements students’ efforts to internalize anatomical knowledge. There may evolve a sense of familiarity, contact and intimacy, mixed perhaps with a sense of transgression or guilt, and of obligation.

For those not from the UK, ‘Barts’ refers to St Bartholomew’s Hospital which is the oldest working hospital in Europe and probably best known for being associated with Sherlock Holmes.

The article is open, so you can read it online in full.
 

Link to ‘Celebrating new year in Bart’s dissecting room’.

Why you can live a normal life with half a brain

A few extreme cases show that people can be missing large chunks of their brains with no significant ill-effect – why? Tom Stafford explains what it tells us about the true nature of our grey matter.

How much of our brain do we actually need? A number of stories have appeared in the news in recent months about people with chunks of their brains missing or damaged. These cases tell a story about the mind that goes deeper than their initial shock factor. It isn’t just that we don’t understand how the brain works, but that we may be thinking about it in the entirely wrong way.

Earlier this year, a case was reported of a woman who is missing her cerebellum, a distinct structure found at the back of the brain. By some estimates the human cerebellum contains half the brain cells you have. This isn’t just brain damage – the whole structure is absent. Yet this woman lives a normal life; she graduated from school, got married and had a kid following an uneventful pregnancy and birth. A pretty standard biography for a 24-year-old.

The woman wasn’t completely unaffected – she had suffered from uncertain, clumsy, movements her whole life. But the surprise is how she moves at all, missing a part of the brain that is so fundamental it evolved with the first vertebrates. The sharks that swam when dinosaurs walked the Earth had cerebellums.

This case points to a sad fact about brain science. We don’t often shout about it, but there are large gaps in even our basic understanding of the brain. We can’t agree on the function of even some of the most important brain regions, such as the cerebellum. Rare cases such as this show up that ignorance. Every so often someone walks into a hospital and their brain scan reveals the startling differences we can have inside our heads. Startling differences which may have only small observable effects on our behaviour.

Part of the problem may be our way of thinking. It is natural to see the brain as a piece of naturally selected technology, and in human technology there is often a one-to-one mapping between structure and function. If I have a toaster, the heat is provided by the heating element, the time is controlled by the timer and the popping up is driven by a spring. The case of the missing cerebellum reveals there is no such simple scheme for the brain. Although we love to talk about the brain region for vision, for hunger or for love, there are no such brain regions, because the brain isn’t technology where any function is governed by just one part.

Take another recent case, that of a man who was found to have a tapeworm in his brain. Over four years it burrowed “from one side to the other“, causing a variety of problems such as seizures, memory problems and weird smell sensations. Sounds to me like he got off lightly for having a living thing move through his brain. If the brain worked like most designed technology this wouldn’t be possible. If a worm burrowed from one side of your phone to the other, the gadget would die. Indeed, when an early electromechanical computer malfunctioned in the 1940s, an investigation revealed the problem: a moth trapped in a relay – the first actual case of a computer bug being found.

Part of the explanation for the brain’s apparent resilience is its ‘plasticity’ – an ability to adapt its structure based on experience. But another clue comes from a concept advocated by Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Gerald Edelman. He noticed that biological functions are often supported by multiple structures – single physical features are coded for by multiple genes, for example, so that knocking out any single gene can’t prevent that feature from developing apparently normally. He called the ability of multiple different structures to support a single function ‘degeneracy’.

And so it is with the brain. The important functions our brain carries out are not farmed out to single distinct brain regions, but instead supported by multiple regions, often in similar but slightly different ways. If one structure breaks down, the others can pick up the slack.

This helps explain why cognitive neuroscientists have such problems working out what different brain regions do. If you try and understand brain areas using a simple one-function-per-region and one-region-per-function rule you’ll never be able to design the experiments needed to unpick the degenerate tangle of structure and function.

The cerebellum is most famous for controlling precise movements, but other areas of the brain such as the basal ganglia and the motor cortex are also intimately involved in moving our bodies. Asking what unique thing each area does may be the wrong question, when they are all contributing to the same thing. Memory is another example of an essential biological function which seems to be supported by multiple brain systems. If you bump into someone you’ve met once before, you might remember that they have a reputation for being nice, remember a specific incident of them being nice, or just retrieve a vague positive feeling about them – all forms of memory which tell you to trust this person, and all supported by different brain areas doing the same job in a slightly different way.

Edelman and his colleague, Joseph Gally, called degeneracy a “ubiquitous biological property … a feature of complexity”, claiming it was an inevitable outcome of natural selection. It explains both why unusual brain conditions are not as catastrophic as they might be, and also why scientists find the brain so confounding to try and understand.

My BBC Future column from before Christmas. The original is here. Thanks to everyone on twitter who chipped in on the plural of cerebellum

Spike activity 19-12-2014

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

MIT Tech Review has an interesting piece about ‘troll hunters’ – a new wave of internet abuse vigilantes.

ABC All in the Mind has a good edition asking whether mirror neurons have been oversold. Spoiler alert: yes, they have.

The New York Magazine’s Science of Us section has an interesting piece on whether terrorists can be rehabilitated.

The LSE has an excellent interview with Nikolas Rose on the social implications of the Human Brain Project.

A new study covered by Neuroskeptic finds that head motion biases yet another area of neuroimaging – this time voxel-based morphometry.

Science magazine has an interesting piece on how ideas flow between languages.

There are some excellent extended video interviews with psychologist Gary Marcus on the ‘future of the brain’ over at Live Science.

Foreign Policy magazine has an extended article which perfectly captures the ‘global mental health’ approach to extending mental health services. Please note: other approaches are available.

There’s an extended post on the Skype site that explains the AI tech behind their real-time language translator software.

Economics against sexual violence

PBS has an article on ‘How economic theory can help stop sexual assault’ which despite its unappealing title is actually a genuinely thought-provoking piece on how game theory and social norms marketing could help prosecute and prevent sexual violence.

Both approaches look at how people’s behaviour is shaped by their perception of other people’s beliefs and behaviour.

People are less likely to report rape when they think they’re going to have to do it alone and people are more likely to intervene to prevent violence if they believe other people will also intervene.

The article discusses two existing interventions to tackle sexual violence based on game theory and social norms marketing and the article is also a great guide to the theories themselves.
 

Link to PBS article on approaches to preventing sexual assault.

The celebrity analysis that killed celebrity analysis

Most ‘psy’ professionals are banned by their codes of conduct from conducting ‘celebrity analysis’ and commenting on the mental state of specific individuals in the media. This is a sensible guideline but I didn’t realise it was triggered by a specific event.

Publicly commenting on a celebrity’s psychological state is bad form. If you’ve worked with them professionally, you’re likely bound by confidentiality, if you’ve not, you probably don’t know what you’re talking about and doing so in the media is likely to do them harm.

Despite this, it happens surprisingly often, usually by ‘celebrity psychologists’ in gossip columns and third-rate TV. Sadly, I don’t know of a single case where a professional organisation has tried to discipline the professional for doing so – although it must be said that mostly it’s done by self-appointed ‘experts’ rather than actual psychologists.

A new article in Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law traced the history of how this form of ‘celebrity analysis’ first got banned in the US under the ‘Goldwater Rule’.

The Goldwater Rule stemmed from a scandal surrounding a 1964 publication in Fact magazine that included anonymous psychiatric opinions commenting on Senator Barry Goldwater‘s psychological fitness to be President of the United States. Fact, a short-lived magazine published in the 1960s, carried opinionated articles that covered a broad range of controversial topics. In the 1964 September/October issue entitled, “The Unconscious of a Conservative: A Special Issue on the Mind of Barry Goldwater,” the opinions of over 1,800 psychiatrists commenting on Goldwater’s psychological fitness were published…

Of the 2,417 respondents, 571 deferred from providing comments, 657 responded that Goldwater was fit to be president, and 1,189 responded that he was not fit. None of the psychiatrists whose comments were published had examined Goldwater, however, and none had permission from him to issue their comments publicly. In the article, Goldwater was described with comments including “lack of maturity”, “impulsive”, “unstable”, “megalomaniac”, “very dangerous man”, “obsessive-compulsive neurosis”, and “suffering a chronic psychosis”… Much was made of two nervous breakdowns allegedly suffered by Goldwater, and there was commentary warning that he might launch a nuclear attack if placed under a critical amount of stress as president.

Goldwater responded by bringing libel action against Ralph Ginzburg, Warren Boroson, and Fact… The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York returned a verdict in favor of the senator… The AMA and APA immediately condemned the remarks made in the Fact article after its publication. Individual psychiatrists also spoke out against the ethics of the published comments.

Most people who are subject to ‘celebrity analysis’ don’t have the luxury of bringing libel suits to defend themselves but it’s probably worth remembering that if someone is seeming to give a professional opinion on someone’s psychological state whom they’ve never met, they’re probably talking rubbish.
 

Link to article on ‘Psychiatrists Who Interact With the Media’

Towards a nuanced view of mental distress

In the latest edition of The Psychologist I’m involved in a debate with John Cromby about whether our understanding of mental illness is mired in the past.

He thinks it is, I think it isn’t, and we kick off from there.

The article is readable online with a free registration but I’ve put the unrestricted version online as a pdf if you want to read it straight away.

Much of the debate is over the role of biological explanations in understanding mental distress which I think is widely understood by many.

Hopefully, amid the knockabout, the debate gets to clarify some of that.

Either way, I hope it raises a few useful reflections.
 

Link to ‘Are understandings of mental illness mired in the past?’ (free reg).
pdf of full debate.

Spike activity 12-12-2014

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

The new trailer for upcoming Pixar movie Inside Out is very funny and has a remarkably accurate depiction of brain function.

Neurocritic covers hipster neuroscience.

Is the ‘bilingual advantage’ in cognitive performance a result of publication bias? Maybe, suggests the Science of Us.

The Economist asks whether behavioural economics could be a tool to tackle global poverty.

Why do friendly people usually lead happier lives? asks BPS Research Digest.

Fastcompany has an interesting piece on the curious results from an online lingerie company who use extensive A/B testing of model photos to see underwear.

The science of why torture makes for useless interrogation – in New Scientist.

Snake oil salesmen selling torture

The US Government has just released its report on the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program, aptly branded the “torture report”, which is available online as a pdf.

It makes for appalling reading but sheds light on the role of two psychologists in the creation and running of what turned out to be genuinely counter-productive ‘enhanced interrogations’ that were used in preference to already productive non-abusive interrogations.

In the report the psychologists are given the codenames Grayson SWIGERT and Hammond DUNBAR but these refer to James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen who have been widely identified by other sources in the preceding years.

Mitchell and Jessen were both contractors, who, according to the new report, arrived at detention centres to direct CIA interrogations, despite having no interrogation experience, and in face of sometimes severe reservations of regular CIA staff.

Later, Mitchell and Jessen formed a company, Mitchell Jessen and Associates – given the codename ‘Company Y’ in the report – which was contracted to the tune of $81 million to perform the interrogations. By interrogations here, of course, we mean torture that include waterboarding, unnecessary feeding through the anus, sleep deprivation, violence, threats, confinement to coffin shaped boxes for days on end, and painful stress positions.

Mitchell and Jessen’s approach was flawed from the start because it was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the theory they based their approach on.

They are frequently described in the report as saying that their interrogation method aimed to induce a state of ‘learned helplessness’.

This was a concept first developed by the psychologist Martin Seligman who noted that if you prevented animals from escaping when they were given electric shocks some eventually stopped trying and just fell into a state of passivity as they were repeatedly shocked.

Seligman argued that this might explain depression: people who experience multiple uncontrollable tragedies simply lose motivation and give up trying to make things better.

It’s not a great theory of depression but it does describe the loss of coherent self-helping behaviour that appears in some people who have no control over their abusive situations.

Mitchell and Jessen wanted to induce this state in detainees, thinking that it would make them more likely to co-operate.

This, to be frank, is just bizarre. The theory predicts the opposite would happen and this is, rather grimly, exactly what occurred.

Detainee Abu Zubaydah, the report notes, became “completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth” after repeated waterboarding. Ramzi bin al-Shibh started to exhibit “visions, paranoia, insomnia, and attempts at self-harm.”

One CIA staff member understood exactly the counter-productive psychology of these techniques when he noted that “we believe employing enhanced measures will accomplish nothing except show [al-Nashiri] that he will be punished whether he cooperates or not, thus eroding any remaining desire to continue cooperating”. This is learned helplessness in action.

It’s not as if the entirely nonsensical basis of Mitchell and Jessen’s ‘learned helplessness’ approach was a complex or subtle theoretical distinction – it’s undergraduate level psychology. Even for the uninitiated, the clue is in the name.

Perhaps one of the biggest questions is why Mitchell and Jessen were given such a central and powerful role to carry out these useless torture sessions in light of their lack of experience, the incoherent basis of their ideas, lack of results, abusive methods and and massive conflict of interest.

On this last point, the report notes that CIA staff members on the ground expressed concerns that Mitchell and Jessen were responsible for assessing detainees’ suitability for ‘enhanced interrogation’, directing the sessions, evaluating their own performance, and profiting from participation.

If it couldn’t get any worse, the report mentions in several places that established CIA psychologists repeatedly expressed concerns about what was happening but were overruled.

The episode is both a monumental fuck-up on the level of the organisation’s ability to detect psychological snake oil and a vast human tragedy.
 

pdf of full report from Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

You won’t find the data in my pants

The journal contexts has an excellent article on the long history of exploring the sex lives of sex researchers as a veiled attempt to discredit their work.

…these stories suggest a troubling pattern: they tend to focus on researchers’ alleged sexual proclivities, spinning them as deviant motivations which compromise the research.

For example, James Miller’s biography of Michel Foucault links Foucault’s work to unconventional sexual activities like sadomasochism. Thomas Maier begins his biography with Virginia Johnson losing her virginity, portrays her as a sexually conniving secretary, and delights in exposing complicated aspects of the researchers’ sex life together. And historian James Jones depicts Kinsey as deeply twisted.

The problem is not simply that sexuality research remains stigmatized. It is that, in many circumstances, sex itself remains stubbornly discrediting. Sexuality’s cultural meanings are paradoxical—it is simultaneously repulsive and attractive, taboo yet vital to our happiness. It is difficult to write sexual stories without reproducing what Michael Warner calls “the ordinary power of sexual shame.” Moreover, stories that examine sex research through the prism of the researcher’s sex life rely on the simplistic notion that there is a specific connection between one’s sexual experiences and research.

A fascinating piece which covers the sort of leering interest sex research continually attracts despite it being one of the most important and under-investigated aspects of human health and behaviour.
 

Link to ‘The Sex Lives of Sex Researchers’ in contexts.

A simple trick to improve your memory

Want to enhance your memory for facts? Tom Stafford explains a counterintuitive method for retaining information.

If I asked you to sit down and remember a list of phone numbers or a series of facts, how would you go about it? There’s a fair chance that you’d be doing it wrong.

One of the interesting things about the mind is that even though we all have one, we don’t have perfect insight into how to get the best from it. This is in part because of flaws in our ability to think about our own thinking, which is called metacognition. Studying this self-reflective thought process reveals that the human species has mental blind spots.

One area where these blind spots are particularly large is learning. We’re actually surprisingly bad at having insight into how we learn best.

Researchers Jeffrey Karpicke and Henry Roediger III set out to look at one aspect: how testing can consolidate our memory of facts. In their experiment they asked college students to learn pairs of Swahili and English words. So, for example, they had to learn that if they were given the Swahili word ‘mashua’ the correct response was ‘boat’. They could have used the sort of facts you might get on a high-school quiz (e.g. “Who wrote the first computer programs?”/”Ada Lovelace”), but the use of Swahili meant that there was little chance their participants could use any background knowledge to help them learn. After the pairs had all been learnt, there would be a final test a week later.

Now if many of us were revising this list we might study the list, test ourselves and then repeat this cycle, dropping items we got right. This makes studying (and testing) quicker and allows us to focus our effort on the things we haven’t yet learnt. It’s a plan that seems to make perfect sense, but it’s a plan that is disastrous if we really want to learn properly.

Karpicke and Roediger asked students to prepare for a test in various ways, and compared their success – for example, one group kept testing themselves on all items without dropping what they were getting right, while another group stopped testing themselves on their correct answers.

On the final exam differences between the groups were dramatic. While dropping items from study didn’t have much of an effect, the people who dropped items from testing performed relatively poorly: they could only remember about 35% of the word pairs, compared to 80% for people who kept testing items after they had learnt them.

It seems the effective way to learn is to practice retrieving items from memory, not trying to cement them in there by further study. Moreover, dropping items entirely from your revision, which is the advice given by many study guides, is wrong. You can stop studying them if you’ve learnt them, but you should keep testing what you’ve learnt if you want to remember them at the time of the final exam.

Finally, the researchers had the neat idea of asking their participants how well they would remember what they had learnt. All groups guessed at about 50%. This was a large overestimate for those who dropped items from test (and an underestimate from those who kept testing learnt items).

So it seems that we have a metacognitive blind spot for which revision strategies will work best. Making this a situation where we need to be guided by the evidence, and not our instinct. But the evidence has a moral for teachers as well: there’s more to testing than finding out what students know – tests can also help us remember.

Read more: Why cramming for tests often fails

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

Madness, murder and mental healing

London’s innovative biomedical centre, the Wellcome Collection, have created a fascinating interactive story on how ‘mesmerism’ and hypnosis played an important role in the history of mind and madness.

It’s written by the fantastic Mike Jay, who has penned many excellent books on the high-strangeness of the early science of the mind in the 1800s, and has been wonderfully realised as an interactive web site.

It’s called ‘Mindcraft: a story of madness, murder and mental healing’ and rather curiously, but also rather usefully, it has its own trailer.

After you’ve gone to the website, you just need to keep scrolling down to work through the story and you’ll be diverted into video, narrative and text along the way.
 

Link to Mindcraft.

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