Important peculiarities of memory

A slide from what looks like a fascinating talk by memory researcher Robert Bjork is doing the rounds on Twitter.

The talk has just happened at the Association for Psychological Science 2014 conference and it describes some ‘Important peculiarities of memory’.

You can click the link above if you want to see if the image, but as it’s a little fuzzy, I’ve reproduced Robert Bjork’s text below:
 

Important peculiarities of the human memory system

  • A remarkable capacity for storing information is coupled with a highly fallible retrieval process.
  • What is accessible in memory is highly dependent on the current environmental, interpersonal, emotional and body-state cues.
  • Retrieving information from memory is a dynamic process that alters the subsequent state of the system.
  • Access to competing memory representations regresses towards the earlier representation over time

 

A lovely summary of memory’s quirks.
 

Link to Robert Bjork’s staff page.
Link to APS 2014 page with videos of the keynote talks.

Spike activity 16-05-2014

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

Motherboard on a legal rights framework for biohacking the brain. Caveat hax0r no?

There Is a Doppelganger Inside All Our Heads. Interesting piece in Nautilus.

Discover Magazine covers the latest study on using electrical stimulation to increase the chance of lucid dreaming.

The seductive allure of a brain scanner made out of an old hair dryer. The mighty Neurocritic covers a curious study.

BPS Research Digest covers an interesting study on sex lives following lower limb amputation.

Turns out there are interesting financial interests behind the ‘neuroscience in the classroom’ movement. Coverage by the Headquarters blog.

Mosaic has an excellent piece on one person’s quest to understand an existence dominated by the bleakest, darkest moods.

Study linking brain cancer and mobiles inconclusive. NHS Choices covers study widely reported as “We’re doomed. Doomed, I tell you!”

Why We Took Cocaine Out of Soda. Mainly racism as it turns out. Article in The Atlantic.

Elder statesfolk of cognitive neuroscience Uta and Chris Frith have started an excellent blog called Social Minds.

Daily News on American politicians throwing neuropsychological insults around. I’ll vote for the first one who gets a basal ganglia dig in.

There’s an interesting piece on ‘supertaskers‘ – the 2% of people who can multitask without dropping their performance level over at The New Yorker.

Unsure memories of murder

The BBC News site has a special multimedia feature on a case of false confession to murder that has been been troubling Iceland from the 1970s and has recently erupted again.

The Beeb have clearly gone a bit ‘Scandinavian detective drama’ on the whole thing but it is a gripping story, not least because it involves forensic psychology legend Gisli Gudjonsson who worked on the case when he was a young police officer and later when he became a leading expert in false confessions.

In many ways, it’s a classic case of memory distrust syndrome where accused people begin to distrust what they remember and begin to believe what’s been suggested to them. In this case, through pressure of interrogation, use of memory affecting drugs and already being motivated to comply.

It’s a fascinating case and not fully resolved – a final investigation into the miscarriage of justice is about to be published by the Icelandic government.
 

Link to ‘The Reykjavik Confessions’

The genetics of intelligent radio

BBC Radio 4 has just concluded an excellent three-part series on the controversies over the genetics of intelligence and it’s one of the best and most nuanced discussions you’ll hear about the topic for many years.

The series is called Intelligence: Born Smart, Born Equal, Born Different and it’s carefully put together, wide in scope and doesn’t shy away from either tough science or difficult issues.

The only point I’d make about is one of context: most of the discussions apply to Western populations. This is not a point about race but one about environment.

Calculating heritability for a particular trait, in this case for cognitive function, involves working out how much of the difference between people is accounted for by genetics and the environment. But the result only holds for similar populations in similar environments.

For example, malnutrition, disease and high levels of environmental neurotoxins (e.g mercury from illegal gold mining) have a massive impact on cognitive function in kids and are clearly all environmental, rather than genetic, contributors to cognitive function.

But when most of these studies are done, these serious environmental effects have been screened out either explicitly (for example, by not including people who have pre-existing damage through neurotoxins in the study) or implicitly (because, for example, malnutrition barely exists where most heritability of intelligence studies are done).

The qualified conclusion is that general cognitive function is largely heritable when the most significant environmental effects on cognitive function have already been removed. This would be true for many European kids, for example, but much less so for kids from, let’s say, South Sudan.

The programme doesn’t claim otherwise, and lucidly describes how heritability is population specific, but it’s worth bearing in mind how much of the subsequent discussion addresses issues more relevant to the developed world than the one fifth of the world’s population who live in extreme poverty.

Either way, if you want to get up to speed on the debate about intelligence, cognitive function and genetics, the BBC Radio series is an excellent place to start and you’ll come away much smarter as a result.
 

Link to ‘Intelligence: Born Smart, Born Equal, Born Different’
Link to podcast page for the series.

A forest of porous dreaming

A fascinating section of the book How Forests Think by anthropologist Eduardo Kohn where he describes how dreaming is much more porous among the Runa people of Ecuador.

This is both because of how they understand dreams, but also because of the way sleep happens in their culture – it being a more social and frequently interrupted activity, meaning that dreams and the outside world interact much more intensely.

From page 13:

Sleeping in Ávila is not the consolidated, solitary, sensorially deprived endeavour it has often become for us. Sleep – surrounded by lots of people in open thatch houses with no electricity and largely exposed to the outdoors – is continuously interspersed with wakefulness. One awakens in the middle of the night to sit by the fire and ward off the chill, or to receive a gourd full of steaming huayusa tea, or on hearing the common potoo call during a full moon, or sometimes the distant hum of a jaguar. And one awakens also to the extemporaneous comments people make throughout the night about those voices they hear.

Thanks to these continuous disruptions, dreams spill into wakefulness and wakefulness into dreams in a way that entangles both. Dreams – my own and those of my housemates, the strange ones we shared, and even those of their dogs – came to occupy a great deal of my ethnographic attention, especially because they so often involved the creatures and spirits that people the forest. Dreams too are part of the empirical, and they are kind of real. They grow out of and work on the world, and learning to be attuned to their special logics and their fragile forms of efficacy helps reveal something about the world beyond the human.

Interestingly, if your sleep is interrupted by people giving you huayasa tea you are also likely to sleep rather differently as it contains caffeine, meaning you may sleep more lightly and be more sensitive to your environment as a result.

I’m still getting to grips with the book which sounds lovely but is actually about how the theory of anthropology as a study of humans is challenged by societies where whole ecosystems form part of cognitive systems.

As with any book about deep theory, it is both difficult and intriguing, and sometimes I feel like I am lost in a forest myself.
 

Link to more details of How Forests Think.

Spike activity 09-05-2014

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

Slate has an in-depth piece on the ‘real story’ of Phineas Gage. Perhaps not such a revelation to some but beautifully told nonetheless.

There’s an extensive piece on the latest developments with neuromorphic chips in MIT Tech Review.

Foreign Policy magazine has ‘The Case Against Killer Robots‘. Wasn’t this made way back in the early 80s?

Things You Cannot Unsee (and What That Says About Your Brain). Nice piece on visual perception and scence interpretation in the brain from The Atlantic.

Wired takes us Inside the Strange New World of DIY Brain Stimulation.

Fascinating piece on BPS Research Digest: The enigma of dyslexic musicians.

New Scientist has a piece on RDoC ‘psychiatry’s scientific reboot’ but don’t miss BishopBlog with a more critical take.

A short history of game panics. Reason magazine takes us on a trip through history.

Neuroskeptic discusses a new study on how fMRI studies could be confounded by the pattern of the participants’ breathing.

The poly themes of psychosis

The latest London Review of Books has an amazing first-person account of psychosis that illustrates the complex interlocking webs of ideas and perceptions that can occur in the more intense versions of the experience.

As a description of the lived-experience of psychosis, it is actually quite rare, because most are written about relatively (and I mean relatively) circumscribed or contained experiences which clearly do not reflect reality but have their own internal logic.

These are perhaps the most common forms that psychosis takes but some are bizarre, intense and complex, involving delusions that seem to encompass a huge number of themes (known as polythematic delusions).

I met a woman called Margaret in Fairmile hospital. I assumed she was my link to the politician with the same first name. She explained periods to me. I wondered if the PM was angry with me for writing a story saying she deserved to hang for sinking the Belgrano. I tried to manoeuvre Margaret around to the front of the hospital so that a Rolls could pull in off the main road and take me to Mrs Thatcher. She didn’t seem very willing to comply. The shrink had been watching me and asked why I looked up at the sky when helicopters flew over. They were sent by Francis Pym to rescue me. Despite the massive grounds around the Victorian building the choppers never seemed to land. I soon realised I would do six months unless I staged a recovery. I stopped looking at helicopters and after only three months I was free.

One of the difficulties with a lot of discussion about mental health and mental health treatment is that ‘psychosis’ is assumed to be a single thing or variations of a single thing, when in fact it can vary massively both in terms of how the person experiences it and how it impacts them.

I have met people who have delusions and hallucinations but continue high powered jobs (probably, so have you, without realising it) whereas other people are massively disabled and / or distressed by their experiences.

As with most difficulties in life, those who are most affected are the least able to advocate for themselves, so this article stands out as a sharply written piece that captures some of the ever-woven web of intense psychosis.
 

Link to first-person account of psychosis in The LRB.

Using rational argument to change minds

I have a longer piece in the latest issue of Contributoria: What’s the evidence on using rational argument to change people’s minds? Here’s a few snips from the opening:

Are we, the human species, unreasonable? Do rational arguments have any power to sway us, or is it all intuition, hidden motivations, and various other forms of prejudice?

…the picture of human rationality painted by our profession can seem pretty bleak. Every week I hear about a new piece of research which shows up some quirk of our minds, like the one about people given a heavy clip board judge public issues as more important than people given a light clip board. Or that more attractive people are judged as more trustworthy, or they arguments they give as more intelligent.

…I set out to get to the bottom of the evidence on how we respond to rational arguments. Does rationality lose out every time to irrational motivations? Or is there any hope to those of us who want to persuade because we have good arguments, not because we are handsome, or popular, or offer heavy clipboards.

You can read the full thing here, and while you’re over there check out the rest of the the Contributoria site – all of the articles on which are published under a CC license and commissioned by members. On which note, a massive thanks to everyone who backed my proposal and offered comments (see previous announcements). Special thanks to Josie and Dan for giving close readings to the piece before it was finished.

 

Spike activity 02-05-2014

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

All the amazing Dwayne Goodwin and Jorge Cham brain comics are collated in this one fantastic tumblr.

Not Exactly Rocket Science covers a fascinating study on how randomly distributed initial benefits can lead to long-term gains.

You Neanderthal! Why thank you madam. New Scientist on how there’s no good evidence that Neanderthals were any less intelligent than us.

The Lancet Psychiatry journal launches today. Which you probably mostly missed because it is locked behind a paywall picket fence. It does, however, have a freely available podcast that looks great.

The mythconception of the mad genius. Good article in Frontiers in Psychology challenging the idea that creativity and madness are linked.

Scientific American Mind on surprising connections between words and the sense of motion through space. Which is why I always sound like a drunk salsa dancer when I talk.

The trouble with sex. ABC Radio National’s Philosopher’s Zone asks why philosophy has a hot and cold relationship to sex.

Forbes cover the FDA crackdown on autism quackery.

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.

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