Spike activity 07-11-2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Excellent retrospective of 50 years of methadone in Washington Monthly.

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

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

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

Beautiful online neuroscience learning

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

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

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

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

Link to ‘Fundamentals of Neuroscience’ course.

Hallucinogenic bullets

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

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

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

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

 

Link to locked article ‘Modern Toxic Antipersonnel Projectiles’

Mind Hacks – Live!

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

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

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

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

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

We’ve also got some fantastic speakers lined up:

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

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

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

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

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

Link to buy tickets for Mind Hacks – Live!

Spike activity 31-10-2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Social psychology has lost its balance

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
Link to ‘Is Social Psychology Biased Against Republicans?’

Quasi-stability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Postscript

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

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

Spike activity 24-10-2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Rush of Blood to the Brain

An article from Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry that discusses the concept of ‘moral disability’ and brain trauma in Victorian times includes a fascinating section on what was presumably thought to be the science of ‘knocking some sense into the brain’.

The piece is by medical historian Brandy Shillace who researches Victorian scientific ideas and how they affected society.

Sadly, the article is locked (quite rightly, humanities can kill if not used correctly) but this is the key section:

While eighteenth-century French philosopher François Bichat had suggested that a blow suffered to one side of the head might restore the good senses of the disordered side, Wigan’s work suggested that “where such mental derangement depends on inflammation, fever, impoverished or diseased blood, or other manifestly bodily disease,” it could be cured by actively seeking and rooting out the source, by trephining the brain or otherwise subduing the offending hemisphere… The Lancet was replete with unusual cases of brain trauma and its curious results, many that seemed to support Wigan in his assumptions about physical trauma, variously applied.

I performed a survey from 1839 to 1858 and discovered a case of brain trauma in numerous issues, eight of which were particularly revelatory of the unusual nature of the brain and its hemispheres. The 1843 account of Dr. Peter S. Evans, “Derangement of the Brain by a Sudden Shock and Its Recovery,” claims that a boy was beaten into idiocy, and then beaten out of it again (regaining his full senses after being whipped by a cart driver). One of Wigan’s cases describes a young gentleman in a “paroxysm of maniacal delirium” who shot himself sane.

Not recommended.
 

Link to locked article in Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry

Hallucinating astronauts

I’ve got a piece in The Observer about the stresses, strains and mind-bending effects of space flight.

NASA considers behavioural and psychiatric conditions to be one of the most significant risks to the integrity of astronaut functioning and there is a surprisingly long history of these difficulties adversely affecting missions.

Perhaps more seriously, hallucinations have been associated with the breakdown of crew coherence and space mission stress. In 1976, crew from the Russian Soyuz-21 mission were brought back to Earth early after they reported an acrid smell aboard the Salyut-5 space station. Concerns about a possible fluid leak meant the replacement crew boarded with breathing equipment, but no odour or technical problems were found. Subsequent reports of “interpersonal issues” and “psychological problems” in the crew led Nasa to conclude the odour was probably a hallucination. Other Russian missions were thought to be have been halted by psychological problems, but the US space programme has not been without difficulties. During the Skylab 4 mission, long hours, exhaustion and disagreements with mission control resulted in the crew switching off their radio and spending a day ignoring Nasa while watching the Earth’s surface pass by.

The piece also tackles a curious form of hallucination caused by cosmic rays and the detrimental effects of zero-gravity of brain function, as well as some curious Freudian theories from pre-space flight 1950s about the potential psychological consequences of leaving ‘Mother Earth’.

Enjoy!
 

Link to Observer article on psychological challenges of astronauts.

Spike activity 05-10-2014

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

Dropping science: neuroscientists throw down epic / excruciating rap battle on Twitter. Bring the line noise.

The New Yorker has an interesting piece on the neuroscientific legacy of the Vietnam War. In neuroscience terms, it was America’s World War One.

The latest edition of Nature NeuroPod is particularly good: psychosis, detecting animacy, network theory for brains.

Livescience covers an interesting study finding that the uncanny valley effect is affected by loneliness.

The US Government spend $300 million on BRAIN initiative projects and the news coverage is remarkably poor. Here’s the best of a bad bunch: reporting from MIT Tech Review.

Nautilus has some postcards from the edge of consciousness. On the science of sensory deprivation.

Guy breaks captcha on Silk Road 2.0 and scrapes the site for trends in the dark net drug trade.

Slate covers ‘Sluggish cognitive tempo’ – another in a long-line of vague and unhelpful psychiatric disorder-hopefuls to sell medication for.

A peculiar prevalence of p-values below p=.05 in Psych Science? Not so fast. Great piece from Daniel Lakens blog.

Most People With Addiction Simply Grow Out of It: Why Is This Widely Denied? Excellent piece in Substance.

This week in bad neuroscience reporting: beer and curry ‘heal the brain’. Next week: wanking and funfairs cure Parkinson’s disease.

A review of Susan Greenfield’s “Mind Change”

I was asked to write a review of Susan Greenfield’s new book “Mind Change” for the October edition of Literary Review magazine which has just been published.

You can read the review in the print edition and I did have the full text posted here but the good folks at the magazine have also put it online to read in full, so do check it out at the link below.

Mind Change marshals many published sources to address these claims. However, this provides little scientific insight owing to Greenfield’s difficulty with synthesising the evidence in any meaningful sense, while she also makes some glaring mistakes in her interpretation of it. Although she makes much of her use of peer-reviewed evidence, surveys done by companies for marketing campaigns are often given the same weight as scientific studies and opinions from self-appointed pundits as those of specialists.

As an end-note, what’s most interesting is that Greenfield is essentially making an argument about public health but doesn’t really have the conceptual tools to do so and consequently doesn’t seem to understand how, and how strongly, to draw real world inferences from different types of evidence.

However, in terms of Greenfield’s evolution, she is at least tackling some of the relevant evidence, but this really isn’t up to a standard that merits any of the media attention it gets.
 

Link to review of “Mind Change”.

Buggin’ Out

Sociology journal Transition has a fascinating article giving a history of the surprisingly frequent appearance of schizophrenia in rap music.

In psychiatric circles, schizophrenia is considered a serious mental illness that causes delusions, hallucinations, and social withdrawal. But in rap, schizophrenia means something else: a mode of defiance, a boast, or a threat. The term appears frequently when describing competition between rappers. In “Speak Ya Clout,” the duo Gang Starr rhymes that they are “schizophrenic with rhyme plus we’re well organized” as a way of warning that they are “stepping rugged and tough.”

Schizophrenia also enhances claims of competitive violence—in “16 on Death Row,” 2Pac famously warned that, “I’m kind of schizophrenic, I’m in this shit to win it.” Schizophrenia also helps rappers describe collective responses to racism or injustice. In the multi-artist hit “Everything,” Busta Rhymes calls for action by rapping, “Panic and schizophrenic, sylvy-Atlantic / Wrap up your face in ceramic, goddamit we controllin the planet.”…

Yet something much larger than mere sampling is at play in rap’s use of the terms schizophrenia and schizophrenic. Rap lyrics are the latest installments in a political debate that has evolved over the past century (at least) regarding the contested relationships between race, madness, violence, and civil rights… At stake is a series of existential and material questions about the causes, actions, and implications of sanity itself.

The article is locked but a pdf has made its way online.

It’s a fantastic piece that traces how schizophrenia and psychosis have become deeply politicised, racially charged concepts.

They were used to pathologise black civil rights protesters, whose demand for equal rights were considered part of a ‘protest psychosis’, and have been used in civil rights discourse to symbolise the effects of a racist society.

And this is how it seems to have ended up as a borrowed badge of pride for generations of MCs.

The piece is by psychiatrist Jonathan Metzl who also wrote the definitive history of the so-called ‘protest psychosis’ and it serves as a great introduction to an important chapter in the bitter history of race, psychiatry and psychosis.
 

Link to locked Transition article in JSTOR.
pdf of full-text.

Spike activity 26-09-2014

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

Why most scientists don’t take Susan Greenfield seriously. A serious rebuttal for some poor scientific claims over at BishopBlog.

The Guardian has a good profile of food and flavour scientist Charles Spence who specialises in sensory integration.

Couvade syndrome: some men develop signs of pregnancy when their partners are pregnant. The Conversation has a piece on a genuinely intriguing condition.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an interesting piece on Why Freud Still Haunts Us.

‘GCHQ employs more than 100 dyslexic and dyspraxic spies’ according to some covert recruiting PR slipped out as news in The Telegraph.

The New York Times has a retrospective on the life and times of Prozac.

There’s an excellent concise introduction to RDoC in Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavia that is essential reading if you’re interesting in the future of psychiatric neuroscience.

Rewriting the Rules has an interesting reflection from relationship psychologist Meg Barker on 10 years of researching open relationships and non-monogamy.

Pipe-wielding philosopher of mind Pete Mandik occasionally puts out great educational videos. This on Daniel Dennett’s ‘multiple drafts’ theory of consciousness is excellent.

Why our faith in cramming is mistaken

You may think you know your own mind, but when it comes to memory, research suggests that you don’t. If we’re trying to learn something, many of us study in ways that prevent the memories sticking. Fortunately, the same research also reveals how we can supercharge our learning.

We’ve all had to face a tough exam at least once in our lives. Whether it’s a school paper, university final or even a test at work, there’s one piece of advice we’re almost always given: make a study plan. With a plan, we can space out our preparation for the test rather than relying on one or two intense study sessions the night before to see us through.

It’s good advice. Summed up in three words: cramming doesn’t work. Unfortunately, many of us ignore this rule. At least one survey has found that 99% of students admit to cramming.

You might think that’s down to nothing more than simple disorganisation: I’ll admit it is far easier to leave things to the last minute than start preparing for a test weeks or months ahead. But studies of memory suggest there’s something else going on. In 2009, for example, Nate Kornell at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that spacing out learning was more effective than cramming for 90% of the participants who took part in one of his experiments – and yet 72% of the participants thought that cramming had been more beneficial. What is happening in the brain that we trick ourselves this way?

Studies of memory suggest that we have a worrying tendency to rely on our familiarity with study items to guide our judgements of whether we know them. The problem is that familiarity is bad at predicting whether we can recall something.

Familiar, not remembered

After six hours of looking at study material (and three cups of coffee and five chocolate bars) it’s easy to think we have it committed to memory. Every page, every important fact, evokes a comforting feeling of familiarity. The cramming has left a lingering glow of activity in our sensory and memory systems, a glow that allows our brain to swiftly tag our study notes as “something that I’ve seen before”. But being able to recognise something isn’t the same as being able to recall it.

Different parts of the brain support different kinds of memory. Recognition is strongly affected by the ease with which information passes through the sensory areas of our brain, such as the visual cortex if you are looking at notes. Recall is supported by a network of different areas of the brain, including the frontal cortex and the temporal lobe, which coordinate to recreate a memory from the clues you give it. Just because your visual cortex is fluently processing your notes after five consecutive hours of you looking at them, doesn’t mean the rest of your brain is going to be able to reconstruct the memory of them when you really need it to.

This ability to make judgements about our own minds is called metacognition. Studying it has identified other misconceptions too. For instance, many of us think that actively thinking about trying to learn something will help us remember it. Studies suggest this is not the case. Far more important is reorganising the information so that it has a structure more likely to be retained in your memory. In other words, rewrite the content of what you want to learn in a way that makes most sense to you.

Knowing about common metacognitive errors means you can help yourself by assuming that you will make them. You can then try and counteract them. So, the advice to space out our study only makes sense if we assume that people aren’t already spacing out their study sessions enough (a safe assumption, given the research findings). We need to be reminded of the benefits of spaced learning because it runs counter to our instinct to relying on a comforting feeling of familiarity when deciding how to study

Put simply, we can sometimes have a surprising amount to gain from going against our normally reliable metacognitive instinct. How much should you space out your practice? Answer: a little bit more than you really want to.

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

Problems with Bargh’s definition of unconscious

iceberg_cutI have a new paper out in Frontiers in Psychology: The perspectival shift: how experiments on unconscious processing don’t justify the claims made for them. There has been ongoing consternation about the reliability of some psychology research, particularly studies which make claims about unconscious (social) priming. However, even if we assume that the empirical results are reliable, the question remains whether the claims made for the power of the unconscious make any sense. I argue that they often don’t.

Here’s something from the intro:

In this commentary I draw attention to certain limitations on the inferences which can be drawn about participant’s awareness from the experimental methods which are routine in social priming research. Specifically, I argue that (1) a widely employed definition of unconscious processing, promoted by John Bargh is incoherent (2) many experiments involve a perspectival sleight of hand taking factors identified from comparison of average group performance and inappropriately ascribing them to the reasoning of individual participants.

The problem, I claim, is that many studies on ‘unconscious processing’, follow John Bargh in defining unconscious as meaning “not reported at the time”. This means that experimenters over-diagnose unconscious influence, when the possibility remains that participants were completely conscious of the influence of the stimili, but may not be reporting them because they have forgotten, worry about sounding silly or because the importance of the stimuli is genuinely trivial compared to other factors.

It is this last point which makes up the ‘perspectival shift’ of the title. Experiments on social priming usually work by comparing some measure (e.g. walking speed or reaction time) across two groups. My argument is that the factors which make up the total behaviour for each individual will be many and various. The single factor which the experimenter is interested in may have a non-zero effect, yet can still justifiably escape report by the majority of participants. To make this point concrete: if I ask you to judge how likeable someone is on the 1 to 7 scale, your judgement will be influenced by many factors, such as if they are like you, if you are in a good mood, the content of your interaction with the person, if they really are likeable and so on. Can we really expect participants to report an effect due to something that only the experimenter sees variation in, such as whether they are holding a hot drink or a cold drink at the time of judgement? We might as well expect them to report the effect due to them growing up in Europe rather than Asia, or being born in 1988 not 1938 (both surely non-zero effects in my hypothetical experiment).

More on this argument, and what I think it means, in the paper:

Stafford, T. (2014) The perspectival shift: how experiments on unconscious processing don’t justify the claims made for them. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 1067. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01067

I originally started writing this commentary as a response to this paper by Julie Huang and John Bargh, which I believe is severely careless with the language it uses to discuss unconscious processing (and so a good example of the conceptual trouble you can get into if you start believing the hype around social priming).

Full disclosure: I am funded by the Leverhulme Trust to work on a project looking at the philosophy and psychology of implicit bias. This post is cross-posted on the project blog.

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