Fantasy friends

While most children believe in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny at some point, researchers are now starting to discover that children’s fantasy worlds are more subtle than previously suspected, and may even last into adulthood.

An in-depth article from Science News Online examines a child’s understanding of fantasy characters and how imagination is being used to help children cope with traumatic and painful medical procedures.

One surprising finding is that although one third of 7-year olds seem to have imaginary friends, similar experiences can last into adulthood. Some professions may even rely on this experience to help their work.

Psychologist Marjorie Taylor interviewed 50 fiction writers ranging from an award-winning novelist to scribblers who had never been published. Of those authors, 46 provided vivid examples of made-up characters who had taken over the job of composing their life stories and who sometimes resisted their creators’ attempts to control the narrative. Some fictional folk wandered around in the writers’ houses or otherwise inhabited their everyday world.

Link to article from Science News Online.
Previously on MindHacks: Imaginary friends are linked to positive psychological development in children.

More cartoon fun

comich.jpgFurther to the dinosaurs Vaughan speaks of below, there is a Flash-based dynamic comic* at Neuroscience for Kids which is a nice intro to the entire nervous system, with Sam and his friendly neurons. In addition, there are also suggestions for a number of neuroscience-based fun lesson plans, like synaptic tag.

Sam’s brainy adventure: link

*No, a cartoon this does not make. Although action within panels, rather than dynamic transitions such as Scott McCloud’s The Right Number (click where it says to preview the work, unfortunately the full deal does cost an imposing 50c to view), does start to push the boundaries somewhat. But speech bubbles and panels maketh the medium – at least, McCloud would argue that.

Banishing depression with exercise

This week is Mental Health Action Week, and a major attempt is being made to highlight the beneficial effects of exercise in treating depression.

Depression is commonly treated with antidepressant drugs, and for some people, these may be the most effective treatment.

For mild or moderate depression however, regular excercise is known to work as well as medication in some people.

Exercise is also known to complement the use of antidepressant drugs, may prevent further relapses, and could help counter the slightly increased risk of heart problems recently linked to depression.

Although doing exercise may seem daunting during a period of depression, a gentle start is a good way to ease yourself into the habit.

If you live in the UK, you may be able to get referred to a tailored exercise programme, prescribed by your GP.

Link to more information from

Tyrannosaurus reflex

In a wonderful comic strip, dinosaurs explain the neural mechanism of why locking the hands together can release the knee jerk reflex.

dinosaur.jpgIt’s not often the finer points of neurological examination are explained by cartoon dinosaurs, but may this be the first in a long line of comic book / neuroscience fusion spectaculars.

Link to dinosaur / neurophysiology comic strip (via
Link to information about the reflex examination.

Turn on, tune in, spin out

lcd_monitor.jpgPsychiatrist Edward Hallowell studies attention deficit disorder (ADD) and is becoming increasingly concerned that using information technology is causing an acquired form of the condition.

He argues that the constant task-switching required when using the likes of mobile phones, email and instant messaging can lead to an effect he has called ‘Attention Deficit Trait’ or ADT.

This shares some of the same features of ADD, such as impaired concentration, restlessness and increased distraction, but seems to improve when individuals are away from the workplace.

In contrast, ADD is usually thought to be a relatively fixed condition, presumably present from birth, although not diagnosable until about 6 years of age.

As outlined in a recent Scientific American article (PDF), it is known that simple television viewing can have both short and long term effects on the mind, including impairments in basic cognitive functioning.

Cynics might suggest that the same parallels might not apply to other technology and this might be Hallowell’s attempt to make a name for himself in the lucrative world of business psychology.

It is unlikely however, that information technology is entirely neutral with regards to psychological function, although there is relatively little hard evidence to judge how positive or negative these effects might be.

Link to interview with Dr Halliwell on ADT.
Link to summary from
PDF of Scientific American article on the psychological effects of television.

2005-03-23 Spike activity

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news, with internet radio easter special:

An archive of old advertisements for hypnotism books and training guides.

Researchers argue Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was inspired by the hallucinogenic effects of ergot.

Scientists link gene to dyslexia (again).

A specialist in the psychology of trauma recounts his own experience of being in a near-fatal car crash and his view on the psychological effects of post-trauma stress.

New York Times article on people who have a compelling desire to have a limb amputated.

Recent work in the field of neuroeconomics (the neuropsychology of economic decision making) is challenging traditonal notions of rationality.

People tend to fancy others with differing facial features, but trust those with similar features.

Terri Schiavo case highlights lack of knowledge in certain areas of neurology.

25% of US adults have received mental health care over a two-year period.

Article from Psychology Today on the co-option of psychological terms into everyday language.

Easter radio special

A few things to relax with over the easter holiday… Mind and brain radio programmes from around the world, broadcast over the last week and archived for your listening pleasure:
BBC Radio 4 had a series of five 15-minute programmes on the work of Sigmund Freud.

An edition of Check Up, also on Radio 4, tackles obsessive compulsive disorder or OCD.

And one more from Radio 4… This week’s edition of Material World discusses the neurobiology of body clocks and circadian rhythms.

ABC Radio National edition of All in the Mind discusses the neuroscience of movement and dance (transcript, realaudio).

Another Radio National programme, Ockham’s Razor, takes a critical look at mental illness and society (transcript, realaudio).

Scientists who decoded movement signals from an awake human with brain-implanted electrodes are interviewed on the SETI Radio Network’s science show Are we alone ? (mp3).

Do you really want to quit?

I have a question about dialog boxes on my computer. This is something I mentioned last night, and I’d appreciate some help.

Below is a picture of a well-assembled dialog box. UI folks say that dialog box options should be verbs, not nouns, but that’s not important here. (ie, you should have options “Don’t save” and “Save” for the question “Save this document?” instead of the buttons “OK” and “Cancel.”) I’m going to talk about why it’s well-assembled, but first:

Mac trivia! While the Mac (actually, the Lisa, but the Lisa informed the Mac) was being designed, the “OK” button did used to be an action: it used to be labeled “Do It.” But the space between the two words was too small, and the users read the button label as “dolt” and got kind of offended and wouldn’t push it. True fact!


Back to that dialog box…

Continue reading “Do you really want to quit?”

When faces fade

face_blur.jpg Prosopagnosia is an inability to recognise faces. It most commonly occurs after brain injury, although this week’s New Scientist reports on a recently completed study on a type of inherited prosopagnosia, suggesting a genetic basis for face recognition.

The research was an international effort, led by husband and wife team, geneticists Thomas and Martina Grüter. Notably, Thomas has a particular interest in this area, as he has prosopagnosia himself.

Unfortunately, the New Scientist article is only available to subscribers The full article is now available online, and Mind Hacks has spoken to two members of the research team about this intriguing study: Thomas on his own experience of prosopagnosia and the genetics of face recognition, and neuropsychologist Hadyn Ellis on the implications for the developing field of ‘cognitive genetics’.

Continue reading “When faces fade”

What motivates cognitive science ?

Online editions of The Times and Guardian have a review of neurobiologist Steven Rose’s new book The 21st Century Brain, that discusses the motivations behind the funding and support for neuroscience research.


Rose is a controversial critic of many aspects of mainstream science, and his new book argues that the recent explosion in psychology and neuroscience has been driven by funders only wanting directly marketable results, rather than knowledge about the brain for the good of all. This, he argues, goes hand-in-hand with profit-driven drug development, neuromarketing and other explicity commercial projects.

What Rose seems particularly concerned about, is not commercial projects per se, but the effect that such funding is having on neuroscience itself. For example, the promotion of purely biological theories of mental illness by drug companies has worried many scientists who want a more wide-ranging approach.

Link to book review from The Guardian.
Link to book review from The Sunday Times.
Link to book review from Times Online.

The fine art of neuroscience

This week’s issue of the science journal Nature has a number of articles on science and art. Sadly most are closed-access, although one gem is freely available.

An article by psychologist Patrick Cavanagh discusses the techniques of visual art and how they can inform neuroscience, particularly in understanding the construction of the visual system.

Artists use this alternative physics because these particular deviations from true physics do not matter to the viewer: the artist can take shortcuts, presenting cues more economically, and arranging surfaces and lights to suit the message of the piece rather than the requirements of the physical world.

In discovering these shortcuts artists act as research neuroscientists, and there is a great deal to be learned from tracking down their discoveries. The goal is not to expose the ‘slip-ups’ of the masters, entertaining as that might be, but to understand the human brain. Art in this sense is a type of found science – science we can do simply by looking.

If this is a topic that interests you, you could do a lot worse than tracking down the 17th March edition of Nature at your local library. The other articles in this series tackle links between science, poetry and music, to name but a few.

Link to Kavanagh’s article The Artist as Neuroscientist from

Test Your Synaesthesia

Dear Kathryn

I’ve been thinking about the way you see colours that go with each number, and also colours for each day of the week. It’s called synaesthesia- but you probably know that- and you seem like the have number-colour synaesthesia (which is common). There are other kinds like sound-colour synaesthesia or even sound-taste synaesthesia (people who get a taste whenever they hear certain sounds!). Anyway we were talking about it at Burning Man, maybe, or at Christmas, and I seemed to be able to guess the same associations between numbers and colours as you actually see, even though I know I’m definitely not synaesthetic (did you know that synaesthesia is much more common in women than men?). So I thought what I was probably doing was remembering a synaesthetic association from childhood (did you know that synaesthesia is far more common in children?), and that was how I was getting a colour for each number- from memory .

So, next thought, is there a way to distinguish between someone who just has a memory of an association- or is just imaging an association- from someone who really is seeing actual colours when they are shown numbers? Is there, in other words, a test we can do to check if you are really synaesthetic? And of course there is, so I thought I’d write to you and tell you about it and you can have a go.

Continue reading “Test Your Synaesthesia”

Reviewing the brain on film

Movies often borrow themes from psychology and neuroscience, although only a few have the compliment returned by scientists in the field. Two recent films however, have sparked engaging commentaries from a number of scientists, owing to their accurate depiction of brain function.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was praised by Kirk Jobsluder for eschewing the clich√©s of a linear ‘videotape’ memory, and Steven Johnson for accurately capturing the role of emotion in memory.

Johnson’s article also touches on another highly regarded film, Memento, but is surprisingly critical, despite the lead character displaying almost identical memory problems to famous cases in the medical literature. One of the most notable is Patient HM, although there are several well-known cases with similar impairments.

Rashmi Sinha further discusses the influences of clinical neuroscence in Memento with some insightful comments, but my favourite has got to be this wonderfully geeky review from a team at Rutgers University:

Unlike patient HM, Shelby acquired his anterograde amnesia through an accidental brain injury. This does happen, but it’s much more common for people to develop anterograde amnesia from a stroke, viral encephalitis, chronic epilepsy, or the interruption of the brain’s oxygen supply due to near-drowning or strangulation (hypoxia or anoxia).

Nevertheless, the prize for the most popcorn consumed in the service of science undoubtedly goes to neuropsychologist Sallie Baxendale, for her comprehensive reviews of movies about epilepsy and amnesia. Surprisingly, animated movie Finding Nemo is rated as a particularly accurate portrayal of amnesia.

Personally, I’m a big fan of The Man with Two Brains, but I think that’s just wishful thinking.

Spare popcorn ? Check out some videos from PBS on amnesic patients EP and ‘Chuck’, and the neuroscience of memory.

Are psychiatric drugs stifling art ?

An article just published on discusses whether psychiatric drug treatment is robbing society of artistic talent.

Many authors have argued that mental illness and creativity are linked. Perhaps most notably, psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison discussed the associations between mood disorder and creativity in her book Touched with Fire.

Although Jamison largely deals with literary figures, other researchers have noted high levels of mental disorder in jazz musicians, with one researcher even suggesting that Buddy Bolden, the founder of modern jazz, may have developed jazz improvisation in response to his cognitive impairments.

The kuro5hin article isn’t the most clearly structured piece you’ll ever read, but is brimming with ideas, and asks important questions about whether the suppresion of mental illness necessarily involves the suppresion of creative thought.

Link to the kuro5hin article Pharmaceuticals and the Death of Art.

Spike activity 2005-03-18

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


Researchers from the University of Zurich suggest kindness to strangers may be uniquely part of human nature.

An insightful article on mindfulness meditation discusses its benefits for mental health and the supporting research.

Hormone treatment for prostate cancer has been shown to have effects on thinking, showing a link between hormones and cognitive ability.

Genetic studies have suggested that an inclination to certain forms of religious belief may have a genetic basis.

“In discussing pathology I discovered that yawning and spontaneous ejaculation were mentioned concomitantly in terminal rabies. In discussing pharmacology I found a link between yawning and spontaneous orgasm in withdrawal from heroin addiction”. Donald MacLeod, writing in the Guardian, reports on the research that suggests sex and yawning may be linked. Doesn’t that always happen ? Oh, maybe that’s just…

New PLoS Biology articles on neuroaesthetics and the molecular biology of human brain evolution.

Many world leaders believe in the supernatural, astrology, ghosts, weapons of mass destruction etc.

An inventor has created cutlery with built-in electrodes for use on dates. These measure skin conductance, which is known to rise during stress or discomfort. The article doesn’t mention that conductance also rises when a person is aroused, which could lead to some wonderfully comic situations.

Studying the nose to understand bipolar disorder

Nerve cells from the nose are helping scientists study the neural basis of bipolar disorder, the condition often known as manic depression.


These cells, called olfactory receptor neurons, are located just inside the nose, and are similar in many ways to cells within the brain, but are easier (and safer) to get to.

The research team, led by Professor Chang-Gyu Hahn, examined how these cells reacted in people diagnosed with bipolar disorder, when compared to the same cells from people without the condition.

Calcium is an important part of how a nerve generates a signal (known as an action potential) and the olfactory receptor neurons from the bipolar group showed much less calcium activity than the control group.

This study provides important clues about how differences in neural signalling may be related to emotion and mood regulation, and describes an innovative approach to researching nerve signals in humans.

Link to write-up from
Link to study abstract.