Am I genetic ?

A new three-part series called Two’s a Crowd has started on BBC Radio 4, tackling the the biology of personal identity.

It got a few trailers on air, but has otherwise slipped surruptitiously onto the schedule with not so much as a supporting web page. Luckily, the programme is available as a realaudio archive for a week after each show has been aired (Tuesdays, 11am GMT).

A particular focus is the possible biological bases of personality, particularly with reference to the so-called ‘big five‘ personality traits, that have come to dominate personality research.

BBC, if you’re listening, any chance of some supporting information on the web ? It seems too good a series to be lost among the schedule.

Link to realaudio archive of latest edition of Two’s a Crowd.

Fighting for mental space

Adbusters activist Kalle Lasn is interviewed on another fascinating editon of ABC Radio National’s All in the Mind, arguing that we should try and reclaim the ‘mental space’ increasingly occupied by brands, advertisements and slogans.

Lasn argues that our increasingly information rich society is causing psychological interference and inhibiting creative thought, while media manipulation is crushing diversity and eroding our ability to distinguish fantasy from reality.

Furthermore, he links this tendency with the level of mental illness and distress that is so prevalent in the Western world, and argues that we could be witnessing ‘the mental breakdown of nations’.

Even if you don’t agree with his views, Lasn has identified a neglected area that will undoubtedly become more important as media becomes all pervasive, and is well worth listening to.

Link to realudio archive of programme.
Link to transcript.

Brain injury: how much do you know ?


Today marks the start of Brain and Brain Injury Awareness week, an event to alert people to the exciting developments in the world of neuroscience and pass on some potentially life saving information.

Brain Awareness Week is an international event, so there may be events near you.

A great deal of our knowledge of how the brain works has been worked out from studying people who have suffered brain damage. This field of research is known as cognitive neuropsychology, and is greatly indebted to people who generously give their time, often after suffering disabling injuries.

In the UK, an estimated 1 million people in Britain attend hospital each year as a result of a head injury, and the figures for other parts of the world can be equally as high.

People or their families who suffer the effects often rely on charities for ongoing support and rehabilitation. So if you feel like making a difference, this week would be perfect to choose a favourite brain charity to donate to.

Although you could also help out by printing out leaflets or information, or perhaps passing on a link to a brain injury website to someone you know.

It’s a great way of saying thankyou to people who have volunteered their time after brain injury, and the information may even save someone’s life.

Link to brain injury information from the BBC.
Link to Brain Awareness Week information from the Dana Foundation.

The science of brainwashing

In the 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the fictional company Lacuna Inc. offers to alter the mind by erasing painful memories.


A new book on ‘brainwashing’ by neurobiologist Kathleen Taylor questions whether such technology is likely to exist by looking at the history of such claims and the science of ‘thought control’.

Taylor recently appeared on ABC Radio National’s In Conversation to discuss her book and issues including the origins of brainwashing in the Korean War, cults, advertising, neuroscience and free will.

Link to realaudio archive of radio show.
Link to review of the book from The Times.

The psychology and neuroscience of gifted children

The Boston Globe has an excellent article about the psychology of gifted children and how many of them have fared in adult life. It describes the difficulties some have in adjusting, and the importance of maintaining traditonal childhood activities.

Consider the contrasting fates of two prodigies from the early 20th century. Norbert Wiener entered Tufts University in 1906 at age 11 and went on to graduate studies at Harvard in 1909. That same year, a brilliant 11-year-old named William James Sidis also enrolled at Harvard. Wiener became the father of cybernetics. Sidis became a recluse who collected streetcar transfers. He died alone and disillusioned at the age of 46.

On a related note, neuropsychologist Brian Butterworth has studied brain activity in a ‘mathematical prodigy’, and found that compared to others, he used different brain areas to perform calculations.

Link to Boston Globe article (via Metafilter).
Link to paper (PDF) on Butterworth’s study of brain activity in a mathematical prodigy.

Through the k-hole

What do squat parties in Brixton, vetinarians in Buckinghamshire, and cereals in Budgens have in common?* The answer, of course, is Special K.**

Ketamine is a tranquillising agent that was widely used until patients began to complain of its hallucinogenic effects, which they experienced when coming out of sedation. Not too fun. Except, of course, for those who take it for pleasure – of whom, according to ongoing research by Mixmag magazine and the Institute of Psychiatry, there have been more than a fourfold increase between 1999 and 2003. Apart from this population, the drug is still administered as a tranquilliser for animals, and also young children for whom the trippy effects don’t seem to occur. Notably, after Putin banned the drug in Russia in 2003, Bridget Bardot campaigned for a reversal, on the basis that it would result in more suffering for animals; whether the implications for children were weighed is not on record, but in any case Russia reversed the ban in ’04. Notably, the drug is not illegal in the EU, and whilst a controlled substance is low down in priority, at least in the eyes of the law. But if you’re an ocassional taker, or curious about it, I suggest you read further, to get the skinny on the cognitive neuropsychopharmacology of ketamine.

Continue reading “Through the k-hole”

2005-03-11 Spike activity

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


More articles on the neuropsychology of religious experience (from The Times) and synaesthesia (from Wired).

Laughter, it seems, is good for the heart.

New Scientist article on a new breed of lie-detector that measures blood flow in the face. “You’re in a desert walking along in the sand when all of a sudden…

Brain implants tested as a method to help treat severe depression.

A brain imaging study show how tunes may get ‘stuck in your head’.

Extrapolation of brain volume from the skull of homo florensis suggest that they are not humans with microencephaly, as some critics claim.

A brain scanning study with autistic children shows eye contact may activate areas associated with negative emotion.

Inner space in outer space


A recent article from ‘Inside Bay Area’ discusses the work of psychiatrist Nick Kanas and his team, who study the minds of astronauts.

Kanas heads up the Human Interactions in Space project, that studies the psychology of space travel, both to improve mission efficiency and maintain mental health during its completion.

The research team uses a number of techniques. One method is to use simulated missions, where participants are required to live in confined spaces or conduct procedures while being observed. Another is research on astronauts during ‘live’ missions.

Link to article from Inside Bay Area.
Link to brief summary of book ‘Space Psychology and Psychiatry’.

The taste of musical notes

A paper published in recent issue of the scientific journal Nature, describes a case of a woman who has the synaesthetic experience of tasting sounds and seeing them as specific colours.

She is a professional musician and uses her unique gift to pick out specific notes and tone intervals. Her abilities were tested by asking her to identity specific tone intervals while tasting sour, bitter, salty or sweet solutions.

When compared to other musicians, she found it more difficult when the taste of the solution differed to the taste usually produced by the tone interval, than when they matched.

Link to study summary from
Link to writeup from

How would clones think ?

In Michael Marshall Smith’s novel Spares, a disaffected cop decides to free human clones, kept for their body parts.

Although fiction, Smith’s book presents an interesting thought experiment and brings some salient questions to mind. For example, what would be the psychological effect of discovering that you had been cloned, or actually were a clone ?

With the science and ethics of cloning being debated widely in the media, ABC Radio National’s All in the Mind programme recruits a psychiatrist, a geneticist and an expert on ethics to discuss the possibilities.

Link to programme transcript.
Link to realaudio archive of radio programme.

National Geographic on the Mind

The latest issue of the National Geographic magazine is a special issue on the mind.


It contains a compelling account of open brain surgery, where, as is usual, the patient is conscious and given tests during the operation to make sure removed sections are not crucial for language.

The other articles cover a variety of important developments in mind and brain science, including the neuropsychology of spiritual experience, emotion and navigation, plus some remarkable photographs.

Two of my particular favourites are articles on an exceptional autistic boy (mentioned in an earlier post by Tom) and a neurologist with hypergraphia – the incessant need to write.

There’s some excerpts and video footage freely available online, but the best content seems to be in the magazine only.

2005-03-04 Spike activity

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


Judges are likely to rate people who perform last in a competition more highly, regardless of their ability.

Boston authorities are investigating an ex-stripper to see if she has been pretending to be a psychologist.

An excellent article on the burgeoning field of ‘neurotheology‘ – V.S. Ramachandran’s experiments on religion and temporal lobe epilepsy suggests they people with the condition may react more strongly to religious concepts.

Members of Mensa are to be DNA tested to study the link between high intelligence and dementia.

Article on Harvard psychologists’ studies of people who claim to have been abducted by aliens.

Mind Hacks at Foyles, March 23rd

When I was a kid, I remember making a trip to London and visiting Foyles bookshop for the first time. In the days before book superstores, Foyles was unimaginably vast, and dense, and amazing. That was a special day. Years later, there aren’t books piled everywhere, the maze of shelves and rooms has been untangled, and it’s been updated: you no longer have to get a little green ticket from an attendant before paying. It’s still got its charm, one of the best (and biggest) book selections in London, and my favourite cafe in the centre–one of the few cafes to have free wifi, good coffee, heavy wooden tables, and jazz.

What I’m coming round to is that Tom and I will be speaking about Mind Hacks at Foyles on Wednesday, March 23rd, and it’s enormously exciting to be talking in a place with such history. If you’re in London, you should come along (it’s at 6.30pm, after work, in the Gallery on the 2nd floor). It’ll be great fun–we’re going to show off some of our favourite hacks, talk about what we learn from them, and try some [gulp] audience participation in the experiments too.

More info on the Foyles site (you’ll need to get a ticket), and the publicity blurb’s below. Do come, and spread the word!

Let’s try something else too: If you use Outlook, click to add Mind Hacks at Foyles to your calendar. If you use Apple iCal, click here to add the event.

Release follows…

Continue reading “Mind Hacks at Foyles, March 23rd”

Quirks and Quarks

This saturday, Mind Hacks goes audio – you can hear an interview I did yesterday with a Canadian radio show, CBC’s Quirks and Quarks (“the show that defi[n]es science”!). It’s broadcast on Saturdays on CBC Radio One from 12:06 – 1pm.

You can hear me discussing the book and going through a few of the hacks. For those of you who have read the book I can’t promise a lot of added value – but hopefully I was pretty coherant, and definitely excited, and it might be a good introduction to anyone thinking of getting the book. (it was also loads of fun to do, thanks guys!)

I think you’ll be able to hear the interview over the internet as it happens, but they will also certainly put it up as an MP3 afterwards. While you’re at the site, you can browse the show’s eight year backlog of audio files, which is a pretty impressive corpus of science broadcasting.

The blurb from the Q&Q site:

Mind Hacks: Tips and Tricks for Using your Brain.

Did you know that you go blind every time you move your eyes? And that what you’re seeing affects what you’re hearing? And that you can get stronger just by thinking about it? Well, it’s all strange but true, according to a neuroscientist who’s just written a new book containing 100 Tips and Tricks for using your brain. It’s a catalogue of illusions and experiments that show just how powerful, and how peculiar, the human brain really is – and you can try them all at home.

Simulating seizures

Engineers from UC Berkley have created a mathematical model of the brain as it undergoes an epileptic seizure, and matched it with recordings taken from electrodes implanted into the brain of a person with epilepsy.


Epilepsy is often described as a ‘storm’ of electrical signals, suggesting lots of random and chaotic brain activity, but in fact, quite the opposite occurs – groups of neurons suddenly become inappropriately synchonised.

This can be seen from the image on the right – a graph of brain recordings taken from a person having a seizure. These were recorded from electrodes safely implanted into the brain by the UC Berkley team.

Instead of supporting their normal functions these neurons work in time with nearby neurons, that usually have a completely different role in the brain.

This can lead to loss of consciousness and limb shaking commonly associated with epilepsy. The rhythm of the muscle jerks are often dictated by the rhythm of the synchronised neurons.

Sometimes people just have absences, where they can lose consciousness for a few seconds with no other noticable effects. The person who has the seizure may not even know this is happening.

With some types of seizure, people may remain conscious, but have unusual sensations, feelings of deja vu, or perhaps just peculiar thoughts and mental images.

The effects of epilepsy vary greatly with the parts of the brain involved and from person to person.

The newly created mathematical model will allow researchers to create computer simulations of epilepsy, allowing theories to be tested out and ‘virtual experiments’ to take place.

Learn how to deal with epileptic seizures.

Link to item from UC Berkley News.
Link to story from