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 nature.com

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 kuro5hin.org 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.