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 sciencedaily.com.
Link to study abstract.

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.