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 sciencedaily.com.

Gay men and maps

Gay men seem to read maps in a similar way to women. Although this seems like an insigificant finding, it may help uncover some of the neural functions that are related to sexual preference, as these abilities are known to involve specific areas of the brain.

In fact, this isn’t the first study to find a similarities between gay men and women in spatial abilities. Result published in 2003 showed that both women and gay men performed better on a memory test for locations than straight men.

These sorts of abilities are known to rely heavily on area of the brain known as the hippocampus and differences in these abilities are likely to reflect differences in how these brain structures process information.

What is not clear however, is how much these differences can account for individual sexual behaviour. This is because sexual behaviour can be motivated by a wide range of different desires and motivations, all of which may be supported by complex network of brain structures. Few of these are currently known about or understood.

Link to story from New Scientist.
Link to story from The Telegraph.

Sharks, scary music and the temporal lobes


The film starts. It’s a calm day at sea and there’s nothing for miles around except for a lone fisherman, relaxing and hoping for a catch. Deep below the water, something stirs. Urgent music starts, your adrenaline starts pumping and you know something terrible is about to occur. Your heart is racing, and according to recent research, so are your temporal lobes.

Neuropsychologist Nathalie Gosselin and her colleagues have been studying the brain’s response to scary music, and has recently published an intriguing study on a series of patients who have had parts of their temporal lobes and amygdala surgically removed, to treat otherwise untreatable epilepsy.

Gosselin’s team played the patients various pieces of music and found that although they could recognise peaceful, happy and sad music, their perception of scary music was impaired.

This wasn’t a problem with sensory monitoring of the music, as the patients performed normally when asked to detect subtle timing errors which had been implanted into some of the pieces.

It has been known for a while that the amygdala (which are located in the inner temporal lobes) are involved in the perception of emotion in other people’s faces, and this study shows that these areas may be essential in understanding fearful emotions in music, and perhaps other abstract aspects of the world.

Link to study summary.