the emperor’s new paradigm

And to follow up on recent posts (here, and here) on evolutionary psychology there is a new review in the latest edition of Trends in Cognitive Sciences:

Evolutionary psychology: the emperor’s new paradigm
David J. Buller
Trends in Cognitive Sciences
Volume 9, Issue 6 , June 2005, Pages 277-283
For some evolutionary psychology is merely a field of inquiry, but for others it is a robust paradigm involving specific theories about the nature and evolution of the human mind. Proponents of this paradigm claim to have made several important discoveries regarding the evolved architecture of the mind. Highly publicized discoveries include a cheater-detection module, a psychological sex difference in jealousy, and motivational mechanisms underlying parental love and its lapses, which purportedly result in child maltreatment. In this article, I argue that the empirical evidence for these ‘discoveries’ is inconclusive, at best. I suggest that, as the reigning paradigm in evolutionary psychology has produced questionable results, the evolutionary study of human psychology is still in need of a guiding paradigm.

Using technology to add cyborg senses

circuit_board.jpgA team of researchers will use technology to extend the human senses, allowing people to sense magnetic fields, experience sight via tactile vibrations and see behind them.

The experiment is being conducted by Centre for Computational Neuroscience and Robotics, and artist and researcher Sarah Angliss – who has spent several years experimenting with the sensory and psychological properties of sound.

The volunteers augmented with the new technology will be asked to keep video diaries which will appear online, and members of the public can try the technology themselves at the Cheltenham Science Festival.

The experiment is intended in part as a demonstration of neural plasticity, the process by which the brain reorganises through experience to allow for new functionality.

Link to write-up from

Scott Adams and focal dystonia

Scott Adams, the artist behind the comic Dilbert, has a movement disorder called focal dystonia that prevents him from drawing in the regular way. It, and his response to it, are discussed in an article in the Washington Post.

Focal dystonia, which can affect the hand (where it’s commonly called “writer’s cramp” when it affects writing), the neck (the most common site), eyelids or vocal chords, is something of a mystery. First reported in people who do fine finger work, including writers, seamstresses and musicians, it affects an estimated 29.5 individuals per 100,000 population […] Often, focal hand dystonia patients are people who use the small muscles of the fingers and hands.

What I find most interesting about this condition is its neurological roots, as the fine finger work coupled with the stress that often triggers focal dystonia appears to “teach” part of the brain some broken connections:

“We think the disorder is largely associated with the basal ganglia,” which are deep brain structures that help regulate movement, Karp [Barbara Karp, deputy clinical director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS)] said. One theory is that repetitive movements or some other cause somehow trigger abnormal learning patterns in the brain.

One therapy for focal dystonia is “sensory training,” changing techniques of practice so that the sensory areas of the brain can learn again how to give proper feedback to the motion parts. Adams, in his case, now uses a graphics tablet and draws Dilbert at many times the final size.

Link to Scott Adams, Drawing the Line in the Washington Post.

Brain freeze and ‘ice cream headaches’ is a website dedicated to ‘ice cream headaches’, a condition sometimes known as ‘brain freeze’. It hosts a short yet strangely compelling movie of people causing headaches in themselves with slushed ice drinks.

A 1997 article in the British Medical Journal explained why cold things cause headaches, and describes some good old-fashioned self-experimentation in the service of science.

Experimenting on himself, Smith characterised the features of the headache. Applying crushed ice to the palate, he found that ipsilateral temporal and orbital pain developed 20-30 seconds later. Bilateral pain occurred when the stimulus was applied in the midline. The headache could be elicited only in hot weather; attempts to reproduce the pain during the winter were unsuccessful, even with use of a cold stimulus of the same temperature.

Luckily for ice creams fans, the article shys away from medical scaremongering, recommending that “ice cream abstinence is not indicated”.

Link to
Link to BMJ article on Ice cream headache.

Sagittal section t-shirt

threadless_zoom.jpgVote-to-print t-shirt shop Threadless must have some neuroscience fans amongst their users, as they’ve just printed another brain-based t-shirt.

This time it’s an abstract interpretation of a sagittal section through the head and brain, with the corpus callosum a riot of decorative trim.

Know of any other mind- or brain-based t-shirts ? Let us know.

Link to Think Slow t-shirt.

Are we designed for violence?

Are we wired for violence – is it brain-based, an original sin never to be expelled? Or could it be less indelible than we fear?

I thought I’d post a short essay, originally written for another destination, that touches on issues discussed below in a previous post. It’s also cross-posted at my own blog. Hope y’all enjoy, and I welcome any feedback or crit of my somewhat contentious take on the issue.

Violence is common to our present, history and prehistory. Is there reason to hope that our future will be different? Doubtless we’ll know in the long run, thanks to the grand uncontrolled experiment of life. Meanwhile some argue we can get an early forecast by using the behavioural sciences – investigate our nature to divine our future. But just what do we mean by a violent nature, and would such a nature necessarily force us to be so pessimistic? Such a wide issue needs to be viewed through a narrow prism, so here we shall focus on the neuroscience of violence. Are we wired for violence Рis it brain-based, an original sin never to be expelled? Or could it be less indelible than we fear?

Continue reading “Are we designed for violence?”

Psychologist Susan Blackmore on taking drugs for inspiration

susan_blackmore.jpgPsychologist Susan Blackmore has written an article for the Daily Telegraph, arguing that taking drugs has provided inspiration for her work.

So can drugs be creative? I would say so, although the dangers are great – not just the dangers inherent in any drug use, but the danger of coming to rely on them too much and of neglecting the hard work that both art and science demand. There are plenty of good reasons to shun drug-induced creativity.

Yet, in my own case, drugs have an interesting role: in trying to understand consciousness, I am taking substances that affect the brain that I’m trying to understand. In other words, they alter the mind that is both the investigator and the investigated.

She discusses her experience with a range of drugs, including cannabis, LSD, ketamine and MDMA and examines the influence on her own career choices and insights.

Interestingly, she’s taking part in a debate at the Cheltenham Science Festival on whether using drugs can tell us anything about ourselves, with neuroscientist Colin Blakemore and author Mike Jay.

Lets hope the irony of Cheltenham Science Festival being sponsored by a major pharmaceutical company won’t be lost on the panel.

Link to article I take illegal drugs for inspiration.

2005-05-27 Spike activity

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


Ex-automotive engineer is attempting to understand the brain in terms of thermodynamics and energy transfer.

Trying to describe the taste of wine in flowery language may ruin memory for its taste.

Scientists discover brain areas for understanding sarcasm. Full text of scientific paper is at this PDF.

Anorexia ‘caused by brain not society‘ claims report. Presumably society has no effect on the brain and we are all brains in vats.

It’s always good to see the annual ‘downloading the brain nearly here‘ story come round again. Presumably foot downloading will be tested first.

“The unpalatable truth is that falling in love is, in some ways, indistinguishable from a severe pathology“. Drug companies to market anti-love medication any day now.

Mothers’ ability for reading babies’ emotions more important than economic status for successful development.

Politicians take note: Charisma by numbers!

Review of the biography of the inventor of lobotomy from the British Medical Journal.

New Scientist on brain optimisation

newsci_brainop.jpgNew Scientist have put their cover article on brain optimising technologies online – which covers everything from nutrition to neurofeedback.

Their story, 11 steps to a better brain, looks at the science behind techniques that have been shown to boost mental performance.

Some of the techniques are fairly common-sense approaches, like sleeping well and exercising, although the article explains exactly how these might affect thought and behaviour.

Others are a little more controversial and potentially hazardous, such as the use of stimulant drugs like modafinil and methylphenidate.

One particularly interesting part however, is the mention of mental training techniques to boost wider cognitive performance.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans, they measured the brain activity of adults before and after a working-memory training programme, which involved tasks such as memorising the positions of a series of dots on a grid. After five weeks of training, their brain activity had increased in the regions associated with this type of memory.

Perhaps more significantly, when the group studied children who had completed these types of mental workouts, they saw improvement in a range of cognitive abilities not related to the training, and a leap in IQ test scores of 8 per cent

Interestingly, similar techniques are now being applied to traditionally hard-to-treat conditions such as schizophrenia that have been shown to have a positive impact on cognitive performance and brain function.

Link to 11 steps to a better brain.

Minds Designed For Murder?

The notable evolutionary psychologist David Buss thinks that Murder is in our blood. Specifically that homicide isn’t a rare pathology, or the product of social forces, of culture, poverty or poor parenting – but is an evolutionary adaptation that we all share. He’s saying that in the right circumstances we will all kill, because ancestors of ours who killed had greater reproductive success.

Emotive stuff. I’d be interested to hear what readers of have to say on it. Here are a few of my first thoughts:

As an observation, this is as old fashioned as original sin. What would make this interesting to me, is detailed, rigourous, demonstration of the psychological mechanisms behind murderous behaviour. Self-styled ‘Evolutionary psychology’ tells a plausible story about the context of murder, but I don’t think there’s much content to disagree or agree with until the experimental work has been done.

Related to this, Buss maligns theories that social forces/parenting/culture/poverty are behind killing while at the same time (in the penultimate paragraph) using them to explain why the rate of murder is so much lower in modern society compared to stone-age civilisations (“Among the Yanomamo of Venezuela and the Gebusi of Africa, for example, more than 30% of men die by being murdered” remember that next time someone trys to force a declension narrative about the collapse of society upon you). The thing about, say, the theory that parenting style produces murder is that at least it is a specific theory – both with regard to the factor and the mechanism. You may not agree, but at least you have something to disagree with (maybe it isn’t that particular style of parenting? maybe it isn’t parenting at all but peer group involvement? etc).

Evolution is an essential theoretical background to psychology, but it only provides hints and allegations – the real work still has to be done. Alas, you can’t derive your answers from the calculus of reproductive success, but need to go collect data to test your each hypotheses against.

Internet delusions

question_key.jpgA report in the medical journal Psychopathology notes that psychotic delusions increasingly concern the internet, suggesting high-technology can fulfil the role of malign ‘magical’ forces often experienced in psychosis.

Traditionally, psychiatry has considered the content of delusions as irrelevant and only sees the ‘form’ of a belief as important in diagnosis and treatment. For example, how true it is, how strongly it is held, how it was formed and so on.

This paper analyzes four case-reports and notes that, contrary to the traditional view, the cases are examples where an internet-theme has particular clinical implications.

In one case, a patient began to have paranoid thoughts and used an internet search engine to investigate suspicions about an ingredient on a chewing gum packet.

Her searches led her to believe she had discovered a secret terrorist network, and was therefore being personally targeted by the authorities using phone taps and hidden cameras.

Presumably, by using a different search engine, she would have found different pages, and her delusion would have been centred on something else.

The authors also consider that a person’s understanding of technology may be a limiting factor in their ability to incorporate it into a delusional system. People with a poor understanding for example, may be more likely to attribute seemingly supernatural abilities to technology.

As Arthur C. Clarke famously noted “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.

In delusions that feature spirits or other supernatural forces, there is no objective limit to the perceived ‘powers’ of the ‘spirits’, making such delusions sometimes difficult to refute.

In contrast, technology-related delusions can be more easily tested against reality, making for a good prognosis by using techniques such as cognitive behavioural therapy.

The authors also note that cultural concerns can influence delusional beliefs, suggesting technology-related delusions will become more common as the use of high-technology grows.

Link to study abstract.
PDF of full text.

Disclaimer: This paper is from my own research group.

SciAm Mind on the darker side of human nature

sciam_mind_lie_cover.jpgThe latest edition of Scientific American Mind has just hit the shelves. Two articles have been made freely available online – one on lying and deceit and the other on the psychology of bullying.

The cover story on lying discusses the adaptive advantages of deception in its various forms throughout both the plant and animal kingdoms.

It also discusses the seemingly paradoxical process of self-deception:

[Benjamin Libet] found that our brains begin to prepare for action just over a third of a second before we consciously decide to act. In other words, despite appearances, it is not the conscious mind that decides to perform an action: the decision is made unconsciously… This study and others like it suggest that we are systematically deluded about the role consciousness plays in our lives.

This general model of the mind, supported by various experiments beyond Libet’s, gives us exactly what we need to resolve the paradox of self-deception–at least in theory. We are able to deceive ourselves by invoking the equivalent of a cognitive filter between unconscious cognition and conscious awareness.

The article on child bullying examines research into the motivations of bullies, and effective methods for children, parents and teachers to stop and prevent bullying in schools.

Other articles only available in the print edition cover the neuroscience of hypnosis, improving memory through visualisation techniques, an interview with consciousness researcher Christof Koch, dreaming, transcranial magnetic stimulation, sign language, neuromarketing and research into why people confess to crimes they haven’t committed.

Link to article Natural-Born Liars.
Link to article Stopping the Bullies

Dr. Victoria Zdrok on the psychology of sex

zdrok1.jpgDr. Victoria Zdrok is an ex-lawyer, international model, author, webmistress and clinical psychologist, and she has agreed to share her insights into the sexual psyche with Mind Hacks.

Providing a unique perspective on the amorous mind, Dr. Zdrok talks about her influences as a psychologist, her views on the current state of sex research and her own studies into the psychology of sexual fantasy.

Continue reading “Dr. Victoria Zdrok on the psychology of sex”

BBC Discovery on Memory

magritte.jpgDiscovery, the science programme from the BBC World Service, starts the first of a four part series on the psychology and neuroscience of memory.

“…its extraordinary capabilities, how and why it can go wrong – from the vivid intrusions of memory in post traumatic stress disorder to our uncanny ability to adopt memories that aren’t even our own. We’ll find out how and why memory fails and what we can do to improve it.”

The first programme looks at how memory is based in the neurons and structures of the brain and interviews a number of notable memory researchers such as Martin Conway and Kim Graham.

Unfortunately, it looks like the programme isn’t archived online for longer than a week, but the latest programme appears online each Wednesday at 09:00 GMT.

Realaudio archive of last week’s programme.
Link to webpage of BBC World Service Discovery programme.

Happy birthday morphine

morphine.png21st May is morphine’s 200th birthday – we’ve had the pain-killing poppy extract for two centuries and it has had a massive impact on medicine. Strangely, one of the most important effects was found when it was never used…

Anaesthetist Henry Beecher was involved in treating wounded soldiers during World War II. During particularly fierce fighting morphine supplies ran out. In desperation, Beecher used saline solution instead.

The soldiers reported that the fake ‘morphine’ eased their pain – Beecher had discovered the placebo effect.

Inspired by his experiences, Beecher ended up writing one of the most influential papers in medicine The Powerful Placebo, leading to placebo-controlled trials being used as standard in the testing of new medicines.

Chemist and psychedelic compound researcher Alexander Shulgin reports a similar experience in his book PiHKAL, when during his time in the Navy, he needed an operation for a damaged thumb.

…it was this that started me on my career as a psychopharmacologist. I was told that the white “drug” which was undissolved at the bottom of my orange juice glass, and which had finally plopped me over the line from being an alert and defensive surgery candidate to being comatose subject available to any and all manipulation by the operating physician, was nothing but undissolved sugar.

For those interested in the history, psychology and neuroscience of the placebo effect, you could do a lot worse than check out Placebo by cognitive scientist and Mind Hacks contributor Dylan Evans.

And for those still hungry for more about morphine, this is part of birthday celebrations hosted by Kelly from Time to Lean blog, where various authors are contributing morphine related posts. Party on.

2005-05-20 Spike activity

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


Brain injury can have unconcious but significant effects on artistic style and expression.

Babies who have difficult births and a family history of mental illness are more likely to develop autism researchers find.

The ex-editor of the BMJ, writing in PLoS Medicine, slams drug company influence on medical journals and scientific findings.

Research finds that Yoga can enhance body satisfaction and reduce the likelihood of eating disorders, perhaps countering fears of the ‘yogarexia‘ effect.

Mysterious ‘piano man‘ is found in Kent, with few clues to his identity. A potential case of dissociative fugue?

Jennifer Fink writes a beautiful piece, mixing fact and fiction, on fugue and epilepsy.

People continue to believe false news reports, even after they are aware they’ve been proved untrue.

Research on children’s security blankets find that they can compensate for insecure attachment to parents in some situations.

Subliminal messages can invoke emotion without awareness.

Sports teams playing in red have a slight advantage in winning.