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.