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 mindhacks.com 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.