Metapsychology reviews…

davidson_book.jpgMetapsychology is one of the hidden gems of the internet, publishing in-depth reviews of books on the mind, brain and society, at a rate of about 10 a month.

The reviewers are largely professional psychologists, neuroscientists or social science researchers but rarely lapse into using the dry language of academia.

The surprisingly diverse selection of books often includes novels and photographic collections as well as scientific and scholary writing.

xxx_psp_book.jpgSo, if you ever wanted a psychologist’s take on XXX: 30 Porn-Star Portraits, a book of collected essays by philosopher-of-mind Donald Davidson, a picture book for children on coping with grief, or a book on the cognitive science of the self, Metapsychology has all this and more.

Link to Metapsychology Book Reviews.

Avoiding ‘stereotype threat’ for better performance

books.jpgAn article in Scientific American describes ‘stereotype threat‘ – an effect where, if a person is challenged in an area they are concerned about, such as intellectual ability, the fear of confirming a negative stereotype can impair performance.

The findings have largely been uncovered by psychologist Claude Steele, who found that the way a test is framed can significantly affect performance.

He was particularly motivated by the fact that black students did much worse at college, despite having achieved equal grades at school, and wondered if some black students were suffering impaired performance because of worries about their own abilities.

Steele wondered if the [black] Michigan students suffered from a kind of self-image threat, so with colleagues Joshua Aronson and Steven Spencer, he designed a series of studies. They gave sophomores matched by SAT scores a frustrating section of the Graduate Record Examination. When first told that the test evaluated verbal ability, the black students scored a full standard deviation lower on average. But when the researchers described it as a study of problem-solving techniques unimportant to academic achievement, the scores for blacks leaped to the same level as those for whites.

Similar findings have been found for female students taking maths tests and even with white golfers taking tests of “natural athletic ability”.

Link to Performance without Anxiety from Scientific American.
Link to Claude Steele discussing stereotype threat.

Is depression a brain disease ?

depression_pic.jpgA article on ‘Demystifying depression‘ gives an excellent account of the experience of depression, but uncritically repeats some common assumptions about the condition – namely that it is a ‘physical illness’ caused by ‘low serotonin’.

Despite the familiarity of these claims, both are problematic.

Continue reading “Is depression a brain disease ?”

Health Report on the science and ethics of ADHD

pill_bottle.jpgABC Radio National continues its tradition of high-quality science radio with an edition of Health Report focusing on Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder, better known as ADHD.

The programme discusses progress in current treatments for ADHD and the latest findings in causes, mechanisms and confusions in understanding the condition.

ADHD is a controversial subject, particularly in the area of treatment, as it is common for doctors to suggest the use of amphetamines or amphetamine-like drugs in people diagnosed with the condition.

As these drugs are often prescribed for children, this has been the subject of much debate concerning the ethics of appropriate classification and treatment.

A further segment of the programme – on neuroprosthetics – is a good introduction to the science of human-brain interfaces, although largely covers the same ground as a radio show on the same topic recently featured on Mind Hacks.

Realaudio archive of May 9th Health Report.
Link to transcript of ADHD segment.
PDF of debate on treatment of ADHD from The Psychologist.

2005-05-13 Spike activity

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


Differing patterns of brain activation are found for faces of different races.

A gene linked to depression may weaken a brain circuit linked to emotion and mood regulation.

One of the basic tenants of motivation theory is questioned: Instrinsic motivation – doing things for their own reward – doesn’t exist claims researcher.

An article describes a writer’s experience with ADHD medication and its effect on his life.

Opposites attract – particularly in people diagnosed with personality disorder – claims psychologist.

An article on psychiatrist and author M. Scott Peck finds him a complex, troubled and contradictory character – much like everybody else.

New Scientist reports on highlights from the international autism conference in Boston.

An article exames the existence of gay imagery in alien abduction accounts.

Pinker vs Spelke on gender determinism

spelke.pngA distinguished female biologist walked out when the Harvard President suggested that women were biologically less suited to science. The existence of such differences are now the subject of a heated exchange between psychologists Stephen Pinker and Elizabeth Spelke in the latest Edge debate.

pinker.pngThe topic is notable as despite its political importance, it is rarely informed by science, particularly as there are reliable differences in psychological abilities and brain structure between men and women.

Simon Baron-Cohen has become notable for arguing that there are fundamental differences in male and female thinking.

A recent study suggested however, that although there are obvious differences in brain structure, overall intelligence was not any different between the sexes. Some have speculated that such structural differences may reflect specialisations for particular skills.

In this regard, Pinker and Spelke make an interesting contrast. Pinker argues that such specialisations are largely inherited, whereas Spelke argues that they are more likely to be the result of sex roles and the influence of society.

The debate includes audio, video and text transcripts of the exchange.

Link to Edge debate on The Science of Gender and Science (via BoingBoing).

Magnetism and human behaviour

horseshoe_magnet.jpgNew Scientist reports on research showing that social behaviour can follow the laws of a surprising phenomenon – magnetism.

Physicists Quentin Michard and Jean-Philippe Bouchaud were interested in modelling imitation in society – to explain the drop in European birth rates, the explosion in mobile phone ownership and the way clapping at a concert suddenly stops.

The researchers noted similarities in the way magnetic fields influence the spin of electrons in an atom. One atom can influence the next, and with enough effect, the direction of spin in all the atoms can suddenly align.

Modelling each atom as a person allowed the creation of a mathematical model that can accurately predict how, like atoms, human behaviour can suddenly align.

This is not the first time physicists have used mathematical models to predict large-scale human behaviour. Physicist Albert-Laszlo Barabasi used models of dynamic synchronisation to also model audience appreciation – particularly the phenomenon where thunderous applause turns into <a href="synchronised clapping.

Steven Strogatz’s book Sync explores these models in more details, and shows that similar patterns underly many diverse aspects of the world – from human behaviour to the wobble of the London’s Millennium Bridge.

Link to New Scientist item on magnetism and social behaviour.

Pheromones and sexual attraction

girl_midriff.jpgTwo recent studies have revealed the complex interactions between pheromones, sexual orientation and attraction – suggesting that our sense of smell may be an important part of the turn-on.

Psychologists Charles Wysocki and Yolanda Martins have been studying the effect of human pheromones in an experiment where they asked participants to judge odour from a cloth wiped across the body.

In particular, participants were asked to guess sexual orientation from the person’s scent.

Wysocki found that gay men preferred odours from gay men and heterosexual women, whereas odours from gay men were found least attractive by women and straight men.

A possible biological basis for this effect has been suggested by a brain scanning study completed by a research team led by Ivanka Savic Berglund.

Berglund found that male pheromones caused similar brain activity in gay men as it did in straight women, although the effect was not found in straight men.

A similar brain activity pattern was found for straight men however, but only when they were exposed to an oestrogen based chemical.

Even the fine-grained preferences of individuals might be important. Research by Claus Wedekind has suggested that such preferences are optimised to match-up people with complementary genes for immunity.

Link to article on Wysocki’s body odour study from
Link to article on Berglund’s brain scanning study from New Scientist.
Link to article on smell and sexual attraction from Psychology Today.

Ramachandran interviewed on Radio National

ramachandran.jpgNeuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran features on the latest edition of ABC Radio National’s All in the Mind where he is interviewed about how the mind and brain understand art.

Ramachandran is well known as a broadcaster and author. Notably for his book Phantoms in the Brain and for giving the 2003 BBC Reith Lectures on The Emerging Mind.

UK magazine The Psychologist has just made an interview with V.S. Ramachandran available online (PDF). Ramachandram is interviewed by our very own Tom Stafford.

Realaudio of All in the Mind interview with V.S. Ramachandran
Link to transcript of programme.

Control context to aid memory

Reader Matt Doar writes in with this Mind hack which uses our brain’s natural ability to encode context as an aid to writing code:

My hack/tip/thing that makes people look at me oddly, useful for when I’m working on a large piece of software, an activity which involves holding a lot of related abstract information in your head. Here it is:

1. Pick one tune or one album that you like.

2. Listen to it while you develop the code. Over and over, on repeat. Listen to no other music. Headphones are a must for the office!

3. Don’t listen to it again until …

4. You need to work on the same code, then listen to it.

Lots of context returns with the tune and helps to write better code. One colleague suggested using scents too. Other colleagues (and my wife) just stared at me, then shook their heads sadly 😉

I think this is great. By training in a tune-as-context you can then use it as a trigger to help recall everything else that was on your mind at that time. And the idea of using scents instead of tunes might work well – smell and memory are famously intertwined, and there may be a neuroanatomical basis for this: the nerves from the nose enter the brain next to the areas associated with storing memories for episodes. The only drawbacks are that you may not get as many distinct smells as distinct tunes, and tunes come with headphones to stop you distracting your colleagues – there’s no such device for smells (although maybe the message is that smells should be used for pair-programming or group projects).

Fat, food and behaviour

An article in the schools section of the Education Guardian discusses the growing evidence for a link between fatty acids, brain function and behaviour.

The story focuses on the potential effects on visual problems, dyslexia and difficulties with attention.

The writer does seems to get a little carried away however, when he questions whether such findings “challenge the very notion of free will”:

Revealing as it does that mood, behaviour and achievement are affected by whether the brain has enough of the right kind of nutrients to function properly, it throws into doubt how far anyone… can actually control their behaviour.

Perhaps we are all being brainwashed by breakfast cereal ?

Link to article Why it’s time we faced fats

2005-05-06 Spike activity

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


Children of women pregnant during the 9/11 attacks are more likely to develop stress disorders themselves, echoing similar findings from Finland.

A review of cases of people who have woken up from coma.

The latest issue of Nature Neuroscience has an temporary open access special on the neurobiology of obesity.

Two recent studies suggest loneliness can affect the immune system and heart.

BBC Radio 4 science programme The Material World examines hearing and genetic hearing loss. Includes “the sound of a healthy ear”. Really.

Acupuncture no better than placebo for migraines claims one study. Acupuncture has a measurable effect on brain function claims another. Good comments and discussion at PsyBlog.

New Scientist discusses what we can learn about human conflict from the animal kingdom.

Eskimos discover ‘best ever’ snow: We’ve discovered new wonder drug – claims drug company. NB: Cortex make modafinil.

Great Cognitive Daily article on an experimental test of flashbulb memory.

The neuroscience of hyper-reading

book.jpgWeekly research digest Science News has put this week’s cover article online – a story on the neuroscience of reading and children with hyper-advanced reading skills.

The condition is called hyperlexia and involves an ability to read words far in advance of children of the same age, usually accompanied with problems with spoken language and social interaction.

Because of the mixed picture, researchers have debated whether it is a superability or disability, as it almost always occurs in children with developmental problems.

The article also examines research on Chinese readers, who seem to use more parts of the brain to read the information-rich Chinese characters.

Link to article Read All About It from

Sudden recovery of brain function after 10 years

The New York Times reports on a firefighter who has made a remarkable and sudden recovery after suffering severe brain injury in 1995.

Donald Herbert sustained a serious head injury when a roof collapsed during a fire fighting operation and has been in hospital since, with his ability to communicate and recognise people severely impaired.

According to news sources, Mr Herbert suddenly started speaking after 10 years, asking to see his wife and other family members.

The recovery has left doctors baffled. So little is known about how the brain repairs and regenerates after injury that it is difficult to predict the course of recovery, although substantial improvement after the first few years of injury are rare.

Some other remarkable cases have been recorded though, including the case of Terry Wallis who regained consciousness after 19 years.

Link to story from New York Times.
Link to story from Yahoo News.
Link to additional information on recovery at the Brain Injury Recovery Network.

Virtual Reality test for brain trauma

LaPlaca_VR.jpgA group of neuroengineers led by Michelle LaPlaca have developed a virtual-reality test for psychological impairments caused by head injury.

The system called DETECT (‘display enhanced testing for concussions and mild traumatic brain injury’) is designed to pick-up subtle cognitive problems that can accompany blows to the head.

Such problems are often difficult to detect at first, but can be important medical pointers to more significant or longer lasting impairments.

The VR system presents a number of neuropsychological tests that seem like simplified video games, but record accuracy and reaction time scores, that allow memory and visual perception to be assessed.

Crucially, it only takes 7 minutes, whereas traditional testing could take several hours, and because of the immersive nature of VR, it might be possible to use it in noisy environments, such as emergency rooms, sports fields or even battlefields.

Link to New Scientist story on DETECT.
Link to details from Georgia Tech University website.
PDF of research summary.

Mental health and human rights

Open access medical journal PLoS Medicine has a thought-provoking article on mental health, human rights and the standard of mental health care around the world.

It mentions some shocking statistics that highlight how low a priority mental health is for most countries, despite the massive burden of disability it causes.

According to the 2001 World Health Report, “some 450 million people suffer from a mental or behavioral disorder, yet only a small minority of them receive even the most basic treatment”… According to the World Health Organization (WHO), mental and behavioral disorders are estimated to account for 12% of the global burden of disease, yet the mental health budgets of the majority of countries constitute less than 1% of their total health expenditures.

Various cases of poor practice are highlighted, including a shocking picture of the sanitary facilities in Larco Herrera Psychiatric Hospital in Lima.

The article goes on to suggest ways to tackle the problem, both in the health care and legal systems, and discusses integrating an approach to mental disability into a wider human rights approach.

Link to PLoS Medicine article Out of the Shadows.