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.

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 kuro5hin.org 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.