Out of the corner of my eye…

corner_eye.jpgWhen we direct our attention to an object, we usually look directly at it, but research just published in the journal Neuron looks at how we focus our attention on things that we notice ‘out of the corner of our eye’.

A research team, led by David Melcher from Oxford Brookes University, has been investigating this process, known to psychologists as implicit selective attention.

They found when focusing on a certain attribute of visual experience – such as colour, the visual system automatically groups other objects of the same colour that move together, even if they are not directly involved in the task at hand.

They also found that objects are understood by the visual system in different ways, depending on whether the object was the focus of attention, or outside of it.

Objects being focused on were understood as wholes by using the fact that all the visual elements have the same surface, whereas objects outside the current focus were grouped in a more basic way, using the fact that visual elements are close together or move in a similar way.

Link to story from medicalnews.com
Link to summary of study from Neuron.
Link to lots of experiments, demonstrations and tutorials on attention.

Why can’t Robert Lansberry get his mail ?

lansberry.jpgFilmmaker Richard Pell has released online a compelling documentary that questions the distinction between psychosis, reality and reasonable paranoia.

It focuses on the life of the late Robert Lansberry, an anti ‘mind control’ protestor who heard voices he attributed to mind control technology. He also believed he was being targetting by the FBI and secret service, who were stopping him getting his mail.

It turns out however, that his mail was being intercepted by the authorities, as his FBI file shows. Furthermore, many of his concerns about mind control turned out to be less crazy than they sounded.

The documentary discusses research into conformity and mind control, genuinely carried out by the secret services during the 60s and 70s, and has archive footage and interviews with some of the people involved.

As well as giving an insight into a warm and fascinating character (who at one stage ran for office and gained over 30,000 votes) it questions the basis for understanding psychosis and paranoia in an increasingly paranoid world.

Link to documentary Don’t Call Me Crazy on the 4th of July

Cigarettes designed to “addict women”

fag_ends.jpgA review of tobacco industry documents show research on psychological and behavioural needs in women was used to target cigarette advertising and ingredients, to increase smoking and reduce quitting rates.

The recently released review (PDF), published in the journal Addiction notes that:

A 1976 British-American Tobacco Company (BAT) review of gender differences (drawing on both internal and published studies) concluded that women were more motivated to smoke, smoked more for insecurity reasons and exhibited more neurotic traits.

The author further observed that higher neuroticism among women may intensify responses to smoking-related health pressures, and that female smokers found quitting more difficult and reported fewer successful cessation attempts.

In response, cigarette advertising and ingredients were altered to make them even more difficult to give up, and more attractive for new smokers.

Link to summary from Science Blog
PDF of full-text paper Designing cigarettes for women.
PDF of Addiction editorial Exploitation by design

IBM to simulate the “entire brain”

New Scientist is reporting that IBM will attempt to simulate the “entire brain” in collaboration with the Swiss Brain Mind Insititute using a specially modified computer system dubbed ‘Blue Brain‘.

It seems from the news reports that the system will attempt to simulate the physical properties of individual neurons and their connections – a science known as neuroinformatics. Both the New Scientist story, and another from Business Week, are a little light on detail however.

They both suggest that an initial project will be to simulate the structure and function of neocortical columns – the three dimensional, highly interconnected layers of neurons, famously found to be an essential part of the visual cortex.

Although impressive, this seems a far cry from simulating the ‘entire brain’, which would involve simulating 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion synapses in real-time.

This assumes, of course, there is a good enough understanding of how each neuron and synpase works – a science which is still very much in development.

The project is long-term however (a decade is mentioned), so hopefully it will allow for some important developments, even if physically simulating the entire brain might be a little far fetched – even in the near future.

Link to New Scientist article ‘Mission to build a simulated brain begins’.
Link to Business Week article ‘Blue Brain: Illuminating the Mind’.

No function for the female orgasm ?

lloyd_picture.jpgElisabeth Lloyd caused a stir with a recent book that suggests the female orgasm has no evolutionary function, and she discusses her controversial views on ABC Radio’s All in the Mind.

Professor Lloyd has examined the current evolutionary theories and argues none adequately explain why females orgasm, as sexual climax is not needed for succesful conception in women, nor is it related to levels of fertility.

In contrast, males need to orgasm for successful reproduction. Lloyd argues that the female orgasm is only present due to the similar structure of early-stage embryos.

Male and female embryos share the nerve pathways necessary for orgasm, like they share the tissue structure for nipples, despite them being reproductively useful in only one half of adults.

Other theories, she claims, have been unduly influenced by ideas about what is sexually ‘normal’ or ‘appropriate’.

On a bit of a tangent, All in the Mind now produces its programmes as podcasts as well as Realaudio streams, allowing them to be downloaded for later listening.

Realaudio or mp3 of The Perplexing Case of the Female Orgasm.
Link to transcript.

Social problems activate additional brain resources

Continuing the recent evolutionary psychology theme (here,here), I’d like to recommend a piece posted by the ever excellent Carl Zimmer. Recent brain scanning evidence shows, possibly, that problems involving social exchange activate additional specific brain regions compared to problems of the same logical form which don’t involve social exchange. What’s this got to do with Evolutionary Psychology? Well the particular tasks involved are something called the Wason Selection Task, and a variant on it developed by the Evolutionary Psychologists Tooby and Cosmides, and subsequently used as a foundational piece of research for the Evolutionary Psychology movement (note the capital E and the capital P). Swing over to Carl’s place and take a look.

Mental Health Update

The recently created Mental Health Update is a blog that collects mental health posts from across the internet.

Although it bills itself as providing the “Latest info on bipolar disorder, mad cow disease and other mental conditions”, which strikes me as a bit of an odd combination for a strapline, it is frequently updated and links to a suprisingly diverse number of stories and news sources.

Link to Mental Health Update.

Influence, anorexia and the body beautiful

half_face.jpgOnline media journal Stay Free! Daily takes a critical look at a recent newspaper report that anorexia is ’caused’ by a brain dysfunction rather than pressure from society.

The story is based on a recent paper from a research group led by psychiatrist Bryan Lask.

Their study found decreased blood flow in a variety of brain areas in a group of adolescents with anorexia, but found that this was not actually linked to any features of the eating disorder, contrary to what the newspaper headline suggests:

There appears to be no association between this reduction in blood flow and cerebral dominance, nutritional status, length of illness, mood, or eating disorder psychopathology. However, there is a significant association between reduced blood flow and impaired visuospatial ability, impaired complex visual memory, and enhanced
information processing.

This suggests that the underlying brain changes in anorexia do not directly affect eating, food or body perception – they are much more general.

How then, does this lead to anorexia ? Lask and his team suggest that a part of the brain called the limbic system might be involved, and that:

Within specific setting conditions such as sociocultural pressures to be thin and a driven and perfectionist personality, the limbic system imbalance may be triggered by such factors as puberty, dieting, weight loss, and various stressors.

In other words, without the pressures from society and a ‘perfectionist personality’, people who have these differences in brain function are unlikely to become anorexic. People who have both therefore, are at the greatest risk of wanting to starve themselves.

A recent study published in the British Journal of Psychology gives us a clue as to what might cause this pressure to be thin.

Researchers showed participants pictures of female bodies, digitally altered to be wider or more thin than average, and then asked them to pick out most attractive body shapes from a range.

After being shown thin bodies, participants tended to pick thinner bodies as the most attractive.

The authors argue that perception of attractiveness and beauty are relative to our experience of the most common body shape, suggesting that the promotion of thin bodies in the media may distort our idea of attractiveness by affecting the ‘data’ on which we judge normality.

Link to Stay Free! article.
Link to abstract of anorexia / neuroscience study.
Link to body shape study.

Sex and science: The debate continues

microscope.jpgSome notable scientists have pitched into the gender determinism debate recently held between Pinker and Spelke, as previously mentioned on Mind Hacks.

The debate centred on the influence of biology, sex and gender on psychological abilities, and was inspired by controversial comments suggesting that women might be genetically less suited to science.

The commentary includes insights from psychologists Diane Halpern, Alison Gopnik and Nora Newcombe and geneticist David Haig.

Link to gender determinism commentary from Edge.org

2005-06-03 Spike activity

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


Review article from PLoS Medicine suggests schizophrenia is less prevalent than previously thought.

It seems to be artificial intelligence week:

1) The Yemen Times runs an article giving an introduction to AI.

2) An article on kuro5hin takes a critical look at the recent completion of a verbal analogy exam by an AI system.

3) AI seduces Stanford students reports Wired, although Stanford students seduce AI would be cooler.

An interview with the current director of the Kinsey Institute on sexual behaviour and sex research.

Paper on CogPrints on ‘A Psychedelic Neurochemistry of Time‘.

Researchers discover a map for smell in the brain.

The early stages of “early, intense romantic love may have more to do with motivation, reward and ‘drive’ aspects of human behavior than with the emotions or sex drive.”

Wired discusses the controversial use of cognitive neuroscience to design effective advertising – (Thanks Michal!).

Better educated women sleep more soundly, although the reverse is true for men. Coincidence ? I think not.

Spraying the hormone oxytocin into the nose makes people more trusting.

Article on Cognitive Daily examines research that suggests emotions don’t appear to affect trust when the person in question is a close friend, but play a strong role when the person is only an acquaintance.

Fantastic analysis of recent research showing cannabis may increase the risk of psychosis particularly in people with certain genes.

The Magnetic Sense

To add to Vaughan’s post about cyborg senses the other day, here’s another group experimenting with new ways of perceiving the world. Steve Haworth and Jesse Jarrell are body modification artists, and one of their clients was Todd Huffman, who has had a small magnet implanted in the tip of his finger.

In an interview with Todd, The Gift of Magnetic Vision (some pictures on this site are not for the squeamish), he describes how this magnet isn’t just a trick and what “seeing” magnetic fields feels like:

There are two distinct feelings I get from fields. For a static field, like a bar magnet, it feels like a smooth pressure. Imagine running your hand slowly through lukewarm water, and brushing your finger across the top of a large invisible marshmallow. That is the closest description I can give. Oscillating fields, such as electric motors, security devices, transformers, et cetera, vibrate the magnet. This sensation is much more sensitive and noticeable.

Having the magnet implant makes his understanding of the world more visceral:

Another time I opened a can of cat food for my girlfriend’s pets, and I sensed the electric motor running. My hand was about six inches away from the electric can opener, and I was able to sense where the motor was inside of the assembly. Again it brought my attention to a magnetic source that I understood intellectually, but would have otherwise been unaware of.

The interview also covers other supersenses Todd is thinking about, and the relation of this kind of experimentation to new computer interfaces–which is subject I find fascinating.

Interfaces of all kinds, whether it’s burglar alarms, televisions or computer screens, present information in a very factual way and in a way that’s intended for intellectual understanding. But compare that to the ambient understanding we have of the rest of the world around us: reading somebody’s scribbled note also carries a hurried sense; a car getting a flat or needing an oil change will drive differently; a glance along the spice rack will influence your shopping list. Our regular senses work on both attentive and preperceptive channels… so why do our technological systems so often stick to the former? And is it possible to transform the previously invisible – like magnetic fields – into senses we can use? This is what academic subjects like ubiquitous computing and ubicomp computer-human interaction are attacking, on technological and design fronts. But it seems that the folks really breaking new ground are the body-mod crowd.

Link to The Gift of Magnetic Vision.

Are our memories suffering from our reliance on gadgets?

So I’m in this month’s edition of Wired, just a short quote. Since it’s here and it’s now I’ve reproduced the full quote I sent them below:

> I’m looking for a response to this question: “Are tools like Google and PDAs
> ruining our ability to remember things?”

So we have this amazing brain which constantly scans our environment and seeks out short-cuts. New bits of tech, like google or mobile phones, stop being strange very quickly (even though, truely, they’re just incredible. Unthinkable just a few years ago). They get absorbed, become artifical information-processing prosthetics. Are they making us forget things? Sure, we’re forgetting the things they allow us not to have to remember. But when we use something, or design something, we get a choice about what it asked us to remember. My mobile phone means the only numbers i remember are the ones i deliberately haven’t put in their so i’m forced to learn them. Not knowing any phone numbers is fine – as long as i don’t lose my phone. Then it becomes a bit of a problem.

But phone numbers are hard to learn anyway – a hang-up from an old technology. The situation is completely reversed for getting in touch with people through the web. Knowing the URL or email isn’t so useful – it might change. But with Google, knowing a person’s name (exactly the piece of information you store in your phone to allow you to forget their number) means you can find their details on-line in seconds. The technology lets us forget an implementational detail, and allows us to concentrate on remembering a versatile, tech-enabled, solution.

The euthanasia underground

ogden.jpgAn online article from Scientific American discusses the work of criminologist Russel Ogden, who has been researching the social organisation of the euthanasia underground.

The practice of assisted suicide is illegal in most countries and Ogden has been pressured academically and legally to give up his research or reveal the identities of anonymous interviewees in his study.

He has successfully continued his research while navigating the novel ethical issues his works brings-up, and has discovered some surprising facts about the existence of the often unacknowledged ‘euthanasia networks’.

[Euthanasia organisation] NuTech is at the forefront of what Ogden calls the “deathing counterculture,” in which nonmedical death practitioners offer referrals, consultations and house calls. “They are taking the place of physicians to deliver virtually undetectable death assistance,” says Ogden

Link to article A Culture of Death.
Link to abstract of paper Non-physician assisted suicide: the technological imperative of the deathing counterculture.