New series of BBC All in the Mind

raj_persaud.jpgLast Tuesday saw a new series of the BBC version of All in the Mind hit the airwaves.

It’s broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and hosted by psychiatrist Raj Persaud, and is quite separate from the ABC Radio National version – also called All in the Mind – just to add to the confusion.

The BBC version has a different format to the Radio National All in the Mind, as it typically covers several topics in one week, sacrificing depth for breadth and variety.

All of the editions of the BBC programme are archived on the website as realaudio streams, and the first programme covers the psychology of negotation, happiness and a relatively new method of brain scanning called magnetoencephalography or MEG.

Link to BBC Radio 4 ‘All in the Mind’ website with realaudio archive.

Psychiatry’s dark debate, 1942

The latest issue of the History of Psychiatry journal contains an article by psychologist Jay Joseph, discussing a disturbing debate in a 1942 issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry, over whether the ‘feebleminded’ should be killed.

The debate was held between neurologist Robert Foster Kennedy, one-time president of the American Neurological Association, and psychiatrist Leo Kanner, famous for his work on autism.

In an article entitled ‘The problem of social control of the congenital defective: education, sterilization and euthanasia’, Kennedy made the argument that ‘defective’ or ‘feebleminded’ children, reaching the age of five, should be examined by a medical review board and if found to have ‘no future or hope of one’, should be killed, suposedly for the good of society.

Kanner argued strongly against this position in a reply entitled ‘Exoneration of the feebleminded’, although Joseph notes that he did believe sterilisation was appropriate for those ‘intellectually or emotionally unfit to rear children’.

Perhaps most shocking was an unsigned editorial in the same issue, siding with Kennedy’s ideas in the debate.

Joseph is a stark critic of genetic research into mental illness, and so perhaps it is not surprising that he finishes the article warning that such research could support similar views today.

Whatever you think of Joseph’s take on the issue, however, it is surprising to learn that respected clinicians in America were supporting eugenics during the the time of World War Two.

Link to summary of the paper ‘The 1942 ‚Äòeuthanasia‚Äô debate in the American Journal of Psychiatry’.

2005-07-29 Spike activity

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


New York Times on going through all the stages of a relationship through the medium of text messaging.

An elegant study shows that the brain ‘shuts down’ certain areas when we blink.

A writer’s perception of the psychology of the London Underground in the wake of the bombings.

A guy with synaesthesia produces images of music and maps out colours of letters on a keyboard. Thanks Simon!

Old skool neuroscience tech up for sale on ebay (via BoingBoing).

Tyneside to lead stroke research in UK.

Review of Mind Hacks from the MaineE Linux Users Group. Thanks Brian!

Article on developments in understanding chronic fatigue syndrome.

A slew of great articles from PsyBlog this week:
* No performance enhancement from caffeine?
* Psychological differences between men and women. Take note BBC!
* Link to a Guardian piece on the psychology of stage magic.

Researchers think that hand gestures are linked to better recall of language skills during speaking.

Propranolol, a drug usually used to treat high blood pressure, may block out traumatic memories.

UPDATE: Programme on NPR radio discusses the neuroscience of meditation as discussed previously on Mind Hacks. Thanks David!

Drug use in 2025

foresight.jpg The U.K.’s Office of Science and Technology Foresight programme has published a free report “Drugs Futures 2025?” that seeks answers to how we can best manage the use of psychoactive substances in the future for the betterment of society. The report points to three areas that will be affected by our rapidly growing understanding of how substances act in the brain: treatment for mental health, drug addiction and the use of cognitive enhancers like modafinil and ritalin. The report draws on 15 state-of-the-science reviews, from experimental psychology, to genomics, to social policy that are also free to download.

iPods increase likelihood of musical hallucinations?

headphones.jpgPsychiatrist Victor Aziz has suggested that some iPod users are experiencing musical hallucinations owing to the constant repetition of favourite songs.

Dr Aziz was recently featured in a New York Times article discussing musical hallucinations. This story was touted as ‘brain becomes an iPod’ because musical hallucinations can take the form of complete songs or melodies.

In an interesting twist, however, Aziz suggests the use of personal music players may lead to musical hallucinations in some people.

This is not as far fetched as it sounds. A recent brain scanning study used a technique where songs were silenced for short intervals when played, and showed that the auditory cortex remained active when people continued ‘hearing’ the silenced tune.

The constant repetition of the same music may produce a similar effect, perhaps leading to the hallucinations.

In July’s issue of the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry Aziz and colleague Nick Warner reviewed 30 cases of musical hallucinations in older people and found the hallucinations could be very specific and distinct:

The hymn ‘Abide with me’ was clearly the most frequent music heard. In 2/3 of cases religious music predominated, with Christmas music also common. In most cases the music took the form of solo voice (male or female) with instrumental backing. Two people could identify the singer (George Formby and Luciano Pavarotti).

Link to story ‘IPod hallucinations face acid test’.
Link to story ‘iPods could make you hallucinate’ from the London Evening Standard.
Link to New York times article ‘Neuron Network Goes Awry, and Brain Becomes an IPod’.

NewSci special on deception

ns_20050730.jpgFor the third week in a row, New Scientist is full of mind and brain articles. This week, a special on the science of lying and deception.

The issue covers the psychology of lying, but also deception in the wider sense.

Mediums and fortune tellers are put under the spotlight. Even if some mediums are genuine, there must be many who aren’t, and yet still seem successful to their clients. One article analyses ‘cold reading’ and considers the techniques that could be used to give the impression of supernatural insight.

Another article looks at the psychology of stage magic, and the interview puts Derren Brown, television mind-manipulator (and Bristol University psychology graduate), in the hot seat.

Also for the third week in a row, none of the article are online, so it’s hard cash or the library for this one.

Link to New Scientist contents.

Scientist posts own brain-tumour surgery pics

tumour_surgery.jpgScientist David La Puma recently had brain surgery to remove a meningioma. He describes the experience on his blog, and has uploaded pictures of the operation as a Flickr photo set.

As you might expect from a dedicated and inquisitive scientist, the photo set is fully commented, and in the more ‘anatomical’ of the pictures (this one is great), all the parts of the brain are labelled.

Wishing you a speedy recovery David. Many thanks for a fascinating project.

Photo set 1 and photo set 2 of brain tumour removal surgery.
Link to David La Puma’s blog.

Psychology’s top 10 misguided ideas

Here’s one we can all join in on. Psychology Today magazine has a column from earlier this year on The Loose Screw Awards which gives out (notional) prizes for ‘psychology’s top 10 misguided ideas’. This includes “The P.T. Barnum Medal for Mass-Market Potential” (which goes to the Mozart effect), “The Idea That Launched a Thousand Suits” (recovered memories) and “Most Bureaucratic” which goes to the idea that terminally ill people go through five distinct stages of dying (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) and that any deviation from this strict pattern is detrimental to the patient. It has been claimed that the theory was based on interviews with patients who hadn’t been told that they were terminally ill. Which would explain their anger and denial – they were being lied to by the very people who were supposed to be looking after them!

Fun as the list in the article is, I can’t help feeling that there are a few ideas that missed out on prizes, or at least on honourable mentions. What about a “Scientific Gold-Rush Prize” (Neuroimaging?). Or a “Delusions of Grandeur Trophy” (Evolutionary Psychology? Psychoanalysis? Could be a close race…). Maybe the “Restating the Obvious in Esoteric Jargon Medal” (we’d probably need a gold, silver and bronze for this one).

A few years ago a poll of 200 psychiatrists produced a similar list of bad ideas in mental health. The Independent ran an article on it (‘Ten Things That Drive Psychiatrists To Distraction’) and there’s quite a few items (psychosurgery, electroshock therapy) that I’d put in my top ten. All in all, a sharp reminder of the sad history of ideas in psychology. Anyone got any other nominations?

Dalai Lama to lecture on neuroscience amidst protests

dalai_lama.jpgTibetan Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama, is to give a lecture to an international neuroscience conference, despite protests from some of the delegates.

His lecture on the neuroscience of meditation, and participation in a discussion on the ‘Science and Clinical Applications of Meditation’, is planned for the prestigious annual conference of the Society for Neuroscience, to be held in Washington DC in November.

The Dali Lama has a longstanding interest in neuroscience, having founded the Mind and Life Institute, to promote dialogue between science and buddhism.

The Institute has regular meetings between the Buddhist leader and leading neuroscientists, which has resulted in research collaborations and a number of books that have included transcripts and analyses of the gatherings.

His talk also comes at a time when therapies based on Buddhist ‘mindfulness’ techniques are being found to be increasingly effective for treating physical and mental distress in well-controlled scientific studies.

Some potential delegates are protesting his appearance, however, suggesting science and religion should not be mixed and declaring his views to be in ‘poor scientific taste’. Neuroscientist Jianguo G. Gu has reportedly started a petition against the Dalai Lama’s lecture.

The Society for Neuroscience have defended their decision and noted that the Dalai Lama will not be talking about ‘religion or politics’.

Link to Guardian article ‘Plan for Dalai Lama lecture angers neuroscientists’
PDF (5.5Mb) of programme for Society for Neuroscience Annual conference. Details of Dalai Lama’s participation on p8 and p27.
Link to Mind and Life Institute.
Link to scientific paper ‘Long-term meditators self-induce high-amplitude gamma synchrony during mental practice’.
Link to information on mindfulness therapy from Cambridge University’s Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit.

Epilepsy surgery on TV

BBC One is showing a television programme on Wednesday 27th July at 9pm on the work of neurosurgen Chris Chandler, as he completes an operation to prevent life threatening seizure in a 19 year-old woman.

19-year-old Sarah has epilepsy and suffers over 20 fits a day. Harry is seven, and his fits are so severe they can stop him breathing. Surgery is their only hope of a normal life, but the risks are high.

Brain surgeon Chris Chandler, who works at King’s College Hospital in London, is one of only a handful of surgeons able to perform this complex surgery. Their lives are in his hands.

UPDATE: BBC News has a story about the programme online.

Link to BBC TV listing.

Execution rests on IQ test

daryl_atkins.jpgThe BBC are reporting that convicted murderer Daryl Atkins may be executed by the state of Virginia, based on a recent IQ test where he scored 74, four points above the legal definition of retardation, which had previously excluded him from the death penalty.

When first tested in 1998, his IQ measured 59, well below the 70 points cut-off level. The cut-off of 70 is significant, owing to design of the IQ test.

Intelligence shows a specific sort of distribution in the population, and follows a common pattern, known as a normal distribution.

Rather than design a test with arbitrary figures, modern IQ tests have been created with specific statistical properties to make them easier to interpret: the average IQ is 100, and the standard deviation (the average variation from the average) is 15. Click here to see a graph of this in a pop-up window.

The cut-off of 70 is two standard-deviations below the average. It is known that 95% of the population will score within two standard deviations on either side of the average. This makes the legal definition of retardation, at least in Virginia, as having an IQ score in the bottom 2.5% of the population.

There is no easy explanation as to why someone’s IQ score might rise during a 7-year period. Prosecutors are arguing that he ‘pulled-punches’ on the original test, the defence argue that his interaction with lawyers has raised his IQ – although many factors, such as distraction, the skill and reliability of the tester, and familiarity with the tests can affect the score.

Interestingly, the prosecution are arguing that his IQ is actually 76, 2 points higher than the defence claim. Why quibble over two points?

Possibly because of another statistical property of IQ. It has a standard error of measurement (the average error in assessing the presumed true score) of 5 points.

Even taking into account a standard error of measurement of 5 points, a score of 76 would definitely be above the level of retardation – making Atkins eligible for the death penalty, whereas a score of 74 is still ambiguous.

Interestingly, it was a supreme court decision, based on Atkins case, that first made it illegal to execute convicts considered legally retarded.

Statistical properties aside, the whole concept of IQ itself is still controversial among some psychologists, and was most notably criticised in Stephen Jay Gould’s book The Mismeasure of Man.

Link to BBC News story.
Link to story from Daily Telegraph.

Cognitive neuroscience quilts

fabric_brain_art.jpgThe Museum of Scientifically Accurate Fabric Brain Art has a collection of scans from brain imaging studies – reproduced as lush hand-stitched fabrics.

The detail on the work is intricate and enthralling, and includes the reinterpretation of both PET and MRI scans.

Link to The Museum of Scientifically Accurate Fabric Brain Art.

UPDATE: Thanks to an email from their creator, I can tell you that the quilts were made by psychologist Marjorie Taylor, whose work on children’s imaginary friends has been previously featured on Mind Hacks. Thanks Marjorie!

All in the Mind: The Intimate Unconscious

ABC Radio’s All in the Mind has so many good shows, we almost require a permanent feed. This week is no exception with an excellent edition on ‘An Intimate History of the Unconscious’.

Our minds are wayward beasts. Many of the quirks of our conscious experience go unexplained. Could our conscious mind be but the tip of an iceberg, underpinned by the seething underbelly of the unconscious? Freud famously thought so. The Ancients appealed to gods, the gremlins and the underworld to explain our strange ways. Cognitive scientist Guy Claxton has unearthed the unconscious throughout history. Despite the exciting triumphs of neuroscience, he argues that mystical metaphors of the hidden mind still have their place.

Guy Claxton has written a book on the same topic, entitled The Wayward Mind: An Intimate History of the Unconscious, and shares some of the insights he discovered while writing it.

mp3 or realaudio to programme audio.
Link to transcript.

NewSci on speed, fatigue, denial and terrorism

ns20050723.jpgThis week’s New Scientist has a mixed bag of articles on psychology and neuroscience, covering the effects of amphetamine on the brain, and developments in understanding chronic fatigue syndrome, anosognosia and suicide bombers.

The effects of amphetamine are a hot topic at the moment, owing to recent sharp increases in its use, illegally – in the form of street speed, particularly methamphetamine or ‘crystal meth’, and on prescription – in the form or dexamphetamine and ADHD drug Adderall.

New Scientist has one of its lead articles on the debates over the potential damaging effects of amphetamine, and what this means for recreational users and the millions of children prescribed amphetamine-like drugs.

One worry is a lack of long-term studies into the effects of using such stimulant drugs in childhood, on adult health and functioning.

Another, shorter article, in the same issue, discusses a condition called anosognosia, where a brain-injured patient may be unaware of, or seem to deny, sometimes quite striking disabilities – for example, being blind or paralysed.

Other short articles tackle the social psychology of terrorism and the role of intra-group declarations of commitment in motivating suicide bombers, and recent findings on contributory genes for the still, largely mysterious, chronic fatigue syndrome.

None of the articles are online (grumble grumble), but your local library may have it if your newsagent doesn’t.

Link to New Scientist contents page.

2005-07-22 Spike activity

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


A thought-controlled voice synthesiser might be the next logical step for ‘neuroprosthetics’.

Marketing companies are developing software to profile personal characteristics from blogs.

One we missed from the week before: Great Cognitive Daily article on research into eliciting false confessions.

Wired looks at the research of the ‘Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research program’ who investigate whether mental events can affect machines.

Children as young as 7 can detect self-interest in a speaker’s claims.

Scientific American takes a look at how neuroscience is advancing treatment for Parkinson’s disease.

Adolescent girls show changes in slang and colloquial language before boys.

Architects and designers are starting to use findings from neuroscience to design better buildings.

Researchers claim to have found one of the genes that increase risk for autism.

Study finds 80% of 14-16 year old girls want to crash diet to “attract boys’ attention and achieve self-confidence”.

Understanding ‘Aha!’

insight.jpgTo this day, psychologists understand little about ‘insight’ – that Eureka moment when a long-sought answer suddenly jumps to mind. These “Aha!” experiences range from the trivial – suddenly solving a crossword clue, to the profound – like Kary Mullis’s Nobel-Prize-winning invention of the polymerase chain reaction, the basis of which occurred to him while driving home one day.

According to Edward Bowden and colleagues writing in the latest issue of Trends in Cognitive Sciences, insight is achieved via the right-hemisphere (cf. Hack #69 ) which “engages in relatively coarse semantic coding, and is therefore more likely to maintain diffuse activation of alternative meanings, distant associations and solution-relevant concepts”. Unfortunately, by its nature this diffuse activation is often weak and beyond conscious reach of the struggling thinker.

In support of this they’ve shown, for example, that when people are presented with the solution to a problem they couldn’t solve, they’re quicker at reading this solution aloud when it’s presented to their left visual field (right hemisphere) than to their right visual field (left hemisphere). This suggests the right hemisphere had been closer to reaching the solution than the left. Moreover, brain scans of solutions reached by insight revealed more activity in the anterior superior temporal sulcus of the right hemisphere, than did solutions not reached by insight. So, perhaps you should do tomorrow’s Suduko while looking out of the left corner of your eyes!

Continue reading “Understanding ‘Aha!’”