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.