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!’”

Art, mind and belief

jerusalem_doorway.jpgThe Haunch of Venison Gallery in London has a show that has collected art on the themes of mind and belief. It has pieces by a number of renowned contemporary artists, and includes an intriguing piece by Nathan Coley, who focuses on the Jerusalem syndrome.

This controversial condition was first identified by psychiatrist Yair Bar El, who claimed some people who ended up in psychiatric care in Jerusalem, were previously stable tourists who had become overwhelmed, and had distinct religious delusions that seemed to abate when they left the area.

Others have disputed the fact that these people were mentally stable beforehand, and argue that this was simply a case of pre-existing psychosis flavoured by the environment.

Coley’s contribution to the exhibition is a video about the syndrome, including interviews with psychiatrists who have encountered presumed cases in Jerusalem.

The show runs from 7th July to 25th August.

PDF of press release for show ‘Changes of Mind: Belief and Transformation’.
Link to story from The Guardian on the exhibition.
Link to Haunch of Venison Gallery.

Social science research forum launches

An internet discussion board has been launched to allow psychologists and social scientists to swap advice, queries and concerns about research into human behaviour.

It’s free to join and should be a useful resource for researchers wanting advice on anything from ethics and implementation, to statistics and presentation.

Link to the ‘Research Companion Forum’.

Attack of the porno-zombies

zombies.jpgThe Guardian reports on psychologist Judith Reisman, who argues that pornography is an ‘erototoxin’ that damages the brain, impairing cognition and rational thought:

“According to Dr Judith Reisman, pornography affects the physical structure of your brain turning you into a porno-zombie. Porn, she says, is an “erototoxin”, producing an addictive “drug cocktail” of testosterone, oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin with a measurable organic effect on the brain.”

In the first instance, she’s right. Pornography does physically affect the brain. In fact, everything we experience physically changes the brain in some way.

What Reisman is trying to do, is portray this physical effect as ‘damage’. Furthermore, she argues the damage could be so severe, that an affected person would not be rational enough to engage in ‘free speech’ (notice the leap?).

Unfortunately, her self-published paper The Psychopharmacology of Pictorial Pornography Restructuring Brain, Mind & Memory & Subverting Freedom of Speech (PDF) is highly selective when reviewing the published neuroscience research.

Many of her arguments are based on one-reference claims, and some only on what she calls “extensive documentation”. One unmentioned implication is the fact that, if sexual arousal from pornography causes ‘brain damage’, then so will real-life sex!

Critics note that Reisman is associated with the Lighted Candle Society, a right-wing Christian organisation aiming to promote ‘moral values’ and fund anti-porn brain scanning studies.

Ironically, her paper is prefaced by a note saying it is restricted to adults over 18, as it contains ‘graphic images from mainstream pornography’.

Link to Guardian piece ‘Sex on the brain’.
PDF of ‘The Psychopharmacology of Pictorial Pornography Restructuring Brain, Mind & Memory & Subverting Freedom of Speech’ by Judith Reisman.
Link to critical piece on Reisman’s work.
Link to story from Desert News on the funding of anti-porn MRI studies.

What on earth is ‘brain sex’ ?

brain_sex_pic.jpgOn Sunday night, the BBC ran the first part of their Secrets of the Sexes series which claimed to rank the show’s participants by ‘brain sex‘, on a scale from 100% male brain to 100% female brain.

The trouble is, there is no objective measure of the sex of the brain, making the whole idea of ‘brain sex’ questionable.

During the show, a number of participants complete various tasks, and their performance allows them to be placed along the scale. The BBC even has an online test allowing you to rate yourself.

The rating of ‘brain sex’ seems to be based on Simon Baron-Cohen’s theory that males and females are likely to differ in skills he calls empathising and systemising.

Empathising is described as the ability to understand and relate to others’ emotions, systemising the tendency to understand things in terms of rules or component parts.

Females tend to score higher on Baron-Cohen’s test of empathising, and males on systemising. So how does this get transformed into the concept of a 100% male or female brain ?

Firstly, it assumes that Baron-Cohen is correct about his theory. This is a big assumption as it is still controversial. Among others, psychologist Elizabeth Spelke has noted several important objections.

Secondly, it involves making an absolute statement (e.g. ‘there is a 100% female brain’) from relative data – e.g. ‘females have a tendency to score higher on the empathising test’.

By using another test, however, alternative differences between males and females can be found. In other words, the rating of how ‘male’ or ‘female’ a person’s brain is, depends on what test is used – something which seems to rubbish the idea of describing any brain as a particular sex.

Instead of describing someone as having a ‘50% female brain’, it is more accurate to say, “compared to everyone else’s performance, on these tasks you scored mid-way through the range of typical female scores”.

Some might say the BBC are just trying to communicate science in a straightforward way, but consider how misleading this sounds: “You have a 50% female foot”. Oversimplified to the point of confusion.

Link to BBC ‘Secrets of the Sexes’ website.