2005-09-30 Spike activity

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

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People who are known to be pathological liars may show differences in the white matter in the frontal lobes of the brain.

Cognitive therapy may be as effective as antidepressants as a treatment for severe depression, finds recent study.

Satirical piece proclaims Tom Cruise to lecture on the ‘The Modern Science of Mental Health’.

Brain scanners useful as lie detectors claims new study – and even good enough to “detect terrorists” claims another (dig those “fund me!” buzzwords).

Research on brain function during sleep suggest that the coherent activity of wakefullness connectivity breaks up into ‘islands’ during the night.

BrainBlog reports that UK soap Coronation Street will feature a character with dementia.

The psychology of religion

monument_sky.jpgOnline boffin club Edge has an article by psychologist Daniel Gilbert that discusses a psychological approach to understanding religious belief.

One of the difficulties with combining science and religion is that science typically deals with predictions that can be falsified by experiment (allowing theories to be created and tested) whereas the main spiritual tenants of religion tend to take the form of non-falsifiable hypotheses.

For example, many forms of the hypothesis that ‘there is a God’ cannot be falsified, as it is not clear what evidence would constitute a refutation.

This is in contrast to many other hypotheses associated with religion, such as creationism, that makes specific predictions that can be falsified – e.g. in one of its forms, that the world was created only a few thousand years ago.

Gilbert starts off his article with a commonly produced but mistaken assumption: “no one has yet produced a shred of empirical evidence for the existence of God”.

Here he mistakes ’empirical’ for ‘experimental’, as empirical evidence is that which is based on experience and observation, of which experiments are only a certain type (albeit ones that are formalised and highly valued).

There is certainly plenty of empirical evidence about. Many religious people will be able to provide examples of how they have personally experienced the effect or presence of ‘supernatural’ influence in their lives, or can provide examples where many people witnessed a supposed example of divine intervention.

The question is not over whether there is evidence, but whether it is valid (the phenomena was genuinely as experienced) and how it should be interpreted (whether it supports the concept of the divine, or a particular idea of ‘God’).

Link to article “The Vagaries of Religious Experience”.

Population control – for hire

tv_faces.jpgSlate reports on the rise of psychological population control, often called PsyOps, as a form of commercial service.

According to the report, a company called Strategic Communications Laboratories Ltd was advertising itself at a notable London arms fair, suggesting that it could fool the population into believing any number of things in an attempt to divert attention from a presumed ‘actual’ catastrophe or similar dangerous situation.

When the Slate reporter suggested it sounded like propoganda, a member of staff was quoted as denying the fact, saying:

“If your definition of propaganda is framing communications to do something that’s going to save lives, that’s fine,” says Mark Broughton, SCL’s public affairs director. “That’s not a word I would use for that.”

The company’s website suggests otherwise though, stating they can provide training “for up to 250 staff, including specialised (and tailored) persuasion and propaganda courses.”

Their entry in the Defence Suppliers Directory further outlines the sort of work they’re willing to undertake:

Campaigns may range from homeland security and compliance issues to humanitarian and healthcare behaviour changes. In special circumstances the company will undertake political projects, especially if the sovereignty of the country is at stake, and – very occasionally – corporate campaigns.

Research has shown that attitudes and behaviour correlate poorly. However, SCL claim they can specifically influence behaviour: “for instance – you require a significant number of the electorate to vote for you, it is far more important to get their vote than it is for them merely to hold a favourable attitude towards you.”

The PsyOps field is certainly a murky one. As a tool it could be used both to prevent public panic during an emergency, and to prop up a failing government that would otherwise fall.

Unfortunately, it is often difficult to judge whether such companies are having a positive or negative effect on society, because by their very nature, it is difficult to see how and where they are influencing public behaviour.

Link to Slate article “You Can’t Handle the Truth: Psy-ops propaganda goes mainstream”.
Link to SCL website.
Link to SCL entry in Defence Suppliers Directory.

Synapse wins Science visualisation contest

science_synapse.jpgThe National Science Foundation and the journal Science recently ran a competition to produce the best scientific images. The winner in the illustration category was an image of a neuron, moments before it transmits a signal across the synapse.

The full size version of the image is both strangely beautiful and visually stunning.

Science also has a short article to accompany the image, that describes how it was created and the biological techniques it was based on.

Link to Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge.

‘Subliminal’ marketing ploys of tobacco giants

The Sunday Observer reports on the increasingly subtle (or perhaps, desperate) ways in which tobacco firms are aiming to advertise their product in light of the increasing bans on explicit tobacco advertising.

‘All that former advertising money has to go somewhere,’ said one industry insider. ‘The tobacco firms are looking to create extensive “design languages” in bars and clubs and other venues through the use of particular types of furniture or material which will make people think of their brands.’

Link to article “Tobacco firms’ subtle tactics lure smokers to their brand”

On believing that you are dead…

tv_face.jpgThis week’s edition of Radio National’s All in the Mind examines the curious phenomena of delusions – the unusual beliefs that sometimes arise during mental illness or after brain injury.

Some of these beliefs can be quite striking, such as believing you are dead or don’t exist – known as Cotard’s delusion, or believing that a close relative, usually a spouse, has been replaced by an identical looking impostor – known as the Capgras delusion.

These forms are relatively uncommon though, with the more prevalent types including (for example) the belief that you are being persecuted, or that people on the television or radio are talking about you.

Although the diagnostic criteria that define delusions describe them as false, fixed and culturally out-of-place beliefs, it is becoming increasingly clear that this is not an adequate definition.

For example, you can be pretty sure that ‘being dead’ is a false belief, but it’s much more difficult for a clinician to judge whether someone is or isn’t the subject of a conspiracy.

Furthermore, psychiatrist and philosopher Bill Fulford has pointed out that some cases of delusion may turn out to be true beliefs, noting that about 10% of cases of delusional jealousy involve actual infidelity.

Some beliefs diagnosed as delusional may not even be falsiable. For example, someone who has the distressing and unshakeable belief that “The devil is listening to my thoughts” cannot be proved wrong on the basis of any objective evidence.

All in the Mind tackles these and other fascinating aspects of the topic by visiting the Macquarie Centre for Cognitive Science who are focusing on delusions with their belief formation project.

The programme visits the researchers and discusses some of the pressing scientific issues and unusual beliefs they encounter.

mp3 or realaudio of programme audio.
Link to further information and transcript (to appear later in the week).
PDF of article ‘Beliefs about delusions’.