2005-09-30 Spike activity

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


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’.

SciAm Mind: ‘Smart drugs’ and consciousness

sci_am_current_cover.jpgThe new edition of Scientific American Mind has hit the shelves and two articles are freely available online: one on ‘smart drugs‘ and the other on the problem of consciousness.

The article on ‘smart drugs’ or ‘cognitive enhancers’ is by neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga – most renowned for his work on split-brain patients.

Gazzaniga examines the ethical implications of having a society cranked-up on pharmaceutical brain enhancers, and looks at the science behind some of the most recent developments in the field.

He makes one particularly interesting point in relation to the relatively developed field of memory enhancing drugs, which have the potential to make the important process of forgetting more difficult:

For a society that spends significant time and money trying to be liberated from past experiences and memories, the arrival of new memory enhancers has a certain irony. Why do people drink, smoke marijuana and engage in other activities that cause them to take leave of their senses? Why are psychiatry offices full of patients with unhappy memories they would like to lose? And why do victims of horrendous emotional events such as trauma, abuse or stressful relationships suffer from their vivid recollections? A pill that enhances memory may lead to a whole new set of disorders.

The article on consciousness is by Christof Koch, who highlights recent research which has looked for the ‘neural correlates of consciousness’ – i.e. which parts of the brain are active when conscious experience is known to occur.

This is a common but controversial approach to understanding consciousness, and one that has been championed by Koch in his own work.

Additional articles that appear in the print edition only include a discussion of the developing mind of infants and what it could tell us about the differences between men and women, the psychology of child-parent interaction and how it is understood (or misunderstood) by the courts, plus an exploration of synaesthesia.

Link to Scientific American Mind.

2005-09-23 Spike activity

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


Tiny protein tubes in the brain known as ‘microtubules’ may be linked to mental illness say neuroscientists. One for Penrose to wave around in the next consciousness debate.

Men and women not so psychologically different claims US psychologist.

Large-scale study finds older and newer antipsychotic medication of broadly equal effectiveness (via ScienceBlog).

The first face transplant is considered anew. A 2002 article (PDF) asks what might the psychological effects of such a transplant be ?

New York Times considers what swearing tells us about the organisation and development of the brain (grabbed from BoingBoing)

A microsensor is being developed that could be injected into the brain of a person with motor neurone disease to transmit important information to doctors.

Cognitive Daily has a great article on the interaction between race and the perception of attractiveness in others.

Will science explain mental illness?

debate.JPGThe latest issue of Prospect magazine features a juicy debate – “Will science explain mental illness?“, with Peter McGuffin, director of the social, genetic & developmental psychiatry centre at King’s College London, arguing ‘yes’, and Steven Rose (pictured right), director of the brain and behaviour research group at the Open University, arguing ‘no’.

McGuffin opens the debate by outlining how science has led to some major advances in the treatment of mental illness, including the development of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), anti-depressant medication and anti-psychotics. He also points to the potential of new technologies like functional magnetic resonance imaging, and the promise of psychiatric genetics, with at least one gene implicated in the uptake of serotonin (a neurotransmitter that depressed people don’t seem to have enough of) already identified. “Real advances have been made, and the pace is quickening”, McGuffin says.

But in his initial retort, Rose takes aim at the fuzziness of psychiatric diagnoses and argues that finding treatments for an illness doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve explained it. “Aspirin alleviates toothache, but we don’t conclude that the cause of toothache is too little aspirin in the brain”, he says. Rose is particularly unconvinced of the value in looking for genes implicated in mental illness. “Today’s attempts to locate causes in genes will, in 100 years, seem as misguided as Freud’s classifications”, he predicts.

Non-subscribers can click here to purchase online access to the debate.

NewSci on Coffee, Smell and Intelligence

newscientist_20050924.jpgThis week’s New Scientist has three articles for those interested in human behaviour: An article on the effects of coffee, one on the effects and possible treatments for losing the sense of smell, and Ray Kurzweil speculates on the future interaction between technology and human biology:

One benefit of a full understanding of the human brain will be a deep understanding of ourselves, but the key implication is that it will expand the tool kit of techniques we can apply to create artificial intelligence. We will then be able to create non-biological systems that match human intelligence. These superintelligent computers will be able to do things we are not able to do, such as share knowledge and skills at electronic speeds.

Steady on. I think Ray may have been at the coffee himself while writing that one.

Link to New Scientist table of contents.

Self affection

reflection_pic.jpgThe Times has just published an article by neuropsychologist Paul Broks on the concept of the self and how it becomes distorted when affected by mental illness or brain injury.

The self has a fascinating history in mind and brain science as the concept has changed considerably over the years.

In the first chapter of the book The Self in Neuroscience and Psychiatry Berrios and Markov√° track how our modern-day idea of the self shows only traces in the thinking of the early Greek philosophers. It wasn’t until St Augustine that the self was defined as a ‘private inner space’.

17th century philosopher John Locke doubted the self was anything more than the ability of memory to give the illusion of continuity, when in reality, the mind was being bombarded with constantly changing thoughts and perceptions.

The ‘self’ has become a key concept in psychiatry where psychosis, and particularly schizophrenia, were first defined by many influential psychiatrists as a breakdown in the integration of the self.

Perhaps for this reason, schizophrenia is often confused with ‘multiple personality disorder’, although the two are considered distinct by psychiatrists.

Nevertheless, people who ‘hear voices‘ – an experience that also occurs in people who aren’t considered mentally ill – often experience them as having distinct personalities. In effect, these are distinct and autonomous selves within an individual’s self-consciousness.

On the more mundane level, phrases like “I’m not feeling myself today” suggest that we hold multiple ideas of who and what our self is, and that we can experience other forms of self-hood.

Broks’ article deals with some of the ways the self has been explained by notable neuroscientists and psychologists, and how this abstract notion can arise from the seemingly mechanical function of the biological brain.

Link to Broks’ article on the self.
Link to excerpt from The Self in Neuroscience and Psychiatry.

Beware the Jabberwack, my son

rollo_carpenter.jpgA chat program named Jabberwacky, designed by British AI researcher Rollo Carpenter, has won the Loebner Prize – the annual contest to see the most human-like chat software.

The contest takes the form of the Turing Test where human judges have to work out whether they are chatting to humans or software by typing responses into a computer.

Computer scientist Alan Turing, the designer of the contest, argued that if the judges couldn’t distinguish between humans and software, the software could be thought of as simulating human intelligence. No software has yet passed the full Turing Test (although some has passed limited versions).

The Loebner Prize is awarded to the software that the judges think creates the best simulation, regardless of the fact that it may not pass for human.

Jabberwacky is different from previous winners in that it works out its conversational rules by interacting with humans.

It has a website where visitors can chat to the software, but crucially, they can correct the software when it gives odd or meaningless responses, so the software can adapt to the correct rules of conversation.

Results of its ongoing learning process can be seen in the transcripts of the 2005 contest. Jabberwacky does surprisingly well in some instances but not so great in others.

Link to “Brit’s bot chats way to AI medal” from BBC News
Link to Jabberwacky website and chat.
Link to Loebner Prize website and 2005 transcripts.

Giant Squid – woah!


The giant squid has the largest eye in the natural world. Although squid’s eyes evolved on a separate branch of the tangle bank of life, they are remarkably like ours, except that they don’t have the blind spot that human eyes have (Hack #16). This picture is from a book ‘Extreme Nature’ by Mark Carwardine (which the Guardian Weekend ran a piece on two weeks ago). This immature female is 17 foot long, but they go up to 49 foot apparently.

Photo from from here, some more on Giant Squid here

Is the internet making us more intelligent?

cyber_girl.jpgCNET has put the first in a series of articles online about whether new technology is making us more intelligent.

There are several ways of asking the question:

Is the use of new technology shaping our minds and brains so they are better able to process information in all situations ? Essentially this is the ‘technology as a mental gym’ idea.

Alternatively, perhaps technology doesn’t change our basic mental performance at all, but gives us practice solving problems that provides techniques that can be applied more widely. For example, selecting the most appropriate keywords for a web search might involve quickly summarising a topic into some key concepts – something that is useful in everything from day-to-day conversation to public speaking to writing essays.

Another approach is asking whether technology simply makes us pragmatically more intelligent. For example, we can ‘remember’ more because we can offload a lot of the work to personal organisers or we ‘know’ more because we have instant access to the web and Wikipedia.

The CNET article has quotes from technology leaders who, perhaps understandably, plug the benefits of technology. Psychologists also chime in, and conclude that technology itself does nothing except give us useful tools, rather than boost our brains specifically.

The article does raise some interesting questions, however, particularly in light of evidence suggesting that mental ‘exercise’ can prevent cognitive decline in the elderly.

Link to CNET article ‘Intelligence in the Internet age’

Madness in literature

sebastian_faulks.jpgIn light of the new book by novelist Sebastian Faulks that focuses on psychiatry and madness, the BBC have put a piece online about the history of mental disturbance in literature.

Many highly regard authors have been diagnosed with some form of mental illness, not least of whom is Faulks himself, who has been treated for depression in the past.

Other famous examples, such as poet Sylvia Plath and novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, wrote about their own experiences and played a significant part in de-stigmatising mental distrsss.

Faulks discusses his own experiences and the development of his new novel, entitled Human Traces, in a recent newspaper article.

Link to BBC article ” Literature’s love affair with the mind”
Link to article and interview with Faulks.