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