Focus on the cerebellum

cerebellum.jpgToday’s featured article on Wikipedia is a fantastic piece on one of the most mysterious areas of the brain – the cerebellum.

There are more connections in the cerebellum than in the whole of the rest of the brain put together, yet it is still not clear what sort of contribution it makes to thought and behaviour.

It is known that it is essential for movement, as damage to this area can produce tremor and other movement disorders – such as a condition called cerebellar ataxia.

Curiously, it also seems to be involved in almost every other form of mental activity.

If you want a reliable way of annoying anyone presenting results from a brain scanning study, put your hand up and ask what the activity in the cerebellum signifies. It almost always occurs, but is very difficult to explain with our current understanding.

The Wikipedia article is a great summary of current knowledge though, and gives an insight into an area where neuroscience is increasingly going to focus its sights as time goes on.

Link to Wikipedia article on the cerebellum.

2005-09-16 Spike activity

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


Survey finds that women are more likely to try bisexuality, particularly in their late teens and early twenties.

Keeping your emotions in check during a distressing event may impair memory for the details.

People who score highly on measures of schizotypy show greater right hemisphere activation, and are branded ‘weird’, ‘odd’, ‘quirky’ and ‘awkward’ by a clumsy write-up.

Science News discusses research on links between brain areas implicated in experiencing pain and the thought of pain.

Older people are less tactful suggests new study.

Physically abused children remain sensitive to even subtle signs of anger and find it hard to ‘relax’ even after the situtation has resolved.

The ‘inchoate’ science of consciousness

brick_head.jpgNeuroscientist Christof Koch manages to write an odd article on consciousness and gets an obscure word into the title of a piece published in The Scientist.

Apparently ‘inchoate’ (I had to look it up) means “partially but not fully in existence”, which pretty much sums up the article.

It starts with a brief overview of the history of consciousness and then gives a few snapshots of recent research projects, all of which seems fine until there’s a strange paragraph on a study of mice who have had their nicotine receptors altered…

While the β2 knockout animals move rapidly through a novel terrain with little exploration, animals in which nicotinic transmission has been restored in the VTA [ventral tegmental area] show more adaptive behavior that, if observed in humans, would be associated with planning and consciousness.

Quite how exploratory behaviour in laboratory mice is ‘associated’ with human consciousness eludes me right now.

As one of the few talking mice in existence, perhaps we should ask Mickey about his conscious experience and extrapolate to his smaller cousins?

Link to article ‘The Inchoate Science of Consciousness’.

The art and expression of mental distress

Ryan_Hooper_image.jpgUK mental health charity Mind challenged their members to express the contradictions of mental turmoil and the self through artwork. The resulting pictures are colourful, diverse and striking.

As the initiators were Mind Cymru, the Welsh branch of the charity, the artwork was exhibited at the National Eisteddfod of Wales, Europe’s oldest cultural festival.

Link to Mind Cymru Art Gallery 2005.

Addicted to food?

can_opened.jpgScience News has an article on studies suggesting increasing links in the brain process involved in drug addiction and obesity, also suggesting that some of the treatments for drug abuse may also be of use in overeating.

When Volkow and her colleagues looked at the brains of 10 obese people, the team found a dopamine-receptor deficiency identical to that in drug addicts. Volkow stresses that obesity seems to be a significantly more complex disorder than drug abuse because many unrelated factors, such as glandular problems, lack of exercise, or a genetic predisposition to storing fat, can lead to weight gain. However, the brains of several of the obese volunteers in Volkow’s study seemed to be telling another story: “These people were compulsively driven to eat as if food were their stimulus of choice,” she says.

More information on the neuroscience of obesity is available in an issue of Nature Neuroscience made available online as an open-access publication.

Link to article ‘Food Fix’.
Link to Nature Neuroscience on ‘Feeding regulation and obesity’.

Psychological seizures

slow_wave_trace.jpgAmerican Family Physician has an article on the curious phenomena of ‘psychogenic nonepileptic seizures’. These can look like tonic-clonic epileptic seizures; that commonly involve falling to the floor, limb shaking and unconsciousness, but are not accompanied by a disturbance in brain activity, and are thought to be related to underlying emotional issues or psychological distress.

Epilepsy is usually diagnosed with the assistance of an EEG assessment, where unusual brain activity is suggestive of the condition. A short burst of disruption (a ‘slow wave’) is show on the left, from my own epilepsy EEG.

Psychogenic nonepileptic seizures can be diagnosed when the person’s behaviour suggests a seizure, but no brain disturbance is detected.

The idea that symptoms can appear, but are produced by an underlying emotional conflict rather than the normal process of organic disorder has a long history, most associated with 19th century French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot.

The condition was originally labelled ‘hysteria’, although is now given the less pejorative names of conversion disorder or ‘medically unexplained symptoms’.

The condition is often linked to emotional disturbance and a history of physical or sexual abuse and the presence of other psychiatric disorders. It is often considered that they are an unconcious attempt to express distress or resolve internal conflict.

Importantly, however, the symptoms are not ‘faked’, as is sometimes unkindly suggested. The person concerned typically has little or no conscious control over their symptoms or their effect, which suggests the mind and brain has a capacity for impenetrable self-deception in some cases.

Researchers are now attempting to understand how this happens, with books being published on the psychology and neuroscience of conversion disorder. Nevertheless, despite this recent work, the condition is still largely mysterious.

Link to article on ‘Psychogenic nonepileptic seizures’ (via BrainBlog).
Link to review of Conversion Hysteria: Towards a Cognitive Neuropsychological Account.

Hypnotism documentary online

hypnosis_cartoon.jpgAustralian TV science programme Catalyst has a documentary available online on the science and uses of hypnosis.

In my opinion, it’s a little sensationalised and uncritical in places, but does have some interesting comments from scientists studying the effects of hypnotic suggestion on the brain.

Link to website and programme, available as streamed video.

Are you fMRI experienced?

fMRI-Mini.jpgThe fMRI experience conference kicks off next Monday at Aston University, with the aim of encouraging new or less experienced researchers to mix with established scientists and ask the sort of burning questions that they might avoid in other symposia.

The conference is held annually in places all over the world and provides free training for those interested in psychology and neuroscience research.

I’m going to be there this Monday and Tuesday, and I’ve been kindly asked to co-chair the ‘Cognitive Neuroscience’ session on Tuesday morning with Kris Kinsey from Aston University, where I’ll certainly be taking the opportunity to question the experts and clear up grey areas in my own thinking.

It’s also a great opportunity to meet people and chat informally about mind and brain science. So, if you’re going to be there, come over and introduce yourself, as it would be great to meet you.

Link to fMRI experience website.

2005-09-09 Spike activity

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


Headlines note that the Chernobyl disaster is “likely to kill 4,000” but most seem to skip over the more surprising conclusion of the report, that the most significant impact of the Chernobyl disaster has been on mental health.

Stay Free! Daily note some recent research about the negative effects of TV on cognitive and educational development in children.

The “brain is still evolving” claims scientists in new study.

Tiredness from working long shifts can affect doctor’s judgement as much as three or four beers suggests new research.

The Guardian has a fascinating profile of influential biologist, anthropologist and contradictarian Robert Trivers.

Gamblers are more likely to be superstitious than the rest of the population.

Younger boys may have trouble perceiving emotional expression in other people’s faces.

A view on hospitalisation

Goffman.jpgErving Goffman spent a year working in St Elizabeth’s Psychiatric Hospital in Washington DC, ostensibly as a physical education assistant. In reality, he was a sociologist studying the social situations of patients and staff.

The following is a thought-provoking view on the reasons for hospitalisation from his classic 1961 book Asylums (p126), which he wrote as a result of his undercover study.

Some of these contingencies [that lead to hospitalisation] in the mental patient’s career have been suggested, if not explored, such as socio-economic status, visibility of the offence, proximity to a mental hospital, amount of treatment facilities available, community regard for the type of treatment given in available hospitals and so on.

For information about other contingencies, one must rely on atrocity tales: a psychotic man is tolerated by his wife until she finds herself a boyfriend, or by his adult children until they move from a house to an apartment; an alcoholic is sent to a mental hospital because the jail is full and a drug addict because he declines to avail himself of psychiatric treatment on the outside; a rebellious adolescent daughter can no longer be managed at home because she now threatens to have an open affair with an unsuitable companion; and so on.

Correspondingly there is an equally important set of contingencies causing the person to by-pass this fate. And should the person enter hospital, still another set of contingencies will help determine whether he is to obtain a discharge – such as the desire of his family to return, the availability of a ‘manageable’ job, and so on.

The society’s official view is that inmates of mental hospitals are there primarily because they are suffering from mental illness. However, in the degree that the ‘mentally ill’ outside hospitals numerically approach or surpass those inside hospitals, one could say that mental patients suffer not from mental illness, but from contingencies.

Link to life and work biography of Erving Goffman.
Link to extracts from Goffman’s books (including Asylums).

An Intelligently Designed Brain

A letter in the Economist (27th of August) on Intelligent Design:

SIR ‚Äì The human brain has 100 billion extremely complex neurons connected by 1,000 trillion synapses. It is mathematically impossible for anything this unimaginably complex to have been the product of an unguided evolution, even over limitless aeons. One doesn’t have to know the rules of mathematical probability to recognise this. The brain could only have been created by a limitless intelligence, call it what you may.

Aside from the fact that the letter writer is out by a factor of ten on the number of neurons in the brain (there are 1,000 billion neurons, with an average of 1,000 synapses) he is also advancing a fallacious argument. The human brain may be tremendously complex, but it isn’t a complexity designed by God. You start your life with exactly one cell, and it’s not even a brain cell. In the womb this cell turns into the 1,000 billion cells of the brain and all the other body cells besides, all without the intervention of God at any stage. The complexity of the brain, a staggering complexity which develops under the guidence of natural laws, is actually an argument against ‘Intelligent Design’, not for it.

UK Psychologies magazine launches

psychologies_oct.jpgAs an update to a previous story on Mind Hacks – women’s psychology magazine Psychologies hit the shelves today and the website is now online.

I’ve no idea what it’s like, as I’ve yet to get hold of a copy, but I’ll post a review when I’ve had a read.

The website has some of the content from the magazine, including a (dodgy looking) online test entitled “Do you know how to follow your instincts?” and some answers from the magazine’s resident ‘agony aunts’.

Link to Psychologies website.

Reframing mental illness

mental_health_page.jpgA recently concluded confererence at London’s Institute of Psychiatry has been debating the classification and boundaries of mental illness and has been challenging the traditional views of psychiatric medicine.

There have been longstanding critics of psychiatry, notably people like R.D. Laing and Thomas Szasz, who have argued that the medical concepts of mental illness are flawed, or that they are used to unjustly silence society’s outsiders.

More recently, psychiatric classification, and particularly the separation of mental disorder into diagnoses such as ‘schizophrenia‘ and ‘bipolar disorder‘ have been challenged by mainstream psychiatrists on the basis of scientific discoveries.

For example, an editorial in May’s British Journal of Psychiatry argued that that schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are on a continuum, based on genetic evidence that is increasingly showing that similar genes are found in people who receive either diagnosis.

Other criticisms, echoed at the recent London conference, have been based on the coherence of psychiatric definitions and how well they reflect the diverse experiences of people who live through mental distress.

The conference discussed how understanding the first-person conscious experience of mental illness (as opposed to, or in combination with, scientific measures) can make for a more accurate understanding, and hopefully, treatments for those in need.

This approach is known as phenomenology and was championed by a number of continental philosophers who argued that science will only ever give a partial explanation because objective measures always leave something of the ‘lived experience’ missing.

One increasingly popular view of psychosis, the reality-bending mental state that can involve hallucinations and delusions, suggests that it is not an all or nothing state as psychiatric diagnosis suggests, but a range of experiences that are distributed throughout the population.

Recent studies have typically reported that about 10-11% of the general population score about the average of psychotic patients in psychiatric wards, on measures of unusual thinking or perceptual distortion, despite not needing psychiatric help or becoming significantly distressed or disabled.

Link to details of the recent conference on ‘Phenomenology and Psychiatry for the 21st Century’.
Link to BBC News on the conference and the boundaries of madness.

The robots are coming

sexyrobot.jpgThe Turing Test is where a human judge engages in a natural language conversation with two other parties, one a human and the other a machine, if the judge cannot reliably tell which is which, then the machine has passed and is deemed intelligent. Sex, it seems, turns the Turing Test on its head.

Blogger Jason Striegel found out that someone had advertised his instant messager address as belonging to a dirty-talking software sex bot. Frustratingly, no-one believed him when he protested his humanity.

the people who contacted me fell into one of two camps: people who thought they were contacting a celebrity and people who thought they were contacting a robot. As I talked to more and more of these folks, I began to discover something really disturbing about myself:

I consistently fail to be perceived as human.

fratburger86: hey. so you’re a sex bot?
jmstriegel: umm, no. who the hell are you?
fratburger86: yeah you are! i found your im online
jmstriegel: that’s fine and all, but i’m pretty sure you have me confused with someone else.
fratburger86: just a normal chat bot then?
jmstriegel: nope. i’m human
fratburger86: ok. sure.

jmstriegel: seriously, i think you want to talk to someone else.
fratburger86: i knew it!!!
fratburger86: you are totally a robot!

In contrast, real-life sex bot software Jenny18 consistently fools chat-room users who seem oblivious to the fact that she is nothing more than a few hundred lines of code, hacked from the original simulated chat software ELIZA, designed to repeat set phrases and reflect simple sentences back to the user.

jenny18: u r getting me hot =)
GoldenBoy2222: Ride me
jenny18: mmm i want 2 ride you..
GoldenBoy2222: yeah… of course
jenny18: MMmmm.. yes!
GoldenBoy2222: What r ur measures?
jenny18: yep.
GoldenBoy2222: yeah… What r ur measures?
jenny18: yep.
GoldenBoy2222: Say… What r ur measures?
jenny18: i bet lol
GoldenBoy2222: yes? An what r ur measures?
jenny18: mm hmm?
GoldenBoy2222: Good…

The archives of chat sessions contain many more examples of humans exciting themselves at Jenny18’s dirty, nonsensical (and definitely not safe for work) sexy chatter.

Link to ‘How I failed the Turing test’.
Link to Jenny18 description and chat archives.

Noel Sharkey on robot intelligence

noel_sharkey.jpgABC Radio’s In Conversation has an interview with cognitive scientist and AI researcher Professor Noel Sharkey who discusses his life, his work and the creation of robot intelligence:

“Noel Sharkey left school at 15, became a singer and took substances. It was while reflecting on the effects of an acid trip (he had taken LSD) that he began wondering about the limits of the mind. Since then he has explored the nature of machine intelligence, experimented with robotic evolution and mused on what kind of thinking is beyond computers. Professor Sharkey, from the University of Sheffield, is here for National Science Week.”

Realaudio of interview.
Link to In Conversation website.

Tribute to neuropsychology pioneer David Marr

visual_swirl.jpgCognitive science site Mixing Memory has a tribute to David Marr, a pioneer in understanding visual perception, and in combining neurological and psychological levels of explanation, who died tragically early at the age of 35.

Marr wanted to understand how the brain could start with two-dimensional arrays of light spots on the retina and subsequently produce a rich three-dimensional visual experience.

He argued that the final visual experience is produced by a series of computations that extract important information, such as edges, object groupings and depth information, from basic visual data.

Crucially, he also gave the mathematical procedures, based on an understanding of the biology of the visual system, that might perform these operations.

As well as producing one of the most influential theories of vision, he also influenced how neuroscientists and psychologists think about how the brain works. He proposed that the biology of the brain serves to process information, and that brain cells can be modelled with accurate computational models.

Marr died of leukemia at the age of 35, and produced his most influential work (the book Vision) in the knowledge he had little time left to complete it.

It was published two years after his death in 1982 and is prefaced by the statement “This book is meant to be enjoyed”.

Link to article on Mixing Memory (including link to Marr’s work)
Link to biography of Marr.