Susan Clancy on significance of ‘alien abduction’

clancy_abducted_cover.jpgSusan Clancy’s recently published book Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens (ISBN 0674018796) details her five year research project into the psychology of self-confessed abductees, in an attempt to better understand unusual beliefs and experiences.

This quote is from the closing pages (p154-155):

The primary lesson I learned from my research with abductees is that many of us long for contact with the divine, and aliens are a way of coming to terms with the conflict between science and religion. I agree with Jung: extraterrestrials are technological angels…. We yearn for spiritualism and comfort, magic and meaning. As Bertolt Brecht said in his play Galileo, we need something “to reassure us that the pageant of the world has been written around us,…that a part for us has been created beyond this wretched one in a useless star.” Being abducted by aliens may be a baptism into the new religion of our technological age.

Link to article on Clancy’s work at Harvard.
Link to interview with Clancy on NPR radio.
Link to book information with 1st chapter online.
Link to article on ‘The Psychology and Neuroscience of Alien Abduction’.

SciAmMind on fear, eTherapy and Brian Wilson

SciAmMindNov.jpgA new issue of Scientific American Mind has hit the shelves, and with it comes two freely available articles on their website. One asking “Can We Cure Fear?” and the other on The Promise of eTherapy.

Other articles, only available in the print edition to non-subscribers, include one on the use of drugs to prevent long-term memories from forming, and another on regulating anger.

One other print-only article that particualarly caught my eye is supposedly on Brian Wilson, musical genius behind the Beach Boys.

I’ve only read the intro on the website so far, which states “Perhaps no story better exemplifies how mental illness can free up creativity, then crush it, than that of Brian Wilson”.

I’m hoping the article gets better than that, as Brian Wilson is perhaps one of the best examples of how someone can maintain their creative genius after severe mental illness, as the recent critically acclaimed ‘Smile‘ album and tour have proved.

Link to SciAmMind website.
Link to article ‘Can we cure fear?’.
Link to article ‘The promise of eTherapy’.

Meet the chatbots

Mind Hacks already told you about Jabberwacky, the winner of this year’s Loebner prize for the chatbot that comes closest to passing the Turing Test (to pass, a judge must be unable to tell whether she’s talking to the chatbot or another human).

Now you can meet the chatbots and their creators at an informal one-day meeting at Surrey University’s Digital World Research Centre on November 25.

Dr. Richard Wallace, creator of three-times Loebner prize-winning chatbot ALICE, will be there. So too will Rollo Carpenter, creator of Jabberwacky, and Dr. Hugh Loebner himself, sponsor of the annual Loebner prize.

Personal story of lobotomy

howard_dully.jpgPublic radio station NPR has an interview with Howard Dully, who received a lobotomy when he was only 12 years old from controversial psychosurgery champion Walter Freeman.

Dully is shown on the left, holding one of Freeman’s operating tools that was used to punch through the bone just behind the eyes and sever the connections to the frontal lobes.

freeman.jpgFreeman (pictured right) was a complex character, as previously reported on Mind Hacks, who performed hundreds of lobotomies during his career.

Although psychosurgery is still performed to treat seemingly untreatable mental disorder, its use is now rare, unlike when it was championed for almost all forms of mental distress. It is still as controversial now as it was when it was in its heyday, however.

The inventor of the procedure, Egas Moniz, won a Nobel Prize for his work, now much to the embarrassment of many in the scientific community. This was only a few years before he was shot and paralysed by one of his ex-patients who resented Moniz’s work.

The website has a wealth of information about the procedure and its originators, including an excellent history entitled “Adventures with an Ice Pick“.

Link to webpage on NPR programme “My Lobotomy” (via BoingBoing).
mp3 of programme audio.
Link to

2005-11-18 Spike activity

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


Twin study from the University of Amsterdam suggests a genetic contribution to loneliness.

What are we doing when we look away during a conversation? asks Cognitive Daily.

Brain differences found in relatives of people with autism.

Body image, not menopause, causes lack of desire in older women, argues Petra Boyton.

Interview with Leslie Savan on the influence of advertising and media speak on the style and structure of popular language.

Review of neuroscience studies suggests that adolescents are neurologically more vulnerable to addictions.

Nature reviews Nancy Andreasen’s new book “The Creating Brain: The Neuroscience of Genius”.

Against diagnostic checklists

Nancy Andreasen, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Iowa College of Medicine, says her profession have become overly dependent on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the industry’s diagnostic bible that’s now in its fourth edition, and which Andreasen helped write an earlier version of.

Speaking to New Scientist magazine, Andreasen says the book was never meant to be “the absolute truth” and that there’s a tendency in psychiatry today to “make diagnosis through checklists, with less emphasis on the interesting uniqueness of each individual patient and on the humanism that lay at the heart of early psychiatry”.

Citing the example of schizophrenia, Andreasen says that following the recommendations of a working party she chaired, DSM IV keeps things simple and lists 8 general symptoms for the illness. But she says “This is not a complete description. You have to know much more than just those DSM criteria before a patient can be reliably diagnosed”.

Link to New Sci interview (requires subscription).
Link to Critical Psychiatry Network


pill_spill.jpgThe New York Times has an article about the increasing willingness of young people to ‘prescribe’ themselves, and their friends, psychiatric drugs:

For a sizable group of people in their 20’s and 30’s, deciding on their own what drugs to take – in particular, stimulants, antidepressants and other psychiatric medications – is becoming the norm. Confident of their abilities and often skeptical of psychiatrists’ expertise, they choose to rely on their own research and each other’s experience in treating problems…

Perhaps, this is a curious result of consumer cynicism about the links between the pharmaceutical industry and the medical profession.

Drug marketing, in the USA at least, can be legally targeted at consumers, rather than at doctors only. Much of the marketing gives the impression that medications are low-risk and widely beneficial, when the reality can be far more complex.

Despite the fact that many psychiatric drugs can be of great value in treating mental distress or impairment, most will cause some form of side-effect and many are still without evidence of their long-term safety.

Rather than distrusting the pharmaceutical industry, which is usually cited as having an untoward influence on medical practice, young self-confident consumers may have, ironically, fallen for the ‘pill for every ill’ marketing hype and focused their cynicism largely on the medical profession.

Link to reg free NYT article ‘Young, Assured and Playing Pharmacist to Friends’ (via BrainBlog).

Own brand shopping

Research published last year showed people are more likely to marry others whose names resemble their own. Now researchers in Paris have shown this egocentric bias extends to shopping – apparently, in certain circumstances, we’re also more likely to buy products with brand names that share letters with our own name.

The researchers said “We found that name letter branding influences choices only under one of two conditions. Either consumers have a need to enhance their self-esteem because of a threatening situation. For instance, a sophisticated restaurant could pose such a threat. Or consumers have to have a product relevant need (for example, being thirsty when choosing a beverage)“.

Link to Journal of Consumer Research (study out in December issue).
Link to abstract of research on picking marriage partners (p. 665).

BBC Material World on creativity

white_lightbulb.jpgBBC Radio 4’s science programme The Material World has just had a special on the nature of creativity, how it can be defined, measured and encouraged.

The programme discusses the differences between artistic and scientific creativity, and whether creativity necessarilly has to be productive.

The first part of the programme is on nuclear fission, so skip to 13 minutes if you just want the section on creative thought.

Link to webpage of The Material World edition on creativity.
Realaudio of programme.

Keeping tabs on the english language

whisper_ear.jpgLanguage Log is a site that keeps track of language science, and the changes in the subtleties of language use.

It’s updated daily, and discusses everything from curious new uses of words to archaelogical findings that shed light on the early development of language.

One of my favourite long-running themes is spotting what Language Log have called ‘snowclones‘.

A snowclone is a popular sentence structure which is recycled and adapted from the original quote by replacing key words.

For example, “On the internet, no-one can hear you scream” is a snowclone of the original movie tag-line “In space, no-one can hear you scream.” Of course, it could be endlessly recycled by replacing ‘space’ with whatever comes to mind.

I am guessing the name ‘snowclone’ is an allusion to the American ‘snowcone’ frozen deserts desserts, which consist of plain crushed ice to which flavour is added.

I, for one, welcome our new snowclone overlords.

Link to Language Log
Link to snowclone definition.

Meditation can alter structure of the brain

siddharta.jpgA recently reported brain-scanning study has found evidence that sustained meditation alters the physical structure of the brain by increasing the thickness of the grey matter.

The researchers, led by neuroscientist Sarah Lazar, scanned the brains of 20 people with long-term experience of meditation, and compared them with 20 other, non-meditating people.

Brain regions associated with attention, sensation, perception and monitoring the body’s internal state were thicker in meditation participants than in the comparison group.

There is now increasing evidence – in line with a 2000 study, that reported that London Taxi drivers may have a larger hippocampus (an area of the brain known to be crucial for navigation), that mental practice may alter the brain’s structure on a relatively large scale.

Update: Grabbed from the comments page… Some cautionary words on interpreting ’cause’ from this sort of study (Thanks ‘Coffee Mug’!):

The only way to say that meditation can alter the structure of the brain would be to do a longitudinal study following people who hadn’t chosen to meditate prior to the study. Otherwise you run into the same problem as you did with the London cabbie study. Correlation is not causation. People born with bigger hippocampi might self-select as cab-drivers. People with bigger ‘attention centers’ might be more predisposed to get into meditation.

Link to write-up from LiveScience.
Link to scientific paper abstract.

Insanity by consensus


…the original riddle remains: is the world mad, or is civilization psychopathogenic? – the question, of course, posed by Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents (1926). And if a civilized society is thus disordered, what right has it to pass judgement on the ‘insane’? Regarding his committal to Bethlem, the Restoration playwrite Nathaniel Lee reputedly declared: “They called me mad, and I called them mad, and damn them, they outvoted me.” The issue is still alive.

From Madness: A Brief History (p88) by the late great historian of medicine, Roy Porter.

Link to review of Madness: A Brief History (ISBN 0192802666).
Link to Roy Porter’s obituary (2002).

Tinfoil hats tested for anti mind-control properties

tinfoil_test.jpgEngineers from MIT’s Electrical Engineering and Computer Science department have tested the radiation absorbing properties of tin-foil hats, often represented as stopping microwave based ‘mind control’ technology.

The abstract of the study suggests describes the study, and suggests some worringly conclusions:

Among a fringe community of paranoids, aluminum helmets serve as the protective measure of choice against invasive radio signals. We investigate the efficacy of three aluminum helmet designs on a sample group of four individuals. Using a $250,000 network analyser, we find that although on average all helmets attenuate invasive radio frequencies in either directions (either emanating from an outside source, or emanating from the cranium of the subject), certain frequencies are in fact greatly amplified. These amplified frequencies coincide with radio bands reserved for government use according to the Federal Communication Commission (FCC). Statistical evidence suggests the use of helmets may in fact enhance the government’s invasive abilities. We theorize that the government may in fact have started the helmet craze for this reason.

Link to study text (via slashdot).
Link to news story discussing the study.

2005-11-11 Spike activity

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


An article on why people believe in alien abduction, and a link to an online study on unusual sleep experiences.

Wired on recent studies suggesting ritual users of the hallucinogen Peyote show no mental or neurological impairment.

Researchers find brain differences in how males and females experience humour.

Interesting Wikipedia page on the diffusion of innovations.

MRI scans can help with the diagnosis of schizophrenia claim researchers (again).

Children of bipolar parents score higher on creativity test.

Complex links between depression, suicide and epilepsy discovered by recent study.

Brief review of book on the ‘science of false memories‘.

Depression and the low serotonin myth

black_white_sad_face.jpgOpen-access medical journal PLoS Medicine has published an essay on the popular but poorly supported claim that depression is ’caused’ by low serotonin and that some antidepressant drugs correct this ‘chemical imbalance’.

The essay particularly focuses on a class of antidepressant drugs called ‘selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors‘ or SSRIs, that increases the amount of the neurotransmitter serotonin available to neurons, by preventing its re-absorption after normal use. Prozac is, perhaps, the most famous example.

The authors contrast the claims of SSRI adverts, that usually claim that depression is caused by a serotonin imbalance in the brain, and the scientific research, that reports little evidence for this link.

As previously reported on Mind Hacks, recent reviews of the neuroscience literature suggest that this view is oversimplified at best.

One of the most striking examples of this is the antidepressant Tianeptine. Tianeptine actually increases decreases serotonin levels, and yet is still an effective treatment for depression.

Antidepressant medication has been under the spotlight of late, as concerns about safety have been highlighted, and, controversially, two researchers recently questioned the effectiveness of antidepressant drugs outright.

This opinion is not mainstream, however, as the majority of psychiatrists and researchers accept published research that suggests that SSRIs are helpful in treating depression.

Link to “Serotonin and Depression: A Disconnect between the Advertisements and the Scientific Literature”.
Link to write-up from
Link to ‘Is depression a brain disease?’

Nature Neuroscience launch blog

They say mimicry is the sincerest form of flattery, now the Editors at New York based review journal Nature Neuroscience have launched a blog called ‘Action Potential‘.

In their words:

Action Potential is a blog by the editors of Nature Neuroscience – and a forum for our readers, authors and the entire neuroscience community. We’ll discuss what’s new and exciting in neuroscience, be it in our journal or elsewhere. We hope for spirited conversation! To contact the editors directly with confidential questions or feedback, please e-mail

It’s early days but hopefully the blog could offer readers a fascinating insight into the minds of the people steering one of the most influential journals in neuroscience.

Link to Action Potential blog