an appropriate error

Anna Airoldi, the translator of Mind Hacks into Italian has noticed a fantastic error in the published book. She writes

(170) 1st paragraph of “How it works”;
I’m not entirely sure this is a real typo, considering the topic discussed in the paragraph, but “conservations” shouldn’t just be “conversations”?

She’s absolutely right – it should be ‘conversations’ not ‘conservations’. But although it is an error, in this case it is an appropriate error, because it appears in Hack #52 ‘Robust Processing Using Parallelism’ which discusses how we can read errorful or ambiguous sentences using multiple interacting levels of information to construct meaning. Normally this is a good thing, but it appears that in this particular instance the meaning was so obvious that our normally diligent editing process didn’t spot the mistake (my mistake in origin, incidentally)!

2005-12-30 Spike activity

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


Slate asks the question “Is Anorexia Genetic?: What the newest theory leaves out”. A commentary on a recent Newsweek article discussed previously on Mind Hacks.

“Language affects ‘half of vision'” says somewhat misleading title that belies some interesting research in colour perception and categorisation.

Scientific American considers recent research on the psychology of suicide bombers and discounts popular myths about the perpetrators.

People consistently pour larger measures of alcohol into short wide glasses than tall thin ones.

Language Log investigates the science behind recent media claims that Agatha Christie novels are ‘good for the brain’.

The Distorted Tune Test

Ever wondered if you are tone-deaf? The Distorted Tune Test page can help. You listen to 25 simple tunes and judge whether they are played correctly or not (it takes about five or six minutes). Based on your responses, you’ll be told how well you can judge pitch. If the results suggest you are tone-deaf then you are eligable to take part in a US National Institute of Health study into the conditions, so that’s some compensation.

Handbags at 40 paces


Clinical syndromes are not God’s gift to cognitive neuropsychology: a reply to a rebuttal to an answer to a response to the case against syndrome-based research.”

Caramazza and Badecker get their slap-down in early during a heated 1991 debate on whether it is best to study the symptoms or syndromes of brain injury when attempting to theorise about normal cognitive function.

Link to PubMed entry for Caramazza and Badecker paper.

Hack #104: Change the length of your arms!

Here’s a fantastic party-trick, if it works as reported in the Journal of Vision – make your arms feel like they are different lengths using a simple cut out piece of card.

Now, we talked about perception of depth in the book (Hack #22) and about how the senses interact (Chapter 5). One common theme was how visual information often tended influence our perception of information in the other modalities (at least for spatially organisation information, see Hack #53). What Nicola Bruno from the University of Trieste, and colleagues, seem to have found is an instance where a classic illusion of visual depth can distort your perception of your own body.

Ames’ trapaziodal window works by virtue of the assumption that things which appear larger are often just closer by. The Window (see a demo here) is a trapazoid, so that it gives the same appearence as a square with one side further away than the other. Like this:


Just like this the retinal-image is ambiguous between a trapazoid viewed flat on, and a square viewed with one side closer than the other. Normally you can use other information, like comparing the image between your two eyes, to deduce the correct perception of depth, but if you close one eye your brain has to fall back on just the ambiguous image information. And it seems your brain thinks squares are more likely and will deliver to your consciousness the perception of a slanted object, rather than a correct, flat-on, impression.

What Bruno et al did was have participants hold versions of the trapazoidal window illusion and judge the level of slant. Not only did they systemmatically mis-judge the slant of the object (despite getting clear information on how far away both sides were via the proprioception of their hands), but some participants reported ‘a stiking prioprioceptive distortion’ – namely that one hand appeared to be further away than the other, or one arm appeared longer than the other!

Unfortunately the research is only reported in abstract form (here) so I can’t get any more details of how exactly they built the illusionary trapazoid, but you can bet that I’ll be trying it out in the next few days. I suspect that, like the body schema illusions (Hack #64), this effect will work strongly on only a few people, so I’ll have to try it on a bunch of people before getting anything. I’ll let you know the results of my experiments, and I’d love to hear from anyone else who trys it.

The Mind-Body Problem – Who Cares?

Guy Claxton said this a few years ago in the Journal of Consciousness Studies:

Any discussion of the causal status of conscious experience has to start, therefore, with the recognition that what appears to be a dispassionate enquiry is actually a question of life and death importance to which there is only one permissible answer.

The preceeding context is given below the fold…

Continue reading “The Mind-Body Problem – Who Cares?”

Variable man

PKDrobot.jpgThe Economist reports that in Japan, increasing importance is being placed on robots that look and act like humans. The article further argues that the focus on humanoid robots is driven, at least in part, by a desire to avoid the culture’s strong social conventions.

Karl MacDorman, another researcher at Osaka, sees similar social forces at work. Interacting with other people can be difficult for the Japanese, he says, “because they always have to think about what the other person is feeling, and how what they say will affect the other person.” But it is impossible to embarrass a robot, or be embarrassed, by saying the wrong thing.

Meanwhile, Wired offer their list of the ‘50 Best Robots Ever‘.

Is this robot week or something?

Link to Economist article ‘Better than people’.
Link to Wired article ‘The 50 Best Robots Ever’.
Link to previous post on the ‘Uncanny Valley’ in robot design.

Positron annihilation

YasuharuShirai.jpgBorag Thungg Earthlets!

I have just found the webpage of Professor Yasuharu Shirai from Osaka University in Japan.

He is currently involved in researching the “Development of Artificial Skin for Humanoid Robot and Body Image Acquisition Learning” and “Mechanism Behavior Generation by Imitation Learning of Humanoid Robot”.

Prof. Shirai also supervises an investigation into the “Positron Annihilation Study of Defects in Advanced Materials” and belongs to the mysterious “Society for Discrete Variational Xa“.

Is this the most sci-fi sounding scientist on the planet? Answers on a ram card please…

Link to Yasuharu Shirai’s webpage.

In Our Time analyses artificial intelligence

android_sketch.jpgBBC Radio 4’s programme on the history of ideas discussed artificial intelligence recently, with some of the leading researchers in the field.

The programme slipped past my attention when it was first on a couple of weeks ago, but the full audio archive is available online to listen to at your leisure.

“Can machines think?” It was the question posed by the mathematician and Bletchley Park code breaker Alan Turing and it is a question still being asked today. What is the difference between men and machines and what does it mean to be human? And if we can answer that question, is it possible to build a computer that can imitate the human mind?

Interestingly, Turing was quite bullish about the prospect, as shown in an excerpt from the 1950 edition of Whitakers Almanack.

I’ve yet to find out what the ‘300 year old sum’ is, that is mentioned as solved by the ‘mechanical brain’ from the article at the link above. Answers on a postcard please…

Link to In Our Time webpage on AI programme.
Realaudio archive of programme.

Christmas update

red_present.jpgHello Mind Hacks readers. Just a note to say that updates to the site might be a bit sporadic over the Christmas period as we’re likely to be enjoying the time to kick back and read all the neuroscience books that Santa brings.

Hopefully, the updates should be more or less daily, but please excuse the occasional brandy-fuelled omission. Here are some brief Christmas links to tide you over, though…

Christmas gingerbread could lift mood as spices contain amphetamine precursors! – This might need to be taken with a pinch of ginger I fear.

Mental health charity Mind has a guide to beating Christmas stress.

A light-hearted article from Psychology Today on the 12 neuroses of Christmas.

And, as it’s Christmas, indulge yourself in some untestable, unscientific pop-psychology: The psychology of Christmas shopping.

Roll on 2006!

2005-12-23 Spike activity

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


Chronobiology site Circadiana recommends books about clocks and sleep.

Brain Waves previews the upcoming ‘5th International Neuroesthetics Conference’ which focuses on how the brain responds to gourmet food, fine wine and aromatic perfumes.

Feeling good is the ’cause, not effect’ of achievement according to researchers.

David Letterman’s lawyers fight an odd restraining order imposed by a judge who is perhaps suffering from folie √† deux? :/

Robot demonstrates ‘self awareness‘ (i.e. can distinguish itself in a mirror) (via /.)

Wired on watching your own real-time brain scan to ‘think away the pain‘.

The ‘quality’ of your dancing could advertse your ‘sexual quality‘ to others as measured by body symmetry.

New Scientist on the desperate need for adequate mental health care after the trauma of the Asian tsunami.

Trial of implanted stem cells to treat brain injury in children starts.

BBC All in the Mind returns

raj_persaud.jpgBBC Radio 4’s All in the Mind (not to be confused with the Australian radio show of the same name) has returned to the airwaves with a fascinating section on Anarchic Hand syndrome:

The idea of a hand with its own will has been used as a comic device by many movie makers and writers…including in “Dr Strangelove”. But a little known fact is that there is a rare and fascinating neurological phenomena which can cause this Strangelove-type behaviour to happen – called alien, or anarchic, hand syndrome, a condition which means that people cannot control the actions of one of their hands. This month an intriguing new case history of alien hand syndrome has just been reported by a Japanese group in the journal Surgical Neurology, and Raj discusses the syndrome with expert Sergio Della Sala, Professor of Human Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh.

Link to website and audio archive of BBC All in the Mind.

Theatre festival on brain injury

cartesian_theatre.jpgBrainBlog has picked up on an upcoming theatre festival based around the unusual consequences of brain injury and neurological disease.

NEUROfest will run from January 6th to the 29th in New York City, and includes:

* Multimedia by real-life neurologist James Jordan in CJD; to
* A family musical with Welcome to Tourettaville! (co-written by a 7 year-old with Tourette’s Syndrome); to
* A short monologue in The Taste of Blue, set in the realm of the senses; to
* A full-length opera/theater piece in Tabula Rasa; to
* An examination of communication in Linguish, when language isn’t an option; to
* A love story about two men, music, and vertigo in Vestibular; to
* A family drama about delusion and doppelgangers in Impostors
* and much more…

Impostors is about Capgras syndrome, the delusional belief that a close relative or spouse has been replaced by an idenical looking impostor.

Interestingly, the science-fiction author Philip K. Dick wrote a short story entitled ‘Impostor’, which has a Capgras-like plot. It eventually got turned into a low budget movie of the same name.

Link to BrainBlog on NEUROfest.
Link to NEUROfest homepage.

Depression and heart disease

psychosomatic.gif The journal Psychosomatic Medicine has a new free online supplement all about the link between depression and heart disease. There’s evidence that even mild depression can put people at increased risk of heart disease, and depression is three to four times more prevalent among cardiac patients than among the general population.

Link to free online supplement.

Sport psychology

supplement_sport.jpgThe Lancet medical journal has published a special sports supplement that for one month is available to view free as an e-magazine.

The 76 page publication includes features on aggression in sport (p.35); depression in sport (p.41), including comment on double Olympic gold medallist Dame Kelly Holmes’ admission earlier this year that she deliberately cut her arms with scissors during a frustrating period in her career when she was unable to train because of injury; and risk taking in sport (p.38) – with discussion of the idea that extreme sports enthusiasts may use danger to kick-start their lower-than-average dopamine levels.

The risk inherent in climbing such mountains carries its own reward, deep and abiding, because it provides as profound a sense of self-knowledge as anything else on earth. A mountain is perilous, true; but it is also redemptive“. David Breashears, mountaineer and creator of IMAX film Everest, speaking about mountain climbing. From the article by Matt Pain and Matthew A Pain on risk taking.

Link to the supplement.
Link to high wire walker Philippe Petit talking to Sue Lawley on Desert Island Discs.
Link to editor Pia Pini talking about her favourite highlights from the supplement.

Research and remote peoples

NYT_anthropology.jpgThe New York Times reports on the interaction between isolated communities and the researchers which visit them. Remote peoples are often involved in psychology, anthropology and medical science research, although the NYT article focuses on how the researchers are regarded by their participants.

Another member of the tiny and reclusive Ariaal tribe, Leketon Lenarendile, scanned a handful of pictures laid before him by a researcher whose unstated goal was to gauge whether his body image had been influenced by outside media. “The girls like the ones like this,” he said, repeating the exercise later and pointing to a rather slender man much like himself. “I don’t know why they were asking me that,” he said.

Link to article ‘Remote and Poked, Anthropology’s Dream Tribe’.