Shadows, agency and action


“We know that we are agents and that we are successfully causing the world to change. But as actors we move through the world like shadows glimpsed only occasionally from the corner of an eye.”

From a recently published paper by neuropsychologist Chris Frith on the links between the neuroscience of action and delusions of control.

Link to abstract of Frith paper.

2005-12-16 Spike activity

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


British and American smiles may be different, claims book author (thanks David!).

Cognitive Daily on the neglected area of self-discipline and its importance in acheivement.

Author Jay Ingram on the evidence that subliminal ads influence behaviour.

URB597, an antidepressant drug in development, increases brain levels of chemicals found in cannabis.

The Huge Entity discusess ‘Sex, emotion and the female amygdala‘.

Face to Face: The Science of Reading Faces: Transcript and video of an interview with psychologist Paul Ekman.

NASA works with Kim Peek, inspiration for movie Rain Main to better understand Peek’s remarkable talents.

Monitoring real-time activation of pain centres in a brain-scanner can help control pain.

The State has an account of a woman who developed ‘foreign accent syndrome‘ after a stroke.

Is George Bush a secret neuroscientist?

BushBrain.jpgAlthough the president of the USA is frequently villified for being a bit dim, I recently found a paper on “Dorsal anterior cingulate cortex: A role in reward-based decision making” authored by George Bush and colleagues.

The paper claims that George Bush, the first author, is a researcher from Harvard Medical School, rather than the Oval Office.

You never see them both in the same place together, so it’s possible that they are the same person, although I suspect it’s actually George W’s dad putting his retirement to good use.

Maybe he’s curious about what drives his son’s own decision making style?

Racism, mental illness and the limits of diagnosis

hate_knuckles.jpgThe Washington Post reports that a group led by psychologist Edward Dunbar are pushing to get extreme prejudice, such as intense racism or homophobia, diagnosable as a mental illness.

It may seem a little ridiculous to medicalise what are essentially extreme opinions, but the move is interesting for what it says about psychiatric diagnosis in general. In particular, it cuts to the very idea of what defines a mental disorder.

For example, the diagnostic criteria for schizophrenia are based around two ideas:

The first is that there are behaviours and experiences present that are atypical or culturally anomalous (e.g. ‘hearing voices’ or delusions), the second is that the disorder involves some form of disability – in the case of schizophrenia, the criteria specify social or occupational dysfunction.

It could be argued that extreme racism could involve both. Extreme racism is indeed uncommon, and in today’s multicultural society, might involve a significant social deficit if contact with other races or cultures is consistently avoided or becomes distressing.

In fact, considering that about 11% of healthy adults score above the average of delusional inpatients on measures of delusional thinking, it could be argued that extreme racism (at least in some countries) might be more atypical than the sort of beliefs that are typically diagnosed as signs of mental disorder.

In other words, it’s quite hard to refute the idea that extreme racism isn’t a mental disorder within the general philosophy of the current diagnostic system.

This highlights the social relativity of the diagnostic system, which you might either use to argue for the inclusion of a new diagnosis of ‘racist disorder’, or, perhaps, more realistically, to draw attention to the fact that the current system does not adequately define mental pathology in all cases.

Link to article ‘Psychiatry Ponders Whether Extreme Bias Can Be an Illness’.

Do americans have a propensity for hypomania?

firework_dark_background.jpgThe New York Times has a short piece on Peter Whybrow’s and John Gartner’s theory that Americans have a greater genetic propensity for hypomania, the elevated mood state sometimes found in bipolar disorder.

This, they suggest, explains aspects of American culture such as focus on energetic enthusiasm and respect for new ideas.

Interestingly, recent genetic evidence is now pointing to the fact that genes likely to be present in people diagnosed with schizophrenia overlap with those found in people diagnosed with bipolar disorder, suggesting that these may not be distinct disorders, but exist on a continuum.

If Whybrow and Gartner are right, therefore, might Americans be more likely to show traits of psychosis and schizotypy as well?

This may not necessarily be a bad thing, as high levels of these traits have been linked to greater mathematical ability and creativity.

Link to article ‘The Hypomanic American’.

Diabolical cunning in the brain

A&G-Cape-200.jpgThere’s no credible motive but in 1903 that doesn’t matter, the prosecuting barrister can always blind the jury with a little bit of brain:

Like you, members of the jury, I have at different moments of the trial, convinced as I am and as you will be of the prisoner’s guilt, I have found myself asking, but why, but why? And this is what I would say to that question. It really does seem to point to a person who did these outrages from some diabolical cunning in the corner of his brain.

From Arthur and George by Julian Barnes. Jonathan Cape: London, 2005.

Clinical neuropsychology takes to the stage

OnEgo_Image.jpgNeuropsychologist Paul Broks’ exploration of how brain injury affects selfhood, Into The Silent Land, has been made into a play that is currently showing in the Soho Theatre in London’s West End.

The production is entitled On Ego and asks the question:

“What are we? Skin, bone and a hundred billion brain cells? Or is there something more? How does the conscious “you” clamber from the numb darkness of the brain box out into a world of people and places, pleasure and pain, love and loss?”

Interestingly, this isn’t the first time that a book of case studies of brain injured patients has been turned into a theatre production, as Oliver Sack’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat was turned into an opera.

On Ego finishes on the 7th January.

Link to information on play.
<a href=",6903,1657096,00.html
“>Link to Observer article about On Ego
Link to American Scientist interview with Broks.

What lurks inside the teenage brain?

BlameMyBrain.jpgAuthor Nicola Morgan has written a book on neuroscience for teenagers, that explains why teenage experience and behaviour seems so intensely different during adolescence.

The book, Blame My Brain, manages to accurately present scientific research, without presenting any ‘just so’ stories. Various theories and approaches are given where a strong conclusion is not widely accepted.

It also manages to explain neuroscience in a straightforward yet engaging way:

For a long time, people have assumed that this inability to get out of bed is just teenagers being lazy. We have blamed it on the fact that they choose to stay up too late and therefore can’t get up in the morning. But new research shows that laziness and deliberately late nights are not entirely to blame.

When the body clock switches off, it tells our bodies to start feeling sleepy, and the brain produces a hormone called melatonin. This chemical prepares our brains to be sleepy. Tests have shown that in adolescence, melatonin is produced much later in the evening than in younger children. About the same as adults in fact. This is why you don’t often feel sleepy until late in the evening.

It also includes plenty of tests and demonstrations that the reader can try out on themselves or their friends and family!

Link to details of Blame My Brain: The amazing teenage brain revealed.

NewSci online brain channel

brain_diagram_image.jpgI’m not sure whether this is a new section to the website, or whether I’ve been asleep since it started, but I’ve just discovered the New Scientist brain channel that collects all their brain-related stories and articles in one place.

It includes an archive of their news stories, feature articles and additional web only neuroscience resources. There’s even a spiffy interactive map of the brain for those needing a brief guide to the space between the ears.

Free access as well as protected content is included, so non-subscribers can pick out the wheat from the chaff.

Link to New Scientist brain channel.

2005-12-09 Spike activity

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


Best Visual Illusion of the Year Contest launched!

Arguments between couples slow wound healing (presumably suffered during previous arguments).

Mirror neurons work differently in people with autism.

Colour blindness may have hidden advantages (the ability to better discriminate shades of khaki!)

Cycle helmet shaped like a brain (via BoingBoing)

Large head size linked to later development of brain cancer.

Interview with procrastination researcher and his classification of different procrastination types (‘habitual lollygagger’ anyone?).

Cognitive Daily tackles ‘Internet addiction: Anatomy of a problem‘.

Photographer Chris Combs presents a series of photos entitled ‘Inside the Spectrum, focusing on autism (via MeFi).

A problem with placebo-controlled trials?

Following advice from the Committee on Safety of Medicines, the only SSRI-type anti-depressant that UK clinicians can prescribe to children and teenagers is fluoxetine. The risk of suicide and self-harm associated with the use of the other drugs in the SSRI family has been judged to outweigh their benefit.

But speaking at a conference at the Institute of Psychiatry recently, Dr. Paramala Santosh, Consultant in Developmental Neuropsychiatry and Neuropharmacology at Great Ormond Street Hospital, said that the absolute size of the benefit of the banned drugs was often no less, and sometimes more than the effect size found for fluoxetine – it’s just that in the trials for the banned drugs, the size of the placebo effect had been so much larger.

Could this be a fundamental flaw in placebo-controlled trials? The effectiveness of drugs is measured against a placebo effect, but the size of that placebo effect isn’t constant and varies from one trial to another. So potentially, an inferior drug could be deemed effective in a trial where the placebo effect was weak.

Of course NICE guidelines state psychotherapy should be the first line treatment for depressed children, but with too few therapists available, it’s vital that effective drugs aren’t banned unnecessarily.

Continue reading “A problem with placebo-controlled trials?”

Rumi on science and madness

Mawlana_rumi.jpgAn untitled poem on transformation, science and insanity by the 13th century Persian poet Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi:

I have lived on the lip
of insanity, wanting to know reasons,
knocking on a door. It opens.
I’ve been knocking on the inside!

Real value comes with madness
matzub below, scientist above.

Whoever finds love
beneath hurt and grief

disappears into emptiness
with a thousand new disguises.

Apparently, matzub is the name for people who become ecstatic with holy enlightenment. From Rumi: Selected Poems (p281, ISBN 0140449531).

Link to wikipedia article on Rumi.

Do gay parents have happy children?

lesbian_parents.jpgThe American Psychological Association’s flagship publication Monitor on Psychology summarises the research on gay parents and finds their children are generally healthy, happy and well adjusted, despite occasional homophobic teasing.

Patterson‘s and others’ findings that good parenting, not a parent’s sexual orientation, leads to mentally healthy children may not surprise many psychologists. What may be more surprising is the finding that children of same-sex couples seem to be thriving, though they live in a world that is often unaccepting of their parents.

In fact, an as-yet-unpublished study by Nanette Gartrell, MD, found that by age 10, about half of children with lesbian mothers have been targeted for homophobic teasing by their peers. Those children tended to report more psychological distress than those untouched by homophobia.

But as a group, the children of lesbian moms are just as well-adjusted as children from more traditional families, according to the data from Gartrell’s National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study.

Link to article in APA monitor.
Link to Patterson’s full report “Lesbian and Gay Parenting” from the APA.


smell.jpgResearch on smell – what scientists call olfaction – is discussed in the December issue of the Reader’s Digest magazine in an article by Paula Dranov. She explains how smells are composed of molecules that bind to our smell receptors located at the top of the nasal cavity. According to Nobel Prize-winner Linda Buck “A slight change in the chemistry of an orange scent and you get something that smells like sweaty socks”.

Linda Buck and Richard Axel won the 2004 Nobel Prize for medicine for identifying the approximately 1000 genes (3 per cent of the human genome) that code for the hundreds of smell receptors.

The article also mentions research looking at how smells could be used to help obese people eat less, based on the idea that satiety has less to do with feeling full and more to do with our senses of smell and taste feeling satisfied.

Brain damage can affect our sense of smell with unwelcome consequences. Dranov describes the case of Melissa Wittenborn who lost her sense of smell after an ice skating accident. A hit on her head caused her brain to shudder inside the skull, severing a nerve in the olfactory area. Wittenborn said “I’m missing out on so much, such as smelling my kids and husband when they get out of the shower”.

Losing one’s sense of smell can also be a sign of neurological illnesses like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s or Multiple Sclerosis.

Of course, smell is intimately related to memory. There’s a wealth of research showing that smell can aid recall, but there’s also more recent research showing that irrelevant smells can hinder memory.

Link to research on smell and dieting (and lots of other smell research)
Link to research on human pheromones
Link to research on irrelevant smells
Link to research suggesting smelling nice could help in interviews
Link to research on whether humans can sense the direction of smell
Link (item 2) to the vibration theory of smell

Almost human

female_android.jpgThe International Robot Exhibition concluded recently in Japan, where the world’s robot manufacturers displayed their most advanced and, in some cases, human-like creations.

The emotional response to robots was discussed by roboticist Masahiro Mori in 1970, who created the theory of the Uncanny Valley.

He argued that that as a robot is made more humanlike in its appearance and motion, the emotional response of humans will become increasingly positive and empathic.

This is until a point at which the response suddenly becomes strongly repulsive, owing to the uncanny ‘not quite human’ aspect of the robot’s behaviour. This is the point known as the Uncanny Valley (see graph as pop-up).

However, as the appearance and motion are made to be indistinguishable to that of human being, the emotional response becomes positive once more and approaches human-to-human empathy levels.

Mori’s theory is controversial, with some researchers rejecting it out of hand. Nevertheless, it seems intuitively plausible, and still influences robot design and engineering.

Link to excellent Wikipedia article on the ‘Uncanny Valley’.
Link to 2005 International Robot Exhibition.
Link to Coriolinus’ photos of the exhibition (via BoingBoing).

New look ‘Science and Consciousness Review’

scr_image.jpgA long running web journal, the Science and Consciousness Review, has relaunched with a new look and growing content.

The journal is run by three academic scientists who want to open up consciousness research and discussion to the internet. The journal contains book reviews, summaries of new papers and internet resources.

One of the most interesting recent posts is about the increasingly comprehensive Consciousness Studies Wikibook, which is a becoming a dynamic textbook on consciousness science.

Link to Science and Consciousness Review.
Link to Consciousness Studies Wikibook.