2006-01-27 Spike activity

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


Researchers find gene linked to the chance of being diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

The Telegraph talk up psychology and neuroscience, arguing that ‘The Future is All in Your Head‘.

The evolution and function of laughter is discussed in Seed Magazine.

Brainscan Blog hails the opening of a new fMRI lab to study the neuroscience of sign language.

Behind every great genius – is another great genuis, claim Live Science.

Philosopher Daniel Dennett in a fairly content-free interview in the New York Times discusses his forthcoming book on the biology of religious belief.

Members of a remote Amazon tribe can solve basic problems in geometry, despite never having seen a math book, suggesting geometric ability may be innate.

The New York Times article ‘This Is Your Brain on Schadenfreude‘ discusses the neural response to others’ displeasure.

“None of the circuits involved in conscious reasoning were particularly engaged”. No big surprises from studies of the neuropsychology of political affiliation.

A gene which regulates the enzyme CYP2A6 – known to be involved in the metabolism of nicotine – may be key to understanding the genetics of cigarette addiction.

With our thoughts, we make our world

monk_eeg.jpgWired magazine examines the recent interest in the neural basis of meditation and the political storm caused by the Dalai Lama’s speech at the last Society for Neuroscience conference, in a recently published online article.

The Tibetan Buddhist leader’s presentation was the subject of much protest and counter-protest even before it began, which guaranteed that it would be one of the hottest tickets at SfN 2005.

One accusation levelled at some of the scientists involved in this research is that they are being unduly influenced by the religious aspects of Buddhism and are losing their scientific objectivity.

The Wired article looks at both the research on meditation and the Dalai Lama’s enthusiam for science and considers whether the science is indeed being affected.

Link to ‘Buddha on the Brain’.

neuroscience & the media

The recent column from Ben Bad Science Goldacre is on the widely reported, and improbable, neuroscience of why the novels of Agatha Christie are so successful (column here). The neurobabble used to obfuscate the fact that she wrote quite well is astounding. No, her books did not directly alter your brain chemistry to make the novels ‘literally unputdownable’ – except in the boring everyday sense that everything you do and think alters your brain chemisty. The best bit is the man who originated the misleading reports claims that it was all some sort of post-modern in-joke with readers and viewers (who were supposed to know they were being lied to). Goldacre’s strongly worded conclusion:

So I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the public are confused about science, for the simple reason that the media is full of grandiose humanities graduates, acting as self-appointed experts and science communicators, who construct their own parody of what they think science is: and then, to compound their crime, they go on to critique science, as if their parody was the reality
… Can we have some science on telly, please.

And on that note, I’ve heard good reports for this programme, on BBC2; a short series looking at claims for alternative medicine like acupuncture and faith healing. Any science broadcast that takes in the need for experimental trials, control groups, placebo effects (Hack #73 incidentally) and the dangers of overgeneralising findings is good by me. Although the BBC News report is disappointingly titled Acupuncture ‘deactivates brain’ and subtitled ‘Acupuncture works by deactivating the area of the brain governing pain, a TV show will claim’. Oh well, at least they used the scare quotes.

Is that a brain charm in your pocket?

brain_cap.jpgI’ve just discovered Brain Mart, an online shop for everything (and I mean everything) brain-related. They sell a great deal of educational material as well as a range of ‘brain novelties’.

These stretch from the classic (a phrenonology bust) to the anatomically correct ‘brain cap’ (“Flip up the brim and expose the words, Think, think, think…”) to the slightly worrying ‘Brain Charms’, for adding to a necklace or bracelet.

Link to Brain Mart.

Gallagher on action, body image and psychosis


Philosopher and cognitive scientist Shaun Gallagher sits in the hot seat and is interviewed by Science and Consciousness Review who quiz him about how the body and its actions shape our thoughts, and how this can break down to produce bizarre experiences of being controlled by outside forces.

Gallagher draws on the neuroscience of action and the philosophy of consciousness in his interview, in line with much of his previous work.

I think these experiences of ownership and agency [of actions] are manifested at the level of the level of first-order, pre-reflective, phenomenal consciousness. That is, I don’t need to reflect on what I’m doing to generate these experiences. Rather, they are part of and implicit in what my movement feels like.

Link to ‘An Interview with Shaun Gallagher’.
Link to Shaun Gallagher’s homepage.

Foxtrot on ad hoc psychological testing

foxtrot_panel.jpgA recent edition of Bill Amend’s FoxTrot comic strip has a nice twist on the notional glass half-full / glass half-empty psychological ‘test’. The test also features in a Gary Larson Far Side strip entitled ‘The Four Basic Personality Types‘ that adorns the doors of hundreds of psychologists across the globe.

(Thanks Nathan!)

Men, women and ghosts

ghost_woman.jpgOpen-access science journal PLoS Biology has published an article by biologist Peter Lawrence where he suggests that the under-representation of women in science is not because they are biologically unsuited to scientific thinking (as some have controversially suggested), but because employers undervalue those attributes more likely, but not exclusively, to be present in female researchers.

Here I will argue, as others have many times before, that men and women are born different. Yet even we scientists deny this, allowing us to identify the “best” candidates for jobs and promotions by subjecting men and women to the same tests. But since these tests favour predominantly male characteristics, such as self-confidence and aggression, we choose more men and we discourage women. Science would be better served if we gave more opportunity and power to the gentle, the reflective, and the creative individuals of both sexes.

Link to ‘Men, Women, and Ghosts in Science’.