Neuroscience a target for fundamentalism?

A letter in today’s Nature from neuroscientist Kenneth Kosik makes an interesting point about the possible theological implications of neuroscience and suggests that it may become a new battleground in the ongoing tussles between scientific theory and religious fundamentalism:

The argument over evolution versus intelligent design, discussed in your News story “Day of judgement for intelligent design”, is a relatively small-stakes theological issue compared with the potential eruption in neuroscience over the material nature of the mind.

Siding with evolution does not really pose a serious problem for many deeply religious people, because one can easily accept evolution without doubting the existence of a non-material being. On the other hand, the truly radical and still maturing view in the neuroscience community that the mind is entirely the product of the brain presents the ultimate challenge to nearly all religions.

Link to full text of letter.

Mente Locale (Italian Mind Hacks)

mente_locale.jpgMente locale: Esperimenti, giochi, consigli per conoscere il proprio cervello e usarlo meglio di Tom Stafford, Matt Webb has been available since November 2005, it turns out. That’s the Italian translation of Mind Hacks, in case you didn’t guess. It has been translated by Anna Airoldi (who spotten an appropriate error in the English translation). Welcome Italian readers!

You can buy Mente Locale here, and I’ve put the Italian blurb for the book below the fold

Continue reading “Mente Locale (Italian Mind Hacks)”

The ‘hikikomori’ phenomenon

hikikomori_image.jpgWikipedia has a fascinating article on the phenomenon of hikikomori – where large numbers of Japanese adolescents are socially withdrawing, often to the extent of seeking extreme isolation and self-confinement, presumably due to various personal and social difficulties.

Although the article hints that hikikomori is considered a phenomenon of medical concern, there’s very little written about it in the medical literature catalogued on PubMed.

This may suggest that the (largely Western) medical literature has not touched on the subject, or that the phenomenon is not usually considered of psychiatric importance, even in Japan.

There’s plenty of links to news sources discussing the phenomena on the Wikipedia page, but I’ve not been able to find many substantial english language articles written for scientific or academic publications.

Any pointers greatfully received…

Link to Wikipedia article on ‘Hikikomori’.

Does cannabis cause psychosis?

cannabis_sativa.jpgPsyBlog has picked up on a recent article in The Independent that discusses the debate over cannabis and the risk of developing psychosis. This is currently topical in the UK in light of an expected government report about the legal re-classification of the drug.

Previously, it was known that there is an association between cannabis and psychosis, although it was not clear whether cannabis contributed to psychosis, or whether people with psychosis were simply more likely to ‘self-medicate’ with cannabis in an attempt to feel better.

A 2004 article in the British Journal of Psychiatry reviewed studies which allow a causal link, rather than simply an association, to be inferred, and sparked a debate (see PubMed entry) which has now led the goverment to think again about the recent downgrading of the legal penalties for possessing cannabis.

Although many psychiatrists and researchers now believe that cannabis is a causal factor in psychosis, the effect is still thought to be small in most people. Genetic studies have reported, however, that people holding certain versions of the COMT gene may be more likely to develop psychosis when cannabis is used.

Nevertheless, an alternative debate centres on whether public education and health services benefit for such a widely used drug to be outlawed, when other, potentially more harmful substances, are legally sold.

Link to Independent article ‘Cannabis: Can it really drive you mad?’
Link to PubMed entry of 2004 debate in the BJP (link to free full text articles).

Love in the asylum


A stranger has come
To share my room in the house not right in the head,
A girl mad as birds

Bolting the night of the door with her arm her plume.
Strait in the mazed bed
She deludes the heaven-proof house with entering clouds

Yet she deludes with walking the nightmarish room,
At large as the dead,
Or rides the imagined oceans of the male wards.

She has come possessed
Who admits the delusive light through the bouncing wall,
Possessed by the skies

She sleeps in the narrow trough yet she walks the dust
Yet raves at her will
On the madhouse boards worn thin by my walking tears.

And taken by light in her arms at long and dear last
I may without fail
Suffer the first vision that set fire to the stars.

‘Love in the asylum’ by poet Dylan Thomas (1914 – 1953).

Neuroscience lectures on your desktop

cinema_sign.jpgNeuroscientist Michael Kilgard has found videos of leading mind and brain researchers giving lectures on their areas of interest, and created an online directory so you can view the talks at your leisure.

The speakers include language researcher Steven Pinker, memory afficianado Endel Tulving and attention pioneer Michael Posner.

This list includes almost 50 lectures in total, with topics ranging from drug addiction to vision.

Popcorn anyone?

Link to ‘Online Neuroscience Lectures’.

UPDATE: Grabbed from the comments page… “The article seems to be missing lectures from Christof Koch about consciousness”. (Thanks Mxr!)

LSD discoverer turns 100

lsd_molecule.jpgAlbert Hofmann, discoverer of LSD, is 100 this week and discusses his controversial discovery in an article in the New York Times.

Hofmann’s birthday is being marked by a symposium in Switzerland, where scientists, visionaries and artists are meeting to discuss the impact of the compound on society and how it may be put to good use in the future.

Link to article “Nearly 100, LSD’s Father Ponders His ‘Problem Child'”.

UPDATE: The Independent has another (probably better) article on LSD, Hofmann and the symposium.

Brain in a vat

atomicbrain2.jpgIf you ever wanted to recreate scenes from movies like The Brain That Wouldn’t Die or The Man with Two Brains, now’s your chance with a plastic version now being sold online.

On a more serious note, one of the most famous thought experiments in contemporary philosophy is about a brain in a vat and is used as a way of enquiring about the nature of reality and how much we can trust our senses.

Link to fully working ‘brain in a vat’.

Mind Hacking at the gym

weights.jpgMost of the time it feels as though our perception of the world is based on what’s out there, what psychologists call ‘stimulus-driven’ or ‘bottom up’ processing. But in reality, our perceptual experience is a seamless mixture of both what really is out in the world and what we expect to be out there (so-called ‘top down’ or ‘concept-driven’ processing). Tom gave an elegant example of this in a recent post, describing how so many people hadn’t noticed the erroneous use of the word ‘conservations’ in the Mind Hacks book, when it should have said ‘conversations’ – in this case readers saw what they expected, not what was written.

I was struck by a couple of similar examples in recent visits to the gym. On the first occasion I’d just finished on the running machine where I have to really crank up my MP3 player volume to drown out the loud music played over the public speakers. When I sat down in the far quieter weights section, the volume on my headphones suddenly felt painfully loud in this quieter environment, and so I quickly jabbed the volume down a few notches. I felt such a relief as the music gradually softened and my eardrums were saved. It was only much later that I realised my MP3 player’s controls were in the lock position – I hadn’t turned the volume down at all. My expectations had overridden the true information arriving at my senses.

On my next visit I proudly grabbed two 14kg (don’t laugh!) dumbbells for some bicep curls. I’d worked up to this weight over recent months and considered it my limit. I was pumping away but my left arm was really struggling, which I put down to it being my weaker arm. Still, I persevered and did my usual number of reps. It was only when I went to replace the dumbbells that I saw the weight in my left arm was 18kg! – someone had put the weights in the wrong places… Well, I thought, maybe I’ve not been pushing myself enough, but no, later on when I went to try out some curls with 18kg weights, it was hopeless: when I ‘knew’ what the weight was it ‘felt’ too heavy!

Anyone got some other examples?

2006-01-06 Spike activity

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


Brain Waves considers the role of ‘bonding hormone’ oxytocin and the potential for a love spray.

Town tries soft lighting to calm violent drinkers.

In contrast to one of last year’s controversial claims, a new study provides evidence that suicide risk does not increase when adults start using antidepressants.

The development of anorexia linked to earlier birth problems.

Mental health think tank demands major overhaul to UK psychiatric services.

New York Times on the psychology and neuroscience of cuteness.

Blog The Genius discusses theories from a recent book on the neuropsychology of memory.

A couple of good articles from Wired (via BoingBoing):
* Man with a cochlear implant hacks his own device to allow him to listen to music again.
* The new technology of brain scan lie detection raises new ethical concerns.

On a related note, New Scientist reports on a drive to develop ‘a lie detector that can be used without the subject knowing they are being assessed’. Best of luck.

Newsweek discusses the popularity and effectiveness of ‘e-therapy‘ (online version is accompanied by advert titled ‘find out happy you really are’ – wtf?)

Cognitive Daily discusses research on ‘How do kids decide robots are worth talking to?’

Sex review and predictions – ’05 to ’06

cherry_white_bg.jpgSex and relationship psychologist Petra Boyton has just posted her review of sexual health, science and media trends of 2005 as well as her predictions for 2006.

As the media is increasingly keen on psychological angles to sex stories and pharmaceutical companies are now starting to push the pills and ills of sexual behaviour in earnest, it’s worth being aware of where the evidence could stop and the spin begins:

2006 is going to be the year of the sex addict.
Many new television series in the pipeline that will be outlining this condition ‚Äì either showing it to be an epidemic or offering training for men who are ‘cheaters’ to curb their behaviour. Despite no agreement on sex addiction, or concern from the psychiatric and medical professions of sexual behaviour being pathologised or misdiagnosed, television researchers are ignoring this evidence and making programmes anyway.

Petra also mentions Mind Hacks as ‘not always about sex, but very good nonetheless’, which is probably one of the most unusual complements we’ve had in a while.

Link to ‘Sex Review of 2005’
Link to ‘Sex Predictions and Trends for 2006’

Survivors of stroke

bath_stroke_diagram.jpgABC Radio’s Health Report has a special on stroke – where the blood supply is cut off by damage or obstruction to blood vessels in the brain – and interviews two survivors about their experiences: Robert McCrumb, the literary editor of The Observer newspaper and Ishbel, a 9 year old girl who suffered a stroke when she was 7.

The stroke survivors describe the immediate effects, the treatment, the aftermath and their own tips for coping with stroke-related brain injury.

Robert McCrumb wrote a book about his experiences called My Year Off (ISBN 0330352407), and wrote an insightful article for The Observer marking ten years since it first occurred.

The programme also talks to Roger Rees, a professor of disability research, who talks about the impact of the disorder on the mind and brain, and medical approaches to recovery.

mp3 or realaudio of programme audio.
Link to programme transcript.
Link to Robert McCrumb’s article ‘Memoirs of a survivor’.
Link to ‘What is a stroke?’ from the Stroke Association.

Information integration and consciousness

eeg_measure.jpgThere’s a raft of new articles just appeared on Science and Consciousness Review, including a speculative but fascinating article on information states in the brain and consciousness.

The article by Henri Montandon discusses the ideas and implications of researcher Giulio Tononi who argues that an entity is more conscious the more information it can bring to bear on life experiences.

There’s plenty more news stories just been added as well, so have a wander through and enjoy.

Link to Science and Consciousness Review.