2006-03-31 Spike activity

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


Carl Zimmer tackles a common claim about the brain’s fuel consumption.

Photographer David Maisel has created a touching project photographing unclaimed cannisters of ashes of ex-psychiatric patients found in an abandoned psychiatric hospital.

New breed of video games aim to keep the mind and brain sharp into middle-age and beyond.

Studies finds paradoxical effect – people with phobias who ingest a stress hormone seem to be less stressed during anxiety provoking episodes.

Get your cyber clichés at the ready: brain cells fused with computer chip.

New device can indicate the emotional state of a person you’re having a conversation with via a spectacles mounted camera.

CrimePsychBlog reports that findings from the controversial ‘replication’ of Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment are published.

Switching between different languages can alter your personality, new study suggests.

Cognitive control and Tourette’s tics

body_blur.jpgI’ve just noticed that Christian has written up a great summary of recent research which suggests that people with Tourette Syndrome, a neurological condition that causes involuntary movements or vocal outbursts, have better ‘cognitive control’ than people without the syndrome.

This is quite surprising, as at first site, you might think that people with Tourette’s have poor control because of their involuntary movements.

In the study, the experimenters assessed cognitive control by asking participants to make quick eye movements to on-screen targets. The participants with Tourette’s could do this far more effectively than the control participants.

The fact that people with Tourette’s can do these tasks better than others may be due to the fact that they have a lot of practice trying to control their tics. In fact, it is a myth that they have no control, as some people can ‘hold in’ tics and ‘release’ them at a more appropriate time.

Fast eye movements (or saccades) are researched quite extensively as they seem to give an indication of brain function, and can be affected by genetic abnormalities, mental illness and certain drugs (as this review reported, and as Christian’s own research has indicated).

Link to summary of research from BPS Research Digest

Grey matter, the developing brain and intelligence

child_eyes.jpgA report in today’s Nature describes an association between IQ score and changes in the thickness of the brain’s grey matter through childhood and adolesence.

The researchers, led by neuroscientist Philip Shaw, used structural MRI scans to measure changes in the brain, and scanned the same children as they grew up.

Crucially, the findings do not indicate that more intelligent children have a generally thicker cortex, but that the thickness of the cortex changes at different rates for children with different IQ scores:

When the researchers split the children into three groups according to their initial IQ scores, they noticed a characteristic pattern of changes in the brains of the group with the highest scores. The thickness of the cortex — the outer layer of the brain that controls high-level functions such as memory — started off thinner than that of the other groups, but rapidly gained depth until it was thicker than normal during the early teens. All three groups converged, with the children having cortexes of roughly equal thickness by age 19. The strongest effect was seen in the prefrontal cortex, which controls planning and reasoning.

Anything to do with IQ tends to be controversial, as the concept has been used in political arguments (particularly to do with race), and there is much debate about how well IQ tests actually relate to the more general (and more vague) concept of intelligence.

Link to Nature news report on study.
Link to abstract of scientific paper.

Treating shell-shock during World War 1


“In leading his patients to understand that breakdown was nothing to be ashamed of, that horror and fear were inevitable responses to the trauma of war and were better acknowledged than suppressed, that feelings of tenderness for other men were natural and right, that tears were an acceptable and helpful part of grieving, he was setting himself up against the whole tenor of their upbringing. Men who broke down, or cried, or admitted to feeling fear, were sissies, weaklings, failures. Not men. And yet he himself was a product of the same system‚ĶCertainly the rigorous repression of emotion and desire had been the constant theme of his adult life. In advising his young patients to abandon the attempt at repression and to let themselves feel the pity and terror their war experience inevitably evoked, he was excavating the ground he stood on”.

The thoughts of army psychiatrist W.H.R. Rivers from the novel Regeneration by Pat Barker. In Regeneration, the first of a trilogy, Barker blends fact with fiction in her depiction of the relationship between Rivers and the celebrated poet Siegfried Sassoon, at Craiglockhart during the First World War. More excerpts to follow next week.

Deathbed phenomena

la_fleur_du_mort.jpgThe Glasgow Herald reports on the work of neuropsychiatrist Peter Fenwick, who is investigating ‘deathbed phenomena’, the unusual experiences that are often reported by a dying patient or their relatives.

Fenwick and his team have just published the results of a study in the American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Care that notes that these experiences are not the result of medication and are relatively common.

Furthermore, they tend to be quite diverse and not simply the traditional ‘light at the end of a tunnel’ or ‘friendly figure’ appearing at the end of the bed.

Their origin is still a mystery, but Fenwick is running an ongoing research project to better understand the experiences to try and improve care and support for the dying person and their familes.

Link to article ‘Visions of the Dying’ in the Herald.
Link to website of Fenwick’s research project.

The dating game

LukeJackson_Book.jpgWise words to us all from Luke Jackson, a 13 year-old with Asperger Syndrome, who has written a book full of information and advice for teenagers with the condition called Freaks, Geeks and Asperger Syndrome.

The following is from the section on dating (p176):

If the person asks something like ‘Does my bum look fat?’ or even ‘I am not sure I like this dress’ then that is called ‘fishing for compliments’. These are very hard things to understand, but I am told that instead of being completely honest and saying that yes their bum does look fat, it is politer to answer with something like ‘Don’t be daft, you look great’. You are not lying, simply evading an awkward question and complimenting them at the same time. Be economical with the truth!

Link to more information and extracts from the book.

Action potential on Wikipedia

Action_potential_vert.jpgThe Wikipedia article on the action potential is just beautiful – clearly written and wonderfully illustrated.

The action potential is the electrical impulse that travels along nerve cells, facilitating communication throughout the brain and peripheral nervous system.

The action potential was researched by Alan Hodgkin and Andrew Huxley, who managed to generate equations which explained the process. Unsurprisingly, they won the Nobel prize for their efforts.

Link to Wikipedia article on the action potential.

New Psyche on ‘action in perception’

wider_than_the_sky.jpgA new edition of Psyche, the journal of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness, has just been published online, and is a special issue on ‘action in perception’.

The edition is curated by philosopher Alva Noë and takes a novel approach to understanding conscious perception.

The main idea of this book is that perceiving is a way of acting. Perception is not something that happens to us, or in us. It is something we do. Think of a blind person taptapping his or her way around a cluttered space, perceiving that space by touch, not all at once, but through time, by skillful probing and movement. This is, or at least ought to be, our paradigm of what perceiving is. The world makes itself available to the perceiver through physical movement and interaction.

This has some similarities with the later work of psychologist J. J. Gibson, who argued in his book The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception that perception could only be understood by accounting for the way in which in an organism uses vision to act within its environment.

Link to Psyche.

Week 3 book draw

A couple of weeks ago, I posted some thoughts on Mind Performance Hacks, a new book from Ron Hale-Evans and O’Reilly (there are sample hacks online and you can browse the support site for it).

When I made that post, we got hold of some copies from the publisher, and we’ve been having a weekly give-away since. There have been 4 winners so far, and we’re looking for another 2 this week.

If you’d like a chance of winning one of 2 copies of Mind Performance Hacks, send an email to mphdraw3 at mindhacks dot com. Good luck!

Next Sunday evening, UK time, I’ll choose 2 emails randomly and, if you’re a winner, I’ll be in touch to get your address. Please include your name in the email; if my email to you bounces I’ll choose a different one; cheaters will be excluded; organiser’s decision is final; void where prohibited; etc. You don’t have to be in the UK, and emails are deleted if you’re not a winner (if you entered last week and didn’t win, you’re welcome to enter again). Please note that the email address is different from last time. And next Monday… we’ll run the final draw.

Unknown White Male under the microscope

UnknownWhiteMalePoster.jpgCognitive Daily and The Washington Post cast a sceptical eye over the recently released documentary Unknown White Male which claims to depict two years in the life of someone with a curious form of amnesia.

Cognitive Daily examines the representation of memory in the film, and how closely it accords with what is known about the psychology of knowledge and remembering.

Reporting on the controversy over the film’s truthfulness, The Washington Post analyses the inconsistencies in the film, and the opinions of those who support and doubt the main character’s condition.

The Post quotes memory and amnesia researcher Hans Markowitsch and, rather endearingly, calls him a ‘neural psychologist’.

Link to discussion from Cognitive Daily.
Link to ‘A Trip Down Memory Lane’ from The Washington Post.

Zombie t-shirt

zombie_tshirt.jpgIs the person next to you conscious? It might be impossible to tell, and they could be a zombie – someone who acts exactly like a conscious being, but who has no conscious experience at all.

Philosophers have devised this idea, not necessarilly because they believe zombies exist, but to show that if they did, we currently don’t have the ability to tell them apart from genuinely conscious people.

This is a way of both highlighting the difficulty of defining consciousness, and of having an interesting conceptual tool for exploring the limits of the conscious mind (not everyone agrees, however).

Now, t-shirt company Sebei Industries have created a nifty zombie t-shirt remixed from the Run DMC logo, so you can advertise the fact that you’re actually an unconscious zombie, and save everyone the trouble of having to work it out.

Or maybe you just suffer from walking zombie syndrome?

Link to zombie t-shirt.

Is religion a product of mind and evolution?

blue_angel.jpgThere’s been a lot of interest about naturalistic approaches to religion recently, largely related to the release of Daniel Dennett’s new polemical book Breaking the Spell.

In a similar vein, the New Times has an in-depth article about much of the empirical research that’s fuelling the debate.

Crucially, this research is not simply tackling the idea that biblical ideas such as creation are incorrect, but arguing that the belief in God or other supernatural forces, itself is a product of evolution.

The article focuses on the work of psychologist Jesse Bering, whose work we’ve featured before on Mind Hacks.

Unlike with the wider evolution debate, however, reaction to such work seems to be muted, even among the religious community.

Even when their afterlife study was featured prominently in a recent Atlantic Monthly article written by Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology and linguistics at Yale, and titled provocatively “Is God an Accident?,” there was scant response.

“I tell you, a couple of years ago, there was a science article on a dog, Rico, that could obey verbal commands,” Bloom tells New Times. “That got me ten times more angry e-mails than this. Souls and gods are one thing, but people care a lot about their dogs. So my rule is: I can write about God but not dogs.”

I suspect, however, that as the issue becomes more widely known (especially with Dennett turning up the ante) this will quickly change.

Link to article ‘The God Fossil’ from New Times.

Circadian rhythms of human copulation

Circadia has a post about a brief study on how patterns of human love-making change during the day. Unsurprisingly, the most common times are before going to sleep and after waking up.

Notably, the original paper uses the scientific term ‘nycthemeral’ (meaning daily). This must be one of the most lovely sounding words I’ve discovered in quite some time.

1001 links

Mind Hacks has reached the 1000 link mark on social bookmarking site del.icio.us.

Some of the comments are priceless. A few of my favourites…


“Curiosidades sobre la mente” [¬°Gracias!]

“Mind Hacks is a collection of probes into the moment-by-moment workings of our brain with a view to understanding ourselves a little better and learning a little more, in a very real sense, about what makes us tick.”

“url links (yellow)” [huh?]

“this looks like it might be interesting”

2006-03-24 Spike activity

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


Tom Lunt asks web visitors to name my brain tumour.

A series of fits, terrors and crying spells hit children in Chechnya and is blamed on mass hysteria.

Psychologist Lauren Slater discusses the common ‘wonder-drug to toxic tablet’ story of new psychotropic medicines in the New York Times.

Woman with a ‘perfect memory’ is investigated by neuroscientists to try and understand her remarkable talents, reports ABC News (abstract of scientific paper here).

Daniel Dennett on taking a scientific approach to understanding religion in a Seed Magazine article, and a piece for American Scientist.

A study finds few consistent tell-tale signs of lying, providing further evidence against this sort of nonsense.

Mixing Memory has a careful analysis of recent claims that people with strong political affilitations show ‘irrationality’ in reacting to opposing pitches.

Impulsive violence linked to gene for monoamine oxidase.

Aliens gave me psychic powers says clinical psychologist.

American Scientist <a href="http://www.americanscientist.org/template/BookReviewTypeDetail/assetid/49580;jsessionid=aaa6J-GFIciRx2Live”>reviews new book “Origins of the Social Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and Child Development” – charting the beginnings of ‘EvoDevo Psych’.

Live Science examines the neuropsychology of numbers, and ‘dyscalculia’ – impairment in the ability to do mathematical operations.