Freud’s not dead

Sigmund_Freud.jpgNewsweek has a special edition on the legacy of Sigmund Freud and its relevance for the modern mind and brain sciences.

The issue includes several articles and takes a comprehensive approach, looking at Freud’s early life as a neurologist, and interviews Nobel prize-winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel about the influence of Freud on modern psychiatry.

The issue is also accompanied by a podcast interview with Kandel and psychoanalyst Leon Hoffman (section on Freud start’s 18 minutes 40 seconds in).

Link to ‘Freud in Our Midst’ (via Anomalist).

White Lies (Don’t Do It)

Research shows dopamine has the same effect on the brain as taking cocaine!

A fantastically backward scientific explanation from the transcript of a TV programme on the neuroscience of love.

If you’re not familiar with why this is so silly, it’s because cocaine has its major effect by altering the dopamine system.

The above explanation is like saying “the economy has the same effect on society as shopping”, rather than “shopping affects society via the economy”.


I’m a bit late to the neuroword party with this one, but here goes:

Neuroessentialism – the belief in, or tactic of, invoking evidence, or merely terms, from neuroscience to justify claims at the psychological level. See also neuromysticism, neurobollocks.

There’s a mild example of this in George Lakoff’s Don’t Think of An Elephant which is an otherwise excellent book:

“One of the fundamental findings of cognitive science is that people think in terms of frames and metaphors – conceptual structures like those we have been describing. The frames are in the synapses of our brains, physically present in the form of neural circuitry. When the facts don’t fit the frames, the frames are kept and the facts ignored.”
(p73, which you can also view here)

He’s talking about frames (psychology). He’s advancing a claim that frame-incompatible facts get rejected (psychology). What do the statements ‘The frames are in the synapses of our brains, physically present in the form of neural circuitry’ add to the argument? Nothing. They do not provide any evidence nor do they even provide any information – everything psychological is represented somehow in the brain, and knowing that conceptual frames exist in neural circuits doesn’t help us figure out anything about their properties. The statements are contentless.

There’s no need to pick on Lakoff particularly, it is just what I’m reading today. Far more offensive examples of neuroessentialism abound (Brain Gym springs to mind). This is in part because neuroscience is a technical and sexily complicated discipline, and in part because of the mistaken belief that evidence at a lower level of description somehow has explanatory precedence over that at a higher level of description (cf physics envy). Many claims about human psychology are adequately and entirely addressed at the level of behaviour with no need to invoke neuroscientific evidence. Indeed, for many psychological claims neuroscience can add little or nothing to our assessment of their truth. Taking for example this claim that frame-incompatible facts get rejected, knowing that frames are embedded in brain tells us nothing, but even knowing how frames are embedded in the brain may not be as useful as it first appears. Whatever neuroscientific facts we discovered about frames, the final judgement of the truth of this claim would rely on answers to questions such as is it true that frame-incompatible facts tend to get rejected? In what range of circumstances is this true and how can it be affected? The last word would be behavioural evidence, regardless of what information was provided by neuroscience.


This page used to hold a picture and glowing recommendation for Off The Mark Cartoons. However, we received a threatening legal notice from them so we’ve withdrawn the picture.

We’ve also withdrawn our recommendation because they seem to think that sending threats for $150,000 dollars, out-of-the-blue, with not so much as an introduction, is an appropriate way to treat their fans.

We think different, so we hope you don’t mind us changing a page in our archives.

For those still desperate for some cartoon action, this XKCD cartoon is wonderful.

Ready for your close up?

gavel_white_bg.jpgCognitive Daily has just published two fascinating articles on research showing that the angle at which a police interview is filmed can affect how well people judge whether a confession has been forced.

The first article discusses a study which suggests that coerced confessions are much more likely to be picked up by jurors if they are filmed from the side.

The second looks at an extension of the first study, where the experimenters setup and ran a simulated trial (wow!), and found that the camera angle used to film a suspicious confession could influence the jurors’ final verdict.

Interestingly, the researchers used a re-enactment of a real-life interview, from someone who falsely confessed to his girlfriend’s murder under police pressure.

Fascinating work and a great write-up, showing the importance of understanding psychological influences in the process of justice.

Link to ‘Coerced confessions: Is videotaping part of the problem, or part of the solution?’.
Link to ‘Can court procedure mitigate abuse?’.

(un)emotional investment

Here’s a spin on the depressive realism story. Shiv et al (2005) found that substance abusers and those with brain damage affecting their emotions had enhanced performance on an investment task. According to the authors of the study, the normal controls were actually distracted from making optimum decisions by their emotional involvement in the task.

‘The dark side of emotion in decision-making: When individuals with decreased emotional reactions make more advantageous decisions’ Baba Shiv, George Loewenstein and Antoine Bechara. Cognitive Brain Research, 23(1), April 2005, Pages 85-92. summary here


Can dysfunction in neural systems subserving emotion lead, under certain circumstances, to more advantageous decisions? To answer this question, we investigated how individuals with substance dependence (ISD), patients with stable focal lesions in brain regions related to emotion (lesion patients), and normal participants (normal controls) made 20 rounds of investment decisions. Like lesion patients, ISD made more advantageous decisions and ultimately earned more money from their investments than the normal controls. When normal controls either won or lost money on an investment round, they adopted a conservative strategy and became more reluctant to invest on the subsequent round, suggesting that they were more affected than lesion patients and ISD by the outcomes of decisions made in the previous rounds.

Link: a related post at

A retro ‘Chinese room’ moment

ARPA_Chinese_characters.jpgThis video is a 1972 documentary about the beginnings of ARPANET, the forerunner to the modern internet, developed by the U.S. Department of Defense

In one scene, a woman is seen typing Chinese symbols into a computer, echoing a beautifully whimsical scene from John Searle‘s famous ‘Chinese room‘ thought experiment.

Searle’s experiment addresses the question of whether information processing would be sufficient to account for consciousness, and includes people in a room, typing Chinese symbols into a computer.

Link to ‘Computer Networks’ video (via BoingBoing).


Sandra Kiume, founder of the Neurofuture blog has kicked off a tongue-in-cheek competition to coin a new ‘neuroword’.

Some of my favourites include the beautifully recursive “neurologism: a word created by prefixing ‘neuro’ to almost any normal word” (by Neil H) and “neuromanticism: the discipline that investigates neural correlates of love” (by Andrea Gaggioli). My own contribution is “neurosceptic: someone who doubts grand media claims made on behalf of neuroscience”.

If you want to enter, you’ll need to be quick. The competition closes shortly.

Link to neurowords competition (via Brain Waves).

Eliminative materialism on Wikipedia

Cellarius_ptolemaic_system.jpgThe Wikipedia article on eliminative materialism has undergone a radical transformation since the end of January. It is now a clear and comprehensive introduction to one of the most important philosophical approaches to modern cognitive science.

Philosophers, unfortunately, have an image problem. Ask the average person in the street about what philosophers do and you’re likely to be informed that they try and work out whether God, reality or each other exist.

In reality, a significant number are involved in the cognitive sciences and are doing some much needed structural work on the foundations.

Philosophy of mind focuses on understanding and testing the foundations of psychology and cognitive science, and is now an essential partner in the bid to explain human thought.

The majority of theories about the mind make assumptions about the sort of mental states we have. Many of these assumptions are taken from everyday language and culture, and are usually described by ‘common sense’.

For example, the everyday concept of ‘belief’ features regularly in scientific explanations of the mind, despite the fact that this concept is often applied so widely in natural language as to be seemingly contradictory in places.

A school of thought called ‘eliminative materialism’ argues that these ‘common-sense’ concepts are like the ancient four humours theory of medicine – which said that the body and mind are controlled by levels of ‘blood’, ‘black bile’, ‘yellow bile’ and ‘phlegm’.

Although this theory was assumed to be true at the time, modern science hasn’t given us an improved explanation of the ‘four humours’, it has rejected the idea as completely ridiculous.

Eliminative materialism argues that everyday concepts like ‘belief’ and ‘desire’ will suffer the same fate because of their inconsistencies, and that theories that use these concepts are ultimately flawed.

Supporters also point to the lack of clear evidence that these everyday concepts are linked to any consistent pattern of brain activity. This might suggest that these concepts are also not supported by other, similarly intentioned, approaches.

If eliminative materialism is accurate, many past theories will have to be re-thought, and how we test, create and think about the mind and brain will change radically.

It is not clear, however, whether it is accurate, and the recently updated Wikipedia page gives an excellent and evolving account of the arguments.

Link to Wikipedia article on eliminative materialism.

Week 2 book draw

If you missed it last week, I posted some thoughts on Mind Performance Hacks, a new book from Ron Hale-Evans and O’Reilly (you can read sample hacks and browse the support site for it).

We managed to get some copies from the publisher, as they also published Mind Hacks, the book this blog spun out from, and last week we gave away 2 copies in a draw. We’re doing the same this week, and have another two draws after this.

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

Book draw winners, week 1

Hey folks, entry to the Mind Performance Hacks free book draw from last Monday is now closed. The email address has now been deactivated, and all that’s left to do is randomly select the 2 winners. Here we go (see how I did the selection after the jump)… And congratulations Adrian Neumann and Chris Elliott! I’ll be in touch to get your postal addresses. Well done!

Everyone else, thanks for entering, and look out for the next draw tomorrow.

Continue reading “Book draw winners, week 1”

These are not my beautiful things!

Philip K Dick would have loved this kind of stuff:

Capgras syndrome – in which the patient believes their friends and relatives have been replaced by impersonators – was first described in 1923 by the French psychiatrist J.M.J. Capgras in a paper with J. Reboul-Lachaux.

Now Alireza Nejad and Khatereh Toofani at the Beheshti Hospital in Iran have reported an extremely rare variant of Capgras syndrome in which a 55-year-old woman with epilepsy believes her possessions have all been replaced by substitute objects that don’t belong to her. When she buys something new, she immediately feels that it has been replaced.

More on this, and other research news, at the BPS Research Digest (written by Christian Jarret)

Mind-controlled pong

Berlin_Mind-Brain_image.jpgA online video purports to show two people playing the classic video game Pong using what looks like an an EEG machine to read electrical activity from the brain.

Although I’m no EEG expert, the kit looks authentic and it’s certainly a technically possible feat with the current state of neurofeedback research.

So if anyone can actually verify whether this was genuinely an example of ‘mental pong’, or knows more about the event being filmed, I’d be interested to find out.

Link to video of ‘Berlin Brain Computer Interface’.

Unwavering love of pharmaceutical companies

PharmAmorin_Image.jpgSatirical newspaper The Onion hits the mark with an article on PharmAmorin, “a prescription tablet developed by Pfizer to treat chronic distrust of large prescription-drug manufacturers”.

One TV ad, set to debut during next Sunday’s 60 Minutes telecast, shows a woman relaxing in her living room and reading a newspaper headlined “Newest Drug Company Scandal Undermines Public Trust.” The camera zooms into the tangled neural matter of her brain, revealing a sticky black substance and a purplish gas.

The narrator says, “She may show no symptoms, but in her brain, irrational fear and dislike of global pharmaceutical manufacturers is overwhelming her very peace of mind.”

After a brief summary of PharmAmorin’s benefits, the commercial concludes with the woman flying a kite across a sunny green meadow, the Pfizer headquarters gleaming in the background.

Link to article ‘Wonder Drug Inspires Deep, Unwavering Love Of Pharmaceutical Companies’.