2006-03-17 Spike activity

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


Science Central News discusses change blindness (with video demos).

Researchers find that antibiotic D-cycloserine, used to treat tuberculosis, improves recovery rate in psychological treatment for social anxiety.

CBS News has an in-depth article on the science of sexual orientation.

Research suggests that solo exercise may not have the same beneficial effect on the brain as exercising with someone else.

The American Journal of Psychiatry has an article on the potential use of virtual reality to diagnose schizophrenia.

A couple of articles on ADHD:
* The New York Times discusses the potential value of ADHD to ‘knowledge economy’ works.
* USA Today reports on the use of computer games and neurofeedback as a treatment.

Natural sleep is bimodal – two stretches with a brief wakening in the middle – reports Circadiana.

Drugs which lower blood pressure may significantly reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Long term users of marijuana have poorer memory function, finds new study.

Antidepressant drugs may be more effective in treating older people, suggest new research.

Open-access at Cortex Online

cortex_title.jpgI love Cortex. I’m not referring to my brain (although I do think very highly of it – “my second favourite organ” to quote Woody Allen) but to the neuropsychology journal which has been around since 1965.

Although the website doesn’t work properly in Firefox, and all the links seem to open as new windows, these are forgivable foibles (and hopefully fixable ones), as all Cortex papers are published online as open-access articles.

As well as publishing original cognitive neuroscience and neuropsychology research, Cortex includes articles on the history and philosophy of mind and brain science.

Like this one on the history of the concept of ‘inner speech’ and its relationship to the early discoveries in aphasia – the dysfunction of language or speech after brain injury.

There’s plenty more gems in the archive.

Link to Cortex Online.

USA Memory championship

Wired has some brief coverage of the USA Memory Championship, which was won by a journalist who entered as research for a book!

This was Foer’s first time competing, but he’d covered it as a freelance science journalist, he said. This year, he decided to experience things from the inside as research for a book he‚Äôs writing on memory, and was shocked at the results.

“I really did not expect to win,” Foer said. “I thought maybe I‚Äôd crack the top five.”

He practiced for the competition starting in July, and his techniques echoed those used by other contestants. He’d spend five to 10 minutes several times a week trying to memorize the order of playing cards in a deck. He also mentally linked integers from 1 to 100 with images and letters to help in remembering lists of numbers. Thirteen, for example, is his girlfriend, he said.

Link to ‘Flexing Brains: Feats of Memory’.

A neuroscientist’s grief

billy's halo.jpgNeuroscientist Ruth McKernan was a guest on Radio 4’s midweek this morning, talking about her father’s death from a mystery illness, and how her scientific background shaped her coping and grief, an experience she has described in her book Billy’s Halo. Here’s an excerpt from the book’s synopsis:

Now, she tells the story of her father’s last year as a collection of cutting-edge scientific themes – memory, consciousness, microbes, stem cells – like pearls strung together on the thread of her father’s life. The result is an inspired blending of personal emotion, love and grief, with a crystal-clear scientific explanation of the way our brains and bodies work in sickness and in health.

Midweek’s host Libby Purves commented that it was clear from McKernan’s book that as she wrote about the emotional turmoil of her father’s passing, she struggled not to take a scientific perspective. On the contrary, McKernan said she wanted to write an objective, factual account of what happened, but couldn’t help her emotions from spilling over into her words.

Link to replay of Midweek on Radio 4 (McKernan was the second guest).
Link to Billy’s Halo on Amazon.

Sleep drug causes ‘sleep driving’?

ambien_story_woman.jpgAADT have some intriguing coverage on recent concerns that popular sleep drug Ambien is linked to ‘sleep driving’ and ‘sleep eating’ in some people.

The issue has recently been covered by the New York Times owing to the increase in people who have had the drug detected in their body by toxicology tests after “bizarre” road traffic accidents.

A registered nurse who lives outside Denver took Ambien before going to sleep one night in January 2003. Sometime later — she says she remembers none of the episode — she got into her car wearing only a thin nightshirt in 20-degree weather, had a fender bender, urinated in the middle of an intersection, then became violent with police officers, according to her lawyer.

The woman, whose lawyer says she previously had a pristine traffic record, eventually pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of careless driving after the prosecutors partly accepted her version of events, said the lawyer, Lloyd L. Boyer.

A further article from the NYT examines a recent study which looked at Ambien users who seemed to compulsively eat while asleep.

Although sleep-walking and related behaviours and relatively common, some researchers suspect that the drug may make them more likely, although no clear explanation for why this might happen is available.

Link to ‘Dangers Begin to Surface for Sleep Drugs’ from AADT.
Link to NYT article ‘Some Sleeping Pill Users Range Far Beyond Bed’ (reg free link).
Link to NYT article ‘Study Links Ambien Use to Unconscious Food Forays’ (reg free link).

Why can’t we choose what makes us happy?

This from Hsee, C. K. & Hastie, R. (2006). Decision and experience: Why don’t we choose what makes us happy? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 10(1), 31-37

Another common belief is that more choice options are always better. In reality, having more options can lead to worse experiences. For example, if employees are given a free trip to Paris, they are happy; if they are given a free trip to Hawaii, they are happy. But if they are given a choice between the two trips, they will be less happy, no matter which option they choose. Having the choice highlights the relative deficiencies in each option. People who choose Paris complain that ‘Paris does not have the ocean’, whereas people who choose Hawaii complain that ‘Hawaii does not have great museums’ .

(my emphasis)

The reference is:
Luce, M.K. et al. (2001) The impact of emotional tradeoff difficulty on decision behavior. In Conflict and Tradeoffs in Decision Making (Weber, E.U. and Baron, J., eds), pp. 86–109, Cambridge University Press

Seems opportunity cost isn’t just something that bothers economists!

Amedeo Challenge now open to small donations

bsk_logo.gifAmedeo Challenge, the site aiming to fund the creation of high-quality open-access medical textbooks, is now taking small and private donations.

On the donations page you can give towards a ‘bounty’ for the completion of a textbook on a number of different topics.

Medical professionals and researchers can work towards creating books to claim the bounty. So far, online books on HIV and influenza have already been published and bounties are available for books on tuberculosis and viral hepatitis.

Of interest to readers here might be proposed books on Alzheimer’s disease, neurology and Parkinson’s disease (I’ve just donated 50 euros towards the creation of an open-access textbook on neurology and can’t wait to see it online).

When completed the books will be freely available for online viewing, to print, and will not have restrictions to prevent them from being translated into other languages.

Unfortunately, medical textbooks can be incredibly expensive (50 euros would be a cheap one) which make them inaccessible to many doctors and researchers in economically deprived countries, not to mention impoverished students the world over.

High-quality open-access textbooks would, therefore, be of great advantage to the advancement of medical science and training throughout the world.

Even the smallest donations will be of use.

Spread the word!

Link to Amedeo Challenge.
Link to Amedeo Challenge donations page.

Neuroimaging genetics

gene_imaging.gifThomas Rams√∏y, one of the guys responsible for the Brain Ethics blog, has written a fantastic introduction to the emerging field of ‘imaging genetics’ for Science and Consciousness Review.

Imaging genetics uses neuroimaging (‘brain scanning’) to examine the differences in brain activation between people with different versions of a gene, both to understand the interaction between cognition, behaviour and genetics; and to better understand mental distress and psychiatric illness.

Rams√∏y uses the example of a gene known as ‘5-HTTLPR’, which codes for the serotonin transporter protein – involved in regulating the concentration of serotonin in the synapse (the ‘gap’ where neurons connect and communicate chemically).

People who hold different versions of this gene are known to show different levels of anxiety and respond differently to anxiety or fear provoking tasks.

Rams√∏y notes that the ‘5-HTTLPR’ genotype can determine how the amygdala reacts to fearful and angry faces, suggesting how this differing anxiety response is supported by brain function.

Psychiatry is increasingly using this approach to identify the ‘endophenotypes‘ of disorders, in an attempt to get away from an understanding of mental illness based largely on self-reported symptoms.

The Science and Consciousness Review article is an excellent introduction to this field, and a forthcoming article in Biological Psychiatry gives a more in-depth treatment for those wanting extra detail

Link to ‘How your genes make up your mind’ by Thomas Rams√∏y.
Link to abstract of Biological Psychiatry article (full article not open access unfortunately).

What tangled webs we weave

Carl Zimmer has deleted his post on the controversy surrounding an upcoming TV programme about a Turkish family who walk on ‘all fours’ (see previously on Mind Hacks).

Presumably, he could do without the headache (and who can blame him?).

Nevertheless, there’s a good analysis over at Gene Expression, to which an interesting comment has been added by one of the TV company’s production team, explaining Nicholas Humphrey’s views more accurately.

Humphrey was widely cited (seemingly incorrectly) as the person suggesting that the inherited problem in the family caused an ‘evolutionary regression’. It seems his actual analysis is a lot more measured.

Mind Performance Hacks


While I’ve been away, I’ve been reading Mind Performance Hacks by Ron Hale-Evans. (Full disclosure: There are a couple of Mind Hacks pieces in the book, so O’Reilly sent me a free copy.) What follows are some brief thoughts, so if you already know about the book then skip to the end of the post for the interesting bit.

MPH is O’Reilly’s second foray into the cognitive world, and focuses on strategies in high-level areas like memory, creativity and self-analysis. I especially enjoyed the the maths chapter, which includes topics like how to count to a million on your fingers (I’ve tried dactylonomy before) and how to estimate square roots in your head. The approach does mean that, for some of the hacks, there’s little room for the kind of explanation I usually look for, and I do admit to feeling sceptical when reading about a creativity technique from Edward de Bono or a mnemonic structure for figuring out your own emotional responses. Personally, I find some hacks like these are based on world-views that I find difficult to swallow whole–I don’t know whether independent assessments of the techniques exist, but if they do then I’d like to hear more about them. Happily, since the book is based on the Mentat Wiki (that’s the book’s support page), which is constantly growing, it’s quite likely that this kind of information will appear there in the future.

Our own Vaughan Bell and Tom Stafford have original hacks in MPH too, on sleep and nutrition. I’d forgotten they were making an appearance, for some reason, and it was a pleasant surprise to run across the familiar names and always-informative articles.

For me, the highlights were the ideas I’d run across but not chased down, and these had me reaching for my notebook. There’s discussion and much linking on artificial languages, constrained writing and board games, among much more. From this perspective, the entire book is a creativity machine. I can use it as a series of provocations, and that’s always good to have on the shelf. (And, as a last thought, I half-suspect that the fact the title abbreviates to MPH (for miles-per-hour) is not an accident. Hale-Evans comes across as an author with exactly this kind of intertwingled sense of humour.)

(Update: Ron points out, in the comments, that there are MPH sample hacks online (as PDFs). Do have a read.)

Free books!

As you’ll know, mindhacks.com isn’t an O’Reilly site. It was started to support the Mind Hacks book, that’s true, but since then it’s taken on a life of its own, thanks to our blog authors.

We do, however, have enough of a connection to wangle free copies of Mind Performance Hacks. More than that, we have enough free books to give away 2 copies a week for the next 4 weeks.

So: If you’d like a chance of a free copy of Mind Performance Hacks, send one email to freemph 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.

Next Monday, I’ll delete all the emails received so far and we’ll have another draw. Not bad eh?

Good luck!

(Update: I thought I’d better confirm that you don’t have to be in the UK to enter – anywhere in the world is fine – and I’m the only person who will see your email address (except if you win, obviously. All other emails will be deleted at the end of the draw).)

Start of brain awareness week

baw_logo_2006.jpgToday is the start of Brain Awareness Week with a number of events happening across the globe.

Your local college, university or science museum might be putting on public events about the mind and brain, and encouraging lively debate and participation.

The Brain Awareness Week website also has plenty of resources, including everything from in-depth educational materal to puzzles and quizzes for younger children.

Link to Brain Awareness Week website.

The creative brain and outsider art

ABC Radio National’s All in the Mind has had a couple of related editions over the last couple of weeks that have tackled the psychology and neuroscience of creative thought.

Psychiatrist and one-time english literature professor Nancy Andreasan discusses the neuroscience of creativity and whether genius is related to particular brain states or measurable mental attributes.

The most recent All in the Mind continues the theme, discussing ‘Outsider art‘ – artworks created by those who have had no formal training and often little or no contact with the mainstream art world.

‘Outsider art’ is often associated with people who experience mental illness, particularly psychosis, and the programme features artist Anthony Mannix who has been inspired by his experience of altered states.

One of the most famous historical examples is Adolf Wölfli, a troubled orphan who ended up in a Swiss asylum at an early age, but began creating books of visual art, music and text that he would continue to develop for the rest of his life.

We’ve featured previous posts on outsider art here and here on Mind Hacks.

The Creating Brain
mp3 or realaudio of programme.
Link to transcript.

Outsider Art
mp3 or realaudio of programme.
Link to transcript.

Churchill in a straitjacket

churchill-straitjacket.jpgAs part of an anti-stigma campaign, mental health charity Rethink has unveiled a statue of Winston Churchill in a strait-jacket, to highlight the great war-leader’s struggles with mental illness.

Churchill was subject to severe bouts of clinical depression throughout his life (which he called his “black dog”). Despite these, he managed to lead and inspire millions of people through the difficult years of World War Two.

Demonstrating that there’s still some way to go before stigma is eradicated, the headline in one UK national daily newspaper, the Daily Express, is “Insult to Britain’s Greatest Hero”.

This leads me to ask, what is so insulting about the image? Actually putting someone in a strait-jacket is insulting, but depicting them in one is something quite different.

Although an outdated clich√©, the strait-jacket symbolises mental illness to many people and the statue is just meant to emphasise Churchill’s experience of mental distress

I’ve personally used Churchill as an example of hope to many patients I’ve met in psychiatric hospital and it usually comes as a surprise that he was mentally ill.

Hopefully, the controversy has served its purpose and more people are now aware that great things can come from troubled minds.

Link to ‘Churchill sculpture sparks uproar’ from BBC News.

Post-traumatic growth

accident_blur.jpgTrauma has been traditionally considered as intrinsically pathological. Some psychologists are now arguing that although damaging, the experience of trauma can also inspire some people to change in positive ways.

The concept has been named ‘post-traumatic growth’ and is the subject of significant debate among contemporary researchers and clinicians.

The debate is covered in a recent article for Psychology Today where proponents of both sides of the argument make their case.

The article relates the experience of trauma to activities such as ultra-marathon running where competitors may run hundreds of miles and push themselves to physical and psychological exhaustion in an attempt to achieve new goals.

A slightly more weighty article on the topic appeared in a 2004 article in the Psychiatric Times where psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun aimed to explain how such personal development could occur after extreme experiences.

One thing which is still not clear, is how many people experience ‘post-traumatic growth’ and whether it is more than optimistic thinking after the event, as research into the phenomenon is still relatively thin on the ground.

Link to Psychology Today article “The Hidden Side of Happiness”.
Link to Psychiatric Times article “Posttraumatic Growth: A New Perspective on Psychotraumatology”.