Torn by lightning

I’ve never understood
what it is I’m not supposed to feel
like a bird on the wing in a swollen sky
my mind is torn by lightning
as it flies from the thunder behind

From the play 4.48 Psychosis by Sarah Kane.

Kane suffered from intense periods of depression throughout her life. 4.48 Psychosis was published after her suicide and was probably meant to be published posthumously.

It relates her experiences of depression, psychosis and hospitalisation. Kane is considered one of the most important British playwrights of the late 20th century.

US Supreme Court reviews insanity defence

CNN_Clark_image.jpgPBS has streaming video and a careful analysis of the case of Eric Michael Clark, who at 17 and while mentally ill, shot and killed a police officer in Arizona. His case is currently the basis for a Supreme Court review of the insanity defence in US law.

Clark had reportedly been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and was psychotic at the time of the offence, and was under the delusion that his town was being controlled by aliens.

Before the Supreme Court, Clark’s lawyers argued that the insanity defence is so difficult to prove in his home state of Arizona as to make it unjust.

The criteria for the insanity defence varies wildly among US states, with some not allowing the plea, some following the M’Naghten rules and others having a more strict version.

The M’Naghten rules state that for a person to be sane (and therefore responsible), they must be aware that such an act is wrong, and that they were aware of the “nature and quality of the act” at the time.

If it can be established that mental illness had impaired either of these two conditions, the person can be declared legally insane.

However, Arizona only has the first of these conditions as the test for insanity. So even if a person is not aware of the nature of the act they are committing – if they have an abstract understanding that this act would be wrong – they can be held legally responsible for the act.

In Clark’s case, his lawyers are arguing that although he knew killing a police officer was wrong, he believed the person to be an alien, and so was not able to apply his understanding to the situation owing to his mental impairment.

If the Supreme Court agree that Arizona’s criteria for the insanity defence is unjust, other states might have to implement the M’Naghten rules.

If they rule that Arizona’s criteria are adequate, other states may adopt this more strict criteria and reject the M’Naghten rules.

Link to video and analysis from PBS.
Link to coverage from The Washington Post.
Link to editorial on the case from the The Washington Post.
Link to coverage from CNN.

Phantom paralysis

prospect mag.gifThis month’s brilliant Out of Mind column in Prospect magazine, written by psychiatrist Robert Drummond and Alexanader Linklater, deputy editor of the mag, is about a cambonian woman with phantom paralysis.

The woman’s husband died recently following a massive stroke. They’d been married 42 years. An earlier stroke had left him with a weak arm and leg. Now his widow is complaining of similar symptoms – a completely limp arm, and a weak leg, but crucially, scans have revealed no physical explanation for her paralysis.

“The young psychiatrist asks if Kim Sieng feels depressed. She says she doesn’t. He asks if she wants to talk more about her husband. Again she doesn’t. Suddenly, he is conscious of a poignancy that Kim Sieng does not herself express. He can’t resist the impression that she has somehow embodied her grief, telling him about it with her body”.

The article describes how the psychiatrist was finding himself in the murky world of ‘hysterical paralysis’, part of Charcot’s 19-th century notion of a dynamic neural lesion.

human traces.jpgHere’s how, at a public lecture at the Salpetriere, Charcot describes hysterical paralysis in a male patient, taken from Sebastian Faulks’ outstanding novel Human Traces:

“This is an example of what an English colleague, Mr. Reynolds, referred to as ‘paralysis by idea’ – not imagined paralysis, for this man is as physically afflicted as any of my multiple sclerosis patients – no, paralysis by idea. An experience has been held out of conscious thought in such a way that it has been able to exert its influence directly upon the nervous system and thus upon the muscles of the patient. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the peculiar interest of this condition”.

Link to this month’s Out of Mind column (which unfortunately isn’t free this time).
Link to last month’s column (free access) on different perspectives of alcoholism.
Link to earlier Mind Hacks post on A Beautiful Madness, highlighting an earlier Prospect article by Drummond and Linklater.

Who’s the greatest?

The Royal Institution are running an event on Thursday 27th April in London entitled Who’s the greatest? Minds that changed our minds where the greatest contributors to modern psychology and psychiatry will be debated.

The four luminaries being championed include inventor of psychoanlaysis Sigmund Freud, philosopher and psychiatrist Karl Jaspers, psychologist and intelligence researcher Hans Eysenck, and inventor of cognitive behavioural therapy Aaron T. Beck.

The debate will be hosted by King’s College London. Tickets cost ¬£8, with a discount for RI members and students. See you there!

Link to details of Who’s the greatest? event.

2006-04-21 Spike activity

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


People who experience ‘near-death experiences’ are also more likely to experience ‘REM intrusion’ – the mometary presence of sleep or dream-like states during wakefulness (see also here).

A study reports that racial diversity within a group of jurors improves deliberation and group decision making.

The New York Times looks at the psychology of bias, promotion and drug company influence.

Artificial intellgience robot football competition won by students from Plymouth University.

Mind grenade t-shirt!

Areas of the prefrontal cortex related to the self are silenced during intense sensory processing according to brain-scanning study.

Cognitive Daily examines an intriguing study of the effect of Barbie dolls on the body image of young girls.

Electronic media causing ADHD?

susan_greenfield.jpgNeuroscientist Baroness Greenfield was featured on Radio 4’s Today Programme this morning [realaudio] arguing that children are being medicated for ADHD when the problem might be caused by the over-use of ‘electronic media’ leading to short attention spans.

One of the difficulties with this argument is that an attention problem in children with ADHD has yet to be reliably pinned down.

Current theories tend to emphasise more general processes like behavioural inhibition, inhibitory control and executive dysfunction.

Some researchers are so unimpressed that they argue that ADHD is just a vague label for the outcome in any number of different behavioural and emotional problems.

Therefore, even if ‘electronic media’ did lead to short attention spans, this probably has little to do with ADHD as it is diagnosed in the clinic.

Nevertheless, it is doubtful whether the constant use of ‘electronic media’ does lead to a short attention span. In fact, it probably has the reverse effect.

A study published in Nature in 2003 reported that people who play video games have better visual attention than people who do not.

A 2005 study reported that children diagnosed with ADHD perform no worse than other children on standard computer games, and on a neuropsychological test of attention designed to be more ‘game-like’ to keep children’s interest.

At a recent conference preliminary data was presented from a study that suggested ADHD could be helped by getting affected children to play Dance Dance Revolution!

Perhaps the point about ‘electronic media’ has clouded a more important ethical issue that Baroness Greenfield addresses – the widespread medication of children with amphetamines or amphetamine-like drugs to treat behavioural problems.

A hundred years ago ADHD-like behaviour was undoubtedly dealt with by corporal punishment. This raises the question of whether medicalising and medicating this behaviour is just a more expedient, or a genuinely more humane approach to dealing with problematic children.

UPDATE: There’s a short piece in The Guardian about the topic and the subsequent political debate.

realaudio of interview with Baroness Greenfield.

Lingerie sharpens the financial mind

brown_bikini_girl.jpgAccording to recent news reports, the sight of lingerie or a sexy woman significantly impairs male decision making. Unfortunately, the details have got a little blurred in the re-telling from the original research paper – to the point where most reports flatly contradict the study’s conclusions.

The study involved a well-researched financial task known as the ultimatum game where one participant is given a sum of money (10 euros in this study) and has to decide how to split it with another. If the other participant accepts the split, both get to keep the money. If they don’t, no one gets anything.

Researchers Bram van den Bergh and Seigfried Dewitte asked heterosexual male participants to play the game in pairs.

Before they started the game, they were variously shown pictures of sexy women in bikinis, landscapes, older women, younger women, or given t-shirts or lingerie to handle.

When participants saw gratuitous pictures of bikini-clad girls (like the one on the right), lingerie and the like, they were more likely to accept unfair splits than in the other conditions.

Although the average difference in the lowest accepted offers between ‘sexy’ and ‘unsexy’ conditions was pretty small (only 0.39 euros), the researchers could be statistically confident that the difference was reliable.

One frequently repeated claim in the news stories is that men with higher levels of testosterone were particularly likely to be affected in this way.

This was never actually measured in the study, however. What was measured was the difference in length between the second and fourth finger (digit ratio) which is thought by some to indicate the amount of testosterone the person was exposed to as a developing child in the womb.

This is one subtlety that many news reports left out, as firstly, it’s controversial as to whether digit ratio does relate to testosterone exposure in the womb, and secondly, it’s not clear how this relates to current levels of testosterone at all. In fact, immediate levels of testosterone can fluctuate wildly.

Probably, the study is best thought of as an interesting but preliminary finding, as there are many questions that could be asked about the study design and experience of the participants that might have affected the results.

Petra Boynton has a good analysis of some of these, including why the story has proved so popular with the media.

The best write-up of the study’s details I’ve found is from Nature, who do the study justice and point out that the results actually contradict the idea that sexy images makes men less rational. In the study, they actually made men more rational.

If you’re being offered money in the ultimatum game, for each offer, the single most rational thing to do is accept money every time, no matter how low the offer is, because if you don’t, you get nothing. You’re given the choice between something and nothing – a no brainer.

In reality, people don’t do this, a sense of fair play stops most people accepting paltry offers. Actually, this probably makes sense in everyday life (who wouldn’t want to enforce fairness in society) but in terms of the experiment, it can be self-defeating.

The fact that men who saw sexy images were more likely to accept lower offers rather than reject them and get nothing at all, suggest that their short-term rationality was actually enhanced.

Perhaps it is no co-incidence that the bikini celebrated its 60th birthday this week. I shall be monitoring the economy carefully for any signs of change.

Link to write-up of study from Nature.
Link to analysis from Petra Boyton.
Link to abstract of original research paper.

Shake it baby!

DukeNukem3dScan.jpgBBC News are reporting that Belgian researchers are using a modified version of Duke Nukem 3D in brain imaging studies – unaware that Duke Nukem has been used in brain-scanning experiments since 1998.

The image on the left is from a 1998 paper published in Science by Dr Eleanor Maguire and colleagues. The paper is available as this pdf.

The Maguire study mapped out areas of the brain involved in navigating through space and spatial memory by editing the standard Duke Nukem game to include controlled tasks.

The brain activation can be seen in the hippocampus and caudate nucleus. The location is the LA Meltdown level. Come get some!

A recent study published in PLoS Biology by the same Belgian neuroscientists mentioned by the BBC extended this research by looking at delayed brain activity associated with learning various tasks. This included a spatial navigation task which also used a modified version of the Duke Nukem environment.

After participants had learnt one task, they were asked to wait before completing another. The learning from the first task induced long-term changes in brain activation which could be detected when participants were doing the second unrelated task.

This suggests that learning is an ongoing and evolving brain process, even when you’ve moved on to other things.

Duke Nukem has now featured in a whole raft of brain scanning experiments, often only described as being a ‘virtual environment’.

Link to badly spun BBC News story.
pdf of Maguire and colleagues 1998 paper.
Link to summary of delayed learning paper.
Link to full text of delayed learning paper.

Mind and brain on Research TV

research tv.gif

I’ve just discovered ‘Research TV’ which features loads of free videos, or ‘vodcasts’, including several on psychology and neuroscience:

Link to Scanning brainwaves to read the mind, about combining MEG and fMRI brain imaging techniques.
Link to Hemianopia: looking into the dark.
Link to A happy marriage helps beat flu.
Link to Fit to fight depression.
Link to Brain Scans show ADHD differences.
Link to Not exactly brain surgery, about a virtual reality simulator for surgeons.
Link to Older and Wiser?: Tackling problems of the ageing brain.
Link to Magnetic milestones in children’s brain tumour treatment.
Link to Job satisfaction depends on happiness.

There are probably others that I’ve missed too. I just watched the first one on ‘Scanning brainwaves’ and it includes some excellent shots of what a MEG scanner looks like with somebody in it (I’ve seen a fMRI scanner loads of times but not a MEG one), and in another clip you can also hear just how noisy an fMRI scanner is.

Warwick University are apparently behind Research TV, with Birmingham uni, Nottingham uni, King’s College and Durham University as partners.

Link 1 and link 2 for previous Mind Hacks posts about online neurosci videos.

Sleep-retardant properties of my ex-girlfriend

nullhypothesis_2v7cover.jpgThe cover feature in this month’s Null Hypothesis is an empirical investigation into one researcher’s experiences of having a sleep-retardant girlfriend.

The paper is available as a pdf and was written by human computer interaction researcher Ryan Baker in an attempt to fathom why he was sleeping so poorly.

Baker selected the possible causes and put the data into a regression model to determine the effect each had on his sleep duration. The model showed the strongest effect when he slept with his girlfriend, so he presented her with the data.

I concluded by explaining that, due to her sleep-retardant properties, I could not continue to sleep with her, an act she termed “breaking up”. I should mention that Hermina suggested that my data, being from an observational study rather than an experimental study, only shows correlations rather than causation, and that it was quite possible that I had only chosen to sleep at her apartment on nights when I was less tired, or that I had actually chosen to get less sleep on nights when I had come to her apartment.

She proposed that, instead of taking hasty action, we conduct an experimental study where we flip a coin each night to determine whether I would sleep at her apartment or my own, in order to prove a causative effect. Obviously, I rejected this suggestion. Although this study is insufficient to conclusively prove Hermina’s causative role, this strong a correlation, and the importance of getting enough sleep, are sufficient together to suggest that action needs to be taken expeditiously.

Null Hypothesis is an anarchic and consistently funny UK science magazine that often contains gems like this, as well as curious news from the world of science.

pdf of Baker’s paper.
Link to Null Hypothesis website.

Stephen Fry and neuropsychiatric genetics

StephenFry.jpgActor, writer and film director Stephen Fry recently visited the neuropsychiatric genetics unit at Cardiff University – which is not a combination I’d ever thought I’d be writing about.

Fry has bipolar disorder, sometimes called manic depression, which can cause manic highs or deep disabling depressions.

His visit was apparently part of a BBC documentary on bipolar to be shown later this year, and the unit is one of the leading research centres for the genetics of psychopathology.

Link to write-up from Cardiff University.

When does the brain develop maths?

wooden_1-2-3.jpgAn innovative study just published in the open-access science journal PLoS Biology provides intriguing evidence that the brain dedicates a region to understanding maths by as early as four years-old.

The researchers, led by neuroscientist Jessica Cantlon, used fMRI to brain-scan adults and four year-old children while they watched collections of shapes flash up in front of them.

In most conditions, the number of shapes and the type of the shapes stayed the same, so participants mostly saw pictures of 16 circles.

On rare occasions, the circles were replaced by squares or triangles, or alternatively, the number of shapes doubled to 32. This last condition was crucial, because it represented a change in the number of shapes presented on screen.

Most other things that could have caused a brain response were controlled for, so a change of brain activation here should indicate a neural response linked to detecting a change in number.

In this condition, both adults and four-year olds showed activation in an area called the intraparietal sulcus, part of the parietal lobe.

This area is known to be particularly involved in sophisticated number processing in adults using Arabic numerals (what we would normally think of as ‘maths’), which suggests that this ability may be based on a very early mechanism for dealing with counting and numbers.

Interestingly, children showed this activation largely on the right hand side of the brain, whereas adults showed similar activation on both sides.

Cantlon and her team suggest that this is because basic number ability becomes more complex as we learn to do symbolic mathematical operations during and after school, which the pre-school children in the study were unable to do.

Link to summary of study.
Link to full text of scientific paper.

Goths and mental health

Photo by Christine ApplebyThere’s an informed and critical review of the recent coverage about goths, self-harm and success, over at the Anxiety, Addiction and Depression Treatments blog.

One recent study from Glasgow suggested that although goth kids have a higher rates of self-harm, it is more likely that self-harmers are drawn to the goth subculture than vice-versa, as the majority reported that they began harming themselves before becoming goth.

This was reported quite unpredictably in the media, with the goth subculture either being represented as the cause or remedy of these problems.

Another recent study reported that goths are more likely to go into professional jobs and be financially secure later in life, suggesting a good outcome for the majority.

The Anxiety, Addiction and Depression Treatments blog examines the disparity between the recent reporting of these findings and the representation of goth in the mainstream media.

Link to ‘The Rewards of Being Goth’ on AADT blog.

Kitsch movie posters from the planet brain

brain_eaters_poster.jpgI’ve just discovered that the search term ‘brain movie poster’ brings up a collection of neuroscience-themed B-movie posters on popular image search engines.

It’s interesting that the majority are from the 50s and 60s, the same time that both mass-produced psychiatric drugs and neuroscience research became widespread.

Maybe this spawned popular concern about the potential ‘brave new world’ about to occur – a worry seized upon by film makers wanting to make a quick buck in the B-movie business. Maybe recent ‘brain movies’ just have dull posters.

Either way, how could you not like a movie called Creature with the Atom Brain where an ex-Nazi mad scientist uses radio-controlled atomic-powered zombies in his quest to help an exiled American gangster return to power?

Link to ‘brain movie poster’ search on Google Images.
Link to ‘brain movie poster’ search on Yahoo! image search.

Australian AITM on the psychology of terrorism

black_white_gunman.jpgRadio National’s excellent All the the Mind focuses on the psychology of terrorism, cutting through some of the common myths about the personalities and motivations of those who commit terrorist acts.

Contrary to the political rhetoric, there is little evidence for terrorists being mentally unbalanced, although many have suffered previous trauma in their lives.

The programme features Dr Anne Speckhard and Dr Jerrold Post both of whom research the psychology of terrorism by working with victims and the perpetrators.

There’s also more information in a previous Mind Hacks post that includes links to further articles and research on the topic.

mp3 and realaudio of programme.
Link to programme transcript.
Link to previous Mind Hacks post on psychology of terrorism.