Thalbourne on the psychology of the paranormal

blue_night_sky.jpgABC Radio National’s In Conversation had a recent discussion about paranormal belief and experience with psychologist Dr Michael Thalbourne.

Thalbourne has conducted a huge amount of experimental research on psychological correlates of belief in the paranormal and what sort of mechanisms might predispose someone to have supernatural experiences.

Although his research and views are occasionally unorthodox, he has had a significant impact on this area of research.

mp3 or realaudio of programme.
Link to programme transcript.

2006-04-14 Spike activity

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


Study finds more white matter in auditory cortex of people who have a gift for languages.

Male and female brains are differently active, even during rest, reports brain imaging study.

Recent experiment suggests successful community cooperation may rely on a way of punishing noncooperators.

Women have extremely high rates of dissatisfaction with their body image says widely reported but dodgy survey from a magazine.

Clumsy BBC headline of the week – Weak brain links ‘explain autism’ – that actually obscures genuinely interesting research.

Good article in the Boston Globe about research on brain-computer interfaces.

SPET study shows NMDA receptors in left hippocampus of people with schizophrenia may be less efficient.

Futurelab discuss the latest trend in marketing with a neuroscience spin: brain fitness.

Salon feature on “Our crazy mental health system“.

BPS Research Digest reports that people with anxiety disorders suffer less accidents when under 25, but show a higher mortality after.

The Telegraph examines the metaphor of possession in understanding addiction.

As a group, Goths are more likely to self-harm, although probably due to self-harmers being attracted to the group for emotional and peer support reports New Scientist.

Little girl lost

Insight into self-harming from Lovisa Pahlson-Moller, a 22-year-old who said she first self-harmed when she was just six years old. She hasn’t cut herself for two years thanks partly to the relief that’s come from writing a book about her feelings. Interview and book extract.

Also there’s an extended interview here with Chris Holley, the nurse behind a controversial project at St George’s Hospital, Stafford that allows patients to continue harming themselves under supervised conditions. BBC News coverage here.

NewSci head electricity and ‘myth’ of mood drugs

newsci_20060415.jpgToday’s New Scientist has two articles of interest to mind and brain enthusiasts: a critical analysis of mood stablising drugs, and an account of a new brain intervention that involves passing a small electrical current through the head.

The article on mood stabilisers is largely an edited version of an article by psychiatrist David Healy published in a special issue of PLoS Medicine (mentioned previously on Mind Hacks).

The other feature article is on a technique called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), something I’ve not heard of before but which seems to have some serious research supporting its use.

It sounds like quackery, but it’s not. A growing body of evidence suggests that passing a small electric current through your head can have a profound effect on the way your brain works. Called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), the technique has already been shown to boost verbal and motor skills and to improve learning and memory in healthy people – making fully-functioning brains work even better. It is also showing promise as a therapy to cure migraine and speed recovery after a stroke, and may extract more from the withering brains of people with dementia. Some researchers think the technique will eventually yield a commercial device that healthy people could use to boost their brain function at the flick of a switch.

Unfortunately, the article isn’t available freely online, but you should be able to get the issue from your local newsagent or library.

Link to table of contents for this week’s issue.

Mixing Memory on the ‘hostile media effect’

coffee_newspaper.jpgCognitive science blog Mixing Memory highlights the hostile media effect whereby people assume a report of an event is biased towards an opposing view if it appears in the mass media.

This is despite the fact that when the same report is presented in another format (as an essay, for example) it is assumed to be neutral, or even supportive of the reader’s view.

The effect is particularly apparent when the report concerns some sort of conflict and the viewer is already aligned to one side. Interestingly, it doesn’t matter which side, the bias will be attributed to the opposition regardless. When neutral people view the report, bias is rarely reported.

Serious psychological study of perceived media bias began in the mid-1980s with studies by Vallone, Ross, and Lepper, and by Perloff. In both studies, pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian participants were presented with television news coverage of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and subsequent fighting. The pro-Israeli participants believed that the coverage was biased in favor of the Palestinians, and that it would make neutral observers feel less favorable towards their side, while the pro-Palestinians were convinced the coverage was biased in favor of the Israeli side, and that it would hurt their image in the eyes of neutral observers. This is despite the fact that when neutral observers did view the coverage, in Perloff’s study, they failed to perceive any bias, and their opinions of the two sides stayed the same.

As always, there’s more careful analysis and detailed references to the supporting research in the full post on Mixing Memory.

Link to ‘Hostile Media Effects’ on Mixing Memory.

Forced medication for execution

US Judge Wayne Salvant has ordered that Steven Kenneth Staley, a death-row inmate who is so severely mentally ill as to be unable to comprehend his situation, can be forcibly medicated so he can be executed while mentally competent.

A stay of execution was previously granted as he was judged not to understand his situation due to impaired mental functioning.

Staley is not the first prisoner to find himself in this situation. In 2004, Charles Singleton was forcibly medicated and subsequently executed in Arkansas.

His case was considered by an appeals court that decided by 6 votes to 5 that forcible medication for execution was acceptable.

In 1986, the US Supreme Court stated that the execution of the insane was barred by the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, although the definition of insanity is left to individual states.

In 2002, the state of Texas executed Monty Delk. His last words were recorded in the state’s execution report:

At his execution, Delk screamed profanities and gibberish. When the warden asked if he had a final statement, Delk shouted. “I am the warden! Get your warden off this gurney and shut up!” At 7:47 p.m., the warden signaled for the lethal injection to begin. After spouting more profanity, Delk blurted out, “You are not in America. This is the island of Barbados. People will see you doing this.” Then, abruptly, he stopped speaking, and his mouth and eyes froze wide open. He was pronounced dead at 7:53 p.m.

Link to article on Staley judgement from The Star-Telegram.
Link to article on Singleton execution from CNN.

SciAmMind on AI and alcoholism

SciAmMindApr2006Cover.jpgThe publishing of Scientific American Mind seems to have settled down into a bimonthly cycle with a new issue on the shelves and two of the articles freely available online.

The first tackles how successfully computer simulations of the mind represent genuine human thought and to what extent they will have to rely on simulating other human abilities and attributes – like perception and distributed neural networks.

The second online article looks at the neurobiology of alcohol and what this tells us about alcoholism and booze-related brain impairment.

Other articles, only available in the paid-for version, include a piece by Nobel prize winner Eric Kandel on future challenges for neuroscientists, and a feature article on one of neuropsychology’s current hot-topics: mirror neurons.

Link to AI article ‘Electric thoughts?’.
Link to neurobiology of alcohol article ‘Staying sober’.

A Sense of Scale

a sense of scale.jpg

Psychiatric nurse and mixed media artist Ben Guiver’s experimental radio broadcast is available to download today.

The show – a kind of remix of texts by Francois Roustang, Will Self, Hakim Bey, Adam Phillips and Jean Baudrillard – complements his exhibition of photographs and paintings at London’s Foundry called “A sense of Scale”, and will also be broadcast on Resonance FM at 7pm (BST).

Guiver, who runs an art group for people with mental health problems, told The Guardian: “The texts I’ve selected for my radio show deal with different types of social matrixes. It is about the privatisation of culture in the west and the cycle of intimidation”.

Link to A Sense of Scale exhibition info and radio downloads.

Disease mongering for fun and profit

disease_moungering.jpgOpen-access journal PLoS Medicine has a special on disease mongering – the practice of promoting medical conditions in an effort to boost drug sales.

Drugs are, of course, incredibly useful in treating suffering and disease, but their reality doesn’t always match the marketing of either the compound or the diagnosis.

For example, the definition of many psychiatric conditions is often based on fuzzy criteria on what constitutes a mental disorder and what constitutes normal human suffering or impairment.

The official acceptance of a diagnosis can involve intensely political decisions because if a group of experiences are defined as a mental disorder, the government or insurance companies can be called on to provide care for the affected people.

If a drug company can get their medication licensed as an ‘approved’ part of the care package, they can obviously make a huge amount of money.

This has led to drug companies funding pressure groups both to get a condition recognised with an ‘official’ diagnosis or to raise awareness of certain diagnoses (which has the effect of increasing the rates of diagnoses, and, of course, prescriptions).

This is not to deny that people may genuinely be suffering, but whether that suffering is best treated by a particular drug is another matter.

Here is where science is supposed to settle the matter, except for the fact that drug companies have been known to suppress drug trials that find no effect, and ghost-write scientific papers to which respected scientists add their names (and prestige).

Individual doctors are persuaded to prescribe certain drugs by free gifts, meals, air tickets to visit conferences, and large-scale sponsorship of academic meetings.

It’s all very murky and quite insidious. The PLoS Medicine collection has articles that point out some of the marketing practices that support this process.

Of particular interest to readers here might be the articles on female sexual dysfunction, bipolar disorder and ADHD, although the whole issue is quite thought-provoking.

The issue coincides with a conference currently being held on the same topic in Australia.

Link to PLoS Medicine collection on disease mongering (thanks Petra!)
Link to conference website.
Link to 2002 British Medical Journal special on disease mongering.
Link to coverage from BBC News.

The freakonomic take on bird flu

Freakonomics.jpgSteven Levitt, the economist, and Stephen Dubner, the journalist – authors of Freakonomics – appeared on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme yesterday.

The pair are (in)famous for their alternative explanations of historical phenomena, based on their application of economic tools of analysis to social patterns. For example, they’ve argued that the 50 per cent fall in crime in the USA in the last 15 years was caused by the legalisation of abortion in the 1970’s. Unwanted children are known to be at increased risk of becoming criminals, and so the reduction in the number of unwanted kids has meant less crime (so the logic goes).

In this interview they suggest that, so long as it doesn’t spread to humans, the threat of bird flu here in the UK may paradoxically lead to health benefits as a result of millions of anxious people washing their hands more often.

Gladwell on late-bloomers and prodigies in art

Gladwell_pic.jpgMalcolm Gladwell recently gave a lecture on ‘prodigies and late bloomers in art’ which has been audio archived on The New Yorker website.

The lecture is an engaging tour through the lives of some famous late-starting artists and musings on what contributed to their latent talent, including painter Paul Cézanne and legendary rock-and-roll band Fleetwood Mac!

Be warned, however, the site is very fond of annoying pop-up windows.

Link to Gladwell audio lecture.

Impulsive acts

kid_jump.jpgThe New York Times has an article which examines the sometimes contradictory psychology of impulsivity.

Doing new things is often among lists which promise us ‘ways to happiness’ in magazines and books, and yet problems with impulse control have been cited as a major factor in everything from ADHD to drug and gambling addiction.

One problem for researchers is this type of impulsiveness is not present in every facet of life and can be quite difficult to pin-down experimentally.

One reason true impulsivity has been difficult to capture in the lab, said Dr. Martha Farrah, director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania, is precisely because “it is most manifest in these very high-stakes situations, when people are trying to get what they want, to stay focused, maybe trying to kick a drug habit.” And that is when they break down.

Link to ‘Living on Impulse’.

SciAm online special on The Child’s Mind

SciAmChild'sMindCover.jpgApparently Scientific American have been doing ‘online only’ specials for a while, but they completely passed me by until they just released one on the The Child’s Mind.

It’s a collection of various articles that have been published in SciAm over the past few years on developmental psychology and neuroscience.

The issue is not freely available, it costs $5 to download, but this seems good value for those (like me) not wanting to pay for a full online subscription for issues they might never read.

I quite like the idea of a minimum payment for a one-stop collection of previously published special interest articles and I’m hoping other publishers will consider doing the same.

The special has articles with both clinical and ‘pure research’ angles, including “Why Children Talk to Themselves”, “Scars That Won’t Heal: The Neurobiology of Child Abuse”, “Uncommon Talents: Gifted Children, Prodigies and Savants” and “Think Better: Learning to Focus”.

Link to info on The Child’s Mind online special.

Fragmented minds part II online

Part II of the Australian All in the Mind two-part series on schizophrenia is now online. The second part focuses on the current range of treatments for people diagnosed with the condition.

This includes both pharmacological and psychological approaches, and the programme discusses the current state of research and the advantages and disadvantages of various therapies.

The programme also explains how many current therapies are attempting to directly address difficulties which have been uncovered by cognitive science research.

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

Gladwell on Tilly on the sociology of explanations

CharlesTillyWhy.jpgMalcolm Gladwell writes an insightful review of “Why?” (ISBN 069112521X) by renowned sociologist Charles Tilly that tackles the social context and motivations for providing explanations.

A recent article in The Guardian also discussed the new book and summarised Tilly’s five ‘types’ of explanation:

There are, Tilly suggests, at least five different ways to explain why things happen. To take Katrina as the example: the first explanation might be “convention” (there’s always a monumental cock-up after a hurricane); the second, “technical explication” (in which the meteorologists precisely chart how weather conditions created the chaos); third, “codes” (in this case, the federal, state and city ordinances that prevented any clear line of responsibility emerging); fourth, “ritualistic” explanations (God’s wrath or nemesis); and “fifth”, stories.

In Gladwell’s New Yorker review, he highlights the fact that these types of explanations have different social purposes and are typically used to achieve certain persuasive ends in a debate.

Proponents of abortion often rely on a convention (choice) and a technical account (concerning the viability of a fetus in the first trimester). Opponents of abortion turn the fate of each individual fetus into a story: a life created and then abruptly terminated. Is it any surprise that the issue has proved to be so intractable? If you believe that stories are the most appropriate form of reason-giving, then those who use conventions and technical accounts will seem morally indifferent—regardless of whether you agree with them. And, if you believe that a problem is best adjudicated through conventions or technical accounts, it is hard not to look upon storytellers as sensationalistic and intellectually unserious.

Gladwell (who was recently profiled in Psychological Science) makes links between Tilly’s work and the work of the late sociologist Erving Goffman who similarly examined seemingly straighforward social interactions.

In his classic book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life Goffman argued that how we present ourselves to others is often like a stage appearance, which we try to manage as much as possible to control the impressions that others draw from our ‘performance’.

UPDATE: The first chapter of “Why?” is freely available from Princeton University Press in html or pdf format.

Link to Gladwell’s review of “Why?” in The New Yorker.
Link to Guardian article on Tilly’s “Why?”.

Week 4, book draw winners

Sunday night means entry to this week’s Mind Performance Hacks book draw is now closed. A drumroll, please, while I pick this week’s winners (as before, with an added sort to make the uniq command work properly)… and our two winners are John Doppke and Jose Antonio Ortega. Congratulations! I’ll be in touch to get your addresses soon. Everyone: That’s our last book draw–thanks for playing!