Uncovering hidden biases

man_at_laptop.jpgScience News has got an excellent article on one of psychology’s most recent developments – the Implicit Association Test – a computerised task that claims to measure hidden or unadmitted biases.

The test involves reacting to (usually) words as they appear on-screen by classifying them into categories. The categories are altered to draw out differences in reaction time, which supposedly relate to the difficulty of associating certain concepts with each other.

The idea is that the measure of reaction time makes it particularly difficult to fake, and the association should be detectable even if it is usually over-ridden by the conscious mind.

The IAT has been used for everything from detecting hidden racial prejudices to examining violent associations in psychopaths.

It is still controversial, however, because it is not clear exactly what is being measured, other than some general concept of an ‘association’.

Whether this is predictive of explicit beliefs or attitudes, or future action and risk (such as violence – particularly importantly in forensic psychology) is still an open question.

If you want to try the test yourself, there’s an online version at Project Implicit.

Link to ‘The Bias Finders’ from Science News.
Link to Project Implicit.

SfN Brain Briefings online

SfN_logo.jpgThe Society for Neuroscience publishes monthly Brain Briefings that explain how basic neuroscience discoveries lead to clinical applications.

The newsletters cover recent advances in neuroscience research and are intended for a lay audience so are jargon free and easily digestible.

The webpage versions (rather than the pdf files) are referenced so you can also follow up any of the briefings by getting deep into the science if you get inspired.

Link to SfN Brain Briefings.
Link to Society for Neuroscience.

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.