The Science of Happiness

Gilbert_cherries.jpgPsychologist Daniel Gilbert writes about the psychology of happiness and pleasure in a new article for Edge.

He argues that science should be striving to understand happiness, both to capture this sublime aspect of human existence, and to enable us to increase happiness as we go about our daily lives.

For the last decade I’ve been obsessed with one problem: How well can the human brain predict the sources of its own future satisfaction? If the answer were “Very well, thank you,” then I’d be out of a job. Research suggests that I will be employed for a long time to come.

We are often quite poor at predicting what will make us happy in the future for two reasons. First, we have been given a lot of disinformation about happiness by two sources: Genes and culture. Both genes and cultures are self-perpetuating entities that need us to do things for them so that they can survive. Because we are interested in our own happiness and not theirs, both entities fool us into believing that’s what is good for them is also good for us. We believe that having children will make us happy, that consuming goods and services will make us happy. But the data show that money has minor and rapidly diminishing effects on happiness, and that parents are generally happier watching TV or doing housework than interacting with their children.

This is at a time when the Kingdom of Bhutan has included the goal of ‘national well-being’ as a part of its constitution, and UK politicians are promoting the science of happiness as the basis of future policy.

Edge also hosts a 2004 video of Gilbert discussing the mental economics of happiness and ‘affective forecasting’ – the ability of people to predict what will make them happy in the future.

Link to the ‘Science of Happiness’ from Edge.
Link to BBC News article ‘Politics of Happiness’.
Link to Daniel Gilbert’s lab homepage (with articles).

Developing Intelligence finishes ‘seven sins’ series

faded_family_photos.jpgCognitive scientist and owner of the Developing Intelligence blog Chris Chatham has finished his series on memory distortions, arguing that common forms of memory failure can be explained within a concise model of maintenance, search, and monitoring.

The ‘seven sins’ are a reference to a more complex model put forward by psychologist Dan Schacter, in a well-known book on the subject.

Chatham explains each in turn, and gives details of how he feels they can all be explained by more fundamental functions of the mind.

* The Seven Sins of Memory
* The Transience of Memory
* Lost keys: Memory Search Failures
* Lost in the Network: Failures of Memory Architecture
* Memory’s Gates: Failures of Monitoring
* Origins of Memory Distortion

The series has been an engaging look at some of the most important theories in contemporary memory research, as well as highlighting a few curious gems, such as the scientific basis for Freudian-style repressed memories.

Even if you don’t entirely agree with Chatham’s take on the psychology of memory, there’s plenty of food for thought in what has been a lucid series on a mysterious human ability.

Is Morgellons a marketing campaign?

cold_fear_scan.jpgThe comments page of the earlier article on the psychology of Morgellons mention that there are rumours that the whole thing is a viral marketing campaign for the upcoming Philip K. Dick movie A Scanner Darkly – it’s a theory that PKD would have been pround of, but almost certainly untrue.

It wouldn’t be the first time that the idea of a new form of parasite has been used for a marketing campaign, though.

The computer game Cold Fear was marketed by a seemingly genuine website that claimed that a new form of brain parasite had been discovered (with a cleverly doctored brain scan, reproduced on the right). The real purpose of the information was only revealed some weeks later.

If the same is true of Morgellons, however, the marketeers have managed to smuggle an article into a scientific journal and persuade at least one academic scientist to throw away his career for the sake of a quick buck.

Randy Wymore, a genuine professor of Pharmacology and Physiology at Oklahoma State University, has made several public statements about his ongoing research into the condition. If it were found that he was fuelling interest into a fake disease purely for marketing purposes, he would be booted out of his profession faster than you could say ‘free popcorn’.

Secondly, if it is a viral marketing campaign, it’s not a very good one. The claimed symptoms of Morgellons are quite different from the Scanner Darkly scene where where Charles Freck and Jerry Fabin believe themselves to be infested with ‘aphids’ and are attempting to capture them in glass jars.

Nevertheless, delusional parasitosis is a link. Morgellons is claimed to be a manifestation of this psychotic syndrome, and the fictional scene is a fine description of how the clinical condition can present.

If you were going to create a covert marketing campaign though, you’d probably want a closer match, unless you only wanted to advertise to those with an interest in obscure psychopathology.

One of the best suggestions is that the rumours themselves are a marketing campaign, capitalising on the recent media interest.

Truly, this is a rumour worthy of PKD himself, a true connoisseur of conspiracy theories and mass media scepticism. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether we are living in Philip K. Dick’s reality, or if he is living in ours.

Neurochemistry of street drugs – animated!

amphetamine_pill.jpgOmni Brain managed to find a wonderful Dutch website where the neurochemistry of common street drugs is illustrated as step-by-step animations.

If you ever wondered exactly how ecstasy, cannabis, speed, cocaine, heroine, alcohol or nicotine have their effect in the brain, now’s your chance to find out.

The animations give the detailed effects of the drugs on the neurotransmitter systems with an explanation of each of the main effects of the compounds.

Link to Drugs and the Brain animation site (via Omni Brain).

World’s radio on mental health

globe_white_bg.jpgThis week’s BBC Radio 4 world radio roundup show A World in Your Ear featured highlights from recent broadcasts on mental health from around the globe.

In an excerpt from Sudan Radio counsellor Moses Mayuen Akuein discusses his work with trauma victims caught up in Darfur conflict, while Real Jamaican Radio discusses maintaining good mental health on a phone-in programme.

The show features numerous other highlights, including the incredibly moving story of Howard Dully (featured previously on Mind Hacks), who was lobotomised at the age of 12 and attempts to make sense of his experiences as an adult.

Link to A World in Your Ear webpage.
realaudio of programme.

The curious case of Morgellons disease

morgellons_article_image.jpgMorgellons is claimed to be a new form of skin disease by its sufferers but has been largely ignored by the medical community and some have claimed it is, in reality, a psychotic syndrome akin to delusional parasitosis.

Outraged by the accusation that their symptoms may be a result of mental illness, proponents are producing fibrous outgrowths from their troubling skin lesions as evidence of its reality.

Although previously just a fringe concern, in the last few weeks Morgellons has gained a huge amount of publicity, with TV reports, magazine articles, newspaper stories and posts on some of the internet’s most popular sites.

Nevertheless, Morgellons challenges more than just the ability of the medical community to make sense of physical symptoms, and is a classic example of a syndrome on the borderlands of medicine.

Continue reading “The curious case of Morgellons disease”

Reactive Colours launches

reactive_colours_logo.jpgInnovative autism community software project Reactive Colours had its official launch the other day, and is now sporting a new website and numerous ‘reactivities’ to download and play online.

The project is designed to encourage individuals with autistic spectrum differences and learning disabilities to use computers, through which they can develop mouse, keyboard, programming and screen skills and deliberately emphasise the characteristics of computing that are of potential significance to people on the autism spectrum.

The project is based on open-source principles and intended to be more than just a free download. Interested people are encouraged to contribute their own programming skills to the project.

The input of people with autism and Asperger syndrome is particularly encouraged, as they are likely to have the best insight into what sort of activities will engage those on the autism spectrum.

Mind Hacks covered Reactive Colours last year where we interviewed project leader Wendy Keay-Bright about the development of the idea.

Link to Reactive Colours website and community.
Link to Reactive Colours project description.

Disclaimer: I am an open licensing advisor to the project.

Open-access science moves forward

PLoS_logo_blue.jpgA couple of encouraging pieces of news for those following the progress of open-access science journals: The open access medical journal PLoS Clinical Trials has just launched, and recent research shows that science published in open journals is more widely cited and distributed.

PLoS Clinical Trials aims to publish studies into the effectiveness of treatments, regardless of whether they show an effect or not (to avoid the publication bias whereby trials showing ‘no effect’ are dismissed as uninteresting).

The journal also demands that trials are registered before they are submitted for publication, to avoid organisations hiding the results of trials which don’t support the effectiveness of their treatment.

Furthermore, PLoS Clinical Trials does not rely on advertising from drug companies or other vested interests, meaning they are less likely to be influenced by any outside commercial pressure.

In particular, these biases have been seen as a major problem for the effective evaluation of psychiatric drugs in particular, leading to the reform of procedures for publishing and registering drug company funded studies by some journals.

The article on the advantage of publishing on open-access journals is appropriately published in PLoS Biology, and shows that the advantage even holds over journals that make their articles freely available after a delay of 6 months.

Link to PLoS Clinical Trials.
Link to editorial ‘Open Access Increases Citation Rate’ from PLoS Biology
Link to research article from PLoS Biology.

2006-05-19 Spike activity

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


As much sci-fi brain art as you can shake a stick at (via BrainWaves)

…and one amazing picture of neuronanoart (via Neurofuture).

Professor Alan Harvey discusses neural transplantation on ABC Radio’s In Conversation.

The New York Times on the neuroscience of chronic pain.

BBC Five Live broadcasts an investigation into illicit drugs on UK psychiatric wards (called ‘Drugs on the Brain’).

1 in 20 neothlithic skulls show evidence of early neuroweapon injuries.

This week’s New Scientist has a letter on the treatment of ADHD and the ethics of conformity.

PLoS Biology has a paper on how a relatively simple computational model can produce a realistic simulation of the brain’s visual system.

Cognitive Daily’s Dave Munger writes on how the psychology of uncertainty can effect the economics of conservation.

Chocolate is cold comfort

chocolate_chunks.jpgA review of scientific studies has found that chocolate, long used as an emotional pick-me-up, more often prolongs a bad mood rather than helps it.

In an article currently in press for the Journal of Affective Disorders, psychiatrist Gordon Parker and his team gathered evidence from decades of studies into the mood-altering effects of the cocoa-based confectionary.

Sadly, for those hoping for a high-street mood lift, they conclude that any positive effects are limited to the anticipation and sensory properties of the popular foodstuff. Carbohydrate-heavy sweets are likely to prolong any feelings of low mood.

Link to abstract of study ‘Mood state effects of chocolate’.
pdf of full-text article.

Frontiers of time perception

mans_watch.jpgBBC Radio 4 science programme Frontiers examines the psychology and neuroscience of time perception and considers how the sense of time can be warped when we’re put under stress.

In one part, the programme talks to psychologist David Eagleman who’s been running experiments with people doing ‘SCAD diving‘ – an activity where you jump free-fall off a 50 metre crane into a waiting net below.

He asks participants to try and judge time during the jump to see whether the stress of the situation genuinely affects people’s time perception – in an attempt to understand if things really go ‘in slow motion’ during emergency situations.

When a person’s life is in danger, a phenomenon known as ‘time-dilation’ can occur. This is when, during a car crash for example, time seems to slow down or become frozen.

In these cases the body’s internal clock speeds up when facing a potential catastrophe, so that it can take in more information more quickly and function more effectively in an emergency.

This is also a phenomenon actively sought by elite sportspeople, when they get ‘in the zone’.

Some of the chemicals in the brain, such as dopamine, can affect our perception of time. Deficiencies in these chemicals can lead to brain disorders.

In today’s technological age, the body’s natural clocks are being hijacked by timetables, schedules and diaries. By paying more attention to our watches, rather than our internal clocks, could we be losing touch with time as it should be perceived?

Link to Frontiers special on time perception.
realaudio of programme.

Philosophy of Mind on Wikipedia

clear_light_bulb.jpgThe Wikipedia article on the Philosophy of Mind is featured on the online encyclopaedia’s front page today, demonstrating how the philosophy articles have greatly improved during the last year.

The article gives a clear and comprehensive overview of this key field and is beautifully illustrated throughout.

Philosophy has a bit of an image problem among scientists. Some dismiss it as self-indulgent, but nowhere could it be farther from the truth than in cognitive science.

Philosophers now make up essential team members in many neuropsychology research groups, valued for their critical insight and knowledge of how certain types of difficult conceptual problems can be overcome.

I’m most familiar with the work of Professor Martin Davies who works with the Macquarie Centre for Cognitive Science and usefully makes all his work available online.

This is a good place to start if you want an introduction to how philosophy can contribute to the understanding of brain-injury, mental illness and the neuropsychological function of the health individual.

If you want a general introduction to the field, the Wikipedia article is your first port of call.

Link to Wikipedia article on Philosophy of Mind.
Link to Martin Davies’ publications.

Case Notes epilepsy special and Wada musings

carotid_Gray_image.jpgJust in case you’re still looking for ways to mark National Epilepsy week, a recent edition of Case Notes had a special on epilepsy, outlining the science and impact of this curious condition.

In one particularly interesting section, they discuss research on using neuroimaging to replace the Wada test – the procedure where the barbiturate drug sodium amobarbital is injected into the carotid artery to temporarily disable one hemisphere of the brain.

This is used in people about to undergo neurosurgery to remove a brain area that may be causing uncontrollable and dangerous epileptic seizures.

It is particularly important to know which hemisphere of the brain is most involved in language, so the surgeons know where to tread carefully to make sure the patient’s language ability isn’t damaged.

Obviously, injecting strong sedative drugs directly into major brain arteries has its risks; both to the patient (there is a small risk of stroke), and the clinicians – such as the occasional patient going bezerk on the drugs.

This has led researchers to try and replace the Wada test with something less invasive and somewhat safer, namely scanning the brain with fMRI (e.g. see this pdf).

The technology is still being developed, however, as the results of the Wada test and an fMRI scan don’t always match, although new developments are improving the accuracy of these brain scan techniques as time goes on.

Link to webpage on Case Notes special on epilepsy.
realaudio of programme.
Link to information on the Wada test from

Five minutes with neurosurgeon Katrina Firlik

BrainMattersCover.jpgNeurosurgeon and author Dr Katrina Firlik has kindly agreed to answer a few questions about her interest in brain surgery and neuroscience.

She also tells me that her new book (featured previously on Mind Hacks) has been released in the UK under the name Brain Matters (ISBN 0297848070).

Apparently, she will be in the UK to talk about her work in the near future, so we’ll post details as soon as we know them.

Anyway, on to the interview…

Continue reading “Five minutes with neurosurgeon Katrina Firlik”