Developing Intelligence on the seven sins of memory

memorysinner.0.jpgThe first part of a series on memory failures has just appeared on the increasingly compulsive cognitive science blog Developing Intelligence.

The site is run by cognitive neuroscientist Chris Chatham who summarises the ‘seven sins of memory’ – Daniel Schacter’s famous description of the seven ways in which memory can become distorted or degraded.

Schacter first described his ideas in a landmark paper and later in an accessible book of the same name.

Chris has a different approach, however, and will be setting out his alternative views over the coming week:

In contrast to Schacter’s “seven sins of memory” (1999), I argue that all types of memory inaccuracy arise from three distinct types of memory system failure: those of maintenance, of search, and of monitoring. Failures of maintenance include problems involving prospective memory (“forgetting to remember”), rapid forgetting, and absent-mindedness. Failures of search include retrieval-induced forgetting, tip-of-the-tongue phenomena, and amnesia. Failures of monitoring include source misattribution, memory biases, and suggestibility. Finally, other memory inaccuracies may actually result from interactions among multiple sources of failure.

In this week’s upcoming posts, I will review each of these categories of memory failure in turn, and describe how they can account for all types of memory inaccuracy when taken together.

Link to post at Developing Intelligence.

Dread pool

cherub_statue.jpgNeurofuture has collected a range of recent posts that have been inspired by recent research on the ‘neurobiological basis of dread’, although a particularly clear description of the study posted to Brain Ethics is, perhaps, a good one that’s missing.

The research was probably best summarised in the mainstream media in an article from Science.

The New York Times had slightly different angle on the story and asked the researchers about how you would go about avoiding feelings of dread.

The first study ever to look at where sensations of dread arise in the brain finds that contrary to what is widely believed, dread does not involve fear and anxiety in the moment of an unpleasant event. Instead, it derives from the attention that people devote beforehand to what they think will be extremely unpleasant.

So the solution to dread, the researchers say, is self-distraction.

Link to abstract of original scientific paper.

National epilepsy week focus on children

epilepsy_action_childdrawing.jpgUK education and support charity Epilepsy Action has launched this year’s National Epilepsy Week, running from 14th-20th May.

The theme of the 2006 event is children and young people and the charity is focusing on encouraging schools to maximise the potential of pupils with epilepsy.

In a recent survey, only 19% of schools felt that staff knowledge of epilepsy was good.

Consequently, Epilepsy Action has produced a raft of information to support parents and teachers in their care of affected pupils, including an online guide: Essential Information for Teachers.

Even if you’re not involved with children or schools you can learn how to help someone who has a seizure. You could save their life.

Link to information on National Epilepsy Week.
Link to Essential Information for Teachers.
Link to first aid for seizures.

Another day in the frontal lobe

KatrinFirlik.jpgKatrina Firlik is a neurosurgeon. She’s one of the few female neurosurgeons in a largely male dominated profession and has written a book about her work and experiences called Another Day in the Frontal Lobe.

She’s recently been featured on numerous radio programmes and newspaper interviews (listed here), the best of which is probably an in-depth discussion about her work on an NPR radio show entitled A Surgeon’s-Eye View of the Brain.

A short excerpt of her book is available online:

The brain is soft. Some of my colleagues compare it to toothpaste, but that’s not quite right. It doesn’t spread like toothpaste. It doesn’t adhere to your fingers the way toothpaste does. Tofu — the soft variety, if you know tofu — may be a more accurate comparison. If you cut out a sizable cube of brain it retains its shape, more or less, although not quite as well as tofu. Damaged or swollen brain, on the other hand, is softer. Under pressure, it will readily express itself out of a hole in the skull made by a high-speed surgical drill. Perhaps the toothpaste analogy is more appropriate under these circumstances.

The issue of brain texture is on my mind all the time. Why? I am a neurosurgeon. The brain is my business. Although I acknowledge that the human brain is a refined, complex, and mysterious system, I often need to regard it as a soft object inhabiting the bony confines of a hard skull. Many of the brains I encounter have been pushed around by tumors, blood clots, infections, or strokes that have swollen out of control. Some have been invaded by bullets, nails, or even maggots. I see brains at their most vulnerable. However, whereas other brain specialists, like neurologists and psychiatrists, examine brain images and pontificate from outside of the cranium, neurosurgeons boast the additional manual relationship with our most complex of organs. We are part scientist, part mechanic.

She’s also an obvious neuroscience geek and has an online gallery of neuroanatomy drawings and a Cafepress store where you can buy t-shirts with them on!

Link to interview and discussion on NPR radio.
Link to Katrina Firlik’s website with book details.


ZackLynch.jpgMore neurologisms abound, as Zack Lynch posts about a recent conference on ‘neuroweapons’.

In a previous post, he mentioned concerns about neurowarfare – the use of weapons that target the human central nervous system.

Presumably this means nerve agents, neurotoxins and the like, rather than simply being bashed on the head with a rock (perhaps, the earliest example of a neuroweapon?).

However, the more recent discussions seem to focus on the use of technology and drugs to enhance the cognitive function of soldiers and other military personnel.

Link to Brain Waves post on neuroweapons.

Neurologism spotting

I just read the recent New Sci article on mind reading with fMRI that Vaughan flagged up recently, and couldn’t help noticing two more neurologisms coined by the writer of the article, Douglas Fox.

Neuronaut: Fox describes getting ready to enter the brain scanner – “As they prepared the experiment this morning, I felt like an astronaut – a neuronaut you might say – getting ready for launch”. So a neuronaut is a virgin neurosi experimental subject.

Neuro-legible: The researchers had managed to read Fox’s brain with 90 per cent accuracy. “As I hang up, I’m strangely glad to know my brain is neuro-legible…”. So neuro-legibility describes how easily your brain can be read by brain scanning technologies.

Link to Vaughan on the New Sci article.
Link 1, 2, and 3 for Mind Hacks posts on the search for neurologisms.

2006-05-12 Spike activity

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


The New York Times examines the factors that contribute to exceptional talents and ‘expert performance‘.

Cognitive Daily analyses research that shows that hypnotism can abolish the Stroop effect.

New Scientist reports that women can pick out which men are child-friendly by looking at their faces. See also pdf of scientific paper. (via BB).

People with autism show different brain activity during resting or ‘day dreaming’ times than others, reports brain-imaging study.

Nobel-prizewinning neuroscientist Eric Kandel is profiled by The Loom’s Carl Zimmer. With audio interview and sample chapter of Kandel’s memoir.

Coventry University starts a two-year postgraduate degree course in parapsychology (via anomalist)

BrainEthics looks at the contribution of genetics to cognition, inspired by a special issue on the topic from the journal Behavior Genetics.

YouTube video of newly developed android woman!

Psychoanalysis at the Institute of Contemporary Arts

polanski_repulsion_image.jpgLondon’s swanky Institute of Contemporary Arts has an ongoing series of “psychoanalytic exploration of films representing various forms of psychopathology and other emotional conditions”.

It’s been happening for a while and seems to be an ongoing project, but had totally passed me by.

Films are shown, and then discussed by members of the Institute of Psychoanalysis to try and better understand the social meaning of the movie and motivations of the characters.

The next film is Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, to be shown Sunday 14th May.

New infant language lab at Liverpool Uni

liverpool infant language lab.JPG

Liverpool University’s new Child Language Study Centre hopes to become the first UK-based lab to replicate and expand upon American findings published in the 90’s that led to the ‘syntactic bootstrapping’ hypothesis – the idea that children as young as two use their innate understanding of syntax to help them learn new words.

With a team of six researchers led by Professor Julian Pine, the Centre is one of the largest of its kind in the UK. And after launching last Summer, the centre is now ready to start experimenting.

“In essence the syntactic bootstrapping hypothesis assumes the child has an innate predisposition to understand the syntactic properties of language. We want to know if this is true or not”, Dr. Javier Aguado-Orea, a researcher in the lab, told Mind Hacks.

In one study, the researchers will present young children with sentences containing an unfamiliar verb (e.g. ‘the boy strokes the girl’). Either side of the speaker playing the pre-recorded sentences will be two video screens showing a boy and girl, with one of them matching the action described in the spoken sentence. In this example, the structure of the sentence reveals the boy as the active player and the researchers want to know if the children can use that information to guide them to look at the correct video screen, thus facilitating their learning of the meaning of the verb ‘to stroke’.

“It can be tricky, for six months we’ve been piloting our stimuli – for example, you have to make sure that the child is looking at the correct screen based on the structure of the sentence, not because one of the characters or objects is more attractive to them”, Aguado-Orea explained.

“But if we are able to replicate this finding it would be quite powerful because it would be an indication of a very early stage in the development of language, and it would illustrate learning mechanisms that there is no other way, in our knowledge, to detect” he said.

The Centre have tested 11 children on this particular experiment so far, but they need at least 12 more. Parents willing to volunteer their child should email childlanguage[@] for further information.

Link to lab.

‘Send in the Idiots’ author interviewed on NPR

KamranNazeer.jpgKamran Nazeer, author of a new book on being a child in a school for kids with autism, called Send in the Idiots, is interviewed on NPR radio.

Nazeer was mentioned earlier this week on Mind Hacks, and there’s some commentary and ongoing discussion about the interview on a post over at Autism Diva’s blog.

Link to NPR interview with Kamran Nazeer.

Trephination set on EBay

trephination_set.jpgSomeone has an EBay auction about to close in which they’re selling a genuine set of surgical tools for trephination – the surgical practice of drilling holes through the skull.

The practice, also known as trepanation or trepanning, has been carried out since ancient times and has been thought to cure all sorts of conditions we would now know as mental or neurological disorders – such as epilepsy or psychosis.

It is thought that it was carried out to release ‘evil spirits’ or similar from the head, by creating a way for them to escape.

The practice hasn’t died out, however. It is occasionally practised by peoples outside the reach of modern medicine, and some people in industrialised countries do it as a form of body modification for its supposed consciousness modifying properties.

In fact, there’s a whole trepanning subculture on the internet.

For example, the Body Modification EZine has an article about someone who undertook a trepanning procedure (warning, if you’re a bit squeamish, the article and images are a bit icky):

I awoke the next morning still very much wanting to move forward with the operation. I thought to myself, “The key to more consciousness is sitting in the next room over. How can I know this and not unlock the door?” I explained my sincere desire to my girlfriend, and though she was still apprehensive, she agreed to try to be there for me if it was really what I wanted to do.

We had coated every wall of a room in plastic sheeting, had a placement tray ready (a sterilized tray to set the instruments on), had the drill sterilized and ready to go, autoclaved bits set out, etc and proceeded to trepan me. One person was to do the drilling and another was to help by passing instruments, turning the drill off and on, by holding a light in the right place at the right time, and by irrigating the wound every so often.

UPDATE: Grabbed from the comments page (thanks Anders!)…

Personally I need trepanation like I need a hole in my head (sorry,couldn’t resist), but there is actually a trepanation advocacy group called ITAG their site is at (Warning: site uses excessive amounts of flash, a possible side effect of trepanation?) which has documents and videos on the procedure and it’s supposed benefits that are both enlightening and a little scary.

Link to auction on EBay (via BoingBoing).
Link to Wikipedia article on trepanation.
Link to BMEZine article on trepanation procedure.

NewSci on human optimisation

newsci_20060513.jpgNew Scientist has had a run of neuroscience-related articles recently, and this week’s cover story is no exception as it looks at developments in the science of human enhancement.

For those seeking that advantage, more opportunities are just around the corner – a lot more. Around 40 cognition-enhancing drugs are in development right now, designed to improve wakefulness, attention, memory, decision making and planning (see “Smarter minds”). Gerontologists are starting to believe we could directly intervene in the process of senescence to significantly increase the average human lifespan.

There have also been rapid advances in brain-machine interfaces, such as retinal implants, communication devices for paralysed and locked-in patients, and even memory prostheses, hinting at the possibility of neural implants that enhance normal functioning. Progress in genetic engineering and gene therapy suggests that we will soon be able to rewrite our own genetic code, and that of future generations, removing broken genes, correcting errors and even inserting new ones…

Unfortunately, not available online unless you’re a subscribed, unfortunately, but your library shop or library should have a copy kicking around.

Link to table of contents.

Experimenting with theatre

match_flame.jpgThe Soho Theatre in London’s West End hosts an event on Monday 15 May where a production will be staged after several days of intense collaboration between scientists and writers, exploring the theme that both science and theatre are essentially driven by experiment.

The event is being run by Tassos Stevens, who did his PhD in developmental psychology before moving on to theatre production.

He’s since been keen to integrate the two fields, and hopes to illustrate and explore a scientific experiement as part of the production.

There’s also a blog with an ongoing discussion about the project for those not able to see the production in person.

Link to details of event at London’s Soho Theatre.
Link to blog with ongoing discussion.

Are you comfortably numb?

This friday the Royal Insitution is asking Are you comfortably numb?, with an event about what we can learn about consciousness from unconsciousness:

Until very recently it was thought that consciousness couldn’t be studied scientifically, but now the drive to find out how your brain can make you self-aware is one of the most significant areas of new research. What’s more, scientists are now making headway with some of the big questions. What is consciousness? How can we hope to study it empirically when it’s all about each person’s subjective experience?

Some clues to these answers may come from studying anaesthesia. When you go under anaesthesia you’re in a strange position with regard to consciousness. It’s a much deeper oblivion than sleep, but we all know stories of people becoming aware during surgery. It even appears that patients under perfectly adequate anaesthesia can still hear, and in one experiment, patients were able to learn while under!

The event features Prof Mike Alkire & Prof Peter Sebel and is Chaired by Baroness Susan Greenfield. Date & Time: Friday 12 May 2006, 7.00pm–8.30pm, and tickets are £8/£5 for members and concessions.

If you’d like an even more in-depth look at the topic, you can join the preceding day-long Consciousness and Anaesthesia meeting at the Royal Society of Medicine.

Solaris and the philosophy of consciousness

Stanislaw_Lem.jpgStanislaw Lem was a reknowned science fiction writer. It is less known that his books are repleat with carefully thought out philosophy about the nature of consciousness and knowledge acquisition.

ABC Radio National’s The Philosopher’s Zone recently had a special examining Lem’s view on consciousness as demonstrated in his richly descriptive sci-fi works.

The novel Solaris has as a central plot, something not unfamiliar to readers of science fiction, and is replicated in many novels, and that is the notion of first contact with a completely alien intelligence. We have a central protagonist, Chris Kelvin, who goes to a space station that is orbiting a planet, Solaris, and has been orbiting this planet for hundreds of years. So by the time the novel begins the planet has been well known and it’s been the subject of scientific inquiry for over 100 years, and hundreds of volumes have been written about this planet, because it has a peculiar being inhabiting it, which is the ocean that covers most of the planet seems to be sentient, seems to be a rational being, but something completely different from anything else that human beings have encountered.

As the novel progresses, we realise that the inhabitants of the space station have all gone crazy or have died because of their continued proximity with this alien being. And our hero of course, Kelvin, and listeners who have seen either the Tarkowski film or the more recent film, will know that one of the peculiarities of this plasmatic ocean, as Lem calls it, is that it produces replica human beings, that it seems to have sourced from the deepest submerged memories of the scientists on board the space station.

mp3 or realaudio of programme.
Link to transcript.

Lightning is always seen, thunder always heard


An old suggestion that crossing the visual and auditory pathways to the brain would lead to light being experienced as sound, and vice versa, has been tested and found to be false.

Nicholas Swindale, in Current Biology, 2000

Okay, so this isn’t new news, but it was new to me and too good a story not to share.

If, from birth, the information from the eyes is routed to the auditory cortex then the brain learns to see like normal – at least in ferrets, with whom they’ve done these experiments. The cortex has the potential to cope with whatever information it is provided with during development. So, it seems, the regional specialisations of the brain aren’t genetically predetermined. But a question remains: if your auditory cortex is processing visual stimuli, how are they actually experienced? The brain might be processing the information well enough to guide behaviour, but how do the stimuli actually feel? Are they experienced as visions or as sounds? Or, as Swindale puts it:

are the types of sensory processing that ultimately give rise to qualia innately determined properties of different cortical areas, or are they the secondary outcome of a general purpose learning algorithm applied to sensory inputs which have a different information content?

And, crucially, is there any way of working this out in a ferret? Is there a way of telling what a ferret’s experience is really like? Well, there is, and it involves rewiring just half of the brain – so that visual inputs to one side go to the ‘auditory cortex’ and visual inputs from the other go to the visual cortex as normal. Now if you train the animal to go left to visual inputs on the intact side and right to sounds, which way will it go to a visual input presented to the rewired side? If it experiences the visual input as most like a sound it will go right, but if it experiences it as most like a light it will go left. The animals go left – so visual stimuli are experienced as visual whereever in the brain they are initially processed.

Swindale’s review
The original research von Melchner L, Pallas SL, Sur M: Visual behaviour mediated by retinal projections directed to the auditory pathway. Nature 2000, 404:871-876.