Psychedelic researcher Alexander Shulgin at 81

shulgin_tree.jpgThe Sunday Herald sent a reporter out to meet legendary chemist and psychedelic researcher Alexander Shulgin to discuss life, love and phenethylamines.

Shulgin has been the world’s foremost researcher of psychedelic compounds for many decades and has written about his research in several engaging books, including the notorious Phenethylamines I Have Known And Loved.

The Sunday Herald finds him still with a huge enthusiasm for his work and eager to continue exploring.

“Primarily, it is about the conversion of a structure,” he tells me. “It’s a fun process and it’s tremendously fascinating.” He is more animated when speaking about the details of how he managed to alter a drug to change its effect than when asked about the effect those changes had when he tested the new compound on himself. In fact, for a man who has had so many psychedelic experiences, his stories of his ‘trips’ are disappointingly dull, while listening to him talk about experiments and chemical structures and hearing complex chemical names trip excitedly off his tongue is thoroughly entertaining.

“Chemistry is a music form to me,” Shulgin says and, for the past 70 years, he has been composing at a rate Beethoven would have been proud of.

Link to Sunday Herald article.
Link to Wikipedia entry on Shulgin.

John Searle on the question of consciousness

Searle_2004.jpgJohn Searle, one of the most important and controversial philosophers of mind, is featured on this week’s ABC Radio The Philosopher’s Zone discussing the question of consciousness.

Searle has been active since the 1960s and has made some of the most influential contributions to cognitive science, including the famous Chinese room thought experiment that addresses the question of whether information processing would be sufficient to account for intelligent thought.

Understandably, this has been used in arguments about the possibilities of artificial intelligence and machine consciousness.

Searle has long argued that machines cannot be conscious, and that conscious states can only be supported by biological systems.

In the programme, Searle talks about his own approach to solving the problem of consciousness, the importance of understanding neurobiology, and the dangers of getting in bed with Descartes.

mp3 or realaudio of programme.
Link to transcript.

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).