Autism podcast

autism_podcast.jpgWe seem to be on a run of autism news lately, and here’s one more to add to the list. I’ve just discovered that has regular podcasts about autism science, parenting and people.

The most recent programme has an interview with Autism Diva who has been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome herself, has both a child with autism and a neurotypical child to keep her busy. She talks about her own experience of Asperger’s and her view on the current state of understanding the condition.

Autism Diva also runs a popular autism blog which we featured previously on Mind Hacks, that keeps tabs on the science and politics of the autism world.

The host of Autism Podcast is a father of a boy with autism, and obviously has a wide interest, as the archive of past programmes demonstrates.

Link to Autism Podcast.

Autism in the London Review of Books

ian_hacking.jpgLondon Review of Books has an in-depth review of two recently released books on autism: Laura Schreibman’s The Science and Fiction of Autism and Kamran Nazeer’s Send in the Idiots.

The author of the review, philosopher Ian Hacking (picture on the right), starts with some controversial views on autism.

Autism is devastating ‚Äì to the family. Children can be born with all manner of problems. Some begin life in great pain that can never be relieved, but at least there is a child there. An autistic child ‚Äì and here I am talking about what’s known as core autism ‚Äì is somehow not there. ‘Nobody Nowhere’, as the title of Donna Williams’s autobiography (1992) has it. Very often physically healthy (though there is a high incidence of other problems) he ‚Äì and it is usually he ‚Äì just does not respond. It is not merely that he does not learn to speak until years after his peers, and then inadequately. He has no affect; he never snuggles. He is obsessed with things and order, but does not play with toys in any recognisable way, and certainly does not play with other children. He mercilessly repeats a few things you say. With no comprehension. He has violent tantrums, not the usual sort of thing, but screaming, hitting, biting, smashing. This alternates with a placid gentleness, maybe even a smile ‚Äì but not really for you. Serious Down‚Äôs syndrome is pretty bad too, but despite all the difficulties, physical and mental, there is a loving little child there.

He admits that his views will make many parents angry. Indeed, they represent one of the most emotive debates in the field and centre around the question of whether autism is a disabling disease, or simply another way of experiencing the world.

Those who would argue against Hacking (often autistic people themselves) suggest that the self-absorption and social disinterest often shown by those with autism is considered a disease because of parent’s own dissatisfaction with their child’s unusual behaviour, rather than out of any genuine concern for the person themselves.

In it’s most polarised form, autistic people are being labelled as diseased while parents are accused of being selfish. It is not difficult to see why tempers flare.

The debate is complicated by the wide spectrum of behaviours labelled as autistic. A person diagnosed with autism may be someone who can’t look after themselves and needs constant assistance, or a slightly awkward yet top-of-their-field professional.

Indeed, Kamran Nazeer himself was diagnosed with autism as a child, and recounts his experiences and follows up his classmates in his book Send in the Idiots. One law degree and PhD later, he’s a policy adviser for the government.

The author of the other book, Professor Laura Schreibman, is a psychologist who works with people throughout the autism spectrum, from the most impaired to the most able.

Hacking obviously has a good knowledge of the science of autism, and does the reader the courtesy of making his own position clear early on, was well as making some insightful points about the books in question.

Link to review in London Review of Books (thanks tallapul!).

Art and the New Biology of the Mind video online

statue_smile.jpgBrainEthics has just posted up a couple of news items of interest to those keeping track of developments in neuroaesthetics – the neuroscience of art and creativity.

The first is that video from the recent conference on Art and the New Biology of the Mind is now online. Speakers include David Freedberg, Eric R. Kandel, Antonio Damasio, Ray Dolan, Vittorio Gallese, Joseph LeDoux, Margaret Livingstone, V.S. Ramachandran and Semir Zeki.

The speakers variously discuss ’emotion and consciousness’ and ‘vision and aesthetics’.

Secondly, Martin Skov writes about the launch of the new Institute for the Study of the Brain and Creativity at the University of Southern California. It will be led by Professors Antonio and Hanna Damasio.

Link to video archive from Art and the New Biology of the Mind conference.
Link to info on Institute for the Study of the Brain and Creativity.
Link to Washington Post on neuroaesthetics.

Time Magazine on the autistic mind

Time_magazine_autism.jpgTime Magazine has a cover story entitled “Inside the Autistic Mind” from its upcoming May 15th edition. It is available online (after viewing an ad) and discusses the recent developments in the psychology and neuroscience of autism.

“In the meantime, 300,000 school-age American children and many adults are attempting to get through daily life with autism. The world has tended to hear from those who are highest functioning, like Temple Grandin, the author and Colorado State University professor of livestock behavior known for designing humane slaughterhouses. But the voices of those more severely affected are beginning to be heard as well. Such was the case with Sue Rubin, 27, a college student from Whittier, Calif., who has no functional speech and matches most people’s stereotyped image of a retarded person; yet she was able to write the narration for the Oscar-nominated documentary about her life, Autism Is a World.”

The article contains material that some people will baulk at (e.g. the suggestion that cases of autism are vastly increasing) and is quite medical in its approach, although does contain some interesting accounts of ongoing research projects.

Link to Time article ‘Inside the Autistic Mind’.

Dana neuroscience radio

dana_monitor.jpgWhile browsing the ever-vigilant (and mildly addictive) Neurofuture blog I was alerted to the fact that the Dana Foundation have an archive of podcasts online, including their Gray Matters radio series and other in-depth neuroscience discussions.

They include a conversation with Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel, Nancy Andreasen on the creative brain and a number of other wide-ranging programmes on everything from neuroethics to mental illness.

Also available is a page with all the programmes as realaudio files.

Link to Dana Foundation podcasts directory.
Link to Dana Foundation realaudio archive.

Online communities in the 1800s

joinson_internet.jpgAdam Joinson discusses the process of community building via technology in his book Understanding the Psychology of Internet Behaviour (p11, ISBN 0333984684), noting that there is nothing new under the sun:

The cost and lack of privacy tended to inhibit personal communication between members of the general public using the telegraph. However, for the telegraph operators the network provided an ‘online community encompassing thousands of people, very few of whom met face-to-face’ (Standage, 1999, p122-3). The sense of community among telegraph operators was heightended by their own norms and customs, vocabulary, the use of short (usually two or three letters) signatures or ‘sigs’ and the sense of ownership of a particular line. According to Standage, experienced operators could even recognise their on-line friends simply from their style of morse code.

pdf of Joinson’s chapter on the history of tech-mediated communities.
Link to Adam Joinson’s homepage.
Link to Tom Standage’s homepage.

Freud birthday roundup

Sigmund_Freud.jpgToday is the 150th birthday of the late Sigmund Freud, controversial granddaddy of psychoanalysis who sparked off the modern interest in the unconscious and the use of ‘talk therapies’ in treating mental distress.

The Times has a critical article examining his legacy and finishing with a tongue-in-cheek quiz to test your knowledge of the great man and his theories.

Alternatively, The Calcutta Telegraph has a piece on Freud’s last surviving patient, Margarethe Walter, who spoke at an event to celebrate the anniversary.

The National Ledger starts an article by looking at the amount of kitsch freud merchandise available, and goes on to examine the relationship between Sigmund Freud, and his daughter Anna Freud, in a remarkably well-informed article that muses on the possible impact of this on Freudian theories.

And now’s probably a good time to revisit the five-part BBC Radio 4 series Freudian Slips – a series of 15 minute programmes each dedicated to one of Freud’s key works. The series is archived online.

BBC All in the Mind on the impact of combat

kwame_mckenzie.jpgBBC All in the Mind has a special on the psychological impact of combat and military psychiatry.

New presenter and psychiatrist Dr Kwame McKenzie investigates the mental health provisions of the armed forces, and the new developments introduced to support the emotional well-being of soldiers operating under intensely stressful conditions.

Dr Kwame McKenzie takes a look at the mental health of the military. With nearly one in 5 US soldiers returning from Iraq with psychological problems there’s growing concern about the mental health of soldiers. Dr McKenzie attends a NATO conference in Brussels looking at psychological support, and talks to Major General Patrick Cammaert, a former Dutch Marine, who now leads 15,000 UN peace keepers in DR Congo. Lieutenant-Colonel Carl Castro and Dr Brenda Wiederhold explain how the US is using predeployment briefings and Virtual Reality to help soliders cope, and Professor Simon Wessely talks about the situation in Britain.

The Army is using the psychological model of Transformational Leadership to reform its training regime, and All in the Mind visits the Infant Training Centre at Catterick to see if it’s making any difference to new recruits.

And Dr McKenzie talks to two veterans being treated by Combat Stress about their psychological breakdowns following active service.

Presumably, they mean Infantary Training Centre rather than Infant Training Centre!

Link to All in the Mind webpage.
realaudio of programme.

Ripples of yawn

bw_yawn.jpgSeed Magazine has a short but thought-provoking article on the yawn and the mysterious way they are ‘transmitted’ around a social group.

Scientists maintain that yawning has both social and physiological functions, and may even be useful clinically: Abnormal yawning can be symptomatic of pathology, such as tumors, hemorrhage or drug withdrawal. Researchers know that a system of several neurotransmitters and neuropeptides control yawning, but little is known about the exact mechanism underlying the action.

Until recently, it was thought that only humans and great apes were able to “catch” yawns. While humans yawn in the womb, they don’t fall prey to contagious yawning until about two years of age, which suggests a recent evolutionary origin.

The article also tackles the myth that yawns are brought on by lack of oxygen.

Link to ‘The Incredible, Communicable Yawn’ from Seed Magazine.

2006-05-05 Spike activity

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


Mixing Memory examines evidence that craving a cigarette warps your sense of time.

Researchers have located a gene that they believe contributes towards overall mental performance.

New discoveries might lead to a ‘vaccine‘ for a certain type of brain tumour.

Popular Science looks at the use of beta-blocker drug propranolol in reducing the impact of traumatic memories.

Who’s afraid of the third culture? asks Gloria Origgi in boffin clubhouse Edge.

Bring on the replicants! Scientific American on android science.

Boys are being increasingly affected by body image pressure.

Do People Know When They’re Overweight? Science News examines the psychology of obesity and insight.

Drug companies accused of producing misleading adverts and advertsing watchdog accused of being inadequate.

Cognitive science video interviews on Slate

dennet_slate.jpgSlate has a collection of streamed video interviews with significant public figures online, including a couple of cognitive scientists.

A comprehensive interview with Daniel Dennett tackles his views on the supernatural, evolution, consciousness and free will.

Stephen Pinker is also interviewed and discuses evolutionary psychology, consciousness and the limits of science, although from quite a different angle.

Apparently, the interview with Francis Fukuyama also strays onto consciousness, although I haven’t listened far enough to discover for myself yet.

For a change, the interviews are in-depth and gives the speakers a chance to develop their ideas and really make their points.

Link to video interview with Daniel Dennett [transcript].
Link to video interview with Stephen Pinker [transcript].
Link to video interview with Francis Fukyama [transcript].

…via 3QuarksDaily.

NewSci on reading the mind by measuring the brain

ns_20060506.jpgThe cover story on today’s New Scientist is about recent efforts to determine what people are thinking by viewing their brain scans.

Although you may think this is what neuroscientists already do, in most brain-scanning experiments the researchers will know exactly what the participants are experiencing in the scanner, and they just link the measured brain activity to the known task.

Recently, researchers have been able to work out what the participants are viewing by only looking at their brain scans.

Although these experiments are quite simple so far – the researchers typically know that the participant is viewing one of several simple options and just have to work out which – the idea that mental states can be ‘read’ is causing some excitement. Not least because this has been the subject of many science-fiction novels and films.

The accuracy of these experiments is typically much better than chance, although it is far from perfect and so far has largely relied on very simple tasks (viewing lines and the like):

In published results, Tong and Kamitani were able to predict correctly 56 per cent of the time which of eight orientations of lines people were seeing, compared with 12.5 per cent for chance. When subjects were shown a grid of criss-crossing lines, the researchers predicted correctly 80 per cent of the time which lines were being attended to (Nature Neuroscience, vol 8, p679, pdf).

Unsurprisingly, this has sparked some neuroethical concerns. For example, the technology might advance to the stage where it could be used to narrow down what people were thinking regardless of whether they consented (e.g. in interrogations).

The article isn’t freely available online, but your local library or newsagent should have a copy.

Link to New Scientist table of contents.
pdf of Kamitani and Tong paper on ‘decoding the subjective contents of the brain’.

Opposite Emotional Expressions

The Facial Action Coding System is a system for describing facial expression. It is based on 46 defined ‘Action Units’, which are each the contraction of a facial muscle or group of muscles.

So, the six basic emotional expressions can be expressed in terms of combinations of action units. Disgust is Action Unit 7 + Action Unit 9, for example.

Described in terms of the Action Unit space, each emotion must have an inverse (when all involved action units are inactive, and all action units not involved in the expression of that emotion are active).

Question: What do the Action-Unit Space inverses of the fundamental emotional expressions look like? Are they recognisable in any way as the opposite of the expression in emotional space? Does the action-unit inverse of sadness look like happiness, for example? What is the muscle-opposite of surprise, is it similar to the feeling-opposite (boredom presumably)?

An influential psychologist

time mag.jpgPsychologist Richard Davidson (pictured below) of the W.M. Keck lab for Functional Brain Imaging and Behaviour at the University of Wisconsin has been named one of the world’s Top 100 most influential people by Time magazine. He’s most famous for researching the neural correlates of meditation and for collaborating with the Dalai Lama:


“East and West not only meet in Richard Davidson’s laboratory; they are also starting to exchange a great deal of useful information about human experience and human potential”.Read more

Freakonomist Steven Levitt also features in the list, with a brief eulogy by Malcolm Gladwell.

Hey Mind Hacks readersWhich psychologists or neuroscientists do you think should have made the list, and why? Comments are open.

Link to Richard Davidson’s website.
Link to article in Time magazine.

Serotonin charm

dopamine_earrings.jpgDr Raven Hanna is a biochemist-turned-artist who makes fantastic jewelry and clothing in the shape of neurotranmitters at Made with Molecules.

If you ever wanted a necklace adorned with dopamine and acetylcholine molecules, or just a simple serotonin charm around your neck, you could do far worse than check out Hanna’s online collection.

There’s also earrrings, keychains, cards and even clothes for kids appropriately adorned with oxytocin.

A witty and stylish way to display your love for all things brain-related.

Link to Made with Molecules (thanks Mel!).

What got you going where

biomapping.JPGBy combining a hand-held global positioning system with a galvanic skin response sensor (that measures the sweatiness of your fingers), London-based artist Christian Nold has created a gadget that measures your arousal as you walk around. Superimposing the data onto your route, using something like Google Earth, allows you to see a kind of ’emotion map‘ for where you’ve been.

Nold has tested the device on over 300 people so far (his data is publicly available), and is looking for academic and commercial research partners to explore the project’s potential.

Link to Bio-mapping website.
Link to Bio-mapping documentary download.