Measuring depravity

bw_frustrated.jpgDepravity is a concept often used in criminal trials when making decisions on the seriousness or gravity of a particular crime. The depravity scale is a project to develop a measure of depravity, and is asking members of the public to help develop it.

It is the brainchild of forensic psychiatrist Dr Michael Welner who wants the concept of depravity to be more rigorous and psychometrically sound, so it can be measured reliably.

The depravity scale website asks members of the public to rank specific scenarios for how depraved they are, to get an estimation of how people understand and use the concept of depravity.

The scale has not been without controversy, however, with some professionals questioning whether psychiatry should become involved in making moral decisions.

Forensic psychiatry is particularly interesting in this regard, as it attempts to distinguish ‘bad’ from ‘mad’.

This project is also interesting in light of the history of psychiatry and madness. The idea that mental illness is the result of the breakdown of the mechanisms of mind and brain is a relatively new idea, and traditionally mental illness was seen as a moral failing.

Psychiatry (or mad-doctoring as it was known then) brought madness into the medical realm, where previously it was the domain of the church. Just like today, there were accusations that doctors were interfering in moral issues.

Link to The Depravity Scale website.
Link to story on the project from Psychiatric News.
Link to NY Daily News story on the scale.

Syd Barrett has left the building

syd_barrett_bw.jpgBBC News are reporting that Syd Barrett, the troubled genius and founding member of Pink Floyd, has passed away.

Barrett was rumoured to have had mental health difficulties, and his later solo albums are repleat with commentaries on the experience of mental turmoil.

He is commonly cited as one of the most influential musicians of his generation.

Shine on you crazy diamond.

after-effect illusions

There’s an illusion popular on right now here. Have a look – it’s a motion after-effect illusion. These are discussed in the book (Hack #25). The basic story is the same for all after-effects – continuous exposure to something causes a shift in sensitivity. For continuous motion this means that the visual system shifts its baseline so that, subsequently, stillness looks like movement in the opposite direction to the adapted-to direction. The nice thing about this demo is that is shows that you can have separate motion after-effects in different parts of your visual field. My top tip is to look at your hand at the end of the video for an extra-weirdness effect.

Also today someone asked me how the moving green dot illusion works. Answer: again, i think, it is an after-effect. The purple dots create a colour after-effect, a green dot. All the separate after-effects are joined together by the phi-phenomenon (Hack #27) to give an illusion of one single, moving, green dot.

To understand why we get after-effects, check out Hack #26 (‘Get Adjusted’). Which makes this post the biggest plug for the book I’ve done in a long while!

Time magazine on prosopagnosia

time_prosopagnosia_image.jpgThe curious condition of prosopagnosia (something referred to – somewhat incorrectly – as ‘face blindness’) is featured in a short article in Time.

Prosopagnosia is a term used to refer to quite a broad range of neuropsychological difficulties that impair people from recognising others by their face, despite the fact that they may recognise them by other features (such as by voice, or even by a distinctive tatoo) and have little trouble with recognising non-face objects.

The article focuses on recent findings that prosopagnosia can result from inheriting genetic traits, rather than only from brain injury, as was previously thought.

For years, prosopagnosia was associated with damage to the fusiform gyrus and was considered quite rare owing to the fact that this brain structure is quite protected from most sorts of head injury.

The inherited version of the recognition disorder seems much more common, although, perhaps, is less severe is many cases.

The Time article reports on the experiences of some people with the disorder, and some of the recent research on the inherited condition.

We previously featured an interview with Dr Thomas Grueter, one of the researchers mentioned in the article. Interestingly, he has prosopagnosia himself.

Link to Time article ‘Do I Know You?’.

The theft of humanity

red_handprint.jpgAn article in American Scientist bemoans the division of research into schools and traditions in modern universities as counter productive, and argues that the cognitive and biological sciences are now at the forefront of combining science and art practice.

I would probably argue philosophy has always had a similarly broad outlook, but the author argues that science is where the new action is.

…but while humanistic scholars have been presuming core facts about human nature, human capacities and human being, scientists have been getting to work. One of the most striking features of contemporary intellectual life is the fact that questions formerly reserved for the humanities are today being approached by scientists in various disciplines such as cognitive science, cognitive neuroscience, robotics, artificial life, behavioral genetics and evolutionary biology.

Link to article ‘Science and the Theft of Humanity’ (via 3Quarks).

Brain-Computer Interfaces

Neurons in a Dish: Scientists at the Potter Lab have found that blobs of neurons cultured in a dish spontaneously generate hierarchical structures of periodic activity with population-wide spatiotemporal structure demonstrating oscillations. Certain patterns persist for hours, implying that perhaps that such in vitro neural preparations could be used to store memories.

Nerve Stump Interface: Horch and Dhillon have found that stimulation by electrodes implanted into the peripheral nerve stumps of amputees allow amputees to feel graded, discrete touch sensations in the phantom hand, and recorded motor neurons in the nerve stump can be used to set grip force and position in an artificial arm.

Re-assigning a Nerve: Kuiken has pioneered a technique in which remaining peripheral nerves that would have sent fibers to stimulate muscles in and transmit sensory information from an amputated limb, can be surgically moved within the body to an intact muscle, such as the pectoralis major. A small patch of this muscle ends up serving as a biopotential amplifier for the nerve stump, such that gross EMG signals from the newly reinnervated muscle patch can be used as myoelectric signals. Furthermore, when the skin overlying the patch is touched, the amputee experiences it as if the absent limb were being touched,

Between a thing and a thought

aldworth_function_structure.jpgArtist Susan Aldworth creates works based on neurology and brain scans, after her own experience of having an emergency angiogram after suffering a suspected stroke.

BBC News reports on her ongoing exhibition entitled ‘Matter Into Imagination‘.

The exhibition has just been moved from its previous home in the Menier Gallery, to the corridors of the Royal London Hospital, and the gallery of the Old Operating Theatre Museum near St Thomas Hospital in London Bridge.

If you’re not able to visit either of these exhibitions, Aldworth has an extensive gallery on her website that shows her brain-inspired paintings and sculptures.

Link to Susan Aldworth’s website.
Link to details of ‘Matter into Imagination’ exhibition.
Link to BBC News story ‘How brain scans inspired artist’.

Five minutes with Sherry Turkle

sherry_turkle.jpgProfessor Sherry Turkle is a psychologist best known for her pioneering research into the psychology of computers and the internet, and particularly on how we interpret concepts such as the self and identity through the veil of technology.

Her book Life on the Screen was hugely influential as one of the first books on ‘internet psychology’ in the days when the internet had barely reached the mainstream.

She remains intensely interested in how technology affects the mind, behaviour and social world, and has kindly agreed to talk to Mind Hacks.

Continue reading “Five minutes with Sherry Turkle”

Synapse vol 1 n 2

The most recent Synapse has just been published on A Blog Around the Clock with a collection of new psychology and neuroscience writing for your reading pleasure…

In addition, there’s also a neuroscience competition embedded in this edition:

This time, you have a puzzle to solve. Next to each entry, there is an image depicting the structural formula of a neurotransmitter, neurohormone or neuromodulator. Your job is to figure out what they are and leave the answers in the comments (or in your own posts that link to this edition)…

The winner – whoever is the first to correctly identify all ten compounds – will be highlighted first and with an extra post, when I host Encephalon, the other neurocarnival, later this Fall on November 6th.

There’s a few of the ‘classic nine’ in there, and the molecule accompanying the Mind Hacks post looks to be related to glycine, but I haven’t got any further than that.

Best of luck!

Link to latest Synapse neuroscience writing carnival.

John Beloff has left the building

john_beloff.jpgThe Guardian has the obituary of Dr John Beloff, the British researcher who was one of the pioneers of academic parapsychology.

Beloff had already been conducting research in parapsychology. In 1961, he and a physics student, Leonard Evans, carried out an innovative experiment in psychokinesis (PK) – that is, roughly, mind over matter. In this experiment, radioactive decay served as a source of randomness, and the objective was to influence the radioactive source so that its particle emissions were non-random. This was the first instance of what later became a standard approach to PK research, and it marked an important advance over using more mathematically and physically complex objects (for example, falling dice or coins) as PK targets. Although the Beloff and Evans experiment yielded null results, their report has been cited more often than any other of his experimental papers.

Link to obituary of Dr John Beloff.
Link to John Beloff’s website.

Brain-Computer Interfaces

The June edition of IEEE Transactions in Neural Systems and Rehabilitation Engineering has some articles of interest including such titles as “Could cortical signals control intraspinal stimulators?” from the Mushahwar lab, “Cortically coupled computer vision for rapid image search” from the Sajda lab, “An oral tactile interface for blind navigation” from Tang and Beebe, “The Neurochip BCI: towards a neural prosthesis for upper limb function” from the Fetz lab, as well as recent reports from scientists at BCI2000. Also check out the articles by Leuthhardt et al, and Moran et al.

For a recent review of the field of neuroprosthetics, you can download presentations from the website of the Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center of the United States’ Army.

Also check out the Neurotech Network “dedicated to the use of neurotechnology, the application of medical electronics to improve or restore function of the human nervous system,” directed by Jennifer French. Ms. French is an advocate for people with neurologic impairment and is a person I greatly admire.



My name is Mijail “Misha” Serruya, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to join the other MindHacks editors to share my passion for basic and clinical neuroscience.

I finished my combined MD/PhD training at Brown University, helped co-found Cyberkinetics, and am currently a House Officer in internal medicine in Providence, and expect to begin a residency in adult neurology at the University of Pennsylvania next year. You can learn more about my previous experience here and my future plans here.

Declaration of Conflict of Interest: I am shareholder of Cyberkinetics and I have been an employee of the company in the past.

I welcome you to email me questions about brain-computer interfaces, advocacy for people with neurologic and psychiatric disability, and clinical neurology, but I can’t promise a fast response time.


From bad to worse: the worst ideas on the mind

black_boxing_glove.jpgAs a follow on to their previous ‘greatest minds on the minds’ event, the Royal Institution will be hosting a lively event in London to find out what is the worst idea ever to grace the worlds of psychology and psychiatry.

The debate will happen on Tuesday 18 July and will feature lobotomy, post-trauma counselling, drug company advertising and Freudian psychotherapy.

Interestingly, Freud also featured as one of the ‘great minds’ featured in the last debate. The fact he turns up in both is a lovely illustration of his still controversial legacy.

Lobotomy is notorious for its over-zealous application and long-term damaging effects, post-trauma counselling – otherwise known as ‘debriefing’ – has been shown to make trauma worse in some people, and drug company advertising is widely cited for its insidious effects on both doctors and patients.

As with the previous event, the debate will finish with an audience vote to settle the matter. Let the battle begin!

Link to details of event from the Royal Institution.

2006-07-07 Spike activity

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


Seed Magazine has an insightful article on being seduced by the flickering lights of fMRI.

Also see the April 2006 issue of Cortex for a more in-depth approach (warning: their website doesn’t work in Firefox).

Differences in the placenta of pregnant women may predict later autism in baby, suggests new study.

Popular Science on the next generation of artificial limbs, fused directly to human bone and interfaced with the brain.

Training your husband using operant conditioning and animal training techniques (via Dana Leighton).

New study suggests metabolic syndrome may be a health risk for some who take antipsychotic drug clozapine.

BrainDigg is like Digg but for neuroscience stories.

Paranoid and suspicious thoughts more common than thought, suggests new survey.

Stroke leaves Geordie women with Jamaican-like voice in a case of foreign accent syndrome (with video).

Mixing Memory tackles debates over the representation of knowledge in a well-thought out article on a complex area.

Actress Ashley Judd reveals her experience of depression.

Limb amputation reduces brain volume in thalamus

grey_shadow_hand.jpgThere’s a fascinating study in the journal Neuroimage that reports that people who have had a limb amputated show reduction in the volume of grey matter in the thalamus – a complex deep brain structure.

The study, led by neuroscientist Dr Bogdan Draganski, scanned the brains of 28 patients whose limbs had been surgically removed.

The reduction in grey matter volume was typically found on the opposite side of the thalamus to the amputated limb.

As movement-related brain structures are largely involved with actions on the opposite side of the body, this suggests that the absence of the limb is affecting an area directly involved in its coordination and control.

Crucially, the amount of grey matter reduction was correlated with the time since the limb was amputated, suggesting that the brains of the patients were continuously reorganising in light of the serious change in action, sensation and body image.

These findings are likely to have significant implications for the field of neuroprosthetics that aims to interface prosthetic replacements for damaged body parts directly with the nervous system.

Knowing how the nervous system changes over time in response to injury will enable neuroprosthetic devices to make best use of the remaining function.

Link to abstract of study.

NYT on the ‘grim neurology’ of teenage drinking

peeled_beer_bottle.jpgThe New York Times has published an extensive article on the effect of drinking on the teenage brain.

Increasing research is now being conducted on the effect of teenage substance use on the brain, as it has recently been discovered that adolescents do not just have ‘young adult’ brains in all respects.

It now seems that the brain may be particularly sensitive during the teenage years, and significant substance abuse may have more of an impact during this time than later in adult life.

While much research has been conducted on cannabis use during adolesence, owing to its effect of increasing the risk of psychosis, attention is increasing being focused on alchohol.

Mounting research suggests that alcohol causes more damage to the developing brains of teenagers than was previously thought, injuring them significantly more than it does adult brains. The findings, though preliminary, have demolished the assumption that people can drink heavily for years before causing themselves significant neurological injury. And the research even suggests that early heavy drinking may undermine the precise neurological capacities needed to protect oneself from alcoholism.

Link to NYT article ‘The Grim Neurology of Teenage Drinking’.