Home by Rupert Brooke

Rupert_Brooke.jpgWar poet Rupert Brooke describes an unsettling experience of apophenia in this 1913 poem.

I came back late and tired last night
  Into my little room,
To the long chair and the firelight
  And comfortable gloom.

But as I entered softly in
  I saw a woman there,
The line of neck and cheek and chin,
  The darkness of her hair,
The form of one I did not know
  Sitting in my chair.

I stood a moment fierce and still,
  Watching her neck and hair.
I made a step to her; and saw
  That there was no one there.

It was some trick of the firelight
  That made me see her there.
It was a chance of shade and light
  And the cushion in the chair.

Oh, all you happy over the earth,
  That night, how could I sleep?
I lay and watched the lonely gloom;
  And watched the moonlight creep
From wall to basin, round the room,
  All night I could not sleep.

Brooke seems to have been interested in the scientific investigation of anomalous experiences, as one of his poems (‘Sonnet‘), was inspired by reading the journal of the Society for Psychical Research.

Pursuing pleasure

happy_smile.jpgDr Lionel Tiger, an anthropologist who investigates the interaction between the biological basis of pleasure and how it is experienced in different cultures, is interviewed on ABC Radio’s In Conversation.

He talks about the numerous ways in which pleasure can be sought (including food, art and sex) and how it is regarded and experienced in animals and humans.

But as for the extended pleasure, I think here we see something that nature has given females as an opportunity to evaluate the care and thoughtfulness of a male, and it provides some sense of the decency of a mate, to be able to provide pleasure as well as to receive it. And I think we underestimate the skill with which, if we look at the Karma Sutra and all the Japanese stuff, the skill with which both men and women have been more than happy to spend as much time in the sack as they possibly could. It happens to be one of the exhilarating features of the species and we’re just better at a lot of things than other animals.

Link to webpage (with audio and transcript) of In Conversation.

Poverty on the brain

1st_floor_bw.jpgNeurocritic has just published a fantastic summary of Professor Martha Farah’s recent work on the effects of poverty on mind and brain function.

For example, it is known that poor diet alone can restrict the development of certain skills and abilities.

However, one of Farah’s main findings is that those from poorer backgrounds do not usually show a global impairment in mental function.

The main differences between children from a poor background, and those from a wealthier background were in tests of language, working memory, cognitive control and memory. No difference was found for reward processing, spatial cognition, or visual cognition.

With the functional brain-scanning data the researchers also collected, the evidence suggests that poverty can have varying effects on brain development.

Neurocritic notes that the this is quite a complex picture but is a refreshing change to the raft of poorly designed (and usually well-publicised) studies which simply correlate IQ with [something] and argue that [something] must therefore be linked to intelligence.

Link to ‘Childhood Poverty and Neurocognitive Development’ from Neurocritic.

interested in words

A classic quote from R.D. Laing of anti-psychiatry fame:

I am very interested in words, and what we have words for and what we haven’t got words for. For instance, the word “paranoia.” It always seems very strange to me that we have this word which means, in effect, that someone feels that he is being persecuted when the people who are persecuting him don’t think that he is. But we haven’t got a word for the condition in which you are persecuting someone without realizing it, which I would have thought is as serious a condition as the other, and certainly no less common.

2006-08-18 Spike activity

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


The Philidelphia Inquirer reviews a book on the Philosophy of Boredom.

Is this the most sci-fi sounding article ever? Developing Intelligence unleashes The Argument for Multiplexed Synchrony.

BBC Radio 4 has a half-hour programme on the experience and impact of mild brain injury.

ABC Radio’s opinion show Ockham’s Razor looks at the world through the eyes of an adult with Asperger’s: Profile of a postmodern outsider.

Couple more on the mind and motivations of Philip K. Dick:
* The Guardian examines the role of drugs in PKD’s life and novels.
* 3QuarksDaily examines the reality-bending legacies of PKD, Timothy Leary and Hunter S. Thompson.

If you have ever wondered how it is possible to do psychology experiments on babies under 12 months, Cognitive Daily brilliantly outlines one method.

‘Your brain boots up like a computer’ according to LiveScience. A Sparc Classic in my case.

Inside medicine: the psychiatrist, the anaesthetist

white_bg_stethoscope.jpgThe BBC News website has a brief section on medical specialties as part of its health coverage. Each article is a brief interview with a doctor about their work in a certain area.

Two of interest to readers here might be the interviews with the psychiatrist and anaesthetist.

No neurologist or neurosurgeon, but I suspect the list may grow, as there’s plenty more schools of medicine not represented.

Synaptic scarves and vesicle ties

asliceoflife_contacts.jpgA Slice of Life is a company that makes scarves and ties with bioscience prints on them, and two are likely to be particularly attractive to neuroscientists.

Pictured on the left is a satin scarf (named ‘Contacts‘) that is decorated with neuron endings especially rich in synaptic vesicles.

Also available is a bow tie that depicts synaptic vesicles massing on the edges of the synaptic gap.

While neuroscientists might immediately pick up on the significance, your non-neuroscience friends will probably think they’re just stylish additions to your wardrobe.

Link to A Slice of Life.

Grand unifying theories in psychology

sky_at_35000_feet.jpgPsyBlog has just started a series looking at whether the different findings, concepts and predictions of the various schools of psychology could ever be explained by one ‘grand theory’.

By drawing on excerpts from the existing literature, the series gives us a tour through a radical rethinking of how we explain the action of the mind.

Alternatively, perhaps a search for a ‘grand unifying theory’ is just physics envy at its most ridiculous, where psychology is just trying to ape the most absurd aspects of modern theoretical physics.

Whether it sounds like a grand vision or navel gazing to you, the series covers all angles, and there is more to come in the series.

Link to ‘Unity in Psychology: The Search Starts Here’ from PsyBlog.

APA release statement on interrogation guidelines

red_bg_handcuffs.jpgAs an update to a previous Mind Hacks story, the American Psychological Association has released a statement after considering the backlash against their guidelines that permit psychologists to participate in military interrogations.

The statement seems to reaffirm the previous position that permits participation in interrogations but additionally requires that psychologists intervene in abusive situations and report the incidents to the relevant authorities.

However, the statement still falls short of the policy adopted by American doctors’ and psychiatrists’ organisations that specifically warns against any participation in interrogations.

This has spurred pressure group Psychologists for Social Responsibility to urge the APA to adopt a similar policy.

The subtext of much of this debate is about ‘war on terror’ interrogations, and more specifically, whether psychologists should participate in the controversial interrogations of inmates in Guantanamo Bay and other secret facilities.

Link to APA statement on military interrogations.
Link to response of Psychologists for Social Responsibility.

Epileptic – the comic

epileptic_front_cover.jpgEpileptic is a comic book by David B that charts the impact of his brother’s epilepsy on the author’s life and family.

Originally written in French, when first published in English, Time Magazine described it as “a great work of art” and nominated it as the best graphic novel of the year.

It has subsequently won a number of prizes and is often mentioned alongside Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus for its narrative and insight.

I’ve only just begun reading it myself but it is immediately striking both for its honesty and its dream-like (post seizure-like?) approach, where ideas and experiences fill the panels as real as if they were concrete characters of the plot.

The portrayal of epilepsy is accurate and sensitive, and rivals Ray Robinson’s novel Electricity for its impact.

Epileptic was released in paperback earlier this year (ISBN 0224079204).

Link to information about Epileptic graphic novel.
Link to Time review.
Link to Time interview with author.

Explaining differences in sex drive

2lovers.jpgThe media has just been full of reports about research that suggests that while male sex drive stays constant, female sex drive reduces significantly after several years in a long-term relationship.

Sex and relationship psychologist Dr Petra Boyton has an excellent analysis of the study, its conclusions and the media reports.

Particularly, she notes that the researchers have opted for an evolutionary explanation for why this might occur.

Evolutionary explanations are sometimes uncritically applied to sex research (after all, sex is about mating right?) when other, more straightforward explanations will probably be more useful.

Rather than explaining these outcomes as related to changing lifestyle factors or practical alterations in women’s lives that may lead to them reporting less desire for sex, the researchers compare the outcomes to the behaviour of female prairie voles and argue the results are due to women keeping her ‘resources’ scarce to keep a male partner interested in her. Males keep a higher sex drive to keep their mate faithful and other males away.

The study will of course get lots of coverage since it has a media-friendly mix of hormones, evolution and comparisons with small mammals which journalists always love.

Link to BBC News article ‘Security ‘bad news for sex drive’.
Link to commentary from Petra Boyton.

In defense of Big Pharma

pills_on_counter.jpgCommentary Magazine has an articulate article arguing in support of large drug companies and the necessity of current drug developing and marketing practices.

Most of the articles you see these days are quite critical of ‘Big Pharma’ so it’s refreshing to see a spirited defense.

Over the last decade, extraordinary advances in bioengineering have transformed pharmacology. Sooner or later, the industry and its pilot fish will surely find drugs that can halt colon, breast, and lung cancers, that can curb obesity and thus heart disease, and that will not merely suppress the HIV virus but purge it from the body completely. A new pharmacology of the brain may cure depression and stop the onset of Alzheimer’s. These and other once inscrutable scourges are now—essentially—becoming problems in diligent engineering.

The article tackles the economics, politics and medicine of producing potentially useful drugs on an international scale and argues that only large corporate entities have the resources and the motivation to do so.

Link to article ‘In Defense of Big Pharma’.

Philip K. Dick video interview

PKDInterviewGrab.jpgIf you want to hear Philip K. Dick himself discuss the writing of A Scanner Darkly and describe some of the borderline-paranoid ideas that drove the plot, there’s a three minute video clip on YouTube.

There’s evidence that Dick had reason to be paranoid. It is likely that he was investigated by the authorities during the period of anti-communist McCarthyism because of his anti-government views.

The burglarly he talks about is mystery, and it is not clear whether he was burgled by secret services, drug-using associates or whether he did it himself during a period of psychosis.

The fact that all three are possible candidates says much about Dick’s life.

Link to Philip K. Dick interview clip (via PKD Fans).

UPDATE: NPR Radio’s Talk of the Nation has a fantastic discussion on PKD’s life, work and influences.

Neuropsychology and Psychosis in ‘A Scanner Darkly’

AScannerDarklyPoster.jpgPartly motivated by his increasing brushes with psychosis, by the early 1970s, Philip K. Dick was struggling with increasing doubts over the nature of reality and personal identity. Perhaps unsurprisingly, characters with unstable worlds and existential doubts are a familiar focus of his work. Dick was interested in more than just description however, and often used his novels to explore personal theories of existence.

During his research, he discovered the work of Roger Sperry, who had rocked the foundations of neuroscience by discovering that when separated, the hemispheres of the brain seemed, at least to some degree, independently conscious. Worried about his own perception of reality, Dick considered that this could explain his increasing feelings of alienation and self-detachment. These reflections resulted in A Scanner Darkly, a partly autobiographical near-future novel that remains an incisive commentary on society, psychosis and the brain.

Continue reading “Neuropsychology and Psychosis in ‘A Scanner Darkly’”