Eternal dreamtime of the spotless mind

let_forever_be_still.jpgSeed Magazine has a video of a fascinating conversation between sleep neuroscientist Robert Stickgold and film director Michel Gondry, director of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Stickgold has reinvigorated sleep research by investigating the borderlands of consciousness with a series of novel experiments.

I wrote briefly about one of my favourites in Mind Hacks (the book):

An ingenious study published in Science did manage to investigate the role of some of the deeper brain structures in hypnagogia, specifically the medial temporal lobes which are particularly linked to memory function. The researchers asked five patients who had suffered medial temporal lobe damage to play several hours of Tetris. Damage to this area of the brain often causes amnesia, and the patients in this study had little conscious memory for more than a few minutes at a time. On one evening, some hours after their last game, the players were woken up just as they started to doze and were asked for their experiences. Although they had no conscious memory of playing the game, all of the patients mentioned images of falling, rotating Tetris blocks. This has given us some strong evidence that the hypnagogic state may be due (at least in part) to unconscious memories appearing as unusual hypnagogic experiences.

Michel Gondry is best known for being discovered by Bj√∂rk (no, not that one), directing a clutch of essential music videos (including The Chemical Brothers’ startling Let Forever Be), and moving into big cinema.

His biggest cinema success to date is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind which has become a modern mind-bending classic with its feat firmly in cognitive science.

Gondry’s new movie, The Science of Sleep, also explores the mind’s outer reaches.

The pair discuss how psychology and art have tackled sleep, and how the logic of causation gets warped by both science and dreaming.

Link to Seed Magazine video with Stickgold and Gondry.
Link to fantastic article on the cognitive science of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Breastfeeding and baby’s risk for mental illness

breast_feeding2.jpgThe previous post on the neurological and psychological benefits of breastfeeding made me wonder if being breastfed is associated with a lower risk of developing mental illness later in life.

For example, those with cognitive impairment and vulnerability to stress are more likely to end up with a diagnosis of schizophrenia.

Perhaps, those who have greater cognitive ability and stress resilience because they were breastfed are at less of a risk of being diagnosed with a serious mental illness later in life.

There seems to be evidence to support this idea.

According to one study published last year, being breastfed is associated with a significantly decreased risk of developing schizophrenia.

One other study found no difference in risk for previously breastfed and non-breastfed adults, but found evidence that early breastfeeding pushed back the time at which those with schizophrenia developed symptoms, suggesting breast milk might postpone the onset of the condition many years later.

2006-09-29 Spike activity

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


Brain Ethics examines evidence for the effect of different types of attachment (early relationship with parents) on the brain.

Everyday magical powers: A paper from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology reports on the tendency to attribute magical causes to outside events.

Researchers call for a database of language impairing disorders to help work out the neuroscience and genetics of language.

The Neurophilosopher has found a number of new quality mind and brain blogs.

Similarly, Cognitive Daily has found psychology of music blog Sound and Mind and cognitive anthropology blog Alpha Psy.

Brain scans shows white matter differences in tone deaf people.

PsychCentral looks on the bright side with ‘top ten terrific things about bipolar disorder’.

Frontal Cortex has further commentary on the NYT article on hysteria, suggesting it has important implications for how we understand mental illness.

‘Cognitive fitness’ software is booming business

console_controller.jpgThere’s an interesting snippet on Brain Waves about the increasing commercial interest in computer games specifically designed to boost cognitive ability.

This has largely been inspired by the success of Nintendo’s Brain Age cartridge for the DS handheld console, research that suggests that players of off-the-shelf video games have sharper cognitive abilities in certain domains, and studies showing the benefits of practicing cognitive tasks for people with impaired mental skills.

Breastfeeding boosts neurological development

sciencenews_breastfeeding.jpgScience News reports on research that suggests that breastfed babies show measurable benefits in terms of action control and coordination.

The coordination of movement relies heavily on good general brain function. If you ever visit a neurologist for a neurological examination, you’ll notice the majority of tests are to do with balance, muscle tone, movement and reflexes.

Hence, the examination of these functions can give a clue to how well the brain is developing.

A research team led by Dr Amanda Sacker set out to use these sort of tests to compare how breastfed and non-breastfed babies were developing.

To the researchers’ surprise, [research collaborator] Kelly notes, children “were about 50 percent less likely to have a [developmental] delay if they had prolonged, exclusive breastfeeding when compared to those who were never breastfed.” They defined breastfeeding as prolonged when it had lasted at least 4 months. Even babies receiving mother’s milk for a short while‚Äî2 months or less‚Äîwere 30 percent less likely to have a developmental delay than those who received solely infant formula, beginning right after birth.

The same team also recently reported results from another study that suggested that breastfeeding is linked to resilience in the face of psychological stress.

Link to Science News story.

Is hysteria real?


The New York Times has an article on the scientific investigation of ‘hysteria’, the condition now typically called conversion disorder, where physical symptoms such as paralysis, seizures or even blindness seem to be caused by mental disorder rather than any detectable physical problems.

The diagnosis is controversial for many reasons, not least because it is largely Freudian in origin.

Actually, Freud was not the first to investigate the disorder. The French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot made it popular with his dramatic case demonstrations using hypnotism and especially theatrical patients.

That’s Charcot in the picture above, with a patient in a ‘hysterical fit’. This painting hung above Freud’s consulting couch, and can still be seen there in his London home, now the Freud Museum.

Freud’s contribution was to provide a popular theory of why this occurs.

He argued that physical disorder could result from inner psychological turmoil as a result of unresolved conflict. He described a case of ‘hysterical paralysis’ in one of his most famous case studies, that of ‘Anna O‘.

Notably, there was little hard evidence for his theories, and critics have argued that his explanation is just used a fig leaf to hide the fact that doctors don’t know what is actually wrong with such a patient.

However, similar cases turn up regularly in neuropsychiatry clinics, and in recent years a growing body of research has tackled the issue.

‘Psychogenic non-epileptic seizures’, where people seem to have epileptic seizures but without any detectable brain disturbance, have probably received the most research attention to date (see two previous articles on Mind Hacks).

More recently, brain scanning studies have attempted to make sense of what’s going on – with some success.

In a 1997 paper published in the journal Cognition, Dr. Halligan, of Cardiff, and John C. Marshall and their colleagues analyzed the brain function of a woman who was paralyzed on the left side of her body. First they spent large amounts of money on tests to ensure that she had no identifiable organic lesion.

When the woman tried to move her “paralyzed leg,” her primary motor cortex was not activated as it should have been; instead her right orbitofrontal and right anterior cingulate cortex, parts of the brain that have been associated with action and emotion, were activated. They reasoned that these emotional areas of the brain were responsible for suppressing movement in her paralyzed leg.

Other studies have looked at paralysis induced by hypnosis as a comparison, and interestingly found that similar brain areas are involved in some cases.

Conversion disorder is still poorly understood, but it seems as if these patients are not ‘faking it’ and may have problems that are not caused by permanent damage, but are outside their conscious control.

The New York Times article looks at some of the most recent research in this area, and charts the growing acceptance of a diagnosis which has been dismissed by some people as nonsense.

Link to NYT article ‘Is hysteria real? Brain Images Say Yes’.
Link to BMJ editorial ‘New approaches to conversion hysteria’.

Two types

There are two types of people in the world. Those who divide the world into two types of people, and those who don’t.

No idea where this quotation came from, but I always think of it whenever I come across black and white classifications in psychology.

Alternatively, McSweeney’s has a typology based on breakfast cereal.

Cannabis and psychosis – a causal link?

cjp-august-cover06.jpgThe latest edition of the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry has a comprehensive review of the evidence on whether cannabis contributes to causing psychotic mental illness – the best known being schizophrenia.

It has been known for a long time that there is a link between cannabis use and psychosis, but it was not known whether cannabis contributed to the development of psychosis, or whether people with psychosis were just more likely to smoke cannabis because it helps dispell some of the unpleasant emotions and feelings associated with the condition.

There is now good evidence that cannabis can contribute to the cause of psychosis, particularly during adolescence and early adulthood.

At a population level, this effect is detectable but small.

At the individual level, the effect seems to be quite variable. Recent research has suggested that the risk of developing psychosis when using cannabis is heavily influenced by what version of the COMT gene a person has.

The main conclusions of the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry review are summarised in an editorial, but for those wanting the in-depth lowdown, the full paper is also available online.

Link to August 2006 Canadian Journal of Psychiatry.

Dreaming of the philosophy of Freud

Sigmund_Freud.jpgABC Radio’s The Philosopher’s Zone has just had two special editions on Freud and his relevance to modern day thinking.

The programmes look at two contrasting areas of his wide-ranging theories.

The first is on Freud’s contribution to philosophy and the second contrasts Freud’s theories of dreaming with modern dream science derived from neuroscience.

The discussion picks out theories which were seminal in igniting research, and those which have not stood the test of time.

For those wanting an almost entirely critical take on Freud, the Times Literary Supplement has a review of a Frederick Crews’ new book entitled Follies of the Wise (ISBN 1593761015), which attempts to show that even many of Freud’s more popular ideas are fundamentally flawed.

Taking pot shots at Freud is quite fashionable in this day and age. However, as Freud wrote so much and about so many different topics, it is easy to find something to criticise but difficult to dismiss all his ideas at once.

Link to Philosopher’s Zone on Freud the Philosopher.
Link to Philosopher’s Zone on The Dream Debate.
Link to TLS book review.

SciAm special editions on the senses and genius

SciAm_SecretsSenses.jpgScientific American has released Secrets of the Senses and Uncommon Genius, two new editions of their special collections relevant to mind and brain enthusiasiasts.

Ths special editions are collections of past articles from Scientific American on a single topic, that are available as an online pdf file for $5 dollars each.

The Secrets of the Senses edition has articles on everything from visual consciousness to phantom limbs, while the Uncommon Genius edition looks at special talents, perhaps linked with psychiatric or neurological disorders or other uncommon human variations.

Link to info on Secrets of the Senses edition.
Link to info on Uncommon Genius edition.

Books in the Bog reviews Mind Hacks

books_in_the_bog.jpgMind Hacks has been chosen as September’s book of the month by online review site Books in the Bog.

Mind Hacks is, fortunately for our toilet shelves, anything but an academic text book, yet manages to still do a great job in introducing how some of the mind’s systems work, though simple examples you can try at home (even in your loo if you don’t feel too odd occasionally taking in the odd volunteer).

The review also includes an interview with co-author Matt Webb on how he developed his own interest in the mind and brain, so head on over if you want Matt’s take on the book and his other favourite reads.

Link to Mind Hacks review.

Inducing the shadow-self by stimulating the brain

arzy_nature_diagram.jpgYesterday’s Nature contains an intriguing short report of how stimulating part of the brain during neurosurgery induced the feeling that a shadowy version of the patient’s body had appeared and was mirroring the patient’s movements.

The patient was undergoing routine neurosurgery to examine the brain, prior to more serious neurosurgery to treat otherwise untreatable epilepsy.

It is not uncommon for patients to volunteer to take part in simple neuroscience experiments during these procedures.

Patients have to be awake for part of the neurosurgery anyway because the surgeons probe the brain to make sure they avoid removing any areas essential for language, memory and so on.

The experience of feeling or seeing a double or your own body is called autoscopy or heautoscopy.

In this case, a team of researchers led by neuroscientist Shahar Arzy managed to induce this experience by stimulating an area of the brain called the left temporoparietal junction.

This is the area on the left side of the brain where the temporal lobe and parietal lobe meet (see the pink arrow in the image on the left).

This is not the first case of this kind. The Nature report is from the lab of Olaf Blanke which has reported a number of cases of this condition, either owing to brain injury, epilepsy, or induced by brain stimulation.

In a 2004 paper published in Brain, Blanke’s team reported on a number of patients who experienced this phenomenon, including one who said “I see myself lying in bed, from above, but I only see my legs” when her brain was also stimulated in the left temperoparietal junction.

In a further recent paper published in Cortex, Peter Brugger and colleagues reviewed 14 cases of ‘polyopic heautoscopy’, where patients experience multiple doubles of their own body.

(NB: This paper is available on Cortex’s website but because their site is such as mess, you can’t link to it directly and you have to use Explorer to navigate. Isn’t progress great?)

The temporoparietal junction might be significant as it is thought to process and hold representations of the body and its relationship to external space.

One interesting aspect of the Nature paper is that the patient reported that her double was unpleasant and seemed to have somewhat malign intentions:

Further stimulations (11.0 mA; n=2) were applied while the seated patient performed a naming (language-testing) task using a card held in her right hand: she again reported the presence of the sitting “person”, this time displaced behind her to her right and attempting to interfere with the execution of her task (“He wants to take the card”; “He doesn‚Äôt want me to read”).

The authors suggest they may have found evidence for the mechanism behind ‘delusions of control’ or ‘passivity symptoms’ usually linked to schizophrenia.

These are experiences or beliefs that the body and / or mind is being controlled by external forces.

However, not all patients with autoscopy report their experiences as malign, and it may be that the effect of the anaesthetics (known to induce paranoia in some), epilepsy (also linked to risk for psychosis) or the stress of the operation, may have given an unpleasant or malign twist to the experience which might not be directly linked to the disruption of the proposed brain mechanism itself.

The paper is also discussed on Nature’s news service.

Link to abstract of Nature study.
Link to Nature News write-up.
Link to full-text of 2004 Brain paper.
Link to full-text of Journal of Neuroscience paper on tempororparietal junction, body image and self .