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’.