From My Mind to Your Mind

Willats_AroundTheNetworkDetail.jpgLondon’s Victoria Miro Gallery is currently hosting an exhibition by Stephen Willats entitled From My Mind to Your Mind.

Willats uses his artwork to explore how people makes sense of the world, particularly in terms of how we operate and interact as individuals in society.

Particularly focusing on urban life, he often critiques the way in which modern city-based living affects not only the practical aspects of life, but also how we begin to perceive the world through this urban lens.

The Tate Modern recently hosted a discussion with Willats on his work, and have made the podcasts available online.

The exhibition at the Victoria Miro gallery runs until the 30th September.

Link to information and images from Victoria Miro Gallery.
Link to podcasts of discussion with Willats from Tate Modern.

2006-09-22 Spike activity

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


Memory difficulties in older people may signal brain tissue loss in some, reports New Scientist.

GNIF Brain Blogger gives a rundown on the DSM – the diagnostic manual for psychiatric disorders.

The New York Times discusses the psychology of one of the most widely-known but scientifically neglected human motivations – fame.

The Neurophilosopher digs up some beautiful neuroanatomy drawings from the 14th to the 19th centuries.

I don’t know why we don’t just have a permanent feed to Developing Intelligence

Recent favourites include:
* Interactions of memory and attention
* Sensory gating by prefrontal cortex
* Two connectionist models of reading

ABC Radio’s All in the Mind discusses the Journey Through Madness – a family’s story of their experience of mental illness.

Brain dissection video tutorial

uwms_brain_dissection.jpgThe University of Wisconsin Medical School have an online video series that shows a dissection of a human body, including special sections on the brain and spinal cord, all expertly narrated by the professors in the department.

There is no better way of learning anatomy than seeing a dissection for yourself (I have fond memories of passing round a freshly removed circle of Willis with my fellow MSc students) and the online video series is an excellent introduction.

The first thing you notice is how some parts of the dissection process are so undelicate. The body is very strong, and it can take quite some force to remove certain parts.

In the brain dissection, the anatomist has to use some significant leverage (and a surgical chisel) to separate the skull from the dura mater – the tough plasticy sheet covering the brain.

The dissection itself is quite medical, in that it tends to focus on the gross (large scale) anatomy of veins, arteries and cavities, rather than on the sort of areas of most interest to cognitive neuroscientists – mainly the internal structure of the cortex.

Nevertheless, if you want a good ‘rough guide’ to the brain, this is as good a place to start as any.

Link to University of Wisconsin dissection videos (via Omni Brain).

Dawkins’ new book on religion

god delusion.jpg‘The God Delusion’, Richard Dawkins’ forthcoming book on religion, is “incurious, dogmatic, rambling and self-contradictory” according to Andrew Brown (author of the Darwin Wars), writing in Prospect magazine.

To a psychologist (or anyone taking a scientific approach to religion), what’s particularly of interest, is not so much whether or not God exists, but why so many people are believers, even today, when evolutionary theory means there’s no longer any need to invoke a designer to explain life’s complexity. But according to Brown’s scathing review, Dawkins utterly fails to offer any fresh insight into this question. “Thinking a bit was once what Dawkins was famous for. It’s a shame to see him reduced to one long argument from professorial incredulity”.

Dawkins is developing a somewhat legendary reputation for being anti-religion, a trend he has encouraged – he titled a collection of his essays published a few years ago ‘The Devil’s Chaplain’. Perhaps his most notable and controversial exposition on the subject was an article he wrote for the Guardian newspaper, just days after 9/11, in which he lamented the devaluing effect of religion on human life, and characterised the terrorists responsible as “testosterone-sodden young men too unattractive to get a woman in this world” but “desperate enough to go for 72 private virgins in the next”.

UPDATE: Andrew Brown debates his review and Dawkins’ book with science writer Dan Jones and others, at Jones’ blog – the proper study of mankind.

Link to review in Prospect magazine.
Link to The God Delusion, on Amazon.
Link to Guardian article.

Liking for sprouts may be partly genetic

tasty_broccoli.jpgNature is reporting that a gene which is involved in a receptor for bitter tastes can predict people’s liking for vegetables such as broccoli and sprouts.

It has been proposed that humans are particularly sensitive to bitterness as natural poisons often taste bitter.

Certain versions of this gene may make us especially sensitive, however. So sensitive, perhaps, that we dislike foods that are perfectly safe but have a bitter element.

There’s more information in a over at Eureka Alert and the original study is published in the journal Current Biology.

Bipolar disorder on the BBC

stephen_fry_bbc.jpgThe BBC has a focus on bipolar disorder over the next few weeks with a TV documentary hosted by Stephen Fry investigating the condition, and a special edition of BBC Radio 4’s Case Notes on the disorder.

We reported earlier this year that Stephen Fry, diagnosed with bipolar himself, visited Cardiff University’s neuropsychiatric genetics unit to film parts of a documentary.

The first part of the documentary was on last night (I missed it I’m afraid and am currently searching bittorrent trackers for a copy) and the next is on BBC2 next Tuesday.

However, the BBC has a webpage with information about the documentary and the condition, including video clips which are available online.

In the documentary, Fry discusses his own experiences, as well as interviewing people like Carrie Fisher, Robbbie Williams and Tony Slattery about their lives with unpredictable thoughts and moods.

The documentary also tackles the psychology and neuroscience of the condition, with the help of researchers who are attempting to make sense of how this complex condition starts, and impacts upon affected individuals.

BBC Radio 4’s Case Notes also discusses bipolar in detail, including the best current treatments and ways of coping.

Link to BBC website on Stephen Fry’s bipolar documentary.
Link to Case Notes on bipolar disorder.

NYT on killing of Dr Wayne Fenton

wayne_fenton.jpgThe New York Times has an article on the recent tragic death of psychiatrist Dr Wayne Fenton, a respected and admired schizophrenia specialist who seems to have been killed by a patient.

The killing has highlighted the debate about violence and schizophrenia once again.

Violence is rare in people with schizophrenia. In fact, people with schizophrenia are much more likely to be victims of violence than violent themselves.

However, active psychosis is associated with a slightly increased chance of violence in some people, and some have argued that this is a reason for forcibly medicating people with schizophrenia if they refuse treatment.

In contrast, others argue that forcibly medicating anyone is an abuse of the person’s civil liberties.

In most jurisdictions, mental illness is the only type of illness is which a patient’s refusal of treatment can be overruled. For any other type of illness, this decision is typically respected and protected by law.

Interestingly, the risk of violence in schizophrenia is comparable to the risk of violence with alcohol use in adolescents.

Nevertheless, the media tends to focus on violence and schizophrenia, giving a skewed idea of the risks and ignoring more common and less newsworthy stories such as ‘drunk youth attacks man’.

Dr Fenton’s killing is a huge loss to the psychiatric community. A tribute published on the Schizophrenia Bulletin website notes his academic and scientific contributions to the understanding of the condition, and former patients have been remembering his compassionate approach to patient care.

Link to NYT article ‘A Psychiatrist Is Slain, and a Sad Debate Deepens’.
Link to Schizophrenia Bulletin tribute.

Why email is addictive (and what to do about it)

Email is addictive

Like lots of people who sit in front of a computer all day, I am addicted to email. This worries me for two reasons. The first is the sheer strength of my compulsion. I must hit the ‘get mail’ button at least a hundred times a day. Sometimes, if I don’t have any new mail, I hit it again immediately, just to check. I interrupt my work to check my mail even when I know that I’m not going to find anything interesting and that I should just concentrate on what I am suppossed to be doing. When I come back to my office it’s the first thing I do. If I’m prevented from checking my mail for more than a few hours I get a little jumpy and remain that way until I have.

This is all rather sad, but the second reason I am worried by my email addiction is that I work in a psychology department and we’re supposed to understand how these things work. Now email isn’t a drug – it doesn’t deliver a chemical into your bloodstream. Yet it is clearly addictive. I’m a normal rational person (which is to say I’m just normally maladjusted) and I know that I don’t need to check my email as often as it do – certainly not immediately after checking it the first time for Goodness’ sake! – but still I am compelled. What’s going on, and can psychological science help me out?

Read more below the fold

Continue reading “Why email is addictive (and what to do about it)”

Cognitive behaviour therapy creator wins Lasker Award

AaronBeck.jpgAaron T. Beck, the creator of cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), has been awarded the Lasker Award – a prestigious prize that is given to those who are deemed to have made a significant contribution to the understanding and treatment of medical disorders.

Randomised controlled trials have shown cognitive behaviour therapy to be one of the most effective treatments for depression and anxiety (typically as good as, or better than, drug therapy) and has also been shown to be effective in a wide range of other disorders, such as psychosis, eating disorders and chronic pain.

In serious cases, both CBT and drug treatment will be used at the same time, and this often gives the best results.

Instead of focusing on early experience and childhood trauma, CBT tends to focus on the here and now, and works with clients to develop more effective ways of thinking about situations which typically lead to disturbed thoughts and emotions.

This can be achieved by understanding the link between thoughts, emotions and behaviour, by testing out assumptions and ideas, and challenging negative thoughts as they occur in the mind.

Lasker Awards are often thought to be hints as to who might win a future Nobel Prize, as 71 Lasker winners have gone on to win a Nobel.

However, the Nobel Prize committee tends not to give awards for psychological discoveries. The nearest, perhaps, was when Daniel Kahneman won the ‘Nobel Prize for Economics’ for his contributions to understanding rationality in economic reasoning.

The New York Times also has some coverage of the story and looks at some of this year’s other Lasker Award winners.

Link to Lasker Award announcement.
Link to information on CBT from mental health charity Mind.
Link to New York Times on this year’s winners.

Trouble with Spikol mental health video series

LizSpikolVideoFrame.jpgLast August, we interviewed editor of the Philadelphia Weekly and mental health campaigner Liz Spikol. Part of her work as a journalist and campaigner involves her blog The Trouble with Spikol, which includes regular video updates conveying her whimsical view of the world of journalism.

Recently, she’s just begun a video series tackling current issues in mental health, drawing both from her own experience and her knowledge of psychiatric treatment and the mental health system.

The first is both frank and witty (the reference to Touched with Fire, Kay Redfield Jamison’s book on the link between creativity and manic depression made me laugh out loud) and hopefully will be the first of many to come.

Link to Liz Spikol video update.

The DiNET project

marc_jorge.jpgWhile in Seville, I met up with Marcos Cobe√±a and Jorge Cant√≥n, two computational neuroscientists who are involved in a project to develop a model of brain function based on Jeff Hawkins’ Hierarchical Temporal Memory framework.

Their project, based at the University of Seville, is called DiNET and aims to develop free software to implement the simulation using the Mono framework to easily enable distributed processing.

Firstly, I must thank Marcos and Jorge for giving me the chance to have my first neuroscience discussion in Spanish, and secondly, for being patient with my dodgy grammar.

One of the things I noted was their enthusiasm for the project and their intention to get as much biological detail into the model as possible, as much of the time was spent discussing details of neural architecture and pathways.

They’re also looking for people willing to join the project. They have a mailing list to discuss the project (currently only in Spanish, but they tell me that will change shortly) and updates will be appearing on the DiNET website.

I look forward to hearing more about the project as it progresses.

Link to DiNET.
Link to website on Hawkin’s theories.

Synapse #7 and BPS Research Digest

A beautiful-looking edition of The Synapse, the biweekly psychology and neuroscience writing carnival has hit the net, as has another compulsive release of the BPS Research Digest – edited by our very own Christian Jarrett.

Just so you know, Mind Hacks will be the hosting the next edition of The Synapse.

Although I’ve yet to find out how to get hold of the submissions, it looks like you can submit links to your psychology and neuroscience writing here.

Jabberwacky wins Loebner prize again

medal_rollo.jpgBBC News is reporting that AI researcher Rollo Carpenter has won the Loebner Prize for the second year in a row with Joan, a development of his Jabberwacky chatbot.

The Loebner Prize is an annual event where various computer programs are subjected to the Turing Test – a test where judges have to work out if they are in a online chatroom with a human or a computer program.

The Turing Test is supposedly a way of testing for artificial intelligence. No software has ever passed the test except in very limited circumstances, but every year the software that comes closest is awarded the Loebner Prize.

We reported on Carpenter’s success last year, and this year’s success is a tribute to the technology behind Jabberwacky, currently being developed by his company icogno.

You can see video of Carpenter’s previous prize-winning chatbot ‘George’ at another recent BBC News page.

Link to BBC News story ‘AI prize award for British firm’.
Link to BBC News page with video of ‘George’.
Link to Jabberwacky online.

Berkeley’s Cherry

I see this cherry, I feel it, I taste it: and I am sure nothing cannot be seen, or felt, or tasted: it is therefore real. Take away the sensations of softness, moisture, redness, tartness, and you take away the cherry, since it is not a being distinct from sensations. A cherry, I say, is nothing but a congeries of sensible impressions, or ideas perceived by various senses: which ideas are united into one thing (or have one name given them) by the mind, because they are observed to attend each other. Thus, when the palate is affected with such a particular taste, the sight is affected with a red colour, the touch with roundness, softness, &c. Hence, when I see, and feel, and taste, in such sundry certain manners, I am sure the cherry exists, or is real; its reality being in my opinion nothing abstracted from those sensations. But if by the word cherry you mean an unknown nature, distinct from all those sensible qualities, and by its existence something distinct from its being perceived; then, indeed, I own, neither you nor I, nor any one else, can be sure it exists.

George Berkeley Three Dialogues Between Hylas And Philonous

Classic Case Studies in Psychology

classic_case_studies_psychology.jpgI picked up a copy of Classic Case Studies in Psychology (ISBN 0340886927) yesterday and have been hooked ever since.

It looks at some of the most famous case studies in psychology, including those that have inspired important clinical methods as well as those that have just given us an insight into the more curious corners of human behaviour.

A good sign is that the coverage of the case of Phineas Gage, the railroad worker who had parts of his frontal lobes blown away in 1840, is up to date and avoids many of the myths that have recently been debunked by Macmillan’s brilliant biography An Odd Kind of Fame (ISBN 0262632594).

Also included are the well-known cases of murder victim Kitty Genovese and amnesic patient HM, among many others.

A few of the less well-known are also present, including a case reported by controversial psychologist Hans Eysenck of a man who was sexually aroused by handbags and prams, and the 19th century report on the ‘wild boy’ of Aveyron.

The book is written in a straightforward yet engaging way, so older teenagers will be able to pick it up and read it, but cynical professionals will find much of interest in its pages.

Link to information on Classic Case Studies in Psychology.