An ‘autism mum’


“You’re an autism mum. I see them all the time. I saw you that first day we met, how you agonised over your boy, mute in his pushchair while all the other pre-schoolers made their clever observations about the world; I see how you worry now over his odd way of walking, the animal noises he will sometimes make instead of words. And I see how no amount of pain in the experience of caring for your son will put to death the fire of love you have for him.”

Teacher Andy O’Connor speaking to the mother of an autistic boy in the novel Daniel Isn’t Talking, by Marti Leimbach. This book and four other fiction and non-fiction books on autism were intelligently reviewed by Adam Feinstein in the Guardian a few weeks ago.

Link to Daniel isn’t talking.
Link to Guardian review of five books on autism.

What is synesthesia?

colour_popout.jpgThere’s a useful article in this month’s Scientific American that poses the question ‘what is synesthesia?’ in the ‘ask the experts’ section.

The question is answered by neuroscientists and synaesthesia researchers Thomas Palmeri, Randolph Blake and René Marois, who give a concise description of what its like to have synaesthesia as well as explaining some of the science behind this intriguing condition.

Until 5 years ago, syneasthesia was largely ignored and thought to be a rare and relatively uninteresting oddity.

It is now being investigated after surveys found it far more common than previously thought.

It is thought that researching synaesthesia will also give an insight into the structure and function of perception in the brain, in both those with and those without the condition.

Link to SciAm article ‘What is synesthesia?’.

2006-09-15 Spike activity

Quick links from the past [few weeks] in mind and brain news:


Michael Crawford discusses The Schizophrenic Symptom of Flat Affect, including insights from his own experience.

Can Freudian ideas help us explain fundamentalism and extremist ideologies? asks the New York Times

Dopamine helps punters spot their ‘best bet’ according to a recent news story in New Scientist.

The NPR Day to Day radio programme discusses the psychology of why people make false confessions to the police.

Difficulties with engaging areas of the prefrontal cortex may explain why teenagers can be more ‘selfish’ suggests new research.

Academic doping: Are kids being given drugs like Ritalin by their parents purely to improve their academic performance?

The Neuroethics and Law Blog tackles the legal and ethical implication of the recent study that suggested a coma-like PVS patient had conscious thought.

Do we all mean the same thing when we talk about colors? asks Cognitive Daily.

A drug used for treating Alzheimer’s drug may also combat brain injury, reports New Scientist.

World Hearing Voices Day today

speakers_cabinet.jpgToday has been designated as World Hearing Voices Day to raise awareness of the experience of hearing voices.

Although the stereotype is that hearing voices is associated with mental illness, the majority of people who hear voices do not have mental illness and are never in need or help or assistance because of their experiences.

There is now a world-wide hearing voices movement that aims to provide an alternative to the medical model (which has traditionally seen ‘voices’ as symptoms) and reframe them as part of the rich tapestry of human existence.

The movement has a curious beginning. Dutch psychiatrist Marius Romme was challenged by one of his patients who had found that her own explanation of her voices gave her far more relief than the psychiatric explanation.

Romme discovered that many other voices hearers had this experience, and, consequently, he and a voice hearer discussed this experience on a Dutch television chat show.

The show was flooded with callers who also heard voices, the majority of whom had never needed medical help.

From this, the Hearing Voices Network was founded in the UK to support voice hearers, and Romme has written a number of books on the subject.

Accepting Voices (ISBN 9781874690139) was co-written with journalist and now psychiatric researcher Sandra Escher and provides advice and information for those who experience voices.

Many voice hearers who do find their voices distressing, will often use both psychiatric help, and the help of non-psychiatric support groups to manage their experiences.

ABC Radio’s All in the Mind recently had a special on the science and culture of hearing voices and the transcript of the show is available online.

Link to Wikipedia article on Hearing Voices Movememt.
Link to transcript of All in the Mind on hearing voices.
Link to recent research on hearing voices (via BB).

Fight to the death with AI robots

NERO_screenshot2_small.jpgNERO is an award-winning futuristic computer game where the player trains squadrons of android soldiers, to be released and pitted against soldiers trained by another player.

Crucially, the android soliders learn using a neural network that adapts via a genetic algorithm.

For the NERO project we are using a specific neuroevolutionary algorithm called NEAT, Neuro-Evolution of Augmenting Topologies. Unlike most neuroevolutionary algorithms, NEAT starts with an artificial neural network of minimal connectivity and adds complexity only when it helps solve a problem. This helps ensure that the algorithm does not produce unnecessarily complex solutions.

In NERO we are introducing a new real-time variant of NEAT, called rtNEAT, in which a small population evolves while you watch. (Most genetic algorithms use generation-based off-line processing, and only provide a result at the end of some pre-specified amount of training.)

The neural network is based on published research and the documentation page contains a raft of information on game play and the science behind the software.

There’s screenshots and video of the game in action, and it’s free to download.

Link to website for NERO.

Heavenly theories of memory


In particular, must a cognitive theory about memory that would please you be stated in a way that could be tested by brain scientists?

Sure! But an even better idea might be to demand that a cognitive theory be stated in a way that the Almighty himself could pass judgment on.

Legendary memory researcher Endel Tulving setting high standards, from p93 of Conversations in the Cognitive Neurosciences (ISBN 9780262571173).

Epilepsy Action on MySpace

EA_brain_idon.jpgUK epilepsy support charity Epilepsy Action has created a MySpace profile – the first neuro charity I know that has a page on the social networking site.

It’s part of an drive to increase the availability of epilepsy information to young people.

The page has updates on the latest news from the charity, as well as advice so you can educate yourself on what to do if you find someone having a seizure.

On a related note, the BBC has an interview with well-known UK author and speaker Rabbi Lionel Blue on his own epilepsy diagnosis.

Link to Epilepsy Action MySpace profile.
Link to interview with Rabbi Lionel Blue.

1st September BPS Research Digest and Synapse

A couple I missed when I was away… A new BPS Research Digest hit the net on 1st September with articles on job performance, season on birth and intelligence and the expert mind of the burglar among others.

Also edition 6 of The Synapse neuroscience writing carnival arrived, with writing on everything from the detection of musical phrases to the history of the discovery of the neuron.

Dodgy science at the BA festival?

Continuing on from Vaughan’s discussion of Psi research at the BA Festival – I wonder if the likes of Prof. Lord Robert Winston ought to have been more concerned about some of the content in one of the mainstream BA Psychology Section seminars.

Prof. Geoffrey Beattie of Big Brother fame was this year’s Psychology Section President so it was perhaps no surprise that he organised a seminar on body language and invited along his fellow Big Brother psychologist Dr. Peter Collett.

However, Collett’s talk was really just a collection of highlights from his channel 4 show, in which he identifies ‘tells’ that give away what a politician is really thinking. For example he said that compared with his cabinet colleagues, Gordon Brown exhibited about 5 times as many discomfort gestures (e.g. looking down, chewing his lip) when Tony Blair was giving a conference speech. This prompted a journalist next to me to ask – “wouldn’t it have been more logical to have compared how many discomfort gestures Brown made during Blair’s speech with how many he made during a speech by someone else?”.

“Yes, you’re right” Collett admitted, “but you’re talking about an actual experiment, this is just something I put together for a TV programme”.

Hmm. Well at least he was honest about that – but wasn’t this supposed to be the BA Science Festival?

Another audience member suggested that Brown might have been displaying these discomfort gestures because of other events in his life – the conference may have been near in time to when he lost his new-born baby, for example.

“Yes, the interpretation of these gestures is up for grabs” Collett answered. “It’s all about taking into account the context…but with individuals this IS NOT A SCIENCE“.

At least a lot of parapsychology research uses sound scientific methodology whereas this was, as Collett pretty much admitted, just a load of speculation put together for a TV programme.

Cognitive neuroscience free samples

ward_jamie.jpgPsychology Press have put together a slick site to promote and enhance their cognitive neuroscience books, and particularly their new textbook The Student’s Guide to Cognitive Neuroscience with sample chapters, downloads and a podcast available online.

The books is written by Dr Jamie Ward who founded the synaesthesia research group at University College London and happened to be my MSc supervisor (and is a jolly nice chap to boot).

Jamie has co-ordinated the MSc in Cognitive Neuropsychology at UCL for several years, and it’s good to see he’s put together a textbook aimed at covering neuropsychology that is accessible to undergraduate and postgraduate students.

He is interviewed in an mp3 podcast about his own research and the field of cognitive neuroscience in general.

The first chapter of his book is also available online, and covers the history and development of mind-brain studies.

Link to Psychology Press ‘Cognitive Neuroscience Arena’ (via BrainEthics).
mp3 of interview with Jamie Ward.
Link to sample chapter.

No psi please, we’re British

Lord_Winston.jpgThe Telegraph reports that Professor Robert Winston has criticised the recent British Association Festival of Science for allowing an ‘unbalanced’ discussion of parapsychology as “I know of no serious properly done studies which make me feel that this is anything other than nonsense.”

This is a little ironic, as Winston recently had adverts for ‘clever milk’ pulled from newspapers by the advertising standards authority for being misleading.

In the adverts, he claimed that a brand of Omega-3 fortified milk boosted children’s intelligence. The authority did not find evidence to support this claim.

Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column in The Guardian summarises the evidence as follows:

Contrary to what the pill-peddlers would tell you, the evidence for omega 3 pills being beneficial in children is really rather thin: only a handful of small trials have been published in proper journals, and at last count 3 were positive, 2 were negative, and none were in mainstream children.

The conclusion of these studies is about as strong as that drawn from a recent review in Psychological Bulletin on psychokinesis.

The review concluded by saying that the evidence was weakly positive in support of this ‘psi-ability’, but they couldn’t be sure that the effect wasn’t due to a reporting bias.

In contrast to the Omega-3 studies, however, the authors of the review found that the psychokinesis studies were generally of a high standard.

One of the ironies of this debate is that parapsychology studies are often some of most rigorously conducted in science, largely to avoid accusations of ‘pseudoscience’.

The fact that they tend to find a weak effect at best (and most commonly no effect) doesn’t make them bad science.

Furthermore, as pointed out by a 2004 New Scientist article, (pdf) the studies are typically better conducted and can produce greater supporting evidence than the often notoriously-biased pharmaceutical drug trial reports.

To quote psychologist William James “A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices”.

Link to Telegraph article “Festival attacked over paranormal ‘nonsense'”.
Link to Times article “‘Misleading’ Winston milk ads pulled”.
pdf of New Scientist article ‘Opposites Detract’.

Bizarre case of consent

A curious news report from what sounds like a difficult court case:

A man has been acquitted of raping a woman – because she had at least 14 personalities.

In a bizarre case, a jury was told that the 40-year-old man was accused of sexually assaulting the woman 11 times in her home in 2004 while some of her alter egos looked on and at times intervened.

During the District Court trial that finished last Tuesday, the court was told three of the 33-year-old woman’s personalities were present at one of the alleged incidents.

The complainant said two identities had been at other incidents.

Top WA criminal lawyer Judith Fordham, who watched the case, said it was the strangest she had seen.

“Although there have been many cases in our courts where the accused has a mental illness, and some where victims or alleged victims suffer from mental illness, in 20 years as a lawyer I have never seen anything quite like this,” she said.

Multiple personality disorder, now called dissociative identity disorder, is a controversial diagnosis that generally causes confusion whenever it appears in a legal case.

In one famous case, Kenneth Bianchi (the ‘Hillside Strangler’) claimed that he could not be held responsible for a series of murders as another ‘evil’ personality committed the crimes.

He was suspected to be faking and was caught out when a psychologist deliberately fed him the false information that MPD “always” involved more than two personalities.

Another personality ‘appeared’ shortly after and Bianchi was convicted of the murders.

Link to news report from (via anomalist).
Link to BBC info on the Bianchi case.

The life and death of Private Harry Farr

private_harry_farr.jpgThe Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine has a pdf of a gripping article on Private Harry Farr, a 25 year-old British soldier shot for cowardice during World War I, despite having being treated for shell-shock.

As with all other WWI soldiers executed for cowardice, Farr was pardoned earlier this year by the British Government.

The article is written by Professor Simon Wessley of King’s College London, who puts the Farr’s court martial and execution in context of the history of World War I, and in the context of what was known about trauma-related psychiatry at the time.

There is little dispute about the sequence of events on 17 September 1916 that led to the execution of Private Farr. Harry Farr was a member of 1st Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment, which was taking part in the battle of the Somme. That day his battalion was moving from their rear positions up to the front line itself. At 9.00 am that morning Farr asked for permission to fall out, saying he was not well. He was sent to see the medical officer, who either found nothing wrong with him, or refused to see him because he had no physical injury‚Äîthe Court Martial papers are unclear on this point. Later that night Farr was found still at the rear, and was again ordered to go the trenches. He refused, telling Regimental Sergeant Major Haking, that he ‘could not stand it’. Then Hanking replied ‘You are a fucking coward and you will go to the trenches. I give fuck all for my life and I give fuck all for yours and I’ll get you fucking well shot’. At 11.00 pm that night a final attempt was made to get Private Farr up to the front line, and he was escorted forward. A fracas broke out between Farr and his escorts, and this time they let him run away. The following morning he was arrested and charged with contravening section 4 (7) of the Army Act ‚Äî showing cowardice in the face of the enemy.

The article discusses why Farr was executed, when over 96% of soldiers convicted of cowardice escaped this punishment, and how the concept of psychological disorder was understood in 1916, particularly by a British Army in a precarious military position.

For more information on shell-shock, and a paper by pioneering WWI military psychiatrist W.H.R. Rivers on the condition, there’s a good overview available here.

pdf of article ‘The life and death of Private Harry Farr’.
Link to shell-shock info from

Are beautiful people more intelligent?

There’s a curious article from The Guardian on the work of two researchers who are investigating the link between beauty and intelligence, and who argue that a genuine link exists.

Are beautiful people more intelligent than the rest of us? Satoshi Kanazawa and Jody Kovar think so. In a 17-page study called Why Beautiful People Are More Intelligent, they explain bluntly: “Individuals perceive physically attractive others to be more intelligent than physically unattractive others. While most researchers dismiss this perception as a ‘bias’ or ‘stereotype’, we contend that individuals have this perception because beautiful people indeed are more intelligent.”

The full paper is available online as a pdf and there’s a previous write-up from the Washington Post.

It seems the research is largely on the link between beauty and intelligence in females, however.

Link to Guardian article ‘Pretty smart’.
Link to Washington Post article.
pdf of research article.