2006-11-24 Spike activity

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

Our obsession with physical appearance may not be so shallow, after all suggests an article in the Washington Post.

The New York Times discusses how personal space and physical presence in one-to-one communication differs between cultures.

More from PsyBlog’s series on emotion: Neural Correlates of Emotional Judgements.

Noonday Demon author Andrew Solomon discusses current progress in understanding and treating depression.

Is this the first self-aware robot? Good analysis and more detail (and video!) from the Neurophilosopher here.

V.S. Ramachandran considers some of the key issues in consciousness research in an article for Seed Magazine.

Study finds new generation antipsychotics are not much better than the old ones (again).

B Fred Skinner

In some circles behaviourism is associated with a kind of fascism, or at the very least an austere puritanism (to contrast it with its nemesis, the literary/humanistic psychoanalysis). B.F. Skinner particularly suffers from this association, because of his pivotal role in the development of the science and philosophy of behaviourism, and perhaps because of some of his political writings (e.g. ‘Beyond Freedom and Dignity‘, 1971). There’s even an entirely false story that he applied behaviourist control techniques to his family, with disastrous results.

Skinner As Self-Manager by Rober Epstein, a student and later colleague of Skinner, gives an account of Skinner, and his style of life, which is in stark contrast to the disempowering, mechanistically-clinical, image some might have of behaviourist psychology:

Each day of our collaboration brought new projects and new excitement, and, as I got to know Skinner better, my awe began to subside. He insisted, for one thing, that I call him ‚ÄòFred,‚Äô and it‚Äôs hard to be in awe of someone named Fred (his full name is Burrhus Frederic Skinner)… Fred‚Äôs manner was casual and far from intimidating. He often leaned back in his chair as he spoke, and his eyes sparkled with the energy of a man in his 20s, even though he was past 70. He told jokes and recited limericks, and he loved to hear new ones.

To my knowledge, and all of the rumors notwithstanding, Fred did not rely on ‘behavior modification’ techniques to ‘control’ people. Quite the contrary. He was relaxed, natural, and gentle in most of his dealings with other people. His interpersonal style was made milder, if anything, by the scientific principles he helped to develop, because his research convinced him that punishment was a poor tool for changing behavior, so he avoided using it in his everyday life.

Life, to Fred, was a series of joys to relish and challenges to overcome, and he did both extremely well…Fred was the most creative, most productive, and happiest person I have ever known.

Commercial mind-machine interface by 2011?

There’s an interesting snippet on the Wired blog about Hitachi developing ‘home’ brain imaging technology which they hope will allow thought-based computer interaction by 2011.

Hitachi’s system doesn’t invasively co-opt the nervous sytem, instead using a topographic modelling system to measure blood flow in the brain, translating the images into signals that are sent to the controller. So far, this new technique only allows for simple switching decisions, but Hitachi aims to commercialize it within five years for use by paralyzed patients and those undergoing “cognitive rehabilitation.

Link to Wired Blog entry.

Toxic intimacy

The New York Times has a short but interesting article on people who find intimate relationships stressful and bad for their mental health.

A close relationship is considered almost universally beneficial, but some people seem to find relationships difficult to deal with, even when they’re going well.

Interestingly, the article describes this as a ‘schizoid’ trait, which is usually considered to be the lack of emotional attachment seen in some people with schizophrenia (although not in all by any means).

While it is a clich√© to say that people with autism or Asperger’s syndrome are loners, many do find intimate relationships difficult, and it’s curious that the article doesn’t mention this as a possible link.

Outsiders is a UK charity set-up by Dr Tuppy Owens to help people who are disabled or socially isolated with starting and maintaining relationships, and has been working in this field for many years.

Link to NYT article ‘Like a Fish Needs a Bicycle’ (thanks Paul and Candace!)
Link to Outsiders.

Mental processes in the human brain (taped)

Video of the Royal Society event on 16th-17th of October – ‘Mental processes in the human brain’, is now available online. I strongly recommend the first talk, by Dan Schacter, which is about the active, constructive, nature of human episodic memory and why it might be built like that (answer: because it is designed to subserve the flexible recombination of past experiences to predict the future)

Poets, artists and unusual experiences

From the BPS Research Digest:

The idea that creative geniuses might not be entirely sane isn’t exactly new. But just how much do creative types have in common with people suffering from psychosis? Well, according to Daniel Nettle at the University of Newcastle, serious poets and artists have just as many ‘unusual experiences’ as people diagnosed with schizophrenia. What saves them from the disabling effects of schizophrenia is that they don’t suffer from the lack of emotion and motivation ‚Äì known as ‘introvertive anhedonia’ ‚Äì also associated with the illness.

Nettle used a measure of schizotypy on the participants in his study. Schizotypy is based on the concept that schizophrenia-like experiences can occur in everyone to some degree, and those with schizophrenia simply experience more intense and distressing versions of the milder experiences that other people have.

Link to more from BPS-RD (and link to full-text paper).
Link to Wikipedia page on schizotypy.

The plastinated brain

The Plastinated Brain is a website with some amazing pictures of a dissected brain preserved with a process called plastination.

The website is from the Institute for Anatomy at the University of Vienna and intends to help people understand human brain anatomy.

Plastination preserves the body in a state where a remarkable amount of detail can be seen.

You can navigate through the brain slice by slice, or see particular parts taken out and examined in detail.

Each part is also labelled, so if you’re keen to polish up your neuroanatomy, there’s plenty of material to help you on your way.

Link to The Plastinated Brain.