Putting the fun in dysfunctional

I’ve just found an interesting letter to the British Journal of Psychiatry by A. J. McBride who noted the high level of mental illness in professional comedians.

Perhaps most well-known is the British comedian Spike Milligan who suffered from bipolar disorder and was frequently admitted to hospital.

In fact, a ward at the Maudsley Hospital in London, where he was admitted at least once, was opened by Spike. A plaque still commemorates the occasion.

The letter in the BJP was a comment on an earlier paper that noted the exceptionally high level of mental illness among jazz musicians.

Link to BJP letter on mental illness in comedians.
Link to BJP paper on mental illness in jazz musicians.

the society of mind

minsky.jpgMarvin Minksy, one of the founding figures in Artificial Intelligence, in his Society of Mind (1985):

People ask if machines have souls. And I ask back whether souls can learn. It does not seem a fair exchange – if souls can live for endless time and yet not use that time to learn – to trade all change for changelessness. And that’s exactly what we get with inborn souls that cannot grow: a destiny the same as death, an ending in a permanence incapable of any change and, hence, devoid of intellect.

We start as little embryos, which then build great and wonderous selves – whose merit lies entirely within their own coherancy. The value of a human self lies not in some small, precious core, but in its vast constructed crust

What are those old and fierce beliefs in spirits, souls, and essences? They’re all insinuation that we’re helpless to improve ourselves. To look for our virtues in such thoughts seems just as wrongly aimed a search as seeking art in canvas cloths by scraping off the painter’s works.

Art for all senses

Seed Magazine has an article on Marcia Smilack – a photographer and video artist with a rare form of synaesthesia in which all her senses intermingle.

Smilack aims to capture this experience in her work and express it for people without the condition.

The article discusses why art may be such a good expression of synaesthetic experiences and describes some current research that demonstrates that synaesthetes’ drawings of music were also thought to be a ‘better match’ by people without the condition.

This perhaps suggests that we all have some sort of innate ability to make sense of inter-sensory cross-overs.

Smilack’s films are a particularly striking attempt to capture part of the experience.

The video for Coldcut’s Music 4 No Musicians always struck me as particularly synaesthetic if you’re after an interesting (and very mellow) attempt to link sound and vision.

Link to Seed article ‘The Most Beautiful Painting You’ve Ever Heard’.
Link to Marcia Smilack’s website.
Link to Coldcut’s Music 4 No Musicians (takes a while to get going).

Prison officers issued knives to ‘cut suicide rate’

In a wonderfully twisted solution to poor mental health care, prison officers in UK’s Winchester Prison are being issued knives in an attempt to reduce suicide rates by allowing them to cut down prisoners they find hanging in their cells.

Mental health care in prison is notoriously bad (a recent reported noted one third of UK young offenders are mentally ill), and many operate as little more than surrogate psychiatric facilities – without the psychiatry or the facilities. There is a similar situation in the USA.

I’ve spent some time trying to track down the latest reports on HMP Winchester but with very little success, although from what I can find Winchester seems to be a particularly bad example.

This news story incidentally mentions that a recent report “attacks the policy of keeping people with mental health problems locked up in prison healthcare wings when they should be receiving treatment from trained staff.”

This written response to a 2001 parliamentary request for a information on suicide rates in the prison shows them spiralling out of control to almost eight times the national average. More recent figures show it to have one of the highest number of prison suicides in the country.

The spectacularly broken website of the Independent Monitoring Board, the body that reports on prison conditions, lists the last published annual report as 2004.

This report notes that “The problem of prisoners with severe mental disabilities is raised time and time again” and also notes the lack of mental health care facilities “leaves Prison Officers no choice but to deal with these prisoners even though they are not medically trained so to do”.

It seems prison suicides have been a more recent matter of parliamentary concern and the actual prevention guidelines (which seem remarkably sensible) are available online as a Word doc.

Link to article ‘Prison issue knives to officers to cut suicide rate’ from Hampshire News (via TWS).

Beautiful images from PsicoCaf√©

I’ve stumbled across a wonderful collection of mind and brain artwork, collected by the author of the Italian website PsicoCaf√©.

Unfortunately, my Italian isn’t what it should be but the site’s blog is updated daily, has a podcast and video section, and, not surprisingly, looks beautiful.

If your language doesn’t hold out, however, the image gallery is well worth a browse as it’s quite a stunning collection.

Link to PsicoCafé image gallery.
Link to PsicoCafé.

The buzzing blooming life of William James

The Boston Globe has a review of a new biography of William James. He is often called the ‘father of modern psychology’ and is equally well-known for his work in philosophy.

Not quite as well-known is his drug-experimentation, fascination with parapsychology and interest in numerous women.

It’s almost a clich√© that psychology talks will start with a quote from James. Largely because his work, most notably the book The Principles of Psychology, touched upon almost every area now part of mainstream cognitive science.

His interests were truly eclectic, however, and his writing explores a diverse range of thoughts and experiences.

One of my favourite James quotes is a sentence he wrote after taking nitrous oxide (‘laughing gas’), recorded in an essay on the experience:

“There are no differences but differences of degree between different degrees of difference and no difference.”

James also experienced terrible depressions and suicidal thoughts throughout his life, giving him first hand experience of a mind gone awry.

Perhaps a combination of natural curiosity and an interest in altered states led James to radical and still-influential theories of mental life.

A recent review from The New York Times summed it up like so:

It is hard to maintain the illusion of the disembodied philosopher in the face of this larger-than-life and fascinatingly cracked personality, who pragmatically turned the very fissures of his soul into metaphysical positions.

There’s more in the reviews, and the book itself, William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism (ISBN 0618433252), has recently hit the shelves.

Link to Boston Globe review of James biography (via 3Q).
Link to review from LA Times.
Link to extensive review from The New York Times.

Confabulated Memory t-shirt

Online t-shirt retailer and design free-for-all Threadless have just released a t-shirt based on the theme of ‘confabulated memory’.

In neuropsychology, ‘confabulation’ usually refers to a condition where people produce streams of false memories.

It is distinguished from lying in that affected people do not seem to be intentionally trying to deceive. In fact, they seem to have little control over their recall.

Although we all confabulate without realising it to some degree, the clinical condition is most striking after brain injury.

The following example is from a study on a 56 year-old man who developed the condition after brain surgery to remove a tumour.

You were at school together?
We still are.

You and Val? Really? I didn’t know that. When you say you still are, do you mean you are still at school now?
Well not at school, at university.

Oh. So the two of you are at university together?
Yes. She is doing third year and I am doing computers.

The t-shirt is a wonderful graphic portrayal of this free-wheeling fountain of memories with themes mingling and overlapping in a confused and chaotic state.

Link to Threadless t-shirt ‘Confabulated Memory’.

Understanding burnout (Santa take note)

“In a culture where work can be a religion, burnout is its crisis of faith”. The New York Magazine has an in-depth article on the psychology of burn-out.

Burnout is not its own category in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. It’s not something that can be treated pharmacologically; it is not considered the same thing as depression or a midlife crisis, though sometimes they coincide. The term was first coined by a psychotherapist named Herbert Freudenberger, who himself probably took it from Graham Greene’s novel A Burnt-Out Case. (“I haven’t enough feeling left for human beings,” the book’s numb protagonist, Querry, wrote in his journal, “to do anything for them out of pity.”) While working at a free clinic for drug addicts in Haight-Ashbury, Freudenberger noticed that the volunteers, when discouraged, would often push harder and harder at their jobs, only to feel as if they were achieving less and less. The result, in 1974, was the book Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement. Others soon followed. A subspecialty of psychology was born.

Isn’t Freudenberger just the best name for a psychotherapist?

Link to article ‘Can‚Äôt Get No Satisfaction’.

20 years at the Koestler Parapsychology Unit

The Psychologist have just made an article available online that looks at the history an ongoing work of Ediburgh University’s Koestler Parapsychology Unit.

It is one of the few academic parapsychology units in the world and the unit takes pride in a strictly scientific approach to studying the paranormal.

As well as studying whether there is any scientific basis to ‘psi’ phenomena, they also study the psychology of people who believe in the paranormal.

There is now a good body of research suggesting paranormal belief correlates with a number of psychological and neurological factors, such as content-specific reasoning biases and increased temporal lobe activity.

The Psychologist article looks at the history of the unit and how its work has developed since it was founded.

Link to ’20 years at the Koestler Parapsychology Unit’.

A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines

Some dialogue from the novel A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines (ISBN 1400040302) by physicist Janna Levin.

In this passage, Kurt G√∂del discusses his objections to Alan Turing’s work on whether the mind can be completely described as a series of computations with his friend Oskar Morgenstern.

“If I die, you must promise to publish my article refuting Alan Turing’s thesis on the limitations of the mind. A Turing machine is a concept, equivalent to a mechanical procedure or algorithm. Turing was able to completely replace reasoning by mechanical operations on formulas – by Turing machines. Good, agreed?

However, are we supposed to equate the human soul with a Turing machine? No. There is a philosophical error in Turing’s work. Turing in his 1937 paper, page 250, gives an argument which is supposed to show that mental procedures cannot go beyond mechanical procedures. However this argument inconclusive. What Turing disregards completely is the fact that mind, in its use, is not static but constantly developing.

They murdered him, you realize?”

“I thought it was suicide,”, Oskar replies absently.

Kurt continues, “The government poisoned his food. I have also been working on a formal proof of the existence of God. But this is unfinished. I don’t want our colleagues to think I am crazy. Maybe you should not published that one if I die.”

Gödel eventually died from starvation, owing to paranoid beliefs about conspiracies and poisoning.

G√∂del’s idea that consciousness is not understandable as a form of computation was further developed by mathematician Roger Penrose in the book Shadows of the Mind (ISBN 0198539789).

Link to excerpt from book.
Link to Janna Levin’s website.

Brain science writing winners announced

The winners for the 2006 National Brain-Science Writing Prize have been announced with the full text of all the winning entries available online.

The first prize for a newspaper article written about the brain was awarded to Rebecca Poole for her article on false memories.

The first prize for an article written by a researcher was awarded to Dr Angelica Ronald for an article looking at the links between ADHD and autism.

The runners-up articles are on the website too, so wander over if you want some more quality neuroscience writing.

Link to 2006 National Brain-Science Writing Prize winners.

Social networks and counter-insurgency

The New Yorker has a fascinating article on a new generation of anthropologist military strategists, such as David Kilcullen and Montgomery McFate, who argue that social networks, not ideologies, are key to understanding terrorist campaigns.

Like Kilcullen, [McFate] was drawn to the study of human conflict and also its reality: at Yale, where she received a doctorate, her dissertation was based on several years she spent living among supporters of the Irish Republican Army and then among British counterinsurgents. In Northern Ireland, McFate discovered something very like what Kilcullen found in West Java: insurgency runs in families and social networks, held together by persistent cultural narratives…

Similarly, Kilkullen has drawn on his own military experiences and research on the role of social groups in insurgencies, and is now responsible for writing counter-insurgency guidelines for deployed soldiers.

One of the most influential sociology papers ever written was Mark Granovetter’s The Strength of Weak Ties (review article at this pdf) which looked at how people were connected in social networks and how this facilitated information exchange, and, consequently, individual goal attainment.

Granovetter demonstrated that ‘strong ties’ (i.e. family and close friends) were actually less important in social networks for getting things done than ‘weak ties’ (i.e. acquaintances) because ‘weak ties’ tend to be people who have different and diverse resources that aren’t in the immediate social group.

This led to the realisation that group structure was important, and, crucially, that these could be analysed using the mathematical tools of graph theory.

Social network theory is now an important and growing area of social psychology and understanding how information flows through social network is thought to be key for making sense of how groups work, co-operate, expand and influence others.

Importantly, this has meant the individualist approach of traditional social psychology (‘how do social groups influence the individual’) and the computational approach of social network theory (‘how does social structure influence information flow’) can be powerfully combined.

Kilkullen argues that terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda need to be understood in terms of how their information strategy is being implemented through their social networks, and how they are attempting to recruit collaborators to further their routes of communication.

The article discusses how this has affected US counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency strategy – from global policy to field manuals for company captains.

Perhaps, one take-away message from the piece is just how important social science is becoming to military forces of all persuasions as they increasingly fight through communities rather than for them.

Link to New Yorker article ‘Knowing the Enemy’.

Without music

Amusia is like colour blindness for music. Affected people can’t grasp the subtleties and structure of music despite having having intact hearing. The problems seems to be with the relevant auditory brain systems.

BBC Radio 4 science programme Frontiers recently had an edition on this curious condition that explores the neuroscience of why this occurs and talks to people with the music perception difficulties.

They also link to a musical listening test so you can test your own abilities.

Link to Frontiers page on amusia.
realaudio of programme.
Link to good BBC article on amusia.

Delusions and insight on ABC All in the Mind

The excellent ABC Radio All in the Mind has just had an edition on delusions and insight – examining why people not only have wildly unusual psychotic experiences, but also why they don’t realise these experiences are in any way strange or unusual.

Several people are interviewed who have experienced delusions and psychosis, as well as psychologist Dr Xavier Amador who has extensively written and researched on the topic of insight.

He is co-editor of one of the key books in the field, Insight and Psychosis, and also runs workshops for friends and relatives of people with psychosis.

Insight is a tricky concept, because it is not clear exactly what the person is supposed to have insight into.

It is usually broken down into three factors:

* Does the person believe they have a mental illness?
* Does the person believe the symptoms they are experiencing are due to the mental illness?
* Does the person accept treatment?

Although someone who believes they are dead must be lacking insight into something, the last factor is particularly contentious and there is a degree to which ‘having insight’ is a measure of how much you agree with your psychiatrist.

For example, one measure of insight into the negative symptoms of schizophrenia is to ask the person to fill out a subjective rating of their symptoms, and compared it to the same rating completed by the psychiatrist.

The difference in score is supposed to represent the extent of the patients lack of insight, but it could just as easily represent the psychiatrist’s lack of insight into the patient’s condition.

It is also not clear how the lack of insight in psychotic mental illness links to lack of insight after brain injury – known as anosognosia.

This can be so striking that a person with paralysis or even blindness after brain injury may be completely unaware that they can no longer move or see.

All in the Mind discusses how it’s possible to help someone who believes there is nothing wrong with them, even when there’s a clear difference in the perception of reality.

Link to All in the Mind on insight and psychosis.

Happy seasonal festival of your adopted social context

The Christmas holidays are approaching and I suspect updates to Mind Hacks will be a little sporadic over the next week or two.

Hopefully we’ll manage some posts but I’m not sure how internet access will work out as we travel about spreading good cheer (or, alternatively, we might just be travelling about).

Enjoy yourself, wherever and whoever you are!

Everything begins with an EEG

The most important application of brain-machine interfaces is to allow paralysed people the ability to control their environment.

The second most important application, is, of course, to create psychedelic rave visuals to accompany pumping acid techno.

Mind VJ is a project by Lenara Verle and Marlon Barrios-Solano that has filled this neglected area of research by designing an EEG-based system that creates intense visuals in response to electrical brain changes.

In MIND VJ, the idea is to use the rhythm of our own brain waves as the conducting element for the performance. In this manner, we can tap into a normally “hidden” area of our body (brain function and its electrical activity) and make it “visible” in the form of projected images. In this case, the images projected won’t be wave graphs, like the ones usually plotted by medical EEG machines, but artistic images, undergoing real-time changes and manipulations controlled by the current brain wave output of the subject (the MIND VJ)

Provocatively, The MIND VJ project references thoughts of utopian cyber dreams about the ultimate direct brain to computer interface, and on the other side brings paranoid ideas of “mind reading” and “mind control”.

I think we can guess where the drugs kicked in when they were writing that bit of text.

There’s more about the project on their website and a video of Mind VJ in action.

Apparently the project is still in progress and I look forward to seeing how it develops.

Link to Mind VJ.