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.