Marvin Minsky on love

Artificial intelligence pioneer and cognitive scientist Marvin Minsky whispers sweet nothings to The Boston Globe in an interview about emotion:

What, in your view, is love?

There’s short-term infatuation, where someone gets strongly attracted to someone else, and that’s probably very often a turning-off of certain things rather than something extra: It’s a mental state where you remove your criticism. So to say someone is beautiful is not necessarily positive, it may be something happening so you can’t see anything wrong with this person. And then there are long-term attachments, where you adopt the goals of the other person and somehow make serious changes in what you’re going to do.

Try putting that in your next Valentine’s card. Shakespeare be damned.

I tried to think up a joke based on artificial intelligence, Minksy and a love machine, but I haven’t managed it so far, so please consider it a kit and assemble one in your own time.

Link to ‘Minsky talks about life, love in the age of artificial intelligence’.

Synapse 13 arrives

Issue 13 of The Synapse psychology and neuroscience writing carnival has appeared online, hosted this week by Neurocontrarian, with the latest in home grown mind and brain news.

Also comes the news that the Synapse and Encephalon carnivals are combining forces in the future, so the new combined version will be released fortnightly.

This issue of The Synapse has everything from radio interviews to notch receptors so catch it while it’s hot.

How economists measure happiness

Slate has a short article on the intriguing question of how economists measure happiness.

This has become a key issue this year, as the two leading political parties in the UK, and the kingdom of Bhutan, have cited ‘happiness’ as a national goal.

Happiness, otherwise known as ‘subjective well-being’ (sounds more scientific doesn’t it?), is actually quite a tricky thing to measure.

Despite it being fairly prominent as a human desire throughout history, only recently has it been studied in earnest by psychologists.

This has been linked to the ‘positive psychology‘ movement that has begun to specifically focus on human strengths and virtues, after hundreds of years of psychology being dominated by the study of mental distress or reasoning abilities.

In fact, the idea that psychologists were studying happiness caused enough of a stir to make the front cover of Time magazine in 2004. The pdf of the article is available online if you want to have a look.

The Slate article briefly describes the current approaches to measuring happiness: essentially, either by judging overall ‘life satisfaction’ or by recording day-by-day emotions and working out an average.

If you want a bit more on the emerging science of happiness, psychologist Daniel Gilbert wrote a good summary for Edge which is still available online.

Link to Slate article ‘The Not-So-Dismal Science’ (with mp3 version).
pdf of Time article ‘The New Science of Happiness’.
Link to Edge discussion with Daniel Gilbert.

Magic mushrooms for OCD

BBC News is carrying a curious story about a study on the use of psilocybin (the main active ingredient in ‘magic mushrooms’) as a possible treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder, otherwise known as OCD.

Despite how these stories usually appear in the media, this research isn’t particularly unique. A steady trickle of studies on the potential therapeutic effects of psychedelic drugs has been apparent for the last two decades.

Psychedelic anaesthetic ketamine has been used with some success to treat alcoholism, and MDMA (‘Ecstasy’) is being researched as an agent to assist psychotherapy, particularly to treat post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.

A long-running research project, headed by (the appropriately named) Prof Deborah Mash from the University of Miami, has looked at the potential of the hallucinogen ibogaine in treating addictions. There’s more at this pdf.

In fact, there was some promising work done in the 1960s on the use of LSD in treating alcoholism before it was stopped due to government worries about the rising drug culture, and we reported previously on contemporary trials of LSD and psilocybin in the treatment of cluster headaches.

So, the fact that someone is researching the potential of psilocybin for treating OCD is not as surprising as it might at first seem.

What did catch my eye, however, was this quote from psychiatrist Dr Paul Blenkiron:

“About 12% of people can suffer flashbacks after less than 10 exposures [to psychedelics] many years later, beyond the six months of this study, so long term effects should be carefully assessed.”

Despite looking, I can’t find any concrete figures on a) the frequency of ‘flashback’ experiences, and b) whether they are a genuine drug-related phenomenon or not (one study suggested they could be induced by suggestion after placebo).

If anyone knows of any good research done on this area, please let me know, as I haven’t found anything so far with some good data on this still-seemingly anecdotal experience.

Also, although the BBC mentions the study, it doesn’t say where it’s going to be published. There’s a link to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry on the page, but there’s nothing on the JCP website or on PubMed yet.

Curiouser and curiouser.

UPDATE: The comments have some fantastic additional information on ‘flashback’ research, including the source of the figures quoted by Dr Blenkiron. Thanks very much everyone!

Link to BBC News article “Psychedelic drug ‘hope for OCD'”.
Link to great Canadian Journal of Psychiatry article on LSD.
Link to recent LA Times article on psilocybin treatments.

Autoerotic entertainment

The medical literature is a source of endless fascination. As well as charting the sure-but-steady progress of medical science, it also keeps tabs on the more unusual aspects of human behaviour.

PubMed is the world’s medical research database, and I’ve found endless ways of entertaining myself with this seemingly starched and functional research tool.

One of those ways is to search using the keyword ‘autoerotic‘.

The diversity of human sexuality is awe-inspiring, and this simple search will bring some of the most unusual aspects of the sexual rainbow into stark relief.

Where else could you read about ‘Aqua-eroticum: an unusual autoerotic fatality in a lake involving a home-made diving apparatus’?

That last one is from the Journal of Forensic Sciences, which, if ever you get a chance to read it, is a bi-monthly litany of the most obscure, surprising and compelling aspects of the human character – delivered in a completely deadpan style.

To quote Groucho Marx “Yesterday I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I don’t know”.

Link to search of PubMed using the keyword ‘autoerotic’.

Work, play and the vagaries of regret

The New York Times has a piece on thought-provoking research suggesting that while we are glad we resisted the temptation to party in the short-term, in the long-term we regret the missed opportunity for enjoyment.

They say that no-one on their death bed says “I wish I’d spent more time in the office”. A study by Ran Kivetz and Anat Keinan seems to suggest that this attitude holds, even over shorter periods of time.

Kivetz interviewed 63 subjects and asked half of them to recall a time in the previous week when they had to choose between work or pleasure ‚Äî and then to rank how they felt about their decision on a scale from “no regret at all” to “a lot of regret.” Then Kivetz asked the other half to do the same for a similar decision five years in the past. When the moment in question was a week before, those who worked industriously reported that they were glad they had. Those who partied said they regretted it. But when the subjects considered the decision from five years in the past, the propositions reversed: those who toiled regretted it; those who relaxed were happy with their choice.

They suggest that this occurs because time dulls what they call ‘indulgence guilt’, but accentuates the feeling of ‘missing out’.

Guilt, it seems, is more of an emotional reaction that is tempered in hindsight, whereas the feeling of ‘missing out’ is a more reflective reaction based on a longer-view of the preceding years.

The moral of the story is, er… party now, or, alternatively try and get a job you enjoy.

The researchers’ paper, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, is available online as a pdf file.

Link to NYT article.
pdf of paper ‘Repenting Hyperopia: An Analysis of Self-Control Regrets’.

Wittgenstein and wisdom

British philosophy magazine Philosophy Now has a special edition on that most psychological of philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein, with several of the feature articles freely available online.

Wittgenstein is known as much for his character as his philosophy, and for those not familiar with his life Tim Madigan’s short introduction is a good place to start.

If you want to get your teeth into some of the philosophical ideas, Mark Jago has written a remarkably clear guide to Wittgenstein’s picture theory of language.

There’s more articles available if you pick up a copy of the magazine or have online access.

If you get a chance to see the magazine itself (a bit difficult to get hold of as many shops don’t carry it) you’ll notice that Philosophy Now is exactly what you’d expect from a philosophy magazine: a bit chaotic, endearingly eccentric and wonderfully intellectual.

Otherwise, you could do much worse than listening to a fantastic edition of BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time that tackled the life and philosophy of Wittgenstein, archived online.

Link to Philosophy Now.
Link to Wikipedia page on Wittgenstein.
Link to In Our Time on Wittgenstein (with realaudio link).

‘Mass hysteria’ closes school

Yesterday, ‘mass hysteria’ closed a school in Barnsley. According to an article in The Times, 30 or so pupils began feeling ill after watching a widely used biology video, and as other pupils heard about the malady, the effect spread.

The school officials eventually gathered everyone together in the school hall suspecting a gas leak, and paramedics advised the school should be closed.

The original class were taken to hospital, but no signs of physical illness have been reported and no gas leak has been found. The episode has been put down to ‘mass hysteria’.

Mass hysteria is typically called ‘mass sociogenic illness’ in the research literature and was the subject of a fascinating 2002 article by sociologist Robert Bartholomew and psychiatrist Simon Wessley.

This article was published in the British Journal of Psychiatry and charts the history of mass sociogenic illness from the middle ages to the present day.

The authors also note some of the tell-tale signs that distinguish sociogenic illness from genuine mass poisoning, and suggest there are two main types:

“Wessely (1987) identifies two types of mass sociogenic illness ‚Äî ‘mass anxiety hysteria’ and ‘mass motor hysteria’. The former is of shorter duration, typically one day, and involves sudden, extreme anxiety following the perception of a false threat. The second category is typified by the slow accumulation of pent-up stress, is confined to an intolerable social setting and is characterised by dissociation, histrionics and alterations in psychomotor activity (e.g. shaking, twitching, contractures), usually persisting for weeks or months.”

Batholomew has written a completely enthralling book on this subject called Little Green Men, Meowing Nuns and Head-Hunting Panics: A Study of Mass Psychogenic Illnesses and Social Delusion (ISBN 0786409975) which comes highly recommended both as a guide to this medical curiosity, and as a tour through the more unusual aspects of our social psychology.

Link to Times article ‘Mass hysteria forces evacuation of school’.
Link to BJP article ‘Protean nature of mass sociogenic illness’.

Through the eyes of a psychopath

A recent brain imaging study has suggested that criminal psychopaths do not show the normal neurological reaction to seeing fear in other people’s faces.

Contrary to the media depiction, a diagnosis of clinical psychopathy does not necessarily describe someone who enjoys sadistic violence, but instead describes an aggressive or antisocial person who also seems to have shallow emotions, manipulates others, and has a lack of guilt and empathy for victims.

These traits are usually measured by the use of a diagnostic checklist called the PCL-R.

One of the theories of psychopathy suggests that we learn to avoid treating others badly because their negative emotional reaction is also unpleasant for us.

Psychopaths, so the theory goes, lack the ability to perceive distress in others, and so have less reason to avoid treating others badly if it serves their needs.

A group of researchers, led by Dr Quinton Deeley, tested this theory by brain-scanning 15 psychopaths and 9 healthy controls while they viewed happy, sad and neutral faces.

The participants were asked to indicate whether the faces were male or female as a way of focusing participants on the faces and testing whether they could identify faces adequately, but the real comparison was for their reaction to different emotional expressions.

The researchers found that people with psychopathy show reduced activation in brain areas linked to vision and face perception in response to fearful faces, and surprisingly, also to happy faces.

They also showed less activation to fearful faces compared to neutral faces, which was the reverse of the pattern found in control participants.

These results suggest that psychopathy may involve a problem with identifying others’ emotional reaction that is particularly apparent for fearful faces.

However, a previous study with psychopaths reported that they do not show the same fearful response to mild pain when compared to controls, suggesting that the effect may not be specific to faces but a more general problem with fear-based learning.

Whether the problem with identifying fear in other people’s faces is a part of this, or an additional problem, remains to be seen.

It is known that both genetics and early life experiences, such as coming from a broken home, experiencing physical punishment and anti-social parenting, can contribute to psychopathy.

What remains to be answered is how much of the differences in brain function are due to inherited traits, and how much are the result of the brain developing in response to early experiences.

UPDATE: Dr Quinton Deeley discusses emotion recognition and psychopaths in the December Royal College of Psychiatrists podcast. The interview starts 27 mins 35 secs in.

Link to abstract of scientific study.
Link to write-up from BBC News.

2006-12-08 Spike activity

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

SciAm has an article on research looking at the mathematical structure of neuroscience. Much more at this pdf.

Antidepressants can can improve your sense of taste, reports New Scientist. Obviously, this more than makes up for the antidepressant-induced sexual dysfunction.

The Neurocritic discusses research on memory that has used some cutting-edge neuroscience technology in the process.

Nature reports that the ‘fear centre’ (the what? oh, they mean the amygdala) is smaller in the brains of people with severe autism.

Neurofuture has a great article on the first neurosurgery-by-wire operation, and how the technique is developing.

The New York Times has an in-depth article on ‘seasonal affective disorder’.

Brain Ethics has lept back into life.

New mothers are four times more likely to become mentally ill than other women, reports The Boston Globe.

Dig that old school brain technology over at OmniBrain.

The future exists today. It’s just unevenly distributed

If you were wondering where it had got to, it looks like the annual ‘brain scan predicts schizophrenia’ story has arrived. If you’re feeling a bit nostalgic, have a look back at some past classics.

It’s not that these studies don’t show any predictive value of brain scans, but so far, none have proved reliable enough to be even slightly useful in clinical practice.

It’s also likely that brain scans will never predict schizophrenia 100%, because the evidence suggests that schizophrenia isn’t a single cut-and-dry condition, like the flu or arthritis – it’s just a vaguely described set of experiences that tend to occur together and often cause the person distress or impairment.

In fact, two people could have schizophrenia and not share any symptoms. In other words, there’s little that’s definitive and definite to predict.

Now, if only brain scans could predict when journalists will write a ‘brain scans predict’ article, then we might be able to intervene with the appropriate help.

UPDATE: There’s some good comments on this post, and CopperKettle has provided a link to the full paper.

Link to BBC News story “Scans ‘can predict schizophrenia'”.

Think fast feel great

Cognitive Daily has a great review of an intriguing study that suggests that thinking quickly could boost your mood.

People with mania, a state of uncontrollably ‘high’ mood, often say they have racing thoughts, and people with depression sometimes feel as if their thoughts are slowed, impaired or sluggish.

Psychologists Emily Pronin and Daniel Wegner decided to see whether they could influence mood by changing how fast people think.

They asked participants to read text at different speeds then asked them to rate their mood afterwards. People who had read text at the fastest speeds, reported a lift in mood.

The study involved some more comprehensive investigations, and there’s more at Cognitive Daily if you want the nitty gritty.

Link to ‘Depressed? Think faster thoughts, and your mood may improve’.

Phineas Gage and the rod of iron

The Neurophilosopher has written a great introduction to the history and science of Phineas Gage – one of the most famous cases in the history of neurology.

In 1848, Gage was a railroad worker who had the sort of job that sounds like it was designed for the Darwin awards: he was paid to drill holes in large rocks, fill them with gunpowder and pack it down with a large iron rod.

Not surprisingly, the gunpowder eventually ignited, sending the tamping iron through Gage’s skull.

Remarkably, Gage survived, but not without significant damage to his frontal lobes.

Gage seemed to show some changes in character (although the exactly details are still somewhat controversial), and this was one of the first clues that specific areas of the brain may be involved in specific mental functions.

More recently, scientific studies have been completed to work out the path of the iron through his skull, to understand exactly how the brain was affected.

Neurophilosopher has video of the computer reconstructions created by these studies, and discusses some of the historical details of the incident.

Link to ‘The incredible case of Phineas Gage’.
Link to Wikipedia page on Phineas Gage.