Hobbes, the first functionalist?

leviathan.jpgIf you thought that the founders of the Artificial Intelligence movement were the first to think that intelligence was just the product of computation, think again:


When man reasoneth, he does nothing else but conceive a sum total, from addition of parcels….For reason, in this sense, is nothing but reckoning

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Chapter 5 ‘Of Reason and Science’

Ketamine dreams

An excerpt from a letter to this month’s British Journal of Psychiatry on the effects of ketamine and the similarities and differences with psychosis, by Drs James Stone and Lyn Pilowsky:

“We also recently studied healthy volunteers following ketamine administration… Most experienced severe distortions of time, believing that a minute was several hours in duration. They also showed blunting of affect and loss of emotional reactivity. A few showed a marked disinhibition, with facetious replies to questions and apparent euphoria in the first 10‚Äì20 min after administration of ketamine. Several participants reported the belief that they were composed solely of thoughts, and that their bodies had either become nonexistent or were separate from them. One reported that he believed he could control people in the room by pointing with his hands, and another reported persecutory delusions.”

Link to full letter from December’s BJP.

Good and evil in the practice of neuroscience

ABC Radio’s The Philosopher’s Zone had an edition last week on ‘neuroethics’ – the branch of moral philosophy that deals with the difficult issues raised by our increasing ability to manipulate the brain.

For example, a lab at Georgia Tech have created The Hybrot, a robot controlled by the brain cells of a rat.

Some might question whether it is ethical to use sentient creatures for parts in mechanical devices.

If you have no ethical qualms about this, what about using human brain cells to do the job, donated by a card-carrying organ donor after an irreversible coma?

Perhaps it would make a difference what the device was, so a medical device to help someone move again might be acceptable, but an intelligent house-cleaning robot might seem too trivial to make human brain cells an acceptable component.

The Philosopher’s Zone examines neuroethics as a new discipline that aims to make sense of similarly taxing situations, often faced by clinicians and scientists in their day-to-day work.

If you’re interested in hearing more, Dana hosted a public panel discussion on these issues last year, and have put the video online.

Link to The Philosopher’s Zone on neuroethics.
Link to Dana panel discussion on neuroethics.

Drinking the milk of paradise

The opening of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem Kubla Khan:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree :
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round :
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree ;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

Coleridge claimed he wrote the poem after experiencing a vision during an opium-induced sleep, but was woken by a ‘person from Porlock’ before it was complete.

Coleridge’s biographer, Richard Holmes, suggests that because we tend to remember dreams best when we’re woken in their midst, rather than cutting short the poetic inspiration, the ‘person from Porlock’ may have actually saved this vision from sinking into the depths of unconsciousness.

However, it’s not clear whether the vision genuinely occurred as Coleridge claimed, so this remains speculation.

If you’re interested in a more in-depth analysis of this poem that Coleridge called a “a psychological curiosity”, there’s an excellent article in the PsyArt journal that examines it using a number of cognitive and psychological theories.

Link to full text of Kubla Khan.
Link to article on the poem from PsyArt.

Psychic epilepsy healing

Neurologists of the world rejoice. The chap at Extrasensory Epilepsy Healing can cure epilepsy with the power of his mind, and takes all types of credit cards over the internet.

If this isn’t revelation enough, it turns out that epilepsy, long thought to be a neurological disorder, is actually a problem with the pancreas.

If John Hughlings Jackson were alive to today, he would no doubt be feeling a little sheepish at this exciting news.

Too Much Too Young?

The New York Times has published part 3 in its series on child mental health with a look at how psychiatric drugs are being prescribed to children, and the evidence on their benefits and side-effects.

We featured the publication of the first two parts in the series on Mind Hacks. These looked at the impact of emotional and behavioural disturbance in children and the difficulties of adequately diagnosing child mental illness.

In contrast, the final part looks at the thorny issue of medicating disturbed children.

The article notes that some children are being prescribed a number of psychiatric drugs – a practice known as polypharmacy – despite limited or non-existent evidence for how effective this might be.

In fact, even the long-term effects of single drugs in children are poorly researched, with most ‘long-term’ studies lasted no more than two years.

The dilemma is that genuine long-term studies that would test for differences in adulthood after drug-treatment as a child could take 10-15 years.

This is a very long-time to wait if you’ve got a seriously mentally ill child on your hands and access to a drug which is known to help in the short-term.

Perhaps the more difficult ethical situations (as with most of mental health) do not involve the most severely distressed or impaired people.

These might be children whose behaviour is considered disruptive, who might be consistently unhappy, or who are considered not to be fulfilling their potential, but are not completely impaired in their day-to-day life.

For example, a medication such as the amphetamine-like drug methylphenidate (Ritalin) might genuinely improve school performance in these cases.

If the drug helps, is this a mental disorder? Either way, if the drug helps, should it be prescribed?

Teachers might have an interest in having medicated (and therefore better behaved) children in their classroom to maximise learning for everyone in the class.

Parents might want their child to make full use of their educational opportunities, even if that means taking a drug.

Child psychiatry is necessarily family and school-oriented, so it would take a brave doctor to refuse to prescribe when both school and parents are united in their opinion, even if they might only be focused on the desired change in the child’s behaviour, and not considering any other impact these drugs might have.

Furthermore, considering that childhood mental disorders can be triggered or made worse by inadequate social and emotional care, some worry that these drugs are being used to pacify children without addressing what might be the root cause of the problem in the family.

As the other articles in the series have done, this article combines both the experiences of families living with these difficulties and dilemmas, and includes comments from researchers and clinicians dealing with the problems from a professional standpoint.

Link to article ‘Proof Is Scant on Psychiatric Drug Mix for Young’.

Teaching computers to climb the tower of babel

Subtleties are important in language. I learnt this by using the phrase ‘tengo 26 anos’ in Spanish where I should have used ‘tengo 26 a√±os’. As I discovered, the difference is slight but surprisingly meaningful.

While a computer is fooled by my error, a Spanish speaker would likely find it hilarious, but would get my intended meaning, because, in language, context is everything.

One of the most difficult things for computer translation is that context includes not only the other words in a sentence, but the state of the world, shared cultural assumptions, and even the mental state of each person in the conversation.

If this seems like an impossible problem to solve, Wired has an article on companies trying to create better translators, and they’ve managed it with some significant success.

They’ve achieved their success by ‘doing a Google‘ and taking advantage of the fact that while it’s impossible to get a computer to understand human concepts, it is possible to use the massive amount of text on the internet as a database of human assumptions.

The computer translator generates as many translations as it can, and then matches each one to the ‘database’ of text to see which one is most like real human language. The one that matches is most likely to be the best translation.

There’s a bit more to it than that, but that’s the general idea.

For the first time in history, the internet has provided a massive amount of self-generating human data that can be easily accessed by our tools of analysis.

Rather than expecting computers to be individually intelligent, it might be more fruitful to get them to process the structure of behaviour, and get meaning from the real humans.

Link to Wired article ‘Me Translate Pretty One Day’.

Metaphors of mind in the history of the novel

The Psychologist has just made an article available online that examines the history of how novelists have used metaphors to describe the human mind. The article also tackles how this has reflected our understanding of the mind itself.

Mind-metaphors have always reflected dominant scientific ideas, and psychologists and cognitive scientists have always used metaphors in building their theories (Leary, 1990). During the heyday of behaviourism, when theorising about internal states was more-or-less taboo, the incidence of metaphors of mind in published psychological research dropped away accordingly (Gentner & Grudin, 1985). Metaphors of mind, both literary and scientific, can act as ‘guide fossils’ in reflecting the prevailing scientific orthodoxies of the eras in which they are found (Draaisma, 2000). What if these metaphors turn out to be wrong? What if the mind doesn’t work that way?

A book that has looked at metaphors for psychology in more detail is Metaphors of Memory by dutch psychologist Prof Douwe Draaisma.

He notes that psychological theories have often been inspired by technology, so we understood the mind as being a system of pneumatic and hydraulic forces in the 1800s, while we now use metaphors of information processing as computers have become the dominant technology.

It’s interesting to think that our understanding of ourselves might be limited by our ability to build technology.

It’s also interesting to wonder whether the move to incorporate more biological function into technology will mean we are less bound by restrictive metaphors in future cognitive science.

In The Psychologist article, Charles Fernyhough argues that fiction may be a rich source of metaphors, and work in developing more poetic approaches to understanding the mind may make important contributions to theory building in psychology.

Link to article ‘Metaphors of Mind’.

Cognitive Daily starts weekly podcasts

Cognitive science blog Cognitive Daily has started a new weekly podcast of their fantastic summaries of scientific studies.

The first is a 10-minute run through of two recent articles: one on a study that looked at whether police were more likely to shoot at black suspects, and the other on why people with ‘tone deafness’ have trouble understanding rhythm.

Currently, the podcast is in m4a format, which may be a bit frustrating if you don’t own an Apple iPod or similarly compatible player, but otherwise I look forward to hearing a lot more.

Link to first Cognitive Daily podcast.

All in the Mind on brain-computer interfaces

This week’s edition of ABC Radio All in the Mind is a special investigation into brain-computer interfaces, the science of putting computer equipment under direct neurocognitive control.

This could either be done by non-invasively reading brain activity, or in the case of people with disorders that affect their movement, by implanting electrode arrays into the brain directly.

Artist Pro Hart died of it, so did actor David Niven – the nightmarish legacy of Motor Neurone disease which paralyses the body as the disease progresses. Communication can become restricted to an eye-blink, with the mind remaining intact and active in a frozen body. But the technological cutting edge of the brain-computer interface could make a difference, and help people communicate with the outside world using the only thing they have left…their mind. Turn on the TV, switch off the lights and even send emails, just by thinking about it? No, it’s not hocus-pocus.

Link to AITM edition on ‘The Brain Computer Interface’ with audio.

Boot camp for the brain

Scientific American has an article on military research programmes that are attempting to optimise the brain for the next generation ‘warfighter’ – the US army’s jargon for the modern solider.

The article is by Dr Jonathan Moreno and is largely made up of excerpts from his new book Mind Wars (ISBN 1932594167) which we featured previously on Mind Hacks.

The SciAm article covers some of the technologies that might reduce the need for sleep, improve mental performance, and get rid of those pesky emotional reactions that crop up when faced with imminent slaughter.

If DNA testing for a fear gene is both scientifically and ethically dicey, what about setting out to create people who lack that characteristic? Would breeding humans without stathmin or other genes associated with fear reactions engender more courageous fighters? Would parents sign on for such meddling if they harbored ambitions for a child capable of a glorious military career or just didn’t want to give birth to a “sissy”? One problem, however, is that fear or its functional equivalent is one of those ancient properties exhibited by just about every animal. It surely has tremendous survival value. Removing it would be deeply counterevolutionary and would almost certainly generate numerous unintended and undesirable consequences for the individual, let alone thrust humans headlong into a fierce debate about whether enhancing ourselves has gone too far.

Proponents of such artificial enhancements argue that the changes may not be artificial at all. Is there even a valid distinction, they ask, between artificial and “natural” enhancements such as exercise and discipline? Aren’t we just trying to gain whatever advantages we can, as we have always tried to do, or are these techniques cheating nature? Can we manage the consequences, or are the risks for the individual and for humanity too great?

Link to SciAm article ‘Juicing the Brain’.

What caused Nietzsche’s insanity and death?

A paper just published in Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica reconsiders the insanity and death of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who is commonly thought to have died of neurosyphilis.

In contrast, the authors of the new study suggest that Nietzsche died of frontotemporal dementia – a type of dementia that specifically affects the frontal and temporal lobes.

While many people have ‘diagnosed’ historical figures in retrospect, this study is different, in that the authors reviewed Nietzsche’s actual medical notes in light of what is known about the progression of syphilis and dementia today.

More than 100 years after his death, Friedrich Nietzsche remains one of the most contentious figures in the history of philosophy. His writings contain some of the most profound philosophical statements of the 19th century, and have been exceptionally influential. However, they also express ambiguities and contradictions, which leave scholars perplexed and still arguing about their meaning and intent. Such ambiguities are reflected not only in Nietzsche’s life, but also in his terminal illness and death.

Following a psychotic breakdown in 1889, at the age of 44 years, he was admitted to the Basel mental asylum and on 18 January 1889 was transferred to the Jena mental asylum. He remained in demented darkness until his death on 25 August 1900. In Basel, a diagnosis of general paralysis of the insane (GPI; tertiary cerebral syphilis) was made. This diagnosis was confirmed in Jena and is still widely accepted. However, even some of Nietzsche’s contemporaries doubted this. The lack of certainty about his primary luetic infection, the long duration of the disease and some clinical features lead us to question the diagnosis of GPI.

In this study, we re-construct the anamnesis [clinical history] of Nietzsche’s illness and review the clinical presentation. We then note the natural history of GPI as it was at the turn of the 19th century, and suggest an alternative diagnosis, namely that of frontotemporal dementia (FTD) which has been characterized in detail only in the last two decades.

Link to abstract of paper.

Living rough in body and mind

A study on homeless people admitted to a psychiatric emergency clinic has reported that a third have active psychosis.

The study, published in the medical journal Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, was conducted in Bordeaux state hospital in France.

That study also found that most of the homeless people admitted to the clinic had already been identified by mental health services as suffering from a severe mental illness, suggesting that homelessness was a consequence of losing contact with mental health support.

Among those homeless people with psychosis, there was an over-representation of men, and people with drug addictions.

The actual number of homeless people with psychosis may actually be higher, as clinic samples tend to under-estimate the extent of mental health problems in the population, owing to the fact that people who go to clinics tend to be there for immediate help for current difficulties.

Link to abstract of scientific paper.

Surgical removal of half the brain – video

The Neurophilosopher has found an amazing video of a neurosurgical procedure to remove one hemisphere of the brain in a child – a treatment for otherwise untreatable epilepsy.

The procedure is known as a hemispherectomy and remarkably, not only can children survive this operation, but in some cases, can graduate high school and university when they are older.

This is a testament to the brain’s ability to grow and adapt during childhood – something often called ‘plasticity’ in the scientific literature.

There’s some more information and links about this remarkable operation in a previous post on Mind Hacks.

The surgical case in the video is from Le Bonheur Children’s Medical Center and involves a 6 year-old girl who suffered brain damage before she was born.

In her case, a problem with the middle cerebral artery meant that part of the brain didn’t get a proper blood supply. This caused one hemisphere to develop abnormally (see the brain scan on the right).

Damaged or malformed brain tissue can lead to epilepsy in both children and adults, and this is exactly what happened in this case.

If seizures can’t be controlled by anti-epileptic medication one option is to surgically remove or isolate the source of the seizures in the brain.

Frequent seizures can lead to problems with day-to-day living, cognitive impairment, further brain damage and increase the chances of sudden unexpected death, which is a rare but tragic.

Therefore, surgery is often a life-saving procedure at best, or at the least, can make the patient a great deal safer.

Notably, before the surgery, the girl in the video wears a helmet. These are often given to children who have frequent seizures to prevent head injury when they fall.

The video explains some of the background to the case, and the surgeons narrate and explain the procedure as they go.

Fascinating stuff.

Link to Neurophilosopher’s page with video.

2006-12-01 Spike activity

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

Fascinating article on why the study of watch-makers has linked ambidexterity to self-reflection.

Slate has a skeptical article on the recent research on the neuroscience of ‘speaking in tongues’.

Psyblog collects a series of recent internet writing on emotion as part of an ongoing series.

A radio programme on NPR discusses new research that suggests that a gene linked to brain development may influence handedness.

Bookslut has a review of Gerald Edelman’s new book on consciousness.

Lots of video clips online from a 60 Minutes documentary on the use of beta-blocker propranolol to prevent disturbing memories and PTSD after trauma.

A blind man reportedly experiences déjà vu Рsuggesting a sight-based theory of the curious memory effect may be false.

The New York Sun has a fascinating analysis of Freud in light of Nietzsche’s analysis of the human mind: Freud’s Will to Power.

Developing Intelligence is back after a short break with two fantastic articles on understanding and treating traumatic brain injury.