Dancing in the waiting room

I found this on the wall of a Rehab Unit in a London hospital this morning.

Dancing in the Waiting Room
by Angus Macmillan

All our living
is in waiting.
In these moments
we find our myriad selves
anxious, hopeful, trembling,
wishful, fearful, impatient.
All our dancing shadows
are there
flitting in the half light
of unreason
crowding together
in fevers of movement
never still, never one.

Then a voice says ‘Next’
and a new dance

I looked up the author on the net, and it turns out he’s a Scottish poet who writes in English and Gaelic, and is also a psychologist!

And luckily, there’s some audio of him reading his poems in both English and Gaelic available online.

Link to info and audio from Angus Macmillan.

Coding for cognition

Cognitive scientist Sacha Barber has created a three-part guide to the mechanics and mathematics of neural networks.

If you’re interested in how many artificial intelligence systems work, the guide takes you through the mathematics of neural networks, to the basic of creating your own network in the C programming language.

Even if you’re not a mathematician or programmer, the article is worth a scan so you can get an idea of the level of complexity that is needed for a group of mathematical functions to start displaying ‘cognitive’ properties.

The first thing you’ll notice is how simple the functions are.

With many sorts of neural networks, the difficulty is not in creating the ‘building blocks’ – i.e. the simulated neurons, but in creating a network structure that is useful for solving problems.

While engineers might be interested in creating networks to solve practical problems, neuropsychologists often create networks to simulate encapsulated mental processes, and then damage the networks to simulate brain damage.

This allows the researchers to test out ideas about how cognitive processes might be organised in the brain.

Link to ‘AI : Neural Network for beginners’.

Looking for fireworks

Brain Ethics has a fantastic post by neuroscientist Thomas Rams√∏y who describes the discovery of a worrying brain pathology in a volunteer who took part in one of his brain imaging studies.

A 1999 study found that 18% of healthy participants have brain scans that might suggest some form of abnormality, although only a minority of these abnormalities were considered serious enough to require a referral for further medical assessment.

As more and more healthy people are being scanned for neuroscience studies, researchers are now starting to develop protocols and procedures for dealing with situations where previously undiscovered medical problems are discovered, as described by a 2006 Science article.

In his own work, Rams√∏y notes a useful technique he’s picked up for detecting brain abnormalities and what he discovered in one of his participants.

One of our radiologists told me to “scroll through the brain quickly and look for flashes”, just as a first approximation to detecting brain pathology. So I’ve done that ever since. Just that simple trick has actually been helpful, this case being the prime example. Above, you can see how the lesions pop out as white sparks in the brain.

For my subject, it means that we have detected a stenosis in both arteries supporting the brain. If untreated, they would eventually have blocked the bloodstream to the brain and caused widespread neuronal damage, maybe even be life threatening.

It’s rare researchers talk about instances when this happens, so Rams√∏y’s post is an enlightening look into a worrying situation that thankfully turned out well in the end.

Link to Brain Ethics article ‘Scroll through and look for fireworks’.
Link to Science article ‘Incidental Findings in Brain Imaging Research’.

The Stuff of Thought

The Toronto Star has a preview of Steven Pinker’s forthcoming book ‘The Stuff of Thought’ which apparently tackles language (no surprise there) but this time examines the multiple meanings in language and how and why we use metaphor.

The book isn’t slated to appear until late 2007, although it seems he’ll be doing some lectures based on the book throughout the coming year.

The article outlines some of the themes in his forthcoming work:

“The Harvard psychologist classes [his example of] the salt request as an example of indirect speech, a category that also includes euphemisms and innuendo. Two other key themes for Wednesday’s talk are the ubiquity of metaphor in everyday language and swearing and what it says about human emotion.

For Pinker all three categories of language provide windows on human nature, and analyzing them can reveal what people are thinking and feeling. The approach builds upon his earlier thesis that human nature has distinct and universal properties, some of which are innate ‚Äì determined at birth by genes rather than shaped primarily by environment.”

I had the pleasure of seeing of seeing one of Steven Pinker’s talks once, and even if you don’t buy his hard-nosed nativist view of cognition (that suggests that the fundamentals of our mental processes are inherited and selected for by evolution), he’s still greatly entertaining and thought-provoking.

Link to article ‘Of thought and metaphor’.

The colourful world of naming and knowing

The Economist has a short article on two recent studies which have examined the theory that our ability to perceive colours is influenced by the way a language labels different hues.

The general idea that language shapes our thoughts and experience is known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

For example, some languages don’t have separate names for green and blue, and so this theory might predict that speakers of these languages would be less able to distinguish between the colours.

A less strong prediction might be that speakers of these languages might be able to distinguish between what we label as green and blue, but wouldn’t necessarily make the division at the same point in the colour spectrum as English speakers typically do.

The Economist article discusses two recent experiments which have tested this idea, both in quite ingenious ways – suggesting that colour perception may indeed be influenced by colour naming.

Link to Economist article ‘How grue is your valley?’.

Magic in mind

The New York Times has an article on magical thinking – the mental process of making connections between unrelated or loosely-related things.

Magical thinking is thought to exist on a spectrum, from hunches, creative leaps and superstitions at one end, to frank psychosis at the other – where the connections become so odd as to lead to delusions.

As children we, perhaps, experience magical thinking at its strongest. Children live in magical worlds where moving trees cause the wind to blow and toys come to life after dark.

The link between magical thinking in children in adults is rarely discussed, but it was the subject of an 2004 article published in The Psychologist.

The NYT article looks at magical thinking in all its guises, and discusses its possible roles in religion and spirituality, and how it is affected by stress and coincidence.

Link to NYT article ‘Do You Believe in Magic?’.
Link to ‘Magical thinking – Reality or illusion?’ from The Psychologist.

A serious case of focal retrograde amnesia

I’ve been notified of a rare case of focal retrograde amnesia that doesn’t seem to have been reported in the medical literature.

Focal retrograde amnesia is where memory for past events and personal information is lost, while the ability to remember new events is spared.

The case is described in Mr Bump Loses His Memory by Roger Hargreaves (ISBN 1844229866).

In this instance, amnesia seems to have been induced by falling out of the window while attempting to smell flowers in a window box.


Mr Bump sat up and rubbed his head. And as he rubbed, it dawned on him that he had no idea where he was.

He had no idea whose garden he was sitting in.

He had no idea whose house he was sitting in front of.

And he had no idea who he was.

Mr Bump had lost his memory.

Focal retrograde amnesia has been reported both after clear brain injury (particularly to temporal lobes) and when there is an absence of detectable brain damage.

The latter condition is sometimes called ‘functional’ or ‘psychogenic’ amnesia, and it might result from emotional disturbance rather than permanent impairment to memory structures in the brain.

As no neurological investigations were conducted after Mr Bump’s concussive head injury (despite clear indications of past traumatic injury), it is not possible to determine whether his amnesia was the result of organic damage or distress-related psychogenic factors.

As Mr Bump’s memory difficulties resolve after another minor blow to his head it is unlikely that the return of his memory can be explained by the spontaneous recovery of brain function, as this might only be exacerbated by further damage.

This might suggest that the original amnesia was psychogenic in nature. This make the case a particularly interesting example of this rare phenomena and additionally suggests a good prognosis for Mr Bump’s recovery of memory function.

However, in light of obvious past injuries, Mr Bump should be offered a full neurological and psychological assessment so any undetected neuropathology or psychiatric disorder or can be treated at the earliest opportunity.

Link to more on Mr Bump (thanks Tenyen!).

Cliff Arnall is depressing

It’s January 22nd, it must be time for another Cliff Arnall bollocks-fest. According to Arnall, his ‘formula’ predicts that today is officially the most depressing of the year.

Yes, Cliff, it is, but only because we have to put up with more utter nonsense from you.

Exactly the same story appeared in 2005 and 2006, and what a coincidence that all of these ‘most depressing days of the year’ have happened on a Monday.

As is traditional, it’s a commercial tie in, this time with a management consultancy and a PR firm.

What is genuinely depressing, is that mental health charity The Samaritans (who should really know better) have now been roped into the sorry affair.

Cliff Arnall specialises in creating nonsense formulas predicting almost anything that helps promote something or other, and gets credibility by being described as a psychologist.

Link to a suitable Arnall antidote from Ben Goldacre.

Sleep pattern slumber wear

Online t-shirt retailers No Demographic have created a t-shirt with EEG (‘brainwave’) traces from each stage of sleep.

Sleep is divided into two main types: ‘rapid eye movement‘ or REM sleep, and non-REM sleep. The majority (but not all) dreaming happens in REM sleep.

REM sleep is sometimes called ‘paradoxical sleep’ in the research literature, because the brain is extremely active and far from relaxed.

However, because the brain interrupts the connection between the brain and the spinal cord (probably by inhibiting motor neurons in the pons), we don’t tend to move while all this activity is happening, even if we think we’re moving in our dreams.

Non-REM sleep is divided into stages 1-4. During a night’s sleep, we will go through several cycles of descending through sleep stages 1-4 and experiencing REM sleep.

Each of these stages has a distinctive profile which can be identified by EEG.

The No Demographic t-shirt has one trace from each of these cycles, so you can advertise your unconscious brain function to the world.

The t-shirt reminds me of one of my favourite works of art – a piece called Slumber by Janine Antoni.

Antoni records her own EEG signals while sleeping, weaves them into a blanket, and then sleeps in the blanket, reflecting the wonderful recursive world of sleep and dreams while contrasting modern neuroscience with the ancient art of weaving.

Link to No Demographic ‘Sleep Pattern’ t-shirt (via HYA).

Feeling the connection

It seems the latest edition of Time Magazine is a special on the brain, and there’s another full-length neuroscience feature article available online that discusses how the brain reorganises and ‘rewires’ itself.

This is known as ‘plasticity’ and neuroscientists often talk about the brain being ‘plastic’.

This doesn’t refer to the material, although does refer to the fact that the structure of the brain isn’t fixed and can change in response to learning or physical stresses.

For decades, the prevailing dogma in neuroscience was that the adult human brain is essentially immutable, hardwired, fixed in form and function, so that by the time we reach adulthood we are pretty much stuck with what we have….

But research in the past few years has overthrown the dogma. In its place has come the realization that the adult brain retains impressive powers of “neuroplasticity” – the ability to change its structure and function in response to experience. These aren’t minor tweaks either. Something as basic as the function of the visual or auditory cortex can change as a result of a person’s experience of becoming deaf or blind at a young age. Even when the brain suffers a trauma late in life, it can rezone itself like a city in a frenzy of urban renewal. If a stroke knocks out, say, the neighborhood of motor cortex that moves the right arm, a new technique called constraint-induced movement therapy can coax next-door regions to take over the function of the damaged area. The brain can be rewired.

The special edition of Time also has shorter article on the new map of the brain, how the brain deals with time, and an article on six lessons for handling stress.

There’s also an interactive timeline of discoveries in psychology and neuroscience.

Link to Time article ‘How The Brain Rewires Itself’.

Eric Kandel profiled

There’s a great introductory profile of psychiatrist and neurobiologist Eric Kandel in Columbia Magazine that outlines his life and Nobel-prize winning work.

Kandel is best known for his work on how memory operates at the cellular and molecular level.

For example, his research has investigated long-term potentiation, the process by which the synaptic connection between neurons is temporarily strengthened.

This has been cited as the basis of neural plasticity – the process by which the brain can re-organise itself at the cellular level to make new connections and pathways.

This is thought to be essential for learning, as well as recovery after damage.

Kandel’s “new science of mind” is an integration of neuroscience, biology, and the study of behavior that will connect the workings of individual neurons in the brain with philosophy, sociology, economics, art, war, and manifestations of human culture. “Neuroscience is the Esperanto,” Kandel says, “the humanistic language that binds it all together.” His research into the molecular and cellular basis of short- and long-term memory forms the foundation for the understanding of this language. His work illuminating how signals move through neurons earned him the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2000, alongside Arvid Carlsson from the University of G√∂teborg in Sweden and Paul Greengard of Rockefeller University. Kandel is, as Grundfest suggested 50 years ago, taking the next step in the study of the mind. “I think it’s likely that a variety of social phenomena are going to be explored at the biological level,” he says.

Kandel is also well-known for being the first author of the weighty neuroscience ‘bible’ Principles of Neural Science (ISBN 0838577016).

UPDATE: A video and transcript of Kandel’s Nobel lecture is available here. Thanks Mxr!

Link to article ‘Minding the Brain’.

The Mystery of Consciousness

This week’s Time Magazine has a wonderfully in-depth article on the science and implications of consciousness by cognitive scientist Stephen Pinker.

It shouldn’t be surprising that research on consciousness is alternately exhilarating and disturbing. No other topic is like it. As Ren√© Descartes noted, our own consciousness is the most indubitable thing there is. The major religions locate it in a soul that survives the body’s death to receive its just deserts or to meld into a global mind. For each of us, consciousness is life itself, the reason Woody Allen said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it by not dying.” And the conviction that other people can suffer and flourish as each of us does is the essence of empathy and the foundation of morality.

As well as the article itself, there’s some great links on the left hand side of the page to video, graphics and related articles.

Link to Time article ‘The Mystery of Consciousness’.

Psychologists and the pursuit of happiness

The New York Times has a remarkably comprehensive article on ‘positive psychology’ – the research and applied field that aims to understand happiness and human growth.

The article takes a critical look at the field, what the research is showing and how it’s being applied and taught.

Traditionally, psychology has been more focused on mental illness and pathology, with the implicit assumption that freedom from distress is akin to happiness.

Psychologists have begun to challenge this idea and look specifically at human virtues which have been sorely neglected throughout psychology’s history.

For example, despite the fact that we use a concept of wisdom in everyday life and value people considered wise, barely any work has been done to develop a psychological theory of wisdom.

The NYT article is remarkably well researched and discusses the roots of the movement and it current critics.

Link to NYT article ‘Happiness 101’.

Web guide for psychology students

The BPS Research Digest commissioned PsychSplash founder Dr. Gareth Furber to produce a list of links to psychology resources on the internet. He oblidged in the form of a poem.

This is one of the verses:

I must admit, I have a thing for librarians
Mostly the younger ones, not the octogenarians
My fascination however I assure you is pure
It’s their mental health resources that are the lure.

And who can disagree with that?

Link to BPSRD ‘Web guide for psychology students’.