2007-01-19 Spike activity

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

The New York Times reports on effective non-drug treatments and behavioural techniques for children with mental disorder.

BBC News reports that mental health drugs are over-prescribed (is this news?). BBC graphics watchers may note that the standard mental health graphic has changed from a man looking out the window to an attractive girl in white trousers.

PsyBlog’s wonderful series on the psychology of emotions continues. Check it out for the latest installments.

The Neurocritic has a fantastic post on a Suzanne Vega song about phantoms limbs (really) and the latest treatments for the post-amputation experience.

See what’s hot in consciousness research: Deric Bownds has a list of the most frequently download academic articles on consciousness.

News on an upcoming conference on fMRI lie detection.

A video of psychedelic and imperceptibly shifting artwork generated by neural networks has been tracked down by Neurofuture.

ShrinkRap considers research on treatments for injecting speed users: Abilify (an antipsychotic) or Ritalin (another form of speed).

Is this a sentient machine? Neurophilosopher publishes a follow-up to an earlier post on whether machines can be sentient.

More on childhood amnesia from Developing Intelligence – what is the role of the important memory skill source monitoring?

SciAm reports on research that suggests that daydreaming is a necessary function of the brain.

Fearing the unfamiliar

American Scientist reviews a new book that suggests an intriguing hypothesis – that the reason that the distrust of people with a different skin color, different values or a different ideology is so prevalent is because the early development of crucial brain pathways makes it hard for people to accept new and unfamiliar experiences.

Wexler argues that when people are faced with information that does not agree with their internal structures, they deny, discredit, reinterpret or forget that information. When changes in the environment are great, corresponding internal changes are accompanied by distress and dysfunction. The inability to reconcile differences between strange others and ingrained notions of “humanness” can culminate in violence. The neurobiological imperative to maintain a balance between internal structures and external reality fuels this struggle for control, which contributes to making the contact zone a place of intractable conflict.

The book is Brain and Culture: Neurobiology, Ideology, and Social Change (ISBN 0262232480) by psychiatrist Bruce Wexler.

Link to review from American Scientist.

Extra ordinary valour

Edgar Jones and Simon Wessely give one of several examples of people diagnosed with psychiatric disorder giving exemplary service during the Second World War.

From p108 of their book Shell Shock to PTSD: Military Psychiatry from 1900 to the Gulf War (ISBN 1841695807):

“As regards to the related question of how those diagnosed with psychiatric disorder actually performed in [World War II] combat, Plesset (1946) followed up 138 soldiers who in training had shown ‘sufficient adjustment difficulty to necessitate psychiatric attention’. After 30 days of combat, 137 remained on active duty, and one had received a gallantary medal. By the end of the war, 120 remained on active duty and eight had been awarded Bronze stars.”

Screening for those likely to suffer combat-related psychiatric disorder is one of the ‘holy grails’ of military psychiatry.

So far, this has proved impossible, as the single most important factor in predicting whether a soldier is likely to suffer combat stress reaction is the intensity of the fighting, rather than whether they have a history of mental illness.

Link to review of Jones and Wessely’s Shell Shock to PTSD.

Cognitive robotics

Memoirs of a Postgrad has an eye-opening analysis of the world of cognitive robotics – the science of developing ‘cognitive agents’.

When we think of ‘intelligent robots’ we tend to think of the human-think-alike androids from science-fiction, but the article argues that we should think about it more in terms of intelligence that would manifest itself it whatever way the robot interacts with the world.

Bats undoubtedly have a special sort of ‘bat intelligence’ because they interact with the world in unique ways and need to perform tasks only relevant to bats.

Similarly, a robot might be small, have wheels and only have limited sensors, and so its intelligence should be ’embodied’ within its own ways of experiencing and interacting with the world.

However, the article argues there’s more to it than just simple interaction.

…cognition requires not only real-time interaction with the real world (thus incorporating the concept of embodiment), it also requires the ability to internally improve ones interaction with the environment without it actually being present. So, the cognitive agent must be able internally simulate in some way its interactions with the world, and be able to learn from this process…

Link to ‘What does Cognitive Robotics mean?’

Is infantile amnesia a myth?

There’s a great post from Developing Intelligence looking at research on ‘infantile amnesia’ – the ‘amnesia’ we have for events that happened before about 3 years of age.

It turns out that studies done on young babies, even babies in the womb, have shown that infants have got surprisingly good memory.

As reviewed by Hayne, 3-day-old infants were capable of distinguishing a particular passage (from Dr. Seuss’s “Cat in the Hat”) that had been read to them twice daily for the last 6 weeks of gestation from similar passages (matched for word count, length, and prosody). What’s more, these infants preferred the familiar passage even if spoken by someone other than their mother, strongly suggesting that they had encoded (and retained) a relatively high-level representation of the passage’s auditory content.

The post looks at the mystery of how we have such trouble remembering this period, when psychology studies show that infants’ memory is actually quite good.

Link to ‘The Myth of Infantile Amnesia’.

Mind control and the modern citizen

The Washington Post has an intriguing article on people who believe they are subject to secret government ‘mind control’ technology.

People who experience voices being ‘beamed’ into their heads or forces acting on their bodies, have formed communities on the internet to support each other and to lobby the government to stop what they claim are illegal tests of this ‘invasive technology’.

Critics argue that they are simply mentally ill, and indeed some probably are. In a paper published last year myself and some colleagues reported that some people show obvious signs of psychosis. Despite this, however, they have formed complex and innovative online communities.

Many members of this community are obviously not mentally ill though, and have concerns that might seem a little unusual but are no different from the types of concerns that drive JFK, 9/11 and Princess Diana enthusiasts.

One of the most interesting aspects of this community, in all its diversity, is that it challenges the psychiatric notion of what is considered a delusion.

In one of the more curious episodes during the last consultation for the UK Government’s Draft Mental Health Bill, an organisation called Christians Against Mental Slavery made a surprising submission to the parliamentary committee.

Even if you don’t buy their premise that the government is testing ‘Mind Invasive Technology’ on people, they make some pertinent points.

For example, they suggest that if a psychiatrist is presented with someone who complains of being affected by microwave mind control technology (not uncommon in psychosis), they should put them in Faraday cage to see if their experiences stop, so the psychiatrist can try and test whether they are genuinely delusional.

The fact that delusions are diagnostically ‘false beliefs’ but clinicians largely rely on assumptions (rather than tests) about the truth of a belief, is a point that has also been made in the medical literature.

Indeed, some authors have argued as a result, that the falsity condition should be rejected as one of the criteria in diagnosis.

One interesting point, rarely considered by the mind control community or its critics, is that it is possible, indeed common, to have isolated or restricted psychosis-like experiences that are relatively benign.

For example, someone might hear voices, have unusual beliefs, or experience their thoughts being broadcast or altered from outside, while not being significantly disabled by their experiences.

The fact that someone could have reasonable concerns about ‘mind control’ technology, which governments have certainly tried to develop, while also hearing voices or having other similarly unusual experiences, is often overlooked.

Link to Washington Post ‘Mind Games’.

waking life crossword experiment

waking-life-4.jpgIn Richard Linklater’s Waking Life (2001) two of the characters discuss the idea synchronicity. They mention an experiment where people were isolated and given daily crosswords. If the crossword puzzles were a day old, meaning that thousands of people had already completed them, then people found it easier to get the answers – because the answers were already ‘out there’ in the collective memory of course.

The question is: did anyone ever really do this experiment, or anything like it, and what are the references? I’m not expecting that it would really produce a significant effect, but I’d still love to know if anyone has tried it.

Answers in the comments please

Link: Article on The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon from damninteresting.com

I’ve put the relevant except from the script below the fold…

Continue reading “waking life crossword experiment”

Amnesia affects ability to imagine the future

There’s an interesting New Scientist news report on recent research suggesting that people with amnesia have difficulty imagining the future, suggesting this ability relies on our capacity to remember past experience.

The study was led by Dr Eleanor Maguire and involved five participants with dense amnesia caused by damage to the hippocampus on both sides of the brain.

Researchers asked the participants ‚Äì and a control group without amnesia ‚Äì to imagine several future scenarios, such as visiting a beach, museum and castle, and to describe what the experience would be like. They then analysed the subjects’ narrations sentence by sentence, scoring each statement based on whether it involved references to spatial relationships, emotions or specific objects.

All but one of the amnesiacs were worse at imagining future events than the participants in the trial who did not suffer from amnesia. Their visualisations of future events were more likely to be disorganised and emotionless. “It’s not very real. It’s just not happening. My imagination isn’t‚Ķwell, I’m not imagining it, let’s put it that way,” one patient told researchers during a trial.

Apparently, the research will be published in the science journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences but I’m damned if I can find it at their website or on PubMed, but presumably it will appear shortly.

Link to NewSci story ‘Amnesiacs struggle to imagine future events’.
Link to write-up from Nature News.

Archive footage of shell shock patients

I’ve just uploaded some archive film footage to YouTube of shell shock patients from World War One, taken from a recent Channel 4 documentary on soldiers executed for cowardice.

I was surprised to find that there is almost no video of this historically and clinically important condition on the internet.

The clip has footage of patients who displayed some extreme ‘shell shock’ reactions, including paralysis, shaking and convulsions.

These physical reactions are now considered a form of conversion disorder, where extreme emotional stress or turmoil is expressed as physical symptoms.

The clip also discusses the case of Private Harry Farr (covered previously on Mind Hacks) who was executed for cowardice, despite having been affected by the condition.

If you didn’t catch it the first we mentioned it, the recent article about his case that was recently published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine [pdf] is a gripping and thought-inspiring read.

Link to YouTube video of shell shock patients.
pdf of article ‘The life and death of Private Harry Farr’.

Ninety minutes blindfolded enhances your hearing

The BPS Research Digest reports on a new study that shows that 90 minutes of being blindfolded significantly improves our ability to locate sounds.

Next the participants spent 90 minutes sitting quietly with the blindfold on. Crucially, when they repeated the [sound location] task after this, their accuracy was improved as they no longer underestimated the location of the sounds as much… In fact their performance had become more typical of a blind person performing this kind of task.

There’s more on the study over at the BPSRD including a link to the original paper.

Link to BPSRD article.

Encephalon 14 at Mixing Memory

The latest edition of neuroscience writing carnival Encephalon has just arrived and covers everything from the philosophy of mind to, er… a neuroscience-themed death metal band.

A couple of my favourites include a post on which type of model of the mind is best for cognitive science from Memoirs of a Postgrad, and Pure Pedantry’s article on whether doing crosswords will prevent mental decline in old age.

These two are just a taster. Head on over for the full menu.

Link to Encephalon 14.

Looking through the eyes of others

There’s a fascinating opinion piece by psychologist Michael Tomasello in The New York Times arguing that humans, unlike other apes, have evolved to have the whites of our eyes showing to make social cooperation easier.

The idea is that this allows us to easily work out where other humans are looking, and this can help us to work out focus of attention and intention.

It has been repeatedly demonstrated that all great apes, including humans, follow the gaze direction of others. But in previous studies the head and eyes were always pointed in the same direction. Only when we made the head and eyes point in different directions did we find a species difference: humans are sensitive to the direction of the eyes specifically in a way that our nearest primate relatives are not. This is the first demonstration of an actual behavioral function for humans’ uniquely visible eyes.

Link to NYT article ‘For Human Eyes Only’.

A humanoid robot you can control with your thoughts

The University of Washington Neural Systems Lab have created a humanoid robot you can control with your thoughts.

I’ll say that again – a humanoid robot you can control with your thoughts

The future is here. Thank you and goodnight.

The control system is a type of EEG-based non-invasive brain-computer interface and the page has video of the robot in action, as well as a video that describes the neuroscience of how the interface works.

Link to Neural Systems Lab robot info page (via MakeZine Blog).

‘Traumatic stress disorder’ in a 5 month old baby

Sometimes I think there’s some sort of secret competition going on with American mental health professionals to see who can diagnose mental illness in the youngest child.

The BPS Research Digest reports on a recently published case study of ‘traumatic stress disorder’ (supposedly an infant equivalent to PTSD) in a 5-month-old child.

There’s no doubt that young children can become disturbed, but many clinicians doubt that mental disorder manifests itself in the same way in children.

In some cases it hardly seems to manifest at all. For example, psychosis very rarely occurs in children from 10-16 years, and is almost unknown at younger ages.

Although no-one is quite sure why, the typical age of onset for psychosis is about 18-30 years.

Almost all psychiatric diagnosis is made on the basis of a detailed interview in which the patient describes their mental state, guided by careful questioning from the clinician.

Like other diagnoses, the diagnostic criteria for adult PTSD has many points which could only be discovered through interview.

Therefore, the diagnosis of any psychiatric disorder in a pre-verbal child or child with developing language skills would have to be made on very broad criteria.

So broad, some would say, to be highly unreliable or of doubtful validity.

The author of the case study, psychologist Aletha Solter, admits that the adult criteria would be inapplicable, and instead applies diagnostic criteria for pre-verbal children developed by charity Zero to Three (intro online as pdf).

However, despite the fact that these diagnostic criteria do not rely on verbal report, it’s still not clear whether they represent a reliable and valid way of diagnosing problems in very young children.

Link to BPSRD on ‘post-traumatic stress in a five-month-old baby’.
Link to abstract of case report.