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’.