2007-04-27 Spike activity

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

The BMJ had an fascinating editorial about the role of psychology in physical illness.

Deric Bownds discusses whether recursion a universal aspect of languages.

The Times Literary Supplement has a review of Hofstadter’s new book on consciousness.

Scientists debate the limits of action for autonomous robots.

Newsweek on new brain research that may help explain why some people don’t seem to learn from their mistakes.

Frontal Cortex discusses inequality and the perception of fairness.

Nature looks at a study that re-examined the two brains Paul Broca used to define the speech area now called Broca’s Area, with some surprising results.

Jeremy from PsyBlog reports the results of his study on music and personality we featured previously.

Study finds that although intelligence <a href="http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/18311061
“>predicts income, it doesn’t predict wealth.

Scientific American ponders the scent of a man: pheromones from human males may be an important aspect of <a href="http://blog.sciam.com/index.php?title=eau_de_l_homme&more=1&c=1&tb=1&pb=1

The BPS Research Digest looks at a study that asked the question ‘Can God make people more aggressive?’.

Cognitive Daily covers a study that used VR in a very creative way to understand the effect of eye gaze. The study created mutually exclusive social situations simultaneously experienced by all participants.

Psychology and neuroscience in book prize shortlist

A psychology and a neuroscience book have made two of out of the six entries shortlisted for the UK’s premier science book prize.

The award is the The Royal Society Prize for Science Books, previously called the Aventis Prize.

Daniel Gilbert’s entertaining book on the sometimes paradoxical world of the psychology of contentment, Stumbling on Happiness (ISBN 9780007183135), is one of the six.

In Search of Memory (ISBN 0393058638), Eric Kandel’s memoirs and discussion of the neuroscience of memory, also makes the list.

The full shortlist is at the link below.

Link to BBC News article on the 2007 shortlist.

What is psychophysics?

The BPS Research Digest has a wonderfully straightforward explanation of a branch of psychology called psychophysics, which attempts to understand the relation between physical qualities and the psychological impressions they cause.

The piece is written by Mind Hacks co-founder and psychophysicist extraordinaire, Dr Tom Stafford, who explains how this key area of psychology uses mathematical models to understand how the brain makes sense of the physical world.

Tom explains how psychophysics tackles these sorts of problems and then explains one of the most important discoveries in psychophysics: Weber’s law.

Psychophysics is heavily used in ergonomics and human-computer interaction.

Knowing, for example, how noticeable something is (like a warning light), gives a huge advantage when trying to design safe and easy-to-use software interfaces, jet fighter cockpits or even home appliances.

Link to BPSRD article ‘An introduction to psychophysics’.

One satiric touch

St Patrick’s in Dublin is the oldest psychiatric hospital in Ireland. It was founded by the author of Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, who left his money after his death in 1745 “To build a house for fools and mad”.

Swift was most famous for his satire and it is no surprise that his founding of St Patrick’s was a satirical nod towards his native Ireland.

Famously, he described his gesture in a poem entitled On the Death of Dr Swift:

He gave the little wealth he had
To build a house for fools and mad,
And showed by one satiric touch
No nation needed it so much.

The hospital was intended as more than just parody, however, as Swift was also genuinely committed to the care of people with mental illness.

Swift had served as one of the Governors of Bethlem Hospital in London and, when he became Dean of the city’s cathedral, he began to realise the appalling conditions that mentally ill Dubliners had to endure.

The hospital still stands today, next to that other 18th century Irish institution, the Guinness Brewery, and is one of the leading centres for psychiatric treatment, teaching and research in Ireland.

Link to brief AJP article on St Patrick’s.
Link to Wikipedia page on St Patrick’s.
Link to St Patrick’s website.

Fighting wildfire

ABC Radio National’s All in the Mind recently broadcast an incredibly moving account of a young woman’s fight with a life threatening brain tumour that eventually resulted in her death.

The woman in question was the Australian writer Julie Deakin (pictured left), who wrote the most touching and elegant prose about her experiences of diagnosis and treatment, and the impact of her declining health on her loved ones.

The programme weaves Deakin’s writing with her mother’s recollection of the time, making for a powerful programme.

I was listening to it while walking to work this morning and it stopped me in my tracks on a couple of occasions.

Link to information and transcript.
mp3 of programme audio.

Jousting with magic

Psychiatrist and psychotherapist Irvin Yalom discusses some of the thinking behind his therapeutic approach on p154 of Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy (ISBN 0140128468).

Yalom is known for his work in developing existential psychotherapy, group therapy and his engaging and exciting books and novels on the psychotherapeutic process.

To my mind “good” therapy (which I equate with deep, or penetrating, therapy, not with efficient or even, I am pained to say, helpful therapy) conducted with a “good” patient is at bottom a truth-seeking venture. My quarry when I was a novitiate was the truth of the past, to trace all of life’s coordinates and, thereby, to locate and to explain a person’s current life, pathology, motivation and actions.

I used to be so sure. What arrogance! And now what kind of truth was I stalking? I think my quarry is illusion. I war against magic. I believe that, though illusion often cheers and comforts, it ultimately and invariably weakens and constricts the spirit.

But there is timing and judgement. Never take away anything if you have nothing better to offer. Beware of stripping a patient who can’t bear the chill of reality. And don’t exhaust yourself by jousting with religious magic: you’re no match for it.

Link to Irvin Yalom’s website (thanks Annie!).