Philip Zimbardo speaking in London

Professor Philip Zimbardo, famous for the Stanford Prison Experiment, is speaking in London on Tuesday 17th April where he’ll be giving a talk entitled ‘The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil’.

The title of the talk is also the name of his new book that explores how people can be influenced to commit extreme acts that would otherwise seem out of character but seem sanctioned, or even encouraged, by the system they find themselves in.

He makes particular reference to the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal, which he has highlighted as an example of the psychology of institutional abuse in action.

The talk is being organised by the London branch of the British Psychological Society, and, unfortunately, only BPS members are allowed to apply for tickets, although they can buy them for non-members:

Tickets cost £5 for BPS members and £10 for non-members (in advance), and may be obtained electronically by using the booking form or by telephoning 01332 227774. Tickets for non-members may only be purchased by members, who may buy up to 5 tickets in total.

If you’re not able to catch him in London, there’s a webpage that lists his upcoming interviews and talks.

UPDATE: Today’s New York Times has a video interview with Zimbardo on this topic. Thanks Dennis!

Link to details and booking for talk.
Link to website for The Lucifer Effect.

Exercise boosts mind, brain and mood

This week’s international edition of Newsweek has several articles on how researchers have found that physical exercise can sharpen the mind and boost brain function.

The first article looks at how scientists came to discover that exercise improves brain function, increases learning and can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

In terms of understanding why this occurs, it seems one factor is that exercise causes the release of brain-derived neurotrophic factor or BDNF, a key substance for promoting neural growth and development.

The second main article looks at the effect of exercise on mood.

It is now known that light exercise seems to be an effective treatment for mild to moderate depression, and, at least in the UK, is being recommended by mental health clinicians as a useful non-drug treatment.

The key, it seems, both for the beneficial effects on mood and mental sharpness, is not the intensity of the workout but whether it occurs regularly or not.

The pieces suggests that regular light exercise seems to be enough to keep the mind and brain trim, so you don’t have to wear yourself out to see the benefit.

The special issue has been put together with the help of Harvard Medical School, who roll out several experts to give advice in addition to a range of researchers interviewed for the main pieces.

Also look out for the embedded audio of an interview with two Harvard clinicians on the topic.

Link to article ‘Stronger, Faster, Smarter’.
Link to article ‘Exercise is a State of Mind’.

Air travel psychosis

BBC News reports on a review paper published in this week’s Lancet on the effects of jet lag – which can include mood changes, cognitive impairments, disruption to the menstrual cycle and psychotic experiences.

Disrupted sleep is often linked to psychosis, and interestingly, both airports and jet lag have been mentioned in the medical literature in relation to this.

In a curious 1982 paper, Shapiro reported a series of cases where individuals with psychosis were found wandering airports, and suggested, rather boldly, that ‘airport wandering’ could be a psychotic symptom.

Nevertheless, some more recent research has suggested this isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds.

A 2001 study by Udo Wieshmann and colleagues looked at people treated for severe mental illness over a four year period at Heathrow Airport.

Although the rate was very low (less than one in a million passengers), for those that did show signs of psychosis, ‘airport wandering’ was one of the most frequent symptoms.

Disruption to our internal ‘body clock’, the circadian rhythm, has been linked to various psychotic disorders over the years and jet lag is known to make mental illness worse in some people.

The fact that being jet lag can also cause temporary or transient psychosis-like experiences in some people, as reported in The Lancet paper, suggests that sleep disruption may play a part in both minor and major reality distortions.

Luckily, this week’s mp3 podcast from The Lancet interviews one of the study authors who talks about the health effects of jet lag, and also gives advice on coping with it as effectively and healthily as possible.

Link to BBC News story ‘Frequent flyers ‘risk own health”.
Link to abstract of Lancet paper.
Link to paper ‘Severe mental illness and airports – the scope of the problem’.
mp3 of Lancet podcast on the effects of jet lag.

The ethnobiology of the Haitian zombi

I just found this study summary on PubMed about the drug which is supposedly used by Haitian priests to ‘create’ zombies:

The ethnobiology of the Haitian zombi

Davis EW.

Journal of Ethnopharmacology. 1983 Nov;9(1):85-104

For many years students of Haitian society have suggested that there is an ethnopharmacological basis for the notorious zombies, the living dead of peasant folklore. The recent surfacing of three zombies, one of whom may represent the first potentially verifiable case, has focused scientific attention on the reported zombi drug. The formula of the poison was obtained at four widely separated localities in Haiti. The consistent ingredients include one or more species of puffer fish (Diodon hystrix, Diodon holacanthus or Sphoeroides testudineus) which contain tetrodotoxins, potent neurotoxins fully capable of pharmacologically inducing the zombi state. The ingredients, preparation and method of application are presented. The symptomology of tetrodotoxication as described in the biomedical literature is compared with the constellations of symptoms recorded from the zombies in Haiti. The cosmological rationale of zombies within the context of Voodoo theology is described. Preliminary laboratory tests are summarized.

The paper is by ethnobotanist Wade Davis, who also wrote a book on the same topic called The Serpent and the Rainbow.

Davis’ book was the only ethnobiology study that I know of that was also turned into a horror film of the same name – directed by Nightmare on Elm Street director Wes Craven!

Link to PubMed entry for ‘The ethnobiology of the Haitian zombi’.

Neuroscience for toddlers

Nina and the Neurons is a BBC TV series aimed at children aged six and under that looks at the psychology and neuroscience of the senses.

It’s presented by the bubbly and attractive Nina who, with the help of a collection of animated neurons, explores and explains the senses and gives various sensory demonstrations.

The programme is shown on BBC Children’s channel CBeebies, but there’s some episodes kicking around internet bittorrent trackers and they’re well worth checking out either if you know children who might enjoy them, or if you’re interested in how neuroscience could be taught to young children.

Nina typically fields questions from children and then goes to meet their family and runs experiments with them to test out the ideas.

The programme is based at the Glasgow Science Centre which has earned a reputation for new and interesting ways of engaging the public in science education.

As well as the programme information page, there’s also a website of Nina’s Lab where children can match sensations to the senses.

Link to programme information.
Link to Nina’s Lab.

Pills, ills and bellyaches

The Bad Science column is always a great read, but this week’s piece is particularly worth checking out, as Ben Goldacre tackles a move by the pharmaceutical industry to be allowed to selectively educate the public about medical issues and human biology.

They currently target this at health professionals, and it involves promoting theories that best favour their product.

Pushing the virtually unsupported ‘serotonin theory of depression’ to bolster sales of serotonin acting SSRI drugs is a notorious example.

The column describes how drug marketing operates, highlights plenty of great material to show it in action, and also links to a fantastic (and laugh out loud) video advert for a common social anxiety drug.

Link to Bad Science article ‘The Pill Problem’.

Science of the female orgasm

ABC Radio’s Health Report has just had a special on the female orgasm with neurophysiologist Prof Beverly Whipple.

We covered a curious review of Whipple’s new book, The Science of Orgasm (ISBN 9780801884900), recently on Mind Hacks.

In the radio programme Whipple discusses the brain functions and peripheral nervous system structures that support the female orgasm, as well speculating on possible evolutionary explanations for its existence.

The interview is wide-ranging and also tackles the effect of SSRI antidepressant medication (known to delay or prevent orgasm in both men and women), the role of desire in sexual satisfaction and the importance of communication in sexual relationships.

Link to Health Report on ‘The Female Orgasm’.