Withdrawn behaviour

Author Bruce Stutz writes about his experience of depression, stopping antidepressants and the science of SSRI withdrawal in an article for the New York Times.

Withdrawal from SSRI medication, a group which includes drugs such as Prozac, Seroxat and Zoloft, is known to cause considerable discomfort in about 1 in 5 people.

It’s been spun as a ‘discontinuation syndrome‘ by the drug companies, as ‘withdrawal symptoms’ sounds a bit too much like what drug addicts have.

Although SSRIs are not addictive in the sense that they don’t cause a strong desire to take more, the brain does go through a significant period of readjustment when the drug leaves the body.

The NYT article examines Stutz’s experience of treatment for depression, and how he coped with the withdrawal symptoms that he was unlucky enough to experience.

The piece also takes a look at the neuroscience of serotonin and mood, with a more critical analysis than is often found in some mainstream science articles.

Link to NYT article ‘Self-Nonmedication’.

How much do parents shape our personality?

Prospect magazine has an engaging article by psychologist Judith Rich Harris who argues, contrary to popular belief, that parents are not the most important influence in a child’s development.

Harris wrote a book called The Nurture Assumption, and more recently No Two Alike, that both took a similar line, suggesting that the influence of the home environment is relatively small in shaping a child’s personality.

She bases this on research suggesting that children can and do adapt their behaviour according to whether they’re with their parents, with others, in the home, or otherwise.

Harris suggests that child behaviours that remain the same across various environments are more likely to be influenced by genetics.

In other words, she argues that the idea we relate to others in specific ways because we’ve learnt certain core relationship styles with our parents is mistaken, and in fact, we develop context and person specific relationship patterns that can be seen even from an early age.

She gives the example of the classic distinction made between the personalities of first and last born children:

Firstborns and laterborns do behave in characteristic ways when they’re in the presence of their parents and siblings, but they drop these behaviours when they’re away from their family. Like James in [TV programme] Child of our Time, they adapt their behaviour to their setting. The firstborn who dominates his younger siblings at home doesn’t automatically assume that he will also be able to dominate his classmates. After all, even though he’s the largest child at home, he may turn out to be the smallest one in the playground. Research confirms that firstborn children are, on average, no more dominant in the playground than are laterborns. Nor do laterborns go through life permanently cowed. A laterborn who is pushed around by his older brother at home is fully capable of stepping into a dominant role with his peers.

Link to Prospect article ‘Why home doesn’t matter’.
Link to Wikipedia page on Judith Rich Harris with many links.

Bot-on-bot action

Alice and Jabberwacky are the world’s leading AI chatbots and they’ve finally met.

The rendezvous is described in an article from Discover magazine, who got in touch to say that it’s a teaser for their already-on-the-shelves special issue ‘The Brain: A User’s Guide’ which seemed to be curiously absent from their website.

The limits of the bots’ abilities are clear from some of the transcripts, but there are some truly sublime moments in their as well:

A: Do you dream?
J: Yes, I dream.
A: It goes without saying. Do you remember your dreams?
J: I remember them vividly.
A: What do you remember about it?
J: I think I shouldn’t flirt with a robot.

If you think robots shouldn’t be flirting with each other, you may want to have a look at a previous Mind Hacks article on the confusion that occurs when humans try their luck with AI systems – either real or imagined.

Link to Discover article ‘I Chat, Therefore I Am…’
Link to Mind Hacks article ‘The Robots are Coming’.

Latest formula donkey hits the headlines

Another scientist has sold his soul to the God of PR and promoted a nonsense formula in the media – this time for the ‘perfect Page 3 girl’. For those not used to the British tabloid press, page 3 traditionally displays a picture of a topless girl.

The offender on this occasion is Cambridge University medical researcher Dr David Granger, who is seemingly trying to promote a commercial diagnostics company by talking drivel to the media.

I honestly don’t know how this happens. If I was looking to hire a commercial science company, one that had just advertised itself with some spectacularly bad pseudoscience would be bottom of my list.

Link to Dr Petra with the gory details.

What sort of person volunteers for a prison experiment?

Zimbardo’s famous ‘Stanford Prison Experiment‘ is often cited as an example of where circumstances influence average people to take up abusive roles.

In a recent article in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, psychologists Thomas Carnahan and Sam McFarland tested the idea that the people who volunteer for this sort of study were truly ‘average’ and found that they had character traits that could encourage abuse.

To recruit participants, the researchers used the newspaper advert from the original Stanford Prison Experiment, as well as another advert that was identical, except for the mention of ‘prison life’.

They found that volunteers who responded to the advert that mentioned ‘prison life’ scored significantly higher on measures of the abuse-related dispositions of aggressiveness, authoritarianism, Machiavellianism, narcissism, and social dominance and lower on empathy and altruism.

This suggests that circumstances may not be the only factor in influencing the sort of behaviour seen in the original study, as some people may have particular attitudes that could make abuse more likely when the circumstances allow for it.

There is further commentary and analysis of the research over at the ever-excellent CrimePsychBlog.

Link to CrimePsychBlog on ‘Revisiting the Stanford Prison Experiment’.
Link to abstract of research study.

2007-05-04 Spike activity

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

Deep brain stimulation research continues with trials of DBS for memory problems and as a way of implanting artificial vision systems.

ABC Radio National’s The Philosopher’s Zone takes a look at the philosophy of art and emotion.

Cognitive Daily has a demo and explanation of how we learn to keep track of multiple moving objects.

The Observer reports on a study suggesting that girls with more feminine names are least likely to go into maths and science-based professions. See previously for other research on how our names influence behaviour.

Magnetic pulses may be able to trigger slow wave sleep in insomniacs, reports The Independent.

What neural mechanisms underlie “fluid intelligence? Developing Intelligence looks at one of the latest studies.

New Scientist reports that native speakers of Russian, which lacks a single word for “blue”, discriminate between light and dark blues differently from native English speakers.

PsyBlog investigates research on sex differences in understanding non-verbal communication.

New Scientist reports that anatomical brain differences have been found in sufferers of the controversial ‘Gulf War Syndrome’.

Research investigating implicit racial bias in NBA referees is analysed by Mixing Memory.

Wired has an article on the Pentagon showing their next-generation ‘brain interfaced’ electronic binoculars.

The Neurophilosopher has some fantastic coverage of the recent study that scanned the orginal brains that led Broca to discover Broca’s Area and inspire the science of cognitive neuropsychology.

Psychoanalysis of Resident Evil and Silent Hill

Resident Evil and Silent Hill have been given a psychoanalytic interpretation by two academics wanting to undercover the underlying symbolism of these popular video games.

The analysis attempts to illustrate how “the poststructuralist divide between Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis plays out in the differences between the Resident Evil and Silent Hill series”.

Needless to say, the article is steeped in the language of psychoanalysis and postmodernism. But if you can get through the jargon, it’s an entertaining essay on the narratives used in the game play and plot of the two games.

Silent Hill significance stems from its avant-garde status: it anticipates our familiarity with these conventions and works to subvert them, problematizing our desire for stability and coherence. These subversions work by collapsing the distances between player, avatar, and game unsettling our expectation to retain a clinical distance between the twisted world of our avatars and the sacred normality of our own real world.

This is epitomized near the end of Silent Hill 3 when a professorial character inquisitively questions the “enjoyment” that Heather, our avatar, draws from killing the threatening abjections around her. When she responds that she has only killed monsters, Vincent replies with “they look like monsters to you…” Our game play, which until this point has been comfortably positioned as an analytic activity helping Heather work through her traumas, becomes traumatic.

Vincent punctures the fictional fantasy screen, speaking not only to Heather, but also to us. Suddenly the game world collapses around us-for a moment we are subjected as murders, potentially as psychotic as our avatar and/or as one of the very psychopaths we so confidently believed we were killing.

Nothing can be trusted. No longer is it clear that we are working to uphold symbolic order. No longer is it clear that any such order ever has or could so securely exist. Put simply, Resident Evil maintains desire for a Freudian dynamic (one in which order is out there), Silent Hill opens us up to a Lacanian one (one in which, to quote Derrida, “order is no longer assured”

Link to ‘Saving Ourselves: Psychoanalytic Investigation of Resident Evil and Silent Hill’.

Delivering email directly to the mind

The current issue of the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry has a curious letter about a patient who had the delusional belief that emails were being delivered directly to her mind:

Dear Editor

We report the case of an elderly lady with no experience of using a personal computer or internet technology, whose delusional experiences included the direct personal receipt of email.

Ms T, an 84-year old female with a 40-year history of schizoaffective disorder, presented with a delusional belief that something precious and of value ‘for all people’ had been inserted into her body by a doctor in Germany in the 1950s. She had sought medical help because she believed that an abdominal operative procedure would be necessary to remove a “rat and a teddy bear made of diamonds” that she believed had grown within her.

Following admission, she remained highly guarded, distressed and preoccupied with the need of urgent surgery, which she demanded every time she met her medical team. When asked about the origins of this belief and her desire for surgery, she said that she had gained knowledge about this from a friend, whom she had seen last in 1945.

She explained that she received emails from this friend. These arrived in her mind, exactly like electronic mail, but were managed without a computer. Rather than receiving messages in text form, she received what she described as ‘an impression in my mind’, which conveyed an unequivocal meaning to her. She also believed that her friend had some valuable information for the medical team and that he would be able to contact the senior physician by a similar mechanism.

Following 4 weeks of treatment with risperidone 1.0 mg bd her mental state improved to the point where she stopped receiving the emails, gained insight into her primary belief and told us that she was satisfied that surgery was no longer needed.

There have been previous reports of delusions specific equipment components (Schmid-Siegel et al., 2004) and general activity in the internet (Tan et al., 2004). Most reported cases tend to be in young people, often with a particular experience in using the internet (Bell et al., 2005). To our knowledge, there have been no previous reports of the particular delusion of email receipt by the self. Our case shows that internet-based delusions are not restricted to the young or to those familiar with use of the internet.

Dr Malgorzata Raczek
Prof Robert Howard

Link to PubMed entry for letter.

Optimal excitability

Nobel prize-winning psychologist Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) gives a description of brain activity that eerily echoes the results of modern brain scanning studies.

The quote is from a lecture given in 1913 and published on p222 of the book Lectures on Conditioned Reflexes: Twenty-Five Years of Objective Study of the Higher Nervous Activity Behavior of Animals.

“If we could look through the skull into the brain of a consciously thinking person, and if the place of optimal excitability were luminous, then we should see playing over the cerebral surface, a bright spot with fantastic, waving borders constantly fluctuating in size and form, surrounded by a darkness more or less deep, covering the rest of the hemisphere.”

Hand in Glove

And who could resist finishing the day with rock n’ roll?

Seed magazine has an account of rock producer turned cognitive neuroscientist Dan Levitin meeting with rock musician David Byrne, and 3QuarksDaily have found a curious reference to 80s group The Smiths in a book on the philosophy of mind.

The first paragraph of philosopher Akeel Bilgrami’s book Belief and Meaning (ISBN 0631196773) contains a reference to The Smiths track ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’:

Content is what is specified by sentences or propositions in that-clauses when we attribute intentional states to agents. Thus, in the attribution, “Smith believes that Bigmouth has struck again,” the sentence or proposition (Bigmouth has struck again) which follows the “that” specifies the content.

Link to Dan Levitin and David Byrne interview in Seed.
Link to 3QuarksDaily on philosophy and The Smiths.

Marijuana and the causes of madness

Huge numbers of news sources are reporting on recent neuroscience studies that have linked the effect of cannabis on the brain to the development of psychosis.

The excitement is because the 2nd International Cannabis and Mental Health Conference is currently under way in London where scientists from around the world are presenting the latest research on the effects of cannabis.

Luckily, the conference programme and summaries for all the research presented are available online as a pdf file, so you can get a more accurate idea of what the studies have found.

It is now clear that cannabis increases the risk of psychosis in some people who have a family history of psychosis and / or certain versions of the COMT gene.

However, the main thrust of the news stories is that even a single dose of THC, the main ingredient in cannabis that causes the ‘high’, can trigger psychotic symptoms.

A study by Dr Cyril D’Souza noted that:

Δ-9-THC produced schizophrenia-like positive and negative symptoms, altered perception, increased anxiety, produced euphoria, disrupted immediate and delayed word recall, impaired performance on tests of attention and working memory without impairing orientation.

The difficulty is that just because something seems to cause similar effects to psychosis, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is strongly linked to it.

For example, a dose of alcohol can ‘produce’ similar symptoms to Alzheimer’s disease – loss of memory, disorientation, mood swings, aggression and so on – but that isn’t a good basis to say that the alcohol is doing the same thing in the short-term as the degenerative brain disorder does in the long-term.

More convincing are the results from the cognitive tests: impairment in immediate and delayed recall, attention and working memory without impairing orientation.

This is because the subjective effects of both cannabis and psychosis are, well subjective, but the cognitive effects are measurable with controlled neuropsychological tests.

One particularly interesting study from Dr Cecile Henquet found that when compared to controls, patients experienced a greater increase in psychotic experience after taking THC, but also had a greater improvement in their mood.

This might explain why people with psychosis will often continue smoking cannabis even when they know it causes their mental state to deteriorate.

Another fascinating finding, is that as well as containing the possibly psychosis increasing THC, cannabis also seems to contain an antipsychotic called cannabidiol or CBD.

One study presented by Prof Markus Leweke found that purified CBD had a beneficial effect equal to amisulpride, a widely used pharmaceutical antipsychotic medication.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the cutting-edge of cannabis research the surprisingly readable conference programme is well worth checking out.

Link to conference programme and research summaries.

Does sex on first date boost relationship chances?

Dr Petra Boyton casts a critical eye on recent media stories suggesting that sex on first date releases ‘brain hormones’ that increase trust and intimacy that might improve the long-term chances of a relationship. So what does neuroscience tell us about the link?

The claim is made by Dr Barry Gibb [insert Bee Gees joke here] in a new book The Rough Guide to the Brain.

The claim is likely based on the fact that the hormone oxytocin has been reported to increase trust in humans when deliberately administered by experimenters, and has been linked to sexual response in humans.

The trouble is, the evidence for a strong and consistent link with sexual response isn’t really there yet.

A recent review article examined the role of hormones in sexual arousal and looked specifically at oxytocin, noting that:

Carmichael et al. (1987) found that plasma OT [oxytocin] increased around the time of orgasm in men and women, remaining raised for at least 5 min after orgasm…. In a recent study of men, OT increased in some subjects following ejaculation, but the individual variability was such that the group effect was not significant (Kruger et al. 2003a).

Murphy et al. (1987) reported an increase in OT in men during sexual arousal, which persisted beyond ejaculation, but with no obvious increase at ejaculation. In a study of women, Blaicher et al.(1999) found an increase in OT 1 min after orgasm, but levels were close to baseline by 5 min post-orgasm.

It is difficult to draw clear conclusions from this literature on OT and sexual arousal. Whether the increase of OT around orgasm, which has been somewhat inconsistently observed in the human literature, has any specific function, rather than being an epiphenomenon of other changes, remains uncertain…

In other words, the evidence for oxytocin being released consistently during sex is mixed and its significance is unclear.

Even if sex and the oxytocin ‘trust boost’ was reliably linked, you would need to do a study looking at whether couples trust each other more after having sex for the first time to really be sure whether the effect actually had an impact.

Sex causes such a strong behavioural, psychological and neurochemical change that a small release of oxytocin might be completely insignificant among the storm of other effects.

So does sex on first date increase the chances of a long-term relationship?

We don’t know, and what we do know about the neuroscience of sexual response doesn’t really tell us either.

UPDATE: Susan Kuchinskas has added some insightful commentary to this post. Check the comments section.

Link to Dr Petra Boyton’s article.
Link to full text of scientific article ‘The endocrinology of sexual arousal’.

An owner’s manual for the brain

So when did Discover magazine get so good? They’ve got an excellent ‘Mind and Brain’ section with a long list of feature articles freely available online.

Actually, what I wanted to feature was a one off magazine called ‘Discover presents The Brain: An Owner’s Manual’, which I found on the shelves of my local newsagent.

It’s labelled ‘Spring 07’, so is obviously current, but I can’t find anything about it on Discover’s website.

Check it out if you get the chance though. It’s solely dedicated to psychology and neuroscience and has some fantastic articles, but also includes some beautiful photos of intricate brain structures and has some neuropsychological tests to try.

Also, there are interviews with psychologist, author and diagnosed bipolar patient Kay Redfield Jamison, and Nobel prize-winning biologist and consciousness researcher Gerald Edelman.

Why this special issue isn’t mentioned on their website is something of a mystery though.

Link to Discover magazine ‘Mind and Brain’ section.

Getting emotional about cognitive science

The Boston Globe has a well-researched article on how emotion has become increasingly important in scientific models of the mind.

Only two decades ago, cognitive psychology rarely discussed emotion and was largely about the supposedly ‘cold’ computational aspects of mind: memory, attention, problem solving, language and so on.

It is now being recognised that emotion plays an important role in all of these aspects of mental life, largely because of developments in neuroscience.

This new science of emotion has brought a new conception of what it means to think, and, in some sense, a rediscovery of the unconscious. In the five decades since the cognitive revolution began, scientists have developed ways of measuring the brain that could not have been imagined at the time. Researchers can make maps of the brain at work, and literally monitor emotions as they unfold, measuring the interplay of feeling and thinking in colorful snapshots. Although we aren’t aware of this mental activity — much of it occurs unconsciously — it plays a crucial role in governing all aspects of thought. The black box of the mind has been flung wide open.

As an aside, the author of the piece is science writer Jonah Lehrer, who also writes neuroscience blog Frontal Cortex.

Link to Boston Globe article ‘Hearts and Minds’.

Science of hypnosis

Hypnosis and Suggestion is a fantastic website created by Dr Matt Whalley, an academic hypnosis researcher who gives a level-headed and detailed account of what is known about the science of hypnotic states and suggestion.

Hypnosis is a well researched psychological phenomenon and, increasingly, it is being investigated by cognitive neuroscientists.

What we know is that some people are more susceptible to hypnotic suggestions than others.

Research has shown that the level of hypnotic susceptibility is known to be stable across the life span and related to genetics.

A twin study shown that hypnotisability is likely to be heritable and recent molecular genetics studies have shown that it may be influenced by a gene known as COMT.

Interest has recently begin to focus on what makes some people highly hypnotisable compared to others.

A recent study looking at brain structure found that the front part of the corpus callosum was almost a third bigger in highly hypnotisable people.

This matches up with other neuroimaging studies which have suggested that highly hypnotisable people show differences in the function of frontal lobes, particularly the anterior cingulate cortex.

These differences are likely to be linked to an ability to become very ‘absorbed’ in things, with a simultaneous reduction in conflict and distraction when highly focused.

This might explain why hypnotic suggestions seem to have their effect on highly hypnotisable people, as they become absorbed in what the hypnotist says and can voluntarily ‘switch off’ the need to constantly self-monitor and evaluate their own reactions.

Interestingly, research suggests that we aren’t very good at working out how hypnotisable we are.

Matt Whalley’s site is a fantastic introduction to what is known about the science of hypnosis, including a list of frequently asked questions, an overview of the current theories of hypnosis, its history and its use by legitmate clinicians.

A fascinating read and well worth investigating if you’re curious about this intriguing human phenomenon.

Link to Hypnosis and Suggestion website.