The Brain That Wouldn’t Die!

The classic 1960’s B-movie The Brain That Wouldn’t Die has fallen into the public domain and is now available to download or to watch online.

It’s another classic story of boy meets girl, boy loses girl in terrible car crash, boy keeps girl’s head alive in neuroscience lab while looking for attractive new body.

Needless to say, it all ends in tears, but not before a journey that takes us from the lab, to a cat fight in a strip bar, and back again.

All in the best possible B-movie taste of course with some er… ‘unique’ dialogue that should give any experimental scientist cause for thought:

“The paths of experimentation twist and turn through mountains of miscalculations and often lose themselves in error and darkness!”

Wise words indeed.

Link to download from the Internet Archive.
Link to stream from Google Video.

Inside the psychotic world of Grand Theft Auto

A brief article published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine in 2001 reported the case of a young man who suffered delusions that he was a player inside a computer game.

The game isn’t mentioned by name, but it seems to be Grand Theft Auto.

The authors of the case study point out that they’re not suggesting that computer games cause psychosis, but they comment on how it’s a somewhat unusual illustration of how ideas from a person’s life get incorporated into the themes of psychosis.

A young man was admitted from prison to a psychiatric facility after reports that he had been acting in a bizarre manner. He had been arrested for stealing motor vehicles and assaults with weapons. At interview he was found to be experiencing the delusion that he was a player inside a computer game (adult-certificate game, widely available) in which points are scored for stealing cars, killing assailants and avoiding police vehicles.

Psychotic symptoms had emerged slowly over two years. His family had noticed him becoming increasingly withdrawn and isolated from social activities. He developed delusions that strangers were planning to kill him and also experienced auditory hallucinations, constantly hearing an abusive and derogatory voice. Previously a computer enthusiast, he began to play computer games incessantly. He felt that the games were communicating with him via the headphones.

In a complex delusional system he came to believe he was inside one of these games and had to steal a car to start scoring points. He broke into a car and drove off at speed, believing he had `invulnerable’ fuel and so could not run out of petrol. To gain points he chose to steal increasingly powerful vehicles, threatening and assaulting the owners with weapons. Later he said he would have had no regrets if he had killed someone, since this would have increased his score.

After arrest and while in prison he continued to believe he was in the game, despite initial medication. When he was admitted to hospital six weeks later, part of ward management was to deny him access to computer games. Nothing abnormal was found on physical examination, blood investigations, drug screen, electroencephalography or a computed tomographic brain scan. Paranoid schizophrenia was diagnosed and he responded well to further treatment with antipsychotic medication.

Similarly, ‘rock and roll delusions’ have occasionally been reported in the medical literature (David Bowie seems to be a favourite).

Link to JRSM full-text article ‘Computer Game Delusions’.

Can’t compute the wood for the trees

Computer scientist David Gelernter has written an in-depth article for Technology Review where he criticises the possibility of creating artificial consciousness, but has high hopes for unconscious artificial intelligence.

My case for the near-impossibility of conscious software minds resembles what others have said. But these are minority views. Most AI researchers and philosophers believe that conscious software minds are just around the corner. To use the standard term, most are “cognitivists.” Only a few are “anticognitivists.” I am one. In fact, I believe that the cognitivists are even wronger than their opponents usually say.

But my goal is not to suggest that AI is a failure. It has merely developed a temporary blind spot. My fellow anticognitivists have knocked down cognitivism but have done little to replace it with new ideas. They’ve showed us what we can’t achieve (conscious software intelligence) but not how we can create something less dramatic but nonetheless highly valuable: unconscious software intelligence. Once AI has refocused its efforts on the mechanisms (or algorithms) of thought, it is bound to move forward again.

Gelernter is a a great writer and an interesting guy, not least because of his brush with death, courtesy of disturbed anti-technologist Ted Kaczynski aka ‘The Unabomber’.

Link to TechReview article ‘Artificial Intelligence Is Lost in the Woods’.

2007-06-29 Spike activity

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

Couple of good radio shows on philosophy: In Our Time on the history of ‘common sense philosophy’ and The Philosopher’s Zone has a special on the late Richard Rorty.

When do children think wishes can come true? Mixing Memory examines a psychology study that aimed to find out.

Scientific American investigates the neuroscience of irrationality and economic decision-making.

New Hitachi ‘brain-machine interface’ uses infrared light to read brain activity.

Prospect Magazine has a short article on the psychology of suicide bombers.

Experts say video games are not an addiction. Pope still catholic.

Why do we find it harder to recognise faces of other races than our own? Cognitive Daily looks at the influence of experience.

Supporters of ‘child bipolar disorder’ champion write to the Boston Herald with a strong defence of his work.

New Scientist covers a virtual world that can be explored through the power of thought (with video).

Wired looks at some of the revelations about behavioural control studies from recently de-classified CIA documents.

When brain damage helps. Developing Intelligence looks at a study that found that patients with frontal lobe damage actually do better on some reasoning tasks.

If there such a thing as photographic memory? Scientific American ‘asks the expert’.

The excellent NYC radio show RadioLab has a <a href="
“>special on Memory and Forgetting, featuring a well-known science blogger.

The hardest cut: Penfield and the fight for his sister

In 1935, world renowned neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield published three remarkable case studies describing the psychological effects of frontal lobe surgery.

They remain a fascinating insight into the link between brain and behaviour, but one case was unlike anything Penfield had tackled before.

It described the fight to save the life of his only sister.


Continue reading “The hardest cut: Penfield and the fight for his sister”

Is bigotry a mental illness?

The Psychiatric Times has an interesting article discussing whether bigotry should be classified as a mental illness. The author concludes no, but the discussion gives an important insight into how we decide what is a mental illness and what is not.

Most people might think that an opinion, no matter how disagreeable, shouldn’t get someone diagnosed with a mental disorder.

The difficulty comes when deciding what criteria you should use to decide that someone’s mental state has gone beyond what is normal and should be considered an illness.

Generally, if a mental state is considered to cause distress or impairment, it’s considered to be a sign of mental illness.

This goes for physical illness as well. A physical difference is only considered an illness if it causes problems as a result.

However, someone who is extremely racist might genuinely suffer problems as a result of their opinions.

As we reported previously, a small group of psychiatrists are pushing for a diagnosis of ‘racist disorder’ to be included in the next revision of the diagnostic manual on this basis.

One argument to be wary of in the justification of this, or any other mental disorder, is that ‘it must exist because biological differences can be found between people thought to have the condition and those without’.

As the mind and behaviour is just a reflection of brain function, any difference, no matter how trivial (ice cream preference for example), will have a related biological difference.

As with physical illness, biological differences in themselves can’t define an illness, because they have to be linked to what is considered serious distress or impairment in everyday life.

Biology might tell us why the difference occurs, but it can’t tell us whether the difference should be considered good or bad.

This decision is essentially a value judgement, because what is considered serious, distressing, impairing or relevant to everyday life aren’t cut-and-dry decisions and are made on the basis of a consensus of opinions.

In some cases, such as cancer, it’s easy, because everyone agrees that an early painful death is bad.

In other cases, particularly for mental illnesses, the issues can be a lot less straightforward because there there are few obvious and direct effects of mental states.

These issues ask us to question what we consider an illness and highlight that the decision is as based as much on social considerations and context, as on the science of biology.

The Psychiatric Times article tackles exactly these sorts of issues in its discussion of bigotry, and is a great guide to the philosophical issues involved in classifying mental disorder.

If you want to explore further, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a great entry on mental illness that tackles many of the conceptual difficulties.

Link to Psychiatric Times article ‘Is bigotry a mental illness?’
Link to Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on mental illness.

Kidman new face of brain game, will it sharpen the mind?

As a sure sign that cognitive improvement games have gone mainstream, Nicole Kidman has been announced as the new face of Nintendo’s latest ‘brain training’ title.

The idea that mental training will actually help boost your mental skills is relatively new.

It was traditionally thought that the mind and brain just start losing their edge after young adulthood and your best hope was to learn to use your remaining resources more effectively as you age.

However, studies started to appear in the late 1990s suggesting that practicing certain tasks could act as a sort of ‘mental workout’, actually improving mental abilities directly in people with disorders like Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia.

Most people weren’t fully convinced of the benefits in healthy older people until a key study was published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association that showed modest but reliable improvements, even after five years.

The effects were typically small (often too small to be picked up without standard tests), but interestingly, the training also had a knock-on effect on the participants’ ability to look after themselves effectively on a day-to-day basis.

It seems that cognitive training may have a stronger effect in people with mental impairments. A recent review of 17 studies found a positive effect on mental abilities, everyday activities and mood in people with Alzheimer’s.

However, as far as I know, no controlled trials have ever been published on any off-the-shelf ‘brain training’ game, including Nintendo’s. You’d guess from the medical literature that they might have a similar effect, but it’s yet to be shown for sure.

Link to BBC News article ‘Kidman to be new face of Nintendo’.
Link to JAMA article ‘Long-term Effects of Cognitive Training…’