Next step brains: Evolution or optimisation?

This week’s edition of ABC Radio National’s opinion programme Ockham’s Razor has Dr Peter Lavelle speculating about a future when computers will match or outstrip the human brain.

Taking a “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach, Lavelle looks to a time when we’ll extend our capabilities with electronics and cybernetic expansions.

But he doesn’t stop there. He continues way past where most futurists stop and thinks about the possible end points for the human race if our trend for technological integration continues.

A fun and wildly speculative way to spend 15 minutes if you like your neuroscience with a touch of wide-eyed wonder.

Link to programme details and audio.

The attractions of complex plastic bags

Another snippet from the Journal of Forensic Sciences, this time from a post-mortem case report from the July edition:

“We here report the case of a 34-year-old man who died due to asphyxia, secondary to body wrapping in the largest and most complex plastic bag ever involved in a published case of autoerotic death.”

People are sources of such surprising sexual diversity and you can just feel the curiousity radiating from the case report.

Despite the seemingly unusual nature of the death, over 400 autoerotic fatalities have been reported in the medical literature, suggesting that similar practices are probably conducted safely on a much wider basis.

For people who deal with tragic circumstances on a day-to-day basis, the intellectual fascination helps cope with the emotions these sorts of cases stir up.

I remember sitting in a cafe with a forensic psychologist happily chatting away, when the people next to us stood up and moved to another table as they seemed to be increasingly put off their food.

Being able to eat lunch while discussing gruesome case reports is one of the benefits of this form of coping strategy.

Link to abstract of ‘Complex autoerotic death with full body wrapping in a plastic body bag’.

Labelling emotions reduces their impact

A brain scanning study has found that naming emotions reduces the intensity of emotion processing in the brain, possibly outlining a brain network responsible for the old saying ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’.

A team led by psychologist Dr Matthew Lieberman brain-scanned participants while they looked at pictures of faces that had different emotional expressions.

Earlier studies have found that naming an emotion seems to reduce its impact but this study went to particular lengths to make sure it was actually naming the emotion that helped, rather than just naming something, or identifying the emotion in other ways.

Participants were also scanned while having to name a face with a proper name, like Jane or Peter, or while matching the face to one with a similar emotional expression. This last task involved identifying the emotion but not naming it.

It turned out that when naming an emotion, and not for the other tasks, activity in a frontal lobe area called the the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (right VLPFC) significantly increased while activity in the amygdala decreased.

The amygdala is known to be heavily involved in processing emotions and seems to be regulated, at least in part, by the VLPFC.

These findings are consistent with this idea. The VLPFC increases its activity to dampen down the emotions triggered by the amygdala.

However, it’s not clear whether this happens equally for both positive and negative emotions, as 80% of the faces in the study had expressions of anger or fear, while only 20% displayed happiness or surprise, so this data only really tells us about unpleasant feelings.

We know that observing emotion in others makes us more likely to feel the same thing ourselves, but it’s not the same as experiencing an emotion ‘first-hand’, so we need to be a bit careful in assuming that this study fully represents the more everyday experience of talking about our emotions.

This experiment gives us a good understanding of the brain circuit involved reducing emotional impact via naming, but it doesn’t tell us much about why this occurs.

This is one of the major drawbacks of neuroimaging studies. They often just redescribe an effect in terms of brain activity.

Of course, this is essential knowledge, but we need to do more than just have several types of description and it is why the results from brain scanning studies need to be integrated with behavioural, experimental, clinical and subjective reports to be fully informative.

Link to write-up from APA Monitor.
Link to write-up from Scientific American.
Link to abstract of scientific study.

Profiling serial killers and other violent criminals

I just noticed that the January edition of the Journal of Forensic Sciences is freely available online, which contains psychological case reports on two serial killers and a football hooligan.

The journal is always a fascinating read, as it combines academic papers on everything from molecular analysis to psychological profiling.

The psychology case reports are often more influenced by a Freudian, interpretive style of explanation than in many other areas of psychology.

This is perhaps because the reports are largely from the USA which was historically most influenced by Freudian ideas and still retains a stronger influence in clinical and forensic psychology.

It is possibly also because it’s quite hard to do controlled studies on violent criminals, and so single case studies are more likely to draw on interpretive ideas that were specifically developed to delve into the mind of individuals.

For example, the FBI’s Behavioural Science Unit will partly analyse a crime scene using interpretive methods to link the symbolism of certain actions (e.g. covering a victims face after the murder) with the emotional state of the killer (e.g. shame).

The APA Monitor has an intriguing article on FBI profiling if you want to know more, and if you want some examples of the sorts of thinking that goes into criminal profiling, the case reports in the January edition are a good place to start.

Link to ‘Paths to Destruction: The Lives and Crimes of Two Serial Killers’.
Link to ‘The Hooligan’s Mind’.
Link to ‘Criminal profiling: the reality behind the myth’.

Pugilistic Discussion Syndrome

The Wired Alt-Text blog has an amusing list of made-up diagnoses for internet users, covering all the major pathologies of online interaction.

This is my favourite:

Pugilistic Discussion Syndrome

In this curious form of aphasia, the subject is unable to distinguish between a discussion and a contest. The subject approaches any online forum as a sort of playing field, and attempts to “win” the discussion by any means necessary. The rules of the imaginary contest are apparently clear to the individual as he or she will often point out when others break them, but when asked to outline these rules the individual is reluctant, perhaps not wishing to confer an “advantage” on any “opponents.” The conditions for winning are similarly difficult to pin down, although in some cases the individual will declare himself the winner of a discussion that, to all others, appears to be ongoing.

Of course, the next step is for an ambitious young researcher and a support group of affected families to champion the cause. Shortly after, a precise list of symptoms for each diagnosis will be created.

Some initial research will demonstrate that the behaviour in a particular category can be reduced by a particular psychiatric drug, at which point a drug company will fund a ‘public education campaign’ about the disorder.

Now flush with cash, the researchers and support groups will lobby for mainstream acceptance (inclusion in the DSM being the crowning glory), and as soon as that happens, the drug company will push for a licence for their treatment to be approved for the condition.

Voila. Another dreadful disease has been recognised, de-stigmatised and treated. The march of progress moves ever forward.

On a more serious note, what I’ve just described is a typical process by which new psychiatric conditions become mainstream.

Some people, and their families, may genuinely suffer from the effects jokingly described under ‘Pugilistic Discussion Syndrome’.

It is always worth helping people to suffer less, but the question you should ask yourself when you hear about a new mental illness is not whether people are suffering (which they almost certainly are), but whether the best way to alleviate that suffering is by deciding it should be diagnosed and treated by the medical profession.

Medicine uses science, but the decision over what is worth researching and treating is based on a mixture of political, personal, scientific and economic concerns.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in psychiatry. An essential question for critical thinking in this field is ‘who benefits from this approach?’.

The answer should always be the patients, but it isn’t always clear that this is the case. We need to keep asking ourselves this same question over-and-over to make sure psychiatry is serving those most in need.

So, if you want to get involved with medical progress, consider some of the conditions on Wired’s satirical list.

Link to ‘Narcissistic Blog Disorder and Other Conditions of Online Kookery’.

What aliens taught us about self-justification

Newsweek has a brief but interesting article on the new generation of research focused on cognitive dissonance – our desire to reconcile ill-fitting beliefs and actions which can lead us to self-justify in the most curious ways.

The theory is one of the most important in psychology but has a rather unusual origin.

It originated with psychologist Leon Festinger who came up with the idea after studying a UFO cult.

The cult believed in a prophecy that aliens would land at a certain date and destroy the earth. The date came and went and no aliens appeared, but a curious thing happened.

While some believers became disillusioned and left, others strengthened their beliefs. Festinger asked ‘why would your belief strengthen if there’s evidence against it?’.

He thought that it might result from a process of trying to make sense of two conflicting things – in this case, acting as a cult member, but having your belief in a prophecy disproved.

Perhaps to reconcile these positions and make yourself feel more at ease, you could either change your actions (leave the cult), or, change your other beliefs to fit (maybe the prophecy was a test of faith?).

Festinger set decided to test this idea in the lab with a now classic experiment.

He asked groups of students to volunteer for an experiment. In the study the students were asked to complete a dull and repetitive task.

Afterwards they were asked to persuade another student to volunteer. For this, half the students were paid one dollar, half twenty dollars.

The students were put in the position that their actions (persuasion) conflicted with their belief that the task was boring.

The students who were paid only one dollar rated the task as more enjoyable than the twenty dollar students.

While the paid students could justify their persuasion by telling themselves they were doing it for the money, the unpaid students justified it to themselves by changing their opinion of the task – “Actually, it wasn’t that boring after all”.

Many more studies have born out the theory, suggesting that we are motivated to reduce conflicts in our actions and beliefs, partly because we feel discomfort when they do not adequately match.

The Newsweek article looks at some of the more recent research in this area, and touches on some of the neuroscience studies which are trying to work out how the brain is involved in this process.

Incidentally, the author of the piece, Wray Herbert, also has a blog that is full of other great articles.

Link to Newsweek article ‘Toothless is Beautiful’.

The pathologies of social rejection

Today’s Washington Post has an article on the psychology of rejection in children’s social circles and its possible long-term effects on behaviour and mental health.

It comes in the wake of the Virginia Tech massacre and it aims to make sense of bullying and rejection by looking at scientific studies in the area.

These have uncovered which things make a child more likely to be rejected, and what is likely to occur when it happens.

One key finding is that early rejection means that children are less likely to develop social skills, meaning continued rejection is more likely.

This has led to a focus on ‘early intervention’ for troubled children to try and prevent them from getting caught up in the vicious circle of social exclusion.

This is a valuable project because rejection is known to be associated with depression, behaviour problems and chance of becoming involved in criminal activities.

The article looks at some of the recent studies that have focused on this area, and talks to some of the professionals involved in trying to make a difference with vulnerable young people.

Link to article ‘A Better Response to Rejection’.