Inside Intuition

Can you trust your gut instincts? A BBC Radio 4 documentary ‘Inside Intuition’ offers to address the issue. It’s on this friday – that’s the 17th August – at 11am. Those of you busy or outside of the UK, check the BBC’s fantastic Listen Again pages during the week after broadcast.

BBC Press release here and below the fold, for your convenience.

Continue reading “Inside Intuition”

Cerebrum – Dana’s online neuroscience magazine

Dana, the neuroscience education charity, have an online magazine called Cerebrum that has monthly articles on emerging ideas in brain science.

The latest article is on ‘cosmetic neurology‘, also known as ‘cosmetic pharmacology’, where medical advances are used not to treat diseases but to help with the more day-to-day problems of living or to actually optimise brain function.

Past articles have included, among others, one on cerebral malaria and another protecting the brain from the ‘glutamate storm‘ that can occur after brain injury or stroke.

The Dana Foundation are quite unique in that they specialise in communciating the scientific advances in neuroscience to the public, including special projects for kids, seniors and journalists.

They also publish books (so far, of an exceptionally high standard), run events, broadcast video and podcasts, and give grants to researchers especially aimed at scientists wanting to test out slightly more speculative or ‘blue sky’ ideas.

You could easily spend days on Dana’s website before getting bored. Needless to say, I’m a huge fan.

Link to Cerebrum online magazine.
Link to Dana Foundation website.

The Civil War phantom limb

Below is an early report of a phantom limb – the perception of feeling from a limb which has since been removed – from the partly-autobiographical fiction of American Civil War physician and writer Silas Weir Mitchell.

It recounts the effect in a Civil War soldier who had both legs amputated after suffering battlefield injuries.

It was published in Section III of Mitchell’s sarcastically titled partly autobiographical book The Autobiography of a Quack, available in full on the web.

I got hold of my own identity in a moment or two, and was suddenly aware of a sharp cramp in my left leg. I tried to get at it to rub it with my single arm, but, finding myself too weak, hailed an attendant. “Just rub my left calf,” said I, “if you please.”

“Calf?” said he. “You ain’t none. It’s took off.”

“I know better,” said I. “I have pain in both legs.”

“Wall, I never!” said he. “You ain’t got nary leg.”

As I did not believe him, he threw off the covers, and, to my horror, showed me that I had suffered amputation of both thighs, very high up.

“That will do,” said I, faintly.

Although earlier accounts of phantom limbs have been found in retrospect, Mitchell was the first clinician to seriously consider this phenomenon and he included it, and other neurological conditions, in his fiction.

A recent paper [pdf] in the journal Neurology examined how his writing used these syndromes and what his fiction tells us about the disorders that affect the brain.

pdf of paper ‘The neurologic content of S. Weir Mitchell‚Äôs fiction’.
Link to page with excerpt, with links to full text.

A casebook of Victorian psychiatric patients

I’ve just discovered that Amazon has an excerpt, detailing three patients, from the book Presumed Curable: An Illustrated Casebook of Victorian Psychiatric Patients in Bethlem Hospital (ISBN 1871816483) as part of its ‘look inside’ feature.

The book includes photographs of patients from the Bethlem Royal Hospital, the world’s oldest psychiatric hospital, from the end of the 19th century just as photography was being used clinically.

Early photographs of psychiatric patients were originally taken in an attempt to see if there were any obvious visual similarities between people with mental illness.

While this turned out to be largely futile, it’s left an important historical record.

The book has numerous photograph of patients, each accompanied by the person’s medical notes.

They are quite fascinating, for many reasons, some of which were outlined in Sean Spence’s review of the book in the British Medical Journal:

Such a project throws up a number of questions. What do we expect to see in a book of such photographs? Staring eyes, torn clothes, drooling lips? Are we surprised if they appear unremarkable? Are we any the wiser if the photographs show ordinary people in everyday dress? And is being identified posthumously really a means by which one’s “voice is heard” or “dignity accorded,” as the authors suggest? Which of us would choose to be remembered in this way? Or, perhaps more appropriately, how would an “average” Victorian wish to be remembered? It is noticeable that 16 patients avert their gaze.

The three case studies in themselves are a fascinating read and give us a glimpse into a bygone age of inpatient psychiatry.

As this was the age before antipsychotics, the first effective treatments for psychosis, it also harks back to a bygone era of madness.

Link to excerpt of Presumed Curable.
Link to review in the BMJ.

2007-08-10 Spike activity

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

NPR has a radio show about a new book on ‘cognitive dissonance’, the process that motivates us to resolve conflicts between our thoughts and actions.

Mixing Memory has a wonderfully insightful look at a recent study on mirror neurons, animacy, and gesture.

This is Your Brain on Love. The LA Times has an article on the neuroscience of attraction and companionship.

Scientific American has an article on how the brain parses music and pays attention.

An unusual skull boosts the human-neandertal interbreeding theory, reports National Geographic.

How optimistic should you feel about having your first baby? Cognitive Daily looks at how well expectant mothers are able to predict post-birth satisfaction.

BBC Radio 4 sociology programme Thinking Allowed investigates friendship networks in Amazon peoples and the social psychology of shame and stigma.

‘Brain boosting’ educational videos for babies and young children may actually slow vocabulary growth, reports Science.

Car Zimmer writes about cooperation as a principle of evolution in the New York Times.

The Economist profiles evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller

Dr Petra Boynton looks at a recent study that report self-professed reasons people gave for having sex.

Science tattoos! Carl Zimmer is collecting pictures scientists with work-related ink, including this image of a development psychologist auditory neurophysiologist with the Necker Cube on her arm.

In light of recent disturbance in the mortgage market, Frontal Cortex has an excellent analysis on the psychology of subprime mortgages.

Electrocution during sexual activity

Another in my occasional series on the surprising diversity of human sexuality as demonstrated by the forensic pathology literature.

This is a case report from the The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology on a couple who sadly died while trying a fatal mix of sex and electricity.

Warning: it’s a little uncomfortable in places, so not for the faint hearted.

The intriguing thing about the forensic pathology literature is that it probably only reflects the tip of the iceberg, so far greater numbers of people are likely to be engaging in similar but safer sexual practices.

Link to abstract of ‘Electrocution during sexual activity’.

Win a prize! Awkward acronyms in cognitive science

BBC News is reporting that Scotland has launched a ¬£40 million neuroscience research project called SINAPSE, short for ‘Scottish Imaging Network: A Platform for Scientific Excellence’.

SINAPSE joins a long list of awkward acronyms in the world of psychology and neuroscience, and I’d like to launch a competition to find the most inventive.

These days, even research projects need a snappy title, and research teams are constantly coming up with ways of fitting the project description into a jazzy sounding acronym.

Some of my favourites include:

NEMESIS: Netherlands Mental Health Survey and Incidence Study
CUtLASS: Cost Utility of the Latest Antipsychotic Drugs in Schizophrenia Study
AESOP: Aetiology and Ethnicity of Schizophrenia and Other Psychoses
FACETS: Fast Analog Computing with Emergent Transient States
NeuroproMiSe: Neuroprotective strategies for multiple sclerosis

If you know of any awkward, contrived or borderline inappropriate acronyms (I work in a mental health service called SLAM!) for anything mind or brain related, send them in.

They could be for theories, services, departments, projects or events.

Add your suggestions to the comments, or email them to me at V dot Bell at iop dot kcl dot ac dot uk with ‘awkward acronym’ in the subject line.

Points will be given for the most awkward or spectacular, and I’ll send the winner a copy of David Lodge’s excellent book Thinks, a novel about cognitive scientists.

UPDATE: Get your submission in before Monday 20th August to enter!

In deep: the sociology of gang culture

The Freakanomics blog has an insightful interview with sociologist Prof Sudhir Venkatesh who spends time with US street gangs studying gang culture and organised crime.

Q: What role do women play in gangs?

A: In the 1970s and 1980s, female gangs were independent organizations in places like New York, Chicago, Cleveland, and Milwaukee. They tended to be non-criminal, and usually distributed common funds to their members for day care, rent, groceries, and other needs of single mothers. On occasion, they might have engaged in petty fighting, but not often. They were largely political outfits and functioned like social service agencies in ghetto communities that lacked services.

But toward the end of the ’80s, they became wrapped up in drug trafficking ‚Äî and, just like gender subordination in corporate America, they were under the thumbs of males in the gang who controlled the economy. They were indeed “peons” who were given the lowest level jobs by men ‚Äî e.g., watching out for cops, holding drugs, cleaning up after gang parties, prostitution ‚Äî and they had no power at all. No surprise that the female gangs dissolved over time.

Link to Prof Venkatesh interview (via BoingBoing).

Excellent BBC Brain Story series available online

I’ve just noticed that probably one of the best TV series on psychology and neuroscience ever produced, the BBC’s Brain Story, is available on public bittorrent servers for download.

It is a six part series covering virtually every area of contemporary neuropsychology, including the major researchers, discoveries, techniques and even many of the patients who have been the subjects of classic case studies that have helped us understand the curious effects of brain injury.

It is presented by neuroscientist Prof Susan Greenfield and sadly has never been made available by the Beeb, despite it being both a fine teaching aid and completely compelling viewing.

I was blown away by this series when it first appeared and since managed to get a bootlegged copy, but I’ve never seen it on public servers before.

It’s a landmark series in its accuracy and scope, and because it’s so engrossing for both the seasoned professional and the general viewer.

You can find all six episodes by searching for “brain story”.

WARNING: TorrentSpy is not safe for work due to porn ads and it’s got an annoying amount of popups. However, you can click here to run the search.

I’ve also tried to capture the direct links to the torrent files below, so hopefully these should do the trick without opening any intermediate webpages.

Episode 1: All in the Mind
Episode 2: In the Heat of the Moment
Episode 3: The Mind’s Eye
Episode 4: First Among Equals
Episode 5: Growing the Mind
Episode 6: The Final Mystery

There’s an introductory guide to bittorrent here if you don’t know how to use it. Each episode is approximately 700Mb and lasts 50 minutes.

If you have trouble viewing the video, download VLC media player, free software which plays almost every video format.

Fine science. Fine television. Shouldn’t be missed.

Fresh psychologist torture role revelations

The last fortnight has been a grim period for psychology as a two major news sources have published additional revelations about the key role of psychologists in military interrogations that many deem tantamount to torture under international law.

As we’ve reported earlier, online news source Salon have been investigating the role of contracted psychologists in creating an abusive and likely-illegal CIA interrogation programme.

They’ve also been covering the unbelievably flaccid response of the American Psychological Association who have yet to explicitly ban their members from participating in these interrogations, in direct contrast to the clear non-participation policy adopted by their medical colleagues.

In fact, the APA seems even to allow participation in unethical practices when following orders from a “governing legal authority” – the so-called Nuremberg defence.

Mainly a professional matter until now, the story has become huge during the last fortnight as articles in The New Yorker and Vanity Fair have reported a raft of additional disturbing revelations.

The Vanity Fair article investigates the role of psychologists, named as James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen of Mitchell, Jessen & Associates, in developing practices that reportedly include ‘waterboarding‘ (simulated drowning), isolation, sleep deprivation, environmental extremes, ritual humiliation and severe psychological pressure.

It has been widely cited that this is derived from a ‘reverse engineering’ of the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) programme, designed at the end Korean War, ironically, to protect US troops from the effects of torture.

Notably, the article quotes several senior military and civilian psychologists who are scathing about the lack effectiveness and scientific evidence for the technique.

Both Vanity Fair and The New Yorker report that the method was used on ‘Al-Qaeda lieutenant’ Abu Zubaydah. The New Yorker article has this interesting snippet:

Nevertheless, the SERE experts’ theories were apparently put into practice with Zubaydah’s interrogation. Zubaydah told the Red Cross that he was not only waterboarded, as has been previously reported; he was also kept for a prolonged period in a cage, known as a “dog box,” which was so small that he could not stand. According to an eyewitness, one psychologist advising on the treatment of Zubaydah, James Mitchell, argued that he needed to be reduced to a state of “learned helplessness.” (Mitchell disputes this characterization.)

The description of the cage as a “dog box” is interesting when put in context.

Learned helplessness‘ is a theory of clinical depression that was proposed by psychologist Martin Seligman. It was developed, to be blunt, by torturing dogs.

In a series of experiments Seligman found that if a dog was prevented from escaping an electric shock it eventually gave up trying, just remaining passive while being electrocuted.

The idea was that depression might be similar: a state of helpless, hopeless passivity caused by a series of unavoidable painful events.

Although ‘learned helplessness’ in animals is still used as a model of depression it has never been convincingly shown that it explains depression in humans.

There’s much more information in the full articles that can be summarised here, but needless to say it is a mixture of the disturbing and shameful.

The Vanity Fair and The New Yorker articles are complimented by an article in this month’s Psychologist that charts the history of psychologists assisting in developing and deploying abusive interrogations.

Unfortunately, the current situation may well be the most reprehensible episode so far.

Link to Vanity Fair article ‘Rorschach and Awe’ (via Corpus Callosum).
Link to New Yorker article on interrogation ‘black sites’.

Brands affect perceptions of preschoolers

A recently published study on brand influence has reported that preschool children perceive carrots to taste better when they come out of a McDonald’s bag, even though the company doesn’t sell carrots.

The study shows that even very young children have internalised advertising and that it significantly affects their perception of the outside world.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the strength of the effect was found to correlate with the number of TVs present in the child’s house.

The research team was led by Prof Thomas Robinson and was published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.

The team tested 63 three to five year-olds and asked them to taste a number of foods. One sample of the food was presented in McDonald’s packaging, another sample was presented in a similar plain paper bag.

These included foods genuinely from McDonald’s and others that the company don’t sell (milk, apple juice and carrots).

Children consistently said the food from the McDonald’s packaging actually tasted better, regardless of whether it was actually from the company, or whether the company even had it on their menus.

The researchers then looked at what might be linked to the strength of this effect, and found that how often the child eats at the fast food chain was a significant factor.

However, another significant predictor was how many televisions the family had in their home, suggesting that exposure to advertising itself might play a part.

Link to full-text of scientific paper.
Link to write-up and ’60 sec podcast’ from SciAm.

Questioning Alzheimer’s

BBC Radio 4’s medical programme Check Up just broadcast a phone in on Alzheimer’s disease with neuroscientist Prof Clive Ballard.

The programme tackles issues of diagnosis, treatment and what actually happens in the brain.

I’m often surprised about how little people know about this relatively common neurological disorder.

One of the most common questions I have been asked is ‘what is the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s disease?’

Dementia just describes any condition where the brain declines more quickly than would be expected due to normal ageing.

The MRI scan on the right shows the brain of a person affected by Alzheimer’s. Notice the ‘shrinkage’. Click for a comparison.

There are various different types of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease is one specific type where the brain is affected by amyloid plaques (abnormal clumps of protein) and neurofibrillary tangles (tangled bundles of protein fibres).

It’s possible to have these without suffering dementia, but it seems when the impairment reaches above a certain threshold, the brain quickly declines.

Although there are clear physical changes in the brain which indicate the disease, it’s actually impossible to diagnosis Alzheimer’s for sure until after the person has died and a brain autopsy can be completed.

So, to diagnose someone, a clinician might use a number of methods. In order of reliability they include history of memory and behavioural change, simple mental tests (commonly the MMSE), or a more comprehensive neuropsychological assessment that may be repeated over time to look for the exact pattern of change.

A truly comprehensive assessment will include all of the above, although it’s actually quite rare that this happens.

A full neuropsychological assessment for diagnosis has been an innovation of specialised ‘memory clinics‘ that might also provide a treatment service and family support.

Alzheimer’s seems to particularly affect key memory structures, and problems with memory are one of the most distinctive signs of the disorder.

However, less known are behavioural difficulties, personality change and psychotic symptoms (delusions and hallucinations) which occur in a significant proportion of suffers and are often more distressing for friends and family than the forgetfulness.

The programme tackles a wide range of issue including the role of medication, healthy living, the possible effectiveness of ‘brain training’ and how to deal with some of the challenges in living with someone with the condition.

The Alzheimer’s Association have created a fantastic tour that’s definitely worth a vist if you want a wonderful visual guide to the brain and how it breaks down during the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

Link to Check Up on Alzheimer’s disease.
Link to Alzheimer’s information.
Link to fantastic tour of brain changes in Alzheimer’s.

Sage psychology journals free ’till September

The BPS Research Digest has discovered that all 36 psychology journals by academic publisher Sage have been made freely available until the September.

Some require a free registration to view, but some key journals are available right off the bat, including Personality and Social Psychology Review (the May edition is particularly good).

The BPSRD has a list of direct links to the other freely available journals.

Link to BPSRD on freely available Sage journals.

Wheat from the chaff in neuro-journalism

The Neuro-Journalism Mill is a blog run by science organisation the McDonnell Foundation that examines recent brain press stories and marks them as wheat – high quality accurate neuroscience stories, or chaff – exaggerated, inaccurate or oversimplified hack pieces.

Wouldn’t you know it, the ‘chaff‘ articles vastly outnumber the ‘wheat‘.

Actually, some of the ‘chaff’ headlines alone are pretty funny.

“Men’s Brains Have More Cells, Say Scientists Who Counted”

“Cockroaches Can Learn — Like Dogs and Humans”

“Learn More About the Cognitive Paparazzi!”

“Why Do Most 16-Year-Olds Drive Like They’re Missing a Part of Their Brain?”

Link to The Neuro-Journalism Mill (via BrainWaves).

A social history of death and dying

BBC Radio 4’s social history and sociology programme Thinking Allowed recently had a programme on how death and dying customs have changed over time and how obituaries say as much about society as they do about the deceased.

A guest on the show is sociologist Prof Allan Kelehear who discusses his book A Social History of Dying (ISBN 9780521694292) that charts how changes in the physical process of death have meant our social customs have altered to better make sense of new forms of dying.

In ancient times, death was generally quick and sudden, and so little ceremony was needed and people were generally left where they died.

However, as humans became better at avoiding a violent end, death was more often due to disease which was a slower process and so changed the social customs related to the dying process.

Kelehear argues that as we have become better at predicting death, even through the modern times, we’ve developed ways of preparing for our imminent demise, both socially and psychologically.

The other guest is sociologist Prof Bridget Fowler who has analysed obituaries through the ages to answer the question, ‘who have we considered worthy of an obituary?’

As obituary is a type of ‘social memory’, something we decided to record because we feel other people should know it for the future, it also reflects the cultural assumptions about who and what are important at the current time.

Unsurprisingly, obituaries have typically been concerned with the deaths of the upper classes, but she notes that their style is changing and has become somewhat more democratic and surprisingly frank in some instances.

Link to Thinking Allowed on the sociology of death and dying.
Link to A Social History of Dying on Google Books.

OCD in Time Magazine

Time magazine has a feature article on the science and treatment of obsessive compulsive disorder or OCD, where a person is affected by intrusive thoughts, or feels compelled to complete repetitive actions, or both.

It is strongly linked to anxiety, and a typical pattern is where an intrusive thought causes stress, and the person feels compelled to complete one or more actions to reduce the anxiety.

This is not always the case, however, and some people suffer intrusive thoughts on their own, or, more rarely, compulsive acts on their own – although some researchers just think that the latter is just because some people don’t recognise their thoughts very well and compulsions are probably always linked to obsessions.

Crucially, the intrusive thoughts are ‘ego dystonic’, meaning they seem to be in conflict with the persons existing desires, beliefs or self-image, and so are quite distressing.

They can be about almost anything, and can occasionally seem a little bizarre, but typically focus on concerns about safety and danger.

For example, a parent might be plagued by thoughts that they will harm their child with a knife, despite the fact that they have been a model parent and have never put them in undue danger, or someone might worry that they will give ‘germs’ to their family which will kill them.

This can lead to compulsive behaviours, such as repeatedly checking there are no knives in the kitchen drawer, or continuous hand-washing to be absolutely sure that all the ‘germs’ are removed.

These may take hours everyday, meaning the person can be quite impaired in day-to-day life, and can become quite distressed if something prevents them from completing their compulsion.

The title of the article (‘When Worry Hijacks The Brain’) is a little inaccurate as it’s not really a problem with high levels of general worry (this is something known as GAD), it’s more often a problem with a specific thought that re-occurs.

Luckily, we know that psychological therapies, such as behaviour or cognitive behavioural therapy are some of the most effective treatments, with SSRI medication also having a significant beneficial effect.

Interestingly, the article mentions ‘strep throat‘, a common throat infection that is usually painful but harmless.

There’s now some limited evidence that in a tiny minority of childhood cases it is linked to OCD. A theory originally thought to be completely wacky, but now taken more seriously by medical researchers.

It’s still not clear whether the infection definitely causes the disorder in some cases, but it is being investigated as an interesting correlation that merits further investigation.

Link to Time article on OCD.
Link to more info on OCD from mental health charity Mind.