Encephalon 32 arrives

Edition 32 of the Encephalon psychology and neuroscience writing carnival has just been published on Living the Scientific Life.

A couple of my favourites include an article on foreign accent syndrome and another on the cerebellum as the cause of dyslexia.

Head on over for plenty more scientific curiosities from the internet’s best mind and brain writers.

Link to Encephalon 32.

The greatest may never come

Over the next two weeks the BPS Research Digest will be publishing articles by leading psychologists on the greatest psychology experiment that’s never been done.

Each contributor was asked to think of a psychology study they would love to see completed, even if it would be so impractical, it would never be possible.

Two will be published each day over over the coming week, and the first ones have just appeared online.

Susan Blackmore suggests we could brain scan people as they die to understand near-death experiences, while Pam Maras thinks we should do a social psychology experiment that looks at every possible interaction in everyday life.

During the week, the authors will suggest studies on the mind of the unborn child, resisting oppression, kindness-centred care for psychosis, the effect of switching parents, and radically reshaping the mind to improve its performance, to name but a few.

Other authors include Richard Gregory, Will Meek, Richard Bentall, Chris Chatham, Martin Seligman, Jeremy Dean, Alex Haslam, Judith Harris, Scott Lilienfeld and Annette Karmiloff-Smith.

So keep tabs on the BPS Research Digest over the coming week to catch the latest releases.

I’ve also been asked to contribute, and an article on using detectives to find the line between reality and psychosis will be appearing in the next few days.

I realise that means I included myself as a ‘leading psychologist’ in the opening line, but the more accurate description of “articles by leading psychologists and one over-caffeinated keyboard monkey” made the intro a bit clumsy. Either way, it should be a great series.

Link to ‘The most important psychology experiment that’s Never been done…?’

Trauma from events that never occurred

A study just published in the medical journal Psychosomatics reports four case studies of people who developed PTSD after experiencing a traumatic event that never occurred – while their emotional reaction was real, the events were hallucinated.

Post-traumatic stress disorder can occur when someone has experienced a traumatic event over which they had no control. PTSD is diagnosed when memories of the event intrude into everyday life, the person feels the need to avoid anything which could remind them of the situation, and they feel excessively anxious and on edge.

The patients described in the article had all been admitted to intensive care for serious medical conditions, but this was not the direct cause of their trauma.

While in intensive care the patients became delirious, a state where consciousness is clouded, thinking is impaired, and delusions and hallucinations are common.

In these cases, the delusions and hallucinations led the patients to believe they were about to die horrible deaths, were being threatened or were experiencing horrific events.

Later, when they recovered from their primary condition, they had all the symptoms of PTSD – but specifically for the incident that had only occurred in their disturbed thinking.

Here’s one of the case studies:

“Mr. A” was a 56-year-old white man who developed end-stage liver disease from a combination of alcohol and viral hepatitis. Aside from remitted alcohol dependence, he had no other psychiatric history. After liver transplantation, he experienced a difficult medical course, with sepsis, renal failure, biliary reconstruction, respiratory failure, and immunosuppressive medication neurotoxicity from tacrolimus. Several electroencephalograms showed diffuse generalized slowing of the background rhythms and documented seizures. He had persistent delirium for several months postoperatively.

While having delirium, he was extremely agitated, requiring restraints to prevent him from hurting himself and/or dislodging lines and catheters. He appeared awake, but was frequently incoherent and disorganized. However, he was able to articulate paranoid delusions that the staff were trying to kill him and his son. He was also observed to be responding to auditory and visual hallucinations.

Four months after the transplant, when he was discharged from the hospital, his delirium had resolved. He was no longer confused or disoriented, was not actively hallucinating or delusional, and his mood was good, with only occasional, transient symptoms of anxiety.

Several months later, in the transplant clinic, he reported reexperiencing events he had hallucinated while having delirium in the intensive care unit (ICU), and, thus, he met DSM‚ÄìIV criteria for PTSD. He recalled detailed paranoid delusions that the hospital staff had chained his son to his bed and were beating him to death. He recalled struggling against the restraints, hoping to free himself to save his son. He described hearing his son’s screams for help and sounds as if his son was being pummelled.

He reported recurrent nightmares of these events and even daytime flashbacks of these experiences, typically when spending time alone. He attempted to avoid thinking about these events and the hospitalization, but described difficulty doing so because the thoughts were intrusive and difficult to dismiss. Not only did he avoid discussing the events, but he also had difficulty returning to the hospital because it caused him to recall these images. He was observed to be restless and hypervigilant in the transplant clinic.

Both the medical illness and the psychoactive painkillers can contribute to the disturbed thinking that lead to delirium. This in turn can significantly affect how people remember their recovery.

In fact, one study found that some patients had no factual recall of intensive care at all, their only memory of the time was of their delusions. This group were particularly likely to be traumatised.

People are sometimes embarrassed to talk about these experiences, but they are surprisingly common. Studies have estimated that between between 12.5% and 38% of ICU patients experience delusions and hallucinations.

Link to study abstract.


I’m not really one for blog memes, but I was pleased to see Psych Central has given us a nod. Actually, we’ve had a few of these now and they always give us a boost, but getting one from John Grohol is especially welcome because he’s the granddaddy of online psychology info.

It’s a bit like having Freud announce that you’ve got good taste in cigars.

For those of you who don’t know, Grohol is a psychologist who’s been putting mental health information on the net since the early nineties, and was putting information on BBS’s before that. He’s officially old school (if you thought ZMODEM was the best thing since sliced bread, you’re old school too).

At this point it’s probably worth mentioning that Mind Hacks is a substantial team effort of which my hypergraphia is just one part. Just Tom and Matt’s behind the scenes emails would fill a blog of their own. Plus we get a load of material sent by friends and readers (you know who you are! at least, Christian certainly does). Thanks!

Distant echoes of Shatner’s Bassoon

Language Log is doing a sterling job of keeping up with the increasing pace of Dr Alfred Crockus’ research, and seem to have found an important neuroanatomical link between the Crockus and another surprisingly neglected brain area, Shatner’s Bassoon.

The Crockus is the shameless and unintentionally hilarious invention of educational consultant Dan Hodgins, which he claims is four times larger in girls and so supports his own ideas about teaching (incidentally, he’s currently ‘on tour‘ if you want to hear his crockus first hand).

Shatner’s Bassoon was the invention of satirist Chris Morris, who persuaded various media figures that it was an area of the brain targeted by the fictional street drug ‘cake‘.

Several TV personalities and David Amess, a Tory MP, took part in Morris’ spoof TV programme with absolutely no insight into the completely ridiculous premise of the whole affair.

The best bit is when they do an earnest public education announcement, warning of the drug’s dangers and informing the viewers that it may be sold under the names of looney toad twat, russell dust, chronic basildon donut, Joss Ackland’s spunky backpack, bromicide, ponce on the heath, cool thwacks, and Hattie Jacques’ portentious cheese wog.

The video is available online, and it is a testament both to the fact that people are easily blinded by scientific sounding nonsense, and to the fact that celebrity endorsement of good causes can be as much about their public profile as it is about the cause itself.

David Amess went as far as asking a question about “cake” in parliament which you can read in Hansard, the official parliamentary record.

Interestingly, the Home Office assumed his question about ‘cake’ referred to 3,4-methylenedioxy-N-benzylamphetamine (MDBZ), one of the drugs synthesised by legendary psychedelics researcher Alexander Shulgin. The description of the drug appears in his book PiHKAL – a sort of Principia Psychedelica of mind-bending phenethylamines, of which ecstasy (MDMA) is probably the best known.

Morris’ spoof news series, The Day Today and Brass Eye, function equally well as hilarious entertainment and a careful analysis of the language of news media we’ve come to uncritically accept.

As a result, Chris Morris taught me more about deconstructing the media than Derrida ever did.

Language Log has been just as funny lately, and is doing an equally important job in pointing out how the language of neuroscience is now so all-pervasive, that people are willing to make up areas of the brain to support their point of view.

As an aside, if anyone knows of any other fictional brain areas, do get in touch. I feel these need collecting in one place.

Link to Language Log on ‘The Crockus and the Bassoon’.
Link to Brass Eye on ‘cake’.

Seeking free will: a debate

The Dana magazine Cerebrum has just published a debate between a psychiatrist and neurologist on how we can make sense of free will in the age of neuroscience.

The choice of professionals is an interesting one because each typically deals with what are assumed to be quite different disruptions in free will.

Neurologists often treat patients who have problems controlling their movements, cognition or consciousness – owing to clear, identifiable brain damage to the systems involved in these processes.

Someone with Parkinson’s disease, for example, seems to have little conscious control over their tremor or rigid movements.

Psychiatrists on the other hand, typically deal with people who don’t have clear brain damage, but whose brain’s are nonetheless functioning in such as way that they experience unstable moods, odd perceptions, or come to hold seemingly impossible beliefs.

Here the idea of free will is a bit more conceptually tricky. We can clearly say that someone who has Parkinsonian tremor is not ‘willing’ their movements, but what about someone whose brain disturbance means they hear voices?

Some people who hear voices can have conversations with them. In this situation, the person would seem to be exercising some influence over their hallucinations, because the voices respond to what’s being said, but many people can’t ‘will’ the voices away.

One particularly interesting phenomenon in this regard is ‘command hallucinations’ – usually hallucinated voices that command the person to do something.

Often, the commands are pointless – touch the table, cross the street, take off your hat – but sometimes they can be terrifying instructions – for example, that the person must harm themselves.

In some cases, these commands seem irresistible, the person feels completely compelled to follow their hallucinated instructions.

We don’t really have a good understanding (or, to be fair, even a bad understanding) of why some command hallucinations are distressing but impotent, while others seem to compel the person to comply.

There are many more examples of how free will is affected in both psychiatry and neurology. In both specialities, there are conditions where the boundaries of free will cover a big grey area, and all of them raise really quite profound questions about our freedom to act as we want.

The Cerebrum debate tackles exactly these sorts of issues by two people who undoubtedly have to deal with them on a daily basis.

Link to Cerebrum article ‘Seeking Free Will in Our Brains: A Debate’.

Advancing the history of psychology

I’ve been enjoying the Advances in the History of Psychology blog lately, which is full of interesting snippets about the past and often digs into the historical background of contemporary hot topics.

For example, here’s an interesting bibliography about psychoactive drug use in psychology, and here’s another about Benjamin Franklin’s interest in ‘electrotherapy’.

It’s run by the same people who produce the completely invaluable Classics in the History of Psychology archive, that has a huge website with some of the most important texts from psychology’s colourful past.

Both are excellent, and I look forward to reading more.

Link to Advances in the History of Psychology blog.
Link to Classics in the History of Psychology archive.