Classified sex bomb

An intriguing letter in this week’s New Scientist digs out some hints on the Pentagon’s proposed ‘gay bomb‘ – an ideas to create a chemical weapon that would temporarily turn enemy troops into horny homosexual love machines.

Feedback asked what happened to the US air force’s Ig Nobel-winning “gay bomb” proposal after it was put forward in 1994 (13 October).

The Pentagon has played down the story ever since New Scientist covered it on 15 January 2005. One spokesman is quoted saying it was “rejected out of hand” and another claimed in 2005 that it was never considered “for further development“.

These claims sit awkwardly with the known facts.

In 2000 – six years after the idea was proposed – the document describing the “gay bomb” was included in a CD-ROM produced by the Pentagon’s Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate, which was distributed to military and government agencies to encourage new projects.

In 2001, the proposal was one of a number which the JNLWD put forward for assessment by a scientific panel at the National Academy of Sciences.

No information has been released suggesting that the proposal was taken any further. However, aphrodisiacs would fall under the US military’s broad new definition of a “calmative agent“, the term it has chosen for “an antipersonnel chemical that leaves the victim awake and mobile but without the will or ability to meet military objectives or carry out criminal activity”.

It seems there is considerable classified research in this area.

UPDATE: An update from The Neurophilosopher: “I’ve just noticed your post about the gay bomb, and thought you might be interested in reading the original research proposal, which I found a few weeks ago when the Ig Nobels were announced”. It’s available online as a pdf. [Thanks!]

Link to NewSci letter.

Five minutes with Jonah Lehrer

Jonah Lehrer is the author of a new book that argues that arts and literature can help us understand the brain. It’s provocatively titled Proust was a Neuroscientist and it challenges us to look beyond the lab when understanding neuroscience.

Lehrer himself moved from graduated from the neuroscience lab to a career in writing, and is now one of the editors of Seed Magazine.

He also pens gripping brain science articles, including, most recently, a wonderful encounter with Oliver Sacks in this month’s edition, and of course, his frequent updates at the Frontal Cortex blog.

He’s also kindly agreed to speak to Mind Hacks about his new book, why Cezanne is a candidate for cognitive science experiments, and how reverse engineering art can help us understand the mind.

Continue reading “Five minutes with Jonah Lehrer”

Anthony Clare has left the building

Psychiatrist Prof Anthony Clare has sadly passed away. He was particularly known in the UK as the presenter of In the Psychiatrist’s Chair, where he interviewed celebrities about their lives, loves and losses, but was also known as a respected academic psychiatrist in both Britain and his native Ireland.

In the Psychiatrist’s Chair saw a number of celebrities discuss their innermost concerns, and most famously, agony aunt Claire Rayner broke down and cried inconsolably during her interview.

As well as his numerous media appearances and extensive academic research, he wrote Psychiatry in Dissent (ISBN 0415039428) at the height of the anti-psychiatry movement in the 1970s, which still remains one of the most convincing and balanced defences of mainstream psychiatry.

Link to obituary from The Telegraph.
Link to more from Google News.
Link to article on Psychiatry in Dissent’s impact.

Ramachandran journeys to the center of your mind

Neurologist V.S. Ramachandran gave a talk in March on how some startling syndromes tell us about how the normal brain works. It’s just been put online and is available as a wonderfully produced video lecture.

To be perfectly honest, Ramachandran largely trots out the same stuff he talked about in his 1999 book Phantoms in the Brain (ISBN 1857028953) and covered in his 2003 BBC Reith lectures.

If you’ve not encountered any of these before, check the video, as he’s a brilliant and engaging speaker and you will thoroughly enjoy the journey.

My only slight niggles (apart from the repetition) are his suggesting that the Capgras delusion is rare, when in fact it’s relatively common in psychosis linked to dementia, and suggesting that the ‘textbooks’ give a Freudian account, when these were uncommon even before the now-standard explanation – based on a disruption to face recognition processes in the brain.

Link to TED Ramachandran lecture.

Decision-making special issue in Science

This week’s Science has a special selection of papers on the psychology and neuroscience of decision making. While most of the articles are closed-access, one on how game theory and neuroscience are helping us understand social decision-making is freely available.

It is a great introduction to ‘neuroeconomics’, a field that attempts to work out how the brain supports cost-benefit type decisions.

This can be directly applied to financial decision-making, but also to other types of situations where weighing possible gains and losses is important, whether the gains and losses are in the form of money, time, social advantage or status – to name just a few.

One of the crucial discoveries of recent years is that people do not act as rational maximisers – making individual decisions on how to get the most benefit out of each choice. In fact, social influences can be huge and often lead people to reject no-risk economic gains when then feel it is socially unjustified.

This had led the field into interesting territory, both informing models of the economy, and illuminating how we make social decisions.

As part of the neuroeconomic approach, researchers have begun to investigate the psychological and neural correlates of social decisions using tasks derived from a branch of experimental economics known as Game Theory. These tasks, though beguilingly simple, require sophisticated reasoning about the motivations of other players. Recent research has combined these paradigms with a variety of neuroscientific methods in an effort to gain a more detailed picture of social decision-making. The benefits of this approach are twofold. First, neuroscience can describe important biological constraints on the processes involved, and indeed, research is revealing that many of the processes underlying complex decision-making may overlap with more fundamental brain mechanisms. Second, actual decision behavior in these tasks often does not conform to the predictions of Game Theory, and therefore, more precise characterizations of behavior will be important in adapting these models to better fit how decisions are actually made.

Link to Science special issue on decision making.
Link to article ‘Social Decision-Making: Insights from Game Theory and Neuroscience’.
Link to previous Mind Hacks post on game theory and (ir)rationality.

The deadly South American arrow poison

I’ve just found a fantastic article on the history of curare, the powerful Amazonian arrow poison that causes paralysis and death. It’s from a 2005 edition of the Journal of the Royal College of Physicians Edinburgh and is available online as a pdf.

The article tells the story of how the New World poison came to be known to the West, and how explorers, researchers and ‘gentleman scientists’ attempted to work out how it had its deadly effect.

Curare can be extracted from several plants but the active ingredient is d-tubocurarine.

It has its effect by blocking the effect of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine at the neuromuscular junction. In other words, it blocks the chemical signals that allow nerve signals to activate the muscle.

You may be interested to know that Botox works in an almost identical fashion. It is used in in very small doses in plastic surgery to supposedly ‘smooth’ wrinkles.

Actually, the main ‘smoothing’ effect is due to the fact that the underlying muscles are paralysed and so cannot move to cause creases in the skin.

In larger doses it is also very dangerous. The name is a clue – Botox is short for ‘botulinum toxin’.

The article on curare also has some fascinating asides about the myths associated with the compound, and some curious historical incidents associated with it – such as its role in a plot to assassinate the British Prime Minister during World War One.

pdf of article ‘Curare: the South American arrow poison’.

Faces, genetics and addiction

BBC Radio 4’s science programme Material World just had an interesting edition on the links between face structure, psychological attributes and genetics, as well as a discussion on the science of addiction.

It is well known that certain genetic disorders that affect brain development can also lead to differences in facial structure (the most well-known example being Down Syndrome) owing to the fact that the brain and face develop from closely related groups of cells during embryogenesis.

One interesting example mentioned by medical geneticist Dian Donnai is the link between having a single incisor (‘front tooth) and possible problems with brain development.

It’s now being found that differences in the face, even in people without genetic disorders, reflect aspects of growth and development that can be linked to psychological attributes (or just as interestingly, are reliably linked to perceived psychological traits).

Psychologist Anthony Little is one of the guests on the programme and, with a number of colleagues, has done some fascinating work in this area (often using morphed or averaged faces like the one on the left) with many of the research articles available online.

The second part of the programme discusses the science of addiction in terms of both its psychology and neurobiology, but also in terms of its place in our culture as a concept that is applied to patterns of excessive behaviour.

Both are engaging discussions and are well-worth a listen.

Link to Material World with permanent audio archive.
realaudio of programme.

Neurology in the UK

I’ve just found this on the announcements for the Wellcome Trust’s Small Arts Awards grant scheme. It’s a proposed art / science project that combines neurology, computational modelling, robots and punk rock!

“Neurotic” by Fiddian Warman

Neurotic questions the neurology associated with the essential human experience of pleasure, learning, taste and aging in the context of the instinct to dance. The project, which involves a collaboration between a neurologist, a computational biologist, punk musicians and a robotics artist, culminates in a live performance at the ICA. Punk band Neurotic will play to an audience of both humans and a group of robots whose cognition is modelled on brain function. The human-sized robots will ‘pogo’ alongside the human audience when their neural networks, modelled on real neural pathways, are appropriately stimulated by the music. The event will be accompanied by discussions on the role of memory, emotion and cultural context in the development of taste in humans and a website which explores neuroscientific issues raised by the research and performance.

Rock on! I can’t wait to see it completed. The full list includes many more innovative art / science collaborations.

Link to full list of Wellcome Trust Small Arts Awards funded projects list.

Full disclosure: I’ve been involved in Wellcome funded art / science projects and am an occasional grant reviewer for the scheme.

My brain made me do it

Gerontologist and all-round skeptic Raymond Tallis has written an article for The Times where he laments the rise of ‘neurolaw’ where brain scan evidence is used in court in an attempt to show that the accused was not responsible for their actions.

Tallis cites the example of the trial of Bobby Joe Long where his lawyers tried to argue (unsuccessfully as it turned out) that he wasn’t responsible for his crimes because brain scan evidence showed that he had an overactive amygdala (supposedly suggesting increased aggression) and underactive frontal lobes (supposedly suggesting reduced ability to inhibit aggression).

This, Tallis argues, is hardly evidence for diminished responsibility because it assumes that our brain is some sort of separate ‘alien force’ that is somehow not ‘us’, when we generally think of the brain as being synonymous with the self.

However, he goes on to cite the example of an epileptic seizure and argues that this is an example where we definitely can’t say the person is responsible for twitching or losing consciousness.

Tallis aims to make a clear cut distinction between these different sorts of action and how we attribute responsibility for them, but he is perhaps relying on the extremes when reality can be full of grey areas.

Each of us has a propensity or threshold for violence, so some people will have aggressive urges more easily than others.

One way of looking at the question is ‘how responsible is the person for their actions’, but another is ‘what strength of urge do we think it is reasonable for a person to inhibit’.

Life experience, genetic factors, brain injury or any forms of neurological disturbance may make urges stronger or reduce our ability to inhibit them.

Some epileptic seizures may be ‘irresistible’ in this way of thinking (although interestingly, some seizures may cause thoughts or urges that are resistible to varying degrees), whereas other patterns of brain activity will produce desires or intentions that can be more easily suppressed.

A serial killer may genuinely have reduced ability to inhibit violence urges, but at what point do we say that the effort they would have to make to stop them reacting violently is beyond what is considered reasonable or possible.

Link to Times article ‘Why blame me? It was all my brain’s fault’.

All in the Mind blog launches

ABC Radio National’s ever-excellent radio programme All in the Mind has just launched a blog.

It has the latest on issues arising from the programme as well as other interesting snippets from the world of psychology and neuroscience.

The blog will also clue us into forthcoming editions, and there’s also a chance for you to comment, discuss and suggest ideas on anything that comes to mind.

And there’s even a scan of Natasha Mitchell’s brain. What more could you ask for?

As for the programme itself, tomorrow’s edition will feature Steven Pinker discussing ideas from his latest book.

Link to ABC Radio National’s All in the Mind blog.

2007-10-26 Spike activity

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

BPS Research Digest has an article on the secret to remembering material long-term.

Dennis Brain has a posse, sorry, orchestra.

Mixing Memory discusses the psychology of women in maths, science, and engineering.

A transcript of R.D. Laing interviewing Van Morrison in 1986. Personally, I’m still waiting for Thomas Szasz to interview the Spice Girls.

Why do some babies talk sooner than others? The mighty Cognitive Daily investigates.

The Washington Post reports on a US Government committee who have concluded that only exposure therapy is known to be effective in treating PTSD. Presumably the Cochrane report on psychological treatments for PTSD escaped them at the time.

Newsweek has a report and video on a case of ‘multiple personality disorder’ which is remarkable largely for the fact that it tells us our concepts about the condition have barely moved on since the famous cases in the 70s.

The ‘source of optimism’ has not been found in the brain, but two brain areas have been identified which are relatively more active when positive events are imagined.

Furious Seasons notes the curios yoga-themed advertising campaign for antipsychotic ziprasidone (aka Geodon).

Lack of sleep makes it more difficult to manage negative emotions. This story got mangled by much of the press. BBC News did the best job, but it’s probably best to read the original abstract.

PsyBlog reviews The Most Dangerous Animal, a book on war and human behaviour.

Lovely Francis Crick quote: “Any theory that fits all the facts is bound to be wrong since some of the facts will be misleading”. James Watson is probably wishing he remembered this before putting his foot in his mouth about race and intelligence and subsequently losing his job.

The Phineas Gage Fan Club discusses a wonderfully clear schematic map of the visual cortex.

Just beautiful, if not slightly surreal. Neurophilosophy finds an online exhibition of photos from an abandoned soviet brain research lab.

Who’s afraid of Kanye West?

Jonah Lehrer is a neuroscientist, blogger, editor and now author of a new book on what neuroscience can learn from art and literature. Wired has a brief Q&A with him, where he discusses Virginia Woolf, cognitive science and Kanye West.

Actually, this just serves as a brief introduction to some of Lehrer’s thoughts, as he’s promised to talk to Mind Hacks in more detail about art, the cutting edge of brain research and his new book Proust was a Neuroscientist.

We’ll post the interview shortly, but in the meantime Wired has a brief introduction to some of the key ideas.

Link to Wired Q&A with Jonah Lehrer.

The psychological hazards of war journalism

Harvard journalism magazine Nieman Reports has a brief 2004 article (pdf) by psychiatrist Anthony Feinstein on how war journalists respond to what they witness and why they return to cover traumatic situations.

The article briefly summarises some of Feinstein’s research on war journalists, and also notes the results on an interesting study that looked at differences between final year journalism students who wanted to become war journalists, and those who did not.

Given the dangers confronted, the high mortality, and increased risk of developing PTSD and depression, what motivates journalists to return repeatedly to war zones?

The journalists in my study spent, on average, 15 years covering war. Those I interviewed spoke of factors such as the importance of bearing witness, keeping the public informed of important events, having a ringside seat as history unfolded, and personal ambition. Yet there seems to be another pivotal factor that may override all of these. There is evidence that individuals who are attracted to risky and dangerous professions are to a high degree biologically primed for this type of activity…

Preliminary data from a recently completed study in my laboratory demonstrate that final year Canadian journalism students who propose following a career in foreign lands not only have a fundamentally different personality profile from their peers who wish to remain at home, but also possess different cognitive attributes. This last point refers to a certain pattern of thinking and approach to problem solving that correlates with well-defined neural networks.

Feinstein has written a book on the subject called Dangerous Lives that apparently explains his work in more detail.

pdf of ‘The Psychological Hazards of War Journalism’.

Philosophy and cognitive science archive launches

Two important new cognitive science resources have just been launched: Online Papers on Consciousness is a huge database of full-text papers and articles on consciousness and the philosophy of mind, and MindPapers is a much larger index that contains entries for both open and closed access work.

The impressive project has been a joint venture between two tech-savvy philosophers: David Bourget, who is both a computer scientist and a philosopher of mind, and David Chalmers, who has been a beacon of philosophy information on the net for many years, alongside his notable achievements in consciousness studies.

The site also uses an interesting mechanism to classify papers:

…entries are categorized along two dimensions. First, all newly harvested entries are evaluated for their relevance to MindPapers. Second, those entries which have a sufficiently high likelihood of being relevant are assigned categories from the directory. Both of these steps make use of a specially developed Bayesian categorization program. In a nutshell, this program assigns probabilities to entry-category pairs based on heuristics and statistics drawn from training sets. The training set for the first categorization step was derived from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy… The training set for the second categorization stage is MindPapers itself.

It’s a lovely computational approach to making sense of huge amounts of work in this area. Perhaps this is the birth of a new field – computational philosophy?

Either way, both sites are going to be hugely valuable resources for philosophy and cognitive science alike.


Link to Online Papers on Consciousness (thanks Katerina!).
Link to MindPapers.
Link to more from Neurophilosophy.