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.