Enduring error

The BBC has a curious article about author Ian McEwan that makes an interesting error about his novel Enduring Love. In fact, the truth is much more subtle.

The article notes that:

McEwan made up a medical condition for the stalker and wrote a spoof article from a psychiatric journal explaining the illness and included it in the book.

His description of De Clerambault’s Syndrome fooled reviewers and psychiatrists alike.

In fact, De Clerambault’s Syndrome (where someone has the delusional belief that another person is in love with them) is well known in the medical literature and McEwan’s description is quite accurate.

Nevertheless, his book concludes with what looks like a reprint of an article from the British Review of Psychiatry that describes a case study which the book seems to be based upon.

Although also fiction (the British Review of Psychiatry doesn’t exist), its style is convincing and it’s properly referenced with studies from the real medical literature.

So convincing, in fact, that it fooled several reviewers, including those in top medical journals, into thinking the novel was based on a real case report.

A clue as to why McEwan was able to successfully imitate the medical literature is given in the acknowledgements. He thanks “Ray Dolan, friend and hiking companion, for many years of stimulating discussion”.

Dolan is a professor of neuropsychiatry at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and the Functional Imaging Lab in London.

Interestingly, Dolan also played a key part in Saturday, another of McEwan’s books – which tackles a dramatic day in the life of a neurosurgeon.

As mentioned in an article in the British Medical Journal, McEwan shadowed neurosurgeon Neil Kitchen while researching the book. The article notes the pair were introduced by Dolan.

Link to Wikipedia page on De Clerambault’s Syndrome.
Link to Salon article ‘Ian McEwan fools British shrinks’.
Link to BMJ article interviewing neurosurgeon Neil Kitchen.

Mind snacks

Exploratorium has a gallery of try-it-yourself perception experiments. There’s plenty of great material here, not least because of the the slightly bizarre photos of people with distracting 80s haircuts.

There are quick projects on everything from proprioception to taste, and you can tell which are the good ones because they list ‘adult help’ as one of the materials.

Think of it as the Mind Hacks that time forgot.

Link to groovy gallery of Exploratorium perception ‘snacks’.

Morality tales

The science of morality is becoming a hot topic at the moment, and this week two articles, one in Time and one in Reason, have both tackled the issue.

The Time article is a particularly good example. It’s wonderfully written and takes a comprehensive look at the field, taking in evolution, empathy, cognitive neuroscience and culture.

If the entire human species were a single individual, that person would long ago have been declared mad. The insanity would not lie in the anger and darkness of the human mind‚Äîthough it can be a black and raging place indeed. And it certainly wouldn’t lie in the transcendent goodness of that mind‚Äîone so sublime, we fold it into a larger “soul.” The madness would lie instead in the fact that both of those qualities, the savage and the splendid, can exist in one creature, one person, often in one instant.

Link to Time article ‘What Makes Us Moral’.
Link to reason article ‘The Theory of Moral Neuroscience’.

Scans, brain waves and pulses: three way neuroscience

One of the reporters for Wired took part in an experiment that combines several key neuroscience technologies to pinpoint a brain area, switch it off, and measure the effects.

The experiment used a combination of fMRI, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and EEG.

TMS is a technique that allows parts of the brain to be safely and temporarily shut down or stimulated for a few hundred milliseconds. It’s particularly useful because it allows you to be sure that the function of a brain area is involved in causing a particular behaviour.

Brain scans only allow you to see if an area is associated with a behaviour. The brain area might be reliably active when something important is in progress, but like a car radio, it might not actually be driving the outcome.

However, if you guess that an area is part of the cause, you can use TMS to change its function while the behaviour is in progress. If the behaviour changes, you know the brain area is involved.

Often, the brain area is chosen because it is commonly associated with that behaviour. The trouble is, each person varies slightly.

Doing an fMRI brain scanning experiment first will tell you exactly where activity occurs, so later on, you can use TMS to target the spot more precisely in each individual.

While using TMS to alter the function of a brain area, researchers can also use EEG to see the physiological effect of the stimulation. As well as seeing the behavioural outcome, you can also see it’s effect on the wider brain networks.

Combining these techniques is becoming increasingly common in cognitive neuroscience.

Some recent studies have even used TMS when people are lying in fMRI scanners using magnetic coils made of non-ferrous materials so as not to be dangerous in the powerful scanner magnet.

My favourite one is a recent study where they used TMS to trigger ‘movement’ in a phantom limb by stimulating the motor cortex. They then measured the brain activity linked to movement in the non-existent hand.

Link to Wired article.
Link to abstract of article on TMS-induced phantom hand movements.

Freud widely taught, except in psychology departments

The New York Times discusses an upcoming study that has found that Freud and psychoanalysis form a key part of the teaching in the humanities, while being virtually extinct in psychology departments in the same universities.

As some of the psychologists in the article suggest, many of the problems with psychoanalysis are because those who believe in the theories have been reluctant to submit the ideas to rigorous empirical testing.

Where this has been done, the results have been fascinating. As we reported in June, empirical work has supported some of Freud’s ideas on transference (how feelings from one relationship can affect another if the two people share similarities).

Moreover, an upcoming London conference aims to get the hard nosed cognitive and neuroscientists talking to the psychoanalysts to thrash out ways of separating the wheat from the chaff and to inspire research with new ideas.

These are largely the exceptions, however, and more often than not, psychoanalysis has continued developing its ideas without much recourse to outside testing.

Psychology now runs on the mantra of ‘evidence-based practice’, which has meant the science-flimsy Freudian ideas have been largely rejected.

However, subjects like film, literature and history have no such restrictions and have found psychoanalysis a useful discussion point.

Interestingly, there are some moves to introduce cultural analysis based on cognitive science into these subjects.

Buckland’s book The Film Spectator: From Sign to Mind (ISBN 9053561315) investigates whether its possible to understand how we interpret film using cognitive linguistics and the science of perception.

Link to NYT article ‘Freud Is Widely Taught at Universities, Except in the Psychology Department’.

Free Ramachandran talk, Wednesday in London

I just found out that V.S. Ramachandran is giving a free talk, this Wednesday, at the Royal Society in London.

The talk is entitled ‘Nature and nurture in brain function: clues from synesthesia and phantom limbs’ and for those not able to make the event in person, it’s going to be webcast live.

Ramchandran is an excellent speaker, so shouldn’t be missed if you’ve not seen him talk before.

Link to details of Ramchandran talk.

Yay Serotonin! T-shirt

Left-field t-shirt company ClothMoth have a fantastic t-shirt celebrating the joys of serotonin.

The shirt will cost you $18 and will allow you to advertise your love for one of the key monoamine neurotransmitters in the brain.

Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that is synthesised into serotonin. It is found in many fruits, nuts and vegetables. Walnuts are a particularly good source.

It’s not clear how many walnuts were eaten to produce this t-shirt, but the results are fantastic anyway.

Link to ClothMoth Yay Serotonin! t-shirt (via HYA).