Encephalon 38 flies in

The 38th edition of psychology and neuroscience writing carnival Encephalon has just arrived online and this fortnight it’s ably hosted by Not Exactly Rocket Science.

A couple of my favourites include an excellent article (how did I miss it before?) from Pure Pedantry reviewing the evidence that show mental illness is a poor predictor of violence in light of recent shootings in the US, and another on the functions of the hippocampus from Memoirs of a Postgrad.

There’s a whole stack more in the same edition, so have a look through for the latest and greatest from the last two weeks.

Link to Encephalon 38.

The problem of believing in belief

Sam Harris is better known as a leading atheist, but he’s also completing a PhD in cognitive neuroscience and a forthcoming study by Harris is a flawed but important contribution to how we understand the neuropsychology of belief.

Harris and his colleagues asked participants to respond to a number of statements with buttons presses indicating that they either believed, disbelieved or were undecided about each proposition.

The participants were shown statements relating to mathematics, geography, word meaning, general knowledge, ethics, religion and their own life.

While they were doing this brain activity was measured by a fMRI scanner, with a view to finding out which areas of the brain were involved in ‘belief’ and ‘belief states’.

It’s a straightforward study and you may wonder why no-one has ever done it before. It’s possibly because, from what we know about belief, it’s not clear that this study tells us much more about belief rather than what happens when people respond to questions.

Belief is a concept that is used all the time in psychology but is a pain to define in a way that science would be happy with. If you’re not convinced Eric Schwitzgebel’s guide to the problem is about as good as you’re likely to read, but I’m going to give a quick run through of the most relevant issues here.

One of the main problems is that experimental neuropsychology relies on measuring brain and behaviour during activities, and there is no single activity that represents ‘believing’.

When do you believe Paris is the capital of France? Only when you think about it or all the time? Presumably, we believe it all the time as we don’t assume someone has stopped believing it when they think about something else or are unconscious, when asleep perhaps.

The above example treats belief as a proposition stored in memory (a semantic memory in psychology parlance), but you can easily respond to a belief question if you’ve never thought about a proposition before in your life.

Do you believe tigers wear pink pyjamas? Presumably you don’t, but it’s unlikely you’ve ever thought about this before. It’s an answer reconstructed from fragments of other information you have in memory, reasoning and ‘gut instinct’ to varying degrees.

Saying you believe something can work the same way, of course. You may never have thought about it before, but you can say you believe it.

Just these two examples show that saying you believe or disbelieve can involve retrieving a ‘fact’ from memory, or might involve any number of other mental processes to give an answer.

Furthermore, its not even clear that two people retrieving facts from memory are even thinking about the same thing.

Here’s another question. Do you believe snow is white? Imagine two people are asked this question. One believes snow is frozen water, the other believes it’s star dust.

Considering that each person believes that the subject is something completely different, are they answering the same belief question, or is one answering ‘I believe frozen water is white’ while the other is answering ‘I believe stardust is white’? Now scale that up to concepts like democracy or religion.

This is known as the atomism vs holism debate in philosophy and concerns whether we can ever consider belief is isolation (‘snow is white’), or whether we can only consider them in relation to other beliefs that might need to be accessed at the same time (what we believe a word represents, or, even, what we believe the about what we believe).

These issues are essential for neuropsychologists, because they predict different patterns of brain activity, even though the behaviour (e.g. responding ‘I believe’) is exactly the same.

The point of having so many topics in Harris study is that despite these issues, on average, there might be some brain differences involved in answering ‘believe’ or ‘disbelieve’ regardless of the topic, but the mental processes involved in answering these questions might be so diverse that it’s difficult to say whether the average brain activity actually describes ‘belief’ in any meaningful sense.

This doesn’t mean the study is worthless though, and in fact, it’s an essential step in the scientific study of belief.

Science tends to start big, obvious and practical, and work through objections, new ideas and problems over time with new experiments. This study is one of the early but essential, big, obvious and practical steps.

Interestingly, some philosophers (known as eliminative materialists) argue that the concept of belief is just one we’ve inherited from everyday or ‘folk psychology’ and because of the conceptual problems with it, we’ll eventually realise there are no distinct mind or brain process that can be coherently identified as ‘belief’.

Like the concept of ‘rooting for your team’, we’ll just realise its too broad to be scientifically useful and we’ll disregard the idea of ‘belief’ mechanisms in the brain in favour of a variety of better specified concepts that reliably map onto mind and brain processes.

Importantly, studies into the neuropsychology of belief, like this one, can help answer these questions, and eventually, they are likely to have profound implications for everything from lie detection to clinical medicine.

Link to full-text of Harris’s study.
Link to Schwitzgebel’s on belief for the Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.
Link to write-up from Time.

Alcohol, the cause and solution to all of life’s problems

As the Christmas season is upon us, what better time to think about alcohol, aptly described by Homer Simpson as the “the cause and solution to all of life’s problems”.

The British Medical Journal has a wonderful article that tells you everything you wanted to know about alcohol (but were too drunk to ask) in one concise package.

It covers the effect of alcohol on the body and brain, and describes what affects how alcohol is absorbed into the body:

Rate of absorption of alcohol depends on several factors. It is quickest, for example, when alcohol is drunk on an empty stomach and the concentration of alcohol is 20-30%. Thus, sherry, with an alcohol concentration of about 20% increases the levels of alcohol in blood more rapidly than beer (3-8%), while spirits (40%) delay gastric emptying and inhibit absorption. Drinks aerated with carbon dioxide—for example, whisky and soda, and champagne—get into the system quicker. Food, and particularly carbohydrate, retards absorption: blood concentrations may not reach a quarter of those achieved on an empty stomach. The pleasurable effects of alcohol are best achieved with a meal or when alcohol is drunk diluted, in the case of spirits.

It also notes that blood alcohol level is affected by stage of the menstrual cycle in women. Apparently, it is highest premenstrually and at ovulation (evolutionary psychologists, start your engines).

Different effect are compared to the amount of alcohol in the blood stream, so it’s a really handy summary.

The BMJ also published a systematic review of hangover cures and preventions later in the year, and found, rather sadly, that:

No compelling evidence exists to suggest that any conventional or complementary intervention is effective for preventing or treating alcohol hangover. The most effective way to avoid the symptoms of alcohol induced hangover is to practise abstinence or moderation.


Link to BMJ article ‘ABC of Alcohol’.
Link to BMJ systematic review on hangover cures and preventions.

Cognitive dissonance reduction

Following on from my earlier post about the way psychologists look at the world, let me tell you a story which I think illustrates very well the tendency academic psychologists have for reductionism. It’s a story about a recent paper on the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance, and about a discussion of that paper by a group of psychologists that I was lucky enough to be part of.

Cognitive Dissonance is a term which describes an uncomfortable feeling we experience when our actions and beliefs are contradictory. For example, we might believe that we are environmentally conscious and responsible citizen, but might take the action of flying to Spain for the weekend. Our beliefs about ourselves seem to be in contradiction with our actions. Leon Festinger, who proposed dissonance theory, suggested that in situations like this we are motivated to reduce dissonance by adjusting our beliefs to be in line with our actions.

Continue reading “Cognitive dissonance reduction”

Experiment with a virtual neuron

The Children’s Hospital Boston have created a fantastic ‘virtual neuron‘ which allows you to explore the basics of neural transmission with an interactive flash demo.

Strictly speaking, of course, it’s designed for children, but it’s remarkably good fun whatever your age.

Once you’ve got the demo window up, the options at the top of the screen allow you to choose different demonstrations, and the text below explains what’s happening.


Link to virtual neuron.

Man hammers nail into head every week for 11 weeks

I just found this jaw-dropping case study of a man who banged 11 nails into his head while sadly quite distressed and psychotic.

The X-ray images are striking on their own, and what is even more astounding is that he made a full recovery.

Penetrating head injury in planned and repetitive deliberate self-harm.

Mayo Clinic Proceedings. 2007 May;82(5):536.

Demetriades AK, Papadopoulos MC.

44-year-old man presented to his local emergency department wearing a baseball cap and complaining of headaches that had progressively worsened over the preceding 11 weeks. After we provided generous analgesia and performed simple investigations that failed to identify a diagnosis, the patient removed his cap to reveal an assortment of metallic objects embedded in his scalp. Plain radiographs showed 11 nails penetrating into his brain. A detailed history revealed a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia, and the patient confirmed that he had hammered a nail into his head each week for the past 11 weeks to rid him of evil. The nails were removed with the patient under general anesthesia, and he made an uncomplicated recovery with no neurological deficits.

Link to abstract on PubMed.

From the nose to the genitals and back again

Recently, the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine has had some interesting letters on a theory from times past – the nasogenital reflex theory – that says that the nervous system makes a direct link between the erectile tissue in the genitals and the nose.

The nose has tissue which, like the genitals, can become engorged with blood, which is part of the reason we get a stuffy nose. To counter this, most nasal decongestants contain a drug which acts as a vasoconstrictor to reduce blood flow (sometimes this is a type of amphetamine).

The possible link between nose and genital tissue was first proposed by American surgeon John McKenzie in 1883:

Over one hundred years ago, neurological reflexes emanating from the nose — termed the nasal reflex neurosis — were considered to be the cause of many symptoms, including symptoms related to the genitalia. In 1883 McKenzie, an otolaryngologist from Johns Hopkins Hospital, proposed a nasogenital reflex responsible for symptoms such as dysmenorrhea, pelvic pain, etc. and described improvements following nasal treatments.

In other words, he argued that problems with the nose could also results in problems with the genitals and vice versa.

Later, Wilhelm Fleiss, a German ear, nose and throat specialist and a close friend of Freud’s elaborated the theory, and suggested that nasal tissue could be the cause and cure of a number of illnesses in body and mind:

In 1893 Fleiss published his monograph on ‘The Nasal Reflex Neurosis’, in which he claimed that back pain, chest tightness, digestive disturbances, insomnia and ‘anxious dreams’ could all be attributed to nasal pathology. He also claimed that temporary relief of these symptoms was possible with the topical application of cocaine, of which Freud had published the first account of local anaesthetic properties.

Gradually the list of conditions grew to include migraine, vertigo, asthma and then gynaecological conditions such as dysmenorrhoea and repeated miscarriages.

Freud became quite influenced by this theory at one time, and referred a patient to Fleiss for nasal surgery to cure her depression. Sadly, surgical complications nearly cost the patient her life and Freud became disenchanted with the theory.

While it is now clear that the nose isn’t a major cause of other disturbances in the body and mind, and the nervous system has no major pathway that connects the tissues of the nose and the genitals, there are some clues that they might both be affected by similar things.

Reports of ‘viagra nosebleeds‘ and ‘honeymoon rhinitis‘ (a stuffy nose and sneezing after sex) suggest that they may react similarly in some instances.

Link to JRSM letter (not open-access yet).
Link to second JRSM letter (not open-access yet).

Tortured minds: psychiatry and human rights

ABC Radio National’s All the the Mind has just concluded a two part series on human rights and psychiatry that looks at the role of mental health professionals in military interrogations, and the rights of psychiatric detainees.

The first part is based at the World Psychiatric Association conference in Australia and interviews several psychiatrists about their views on whether mental health professionals should be involved in, most relevantly, ‘war on terror’ interrogations that some argue are tantamount to torture.

The response is a bit predictable as psychiatrists have already firmly decided to have no part in these interrogations which they see as incompatible with their oath to ‘do no harm’, unlike the American Psychological Association which has decided to endorse participation within some rather vague limits.

There’s a particularly interesting contribution from psychiatrist Prof Steven Sharfstein, who as president of the American Psychiatric Association was taken to Guantanamo Bay by the US Government, presumably to reassure him and other clinical leaders that the horror stories about the place were unjustified.

Instead, he came away convinced that Guantanamo should be closed for good.

In contrast, the American Psychological Association president, Prof Ronald Levant, who attended the same visit, came away with no strong convictions that any unethical practices were taking place.

The second part of the All in the Mind special investigation looks at the treatment of psychiatric patients across the world, particularly focusing on parts of the developing world where asylums can sometimes be little more than prisons.

The programme mentions a 2003 edition of Time Asia which had a photo essay on some of the shocking conditions in some Asian institutions.

It also discuss the newly agreed UN Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities which is likely to have a significant impact on the rights of people with mental difficulties.

One of the most interesting contributions is from psychiatrist Prof Vikram Patel who headed up the excellent Lancet series on Global Mental Health.

It was a fantastic series of articles, including a paper entitled ‘Barriers to improvement of mental health services in low income and middle income countries’ which identifies education and funding as two key factors, and another called ‘Resources for mental health: scarcity, inequity, and inefficiency’.

Without a hint of irony, the series is closed-access and individual articles are charged at $30 each.

The last in the series of article urges the global mental health community to “scale up the coverage of services for mental disorders in all countries, but especially in low-income and middle-income countries”.

So I’ve uploaded all the articles to the web. Enjoy.

No health without mental health [pdf]

Resources for mental health: scarcity, inequity and inefficiency [pdf]

Treatment and prevention of mental disorders in low-income and middle-income countries [pdf]

Mental health systems in countries: where are we now? [pdf]

Barriers to improvement of mental health services in low income and middle income countries [pdf]

Scale up services for mental disorders: a call for action [pdf]

Link to AITM on participation in interrogation or torture.
Link to AITM on ‘Who speaks for the chained and incarcerated?’.
Link to 2003 Time Asia article and photo essay on Asia’s mental health centres.

Has shyness been transformed into a mental illness?

Bookslut interviews author Christopher Lane, who argues in a new book that shyness has been transformed in the mental illness ‘social phobia’, partly due to it being used as a political football during a time of theoretical upheaval in psychiatry.

Social phobia is a type of anxiety that is triggered in social situations.

It can be specific to a certain situation, such as eating in public, or more generally associated with interacting with any group.

Some have argued that it is a prime example of where drug companies have picked up on an unpleasant but common anxiety and promoted it as a mental illness to be treated with medication, whereas others feel it is disabling enough to require wider recognition and medical attention.

As in a previous article for The New York Times [pdf] and seemingly in this book, Lane argues that definition is so vague as to be virtually meaningless.

Throughout the book, Lane suggests that the conceptual problems of the DSM arise in part from its weird eagerness to break decisively with Freud. Lane has vividly reconstructed the decision-making process of the DSM-III in the 1970s, showing how scoring points over rival theoretical schools frequently trumped logic or consistency. Insisting on the biochemical nature of all mental suffering leads psychiatrists to turn away from the vicissitudes of the mind — what Lane calls “the strange, unusual turns of consciousness, themselves in thrall to vivid memories, irrational fantasies, persistent associations, and sometimes-inexplicable impulses.” By reducing the complexity of these “turns” into “disorders” — no matter how “multiaxial” — modern psychiatry seems to drain the life out of the mind. Shyness is passionately and compellingly argued, in clear prose that is in turn scathing, hilarious, and sympathetic.

In the interview below, Lane discusses the origins of the book, the implications of shifting from a “reaction-based” to a “disorder-based” model of diagnosis, the differences between psychoanalysis and neuropsychiatry, and the problem of emotional blunting.

Link to interview with Christopher Lane.
Link to book details with excerpt.
pdf of NYT article ‘Shy on Drugs’.

CT in the Sky with Diamonds

Inkling Magazine has discovered a curious episode in the history of music and neuroscience where The Beatles helped to fund the development of the CT scanner.

If you ever suffer a head injury, you’re likely to given a CT head scan as its a quick, convenient way of look for damage to brain tissue.

In a recent talk, consultant radiologist Dr Ben Timmins claimed that the sales of Beatles records allowed EMI to fund Sir Godfrey Hounsfield to develop the first scanner.

As a direct result of The Beatles’ success, Dr Timmis claimed, the scanner’s inventor, Sir Godfrey Hounsfield, was able to devote about four years developing the scanner from its 1968 prototype, to something that could be used in a clinical setting. His work was done in the Central Research Laboratory, a facility near Heathrow airport that was part of the EMI Group. Having sold 200 million of the Fab Four’s singles, (at seven inches, almost enough vinyl to stretch the length of the equator) the Beatles’ record company, EMI, was able to fund Hounsfield to do his research and the scanner was ready be used in hospitals in the 1970’s.

Link to Inkling Magazine on The Fab Four and CT scanners.
Link to The Independent with a short article on new CT scan and its history.

2007-12-14 Spike activity

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

Novelist A.S. Byatt (who has had a long-standing interesting in brain science) writes an article in The Times arguing that ‘neuroscience is helping us to understand how art works ‚Äì and it may offer us a way out of narcissism’.

We perceive music differently depending on how we dance to it. A completely fascinating study covered by the inimitable Cognitive Daily.

Tonometric is a website where you can take musical perception tests which contribute to studies on the neuroscience of music.

Developing Intelligence looks at work which suggests IQ can be predicted by a simple reaction time test.

How would you complete the word jo_? Students who had been asked to contemplate their own death were more likely to form positive words (like ‘joy’) than others. More evidence for a positive cognitive bias in the face of death, reported by the BPS Research Digest.

The Literary Review gets stuck into a new book on Freud’s last year.

Wired reports that Sega and NeuroSky are to make mind-controlled toys.

SciAm’s Mind Matters blog discusses some recent work on ‘stereotype threat‘, an interesting effect where people perform worse if they think the test might confirm a stereotype about them (e.g. black people are academic under-achievers, white men are athletic under-performers etc).

PsyBlog asks you to vote now for your favourite in its weird psychology studies series.

Repeated Exposure to Media Violence Is Associated with Diminished Response in an Inhibitory Frontolimbic Network. Important research published in PloS One.

Corpus Callosum discusses a case of personality change caused by a brain tumour in a 28-year-old male-to-female transsexual patient that was recently reported in the NEJM.

The New York Times discusses the phenomena where parents look back and realise they may have elements of conditions such as autism or ADHD after their children are diagnosed.

The Neurocritic has a fantastic article on altered self-perception in people with body dysmorphic disorder.

Remarkable savant Daniel Tammet, is profiled in The New York Times.

Why do I feel like I’m falling when I go to sleep? Pure Pedantry digs up some fascinating work on this curious and common experience.

Infiltrating the waiting room: ‘Information leaflets’ in doctor’s surgeries could be drug company advertising according to an article in The Guardian.

Crap headline but interesting story about decoding the neural code of neurons involved in visual recognition.

Neurophilosophy collects four parts of his essay on axon guidance in a single post and gets confirmation of what we already knew.

Kooky cool on the catwalk

The New York Times has an interesting piece on Heather Kuzmich one of the recent contestants on reality TV show America‚Äôs Next Top Model who reportedly has Asperger’s syndrome.

Asperger’s syndrome is essentially High Functioning Autism (the difference in diagnosis lies in a fairly academic point about the age at which someone acquires language), meaning that the person is not impaired in terms of intelligence, but has difficulties understanding others’ emotions, social interactions and can have ‘special interests’ or repetitive behaviours.

The stereotype of someone with Asperger’s is that they’re quite shy, withdrawn or socially unattractive.

In contrast, a video of Kuzmich on YouTube shows her to be an engaging and outgoing personality with a delightfully kooky edge that shines through.

It’s always great to see when someone doesn’t conform to a negative stereotype and the impact is all the more enhanced when it’s someone high profile or in the public eye.

Link to NYT article ‘Asperger‚Äôs Syndrome Gets a Very Public Face’.

Fighting the tide of prison suicides

The Boston Globe has produced a powerful video documentary and article series on prison suicide and mental illness.

Treating mental illness in prison is a complex business. As Time reported earlier this year, the rates of mental illness are much higher among offenders, confinement is known to worsen mental health, and prison treatment facilities are usually poor.

On top of this, some prisoners attempt to fake mental illness to gain hospital privileges, so working out whether someone is genuinely at risk of harming themselves can be quite tricky.

All of these factors can contribute towards the high suicide rate in prisons, and create tension between staff and families.

As prisons become the asylum of last resort for the mentally ill, desperation, frustration and violence are rising on both sides of the cell door. About 50 times each month, inmates are assaulting prison staff members. And, at nearly the same rate, inmates, many of whom say they are abused by officers, attempt to kill or injure themselves. The Spotlight Team examines the tension between mentally disturbed inmates and their jailers.

The Boston Globe has produced a remarkably comprehensive resource, with video, articles, prisoners suicide notes, official reports, and personal stories.

Link to Boston Globe special report on prison suicide.

Scanning psychopaths

Today’s Nature has a great article [pdf] on the neuroscience of psychopaths, as investigated by an ingenious study being run by a group of Dutch researchers.

Although there is a higher number of psychopaths among violent criminals, a psychopath is not necessarily someone who is violent.

The term describes someone who is considered to lack empathy or conscience, is superficially charming, manipulative, has ‘shallow affect’ (doesn’t have a big emotional range) and has poor impulse control.

More recently, psychopathy has become synonymous with the use of the PCL-R, the diagnostic tool also known as the Hare Psychopathy Checklist after it’s creator and psychopathy researcher Robert Hare.

The Dutch team, however, are working with psychopaths who are in prison for presumably quite serious crimes, precisely because they lack empathy.

They are comparing the brain activation between psychopaths and non-psychopaths when they view material that communicates emotions and normally evokes an empathy-driven reaction.

By looking at which areas are less active in the presumably empathy-less psychopaths, they hope to find out the crucial empathy-related brain circuits.

There are more details about the study in the article, but one bit is particularly interesting, where one of the participants, from a high security prison, comments on the study:

When he entered the prison five years ago, Boerema says, ‘borderline personality’ was the fashionable term, and his designated pigeonhole. “The psychopathy label is more damaging though ‚Äî it prompts everyone to see you as a potential serial killer, which I could never be.” (Note, in reporting this article it was agreed that inmates’ crimes would be neither asked about nor reported on.) But Boerema also wears the score as a badge of honour: “I think my high psychopath score is a talent, not a sickness ‚Äî I can make good strong decisions, and it’s good to have some distance with people.”

Interestingly, Boerema (not his real name) makes a couple of points that have also been made in the psychological literature.

Ian Pitchford proposed in a 2001 article that psychopathy could be an evolutionary advantage for a minority of individuals, as it allows them act violently or antisocially without any emotional cost to themselves.

Furthermore, discussion in both the psychological and legal literature has focused on whether labelling someone a ‘psychopath’ is unjustly stigmatising.

One article even goes as far as to suggest that ‘psychopathy’ is just a modern term we’ve invented to replace the world ‘evil’.

pdf of Nature article ‘Scanning Psychopaths’.

What IQ doesn‚Äôt tell you about race

IQ has suddenly become a hot topic again, owing to a certain DNA-discovering Nobel laureate putting his foot in his mouth and the publication of a couple of books on the subject. Malcolm Gladwell has written a great article for the New Yorker that summarises many of the recent arguments and suggests why comparing IQ scores of different races is doomed to failure.

IQ is designed so it always has a mean of 100 and a standard deviation of 15. However, during the past decades people have been scoring better on IQ tests, something known as the Flynn effect, meaning the new versions have been re-adjusted to make sure the mean stays at 100.

This is important, because it means that comparing IQ from the 1950s is not a far comparison to IQs from the 2000s, because they use tests with different standards.

Some of the people who argued that certain races are more intelligent than others have failed to include these changes in their calculations, and, as Gladwell points out, when these are accounted for, many of these differences completely disappear.

The best way to understand why I.Q.s rise, Flynn argues, is to look at one of the most widely used I.Q. tests, the so-called WISC (for Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children)…

For instance, Flynn shows what happens when we recognize that I.Q. is not a freestanding number but a value attached to a specific time and a specific test. When an I.Q. test is created, he reminds us, it is calibrated or “normed” so that the test-takers in the fiftieth percentile—those exactly at the median—are assigned a score of 100. But since I.Q.s are always rising, the only way to keep that hundred-point benchmark is periodically to make the tests more difficult—to “renorm” them. The original WISC was normed in the late nineteen-forties. It was then renormed in the early nineteen-seventies, as the WISC-R; renormed a third time in the late eighties, as the WISC III; and renormed again a few years ago, as the WISC IV—with each version just a little harder than its predecessor. The notion that anyone “has” an I.Q. of a certain number, then, is meaningless unless you know which WISC he took, and when he took it, since there’s a substantial difference between getting a 130 on the WISC IV and getting a 130 on the much easier WISC.

Link to Malcolm Gladwell article in the New Yorker.