Ozzyform band degeneration

The Canadian Medical Association Journal has just published its traditional Christmas article which covers the lesser known diseases of popular culture. This year, the article tackles the scourge of cacophonopathology, a dreadful affliction caused by a disturbing reaction to music.

It notes that a particular form of the disorder affects fans of heavy metal:

A severe form of cacophonopathology, metallicus gravis, has also been identified among many of the misguided souls who followed the siren of cultura popularis. Victims of metallicus gravis attend mass gatherings to participate in this form of auditory abuse, which employs sound to numb rather than to enhance awareness. In its later stages, patients demonstrate involuntary movement disorders, such as caput metallicus (headbanging), florid hemiballismus (air guitar syndrome) and precipitous projectile collapse (crowd surfing).

Post-mortem findings include scarred cerebral gyri, which assume the texture of hard pebbles or rocks, diagnostic of dementia zeppelophilia plumbea. A related condition is black s*bbath excephalobaty (BSE), which features Ozzyform band degeneration and afflicts those who dismember flying rodents with their teeth.

The author suggests that a possible treatment might involve a slow immersion in classical music.

I, along with many others, have yet to be convinced by the evidence for this treatment, and tend to be guided by the trusted clinical maxim “a day without AC/DC is like a day without sunshine”.

I was reminded of the Journal’s fantastic Christmas tradition by Tom mailing me a wonderful article from 2004 about the neurology of Tintin’s possible hormonal problems.

The footnotes to the article are priceless, so have a look when you read the article.

Another past article took a neurodevelopmental approach to the pathologies of Winnie-the-Pooh and friends.

One of the best bits about these articles is the correspondence they generate. Letters are linked from the bottom of each article and as you can see, they can be a wonderful parody of medical argument and high-brow posturing.

Link to article on cacophonopathology.
Link to article on the neurology of Tintin.
Link to article on neurodevelopmental disorders in Winnie the Pooh.

How do psychologists think?

I believe that the important thing about psychology is the habits of thought it teaches you, not the collection of facts you might learn. I teach on the psychology degree at the University of Sheffield and, sure, facts are important here — facts about experiments, about the theories which prompted them and about the conclusions which people draw from them — but more important are the skills which you acquire during the process of learning the particular set of facts. Skills like finding information and articulating yourself clearly in writing. Those two things are common to all degrees. But lately I’ve been wondering what skills are most emphasised on a psychology degree? And I’ve been thinking that the answer to this is the same as to the question ‘how do psychologists think?’. How does the typical psychologist[*] approach a problem? I’ve been making a list and this is what I’ve got so far:

1. Critical — Psychologists are skeptical, they need to be convinced by evidence that something is true. Their default is disbelief. This relates to…

2. Scholarly — Psychologists want to see references. By including references in your work you do two very important things. Firstly you acknowledge your debt to the community of scholars who have thought about the same things you are writing about, and, secondly, you allow anyone reading your work to go and check the facts for themselves.

3. Reductionist — Psychologists prefer simple explanations to complex ones. Obviously what counts as simple isn’t always straightforward, and depends on what you already believe, but in general psychologists don’t like to believe in new mental processes or phenomena if they can produce explanations using existing processes or phenomena.

I am sure there are others. One of the problems with habits of thought is that you don’t necessarily notice when you have them. Can anyone offer any suggested additions to my inchoate list?

Continue reading “How do psychologists think?”

Daily Express cures Alzheimer’s

The front page of the today’s Daily Express, a UK national newspaper, has one of the worst neuroscience stories I have a read in a very long time.

It’s actually on a valuable research project being run by an established team of researchers and involves giving people with Alzheimer’s disease a small digital camera to wear around their neck which takes pictures every 30 seconds.

The person then views the pictures at a later date. There is a rapid presentation mode (10 pictures per second) but the person has the option to view images individually at will.

It isn’t a cure, it’s just a useful way of reviewing events and ‘refreshing’ the memory. This is likely to prevent people with Alzheimer’s forgetting events so quickly if they’re captured on camera.

I say likely, because the research that the Daily Express story talks about hasn’t been published yet, but a single case study on a woman with limbic encephalitis did show it made a considerable difference to her recall of past events when compared to a diary.

Now let’s just pause for a minute and think what sort of headline you’d write if you were going to publish a story on this line of early research.

Obviously someone had the same decision to make at the Daily Express, and came up with:

British scientists bring real hope of a cure

The paper describes the system as involving “a small camera taking photographs every 30 seconds which are then artificially ‘forced’ on to the brain” and says that “In some cases, patients have experienced up to 90 per cent of their memory being restored after just two weeks”.

How they got from ‘viewing pictures on a computer’ to ‘forcing images on the brain’ is anyone’s guess, and presumably the 90% figure is the score on a memory test rather than amount of memory loss restored, although without any published data its hard to say.

So how did this preliminary research make the front page of a UK daily as a “real hope of a cure”?

Microsoft have developed the camera and are funding this project (along with several other similar studies), and I can’t help but wonder whether their PR people have been at work behind the scenes.

Actually, there are other systems that have been around a while now which are equally as interesting. The NeuroPage system is another simple idea.

It’s a pager for people with memory problems and people can program the system to send reminders. So far, early research has found it to be quite effective in helping people with memory impairments.

Despite the hype, the SenseCam project is a great idea and could lead to a genuine benefit to people with memory problems, but it won’t cure Alzheimer’s.

Link to abstract of case study on person with limbic encephalitis.
Link to Microsoft SenseCam and memory loss page.

Mind and brain science storms NYT’s ‘Year in Ideas’

The New York Times seems to have been publishing loads of mind and brain articles recently and their end of 2007 round-up of ‘hot ideas’ contains no less than 11 articles on developments in psychology and neuroscience – including everything from Alzheimer’s to Zygotes (via Lap Dancing).

I was alerted to the series by Matthew Hutson, who emailed to say he’d written the article on ‘neurorealism‘ – the tendency for people to believe even quite outlandish claims if they think they’re backed up by neuroscience.

In a blog post about his piece, he notes some of the sources and origins of his article, including some peer reviewed research and our own Tom Stafford, who coined the term ‘neuroessentialism’ (independently, as did two others!) to describe the same phenomenon.

The other psychology and neuroscience articles cover a whole range of topics, and are all two-minute write-ups of ingenious studies or theories (sort of like a behavioural science tapas selection):

* Alzheimer’s Telephone Screening
* Faces Decide Elections
* Lap-Dance Science
* The God Effect
* Hope Can Be Worse Than Hopelessness
* Mindful Exercise
* Quitting Can Be Good for You
* Starch Made Us Human
* Zygotic Social Networking

UPDATE: Two more with mind and brain themes!

* The ‘Cat Lady’ Conundrum
* Ambiguity Promotes Liking

Multicoloured USB brain tee

One of the best brain t-shirts to come along in a very long time has just arrived, and, unfortunately, it sold out within days.

At least, if you’re after a male sizes that is. Luckily, there are still plenty in female sizes left.

It’s a beautiful multi-coloured brain where the brain stem changes in a series of USB plugs so you can connect your cortex to the nearest computer.

It’s a Threadless t-shirt, so despite the fact they’re out of stock, you can click to register your interest in getting them to print some more, and they’ll let you know when they’re ready.

In the mean time, you may have to find your nearest female neuroscience enthusiast to admire the t-shirt in all its glory.

Link to Threadless ‘Connect It’ t-shirt.

The Truth About Female Desire available online

Finally, one of the best TV series on the psychology, biology and neuroscience of female sexuality is available online as a torrent.

The Truth About Female Desire was a four part UK television series broadcast in 2005 which was a collaboration between the respected sex research centre The Kinsey Institute, London’s Brunel University and Channel 4.

Eight women volunteered to undergo a number of experiments on sex and sexuality largely taken from the scientific literature, ranging from how suggestion affects attraction, to the physiology of female sexual arousal, to the neuroscience of orgasm, to name just a few.

Researchers are on hand to discuss the results with the women who seem genuinely fascinated about how these results might reflect their own varied experiences of sex, whether straight, gay, stable or single.

While the discussion is frank, if you’re just looking for porn with a bit of science thrown in, you’ll need to go elsewhere.

There’s very little naked flesh on display, and despite this (magazine editors take note!) it’s enormously good fun, quite sexy in places, and utterly fascinating.

There are two torrents available online each of which contains all four 50 minute episodes as one 1.7Gb file.

There is one good torrent available online which contains all four 50 minute episodes as one 1.7Gb download.

At the moment, both have a only a few other people currently downloading, so it may be a little slow to start with, but the more people downloading, the quicker it gets.

It’s rare that proper scientific sex research makes the media and even rarer that it is made into compelling TV, so it’s a few hours well-spent if you’re interested in female sexuality, or sex research in general.

If you’re not sure what a torrent is or how to download one there’s a guide here and if you’re having trouble playing the files the free VLC media player should do the trick.

Finally, thanks to zoidberg for letting me know about the series arriving online.

Link to mininova page with torrent of series.
Link to mininova page with alternative torrent for series.

Gathering data for thought experiments

The Idea Lab section of The New York Times has an article on experimental philosophy – a new branch of philosophy where, for example, answers to philosophical thought experiments are tested on members of the public to find the most common answers and possible contradictions in everyday reasoning.

But now a restive contingent of our tribe is convinced that it can shed light on traditional philosophical problems by going out and gathering information about what people actually think and say about our thought experiments. The newborn movement (“x-phi” to its younger practitioners) has come trailing blogs of glory, not to mention Web sites, special journal issues and panels at the annual meeting of the American Philosophical Association. At the University of California at San Diego and the University of Arizona, students and faculty members have set up what they call Experimental Philosophy Laboratories, while Indiana University now specializes with its Experimental Epistemology Laboratory. Neurology has been enlisted, too.

More and more, you hear about philosophy grad students who are teaching themselves how to read f.M.R.I. brain scans in order to try to figure out what’s going on when people contemplate moral quandaries. (Which decisions seem to arise from cool calculation? Which decisions seem to involve amygdala-associated emotion?) The publisher Springer is starting a new journal called Neuroethics, which, pointedly, is about not just what ethics has to say about neurology but also what neurology has to say about ethics. (Have you noticed that neuro- has become the new nano-?) In online discussion groups, grad students confer about which philosophy programs are “experimentally friendly” the way, in the 1970s, they might have conferred about which programs were welcoming toward homosexuals, or Heideggerians. Oh, and earlier this fall, a music video of an “Experimental Philosophy Anthem” was posted on YouTube. It shows an armchair being torched.

Some of the highest profile work uses neuroimaging to look at the brain areas involved in making moral and ethical decisions, but some of my favourite are the most simple.

As we’ve discussed previously philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel’s work on whether being a professional ethicist makes you behave any more ethically is amusing, but also asks questions about the use of moral philosophy if it doesn’t seem to have any personal impact.

He’s recently taken this a step further and has begun to investigate whether political scientists vote more often than other people.

In a way, everything has come full circle. Before the word was invented ‘science’ was called ‘natural philosophy’, because it was the philosophy of how the natural world worked. It was distinguished from the rest of philosophy because it used experiments.

Link to NYT on ‘The New New Philosophy’.
Link to Schwitzgebel on whether political scientists vote more often?

Think gum

Think Gum is a chewing gum that apparently contains a number of ‘brain boosting’ ingredients, although is mainly notable for its high caffeine content.

As well as caffeine, it contains ginkgo biloba and bacopa monnieri, two herbal supplements which some preliminary studies have found increase memory and concentration.

It’s hard to say whether these have any effect in this particular product but the 20mg of caffeine per piece of gum should keep you alert, even if the caffeine come-down will take away as much as the lift will give you in the first place.

I once had a pharmacist explain the lift and come-down of stimulant drugs to me as “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”, which I thought was a little ironic considering how many catered advertising pitches they get taken to by drug companies while under the impression they’re getting a free lunch.

Link to Think Gum.

The tickbox revolution in intensive care

The New Yorker has a completely gripping article on intensive care medicine that while fascinating in its own right, is also interesting as it contains an amazing account of a how a three year old girl was resuscitated and recovered brain function after near drowning, and stresses the importance of behavioural interventions in high-tech medicine.

The article is essentially about an incredibly simple idea that is vastly reducing infection rates and improving survival rates in intensive care – using checklists to make sure that each step of complex procedures are completed.

It’s been championed by physician Dr Peter Pronovost and is simple but effective way of reducing cognitive error in high pressure situations.

It’s interesting that the idea has found a fair amount of resistance among some doctors, who think that it somehow diminishes their expertise if they have to check against a list, despite the fact that common slips affect even the most competent of people.

One illustration of how complex the intensive care process has become is given near the beginning of the article when it describes a case of a three-year-old girl saved from drowning with what has become a hugely complex, multi-expertise, high-tech medical effort.

Consider a case report in The Annals of Thoracic Surgery of a three-year-old girl who fell into an icy fishpond in a small Austrian town in the Alps. She was lost beneath the surface for thirty minutes before her parents found her on the pond bottom and pulled her up. Following instructions from an emergency physician on the phone, they began cardiopulmonary resuscitation. A rescue team arrived eight minutes later. The girl had a body temperature of sixty-six degrees, and no pulse. Her pupils were dilated and did not react to light, indicating that her brain was no longer working.

But the emergency technicians continued CPR anyway. A helicopter took her to a nearby hospital, where she was wheeled directly to an operating room. A surgical team put her on a heart-lung bypass machine. Between the transport time and the time it took to plug the inflow and outflow lines into the femoral vessels of her right leg, she had been lifeless for an hour and a half. By the two-hour mark, however, her body temperature had risen almost ten degrees, and her heart began to beat. It was her first organ to come back.

After six hours, her core temperature reached 98.6 degrees. The team tried to put her on a breathing machine, but the pond water had damaged her lungs too severely for oxygen to reach her blood. So they switched her to an artificial-lung system known as ECMO—extracorporeal membrane oxygenation. The surgeons opened her chest down the middle with a power saw and sewed lines to and from the ECMO unit into her aorta and her beating heart. The team moved the girl into intensive care, with her chest still open and covered with plastic foil. A day later, her lungs had recovered sufficiently for the team to switch her from ECMO to a mechanical ventilator and close her chest. Over the next two days, all her organs recovered except her brain. A CT scan showed global brain swelling, which is a sign of diffuse damage, but no actual dead zones. So the team drilled a hole into the girl’s skull, threaded in a probe to monitor her cerebral pressure, and kept that pressure tightly controlled by constantly adjusting her fluids and medications. For more than a week, she lay comatose. Then, slowly, she came back to life.

First, her pupils started to react to light. Next, she began to breathe on her own. And, one day, she simply awoke. Two weeks after her accident, she went home. Her right leg and left arm were partially paralyzed. Her speech was thick and slurry. But by age five, after extensive outpatient therapy, she had recovered her faculties completely. She was like any little girl again.

It’s a wonderful article that speaks to a number of important issues in medicine, including the self-perception and culture of clinicians, the importance and power of simple changes in behaviour, and why low-tech capital-free solutions are often the hardest to implement.

Link to New Yorker on checklists and intensive care medicine.

2007-12-07 Spike activity

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

Chewing gum and context-dependent memory: The independent roles of chewing gum and mint flavour. A paper currently ‘in press’ for the British Journal of Psychology.

Sharp Brains has an interview with Prof Robert Emmons, a psychologist who studies gratitude.

In light of the recent UK case of a supposedly dead man who turned up claiming he couldn’t remember the last five years of his life (now under arrest for fraud!) the BBC has an article on why men go missing, and neuropsychologist Dr Eli Jaldow discusses whether this type of amnesia is likely, in The Times.

PsyBlog starts a fascinating series on the unconscious.

A fantastic ‘turning tables’ visual illusion is discovered by Living the Scientific Life

Science News reports on a new theory on the neuroscience of the organisation of thinking. Abstract of scientific paper here.

The influence of eye disorders on the development of impressionist art is discussed by Neurophilosophy

How America Lost the War on Drugs: a fantastic Rolling Stone article on how billions were spent in a futile attempt to stop people taking drugs.

Frontal Cortex looks at a possible link between business acumen and dyslexia.

Partial Recall: Why Memory Fades with Age. Scientific American looks at the neuroscience behind memory decline in normal ageing.

Guantanamo detainee attempts suicide by slashing himself with a sharpened fingernail. When will these terrorists acts of asymmetric warfare cease?

Cognitive Daily looks at kids’ misconceptions about numbers – and how they fix them.

Which brain hemisphere falls asleep first?

The abstract of a fascinating 1995 review paper by Maria Casagrande and colleagues which gathered experimental data together to try and work out which of the brain’s cortical hemispheres falls asleep first.

It turns out, it’s the left.

Which hemisphere falls asleep first?

Neuropsychologia, 33(7), 815-22.

Casagrande M, Violani C, De Gennaro L, Braibanti P, Bertini M.

Behavioral tasks (reaction times to acoustic stimuli and finger tapping tasks) performed by normal subjects when sleepy or attempting to fall asleep have been used as indices of hemispheric asymmetries during the sleep onset period. Results show a stronger impairment of the left hemisphere (right hand) both in reacting to external stimuli and in sustaining endogenous motor programs. The left hemisphere seems to fall asleep earlier than the right hemisphere.

Link to abstract of scientific paper.

Almost perfect

The New York Times has a short article on mental health and perfectionism, the tendency to measure success and self-worth by the completion of often unrealistic goals.

Over the last two decades this concept is being increasingly seen as a core component in some types of types of depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive and eating disorders.

A recent study identified several key features of perfectionism as, primarily, excessive concern over making mistakes, with other influences including high personal standards, the perception of high expectations and criticism from parents, doubting of the quality of your own actions, and a preference for order and organisation.

One of the key papers [pdf] in the field that really cemented the idea of perfectionism as an important psychological idea, suggested perfectionism could be focused inward (stringently evaluating and censuring your own behaviour), other-oriented perfectionism (having unrealistic standards for other people) and socially prescribed perfectionism (living up to unrealistic standards which the person perceives others are setting).

For people who already have negative ideas about themselves, perfectionism is thought to work like a constant test. If you can prove to yourself you can pass the test, you feel like a good person.

However, if the standards are unrealistic, you’re always going to fail, and ironically, concern and anxiety about achieving these high standards can actually lead to putting things off, or doing the tasks worse.

This can lead to a vicious circle where people feel their emotional well-being is dependent on them reaching impossible goals, but trying to reach the goal makes them feel even worse.

One of the difficult things in psychological treatment, is often trying to persuade people that performing worse is actually a good thing. ‘Good enough’ rather than ‘perfect’.

Link to NYT article on perfectionism.
pdf of key paper ‘Perfectionism in the Self and Social Contexts’.

Fighting over font-change semantics

Philosopher Patricia Churchland wrote a damning review of Steven Pinker’s new book, ‘The Stuff of Thought’, for Nature and it’s caused a bit of a rumble.

One particular highlight was that she described a theory from Pinker’s book, that suggests that language and thought can refer to meaning in a similar way, as:

…about as applicable to real meaning as ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ is to real life. Aptly ridiculed by critics as ‘font-change semantics’, the theory still has its disciples. Including Steven Pinker.

Apart from showing a woeful misunderstanding of Dungeons and Dragons, Churchland also failed to notice that Pinker had never proposed this theory in his book. In fact, his book argues against it.

In this week’s Nature, psychologist Marc Hauser writes in to say Churchland doesn’t seem to have read the book, and Pinker comes back with his own rebuke:

The book apparently stimulated the reviewer to free-associate to her own beliefs that psychological phenomena can be explained at the level of neurons and that human thinking is in the service of motor control. The fact that I (like most cognitive psychologists) have not signed up to these views is the only point of contact between my book and her review.

While definitely being more entertaining than your average book review , it doesn’t even come close to matching the slanging match between Hans Eyesenck and Stephen Jay Gould, where they ending up arguing over the ‘relative exposure of our respective arses’ in The New York Review of Books.

Sleeping and dreaming

London’s newest science museum, the Wellcome Collection, has just kicked off what looks to be a fantastic exhibition on the art and science of sleeping and dreaming.

It runs until March 2008 and aims to illustrate how we’ve understood sleep through the ages, as well as the contemporary science of this still mysterious state.

If you can’t make it in person, there’s an online taster that contains a collection of striking images from the exhibition with some brief commentary.

The exhibition also has free guided expert-led tours, including ones by sleep researcher Dr Mary Morrell on December 19th, and one by sleep doctor Dr Neil Stanley on January 17th.

Other tours are guided by science journalists and some of the exhibited artists.

Link to exhibition details.
Link to online ‘taster’ exhibition.

Full disclosure: I’ve received grant funding from the Wellcome Trust for a science art collaboration and I am an occasional paid reviewer for their Arts Awards. As far as I know though, neither are connected with this exhibition.

Pavlov and Brian Wilson redux

Ivan Pavlov and Brian Wilson – together at last! This rather unlikely combination seemed to spark a bit of interest, so here is a brief collection of your contributions.

Thanks to Lloyd for sending in one of Mark Stivers’ hilarious cartoons that gives an interesting twist on Pavlov’s experiments. Click for the larger version.

Jesse mentioned a clip from The Office that depicts a wonderful demonstration of classical conditioning, as used when trying to annoy your coworkers.

On a Brian Wilson tip, Simon notes that “While insane, Brian Wilson recorded an album called “Sweet Insanity” with [psychologist] Eugene Landy as co-producer, but his label rejected it. WFMU’s blog has a most delightfully terrifying track from said album.”

Brian Wilson rapping. Indeed truly terrifying.

Distinctly less terrifying is Aimee Mann’s recent track, ‘Pavlov’s Bell’, which also references the work of the bearded Russian dog harasser.

Ring a bell and I’ll salivate

A funny clip from That 70s Show where Michael provides a unique interpretation of Pavlov’s work on classical conditioning in an attempt to help Eric with his women problems.

This is not the first time that Pavlov has been invoked as a metaphor in popular culture.

The Barenaked Ladies track, ‘Brian Wilson’, has the following verse:

It’s a matter of instinct, it’s a matter of conditioning,
It’s a matter of fact.
You can call me Pavlov’s dog
Ring a bell and I’ll salivate – how’d you like that?
Dr Landy tell me you’re not just a pedagogue,
cause right now I’m

Lying in bed just like Brian Wilson did…

The Dr Landy referred to in the lyrics was controversial psychologist Eugene Landy, who attempted to ‘treat’ Beach Boys frontman Brian Wilson’s mental difficulties (including a not inconsiderable psychosis) by taking control of his career, musical output and other substantial parts of his life.

Unsurprisingly, legal action was eventually taken against Landy and he gave up his license to practice in California.

Link to That 70s Show clip.
Link to obituary of Eugene Landy.