Anvil therapy

The following passage is from p107 of the excellent but sadly out-of-print history book Mental Disorder in Earlier Britain (ISBN 0708305628) that explores mental and neurological illness in times past.

As well as discussing the theories of the times, it also charts many of the treatments used to try and cure disturbances of the mind and brain.

This is a particularly terrifying example of a (probably 16-17th century) folk treatment for depression that involved the local blacksmith pretending he was going to flatten your head on an anvil:

A highly specific treatment for ‘faintness of the spirits’ was attributed in a well-known passage by Martin Martin to a blacksmith in the Skye parish of Kilmartin. Like other shock treatments which have tried to elicit a ‘natural’ total reaction by creating a physical or physiological emergency, it had its risks.

“The patient laid on the anvil with his face uppermost, the smith takes a big hammer in both his hands, and making his face all grimace, he approaches his patient; and then drawing his hammer from the ground as if to hit him with full strength on his forehead, he ends in a feint, else he would be sure to cure the patient of all diseases; but the smith being accustomed to the performance, has a dexterity of managing his hammer with discretion; though at the same time he must do it so as to strike terror in the patient; and this they say, has always the desired effect.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s a little vague on what the ‘desired effect’ was supposed to be.

It wasn’t all hammer wielding blacksmiths though, some gentler treatments are noted. Apparently, dried cuckoo was used to treat epilepsy.

Haunted by Dracula’s Teeth Syndrome

This case report from a 2001 study describes a patient with persistent headaches who experienced ‘phantom teeth’ – the sensation of non-existent vampire-like teeth in her mouth.

Phantoms‘ are often the result of having a limb or other appendage removed and can affect almost any part of the body (indeed, phantom penises have been reported in the medical literature).

In this case phantom teeth seem to have occurred after surgical removal of the gums, although this case is particularly interesting because the phantoms are for teeth that were never there in the first place.

Phantoms are thought to arise when the brain’s map of the sensory areas becomes distorted during re-organisation, after the actual sensations from the removed appendage stop.

A 52-year-old woman was referred to a neurologist because of right facial pain radiating from the malar region diagonally to the right upper lip area. She had pain for several months following upper and lower surgical resection of hypertrophic gums. The pain was severe, constant, and interfered with her sleep. She had no gustatory sweating or flushing of her face or neck. She developed symptoms of depression because of the chronic pain…

She reported a constant sensation of having two long extra upper canine teeth growing in front of her normal canines that felt like they were pressing on her tongue. The sensation was experienced as someone with vampire-like long upper canines (“Dracula’s teeth”)…

There was no family history of gum hyperplasia or supernumerary teeth. She complained of poor taste, forgetfulness, sleep fragmentation, and high-pitched ringing noises in her ears of long-standing. She had no burning of her tongue.

Link to abstract of scientific study.

Kissing, corporate evil and a pat on the head

The new Scientific American Mind has just arrived online with its customary couple of feature articles freely available online. The issue also has a review of psychology and neuroscience blogs, which kindly features Mind Hacks.

According to the review SciAmMind “offers up a hearty helping of science” whereas blogs offer “extra crumbs of brain candy”. Nothing like getting patronised by the best I guess.

Apart from that though, they actually say some pretty complementary things about a number of online mind and brain blogs, so it can’t be all that bad.

One of their freely available feature articles is on the psychology and neuroscience of kissing.

Human lips enjoy the slimmest layer of skin on the human body, and the lips are among the most densely populated with sensory neurons of any body region. When we kiss, these neurons, along with those in the tongue and mouth, rocket messages to the brain and body, setting off delightful sensations, intense emotions and physical reactions.

Of the 12 or 13 cranial nerves that affect cerebral function, five are at work when we kiss, shuttling messages from our lips, tongue, cheeks and nose to a brain that snatches information about the temperature, taste, smell and movements of the entire affair. Some of that information arrives in the somatosensory cortex, a swath of tissue on the surface of the brain that represents tactile information in a map of the body. In that map, the lips loom large because the size of each represented body region is proportional to the density of its nerve endings.

The other freely available article apparently discusses what capitalism and the corporate world can tell us about the psychology of competition and altruism, but seems largely an enthusiastic description of Google’s business practices – novel as they may be.

Link to article ‘Affairs of the Lips’.
Link to article ‘Do All Companies Have to be Evil?’.

The bitchy world of online match making

The New York Times has an interesting yet ironically funny article about the curious world of online dating companies who use ‘psychological profiles’ to try and make love blossom, but who can’t get along with one another.

These are sites like eHarmony, Chemistry and PerfectMatch that instead of letting you browse members’ profiles, ask you to fill in questionnaires and suggest dates based on your ‘psychological compatibility’.

They use various methods to make the matches that are supposedly based on psychological science, but which haven’t been published or released so others can see how valid they are (is that the distant sound of alarm bells I can hear?).

Most amusingly, they seem to be constantly putting each other down in a bid to get the most attention from potential lovers.

In the battle of the matchmakers, has been running commercials faulting eHarmony for refusing to match gay couples (eHarmony says it can’t because its algorithm is based on data from heterosexuals), and eHarmony asked the Better Business Bureau to stop from claiming its algorithm had been scientifically validated. The bureau concurred that there was not enough evidence, and agreed to stop advertising that Dr. Fisher’s method was based on “the latest science of attraction.”

Dr. Fisher now says the ruling against her last year made sense because her algorithm at that time was still a work in progress as she correlated sociological and psychological measures, as well as indicators linked to chemical systems in the brain. But now, she said, she has the evidence from users to validate the method, and she plans to publish it along with the details of the algorithm.

“I believe in transparency,” she said, taking a dig at eHarmony. “I want to share my data so that I will get peer review.”

And Bravo to that. Largely because, as the article notes, the information from the millions of people filling in these questionnaires is a potentially valuable source of scientific data.

If the questionnaires become scientifically validated and the algorithms tested, these sites could make an important contribution to understanding the psychology of attraction.

I doubt very much whether they will improve the chances of a long-term relationship (John Gottman’s fascinating work suggests the crucial aspects are in interaction style, not the attraction) but they may tell us a few things about how we get drawn towards potential mates.

Obviously though, the companies will have to be a little more open and stop being so defensive. Learn to trust one another. Open their hearts. Stop in the name of love.

And if you’re still cynical, you may want to check out an article in this month’s Time by the fantastic Carl Zimmer, looking at the evolution of romance.

Romance, it seems, is not a uniquely human pursuit, as it occurs throughout the animal kingdom – unaided by technology. A beautifully romantic idea if you think about it.

Link to NYT article ‘Hitting It Off, Thanks to Algorithms of Love’.
Link to Time article ‘Romance is an Illusion’.

The highs and lows of brain doping

Today’s edition of Nature has some commentary from scientists responding to their recent feature on ‘optimising’ the healthy brain with pharmaceutical drugs.

I suspect the letters have been edited a little though, as the first, from developmental psychologist James M. Swanson and neurobiologist Nora Volkow (who is also director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse) seems to suggest that enhancement drugs risk being addictive because:

…cognitive enhancers such as the stimulants methylphenidate (Ritalin) and amphetamine amplify the activity of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that increases saliency, making cognitive tasks and everyday activities seem more interesting and rewarding. This learned experience can lead to abuse of the drug and to compulsive use and addiction in vulnerable people.

These drugs are widely used for cognitive enhancement, but the issue is hardly new as these are relatively old drugs that almost solely target the dopamine system, whereas the newer ‘cognitive enhancement’ drugs (most notably modafinil) work in a quite different way (modafinil alters dopamine, among other effects, but it’s hardly comparable).

Hence, they do not have the same pharmacological potential for abuse and simply aren’t found to be as addictive as the amphetamines in the ‘real world’.

In fact, when the Nature article asked the hypothetical question whether you would take an enhancing drug if it had no side effects, it was almost certainly inspired by modafinil.

While the drug isn’t side-effect free (several are common) it tends to be significantly less risky than your typical high-charge dopamine agonist such as amphetamine, which can cause cardiovascular problems and psychosis to name but a few of its dangerous effects.

That issue aside, one of the most interesting points is made in a letter from philosopher Nick Bostrom who argues that drug companies should be allowed to develop enhancement drugs without having to specify an illness to treat.

He argues this is because the current system demands that drugs are licensed for a specific disorder, which means new disorders get invented (‘disease mongering‘) as a way of legitimising the sale of drugs which are helpful but for less serious problems of living, such as low-level anxiety, persistent tiredness or normal memory decline, but are not significant medical treatments.

So maybe the solution to the drug companies warping medicine is to allow them to sell drugs as ‘tonics’, rather than medications. Certainly food for thought.

There’s several other responses on the ethics and experiences of cognitive enhancement from some of the leaders in the field, so well worth a look through.

Link to ‘brain doping’ correspondence in Nature

False trails in the pursuit of consciousness

Seed Magazine has an excellent article by Nicholas Humphrey on understanding consciousness and why current attempts may be failing because we’re asking the wrong questions.

Humphrey suggests four questions which he feels are more relevant to the problem, and, with a rhetorical flourish, suggests some answers to them.

However, one of the most interesting parts is where he discusses philosopher Jerry Fodor’s interest in what consciousness is useful for:

Fodor has stated this aspect of the problem bluntly: “There are several reasons why consciousness is so baffling. For one thing, it seems to be among the chronically unemployed. What mental processes can be performed only because the mind is conscious, and what does consciousness contribute to their performance? As far as anybody knows, anything that our conscious minds can do they could do just as well if they weren’t conscious. Why then did God bother to make consciousness?”

Fodor is undoubtedly asking the right question: “Why did God‚Äîor rather natural selection‚Äîmake consciousness?” Yet I’d suggest the reason he finds it all so baffling is that he is starting off with the completely wrong premise, for he has assumed, as indeed almost everyone else does, that phenomenal consciousness must be providing us with some kind of new skill. In other words, it must be helping us do something that we can do only by virtue of being conscious, in the way that, say, a bird can fly only because it has wings, or you can understand this sentence only because you know English.

Yet I want to suggest the role of phenomenal consciousness may not be like this at all. Its role may not be to enable us to do something we could not do otherwise, but rather to encourage us to do something we would not do otherwise: to make us take an interest in things that otherwise would not interest us, or to mind things we otherwise would not mind, or to set ourselves goals we otherwise would not set.

Even if you don’t agree with Humphrey’s take on consciousness (of course, in consciousness research, it’s de rigeur to disagree with almost everyone) it’s a thought-provoking and clearly written piece.

As an aside, the cover story on the same issue of Seed Magazine is a piece by Jonah Lehrer on IBM’s large-scale low-level brain simulation project Blue Brain. It’s not freely available online, however, so you’ll need to hit the news stands or the library to have a read.

Link to Seed article ‘Questioning Consciousness’.

The significance of day dreams

From p353 of The Psychology of Day-Dreams by Dr J. Varendonck, published in 1921:

Like nocturnal dreams, day dreams betray preoccupations with unsolved problems, harassing cares, or overwhelming impressions which require accommodation, only their language is not as sibylline as that of their unconscious correspondents…

But they all strive towards the future; they all seem to prepare some accommodation, to obtain some prospective advantage to the ego; in fine, they are attempts at adaptation: such is their biological meaning. They complete the functions of consciousness without our mental alertness.

Varendonck was attempting to apply Freud’s theory of dreaming to daydreams, and, as was customary at the time, largely based his theories on ideas generated from his own daydreams.

I had to look up ‘sibylline’. Apparently it relates to the Sibylline oracles and in this context it means ‘knowledge giving’.

My first book of hallucinogenic drugs

It’s not often a children’s book on hallucinogenic drugs gets written, but this seems to be one of those occasions. Matt Hutson has scanned in some remarkable pages from exactly such a book, published in 1991.

Apparently it’s quite comprehensive, covering everything from neurons to shamans, and is also full of funky illustrations.

The prose is lucid, but the pictures crack me up. Take the cover. Look kids, in a drug free zone, you can do all kinds of things, like play tic-tac-toe. Or even watch people play tic-tac-toe! And remember, friends don’t let friends wear non-footie pants.

In some cases the book might be counterproductive: “Have you ever looked at yourself in an amusement park mirror? Look what happened to you! Now, try to imagine that the whole world looked that way to you.” Awesome! Where can I get some?

Link to Silver Jacket on ‘Focus on Hallucinogens’.

Second linkenium

I’ve just discovered we’ve had our 2000th user bookmark us on Users can also add notes to their bookmarks, so I thought I’d share some of the comments with you.

Neuroscience weblog. Often exciting, sometimes unsettling.

Or your money back.

Good sight.

..excellent hearing, and all our own marbles (so far).

like the design, esp. the underlines for links.

Thanks to Matt’s excellent design skills.

Weblog oficial del libro Mind Hacks.

¬°Bienvenidos a nuestros queridos lectores hispanohablantes!

Entertaining blog about mind/brain things.

I like the precision. If we had a design brief, I think that would be it.

I still have to read the book. I gave it as a birthday present to Rudin and I should borrow it in the near future. I’ll check out the blog regularly till then.

And they say the internet is killing literature.

science of biomental creature

Next week, return of the biomental creature (this time it’s personal).


Aren’t we all?

and my favourite…

One of the biggest Cogsci blogs… sometimes they post a big bunch of crap (luckily its different most of time)

Enough said.

Facing down the competition in business and politics

The Economist covers an intriguing study that found the financial success of a company can be largely guessed by making a judgement based on photographs of the chief executives.

Most interestingly, the people doing the guessing weren’t particularly skilled in business or finance, they were undergraduate student volunteers.

And Dr Ambady and Mr Rule were surprised by just how accurate the students’ observations were. The results of their study, which are about to be published in Psychological Science, show that both the students’ assessments of the leadership potential of the bosses and their ratings for the traits of competence, dominance and facial maturity were significantly related to a company’s profits. Moreover, the researchers discovered that these two connections were independent of each other. When they controlled for the ‚Äúpower‚Äù traits, they still found the link between perceived leadership and profit, and when they controlled for leadership they still found the link between profit and power.

These findings suggest that instant judgments by the ignorant (nobody even recognised Warren Buffett) are more accurate than assessments made by well-informed professionals. It looks as if knowing a chief executive disrupts the ability to judge his performance.

Other studies have looked at whether it is possible to judge the success of politicians from their photographs.

Perhaps sadly, it seems it is possible. A study [pdf] published in Evolution and Human Behavior found that face shape could reliably predict voter preference in nine leadership elections from four countries – Australia, New Zealand, the UK, and the USA.

A study just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that photograph-only judgements of competence could also predict the winners in election for US state governor, even when they were flashed on-screen for less than a quarter of a second.

Interestingly, showing people the faces for longer actually changed people’s competency ratings and reduced how well these judgements predicted the election winners.

Link to Economist article ‘Face value’.

New super low-power brain scans

Memoirs of a Postgrad has got a great write-up of a new low-power MRI machine, the technology that does most of the structural and functional brain scans. Even the smaller MRI machines need huge electromagnets, but this new technology uses magnets thirty thousand times weaker to image the brain.

In a standard MRI machine, a strong magnetic field is used to align the proton in each of the hydrogen atoms before using an RF pulse to knock them out of alignment. As they snap back into alignment with the magnetic field, they emit a signal which can be detected and used to create a 3D image. In the new version, the very small magnetic field isn’t enough to align the protons, so a short duration (1 second) magnetic pulse of slightly higher magnitude (30 millitesla).

The resulting signals are very small, so an array of highly sensitive magnetometers are used (so-called superconducting quantum interference devices, or SQUIDS). A hugely important additional advantage of using these SQUIDS is that they are also used in the MEG (magnetoencephalography) imaging technique. This potential for MRI and MEG using the same machine raises the intriguing possibility of producing simultaneous structural images (using the MRI) and brain activation maps (using the MEG).

Unfortunately, the use of SQUIDs dashes any hopes of making the machines much smaller.

The SQUID sensors need to be extremely cold (working at approximately -170 degrees C) and so are usually bathed in liquid nitrogen, meaning a huge insulated tank sits atop the scan area.

IEEE Spectrum magazine has an article with some images from the new type of scanner, which look pretty fuzzy at the moment, but apparently can better distinguish tumours in the brain and will undoubtedly become clearer as new software is developed.

Link to Memoirs of a Postgrad post.
Link to IEEE Spectrum article.

Polanski and the Professor

It was 1970, and a white Rolls Royce was gliding through the streets of London. Inside were the obviously disturbed Roman Polanski, the film director still reeling from the murder of his wife, and Richard Gregory, the legendary cognitive psychologist.

Polanski had discovered Gregory’s work on visual perception through his book Eye and Brain and decided he wanted to enlist Gregory’s help to create a 3D horror movie.

The movie was intended to be revolutionary, taking advantage of the brain’s perceptual quirks to make a truly disturbing visual experience.

They spent the week in Polanski’s office, actually the rear of his white Rolls Royce, discussing concepts, checking out studios and making plans.

In the end, their plans were too ambitious and were abandoned by Polanksi, who moved on to other projects.

Gregory remembers the episode well however, and discusses his meeting with Polanski, and the science behind their abandoned project, in an online audio recording.

Interestingly, Gregory also mentions that Polanksi also wanted to use the techniques they developed to make a 3D erotic movie.

Visual perception lectures would have never been the same again, much to the delight of generations of psychology students, but sadly, it remains only as a wonderful tale of an unlikely pairing.

The recording seems to be from a fantastic Polanski DVD box set that also contains his film Repulsion, notable for its portrayal of a young woman’s descent into a terrifying psychosis and the film’s use of perceptual distortion to communicate the experience to the viewer.

Link to audio of Gregory discussing his collaboration with Polanski.

Out on a phantom limb

ABC Radio National’s opinion programme Ockham’s Razor has an engrossing edition on how our perception and ownership of our body can break down after brain injury – leading to disorders where we think our limbs are someone else’s, where we feel there’s a phantom body behind us, or where we think we’ve been cloned.

The talk is by neuropsychologist John Bradshaw who specialises in understanding how the body is represented by the brain, including the experience of having feelings from an amputated phantom limb.

The talk is a little dense in places but more than worth the attention it needs, as the somewhat wordy sentences unpack into an evocative tour through the far reaches of some strikingly neurological syndromes.

One of the most unusual of these disorders is somatoparaphrenia.

While limb paralysis is not unusual after brain injury, in somatoparaphrenia the patient denies the limb is their own and often suggests that it is someone else’s, such as their husband’s, their doctor’s, or even a ‘dead’ limb that has been attached by people trying to trick them.

One of the earliest discussions of these phenomenon is in a 1955 paper on the personification of paralysed limbs. Rather wonderfully, the full text of the paper is available online.

Link to Ockham’s Razor on bodily integration, identity and brain injury.
Link to paper ‘Personification of Paralysed Limbs in Hemiplegics’.

Depression, antidepressants and the ‘low serotonin’ myth

Bad Science has a fantastic article on antidepressants and the widely-promoted but scientifically unsupported ‘low serotonin theory’ of depression.

Owing to a huge advertising push by drug companies, not only the ‘man on the street’, but also a surprisingly large numbers of mental health professionals (clinical psychologists, I’m look at you) believe that depression is linked to ‘low serotonin’ in the brain.

The only drawback to this neat sounding theory is that it is almost completely unsupported by empirical evidence or scientific studies.

Experiments that have deliberately lowered serotonin levels in the brain have found that it is possible to induce ‘negative mood states’ (usually milder and as short-lasting as a slight hangover), but these do not even begin to compare to the depths of clinical depression.

In terms of patients with the clinical mood disorder itself, not a single study has found a link to reduced serotonin.

Bad Science neatly reviews the science, and also discusses a new research study which chased up journalists that propagated the myth to ask for their sources.

Needless to say, none of them had any sound scientific basis for their claims.

This is not to say that antidepressants don’t help treat depression, (evidence suggests they do – although the effect is more modest than drug companies would have us believe), or that neurobiology isn’t important (by definition, if it’s a change in thought and mood, it’s a change in brain function).

If you’re interested in the history of how the ‘low serotonin hypothesis’ came to be thought up and then subsequently promoted, despite the lack of evidence, Professional Psychology: Research and Practice recently published a great article on the topic [pdf].

Link to Bad Science on the serotonin myth.
pdf of article on the history and popularity of the myth.
Link to excellent PLoS Medicine article on evidence and adverts.

Griefer madness

You know it’s a bad day when it starts raining penises during a media interview. Wired has an article on the ‘griefer’ subculture, sociopaths of the virtual world.

Essentially, they are virtual world vandals, or online versions of those local kids on the street who love shouting abuse and messing the place up.

Like most other aspects of human behaviour, antisocial behaviour transfers from the offline to the online world.

But like many subcultures on the internet, it is a new phenomenon in that people who would never normally get a chance to meet many others who share their socially unpopular beliefs, suddenly have access to a huge, distributed community of such people.

One of the most notorious ‘griefer’ attacks, before the term was even conceived, was described in the landmark article ‘A Rape in Cyberspace’, and describes an antisocial user taking over a text-based environment

It was one of the first pieces to convince people that internet interactions could have serious emotional effects, and is widely cited in the internet psychology literature.

The Wired article discusses the motivations (and even, the ‘philosophy’) behind these groups, as well as their impact on the increasingly commercial virtual worlds.

Link to Wired article on ‘griefer subculture’.

2008-01-25 Spike activity

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

The fantastic Claudia Hammond explores the curious psychology of disgust on BBC Radio 4’s science programme Frontiers.

Advances in the History of Psychology notes the passing of Paul D McLean, creator the the “Triune Brain Theory“. Every time you hear the phrase ‘reptilian brain’, that’s McLean at work.

AI learns to play Ms Pac Man. Presumably, it will soon by driven insane by the annoying music.

To the bunkers! Charmingly wide-eyed transhumanists discuss the ‘singularity‘ – supposedly when computers will overtake the abilities of the human mind.

No really, to the bunkers! Israel intend to deploy an AI-controlled missile system that “could take over completely” from humans. Not that anyone would notice if it went bezerk I guess.

Neurophilosophy looks at a case of epilepsy triggered by hip-hop. As we noted back in October, the Beastie Boys created hip-hop triggered by epilepsy.

Dave Munger of the mighty Cognitive Daily reviews the new book by the Blakeslees on embodied cognition over at The Quarterly Conversation.

Which self-help books for depression do psychologists recommend for depression? PsyBlog looks at an interesting study on the most effective bibliotherapists.

A link between walking speed and mental quickness in the elderly is reported in an intriguing study covered by the BPS Research Digest.

The philosophy of friendship is discussed in a podcast from Philosophy Bites

Cognitive Daily examines the ‘remember / know‘ distinction, one of the most important ideas in long-term memory research.

The myth of the mid-life crisis? An article in The New York Times questions one of our most persistent cultural clichés.

The Frontal Cortex has an interesting meta-piece on whether neuroscience is being overly popularised.

Dr Pascale Michelon writes her first article as one of Sharp Brains expert contributors on neuroimaging and the ‘<a href="
“>cognitive reserve‘.

Scientific American’s Mind Matters blog discusses how to create out of body experiences in the lab.

Immanuel Kant, or can he? Fragments of Consciousness has a great post on philosophy teams.