Opinion leaders impotent in ideas economy

Science News has a remarkably clear and concise article on a study that looked at how ideas spread through social networks. It found that under most circumstances a critical mass of more easily influenced people, not ‘opinion leaders’, are key to making ideas popular.

One of the major theories in marketing is that new ideas are taken up by the wider population because they are adopted by ‘opinion leaders’ – respected individuals who others listen to.

The theory goes that when opinion leaders adopt an idea, lots of other people quickly follow. Sort of like a ‘leader of the pack’ theory.

Researchers Duncan Watts and Peter Dodds wondered whether this was really the case, or whether instead, large numbers of people would embrace a particular idea when a certain number of their more easily influenced peers started to champion it. More of a ‘birds of a feather’ theory.

Watts and Dodds research how the mathematics of networks can tell us about how social systems work, and so they created various simulated social networks, set up some rules, and then ran the experiments to see how easily ideas would spread.

They simulated individual differences in the model by making each person more likely to adopt an idea if a certain percentage of their social network already believed it.

As some people are more easily influenced than others, the ‘people’ in the network varied in what percentage of their peers were needed to influence them – in effect, a mathematical simulation of individual scepticism.

The researchers compared how far an idea would spread depending on whether it started with a random individual or with an influential individual who was connected to a lot of other individuals. They found that highly influential individuals usually spread ideas more widely, but not very much more widely. For example, if an individual had three times as many connections as the average person, ideas espoused by that individual almost always spread substantially less than three times as far as the ideas of an average individual. Sometimes, the researchers found, the difference wasn’t even measurable…

More important than the influencers, the researchers found, were the influenced. Once an idea spread to a critical mass of easily influenced individuals, it took hold and continued to spread to other easily influenced individuals. In some networks, it was far easier to get an idea established this way than in others. The entire structure of the network mattered, not just the few influential people.

The full-text of Watts and Dodds’ paper is available online as a pdf if you want to read the study in more detail, but the Science News article is a great summary.

Link to Science News on ‘The Power of Being Influenced’.
pdf of study ‘Influentials, Networks, and Public Opinion Formation’.

‘Stress’: from buildings to the battlefield

Sometimes we don’t realise how much the vocabulary of psychology has become part of everyday language.

I was surprised to learn that the use of the term ‘stress’ to mean psychological tension, rather than just physical pressure, has only been with us since the mid-1930s and was popularised by the major wars of the 20th century.

And it turns out, the person who coined the new usage did it by accident, owing to a mistaken translation.

Akin to ‘distress’, ‘stress’ meant ‘a strain upon endurance’, but it was also used in a more specialist way by engineers to denote the external pressures on a structure – the effects of ‘stress’ within the structure became known as ‘strain’.

Then in 1935 the Czech-Candian physiologist Hans Selye began to promote ‘stress’ as a medical term, denoting the body’s response to external pressures (he later admitted that, new to the English language, he had picked the wrong word; ‘strain’ was what he had meant).

Academic physiologists regarded the concept of stress as too vague to be scientifically useful, but Selye’s determined self-promotion, coupled with the upheaval and distress brought by the [Second World] war to many millions of ordinary people, popularised the term.

By the time of Vietnam, ‘stress’ had become a well-established part of military medicine, thought to be a valuble tool in reducing ‘wastage’. In the military context, it was an extension of the work done at the end of the First World War on the long-term effects of fear and other emotions on the human system…

‘Stress’, writes the historian Russell Viner, ‘was pictured as a weapon, to be used in the waging of psychological warfare against the enemy, and Stress research as a sheild or vaccination against the contagious germ of fear.’

From p349 of A War of Nerves, a book on the history of military psychiatry, which we covered previously.

A phobia of bridges

The New York Times has a short but interesting piece on people with gephyrophobia, a morbid fear of bridges.

Phobias are often described as an irrational fear, but most have a reasonable basis to them, as reflected in the fact that phobias most commonly concern things that have an element of danger or risk – such as heights, dogs, spiders or water.

However, the fear gets exaggerated so the perceived danger vastly outweighs the actual danger.

Often the disabling aspect is not the fear itself, but how people begin to restrict their lives to avoid the fear. In a sense, people can become driven by a fear of fear.

Mrs. Steers, 47, suffered from a little-known disorder called gephyrophobia, a fear of bridges. And she had the misfortune of living in a region with 26 major bridges, whose heights and spans could turn an afternoon car ride into a rolling trip through a haunted house.

Some people go miles out of their way to avoid crossing the George Washington Bridge — for example, driving to Upper Manhattan from Teaneck, N.J., by way of the Lincoln Tunnel, a detour that can stretch a 19-minute jog into a three-quarter-hour ordeal. Other bridge phobics recite baby names or play the radio loudly as they ease onto a nerve-jangling span — anything to focus the mind. Still others take a mild tranquilizer an hour before buckling up to cross a bridge.

Link to NYT article ‘To Gephyrophobiacs, Bridges Are a Terror’.

Composing, by brain waves

Mick Grierson has been hacking some applications for a brain-computer interface that uses EEG to convert the brain’s electrical signals into a thought-driven synthesizer control mechanism.

The kit is just in a test stage at the moment, but there’s a YouTube video of him being able to trigger specific notes from his EEG signals.

OK. So I’ve had my EEG for about a month now. Within a few days, I’d successfully run a project that allowed me to spell words with my thoughts. This took some practice, and the algorithms are really elementary at the moment. However, it’s nice to be on the edge of what is possible. I’ve just spent a few days integrating a fairly obvious matching algorithm Рbasically an algorithm that detects unconscious responses to stimuli on a simple level Рinto a synthesiser built in max/msp. This took quite a lot of effort. Anyhow, this system is a variation of those which you may have been hearing about on and off….my system now allows me (with a bit of work) to control the pitch of the synthesiser with my thoughts in real-time. This reliably allows me to play tunes Рslowly. I often ‘hit’ wrong notes, but it sort of works. Has anyone else done this yet?

Can’t wait to see how the project advances. The first jam session will be quite a sight (and sound!), I’m sure.

Link to video of BCI synthesiser (via DevIntel).
Link to Grierson’s blog.

Knock, knock, room service

NPR has a short piece on a fascinating study where the researchers informed hotel maids that their normal work counted as exercise, which had the effect of making them more physically fit, despite them not seeming to change their activity levels.

Unfortunately, the NPR segment seems to suggest that the study ‘challenges the placebo effect’, based on the faulty assumption that the placebo effect only alters ‘subjective perception’.

In fact, placebos are known to affect outcome in a range of physical illnesses (and even produce placebo ‘side-effects – known as the nocebo effect), and they have been shown to directly stimulate the same brain circuit when they are used to replace a drug to treat Parkinson’s disease.

Furthermore, the study itself [pdf] claims to demonstrate the placebo effect in a new domain.

Despite this, it’s a fascinating study and raises a number of intriguing questions, such as whether the placebo effect is directly affecting body metabolism, or whether the information given to the maids just made them behave differently, and actually do their work in a way to give more health benefits.

Link to NPR piece on the study.
pdf of full-text of study.

Buy your own brain surgery tools, online

I’ve just found a page with some beautiful pictures of antique neurosurgery tools, including these trephining or trepanning tools for cutting holes in the skull. Can you imagine the elbow work needed to get the job done?

After a bit of a search I discovered that there’s a healthy market in neurosurgical tools on the net, old and new.

Advances in the History of Psychology discovered an antique trepanning brace that’s currently for sale for a cool $1900.

One antique dealer even has a receipt for a trepanning operation from 1814. It turns out you could get your head drilled for $20 in early 19th century Massachusetts.

If you’re after some more modern kit, it turns out you can pick up quite a few contemporary surgical tools on eBay.

Including this VectorVision2 BrainLab system, a snip (excuse the pun) at $15,000.

The VectorVision2 is an ‘augmented reality’ image guidance system (sometimes called frameless stereotaxy) that allows the surgeon to see where his tools are in relation to both the patient and a matched brain scan image – while the operation is in progress.

While the tools can be bought and sold online, most of the anaesthetics are, of course, controlled drugs.

So while you may be able to get the latest high-tech kit on eBay, you’re still going to have to resort to those traditional 19th century surgical painkillers: brandy, and a stiff upper lip.

Link to pictures of antique neurosurgery tools.
Link to VectorVision2 for sale on eBay.

Castration anxiety, of a non-Freudian kind

This interesting study published in Perspectives in Biology and Medicine compared the psychological effect of castration on two quite different groups of people: on people with prostrate cancer for whom the procedure was a medical necessity, and for people who wished to castrate themselves on a voluntary basis.

Motivations for voluntary eunuchs vary, but in certain forms the condition is thought to be related to apotemnophilia or ‘body integrity identity disorder’ – where individuals have a pathological desire to have a limb amputated, often taking quite severe and damaging measures to achieve their aim.

However, eunuchs have had a long and complex social and symbolic role in history that belies the simple fact of the operation.

In fact, there is quite a large online eunuch community, who share an interest in the procedure, whether they’re personally motivated to have it, or whether they’re just interested in it for, well, whatever reason sparks your interest I suppose.

Modern-day eunuchs: motivations for and consequences of contemporary castration.

Perspect Biol Med. 2007, 50(4), 544-56.

Wassersug RJ, Johnson TW.

This article compares the motivations for, and responses to, castration between two groups of males: prostate cancer patients and voluntary modern-day eunuchs with castration paraphilias or other emasculating obsessions. Prostate cancer patients are distressed by the side effects of androgen deprivation and typically strive to hide or deny the effects of castration. In contrast, most voluntary eunuchs are pleased with the results of their emasculations. Despite a suggested association of androgen deprivation with depression, voluntary eunuchs appear to function well, both psychologically and socially. Motivation, rather than physiology, appears to account for these different responses to androgen deprivation.

Probably not quite the literal form of castration anxiety Freud had in mind when he invented the psychoanalytic term.

Link to abstract of study on PubMed.

Milgram’s notorious conformity experiment replicated

The Situationist has a fantastic post on a recent replication of Stanley Milgram’s (in)famous conformity experiment which is usually always described as being ‘too unethical to perform today’.

In Milgram’s original study, participants were asked to give increasingly severe electric shocks to someone supposedly trying to learn a series of word pairs.

In fact, the ‘learner’ was an actor and no shocks were given, but they screamed as if they were in increasing amounts of pain, while the experimenter ordered the participant to increase the voltage.

The experiment tested how far someone would go in giving pain to another human being when being ordered by an authority figure. 65% of participants continued despite indications that the ‘learner’ might be unconscious or dead.

It’s been a hugely influential study, but was thought to be so stressful for the participants, that it has never been replicated in real life and it was assumed it would be impossible to do so.

However, this replication was carefully designed by Prof Jerry Burger to be as close as possible to Milgram’s original study while being modified so it could be fully ethically approved by a research ethics committee (the mark of all good research).

I went to great lengths to recreate Milgram’s procedures (Experiment Five), including such details as the words used in the memory test and the experimenter’s lab coat. But I also made several substantial changes.

First, we stopped the procedures at the 150-volt mark. This is the first time participants heard the learner’s protests through the wall and his demands to be released. When we look at Milgram’s data, we find that this point in the procedure is something of a “point of no return.” Of the participants who continued past 150 volts, 79 percent went all the way to the highest level of the shock generator (450 volts). Knowing how people respond up to this point allowed us to make a reasonable estimate of what they would do if allowed to continue to the end. Stopping the study at this juncture also avoided exposing participants to the intense stress Milgram’s participants often experienced in the subsequent parts of the procedure.

Second, we used a two-step screening process for potential participants to exclude any individuals who might have a negative reaction to the experience. . . . More than 38 percent of the interviewed participants were excluded at this point.

Third, participants were told at least three times (twice in writing) that they could withdraw from the study at any time and still receive their $50 for participation.

Fourth, like Milgram, we administered a sample shock to our participants (with their consent). However, we administered a very mild 15-volt shock rather than the 45-volt shock Milgram gave his participants.

Fifth, we allowed virtually no time to elapse between ending the session and informing participants that the learner had received no shocks. Within a few seconds after ending the study, the learner entered the room to reassure the participant he was fine. Sixth, the experimenter who ran the study also was a clinical psychologist who was instructed to end the session immediately if he saw any signs of excessive stress.

Although each of these safeguards came with a methodological price (e.g., the potential effect of screening out certain individuals, the effect of emphasizing that participants could leave at any time), I wanted to take every reasonable measure to ensure that our participants were treated in a humane and ethical manner.

Interestingly, the study found that levels of obedience were about the same now, as they were in the early 1960s when the original experiment was first run.

This is not the first time that someone has tried to replicate Milgram’s experiment. The BPS Research Digest reported on a virtual reality version of the study (admittedly, not a true replication), the full-text of which is available online.

The Situationist post also includes a embedded video of a TV documentary on the replication and notes some disturbing examples where the experiment has been inadvertently replicated when a prank caller directed staff to give shock to two emotionally disturbed teenagers.

Link to Situationist on Milgram replication (thanks Tom!)
Link to Wikipedia page on Milgram’s original study.

17th century brain surgery, digitally recreated

A reader of neuroscience blog Retrospectacle wrote in to say they’d created a video simulation of how a 17th century brain surgery tool would work, and it’s a wonderfully vivid, if not somewhat gruesome, animation of the tool in action.

The tool was the elevatorium biploidum and was described by the pioneering Dutch surgeon Cornelius Solingen in his book Manuale Operatien der Chirurgie.

Boerhaave Museum describes the use of the tool:

Bullets from seventeenth-century guns had slightly less velocity than the bullets of today. The damage they caused, particularly if you were hit in the head, was consequently sometimes less serious than might have been expected. Not every bullet penetrated the skull, but they often left a sizeable dent. Under the dent there might be haemorrhaging, because of the rupturing of local blood vessel as a result of the impact. In order to treat that bleeding and the associated pressure on the brain the Hague surgeon Cornelis Solingen (1641-1687) has developed a sort of ‘corkscrew’, with which you could raise the dented cranium again.

The tool obviously had (if you’ll excuse the pun) quite an impact at the time as it is featured on the front page of the museum’s website. Indeed, similar surgical techniques are still in use today.

Link to video animation of the elevatorium biploidum.
Link to Retrospectacle post.
Link to Boerhaave Museum page on the tool.

Dreamy panic mashup

ABC Radio National’s All in the Mind recently broadcast a beautifully produced edition on the cultural history of panic.

Curiously, it inspired a student of one of the sociologists interviewed on the programme to create their own retro video mashup using some of the audio.

It’s a wonderfully atmospheric, dreamily paranoid and a striking accompaniment to the programme.

Whoever thought panic could feel so ambient?

Link to AITM on a cultural history of panic.
Link to video of dreamy panic video (via AITM blog).

ECT: the blues and the electric avenue

Electroconvulsive therapy, ECT or electroshock therapy is the most controversial treatment in psychiatry, and it’s also the most misunderstood.

It’s impossible to discuss ECT without mentioning One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest because the book, the play and the film have given us the most culturally salient image of the treatment.

Kesey depicts it as little more than tool of oppression to subjugate Randal P. McMurphy who is only in hospital because, as far as he can figure out, “I, uh, fight and fuck too much”.

This negative portrayal is almost standard in the film industry but captures little of the reality of the average ECT treatment, which is usually prescribed for depression of the most severe kind (it is sometimes used for psychosis and catatonia, but much less frequently).

ECT treatment involves passing about 800 milliamps of electricity through the brain. 800 milliamps is a bit more than your average mobile phone battery puts out, but is quite significant as far as the brain is concerned and is enough to cause a seizure.

The current can be applied to both sides of the brain (bilaterally, most common) or one side only (unilaterally, less common), and can take the form of a pulse (most common) or a sine-wave (less common). There is evidence to suggest that different versions have different benefits and side effects, but the choice may depend on national guidelines or clinic preference.

This effect on the brain is essentially the same as an epileptic seizure, but it looks quite different. This is because the patient is given a general anaesthetic, so they are unconscious, and a muscle relaxant, so there is barely any movement.

In terms of physical health risks, ECT is thought to be much safer than most drug treatments and is often prescribed to people in the most fragile state of health (e.g. pregnant women, the elderly) for exactly this reason.

The biggest risk to health is actually the anaesthetic and muscle relaxant drug, which is the main reason a heart and general medical check-up is given before treatment.

ECT is usually given in doses of 6-12 treatments over a similar number of weeks (psychiatrists seem to have a superstition about giving an odd number of treatments for some reason, and so it is usually given in ‘pairs’ of doses), although can be given as a ‘maintenance’ treatment, less frequently, over longer periods.

We still don’t know how ECT works, although effects on brain plasticity (physical change and adaptation) and neurochemistry are being investigated.

In terms of its effectiveness and impact, the whole business of ECT is a complicated issue, but here’s what the current evidence suggests.

At least in the short-term, it is one of the most rapid and effective treatments for severe depression.

It is associated with ongoing memory difficulties, even after the treatment has stopped.

Patients generally view it much less favourably than clinicians, and it is generally viewed negatively by the public and carries significant stigma.

Now here are the caveats: because ECT is typically given to the most severely depressed patients (who likely already have cognitive problems), it is difficult to do ideally balanced, gold standard randomised controlled trials that give a good matched measure of both benefit and side-effects. In fact, these sorts of studies have not been done.

This is why there is disagreement, even with the medical and scientific community, about its effects, both good and bad.

Furthermore, Dr Richard Abrams, one of the leaders in ECT research and author of the standard clinical textbook, has a financial interest in, and reportedly owns, Somatics, one the world’s biggest suppliers of ECT machines and equipment. This makes some people suspicious of his promotion of the treatment.

However, Dr Harold Sackheim, probably the other ‘big name’ in ECT research, has no financial interests in any ECT company and does not receive financial compensation for consultation with the ECT industry.

Importantly, there is considerable individual variation in how people respond to ECT, in terms of their symptoms, post-treatment cognitive impairment, their subjective experience, and their attitudes.

Some people find ECT ineffective and damaging, others feel their life has been saved and their illness properly treated for the first time.

There are many articulate and moving accounts of the treatment on the web. Journalist Liz Spikol found ECT largely unhelpful and suffered debilitating cognitive effects, while surgeon Sherwin Nuland found it was the only thing that helped him recover and return to work.

Perhaps the most controversial topic is involuntary or forced treatment.

The majority of ECT patients volunteer for the treatment (usually on the suggestion of their doctors) and sign a consent form for treatment.

In some countries, where law allows, a minority of patients are treated with ECT against their will, usually if they are deemed to be a danger to themselves or others, and where other treatments have failed.

In a nutshell, it seems to be the most effective treatment for severe depression, seems to impair memory, is disliked and stigmatised, and is difficult to research. Most notably, as a patient, your mileage may vary. Some people have no benefit, some have huge improvement; some have no side-effects, some have ongoing difficulties. Most have some of each.

It’s also really hard to have a sensible discussion about ECT because of the emotions it stirs up. Like any treatment that provokes such opposite reactions from both those that have had it, and those that haven’t, it’s worth learning more with a cool head and an open heart.

I’ve avoided giving my own opinions on the treatment, which, like the evidence are complex, but I hope you’ll learn more, decide for yourself and be able to consider both new scientific evidence and reaction from people you meet who have had, or are considering ECT.

Link to Wikipedia page on ECT.

Think Green and put your brain in a tree

Rebel online clothing shop Ban T-Shirts have a t-shirt extolling the virtues of thinking green, nicely illustrated with a brain-tree hybrid.

Whether a brain-tree hybrid would itself be considered environmentally friendly is anyone’s guess, but it makes for a good visual statement nonetheless.

But if paranoid resistance is more your thing, their ‘thought criminal’ shirt should serve to promote your illicit cognitions.

Of course, you might think you’ve got nothing to hide, but we know that’s exactly what they want you to think. I think.

Link to Think Green t-shirt.
Link to Thought Criminal t-shirt.

Sleep disorders in Disney characters

A study published in Sleep Medicine has found that several Disney films have surprisingly accurate depictions of clinical sleep problems, particularly a disorder called ‘REM sleep behavior disorder’.

Also known as RBD, REM sleep behavior disorder is where normal sleep paralysis doesn’t happen during REM sleep, so to varying degrees, a person might ‘act out’ what they’re dreaming.

Three additional dogs were found with presumed RBD in the classic films Lady and the Tramp (1955) and The Fox and the Hound (1981), and in the short Pluto’s Judgment Day (1935). These dogs were elderly males who would pant, whine, snuffle, howl, laugh, paddle, kick, and propel themselves while dreaming that they were chasing someone or running away. In Lady and the Tramp the dog was also losing both his sense of smell and his memory, two associated features of human RBD. These four films were released before RBD was first formally described in humans and dogs.

In addition, systematic viewing of the Disney films identified a broad range of sleep disorders, including nightmares, sleepwalking, sleep related seizures, disruptive snoring, excessive daytime sleepiness, insomnia and circadian rhythm sleep disorder. These sleep disorders were inserted as comic elements. The inclusion of a broad range of accurately depicted sleep disorders in these films indicates that the Disney screenwriters were astute observers of sleep and its disorders.

This is not the first time that Disney films have featured in the medical literature.

One 2004 study published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry looked at the representation of mental illness in Disney movies (and found, rather disappointingly, that mental illness was typically referred to when one character was denigrating another).

Link to abstract of study on Disney and sleep disorders.
Link to abstract of study on Disney and mental illness.

2008-01-04 Spike activity

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

San Francisco Science Cafe puts video online of a talk on the neuroscience of meditation.

AP News reports US Military apparently not recording suicides in Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

Was the development of cooking a kickstart to the evolution of the modern human brain? SciAm investigates.

The New York Times has an interesting piece on the use of dissociation (‘splitting off’ areas of consciousness) in endurance sports people.

Glossy Autism magazine now available on newsagent shelves (also covers Aspergers, ADHD etc). Not sure how I feel about that.

Retrospectacle has neurosurgical tools of the 19th century! To only be used with a large bottle of brandy (by the patient, not the surgeon, although by the look of the tools, it probably didn’t make a huge amount of difference).

Hypothalmus activity may be crucial in migraines, reports BBC News.

The New York Times on a study where researchers stimulated a single dendritic spine in a neuron (wow).

The mighty Fortean Times discusses the Wellcome Collections’ new exhibition on sleep and dreaming.

More from the increasingly cognitive New York Times: an article on synaesthesia induced by a brain injury.

The Guardian covers a slightly tongue-in-cheek study that notes the similarities between images in Renaissance paintings and brain structures.

The mind is a control structure for an autonomous agent. The Science and Consciousness Review has a feature article on modelling unconscious perception in artificial intelligence.

Studying the anthropology of depression during motherhood. The New York Times looks at the work of Dr. Marian Radke-Yarrow.

The BPS Research Digest on a study that found that students who endorsed sex stereotypes showed more biased recall of their past exam performance (e.g. girls thought they did worse at maths, boys worse at art, than they actually did).

Cognitive Daily looks at research which attempts to answer the question ‘does test-taking help students learn?’

Psychologist Carol Dweck is interviewed about her work on praise, motivation and achievement in children.

Bad Science has an mp3 of Ben Goldacre giving the President’s Lecture at the British Pharmacology Society’s annual conference: More than molecules ‚Äì how pill pushers and the media medicalise social problems.

Certain brain injuries (that, unsurprisingly, affect parts of a key anxiety circuit) may prevent PTSD, reports Treatment Online.

Deric Bownds looks at the role of nature vs nurture in the visual cortex.

The Neurotech Industry Organisation both reviews 2007 and looks forward to 2008.

PsyBlog gets philosophical with articles on the relationship between happiness and the work of Schopenhauer and Epicurus.

Boredom, psychedelics and mind-bending images

The bi-monthly Scientific American Mind seem to be making more of their feature articles freely available online after the first month has gone (and bravo to that!), and they’ve just opened-up two new articles: one on the psychology of boredom and the other on the use of psychedelic drugs to treat mental illness.

But before we start on the articles, have a look at the beautiful image on the right. Click for a larger version because the small size doesn’t do it justice.

It’s the image that accompanies the psychedelics article and it’s by Phil Wheeler, who, as it turns out, seems to specialise in wonderful psychological illustrations.

They’re psychological in both senses of the word, as some contain images associated with psychology, but also often contain hidden images, visual illusions and distortions.

His online gallery of images is really quite striking, and many of them meander between a sort of organic cyberpunk and a visual stream of consciousness.

The psychedelics article discusses the neuroscience and current research trials and looks at some of the main research compounds: LSD, ketamine, MDMA, and ibogaine, and, although it barely touches on psilocybin, is remarkably comprehensive for a feature article of its size.

The article on boredom does a really good job of investigating this under-appreciated mental state, and looks at research showing that having nothing to do is only part of being bored – personality factors, emotions and current interpretations all play a part.

It also makes a distinction between transient, situational boredom, and a more profound existential boredom stemming from a dissatisfaction with life.

A little ironically, it turns out there’s a surprising amount of fascinating research on boredom.

Link to Phil Wheeler’s beautiful illustrations.
Link to Phil Wheeler website with more images.
Link to SciAmMind article ‘Bored?’.
Link to SciAmMind article ‘Psychedelic Healing?’.

The year in sex and psychology

Psychologist Dr Petra Boyton has just completed her yearly review of the past year in sex, revisits last year’s predictions and looks forward to possible developments in 2008.

One of her predictions is that the media will become obsessed with ‘future sex’. Indeed, the recently published book Love and Sex with Robots got a huge amount of media coverage, including a review in The New York Times, despite being big on speculation and short on current evidence.

My own personal barometer of the progress of sex research is the balance of how many papers have been published on the neuroscience of orgasm compared to the neuroscience of hiccups.

At the time of writing, PubMed lists 99 papers on the neuroscience of hiccups, whereas only 71 are listed as discussing the neuroscience of orgasm.

Let’s hope 2008 does a better job of redressing the balance than 2007.

Link to Dr Petra’s review of 2007.
Link to review of last year’s sex predictions.
Link to predictions for 2008.