War apparently boosts Iraqi teenagers’ self-esteem

Who would have guessed the Iraq war would be so uplifting to the children of Baghdad? According to research funded by the US Military, the invasion boosted the self-esteem of Iraqi teenagers.

The BPS Research Digest covers the study which took place in the summer of 2004, a year after the invasion.

With this new found benefit of invasion, the next target seems obvious – those self-deprecating Canadians!

Link to BPS Research Digest write-up of the study.

Psychology Today, every day

Psychology Today is a bimonthly US magazine that’s traditionally been thought of as a ‘pop psychology’ publication but has made efforts in recent years to be more scientific. They’ve just launched a blog network and have attracted some big names in academic psychology to contribute.

Authors include psychiatrist Peter Kramer, evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa and MIT media lab cognitive scientist Dan Ariely, as well as the regular editorial staff from the magazine.

Some of the authors aren’t due to start in earnest until the beginning of March, but there’s some good material on there already and looks very promising.

Link to Psychology Today blogs.

2008-02-22 Spike activity

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

The New York Times tackles the debate about whether psychiatric drugs can increase suicide in some instances.

To the bunkers! Agent Kurzweil at work again: Machines to match man by 2029. Virtuality and reality to merge.

Yale psychiatrist Charles Barber argues in the Washington Post that healing a troubled mind takes more than a pill.

PsychCentral covers a new guide on how to apply research findings to treatment with psychological therapies.

How the Media Messes with Your Mind: Scientific American has a brief article on how recognising two common fallacies can help you separate fact from media fiction.

Neuroanthropology asks whether studies on culture and neuroscience are all brain and no culture?

Philosopher and New Mysterian Colin McGinn reviews Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia in the New York Review of Books.

The non-sight senses of blind people are not more acute but they may develop new skills to compensate, reports PsyBlog.

Vivid but inconclusive examples vs ambiguous scientific data: The New York Times on the renewed debate over drug side-effects in light of latest school shooting.

In some very limited circumstances a laser could be used to transmit sound to the ear with a recently uncovered military technology, reports Wired.

Artists create a humanoid robot which uses brainwave activity recorded during sleep to playback an interpretation of your dreams.

Powell’s has an in-depth review of ‘The Loss of Sadness: How Psychiatry Transformed Normal Sorrow Into Depressive Disorder’.

The end of the Flynn effect? The BPS Research Digest on a study that found a decline in IQs when measured in 2004.

Cognitive Daily looks at a study which asks whether music preferences are a guide to personality.

An Unquiet Lecture

Someone’s uploaded a video to YouTube of the fantastic Kay Redfield Jamison discussing her own experiences with bipolar disorder.

Jamison is a psychologist and one of the world’s leading experts on the science of the condition that’s often called manic depression.

She was known for her groundbreaking work on the disorder for many years before she ‘came out of the closet’ and described her own experience in her powerful and lyrical autobiography An Unquiet Mind.

Having attempted suicide and become quite psychotic at times, she has experienced the most extreme edges of the condition.

In this lecture, rather than presenting any of her considerable scientific research, she discusses the subjective experience of the highs, lows and distortions of thought that can occur in this mood disorder.

Link to Kay Redfield Jamison lecture (via AHP/WoP).

Child’s play is a tough problem

Children’s play has long fascinated psychologists. The post-Freudians saw it as a direct expression of the human unconscious and its often been seen an essential, if not slightly mysterious, element of a healthy childhood.

The New York Times has a wonderfully in-depth article on the latest scientific discoveries on the role of play in development, most of which attempts to answer the question ‘if play is so energy consuming and dangerous, why do almost all mammals engage in it when young?’.

One fascinating bit discusses ‘play signals’, body postures that are specifically used by humans and other mammals to advertise the fact that they’re playing, and so none of the rough-and-tumble is mistaken for aggression:

Social play has its own vocabulary. Dogs have a particular body posture called the ‘‘play bow’’ — forelegs extended, rump in the air — that they use as both invitation and punctuation. A dog will perform a play bow at the beginning of a bout, and he will crouch back into it if he accidentally nips too hard and wants to assure the other dog: ‘‘Don’t worry! Still playing!’’

Other species have play signals, too. Chimps put on a ‘‘play face,’’ an open-mouthed expression that is almost like a face of aggression except that the muscles are relaxed into something like a smile. Baboons bend over and peer between their legs as an invitation to play, beavers roll around, goats gambol in a characteristic ‘‘play gait.’’ In fact, most species have from 10 to 100 distinct play signals that they use to solicit play or to reassure one another during play-fighting that it’s still all just in fun. In humans, the analogue to the chimp’s play face is a child’s smile, an open expression that indicates there is no real anger involved even in gestures that can look like a fight.

…[in humans] Brown could detect some typical gestures that these 2- and 3-year-olds were using instinctively to let one another know they were playing. ‚Äò‚ÄòPlay movement is curvilinear,‚Äô‚Äô he said. ‚Äò‚ÄòIf that boy was reaching for something in a nonplay situation, his body would be all straight lines. But using the body language of play, he curves and embraces.‚Äô‚Äô

The article also looks at the possible benefits of play for brain development, and what role play takes in the learning of social roles and moral behaviour.

Link to NYT article ‘Taking Play Seriously’.

The science of ‘voodoo death’

Can you die from a voodoo curse? Physiologist Walter Cannon was better known for his work on emotion but was fascinated by the idea that someone could die from fright – something he nicknamed ‘voodoo death’.

He collected anecdotes from around the world of people who had died after being cursed in a now classic 1942 article.

But rather than simply recount the tales as curiosities, he speculated on the medical basis of how someone might die of fright – triggering a whole line of research into neurocardiology, the study of how the brain and heart work together.

Cannon’s ideas were recently revisited by physician Esther Sternberg who looked at whether scientific developments since 1942 have made us any the wiser to this intriguing phenomenon.

While there is no clear idea on whether the belief in a curse directly kills many people, it seems Connon’s ideas on fear’s effect on the body had remarkable foresight and preceded many later discoveries about body-brain connections.

If you’re interested in hearing more, psychiatrist Stuart Brown gave one of the prestigious 2006 ‘TED’ talks on play, which is available to view on the National Institute of Play’s website.

Link to Cannon’s 1942 “Voodoo” Death article.
Link to Sternberg’s 2002 update.

Three impossible things before breakfast

The Guardian has a insightful piece by journalist Rik Hemsley describing his personal experiences with Alice in Wonderland syndrome, where the ‘body image’ or ‘body map’ becomes distorted, leading the affected person to feel like particular parts of the body, or the whole of it, have changed size or shape.

It doesn’t usually involve direct visual hallucinations, but can lead to the sensation that the world around you has grown to an enormous size, or that you have shrunk.

It was first described by psychiatrist John Todd in a 1955 article that you can read freely online, which I discovered when writing an previous post on the neurology of Alice in Wonderland.

It’s usually associated with epilepsy or migraine although is actually quite common, although not always in such an intense form as The Guardian article describes.

Children often experience it but grow out of it as they reach adulthood (both of which happened to me).

Link to Guardian article ‘I have Alice In Wonderland syndrome’ (via BB).
Link to full-text of Todd’s original article.

Five auditory illusions

In one of its rare fits of generosity, New Scientist has put a feature online that demonstrates five cool auditory illusions.

Possibly the freakiest, is psychologist Diana Deutsch’s illusion called ‘Phantom Words’. For me at least, I began by a hearing certain phrase, only to hear it transform over time into something else.

The ‘temporal induction of speech’ illusion is a wonderful example of how our brain fills in missing information better when there’s sound rather than silence in the way.

All of them are well-worth checking out and accompany this week’s special issue on the psychology and neuroscience of music, all of which is sadly behind a pay wall.

Link to NewSci ‘five great auditory illusions’.
Link to music special issue table of contents.

Personality plagiarism rife on internet dating sites

When you present yourself to potential suitors in an online dating profile, you are, in the terminology of psychology, ‘constructing the self’. Perhaps it’s not surprising then, that the most attractive profiles are being ripped off and plagiarised by lazy daters wanting to freeload on the most creative members’ personalities.

The Wall Street Journal has an article which looks on how this practice has developed and uncovers several cases where romantic lines, funny descriptions and personal reflections are copied over and over again.

Psychologist Sherry Turkle’s ground-breaking book Life on the Screen looked at the online construction of the self during the days of text based communication, MOOs and MUDs.

As we become increasingly tied to our online profiles, owing to the popularity of sites like MySpace, Facebook and numerous dating services, it’s not surprising that they become more intimately associated with our own ideas about who we are.

They are also more easily copied than offline ways of expressing ourselves, leading to the situation where daters wanting to get lucky can just remix other people’s personalities to maximise their chances of success.

Link to WSJ article ‘The Cut-and-Paste Personality’.

A bait and switch trick on torture and psychologists?

A poster on Metafilter has collected together news reports on the growing number of psychologists leaving the American Psychological Association in protest at their failure to condemn members who take part in the ‘War on Terror’ interrogations.

One of the most surprising aspects is from a contributor who suggests that the APA released a different text to the one approved by a 2006 committee vote that was intended to condemn abusive practices by psychologists.

The campaign group Coalition for an Ethical Psychology released a report [pdf] claiming that the original statement reviewed by the committee defined torture in terms of the United Nations criteria, but the published resolution had been changed to refer to the US Constitution, providing a definition of torture that is being used to allow abusive interrogations.

Strong public protests over the PENS Report [which condoned psychologists participating in interrogations, without mentioning torture or other abuse] prompted the APA Divisions for Social Justice and others to craft a new resolution prohibiting psychologists from participating in abusive detainee interrogations. In August 2006, after much discussion and debate, the APA’S Council of Representatives passed a Resolution Against Torture, Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment.

However, the version published by the APA differed from the version discussed and passed by the Council, in at least one significant respect: in the document reviewed by Council, psychologists were instructed to look to the United Nations Principles of Medical Ethics and international instruments for definitions of unethical behavior and “torture, cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.” In the published document, the definition of torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment instead was taken from the 5th, 8th and 14th amendments to the US Constitution, precisely the same definitions that had been used by the CIA, the DoD and the Bush Administration to assert that the abusive interrogation techniques in use at Guant√°namo, CIA black sites, and elsewhere were not “torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”

The more recent August 2007 resolution refers to both the United Nations and the US Constitution criteria, presumably making for a much stricter definition, although still fails to define some key definitions concerning distress.

However, the fact that an earlier version was ‘switched’ is quite concerning as it has become clear that psychologists are an incredibly valuable part of interrogation or ‘Behavioral Science Consultation Teams’ (aka ‘biscuit teams’).

In contrast, psychologists’ colleagues in both the American medical and psychiatric associations have outright banned their members from participation.

In practice, this hasn’t stopped some physicians becoming complicit in these interrogations, but many US psychologists are embarrassed by their parent organisations unwillingness to take the equivalent ethical line when the profession is increasingly seeking equal status to doctors.

Link to MeFi on psychologists leaving the APA (via BoingBoing).

Diagnostic handshake

Mark Gurrieri was diagnosed with a brain tumour after shaking a doctor’s hand. BBC News has an interesting piece on the incident, where the doctor noticed that Gurrieri’s hand was spongy and swollen, suggesting a growth hormone problem that can be caused by a tumour on the brain’s pituitary gland.

Mr Gurrieri underwent tests and was found to have acromegaly – caused by a tumour in the pituitary gland which leads to excess growth hormone.

The condition is seen in just three people per million, and can have serious effects if left undiagnosed.

It causes problems with vision and can lead to diabetes and blood pressure problems.

If untreated acromegaly can also cause premature death.

Mr Gurrieri thought his hands were getting bigger because of too much DIY and working in his restaurant kitchen.

Link to BBC News article ‘Handshake diagnosed brain tumour’.

Encephalon: the new dawn

If you’ve been wondering what happened to the Encephalon psychology and neuroscience writing carnival, it’s been on a brief hiatus while its management has been passed on to new hands.

It was previously managed by Mo at Neurophilosophy, whose time has now been largely captured as a neuroscience postgrad.

Luckily, the ever capable Alvaro Fernandez from Sharp Brains has taken the helm and just published the first edition of its return.

Fittingly, it’s a bumper issue, and contains articles on everything from Renaissance brain look-alikes to whether robots can feel emotions.

The next edition will be hosted on Mind Hacks on March 3rd so if you want to submit an article, just email a link to


and we’ll feature it.

Link to new Encephalon.

Push my brain button

You can promote almost anything with a few words about the brain because it sounds like science. This week’s Bad Science column takes a close look at ‘Brain Gym’, a scheme introduced into large numbers of UK schools that attempts to boost brain function by getting the kids to do, well, complete nonsense.

For example, a “back and forward movement of the head” apparently “increases the circulation to the frontal lobe for greater comprehension and rational thinking”. According to this wisdom, a good clip around the ear has remarkable brain boosting properties.

One of my favourite examples of nonsense neuroscience is the use of the ‘explanation’ that an activity is pleasurable because it ‘boosts endorphins’ or ‘releases opioids’ in the brain.

Here’s a great example from the widely distributed and widely discarded London newspaper The Metro which managed to give a cod brain science explanation in a (NSFW but remarkably dull) article on bondage and whipping.


The person getting the flogging (the bottom) gets pleasure from natural opiates generated in the brain and the person doing the flogging (the top) gets pleasure watching their partner… Even a runner’s high after exercise is nothing compared with the boost of natural opiates that can be released in a flogging.

Apart from the fact that they don’t know the difference between opiates (derivatives of the opium poppy) and opioids (any substance that binds to opioid receptors, including the brain’s naturally produced chemicals) this really explains nothing about why being flogged is supposed to be pleasurable.

Opioids are definitely part of the experience of pleasure, but they’re also part of the experience of pretty much everything else.

Experiencing pain is one thing that definitely causes increased opioid activity, but if pleasure were that simple, we’d find fighting so much fun that Planet Earth would be be like Texas Chainsaw Massacre with a laugh track.

These attempts at an explanation are really nothing more than placebos that still don’t tell us how we experience pleasure as a result of the activity, or what role opioids play in this process.

Even if pleasure was purely opioid release, the trick with an explanation is to explain how and why this occurs, not just say that it does.

It’s not that these simple links aren’t important, but they’re not explanations in themselves, even though they’re often presented as such.

My other pet hate is when something pleasurable is described as having the same effect on the brain as one of the four dopamen of the neurocalypse: ‘drugs’, ‘sex’, ‘gambling’ and ‘chocolate’.

Almost any one is used to explain the effect of the others, and if you’re really lucky, all four will be invoked to make for an exciting-sounding but often scientifically empty article.

This is another example where the crucial information is how these activities have their effect on the dopamine system, not the fact that they do.

So, as with the faux science that supposedly supports ‘Brain Gym’, always ask yourself how it occurs, rather than relying on the illusion of brain magic.

Link to Bad Science article on why we fall for brain-based promotions.

A history of Freudian fiction

The changing fortunes of psychoanalysis have been reflected in some of the greatest novels of the last hundred years, a literary history recounted in an article for The Guardian.

The piece is by historian Lisa Appignanesi, author of the highly regarded new book Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors from 1800.

The article notes that two recent novels (Kureishi’s Something to Tell You and Vickers’ The Other Side of You) have reversed the recent tradition of portraying psychoanalysts as somehow deviant, unethical or intellectually bankrupt.

The low-point for the creative depiction of Freudian mind doctors was probably Nabakov’s novel Lolita, which is presented as a faux psychiatric case study of a paedophile.

You might think that someone who wrote a widely-read novel about a middle-aged man who desired under-aged girls had good reasons to dislike any theory which attempted to uncover unconscious motivations, but Nabakov was famously and venomously anti-Freudian even before he began writing his masterpiece.

He first started knocking psychoanalysis in his second novel, The Defense, and he often referred to Freud as the ‘Viennese Quack’ and his theories as ‘voodooism’ for the rest of life his.

This negative portrayal is not universal though, and many novels contain sympathetic and even highly complementary depictions. For example, Appignanesi notes that in Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, Dr Nolan is “something of a guardian angel amid the horror of asylum life”.

Interestingly, the more recent positive portrayals of psychoanalysts mirror some positive results in the scientific literature.

Two recent randomised controlled trials have found that psychoanalytically-inspired treatments can be effective.

A recent trial on treatments for ‘personality disorder’ found it effective, as did a recent trial on using it as a treatment for panic disorder.

Unfortunately, these are still a drop in the ocean compared to the evidence for some other psychological treatments, but hopefully this is a sign that psychoanalysis is beginning to adopt a more scientific approach to its theories and practice and we’ll be better able to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Link to Guardian article on psychoanalysis and literature (thanks Kat!).

Them and Us

I remember a recently admitted patient, nose-to-nose with his psychiatrist, screaming at her “you don’t know what I’m going through – how the fuck do you know what it’s like little missy?”.

The psychiatrist finished the discussion, saying she’d come back to him later, and after a brief pause to collect herself, moved on to the next patient in the ward round.

It is still an incredibly vivid memory for me, partly because everyone else in the room knew that the psychiatrist had been a patient herself, as she had a lifetime’s worth of experience dealing with her own mental health issues.

Study after study has shown that psychiatrists have higher rates of mental illness than the general population.

Research published in 2001 revealed that 56% of female psychiatrists have a family history of mental illness, and just over 40% have experienced one themselves – almost twice the rate of other doctors. Undoubtedly as a consequence, psychiatrists have double the rate of suicide of the general population.

Psychiatry is certainly a stressful job, but research has also found that there are higher rates of mental disorder in future psychiatrists, suggesting many go into the profession precisely because of their experiences.

Other mental health professionals are much less studied, but from my own experience, I suspect the histories and motivations of mental health nurses, psychologists and social workers and so on are are likely to be similar.

The reason I mention this is because Phil Dawdy has just written a powerful article on responses to a recent murder of a psychologist in New York.

Several people wrote comments to his original notice saying that the murderer was likely on a whole bunch of meds that were making him crazy; and, mental health workers hurt patients all the time, so they get what they deserve.

It is quite apparent that unlike in other areas of medicine, the mental health system has a ‘them and us’ attitude.

Ironically, it is the single area of medicine where ‘them’ are most like to be ‘us’, regardless of whether you’re a patient or a professional.

Link to Phil Dawdy on murder of a New York psychologist and reaction.