Solar powered EEG headset

The New Scientist Tech Blog has an interesting article on a new prototype EEG machine that, like all others, is designed to read electrical activity from the brain. The novelty is that it is totally enclosed in an earphones-like headset and is solar-powered. Apparently, it also generates power from the body’s own heat.

The new headset can generate at least 1 milliWatt of power in most circumstances. That is more than the 0.8mW needed to detect electrical activity observed in the brain, and transmit it over wifi to a computer.

“Using both power sources, you get twice as much power, so it’s roughly half the size,” say Chris van Hoof, also of IMEC, comparing the new headset to the previous device.

Van Hoof says small, preclinical trials show the headset collects data identical to those of EEGs used in hospitals. The portable headset should provide a look at the brain in environments it has not been studied in before.

This looks like it builds on research that has been going on at Imperial College in London on low power technology for ‘wearable cognition systems’.

The ‘cognition’ bit is only likely to be very approximate to what psychologists think of as cognitive processes (as we discussed previously), but I suspect the trick will be developing new applications for the technology, rather than using the technology to try and replace the precision of already existing systems.

A paper on the technology was recently published by the Imperial team. Unfortunately, I can’t find the full-text online but the summary itself is well-worth a read.

Link to article on NewSciTechBlog (via Neurophilosophy).
Link to summary of low power tech for wearable cognition paper.

Doctor Who Hears Voices torrent online

The recent UK TV docudrama, The Doctor Who Hears Voices, that we discussed previously has appeared on torrent servers and seems available for download. I’ve not yet seen the programme or fully downloaded it myself yet, but I’m assuming it works OK.

Clinical psychologist Rufus May plays himself. An interesting choice because he was diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 18 and later trained as a clinical psychologist. As an aside, he’s also recently launched his own blog to try and encourage debate around mental health.

May works in Bradford, which has turned out to be a bit of a UK centre for radical ideas in mental health.

Bradford is also the home to psychiatrists Patrick Bracken and Philip Thomas, who wrote a thought-provoking article for the British Medical Journal in 2001 on ‘post-psychiatry‘ that has proven to be one of the cornerstones of progressive mental health philosophy.

The groups tends to be treated with suspicion by mainstream psychiatrists, who can be quite a defensive bunch at times, but it’s interesting that some of the ideas that the Bradford group pioneered, such as treating people in their own homes, are now accepted as mainstream practice.

Link to torrent of docudrama on mininova.
Link to BMJ article on ‘post-psychiatry’.

Does economics make you selfish?

Philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel has been investigating whether ethics professors are more moral than other people, and it turns out, they’re possibly less. He’s now turned his attention to economics and wonders whether too much exposure to ‘rational choice theory‘ – that says it’s always rational to maximise profit – makes people more selfish.

Surprisingly, there have been several studies on exactly this topic, several which seem to suggest that economics students are more selfish than other students, but these all seem to be flawed in quite important ways.

They either use exactly the same sorts of tasks that students study in class to demonstrate that ‘selfish’ actions are the most economically rational strategy, or they rely on self-report – something also potentially biased by the association between ‘selfishness’ and irrationality.

Apparently, only three studies have looked at the link between studying economics and real-world selfishness, and none provide good evidence for the link.

Schwitzgebel has a bigger issue in mind than simply investigating the personal habits of economists, however.

This is part of his project to question the utility of certain types of theory. For example, if studying ethics makes people no more ethical and studying economics makes people no more economically rational, how useful are they?

Link to post ‘Does Studying Economics Make You Selfish?’.

Hofmann gone to the great Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds

At 9 am this morning, Albert Hofmann, chemist and creator of LSD, died in his home in Switzerland.

Hofmann died at the grand old age of 102 and saw the psychedelic drug he called his “problem child” spark the interest of psychologists and psychiatrists, inspire a generation of 1960s flower children, and earn the ire of the authorities across the world who banned it as a prohibited drug.

What he didn’t see (at least at the time) was that the CIA dedicated millions (billions?) of dollars in funding to investigate the chemical as a possible ‘mind control’ drug in a huge and often vastly unethical research project known as MKULTRA.

LSD had an impact on music, culture, politics, science and psychology and Hofmann remained committed to LSD research right until the end, supporting the first clinical trial of LSD for 30 years which started recently in Switzerland.

I suspect they’ll be some extensive obituaries published when the press get wind of Hofmann’s death which will hopefully do justice to his life and work, so we’ll keep you posted.

UPDATE: A couple of good obituaries from The New York Times here and The Washington Post here. This on the Hofmann’s first experience of the drug, the first ever LSD trip, from the WashPost:

He wrote in a journal about this first known encounter: “At home I lay down and sank into a not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination.

“In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed (I found the daylight to be unpleasantly glaring), I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors. After some two hours this condition faded away.”

Three days later, April 19, he bicycled home after consuming 250 micrograms of LSD in a now-famous “trip” that has become known as Bicycle Day. The route he took home was later named in his honor.

Link to tribute on MAPS homepage (via BB).
Link to The New York Times obituary.
Link to The Washington Post obituary.

Encephalon 44 wants you!

The 44th edition of the psychology and neuroscience writing carnival Encephalon has just been released by the ever-excellent Cognitive Daily.

What with the flurry of recent interest in neuroscience studies predicting the imminent death of our concept of free will, this edition has a slyly satirical slant on your ability to resist.

A couple of my favourites include a post by Cognitive Daily on a remarkable study that found that priming students to believe that free will doesn’t exist increases levels of cheating (!), and a provocative article from The Mouse Trap on whether God is just the result of humans making a Type I error – i.e. detecting a false positive.

Of course, another alternative is that God is significant but just has a very small effect size. Epicurus is that you?

Link to Encephalon 44.

Evolution of the troubled mind

I just listened to a recent edition of ABC Radio National’s All in the Mind on evolutionary approaches to mental illness. While the topic isn’t new, it’s interesting that the two clinicians try to directly apply some of the ideas to their work treating patients with mental disorders.

Almost all evolutionary accounts of mental illness attempt to explain why we still have mental illness when it so markedly reduces the chances of reproductive success.

Most theories, and indeed the ones discussed on the programme, argue that in small doses the genes that raise risk for mental illness are useful in promoting creativity (e.g. psychosis / mania), maternal withdrawal (e.g. in post-pregnancy depression), self-preservation (e.g. anxiety) or some other presumably adaptive behaviour in specific situations.

I’m fairly tolerant of these theories, on the basis that they’re hard to demonstrate but plausible, but I have less time for Paul McClean’s ‘triune brain’ theory which one of the interviewers seems to favour.

In fact, everytime I hear the phrase ‘reptilian brain’, I reach for my spear.

This is often invoked in discussions about evolutionary psychology as a seemingly more sensible alternative to Freudian theories.

What makes me chuckle is that they are remarkably similar. Freud argued that we are a subject to evolutionary ancient drives of the Id that must be controlled by the Ego, McLean suggested that we are a subject to evolutionary ancient drives of the reptilian brain that must be controlled by the neocortex.

For an updated and significantly more sophisticated version of these arguments, neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp’s 2002 article [pdf] on the weakness of evolutionary psychology without neuroscience is well worth a read.

While we’re on the subject, distinguished biologist and sufferer of depression Lewis Wolpert recently published an open-access article on ‘Depression in an evolutionary context’ which is well worth a look.

Link on AITM on evolutionary approaches to psychiatry.
pdf of Panksepp’s article on ‘neurevolutionary psychology’.
Link to Wolpert’s article on evolution and depression.

Dr Mezmer’s Dictionary of Bad Psychology

The Devil’s Dictionary was a famously satirical book by Ambrose Bierce where he lampooned almost everything, in alphabetical order. He famously defined the brain as “an apparatus with which we think we think”, but now, a similarly cutting dictionary has been dedicated to psychology.

Dr Mezmer’s Dictionary of Bad Psychology contains a wealth of useful definitions, covering the everything from the hard edge of cognitive science to the fluffy gloss of pop psychology.

Behaviorism: A psychological movement, now extinct, that is built on the premise that you are what you do, and you do because of what you have done. Replaced by humanistic psychology (you are what you feel), cognitive science (you are what you think), Dr. Atkins (you are what you eat) and modern advertising (you are what we say).

Link to Dr Mezmer’s Dictionary of Bad Psychology.