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.

Viktor Frankl and Man’s Search for Meaning

I’ve just finished reading the wonderful Man’s Search for Meaning, a 1946 book written by psychiatrist and neurologist Viktor E. Frankl, where he discusses his experiences and observations as a Nazi concentration camp inmate.

The book comes in two parts, the first recounts Frankl’s experience as an inmate in two concentration camps; the second discusses the ideas behind the form of psychotherapy he developed, called logotherapy.

Unlike narrative accounts of concentration camp life, such as Primo Levi’s If This is a Man, Frankl describes scenes rather than a story and uses them to explore the psychology of both the oppressed and the oppressors in the camp.

The book is particularly outstanding in that it explores the social complexities of the concentration camps with remarkable subtlety, noting when the failings of the inmates and the humanity of the guards were present. He highlights that these seemingly out-of-place responses had the most impact amid the brutality of camp life.

It is apparent that the mere knowledge that a man was either a camp guard or a prisoner tells us almost nothing. Human kindness can be found in all groups, even those which as a whole it would be easy to condemn. The boundaries between groups overlapped and we must not try to simplify matters by saying that these men were angels and those were devils. Certainly, it was a considerable achievement for a guard or foreman to be kind to the prisoners in spite of all the camp’s influences, and, on the other hand, the baseness of a prisoner who treated his own companions badly was exceptionally contemptible. Obviously the prisoners found the lack of character in such men especially upsetting, while they were profoundly moved by the smallest kindness received from any of the guards. [p93]

In a sense, Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment just re-iterated what Frankl was saying years before – that coercive systems breed their own conformity and that average people need extraordinary courage to step outside the norm.

Frankl’s form of psychotherapy is influenced partly by his wartime experiences and draws on the fact that some concentration camp inmates could still find purpose in their lives despite the hellish conditions.

The therapy attempts to help people who are experiencing inescapable suffering to cope better, by looking at ways in which they can find meaning in their lives.

Paradoxically, suggests Frankl, for some the experience of suffering is the one thing that inspired a discovery of meaning in a previously superficial existence. Accepting that all life involves some suffering allows us to use the experience to better understand ourselves and others.

Frankl was not the only mind doctor in the concentration camps, indeed he was among a long list of professionals who were interred.

Psychologist Bruno Bettleheim famously wrote the article ‘Individual and Mass Behavior in Extreme Situations’ after his experiences.

Bettleheim, best known for his work on child psychology, was a complex character whose reputation has fluctuated greatly since his death.

Even the story of his article on concentration camp psychology is fascinatingly complex, as recounted in a 1997 article [pdf] by Christian Fleck and Albert Müller.

Link to Wikipedia article on ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ (thanks Ceny!)
pdf of article ‘Bettleheim and the Concentration Camps’.

My mind on my money and my money on my mind

This is an excerpt from quite possibly the geekiest forensic pathology article I have ever read. Three pathologists discuss the physics of how a Mexican coin ended up in the brain of a dead shooting victim.

They speculate he may have been holding it in his hand while shielding his head and the bullet impacted on the coin and both ended up deep in the brain. Oh, but with maths.

The images on the left are an artist’s reconstruction of the position of the man when shot and the path of the bullet, and a photo of the coin in the dead man’s brain.

Items that become accessory or secondary projectiles usually possess a minimal amount of energy, producing superficial or insignificant wounds. The secondary projectile in this case, a coin, gained sufficient kinetic energy to penetrate the scalp, skull, and brain. We believe the coin was being held by the decedent in his left hand next to his head at the time of the shooting. The bullet passed through the hand, producing the described injury and picking up the coin as a secondary projectile before entering the head.

The coin, a 1970 Mexican 50-centavo piece, was 25 mm in diameter with a weight of 6.4 g. In comparison, the diameter of a 1970 U.S. quarter dollar coin is 24.3 mm with a weight of 5.6 g. Both coins contain a mixture of copper and nickel, and the U.S. coin is coated with silver. The mixture of nickel and copper is relatively soft and permits deformation, as seen in this case. The primary projectile, a .380-caliber automatic Colt pistol 9- √ó 17-mm Winchester Silvertip bullet, weighs 5.1 g, with a rated muzzle velocity of 304 m/second (1000 feet/second). The mass of the conjoined projectile more than doubled with addition of the coin, yet retained sufficient velocity to produce the described lethal injury.

We attempted to see if this would be theoretically possible using some simple physical principles. Under ideal conditions, this event represents a form of an inelastic collision. We assumed that there was conservation of momentum between the oncoming bullet and the departing conjoined bullet-coin mass that subsequently penetrated the skull and brain. If momentum is conserved during this collision, then the mass of the bullet multiplied by its velocity would equal the mass of the conjoined bullet and 50-centavo coin multiplied by their departing velocity. The velocity of the bullet just prior to striking the coin is unknown and could not be determined.

For our calculations, we used the known muzzle velocity of this ammunition, understanding the limitations of such an assumption. We also calculated the kinetic energy and momentum of the oncoming bullet and exiting conjoined bullet-coin before and after collision. The results indicate two things: as expected in an inelastic collision, the kinetic energy of the conjoined bullet and coin is much less than that of the oncoming bullet, and the velocity of the conjoined projectile drops by greater than a factor of two. No doubt some of this loss in kinetic energy resulted from the energy expended in deforming the Mexican coin. The calculated loss in velocity of the bullet postcollision slows this projectile (i.e., the conjoined bullet/coin) to <150 meters per second (<450 feet/second). However, this velocity would still be well in excess of the minimal velocity needed to penetrate skin and bone, which has been reported to be about 66 meters per second (200 feet/second).

Forensic pathology has this morbid deadpan geekiness about it which just makes it so interesting to read.

You can just see them in the pathology room, arguing about what happened and sketching calculations on the back of envelopes.

Link to PubMed entry for article.

The history and psychology of wine

The May issue of The Psychologist has a freely available cover article on wine which takes a suitably meandering route through the history and psychology of the fermented grape.

It’s full of fascinating facts from times past mixed in with recent findings from research studies.

I particularly liked this section, which starts with an ancient Persian decision-making technique (still widely used during weekends in London) and goes on to look at the influence of music on wine purchasing:

Many psychoactive substances have been associated with creativity, and ancient Persians are reported to have used wine to facilitate decision making. An issue would be explored whilst intoxicated and, the next day, the conclusions that stood up to sober scrutiny were adopted.

Some psychologists have demonstrated associations between music played in retail outlets and subsequent wine purchases. Playing classical or pop music does not influence the amount of wine purchased but appears to influence the average price of bottles selected, with classical music leading to sales of more expensive wines (Areni & Kim, 1993). It also appears that playing French or German music influences selections, with more purchases of wines from the same origin as the music (North et al., 1999).

There’s also plenty more ammunition in the article for anyone wanting to convince themselves that wine snobbery is bunk. For example, adding red food colouring to white wine is enough to convince wine masters that they can ‘nose’ red wine scents.

Unfortunately, the article on the webpage is almost impossible to read because of the broken formatting, so I suggest just reading it straight from the pdf.

Link to article ‘On vines and minds’.
pdf of same.

Full disclosure: I’m an unpaid associate editor of The Psychologist but am ignorant about wine!

2008-04-25 Spike activity

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

BBC science programme The Material World has a great feature on the blood-brain barrier. I love the blood-brain barrier!

In light of the recent resurgence of a penis theft panic in Congo, here’s a link to an old article of mine on the psychology of penis theft beliefs.

Sharp Brains rounds up a fantastic series of interviews with neuroscientists.

Professor Semir Zeki has a posse, sorry… blog.

The Times has a review of a new book on the behavioural genetics of personality.

A remarkably comprehensive article on the drug industry’s underhand tactics with antipsychotic drugs is published by the St Petersburg Times.

Cognitive Daily looks at the desensitising effect of violent video games.

Research to test human brain implants to control robot arms is submitted for review in Japan, reports Pink Tentacle.

The New York Times has an interview with Daniel Gilbert on the curious psychology of happiness.

Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg writes about brain science and the biology of belief.

ABC Radio National have had a couple of good shows on food and the evolution of the brain; and hearing, lip reading and language perception.

Does language shape cognition? The New York Times re-examines the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in light of new research.

Discover Magazine has an interesting short article on how earthquake prediction algorithms also apply to epileptic seizures.

The ‘top ten mind myths‘ series is concluded by PsyBlog.

Frontal Cortex has a fascinating discussion of how society regards MRI scans, compared to the limits of the science.

Current tools are not very good at identifying ‘kiddie psychopaths‘, reports the BPS Research Digest.

Treatment Online looks at a study that tracked how the balance of genes and environment differs on women’s paths to alcoholism.

Some recent books on consciousness are discussed by My Mind of Books.

Sexy serotonin tattoo

Carl Zimmer has been collecting science tattoos for a while now, but recently posted this tattoo of Hayley who has the molecular structure of serotonin tattooed elegantly over her body.

I’m sure there’s some relevant chat-up line for exactly such a situation when you meet someone with serotonin tattooed across their butt, but I’m too tired to try and formulate it, so I shall leave it as an exercise for the reader.

Of course, if you’ve been drinking, refrain from trying to incorporate G coupled receptors into your chat-up line, it’s obviously going to end with someone getting a slap.

Link to serotonin tattoo (thanks Sandra!).

I’m on the drug that killed Paul Erdős

In the wake of the Nature survey that found that 20% of scientists admit to using brain enhancing drugs, Wired has just published an article detailing what drugs their scientist readers use to keep on keepin’ on.

Although the drugs issue is obviously the headline-grabber, the publication also has a great feature on cognitive enhancement that largely covers tips, tricks and techniques to boost your mental skills that aren’t drug-related.

The article itself is anecdotally interesting, but has a curious tone throughout:

Surprisingly large numbers of people appear to be using brain-enhancing drugs to work harder, longer and better. They’re popping pills normally prescribed for narcolepsy or attention-deficit disorder to improve their performance at work and school.

“We aren’t the teen clubbers popping uppers to get through a hard day running a cash register after binge drinking,” wrote a Ph.D. research scientist who regularly takes a wakefulness drug called Provigil, normally prescribed for narcolepsy. “We are responsible humans.”

Whenever people talk about using drugs, they’re always keen to distance themselves from that sort of drug user. You know, the ones that aren’t responsible.

This belies the fact that most people use most drugs with few problems. Even teen clubbers popping uppers.

While all drugs have risks and illicit street drugs increase the health risks and definitely have an impact on body and brain function, it’s only a minority of drug users who have problems that interfere with their daily lives.

For example, a recent study found that 4% of Australian workers use the (fairly nasty) drug methamphetamine. The figure rises to over 11% for 18-29 year olds. That more than 1 in 10.

While the study found that using methamphetamine significantly increases chances of a range of health problems, it’s still the minority of users that report significant problems. This is the typical pattern for studies on drug use.

In other words, drugs are bad for you but most people manage the risks. A small minority, of course, don’t, and die instantly or suffer long-term consequences.

The benefit and using and abusing prescription drugs for ‘brain doping’ is largely in the fact that you can be sure of the purity of the product and that probably (depending on how you acquire them) you’re not funding a vicious criminal network.

At the end of the day though, the process is the same, whether you’re using legal drugs, illegal drugs, for recreation or for performance.

Just make sure you’re educated about the risks and know the consequences. Just like everything else in life.

Link to Readers’ Brain-Enhancing Drug Regimens.
Link to Wired ‘Give Your Intellect a Boost’ techniques.

Champagne neuronova

Not a moment after I wonder whether Nature Neuroscience’s podcast has succumbed to rock n’ roll disaster, one of the NeuroPod team calls in to say all is well and the new edition is online.

Kerri from NeuroPod here. I’m happy to report that after a few months’ break, NeuroPod is back (April’s edition went live yesterday) and will be coming at you monthly for the rest of this year. They tried to make me go to rehab…and I said, neuro, neuro, neuro.

This month, we make some risky decisions, liken working memory to a digital camera, link stress and anxiety to genetics and explore the unfathomable world of the teenage brain.

I hope you enjoy the new show. We’re excited to be back, and very touched that we were missed.

Link to NeuroPod webpage.
mp3 of April NeuroPod.

Sweets with a neurotransmitter as an ingredient

We’ve featured various sorts of brain candy sweets before on Mind Hacks, but the Japanese sweets Aha! Brain take the concept a step further by including an actual neurotransmitter as an ingredient.

The lime flavour includes the neurotransmitter GABA, while other flavours have branched chain amino acids and something called forskolin in them instead.

All of which are important in brain functioning but whether actually eating them as sugar-coated candies will do you any good is anyone’s guess.

Link to description and brave first-person report!