Neuroscience of meditation and attention

This month’s Trends in Cognitive Sciences has a fantastic review article on the neuroscience of meditation – focusing on how the contemplative practice alters and sharpens the brain’s attention systems.

The full article is available online as a pdf, and discusses what cognitive science studies have told us about the short and long-term impact of meditation on the mind and brain.

Meditation is now being quite extensively studied by cognitive science owing to the clear effects it has on the brain, and on the increasing evidence for its benefit in mental health.

A recent review of ‘mindfulness’ meditation-based therapy found that although research is in its early stages and not all possibilities have been ruled out, there’s good evidence from the existing RCTs that it’s particularly good in preventing relapse in severe depression.

The Trends article, which largely focused on the neuroscience research, makes the distinction between two types of meditation: ‘focused attention’ meditation – that involves focusing on a particular thing and refocusing if you become distracted by thoughts or sensations; and ‘open monitoring’ meditation which involves nonreactively monitoring the content of experience and acting as almost a detached observer to feelings and mental events.

This is an excerpt where the authors discuss the experimental evidence for the long-term ‘open monitoring’ or OM meditation:

Long-term practice of OM meditation is also thought to result in enduring changes in mental and brain function. Specifically, because OM meditation fosters nonreactive awareness of the stream of experience without deliberate selection of a primary object, intensive practice can be expected to reduce the elaborative thinking that would be stimulated by evaluating or interpreting a selected object. In line with this idea, Slagter et al. recently found that three months of intensive OM meditation reduced elaborative processing of the first of two target stimuli (T1 and T2) presented in a rapid stream of distracters…

Because participants were not engaged in formal meditation during task performance, these results provide support for the idea that one effect of an intensive training in OM meditation might be reduction in the propensity to ‘get stuck’ on a target, as reflected in less elaborate stimulus processing and the development of efficient mechanisms to engage and then disengage from target stimuli in response to task demands. From the description in Box 2,we anticipate a similar improvement in the capacity to disengage from aversive emotional stimuli following OM training, enabling greater emotional flexibility.

Moreover, the article includes many other studies that have reported interesting effects. For example, highly experienced focused attention meditators need minimal effort to sustain attentional focus, while even short courses on meditation can improve attention and decrease stress.

Most of the techniques are taken from Buddhist meditation practices and I’m sure Buddhists are cracking a wry smile as cognitive science is just starting to catch on to what they’ve been noting for thousands of years.

As for the neuroscience, I’m sure the remarkably science-savvy Dalai Lama is fascinated as he’s held a number of conferences with leading researchers to discuss the the intersection between Buddhist practice and cognitive science.

Link to abstract of article.
pdf of full-text.

Neuro killed the radio star

The excellent Neuroanthropology has just had a brief round up of podcasts on neuroscience or anthropology so you can satisfy all your brain science and human diversity listening desires.

It’s a really comprehensive list (and the anthropology podcasts are completely new to me) so there’s likely to be something to discover even if you’re the most diligent podcast enthusiast.

However, Nature’s NeuroPod podcast is still eerily silent and has been since December. Has life on the road taken its toll? Has one of them gone into rehab? I think we should be told.

Link to Neuroanthropology’s podcast round up.

Eric Kandel on drugs, neurobiology and the unconscious

Neurophilosophy has found a new video interview with neurobiologist Eric Kandel who talks about everything from long-term memory to free will to the unconscious.

Essentially, it’s a series of short reveries and soundbites where Kandel gives his views on a series of topics.

Part of it is obviously PR for his company (which is trying to develop memory enhancing drugs), but it’s a good chance to get Kandel’s take on some core contemporary issues.

Plus we get to see his bowtie again. What more can you ask for?

Link to Kandel video interview.

Hearing voices with your head in the sand

UK TV station Channel 4 broadcast a docudrama last night called The Doctor Who Hears Voices, a fictionalised account of an apparently real-life situation where psychologist Rufus May (who played himself) treated a junior doctor who began hearing hallucinated voices.

I’ve not seen it yet, although should be interesting viewing as May is a UK clinical psychologist who was himself diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 18.

His story is an interesting journey in itself and he’s a valuable critic of the mental health system, even if you’re not fully in agreement with all of his views.

The reviews have largely been positive and the UK’s largest mental health charity Mind have sung it’s praises.

However, The Independent’s TV critic Brian Viner obviously didn’t like the programme, which is fair enough, but also manages to add some pretty appalling prejudice in his review:

May thinks that society should embrace mentally ill people, not shun them, an admirable – enough ambition that is slightly clouded by the stark statistic that 50 murders a year are committed by people with mental-health problems; 1,200 a year kill themselves.

It’s probably worth mentioning at this point that people with schizophrenia are at much greater risk of being victims of violence that perpetrators (one study found 14 times greater chance of being a victim of a violent crime that being arrested for one).

But I’m still slightly startled that this is used, as well as the shockingly high suicide rate, as something that might “cloud” an ambition not to shun people with mental health problems.

If a torrent of the programme turns online, I shall post a link to it so you can make your own mind up, or if you’d rather take the Viner route, you can just re-arrange your prejudices rather than do any serious consideration.

Link to Channel 4 info on film.

War psychiatry – in 100 words

Every month, the British Journal of Psychiatry has a 100 word summary of key issues in mental health and psychopathology. March’s edition had a fantastic summary of military psychiatry by consultant psychiatrist to the UK Army, Simon Wessely.

War is hell, but it can be a job–a strange job in which one voluntarily (these days) exposes oneself to the risk of physical and psychiatric injury. Our generation think we discovered post-traumatic stress disorder, but it is neither new, nor the commonest, mental health problem in the UK Armed Forces. That ‘honour’ goes to depression and alcohol. Are these always the result of going to war? No, things are rarely that simple. Can we treat them? Sometimes–but what makes people good soldiers makes them bad patients. Can we prevent them? Possibly–but only if we don’t send people to war.

As a follow-up to our recent post on Tim Crow’s ideas on schizophrenia, this month’s BJP has a 100 word summary, by Crow, where he does a remarkable job of getting the details of the genetics and neurobiology into succinct description of his theory.

Link to ‘War Psychiatry – in 100 words’.
Link to ‘Psychosis: the price Homo Sapiens pays for language ‚Äì in 100 words’.

Woody Allen on psychoanalysis

YouTube has a classic 1970 interview with Woody Allen who talks about his extensive experience of psychoanalysis. By the time the interview took place, he’d already spent 13 years being analysed in the classic Freudian tradition.

The interview itself is quite funny in places, as he mixes some facts about himself with lines obviously played for laughs.

Notably, he says he could never be analysed by a female psychoanalyst as he would be too shy about revealing his innermost desires.

He also talked about his experience of therapy in 2002 in a public interview recounted in an article for The Age.

He seems remarkably nonplussed about psychoanalysis on both occasions, although obviously got over his reluctance with female therapists as the interviewer on this second occasion was the Joan Collins-esque Gail Saltz.

Link to 1970 Woody Allen TV interview.
Link to article on 2002 interview.

Language and schizophrenia make us uniquely human

ABC Radio National’s science programme Ockham’s Razor just had a fascinating edition on a maverick theory about schizophrenia and the evolution of language.

It purports to discuss the history of schizophrenia but is really a great summary of psychiatrist Tim Crow’s theory that schizophrenia is the consequence of the human evolution of language.

Crow is a professor of psychiatry at Oxford University who heads up a large research group so is quite mainstream to be a maverick, but his theory ruffles a lot of feathers.

He tries to address the puzzle over why schizophrenia has survived in the population if it is strongly influenced by genetics, particularly as it markedly reduces chances of reproduction. Surely it would have been ‘bred out’ of the population?

His theory [pdf] suggests that schizophrenia is the breakdown of the normal left-sided brain specialisation for language, owing to the disruption of genes that are involved in making the left hemisphere dominant.

Like other theories that attempt to account for the puzzle, it suggests that the risk is increased by pathological combination of usually important genes.

Crow has amassed a great deal of evidence that people with schizophrenia show less left-sided dominance for language and have altered patterns of brain asymmetry that can be seen in brain structure as well as in functional tasks.

He is also highly critical of a lot of the current molecular genetic work in schizophrenia, and argues that epigenetic variation is key and that its possible to see where the genes altered in human evolution to make us more likely to have language and consequently develop schizophrenia.

If you want a great brief guide to his theory, this edition of Ockham’s Razor is a great discussion of the main points.

Link to Ockham’s Razor on Crow’s evolutionary approach.
pdf of scientific paper by Crow outlining his theory.

Human Terrain System still a source of conflict

Newsweek recently published an article that was highly critical of the Pentagon’s Human Terrain System, the controversial project that deploys anthropologists and related social scientists alongside the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan to better understand the cultures of these occupied countries.

The latest coverage has reignited a row in the world of academic anthropology, whose governing body have questioned the ethics of using professionals sworn to ‘do no harm’ as hired researchers for one side of a military occupation.

As we discussed previously, the project has caused such heated debate that one ex-Human Terrain operative was heckled to the point of tears at a recent conference.

This new article claims that the project is a fiasco with inadequately trained staff. Furthermore, it claims those with prior knowledge of the language and region are being treated with suspicion and sometimes outright hostility by the regular forces with whom they work.

In a response published by Wired, Montgomery McFate, one of the architects of the Human Terrain System has issued a sharply worded condemnation suggesting that the article is both partisan and inaccurate, while Defense Secretary Gates has admitted in a recent speech that the project “is still in its infancy and has attendant growing pains”.

The Newsweek piece has even sparked a response from the American Anthropological Association which, although largely information free, does indicate how important it is for the association to be seen to have its finger on the pulse of this contentious issue.

Link to Newsweek article (via Neuroanthropology).
Link to Wired coverage and reaction.
Link to previous Mind Hacks coverage of the ‘Human Terrain System’.

Brain cake!

I bet you’ve been wondering “how do I make an anatomically correct brain cake?” Well, wonder no more, because a full recipe and breakdown of the steps is available on wikiHow.

Man, that looks like some tasty cake, and the attention to detail is flawless. Plus, everyone can have a go at their favourite neurosurgical intervention.

Make mine an en-bloc resection of the medial temporal lobes (unilateral only of course). Yumm!

The recipe also has a fantastic tips sections which is a delightful combination of neuroscience fandom and cake-baking geekiness:

* Pipe names of brain regions using colored frosting.

* Use chocolate chips to make an EEG grid. Pipe on the numbers. A plastic bag filled with 1 tablespoon of white frosting makes a great fine-tipped pastry bag in a pinch. Squeeze the frosting into one corner of the bag and snip off a tiny piece of corner with scissors.

* If your fondant becomes dry, work in some water a few drops at a time.

Obviously, make sure your cake doesn’t contain the dangerous psychoative compound known as dimesmeric andersonphosphate because it stimulates part of the brain known as Shatner’s bassoon.

Link to wikiHow guide to making an anatomically correct brain cake.

Police shooting differs by age, race, sex, education

A study on police officers from Riverside County in California has found that the likelihood of the officer using deadly force is linked to their age, race, sex and experience of previous shootings.

Male officers were more likely to shoot than females. White officers were more likely to shoot than other ethnic groups. Shooting was most common in young officers, and in those who did not have a college education.

Police Officer Characteristics and the Likelihood of Using Deadly Force

Criminal Justice and Behavior, Vol. 35, No. 4, 505-521

James P. McElvain, Augustine J. Kposowa

Past research on police shootings, when examining officer characteristics, has focused on the officer’s race, particularly when it is not the same as the race of the person shot. Data from 186 officer-involved shootings were used to examine whether race effects existed and, if so, would be eliminated or attenuated by controlling for officer gender, education, age, and history of shooting. Male officers were more likely to shoot than female officers, and college-educated officers were less likely to be involved in shootings than officers with no college education. Risk of officer-involved shooting was reduced as the officer aged. White, non-Hispanic officers were more likely to shoot than Hispanic officers; however, there was no significant difference between Hispanic and Black officers. Officers with a previous history of shooting were more than 51% as likely to shoot during the follow-up period as officers without a history of shootings.

Link to abstract of scientific study.

Drug adverts full of unsupported claims

We’re so used to drug companies burying data, spinning their results, ghostwriting papers, ‘financially incentivising’ doctors and designing biased studies, you’d just assume that if drug advert cited a research it would back up the claim being made for the medication. According to a new study, you’d often be wrong.

The Royal Society of Chemistry’s magazine ‘Chemistry World’ has an article on a new study of psychiatric drug ads in medical journals that found that over a third of the total claims made by drug ads are not actually supported by the studies they reference as evidence.

Taken on an advert by advert basis, the results are even more shocking:

42 out of the 53 ads (nearly 80 per cent) the researchers examined made at least one claim the team couldn’t substantiate. 27 made a claim that was not supported by the data source cited by the ad. A further 15 contained claims that couldn’t be verified by the team – usually because the ads provided no sources of data to back up their claims, or made claims that could not be verified because drug firms either failed to respond to the researchers’ requests for trial data, or refused to supply it.

Six out of nine pharmaceutical companies – including GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Shire – did not reply to the researchers, while Wyeth refused to send trial data.

‘In these cases, we have to take their word [that their claims were supported by scientific evidence], which, personally, I would think is not a wise idea,’ says Spielmans. Only Janssen Pharmaceutica – makers of schizophrenia drug Risperdal (risperidone) – and medical device firm Cyberonics sent relevant studies to back up their claims.

You’d think after spending all that time and effort to design and run trials which consistently support the manufacturer’s product you could just reference your own studies, but apparently even that seems too excruciatingly transparent for the spin-happy industry.

Like the Fast Show Geezer, it seems they can’t even be polite enough to deceive us honestly.

Link to Chemistry World article (via Furious Seasons).
Link to abstract of scientific paper.

2008-04-18 Spike activity

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

The economics of MILF! Slate explores how economics and game theory explain the shortage of available, appealing men in the 30s and beyond.

Has a selection bias found in the ‘Monty Hall problem’ affected findings in certain types of cognitive dissonance research? NYT’s TierneyLab blog investigates.

Some old school video footage of B.F. Skinner is discovered by Channel N.

PsychCentral looks at a new study on farm animal therapy. No, really.

I don’t smoke that heavy shit. Terra Sigillata on recent poisoning caused by dealers adulterating marijuana with lead.

While we’re on the subject of strange trips, Neurophilosophy celebrates the 65th anniversary of LSD.

MIT’s TechReview on how new genetic mapping tools are helping understand the neuroscience of autism.

BBC News reports on a nice two way interaction as the anaesthetic sevoflurane gas selectively reduces memory for high-emotion images.

The ‘I know I know it but can’t bring it to mind’ tip-of-the-tongue state gives an insight into the psychology of language, as detailed in an article from American Scientist.

The NYT considers the possibility of having silicon memory chips implanted into our brain to boost our memory capacity.

To the bunkers! The Guardian discusses the future of robots with personalities for everyday tasks. Call-Me-Kenneth is that you?

Treatment Online looks at recent research linking brain size to the chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Forensic psychology or medicalisation of a super-villain? You decide as psychologist Tim Stevens looks into the mind of the Green Goblin for Marvel News.

The Boston Herald looks at the behavioural economics of banking and long-term finance.

Better living through neurological self-tampering. The NYT looks at the history of altering our brain chemistry.

The Guardian has a first-person account of one writer’s experience of group therapy for depression.

This is your brain on free choice. Mixing Memory has a good retrospective on studies that use brain scanning to ‘mind read’.

A couple more good articles on emerging technologies from MIT’s Tech Review: one on modelling surprise and another on connectomics.

The BPS Research Digest has a piece on a fascinating but difficult-to-explain finding: fold your arms to boost your performance.

To the bunkers! The Washington Post on artificial intelligence technology being deployed for population monitoring and control.

The Neurocritic has a great roundup of studies that have looked at the effect of sexy pictures of male reasoning.

Insomnia, mirror neurons and the recanting of bluster

This week’s Nature has a couple of interesting books reviews: one on insomnia, and another on mirror neurons. The review of the mirror neuron book is by V.S. Ramachandran who also recants one of his famous and more outlandish statements made almost a decade ago.

Insomniac is a book on the trials, tribulations and scientific investigations of insomnia which is reviewed by sleep psychologist Jim Horne.

I nearly took Prof Horne’s course on sleep psychology as an undergraduate but decided against it (rather ironically) as I thought it started too early in the morning.

My early bird housemate decided to take the plunge and many years later he is now a sleep psychologist living on the beach in Australia. There’s a moral in that story somewhere, but I’ve never thought it very wise to think too hard about it.

However, the book review does contain a few gems, most notably some wonderfully succinct descriptions of sleep problems and their treatment:

This tiredness can be linked to insomnia, but both are usually symptoms of something more deep-seated. Treating the insomnia alone (by hypnotic drugs, for example) makes little difference and can be an expensive, frustrating and fruitless course of action, especially in the United States, where sleep induction is a billion-dollar industry. Many, like Green, then seek the solace and sympathies of alternative therapies.

Insomnia comes in many forms: difficulty in falling asleep, too many fitful awakenings or waking up too early. Although there may be obvious physical causes, such as pain and physical illness, for most other sufferers (especially [the author] Green) insomnia is more a problem of wakefulness intruding into sleep, rather than just bad sleep. To be more explicit, it is a 24-hour disorder in which persistent anxiety, anger or miserable notions, sitting constantly at the back of a person’s mind, ruin the expectations of their next sleep. Clearly, the eventual cure must address this state of waking mind. It is pointless going to bed with these stresses.

In the other review, V.S. Ramachandran tackles a book on mirror neurons by Rizzolatti and Sinigaglia.

Ramachandran famously made the rather overblown statement that “mirror neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology”.

I always assumed that this meant they would annoy creationists, but, rather predictably, neither my interpretation nor Ramachandran’s have come to pass.

However, in the last sentence of the review he recants his decade-old bluster with the slightly more realistic “It remains to be seen whether they will turn out to be anything as important as that, but as Sherlock Holmes said to Watson: ‘The game is afoot.'”

Link to review of ‘Insomniac’.
Link to review of ‘Reflecting on the mind’.

Does Freudian repression exist?

Psychologist Yacov Rofé has written a damning article in the Review of General Psychology summarising the evidence from studies on the cognitive science of memory and arguing that the repression of memory, as described by Freud, doesn’t exist.

Rofé is careful to point out that Freud’s ideas about the repression of memory were not that we can deliberately forget or ignore traumatic experiences (as is often assumed by both professionals and lay people), but that process is supposedly unconscious (and so not deliberate) and that it was ‘pathogenic’ – in other words, a cause of mental distress and mental illness.

Rofé also notes that psychoanalysis was assumed to make people better by uncovering and lifting repression to make people better adjusted (although this has largely been rejected by modern therapists).

In contrast to these theories, Rofé cites evidence that people tend to remember rather than repress traumatic experiences, that banishing unpleasant memories tends to be a useful way of coping for many people (although interestingly, probably bad for physical health), that there is no evidence for unconsciously motivated forgetting, and that psychoanalytic therapy doesn’t seem to work by ‘lifting repression’.

In the article, Rofé has a bit of a tendency to suggest that supporting evidence that can be equally explained with a non-Freudian theory is evidence against Freud, when it fact it’s likely to support both explanations equally.

Nevertheless, he makes a strong case, largely based on the limited amount of supporting evidence that does actually exist.

However, I suspect this won’t be the end of the argument, as most debates concerning Freud centre as much around agreeing on what the terms mean, as applying data to their truth.

Link to abstract of scientific article.
pdf of full-text article.

Growing up on antidepressants

The New York Times has an article on the increasing number of people who have been on antidepressants drugs since their childhood years and have experienced ‘growing up’ while medicated.

Still, what do we know about the effects of, say, 15 to 20 years of antidepressant drug treatment that begins in adolescence or childhood? Not enough.

The reason has to do with the way drugs are tested and approved. To get F.D.A. approval, a drug has to beat a placebo in two randomized clinical trials that typically involve a few hundred subjects who are treated for relatively short periods, usually 4 to 12 weeks.

So drugs are approved based on short-term studies for what turns out to be long-term — often lifelong — use in the world of clinical practice. The longest maintenance study to date of one of the newer antidepressants, Effexor, lasted only two years and showed the drug to be superior to a placebo in preventing relapses of depression.

In fact, there are no reliable long-term studies even of drugs like methylphenidate (Ritalin) that are widely used in children.

One of the most interesting things is the huge amount of comments the article has attracted, with many people sharing their own experiences of a medicated adolescence.

Link to NYT article ‘Coming of Age on Antidepressants’.
Link to ‘editors choice’ of comments.

Cognitive biases as public policy

The LA Times has an interesting article on whether the sorts of decision-making biases identified by behavioural economists should be used to promote public policy objectives.

The idea is based on the fact that we are more likely to choose certain options depending on how they’re presented. In fact, supermarkets take advantage of this in how they lay out their products to maximise the chances of us buying the premium brands.

The LA Times piece argues that this could be used for government objectives, such as increasing the number of people who take out pensions, while still maintaining the freedom to choose and without using explicit incentives.

The libertarian aspect of the approach lies in the straightforward insistence that, in general, people should be free to do what they like. They should be permitted to opt out of arrangements they dislike, and even make a mess of their lives if they want to. The paternalistic aspect acknowledges that it is legitimate for choice architects to try to influence people’s behavior in order to make their lives longer, healthier and better.

Private and public institutions have many opportunities to provide free choice while also taking real steps to improve people’s lives.

* If we want to increase savings by workers, we could ask employers to adopt this simple strategy: Instead of asking workers to elect to participate in a 401(k) plan, assume they want to participate and enroll them automatically unless they specifically choose otherwise.

The article gives several more examples and defends its use of the term ‘libertarian paternalism’ for the idea.

I’m left wondering whether governments shouldn’t be adopting exactly what the commercial sector have been doing for years, or whether we’re naive to think political choice engineering isn’t being used already.

Link to LA Times article ‘Designing better choices’.