Encephalon 43 lands on the virtual doormat

A beautiful new edition of the Encephalon psychology and neuroscience writing carnival has just been published on GNIF Brain Blogger and contains the best of last fortnight’s online mind and brain writing.

A couple of my favourites include an article on how the brain encodes sound and another one on Alzheimer’s disease, and there’s plenty more to enjoy in the latest edition.

Link to Encephalon 43 at GNIF Brain Blogger.

The yin and yang of cannabis and psychosis

It is now quite widely known that cannabis use is linked to a small but significant increase in the chance of developing psychosis, but it is less widely known that one of the ingredients in cannabis actually has antipsychotic effects.

Unlike THC, it’s lesser known cousin cannabidiol is not responsible for the cannabis ‘high’ but it is naturally present in the plant.

There is accumulating evidence that cannabidiol has an antipsychotic effect, potentially damping down the psychosis-promoting effects of THC.

The amount of this substance varies in street cannabis, with some strains having more cannabidiol than others, and ‘skunk’ having the least of all – it being mostly eliminated by selective breeding for high THC content.

An ingenious new study looked at levels of cannabidiol consumption in groups of cannabis smokers by testing hair samples, and found that the groups who had the lowest cannabidiol levels had the most psychosis-like experiences.

In contrast, those with the most cannabidiol levels had the least psychosis-like experiences – equal to a comparison group with no detectable cannabis compounds who were presumably non-smokers.

One caveat is that the participants were all recruited from a study on ketamine users (a substance known to raise the risk of psychosis), so the study will have to be repeated on people who solely use cannabis to be sure the effect isn’t a specific interaction between the two drugs.

However, the results seem to tie up with what we already know about how THC and cannabidiol work, so may reflect a genuine effect.

As any visitor to Amsterdam will tell you, cannabis breeders often try to maximise THC content to grow a plant with more ‘bang for the gram’.

As cannabidiol seems to have no effect on the high itself, perhaps we might see breeders also trying to maximise the cannabidiol content in future, potentially reducing the risk to smokers’ mental health.

UPDATE: A reader who prefers to remain anonymous sent in the following interesting comment:

Cannabidiol is in fact bred for in cannabis product, but is mainly done for taste. There are mentions within the cannabis breeding literature (i.e. seed catalogues) on breeds which lack psychosis (often defined as “low paranoid strains”), and these correspond to the “tasty” breeds to a great extent.

Probably ‘lacking psychosis’ would be considered controversial by the scientific community, but it’s interesting that the growing and smoking community make the distinction between high and low ‘paranoid strains’. It’d be interested to see whether these stand up to scientific investigation.

Link to abstract of scientific study.

Neuroweapons, war crimes and the preconscious brain

A new generation of military technology interfaces directly with the brain to target and trigger weapons before our conscious mind is fully engaged.

In a new article in the Cornell International Law Journal, lawyer Stephen White asks whether the concept of a ‘war crime’ becomes irrelevant if the unconscious mind is pulling the trigger.

In most jurisdictions, the legal system makes a crucial distinction between two elements of a crime: the intent (mens rea) and the action (actus rea).

Causing something dreadful to happen without any intent or knowledge is considered an accident and not a crime. Hence, a successful prosecution demands that the accused is shown to have intended to violate the law in some way.

This concept is based on the theory that the conscious mind forms an intention, and an actions follows. Unfortunately, we now know that this idea is outdated.

In the 1980s, pioneering experiments by Benjamin Libet demonstrated that activity in the brain’s action areas can be reliably detected up to 200ms before we experience the conscious decision to act. In other words, consciousness seems to lag behind action.

Although with only limited reliability (just 60%), a recent fMRI study found that areas in the frontal lobes were starting to become more active up to seven seconds before the conscious intention to act.

While these sorts of study raise interesting questions about free will, their effect on the courts has been minimal, because it is assumed that, at least for healthy individuals, we have as much control over stopping our own actions as starting them.

The US government’s defence research agency, DARPA, is currently developing new military technologies, dubbed ‘neuroweapons’, that may throw these assumptions into disarray.

The webpage of DARPA’s Human Assisted Neural Devices Program only mentions the use of brain-machine interfaces in terms of helping injured veterans, but p11 of the US Dept of Defense budget justification [pdf] explicitly states that “This program will develop the scientific foundation for novel concepts that will improve warfighter performance on the battlefield as well as technologies for enhancing the quality of life of paralyzed veterans”.

In other words, the same technology that allows humans to control computer cursors, robot arms or wheelchairs by thought alone, could be used to target and trigger weapons.

Even if only part of the process, such as selecting possible targets, is delegated to technology that reads the unconscious orienting response from the brain, that still means that part of the thought process has automatically become part of the action.

Notably, international law outlaws indiscriminate weapons and aggression, but if the unconscious thought becomes the weapon, how can we possibly prosecute a war crime?

White reviews the current state of the technology from the unclassified evidence and carefully examines the ethical and legal issues, ultimately arguing that we need a new legal framework for 21st century ‘neurowarfare’.

The first preconsious war may soon be upon us.

pdf of ‘Brave New World: Neurowarfare and the Limits of International Humanitarian Law’.

The shifting sands of the ‘autism epidemic’

The Economist has a short but telling article on whether the so-called ‘autism epidemic’, occasionally touted in the media, may simply be a change in how developmental problems are diagnosed.

It covers a new study that did something really simple – it tracked down 38 people who, years ago, had been diagnosed with a delay in language and re-assessed them using the latest diagnostic interviews.

They used the ADOS (an activity and observation schedule) and the ADI (an interview for parents). This combination is often considered the ‘gold standard’ for a reliable and comprehensive diagnosis.

All the people were originally diagnosed with a problem in the development of language, so it was clear they weren’t without difficulties. Language delay is part of the autism diagnosis, so the researchers wondered whether we’d just classify them differently now.

Despite the fact that none were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders when they were first assessed, when re-assessed using modern methods, a third were classified as on the spectrum.

It’s only a small study, but matches with the findings of previous research that found that while the narrow diagnosis of autism is at less than 0.4% in the UK, the newer, wider definition of the less severe ‘autism spectrum’ diagnoses, unsurprisingly, is much more prevalent (just over 1%).

In other words, the looser the diagnosis becomes the more people get the diagnosis and more good evidence that the increase in cases of autism is due to wider classification rather than new ‘narrow definition’ cases.

Link to Economist article ‘Not more, just different’.
Link to Ben Goldacre on last autism epidemic media scare.

It’s not where we’ve been, it’s where we’re at

The New York Times Freakanomics blog just had a great discussion questioning how much progress psychology and psychiatry have really made during the last century, with contributions from psychologists, psychiatrists, economists and a woman who lost her son to suicide.

The responses obviously come from quite differing perspectives but are largely positive and seem mostly to cite a scientific approach to understanding the mind and brain as the most important factor (danke schön Willhelm Wundt).

Dan Ariely’s comments are particularly interesting as he suggests that one of our greatest advances is the discovery that our own experience isn’t necessarily a good guide to how our own mind works.

Anyway, a good collection of short commentaries that are worth reading in full.

Link to NYT Freakanomics psychology and psychiatry discussion.

Lacan attack!

I’ve just found this wonderful video clip of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan at his delightfully expressive and incomprehensible best.

Lacan managed to combine the circular reasoning of Freudian psychoanalysis with the non-sequiturs of French post-structuralism to create, well, I’m not really sure. I doubt many other people are either.

In the video he mentions love, Freud, sex and psychosis, and that’s probably the nearest you’re going to get to understanding what he’s talking about.

But who cares? Just look at the man in action! He’s a legend!

Link to a video of Jacques Lacan in full effect.

Reality trails by mobile phone

MIT’s Technology Review magazine has an interesting article on ‘reality mining’ – using mobile phone call and positioning data to build advanced models of social networks.

The article is part of their 2008 emerging technology series and looks at how data gathered from the mobile phone network can tell us about human behaviour.

The core technology is hardly new. The police have been generating social networks from phone records since the early to mid 90s in an attempt to solve cases.

What is new, however, is MIT’s Sandy Pentland has been using positioning data from mobile phones to look at how close people are to each other over time, to make the social networks much more accurate and information rich.

To create an accurate model of a person’s social network, for example, Pentland’s team combines a phone’s call logs with information about its proximity to other people’s devices, which is continuously collected by Bluetooth sensors. With the help of factor analysis, a statistical technique commonly used in the social sciences to explain correlations among multiple variables, the team identifies patterns in the data and translates them into maps of social relationships.

Such maps could be used, for instance, to accurately categorize the people in your address book as friends, family members, acquaintances, or coworkers. In turn, this information could be used to automatically establish privacy settings–for instance, allowing only your family to view your schedule. With location data added in, the phone could predict when you would be near someone in your network.

In a paper published last May [pdf], ­Pentland and his group showed that cell-phone data enabled them to accurately model the social networks of about 100 MIT students and professors. They could also precisely predict where subjects would meet with members of their networks on any given day of the week.

This may strike you as equally terrifying and exciting. Obviously, it has huge potential for abuse by authorities, but the possibility of doing research on fully consenting participants who agree to be tracked for short periods for scientific research is huge.

There’s also a great short video where Pentland discusses the technology in a bit more detail, and mentions the possibility of using the data for informing how diseases spread through social networks,

While we’re on a social / mobile network tip, the New York Times has a fascinating article on the work of a Nokia anthropologist. He works largely in the developing world to try and understanding how phones are used and what effects they have on the social fabric and economic potential of the area.

Neuroanthropology also has a commentary on the article, pulling out some of the key social concepts it touches on.

Link to TechReview article on ‘reality mining’.
Link to video of Pentland discussing the technology.
pdf of full-text scientific paper.
Link to NYT article ‘Can the Cellphone Help End Global Poverty?’
Link to Neuroanthropology commentary.

The psychology of magical thoughts

Psychology Today has a great article that covers the length and breadth of magical thinking – the tendency to see patterns and causality where none exists.

Magical thinking is described in a number of ways. Superstition is the most common, where we assume rituals will somehow affect the future despite having no causal connection to what we want to change.

Apophenia or pareidolia describe the effect where we see meaningful information where none was intended. The Fortean Times has a wonderful collection of photographs that depict ‘faces’ or other forms in clouds, trees, rock formations or even food.

Superstition and apophenia are an interesting contrast, because superstition can be more easily rejected than apophenia. Our perceptual systems are just set up to detect patterns, and so the perception of ‘faces’ is unavoidable.

Often we don’t even register our wacky beliefs. Seeing causality in coincidence can happen even before we have a chance to think about it; the misfiring is sometimes perceptual rather than rational. “Consider what happens when you honk your horn, and just at that moment a streetlight goes out,” observes Brian Scholl, director of Yale’s Perception and Cognition Laboratory. “You may never for a moment believe that your honk caused the light to go out, but you will irresistibly perceive that causal relation. The fact remains that our visual systems refuse to believe in coincidences.” Our overeager eyes, in effect, lay the groundwork for more detailed superstitious ideation. And it turns out that no matter how rational people consider themselves, if they place a high value on hunches they are hard-pressed to hit a baby’s photo on a dartboard. On some level they’re equating image with reality. Even our aim falls prey to intuition.

The article looks at seven types of magical thinking, and discusses some of the key psychology experiments that have shown us how magical thinking is influenced.

One of my favourites is an experiment by psychologist Emily Pronin who found that people would readily attribute another person’s headaches to sticking pins in a ‘voodoo doll’.

Interestingly, the effect was much stronger when the other person (actually a stooge) was deliberately annoying. The irritating actor increased the likelihood of participants’ wishing them harm, and so increased the perceived connection between their ‘voodoo doll’ pin-sticking and the actor’s feigned headache.

Link to Psychology Today article on magical thinking.

Neuroaesthetics my arse

Physician and philosopher Raymond Tallis has written a scorching article in The Times berating art critics for using poorly understood ideas from neuroscience when reviewing or interpreting literature, art or film.

He particularly focuses on an article by famed novelist A.S. Byatt where she suggests that the reason John Donne’s poetry is so compelling is because it engages particular brain processes.

Byatt is an interesting focus for criticism because she is probably one of the modern writers who is most engaged with cognitive and neuroscience.

She often does talks with psychologists and neuroscientists and has contributed to a Cambridge University Press book with a number of distinguished memory researchers and has just released a new jointly edited book charting similar territory.

However, Tallis takes Byatt to task for using neuroscience as little more than window dressing, and suggests the whole field of literary criticism is simply jumping on the brain science bandwagon to make up for the declining popularity of Freudian, Marxist, and postmodern theories that it used to be based on.

Implicitly, Tallis is suggesting that if Byatt can’t get it right, what hope is there for the rest of the critics:

A. S. Byatt’s neural approach to literary criticism is not only unhelpful but actually undermines the calling of a humanist intellectual, for whom literary art is an extreme expression of our distinctively human freedom, of our liberation from our organic, indeed material, state.

At any rate, attempting to find an explanation of a sophisticated twentieth-century reader’s response to a sophisticated seventeenth-century poet in brain activity that is shared between humans and animals, and has been around for many millions of years, rather than in communities of minds that are unique to humans, seems perverse. Neuroaesthetics is wrong about the present state of neuroscience: we are not yet able to explain human consciousness, even less articulate self-consciousness as expressed in the reading and writing of poetry. It is wrong about our experience of literature. And it is wrong about humanity.


It’s also notable that Tallis reserves some of his criticism for neuroscientists who oversell their work in the media, perhaps leading the public to justifiably think that they have explained some central human attribute when they’ve really done an interesting but limited lab experiment.

Link to Times article ‘The neuroscience delusion’ (via 3QD).

2008-04-11 Spike activity

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

The scientist brain doping results are in! Neuroanthropology looks at the findings from the recent Nature survey.

Prospect Magazine has an excellent article on whether the recent upsurge in bipolar diagnoses is due to a better understanding of mood disorders or a new marketing fad.

Science writer Carl Zimmer writes in Wired discussing the remarkable unreliability of ion channels, essential components of neural signalling, and notes what little effect this seems to have on global brain functioning. Viva redundancy!

.CSV has a great post on new techniques in quantitative sociology including social network analysis.

The vagaries of behavioural genetics studies, particularly inlight of a recent study on the genetics of ‘ruthlessness’ are carefully dissected by Pure Pedantry.

Wired has a run-down of his Top 5 recreational drug studies in the scientific literature (sadly misplacing the brain-scanner bong at number 5).

Like shooting fish in a barrel. Internet addiction nonsense comes in for more criticism from psychologists Petra Boyton and Cory Silverberg.

Newsweek looks at the theory that Western individualism and Eastern collectivism differences may have resulted from adaptive social strategies to deal with different diseases.

My Mind on Books collects some blog reports on the recent conference “Toward a Science of Consciousness”.

Cognitive neuroscientist extraordinaire Michael Gazzaniga asks whether human brains are unique in an article for Edge.

Neurophilosophy reports on a man who had his compulsive gambling treated with a deep brain stimulation implant.

Popular social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook are a form of participatory surveillance and voluntary social voyeurism, argues an article from First Monday.

Six pack models in men’s magazine have a similar negative effect on self-esteem to stick thin models on women’s magazine, according to research reported by the BPS Research Digest.

“If we mistrust the real world so much that we’re prepared to fill the next generation’s heads with a load of gibbering crap about “brain buttons”, why stop there? Why not spice up maths by telling kids the number five was born in Greece and invented biscuits?” Very funny article in the The Guardian about Brain Gym foolishness currently sweeping British schools.

PsyBlog has been running a fantastic series on the psychology of money and economic decision-making.

Long-term methamphetamine use has serious long-term neurological effects on the brain, according to new research discussed by Treatment Online.

Turned out Nice again

The picture on the right is both a five story high sculpture and library that was opposite the 16th European Congress of Psychiatry from which I’ve just returned.

It’s by the artist Sacha Sosno and apparently the books are kept in the ‘head’ of the surrealist bust.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see a great deal of the research at the conference as I spent most of it either locked in a hotel room preparing with my collaborators Frank Laroi and Andrea Raballo, or teaching our course on Phenomenology, Cinema and Psychosis (thanks to all who came!).

Apart from that it was a fairly typical display of academic debate and pharmaceutical company largess.

The prize for the most ridiculous stand goes to the makers of the antipsychotic drug ziprasidone, who were obviously trying to promote the medication despite the fact that it doesn’t seem to treat psychosis as well as some of the other drugs, on the basis that it is one of the least likely to make you fat or raise your risk of diabetes or heart disease.

Rather than saying this straight off (advertisers know better than to push negative messages), they seemingly had to think of a way of selling a theory that helps promote the idea that their drug is linked to a ‘healthy’ lifestyle.

So based on one rather ropey study (of only 14 people), they’re recommending that giving the drug with food increases its bioavailability.

And what better way to promote their new message than have an onsite chef create mouth watering but completely unrealistic meals.

Oh, and have models riding exercise bikes as well.

Science marches on.

A small dose of Freud

I’ve just finished listening to the unabridged audio version of the excellent Anthony Storr book Freud: A Very Short Introduction – a remarkably insightful analysis of the flawed father of psychoanalysis and his ideas.

Freud had huge numbers of ideas, hypotheses and theories that he formulated, rejected and revised over a forty year period.

You often hear people say that “Freud’s theories have been discredited”, as if he had only one central idea that has subsequently been disproved. These statements typically reflect ignorance about the extent of his work.

As it turns out, many of Freud’s ideas have not been supported by the evidence or were just plainly nonsense to begin with, but some have stood the test of time.

It seems that some of the techniques and clinical observations are still remarkably accurate and useful to the modern psychologist.

In general terms, the development of psychotherapy and the promotion of the idea of the unconscious were two incredibly important contributions to modern society.

More specifically, the process of ‘transference‘ is an impressive discovery that has been supported by experimental studies.

It describes the process where we re-experience certain feelings and relationship patterns we developed with important people in the past when we meet new people who share similarities with the original person.

A Science News article from last year reviewed the scientific studies on transference, and a recent study just reported that the effect is more pronounced when people are tired.

Unfortunately, it seems his explanations for his observations stretched from the insipid to the completely bizarre.

While he contributed a great deal to sexual liberation and openness his theories reflect a complete obsession with sex to the point where he was blind to other influences on behaviour.

Furthermore, his view of humans is both cynical (we are solely motivated by the need to satisfy or control selfish drives) and foolishly short-sighted, even by what was obvious at the time.

As Storr notes in the book, Freud was a master of selecting supporting evidence for his ideas, which were usually inspired by only a handful of cases or his own self-analysis, and incredibly poor at testing his ideas by searching for evidence which could disprove them.

In fact, he actively attacked people who challenged his ideas, and typically only allowed revisions or changes that he had thought up himself.

Freud probably suffers most from the fact that he claimed, right to the end of his life, that he was a scientist, and psychoanalysis was a science.

Had he claimed to be a philosopher, we could view him much more kindly, but he refused to be labelled as such, meaning that generations of scientists have delighted in pointing out the elephant in the room.

Storr was a respected psychotherapist in his own lifetime and the book is a wonderfully engaging and astute guide to Freud’s life and ideas. I also notice that the Amazon page for the book has a similarly positive review by a young Matthew Broome, now a psychiatrist and neuroscientist specialising in psychosis.

Link to book details (thanks Ceny!).

Repressing the bricks and mortar of madness

Of Two Minds has alerted me to the fact that the famous-but-now-defunct Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital in New York is going to be converted into a luxury hotel. It will probably join a long list of old psychiatric hospital conversions whose origin becomes lost to the public mind.

Bellevue has had a number of well-known patients over the years, perhaps most notoriously treating Mark Chapman, the person who killed John Lennon while likely severely mentally ill.

It was created as a centre of excellence, but particularly during the latter half of the 20th century was known for its chaotic state, as articles describing conditions in the 1960s and the 1980s attest.

There’s an increasing move to shut down the old Victorian asylums in favour of psychiatric units in general hospitals, and many of the old buildings have now been converted to other uses, often with their history unknown by most people.

Many of these buildings are quite beautiful, as the architecture and surroundings were designed to be therapeutic (even if the methods used within them were often brutal or based on ignorance).

I put some pictures online of Caroline Gardens, social housing in South East London which was originally built as the Licensed Victuallers’ Asylum in 1827, and some images of Whitchurch Hospital in Cardiff, which is in the process of being closed to be turned into flats.

London’s Imperial War Museum is housed in the old Bethlem Hospital buildings, the institution that gave rise to the phrase ‘bedlam’, and Craiglockhart Hospital, where W.H.R. Rivers treated poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon for ‘shell shock’ during World War One (now immortalised on Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy) is now part of Napier University.

Often the conversions deliberately conceal the buildings’ original function. Have a look at the website for the luxurious Princess Park Manor, accommodation designed for the super-rich.

Click on the ‘history’ link. Absolutely no mention of the fact that the building was originally the Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum, one of London’s major Victorian psychiatric hospitals (pictured on the right).

Link to ABC News story on imminent Bellevue conversion.

Releasing creativity in a decaying brain

The New York Times has a fantastic article on the remarkable artistic talent seemingly released in some people with fronto-temporal dementia (FTD) – a condition where frontal and temporal lobes start deteriorating.

Dementia is any condition where the brain or brain function deteriorates quicker than would be expected through normal ageing.

This can occur because of still poorly understood Alzheimer’s-like changes involving abnormal protein accumulation in the brain, or often, because the blood vessels start dying and deteriorating, leading to the death of the brain areas they serve.

A mix of both is not uncommon but the damage to the brain is often uneven and patchy, meaning that while mental function generally declines, specific skills and abilities can be impaired while others are left relatively intact.

Some brain areas are particularly involved in controlling or inhibiting others, meaning if these areas are damaged, the areas they ‘control’ can suddenly begin to work overtime (its like if you damaged the break on a car, often it would speed up when you didn’t want it to).

In fact, if these systems break down due to brain damage, we can regain reflexes we had when we were first born – such as automatically grasping things put in the hand – but which the brain inhibits as it matures.

The NYT article discusses a recent case study published in the medical journal Brain that suggests that this same process may release brain circuits leading to new artistic talents and skills.

From 1997 until her death 10 years later, Dr. Adams underwent periodic brain scans that gave her physicians remarkable insights to the changes in her brain.

“In 2000, she suddenly had a little trouble finding words,” her husband said. “Although she was gifted in mathematics, she could no longer add single digit numbers. She was aware of what was happening to her. She would stamp her foot in frustration.”

By then, the circuits in Dr. Adams’s brain had reorganized. Her left frontal language areas showed atrophy. Meanwhile, areas in the back of her brain on the right side, devoted to visual and spatial processing, appeared to have thickened.

When artists suffer damage to the right posterior brain, they lose the ability to be creative, Dr. Miller said. Dr. Adams’s story is the opposite. Her case and others suggest that artists in general exhibit more right posterior brain dominance. In a healthy brain, these areas help integrate multisensory perception. Colors, sounds, touch and space are intertwined in novel ways. But these posterior regions are usually inhibited by the dominant frontal cortex, he said. When they are released, creativity emerges.

The art of Anne Adams, the subject of the case study, can be seen on two websites and the NYT article contains a couple of striking pieces.

Link to NYT article ‘A Disease That Allowed Torrents of Creativity’.
Link to PubMed abstract of scientific study.

Psychoanalyst finger puppets

What better way to spend a rainy Sunday afternoon than recreating some of the most important moments in the history of psychoanalysis with some specially made finger puppets!

Uncommon Goods make a set of puppets that allows you to assign one of your pinkies to Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Anna Freud or a couch.

Personally, I would have replaced the couch with Melanie Klein so eager puppeteers could recreate the bitter arguments that eventually led to the splitting of psychoanalysis into three separate warring factions.

Sadly, the current set doesn’t allow it, but it does allow you to recreate those precious moments where Sigmund analysed his daughter Anna during her childhood.

The more observant among you may notice there’s only four finger puppets, leaving one finger to remain, erm… symbolic.

Link to psychoanalyst finger puppets.

Nice work if you can get it

Apologies if updates are a bit intermittent over the next few days, but I’m in Nice, in the lovely South of France, at the European Congress of Psychiatry.

I’m here to teach a course on ‘Phenomenology, Cinema and Psychosis’ with psychiatrist Andrea Raballo and psychologist Frank Lar√∏i.

You can try and work out which of us is which from the picture on the left.

I’m not sure how internet access is going to work out, but I should try and get you some updates from the conference at the very least.