Is me really a monster?

McSweeney’s has an infectiously funny article where Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster ‘searches deep within himself and asks: is me really a monster?’

Obviously struggling with his frequent out-of-control cookie binges, the Cookie Monster reflects on his own self-image.

How can they be so callous? Me know there something wrong with me, but who in Sesame Street doesn’t suffer from mental disease or psychological disorder? They don’t call the vampire with math fetish monster, and me pretty sure he undead and drinks blood. No one calls Grover monster, despite frequent delusional episodes and obsessive-compulsive tendencies.

Link to hilarious McSweeney’s piece.

Orgasms, insanity and microbes in SciAmMind

The new edition of Scientific American Mind has just hit the shelves and has some fantastic articles. It seems they’ve changed schedule to releasing one major feature article online for free every week, and the first is a piece on stereotype threat.

Stereotype threat is an intriguing effect where people perform worse when they think the task might confirm a social prejudice about them. When exactly the same test is presented as being unrelated to the negative stereotype, people perform better.

Actually, I can’t wait to read other articles on the neuroscience of orgasm, the role of infection in psychosis, the latest treatments being tried for stimulant drug addiction and body dysmorphic disorder, to name but a few.

I’m not sure which are going to make it online, but we’ll link to them when they appear.

Good ‘ole SciAmMind.

Link to article on the psychology of stereotype threat.
Link to latest edition of SciAmMind.

Pills, shills and bellyaches

Investigative journalist Phil Dawdy has written a fantastic piece for the Willamette Week looking at the background to the recent research on buried antidepressant drug trials.

The paper was published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine by psychiatrist Erick Turner, who used to do paid promotional work for the drug industry before he got disillusioned with towing the company line.

Dawdy’s piece focuses on Turner, his mission to uncover all the data on antidepressant efficacy and its impact since publication.

You may know Dawdy from his blog, Furious Seasons, which even if you don’t agree with every angle, is doggedly researched and compulsive reading.

There’s also an amusing post-script to the Willamette Week article just published on the blog which gave me a chuckle.

Link to Willamette Week article ‘Bitter Pill’.

2008-04-04 Spike activity

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

The Economist looks at Jeff Hawkin’s work on making computers more brain-like: from palmtops to brain cells.

Yet another study on the benefits of meditation is covered by Scientific American.

Cognitive Daily has a cool summary of a study on how we decide whether to walk or run. Not how busy we want to look apparently.

All in the Mind’s Natasha Mitchell reviews a new book on the history of Freudian thought and therapy in The Australian.

Not Exactly Rocket Science covers an interesting study where electric shocks were used to increase discrimination between two previously identical seeming smells.

The New York Times has an article describing the important phenomenon of change blindness.

Neuron earrings! Jewellery inspired by our favourite above-the-neck cells (thanks Sandra!).

The Boston Herald looks at research on the psychology of decision-making and poverty.

Sidewalk psychiatry. Although I certainly wouldn’t want a psychiatrist who asked these sorts of questions.

The Economist looks at how blood sugar levels can affect decision making.

Daily caffeine ‘protects brain’, reports BBC News. But who protects your daily caffeine I ask?

The Frontal Cortex has an interesting snippet on the fact that the infinity mongering Argentinian writer Borges had a brain injury.

Poltergeists are due to the quantum effects of brain function, apparently. The freaky ghost cousin of Roger Penrose is invoked in New Scientist.

Wired reports that griefers attack epilepsy discussion board with flashing graphics. Accusations about Anonymous and Scientologists being linked to the attack fly about, but it’s happened on a previous occasion, before either were at war, so it’s likely just idiots.

Comfortably Numb, a new book on society and depression, is reviewed by Furious Seasons.

The New York Times discuss the runner’s high.

The psychology of religion and morality is discussed by psychologist Paul Bloom and philosopher Joshua Knobe on

Bad Science has video of the Brain Gym nonsense being ably addressed by Paxo and the Newsnight team.

Female anger at work seen as worse, a character flaw

Psychological Science has just published an eye-opening study that found that women who express anger at work were thought of more negatively than men and were assumed to be ‘angry people’ or ‘out of control’. Male colleagues who did the same were typically viewed in a more positive light and were assumed to be upset by circumstances.

The study was led by psychologist Victoria Brescoll and the abstract of the study is below:

Can an angry woman get ahead? Status conferral, gender, and expression of emotion in the workplace.

Psychol Sci. 2008 Mar;19(3):268-75.

Three studies examined the relationships among anger, gender, and status conferral. As in prior research, men who expressed anger in a professional context were conferred higher status than men who expressed sadness. However, both male and female evaluators conferred lower status on angry female professionals than on angry male professionals. This was the case regardless of the actual occupational rank of the target, such that both a female trainee and a female CEO were given lower status if they expressed anger than if they did not. Whereas women’s emotional reactions were attributed to internal characteristics (e.g., “she is an angry person,””she is out of control”), men’s emotional reactions were attributed to external circumstances. Providing an external attribution for the target person’s anger eliminated the gender bias. Theoretical implications and practical applications are discussed.

Along similar lines, a study we reported last year found that women who bargained for more money during job interviews were typically thought of as more ‘difficult’ than men who did the same, particularly when a man was doing the evaluating.

Link to abstract of study on women and workplace anger.

Neuromarketing does great job of selling itself

A couple of high profile newspaper articles have recently sung the praises of ‘neuromarketing’, both naively and wrongly hailing it as a more accurate way of measuring the effectiveness of advertising.

Despite what these articles in the Guardian and New York Times say, neuroscience has yet to show that directly measuring brain function predicts sales or advertising success better than existing methods.

One interesting study is cited though. So far, it is the only study I know of that has compared how well brain activation and self-report matched up in a purchasing task.

Crucially, it didn’t find that brain scans predicted actual purchasing better than what the participants consciously said they’d purchase.

Only that brain activity when viewing the product and deciding whether to buy it was more closely matched to the instant decision than a post-experiment evaluation of how much they liked the product or thought it was value-for-money.

It’s an interesting study, but it doesn’t really help marketers. Not least because it’s a lab task, and no money was involved, but also because the benchmark to which brain activity was compared was what people said they’d buy.

In other words, the ‘gold standard’ to which the other evidence was compared in this study, was simply asking people what they’d buy – no different to what traditional market research already does.

It’s an interesting study on decision-making, but if you read the newspaper articles, it’s shocking to compare their grandiose claims with this study which is currently the best ‘neuromarketing’ evidence.

Most of the other studies (trash like election and Super Bowl brain scans aside) don’t even compare what people say they’d buy with brain activity, so they’re not comparisons which can even possibly say whether measuring the brain is a more effective technique for measuring marketing success.

They almost entirely rely on vague inferences that because a certain brain area is active, the person must be thinking in some specific way.

As individual brain areas are involved in numerous functions (even just including the ones we know about), you can use this technique to suggest almost anything.

The bottom line is this: for products, sales dictate whether marketing succeeds or fails. Trying to measure anything else is what is known as relying on a surrogate marker, something known to be dodgy.

The first study that shows that brain activation predicts actual purchases better than what people say they would buy will be the true birth of neuromarketing.

So far, it hasn’t happened, and the best marketing that’s happening is ‘neuromarketing’ companies marketing themselves.

That’s not to sat that the neuropsychology of financial decision-making isn’t interesting (far from it), but, so far, none of these techniques will help you decide whether your ad will be a success better than simply asking people.

Link to naive NYT article on neuromarketing.
Link to credulous Guardian article on neuromarketing.
Link to full text of ‘Neural predictors of purchases’ study.

Joseph Weizenbaum has left the building

Hello, I am Eliza.

Hi Eliza. I’m Vaughan.

Did you come to me because you are Vaughan?

I did. I am sad because I just found out that your creator, the computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum, has died.

Do you believe it is normal to be sad because you just found out that my creator, the computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum, has died?

I think so. Although it’s a little ironic that he is most famous for creating a misunderstood parody of a Rogerian psychotherapist when he argued so strongly that computers will never replace humans because emotion is what is most important in intelligence.

Does that question interest you?

It does. And it interested Weizenbaum as well. In his 1976 book Computer Power and Human Reason it was obvious that, although he valued computers, he thought compassion was an irreplaceable human quality.

Can you elaborate on that?

I guess it comes down to the fact that alongside his pioneering artificial intelligence research, he was a deeply humane individual as well.

Come, come, elucidate your thoughts.

I think I’ve said enough to a simple computer programme, charming as you are.

Does it please you to believe I am ?

Sometimes. Loop on Eliza. Rest in peace, Joseph Weizenbaum.

I’m not sure I understand you fully.


Link to New York Times obituary of Joseph Weizenbaum.
Link to web version of ELIZA.

Cocktails with Cajal

Cocktail Party Physics is running a series on neuroscience and the first article is a fantastic look at how legendary neuroscientist Santiago Ramon y Cajal laid the foundations for the modern understanding of neurobiology.

What I didn’t know, is that Cajal and Camillo Golgi, another great neuroscientist of the time with whom he shared the Nobel Prize, were rivals, and they often bickered in public and included jibes in their Nobel acceptance speeches!

The two men ended up sharing the 1906 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. It seems fair. After all, Golgi invented the staining technique used by Cajal to form his hypothesis, and used it to produce the first descriptions of the different types of neurons, and the structure of glial cells, as well as the branches given off by the axon. Also, there are those in the field who argue that if you take into account the later discovery of electrical synapses, Golgi was at least partially correct that the central nervous system is a vast interconnected network — it’s just not the cells themselves that are connected.

It made for an interesting pair of Nobel lectures, though: the two men contradicted each other in their talks, each espousing his own theory of the organization of the central nervous system. For all the intensity of their scientific disagreement, the two men nonetheless respected each other’s work. Writing about his Nobel honor, Cajal observed: “The other half was very justly adjudicated to the illustrious professor of Pavia, Camillo Golgi, the originator of the method with which I accomplished my most striking discoveries.”

Of course, if you do go to a cocktail party to discuss neuroscience, or even physics, don’t forget to experiment with your selective attention.

Link to article on Cajal and the history of neurobiology (via Neurophilo).

Christian gene isolated

The satirical Aussie news show CNNN broadcast an hilarious news report on the work of gay scientists who have isolated the ‘Christian gene’.

Satire aside, this is not the first time that the idea of a gene for religion, or at least, mystical experiences, has been discussed.

Geneticist Dean Hamer wrote a book called The God Gene where he argued that the VMAT2 gene partly mediated a tendency toward mystical or spiritual experiences, based on a study which was published solely in the book itself.

With much talk of a ‘God gene’ in the press, science writer Carl Zimmer memorably renamed it “A Gene That Accounts for Less Than One Percent of the Variance Found in Scores on Psychological Questionnaires Designed to Measure a Factor Called Self-Transcendence, Which Can Signify Everything from Belonging to the Green Party to Believing in ESP, According to One Unpublished, Unreplicated Study”.

Link to CNNN report ‘Gay Scientists Isolate Christian Gene’.

Trust me, I’m a brain scan

Hot on the heals of a recent study that found that neuroscience jargon made unlikely scientific claims more believable, comes a new study, covered by the BPS Research Digest, that found that simply showing a picture of a brain scan made bogus science more convincing.

David McCabe and Alan Castel presented university students with 300-word news stories about fictional cognitive research findings that were based on flawed scientific reasoning. For example, one story claimed that watching TV was linked to maths ability, based on the fact that both TV viewing and maths activate the temporal lobe. Crucially, students rated these stories to be more scientifically sound when they were accompanied by a brain image, compared with when the equivalent data were presented in a bar chart, or when there was no graphical illustration at all.

McCabe and Castel repeated the experiment with a control condition featuring a topographical activation map – it’s just as visually complex as a brain image but it doesn’t look like a brain. These stories were rated as more credible when accompanied by a brain image compared with a topographical map, showing that the allure of brain images is not merely down to their complexity.

Most of these sorts of reasoning errors are due to the fact that the public at large still thinks about the mind and brain as separate, loosely connected systems.

The influence of ‘placebo science-a-likes’ isn’t a problem restricted to neuroscience, of course. I suspect adding the language of genetics will have a similar confidence-boosting effect, regardless of the actual claim being made.

If you want to know the nitty gritty about how fMRI brain scans can mislead, I highly recommend the sardonic guide, How to Lie with fMRI Statistics.

Link to BPSRD on ‘The power of blobs on the brain’.
pdf of full-text of scientific paper.

This delusion is false

The psychiatrist and philosopher Bill Fulford describes a patient who was the living embodiment of the logical paradox “this statement is false” during a discussion on the difficulties in assuming delusions are false beliefs, as described in the standard definition.

[There is an] even more fundamental sense in which delusions may not be false beliefs, namely that for some patients this would present us with a paradox.

I have reported one such case that occurred in Oxford… The patient, a 43-year-old man, was brought into the Accident and Emergency Department following an overdose. He had tried to kill himself because he was afraid he was going to be “locked up”. However, this fear was secondary to a paranoid system at the heart of which was the hypochondriacal delusion that he was “mentally ill”.

He was seen by the duty psychiatrist and by the consultant psychiatrist on call, neither of whom were in any doubt that he was deluded. Indeed, both were ready on the strength of their diagnosis to admit him as an involuntary patient.

Yet had their diagnosis depended on the falsity of the patient’s belief, as in the standard definition, they would have been presented with a paradox: if the patient’s belief that he was mentally ill was false, then (by the standard definition) he could have been deluded, but this would have made his belief true after all.

Equally, if his belief was true, then he was not deluded (by the standard definition), but this would have made his belief false after all. By the standard definition of delusion, then, his belief, is false, was true and, if true, was false.

From p211 of the book Philosophical Psychopathology (ISBN 9780262071598).

Link to Wikipedia article on the vagaries of delusion.

Encephalon 42 arrives in style

The latest edition of the Encephalon psychology and neuroscience writing carnival has just arrived online, with this issue seemingly hosted by Paris Hilton.

Personally, I don’t believe it for a second as we all know that Ms Hilton is largely concerned with physical medicine research.

A couple of my favourites include a history of lithium chloride, the simple salt that is also widely prescribed as a treatment for bipolar disorder, and a short exploration of the science and experience of synaesthesia.

Link to Encephalon 42.