Do Bayesian statistics rule the brain?

This week’s New Scientist has a fascinating article on a possible ‘grand theory’ of the brain that suggests that virtually all brain functions can be modelled with Bayesian statistics – an approach discovered by an 18th century vicar.

Bayesian statistics allow the belief in the hypothesis to shift as new evidence is collected. This means the same evidence can have a different influence on certainty, depending on how much other evidence there is.

In other words, it asks the question ‘what is the probability of the belief being true, given the data so far?’.

The NewSci article looks at the work neuroscientist Karl Friston, who increasingly believes that from the level of neurons to the level of circuits, the brain operates as if it uses Bayesian statistics.

The essential idea is that the brain makes models upon which it bases predictions, and these models and predictions are updated in a Bayesian like-way as new information becomes available

Over the past decade, neuroscientists have found that real brains seem to work in this way. In perception and learning experiments, for example, people tend to make estimates – of the location or speed of a moving object, say – in a way that fits with Bayesian probability theory. There’s also evidence that the brain makes internal predictions and updates them in a Bayesian manner. When you listen to someone talking, for example, your brain isn’t simply receiving information, it also predicts what it expects to hear and constantly revises its predictions based on what information comes next. These predictions strongly influence what you actually hear, allowing you, for instance, to make sense of distorted or partially obscured speech.

In fact, making predictions and re-evaluating them seems to be a universal feature of the brain. At all times your brain is weighing its inputs and comparing them with internal predictions in order to make sense of the world. “It’s a general computational principle that can explain how the brain handles problems ranging from low-level perception to high-level cognition,” says Alex Pouget, a computational neuroscientist at the University of Rochester in New York.

Friston is renowned for having a solid grasp of both high-level neuroscience and statistics. In fact, he’s was the original creator of SPM, probably the most popular tool for statistically analysing brain scan data.

Needless to say, his ideas have been quite influential and ‘Bayesian fever’ has swept the research centre where he works.

I was interested to see that his colleague, neuroscientist Chris Frith, has applied the idea to psychopathology and will be arguing that delusions and hallucinations can be both understood as the breakdown of Bayesian inference in an upcoming lecture in London.

This edition of NewSci also has a great article on how cosmic rays affect the brains of astronauts, so it’s well worth a look.

Link to NewSci article ‘Is this a unified theory of the brain?’.
Link to article ‘Space particles play with the mind’.

In the midst of the video game fury

The BPS Research Digest has just alerted me to an excellent cover article from Prospect magazine on the effects of computer games on young minds and why the scaremongering is largely hot air.

One of the biggest mongers of scare is the otherwise excellent Susan Greenfield, who seems to be convinced, mostly on the basis of speculations from some rather obliquely-related neuroscience studies, that video games and electronic culture and doing dreadful things to young minds (although not to elderly minds, who should apparently buy the ‘brain training’ software she’s endorsed).

There is indeed evidence of an association between violent video games and aggression aggression in some young people, but there’s also plenty of evidence of the benefits of children playing games.

Psychologist Tanya Byron wrote a remarkably well-researched report on the topic for the UK government, which is rightly highlighted by the Prospect article as one of the high-points of the debate.

The Prospect piece is a great overview of some of the things less often touched on by the academic literature, such as the real-life management skills needed to succeed in some of the massively multiplayer online role-playing game’s like World of Warcraft or Second Life.

Link to Prospect article ‘Rage Against the Machines’.

Fantastic introduction to MRI brain scanning physics

Magnetic resonance imaging is the most popular method for scanning the brain both for research and for clinical investigations. I’ve just found a wonderfully written article that gives a great introduction to the physics of how MRI scanners work.

It is both clearly written for the non-specialist and fantastically complete. This is a rare and valuable combination.

There are some other guides to MRI physics which are also wonderfully written but most lack the sufficient detail that would bring you up to ‘entry level’ in the field.

For example, How Stuff Work’s guide to MRI is a great place to start, but it won’t tell you about why and how T1 and T2 imaging are different, or any of the other things you need to know to understand the fundamentals of MRI technology.

You don’t need to know maths to understand the article (the downfall of most ‘introductory’ guides to MRI) and the author uses wonderfully clear analogies throughout.

The article is written by radiologist Robert Pooley, who should give himself a pat on the back for such a great job. It was published as an open-access paper in the journal RadioGraphics. Perfection!

Link to article ‘Fundamental Physics of MR Imaging’.

2008-05-30 Spike activity

ABC Radio National’s The Philosopher’s Zone broadcasts part two of its series on the philosophy of suicide.

PsyBlog has been rocking the cognitive biases recently. This is a fascinating article on ‘Four Belief Biases That Can Reduce Pleasure‘.

Columbia University has an archive of video lectures by some of the ‘big names’ in psychology and neuroscience.

The BPS Research Digest covers a new study that finds that harsh discipline actually makes aggressive children worse.

Calm Zone. A fantastic UK initiative to encourage young inner city males to get help for mental health difficulties.

“Why we posted epilepsy film to YouTube”. The Guardian continues the debate over whether video of people having seizures is education or exploitation.

Time magazine wonder about the possibilities of prescribing our own antidepressants.

Pete Doherty says ‘a mind is a terrible thing to waste’. No it’s not the Pete Doherty you’re thinking of.

The All in the Mind blog finds some interesting commentary on movement, the mind, cognition and the car.

Psychologist David Rabiner asks does mindfulness meditation help adults and teens with ADHD? in an article for Sharp Brains.

The Situationist discusses whether we’re living in an age of increasing child anxiety?

Gratingly banal headline obscures an interesting article from The New York Times on the neurobiology of cigarette addiction.

Not Quite Rocket Science covers recent research on how perceived social hierarchy affects cognitive abilities. The Economist on the same.

A fantastic 2002 article from Wired on the curious and death of psychiatrist Elisabeth Targ, who completed the (in)famous prayer healing (not quite so) randomised controlled trials.

Brain Windows is a fantastic looking neuroscience blog that seems to have been dormant for a couple of months. Plenty of good articles there though.

Forgetting Is the New Normal according to an excellent brief article on memory and ageing from Time magazine.

Furious Seasons looks at some new broadsides in the debate over the effectiveness of antidepressants.

Can you teach happiness? ABC Radio National’s education programme EdPod examines whether it’s possible to teach positive psychology to school children.

Inspirational Kid’s Company founder and child therapist Camila Batmanghelidjh is interviewed in The Independent.

Time magazine looks at the psychology of Second Life.

The ‘seven challenges of psychotherapy‘ are discussed by PsychCentral.

Miracle fruit trips out flavours

The New York Times have an article on the truly miraculous miracle fruit, a plant that contains a unique protein that transforms even the most intensely acidic flavours into sweet taste sensations.

“You pop it in your mouth and scrape the pulp off the seed, swirl it around and hold it in your mouth for about a minute,” he said. “Then you’re ready to go.” He ushered his guests to a table piled with citrus wedges, cheeses, Brussels sprouts, mustard, vinegars, pickles, dark beers, strawberries and cheap tequila, which Mr. Aliquo promised would now taste like top-shelf Patrón.

The miracle fruit, Synsepalum dulcificum, is native to West Africa and has been known to Westerners since the 18th century. The cause of the reaction is a protein called miraculin, which binds with the taste buds and acts as a sweetness inducer when it comes in contact with acids, according to a scientist who has studied the fruit, Linda Bartoshuk at the University of Florida’s Center for Smell and Taste.

Apparently, some pioneering barmen have been experimenting with miracle fruit cocktails and the article has video of a ‘flavour tripping party’ where people get together to try the small red berry before sampling a while range of foods which take on a strange news flavour.

Link to NYT article ‘A Tiny Fruit That Tricks the Tongue’.

Review: “Why the mind is not a computer”

“Why the mind is not a computer: A pocket lexicon of neuromythology”
Raymond Tallis (2004, originally published 1994).

Neuromythology is the shibboleth of cognitive science that the mind is a machine, and that somehow our theories of information, complexity, patterns or representations are sufficient to explain consciousness. Tallis accuses cognitive scientists, and philosophers of cognitive science such as Chalmers, Churchland and Dennett, of the careless use of words which can apply both to thinking and to non-thinking systems (‘computing’, ‘goals’, ‘memory’, for example). This obfuscation “provides a framework within which the real problems can be by-passed and the illusion of progress maintained”. At his best Tallis is a useful reminder that many of the features of the brain which are evoked to ‘explain’ consciousness really only serve as expressions of faith, rather than true explanations. Does the mind arise from the brain because of the complexity of all those intertwined neurons? The processes inside a cell are equally complex, why aren’t cells conscious? Similarly for patterns, which depend on the subjective perspective (yes, the consciousness) of the observer rather than having an objective existence which is sufficient to generate consciousness; and for levels of description, which, with careless thinking are sometimes reified so that the mind can ‘act’ on the brain, when in fact, if you are physicalist, the mind and brain don’t have separate existences. Moments of the argument can appear willfully obstructive. Tallis maintains that there is no meaningful sense in which information can exist without someone being informed, any more, he says, than a watch can tell the time without someone looking at it. He’s right that we should be careful the word information, which has a very precise technical meaning and also colloquial meanings, but if you suppose that subjective consciousness is required to make information exist (and rule-following, representation and computation to pick a few other concepts about which he makes similar arguments) then you effectively disallow any attempts to use these concepts as part of your theory of consciousness. The disagreement between Tallis and many philosophers of cognitive science seems to me to be somewhat axiomatic — either you believe that our current models of reality can explain how matter can produce mind, or you don’t — but Tallis is right to remind us that the things we feel might eventually provide an answer don’t in themselves constitute an answer.

In essence what this book amounts to is a vigorous restatement of the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness — the stubborn inadequacy of our physical theories when faced with explaining how phenomenal experience might arise out of ordinary matter, or even with beginning to comprehend what form such an explanation might take.

Disclaimer: I bought this book with my own money, because I needed something to read at the Hay Festival after finishing Ahdaf Soueif’s wonderful ‘Map of Love’ (200) and because Raymond Tallis’s essay here was so good. I was not paid or otherwise encouraged to review it.

History of american psychiatry, in two obituaries

The last few months have seen the passing of Frank Ayd and Charles Brenner, two huge figures in American psychiatry. Their obituaries in The New York Times reflect the ideological divide between psychoanalysis and pharmacotherapy that defined stateside psychiatry during the 20th century.

Ayd, pictured top, was one of the pioneers of antipsychotic drug therapy in the states. Although it was already popular among European psychiatrists, Ayd was one of the first to try chlorpromazine (more commonly known as Thorazine) with some of his outpatients.

As well as noticing the huge potential for the drug, virtually the first ever effective treatment for severe psychosis, he was also persistent in publicising the disabling side-effects when many others were dismissing them as part of the illness or ‘hysterical’ in nature.

In contrast, Brenner was a mainstay of mainstream Freudian psychiatry for most of his life.

Interestingly, both Brenner and Ayd came from similar backgrounds. In their early years, both published on drug treatments and lobotomy (then at the height of its popularity), although Brenner later trained as a psychoanalyst and began to focus almost entirely on a Freudian approach.

Brenner is perhaps best known for his ‘conflict theory’, first presented in an influential paper entitled The Mind as Conflict and Compromise Formation.

This overturned the distinction between the Id, Ego and Superego and the Freud’s idea of the unconscious as being nothing more than metaphors, and proposed a model of the mind which we would now recognise as a constraint satisfaction approach – where the mind attempts the best compromise between the satisfaction of drives while accounting for emotions and defences.

While Anglo-European psychiatry tended to lean toward the biological approach, in the mid-20th century American psychiatry was largely Freudian. This is partly to do with the differing practice traditions, European psychiatry was largely hospital based and focused on psychosis while American psychiatry was largely concerned with office practice and neurosis.

The shift to a more scientific approach to psychiatry in the 1970s was led by several US psychiatry departments who were more Anglo-European influenced (Washington University, Johns Hopkins, Iowa Psychiatric Hospital, New York Psychiatric Institute).

This hit psychoanalytic psychiatry hard. One of the major blows was the 1980 publication of the DSM-III diagnostic manual that threw out almost all Freudian-influenced diagnoses after studies found them unreliable.

Link to NYT obituary of Frank Ayd.
Link to NYT obituary of Charles Brenner.

Encephalon 46 arrives

The latest edition of the Encephalon psychology and neuroscience writing carnival has just appeared online, ably hosted by The Neurocritic.

A couple of my favourites include an article on the psychology of superstition from PodBlack and one hot from the Association for Psychological Science convention, where Cognitive Daily report on cognitive influences on calculation.

It’s a bumper edition and it even has some video of an intriguing experiment on ‘distributive justice’. You’ll have to read more to find out.

Link to Encephalon 46.

Hash high in cannabidiol but varies widely

In light of research showing that an ingredient in cannabis, cannabidiol, seems to actually reduce the risk of psychosis, I speculated previously on Mind Hacks whether smokers might be attracted to high-cannabidiol dope.

A study of UK street cannabis published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences suggests that cannabis resin (hashish) has the average highest rates of cannabidiol, while ‘skunk’ and imported herbal cannabis (weed) have the lowest.

For people who take cannabis, it’s not the cannabidiol that makes you ‘high’, it’s mainly a substance called tetrahydrocannabinol or THC.

There’s accumulating evidence that THC increases the risk of psychosis, while cannabidiol reduces it – so the ratio of the two substances in the street drug might give a ‘risk profile’ in terms of mental health.

‘Might’ is the operative word here, as the research is still preliminary and the studies are still largely correlational with regard to cannabidiol-to-THC ratio and psychosis-like symptoms.

However, if this does turn out to be case, the new survey of UK street cannabis suggests that, on average, cannabis resin has higher levels of cannabidiol, with the implication that this might be less risky in terms of developing schizophrenia or other psychotic disorders.

This finding is an average over all the samples, however, and the study also found that resin had quite a bit of variability with regards to cannabidiol-to-THC ratio.

However, imported herbal cannabis and skunk was generally very low in cannabidiol. Additionally, skunk also had about 6 times the THC content of normal weed, making it especially potent.

The study concludes:

This study suggests that cannabis in England in 2005 remains a very variable drug with unpredictable pharmacological and psychological activity. The potency (THC content) of the cannabis varies widely, as does the content of other cannabinoids, especially in herbal cannabis and cannabis resin. The average potency within the country appears to be increasing, but large variations remain within and between different areas of the country.

CBD affects the pharmacological qualities of THC and reduces it psychoactive potential. The relative proportions of THC and CBD in resin are wide ranging, supporting the view that the potential effects of resin cannot be judged by measuring the THC content alone. The resin samples were all similar in appearance and gave the user no indication of their cannabinoid content.

Of the three principle forms of cannabis, sinsemilla [skunk] commonly had the highest THC content and almost totally lacked CBD. Had CBD been present it would have reduced the psychoactive potential of this material. In addition to having increased in potency, sinsemilla also appears to have become the most widely used form of cannabis. The current trends in cannabis use suggest that those susceptible to the harmful psychological effects associated with THC are at ever greater risk. This is due to the combined rise in potency and popularity of sinsemilla and the absence of CBD in this product.

The lead scientist in the study is called Professor Potter. Do with that fact as you will.

Link to abstract of Journal of Forensic Sciences study.

Placebo is not what you think

The New York Times covers an interesting development in the world of consumer medicine – a company selling placebos to consumers that they can use to ease their children’s ills.

For doctors, the use of placebos to treat medical conditions is explicitly banned by most medical associations but their use is widely debated.

Thousands of clinical trials have shown us that placebo is one of the most effective and safest of medicines (although it is not entirely without side-effects).

However, it is also one of the most misunderstood of treatments.

An article in this month’s Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine (which has been debating placebo over the past year or two) dispels some of the myths.

The placebo effect is usually equated with the average response of patients receiving placebo controls in randomized trials. However, it’s not quite that simple.

For example, not every improvement that happens after someone is given a placebo treatment is the ‘placebo effect’ (some symptoms will just get better by themselves) and not every improvement after medication is the active effect of the drug, some of that will be ‘placebo effect’ too.

Placebos are not ‘ineffective’. In fact, when three condition trials are run (no treatment vs placebo vs medical treatment), placebo consistently out performs ‘no treatment’ and of course, not uncommonly, the medical treatment condition as well.

Placebos are not a ‘non-specific’ treatment. A study on people who take the dopamine-boosting drug L-DOPA for Parkinson’s disease but who took a placebo L-DOPA pill, showed almost identical brain changes, as if they’d taken the real thing.

Furthermore, studies done in the 1970s showed that when heroin users inject water (sometimes done deliberately to alleviate cravings when drugs are in short supply), they can experience drug-like euphoria and have been observed to show opiate-like physiological signs such as pupil constriction.

This last point also demonstrates that placebo is not solely about expectancy, belief or ‘being fooled’, as the heroin users knew they were injecting themselves with water. Conditioned responses play a role.

This can also be seen from the fact that these specific effects of placebo tend to fade after a while, as the conditioning becomes extinguished.

The fact that placebo can be a relatively safe, effective, and sometimes selective treatment has led some to argue that doctors should be able to use it officially (although, of course, many use it unofficially).

Law professor Adam Kolber (who you may know from the excellent Neuroethics and Law blog) wrote a fascinating paper last year that reviewed the research and argued that in limited circumstances, placebos could be ethically used.

The article is available online and I really recommend reading the ‘Avoiding Deception’ section if nothing else – for series of recommendations on how placebo could be used without straight up deception.

Link to NYT on buy-your-own placebos for kids.
Link to JRSM article on placebo. Full text here (thanks Ines!).
Link to Adam Kolber’s article (scroll down for free full text download).

Spellbound by the box

A quote from the sardonic Alfred Hitcock where he notes the curious interaction between mind doctors and the moving image:

“Television has done much for psychiatry by spreading information about it, as well as contributing to the need for it.”

I suspect he was commenting on concerns about negative effects of television, although I wonder whether he still might say the same, in light of the enduring influence of pharmaceutical adverts and claims of disease mongering.

Hitchcock himself was famously fascinated by the psychiatry of the day, and his films are well known for containing Freudian themes.

The most obvious was Spellbound, which featured psychiatrists, a psychoanalytic plot, and a symbolic dream sequence designed by Salvador Dalí.

Free choice and the female science divide

The Boston Globe has a provocative article that sheds some new light on the old debate over why there are so few women in maths and physical science subjects. One important factor seems to be that they simply choose other professions, but if you think this answer is too simplistic, there may be more to it than meets the eye.

It no longer seems to be the case that women are being explicitly blocked from maths, physics and engineering jobs, although the number of women in these professions is still very small.

One strong argument for why women are in the minority is that they suffer from the effects of implicit sexism, a system designed to take advantage of male attributes and life choices.

Some argue that the lack of support and consideration for women’s lives puts them off, and so they decide against what seems like a bad option.

However, the article presents an interesting piece of evidence against this as being the major influence.

In her controversial new book, “The Sexual Paradox: Men, Women, and the Real Gender Gap,” [Susan] Pinker gathers data from the journal Science and a variety of sources that show that in countries where women have the most freedom to choose their careers, the gender divide is the most pronounced.

The United States, Norway, Switzerland, Canada, and the United Kingdom, which offer women the most financial stability and legal protections in job choice, have the greatest gender split in careers. In countries with less economic opportunity, like the Philippines, Thailand, and Russia, she writes, the number of women in physics is as high as 30 to 35 percent, versus 5 percent in Canada, Japan, and Germany.

“It’s the opposite of what we’d expect,” says Pinker. “You’d think the more family-friendly policies, and richer the economy, the more women should behave like men, but it’s the opposite. I think with economic opportunity comes choices, comes freedom.”

If the gender gap in many fields has its roots in women’s own preferences, that raises a new line of questions, including the most obvious: Why do women make these choices? Why do they prefer different kinds of work? And what does “freedom of choice” really mean in a world that is still structured very differently for men and women?

Of course, this doesn’t deny that there are still other reasons why women might be put off these careers (lack of female role models, perception / effect of a ‘boys club’ etc) but it’s interesting that support for female physical scientists seems not to correlate with their numbers.

The article also mentions an interesting point that women with high maths ability tend to have good verbal ability (meaning they have a much wider potential choice of careers) whereas this is less often the case with men. In essence, the article argues that women would rather select jobs with more human contact.

It’s probably worth saying that in the life sciences, females predominate. In fact, in psychology, men are typically outnumbered 10-1. Clinical psychology tends to be even more extreme.

Despite the vanishingly small number of male psychology undergraduates, I’ve never heard of any effort to recruit or attract more males to the subject.

I’m always curious as to why having few males in life sciences doesn’t seem to bother people but having few females in maths or physics does.

Can’t we have some equality in our equality?

Link to Boston Globe article on women in science and engineering.

Like a bullet in the head

Neurophilosophy has collected some of the most unusual cases of penetrating brain injury from the medical literature, with x-rays that illustrate how some of the most curious objects can end up on the wrong side of the bony brain protector.

You may recognise a couple that we’ve noted before on Mind Hacks, but this is a far more complete and frankly quite surprising collection.

The most amazing is the case of a “32-year-old Caucasian male with a history of repeated self-injury drilled a hole in his skull using a power tool and subsequently introduced intracerebrally a binding wire from a sketchpad”.

A striking, and, in some places, stomach churning collection of case studies.

Link to Neurophilosophy on unusual penetrating brain injuries.

Mental illness following The Exorcist

Horror movie The Exorcist remains one of cinema’s darkest and most frightening classics. So great was its power that rumours circulated about viewers running in fear, feinting, or even going mad after seeing the film. In fact, it caused such concern that it was discussed in the medical literature for its possible role in triggering mental illness.

In 1975 psychiatrist James Bozzuto wrote an article for the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease entitled ‘Cinematic Neurosis Following The Exorcist’ that reported four cases of previously untroubled people who seemed to develop psychiatric difficulties after watching the film.

I’ll return to the case reports in a moment, but it’s probably worth mentioning that Bozzuto was not alone in discussing the possible ‘destabilising’ effect of the film. In fact, his commentary was remarkably reserved in comparison to some of his contemporaries.

A 1974 Time magazine article quoted some of his less inhibited colleagues:

After seeing the film, two young Chicagoans required hospitalization. “They’re way out in leftfield,” said Dr. Louis Schlan, psychiatrist and medical director of Riveredge Hospital in Forest Park, Ill. “They see themselves possessed by Satan.”

Many others who have seen the film experience nightmares, hysteria and an undefined, but nevertheless profound apprehension. “It is dangerous for people with weak ego control,” explains Dr. Vladimir Piskacek, a Manhattan sociologist and psychiatrist, “but it would not cause psychosis.” Small children may suffer from hallucinations after seeing The Exorcist, but Dr. Piskacek doubts that the film would permanently impair even an immature mind.

Predictably, there are widespread objections to the film’s R rating, which permits youths under 17 to see it if accompanied by a parent. Manhattan Child Psychiatrist Hilde Mosse warns that the film provides a “deadly mixture of sex, violence and evil. The idea that we can solve our problems by magic instead of by rational solutions is destructive. I lived through this before Hitler came to power. He said, ‘Listen to the language of your pure Germanic blood, your unconscious.’ The Jews in Germany then became the devil to be exorcised. The only thing The Exorcist can do,” Dr. Mosse concludes emphatically, “is to pull young people down to a primitive level.”

With Hitler, hallucinating children and Satanic possession being invoked in relation to the film, it’s no wonder that people had anxieties about its influence.

Bozzuto’s explanation for his four case studies is perhaps a little mundane in comparison, but the influence of the media hysteria is plain to see.

One case is particularly striking, owing to gentleman’s florid magical thinking about the Devil and his possible malign influence.

Case 4. Mr. Lyle H. was a 24-year-old black male who initially came to the emergency room for three visits approximately 1 month after seeing “The Exorcist”. At that time, he complained of flashbacks and of getting “nervous”, especially with his two children and his wife; he was frightened that his 5-year-old daughter was possessed, had insomnia, and felt that certain people “looked strange”. He was given Vallium and referred to the Psychiatric Clinic. After being contacted for his first interview, he was fearful of coming for he felt that the therapist may have been involved with the Devil.

The patient stated that he knew little about the movie but had seen it discussed on a TV talk show before. He went with his wife and another couple. He was so upset during the movie that he had to walk out, and afterward he was frightened, feeling that the Devil “would come”. He had immediate insomnia, 15-pound weight loss over the past month, and numerous nightmares of vampires chasing women with himself interfering. He could not look people directly in the eye for fear he might imagine them to be devils…

Also, since seeing the movie, he complained of a stiff neck which he related to an identification with the girl in the movie. He was afraid to use a razor that his brother-in-law had given him because it might be stolen and it would imply he had done something wrong and would therefore be like the Devil.

Bozzuto suggests that each of his patients was already under significant pressure and the film was the last stressful straw that broke the camel’s back.

He also suggests, invoking the spirit of Freud, that the movie’s theme of losing control to the love-hate figure of the Devil may have had special significance for the four, each of which was apparently struggling with an ambivalent relationship.

According to Bozzuto, the similarity triggered repressed feelings, leading to an emotional crisis and a subsequent breakdown.

While the cases remain entirely anecdotal, it’s interesting that they made it into print at all, considering that almost all films have the potential to trigger emotional crises in some.

The fact that the issue of ‘Exorcist madness’ was considered serious enough to appear in a medical journal is more likely testament to the fact that the film touched a raw nerve in the America of the 1970s, than the fact that it raised the hackles of some of its audience members.

Link to PubMed entry for ‘Cinematic neurosis following The Exorcist’.
Link to Time article ‘Exorcist fever’.

‘Miracle cure’ for dyslexia fails to make the grade

Today’s edition of Bad Science covers a so-called ‘miracle cure’ for dyslexia which has been persistently promoted in the UK media, despite numerous complaints upheld by media regulators, veiled threats of legal action against people who say it doesn’t work and five editors of a scientific journal resigning over the publication of a flawed study on the treatment.

Personally, I would have thought anyone promoting their ‘treatment’ under the name “miracle cure” is asking for trouble but apparently with enough celebrity endorsement you can get away with promoting your product without the need for irony (quite hard work in modern Britain, I can tell you).

The system was developed by paint millionaire Wynford Dore and involves various balancing and co-ordination exercises supposedly to strengthen the cerebellum, which Dore argues is functionally impaired in dyslexia.

There’s actually a fair amount of independent research on the role of the cerebellem in dyslexia but, sadly, the idea that exercises might help treat this has the sole drawback of not being supported by the scientific evidence.

Interestingly, it seems that the company went bankrupt yesterday and have just closed up shop. That might have been a result of charging £2,000 for the course.

Ben Goldacre has more on the whole sordid tale over at Bad Science.

Link to Bad Science on the Dore ‘miracle’ ‘cure’ for dyslexia.

Terry Pratchett, on the ropes

On the Ropes, BBC Radio 4’s programme about people in difficult situations, interviews author Terry Pratchett about his recent diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.

In the first half of the interview, Pratchett talks about his early years as a writer and how he came to write the Discworld series and other novels.

In the latter half, he talks through the realisation that he had Alzheimer’s, from being tested for his initial relatively minor stroke, to being more comprehensively assessed for his ongoing cognitive difficulties.

He gives a fascinating first-person account of how he experiences the difficulties and the effects of the medication on his mind.

After his diagnosis, Pratchett was surprised at how little Alzheimer’s disease research was going on and donated half a million points pounds to scientific research.

Pratchett fans have set up Match It For Pratchett, a drive to match the Discworld author’s donation and boost degenerative brain research.

Link to On the Ropes interview with Terry Pratchett.
Link to Match It For Pratchett.