Linguistic feathers ruffled by high tech new school

This week’s Nature has a feature article on how a new breed of computational linguists are attempting to understand the evolution of language by using high powered computer models. The traditionalists are not impressed, and accuse the new school of reducing language to numbers and oversimplifying to the point of meaninglessness.

It’s an old debate in the human sciences, and relates to whether aspects of human experience can be meaningfully quantified.

Some psychologists, for example, completely reject any scientific approach to thought and behaviour because they say it strips human experience of exactly what it means to be human – the lived subjective experience of life.

German intellectuals were struggling with similar issues in the 1890s but a related debate arises in consciousness studies in the form of the hard problem.

It wonders how we can explain the fact that our conscious experience – which we understand subjectively, can arise from the biological function of the brain – which we understand empirically and objectively.

While not all problems are quite so intractable, many issues in human science bump up against the maxim “not everything that can be measured is meaningful, and not everything that is meaningful can be measured”.

Whether a particular method gets the balance right is a constant source of arguments.

The Nature article notes that traditional linguists tend to use their interpretation of word meaning combined with historical records to track how language has developed over time, while newer methods code rough assumptions into numerical models and then compute likely patterns.

It is putting it mildly to say that many historical linguists find the evolutionary biologists working on language histories to be bungling interlopers who have no idea how to handle linguistic data. It is also an understatement to say that some of these interlopers feel that their critics are hidebound traditionalists working on a hopelessly unverifiable system of hunches, received wisdom and personal taste. And that’s just the mood between the historical linguists and the newcomers. Lots of the newcomers don’t like each other either. ‚ÄúWhy get excited about it when it is still so preliminary?‚Äù says Johanna Nichols, a historical linguist at the University of California, Berkeley. ‚ÄúWe are not impressed by a computational or mathematical paper per se. We have to see that it blends well with what is known by historical linguistics and really adds to our knowledge. Then we will be excited.‚Äù

Link to Nature article ‘The language barrier’.

Psychology’s greatest case studies

BBC Radio 4 have just broadcast a fantastic new radio series called Case Study that looks at some of the most influential, and most remarkable, case studies in the history of psychology.

The most recent edition was on the famous case of Phineas Gage, the 19th century American railway worker who had a 6 foot tamping iron shoot through his head during a railroad construction accident.

Gage’s job was to clear boulders by drilling holes in them, filling the hole with gunpowder, and tamping the charge down with a large iron bar.

If ever there was an accident waiting to happen, this was it, and lo and behold, the iron bar sparked on the rock, igniting the charge and firing the metal rod through his frontal lobes.

The rest, they say, is history. Or rather, is one of the histories, as there are many legends and stories surrounding his life which turn out to be less than reliable.

The programme looks at the known facts, the speculation, and the huge impact of the case on the development of neuroscience, which had never known a patient with such damage to the frontal lobes who had survived before.

The other programmes are equally as interesting, one edition covers the story of the ‘Wild Boy of Aveyron’ who largely grew up in the woods without any human contact, while another edition tackles the case of Kitty Genovese, a young woman who was murdered apparently in full sight of bystanders who failed to intervene.

Needless to say, influential cases attract influential myths and psychologists’ favourite ‘fireside stories’ of what occurred don’t always match the known facts.

The series is presented by Claudia Hammond, who also presented the excellent Mind Changes series about influential psychologists, and who will be presenting the upcoming series of BBC All in the Mind.

Thanks to Tenyen for letting me know about the series, although I notice I was pre-empted by Neurophilosophy.

Link to programme on Phineas Gage.
Link to programme on The Wild Boy of Aveyron.
Link to programme to Kitty Genovese.

Crowded thoughts: the 70s boom in multiple personalities

Below is an excerpt from psychologist John Kihlstrom’s ¬≠2005 review article on dissociative disorders where he talks about the sudden ‘epidemic’ of multiple personality disorder, now know as DID, in the 1960s and 70s.

Dissociative Identity Disorder or DID is a diagnosis that describes where someone manifests various personalities, often of a diverse range of people – from children to adults of either sex.

It is controversial partly because diagnoses seemed to massively increase when two famous films on the disorder were popular.

Kihlstrom makes the interesting point that the increase in the number of people diagnosed with the disorder was also matched by an increase in the number of personalities each person seemed to have.

An interesting feature of the DID “epidemic” is an increase not just in the number of cases but also in the number of alter egos reported per case. In the classic literature, the vast majority of cases were of dual personality (Sutcliffe & Jones 1962, Taylor & Martin 1944). By contrast, most of the new cases compiled by Greaves (1980) presented at least three personalities; in two other series, the average number of alter egos was more than 13 (Kluft 1984, Putnam et al. 1986).

As Kenny (1986) noted, it was almost as if there were some kind of contest to determine who could have (or be) the patient with the most alter egos. The famous Eve, of course, appeared to have three personalities (Osgood & Luria 1954, Thigpen & Cleckley 1954). But when popular and professional interest in MPD was stimulated by the case of Sibyl, who was reported to possess 16 different personalities (Schreiber 1973), Eve replied with her own account of her illness, eventually claiming 22 (Sizemore & Huber 1988).

Despite the almost-infinite number of possible synaptic connections in the brain, one might say that the mind simply is not big enough to hold so many personalities. The proliferation of alter egos within cases, as well as the proliferation of cases, has been one of the factors leading to skepticism about the disorder itself.

In general, dissociative disorders are where one part of consciousness seems to be ‘split off’ or inaccessible to another.

For example, psychogenic amnesia or conversion disorder (‘hysteria’) are more common examples and hypnosis seems to reliably induce the phenomena in some people.

These are still some of the most mysterious processes in psychology and are fraught with controversy, particularly as they’re often linked to repressed memories from abuse or trauma.

This is one of the more difficult areas to study scientifically because it largely relies on self-report, and Kihlstrom notes there is still no convincing evidence that trauma or abuse leads to amnesia for the event.

Link to PubMed abstract of Kihlstrom’s review.
Link to full-text of pre-print.

Virtual Iraq used to treat post-war trauma in US vets

Continuing yesterday’s virtual reality theme, The New Yorker has an in-depth article about how US Iraq veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder are being treated in a VR simulation of battle situations.

The VR simulation is actually a modified version of Full Spectrum Warrior, a military tactics video game that was first developed to train US army soldiers before being released as a commercial product.

PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can be diagnosed if a person has experienced a potentially life threatening experience, and has intrusive traumatic memories, persistently increased arousal, and avoids reminders of the event.

Helping someone re-visit aspects of the original experience is an important part of the psychological therapy. This is relatively easy for someone who was traumatised in a traffic accident, but is considerably more difficult for a soldier who was traumatised in a distant and still-active war zone.

Virtual reality aims to safely simulate the environment and features of combat. The idea is that the intensity can be controlled by the therapist to manage exposure and to make sure the patient is never challenged with more anxiety than they can manage.

“This shows you why you need a trained therapist,” Rizzo said, turning off the machine and watching Aristone, who was bent over, with his hands on his knees, taking deep breaths. “Someone who knows exposure therapy, who knows how little things can set people off. You have to understand the patient. You have to know which stimuli to select. You’d never do what I just did—you’d never flood them. You have to know when to ramp up the challenges. Someone comes in and all they can do is sit in the Humvee, maybe with the sound of wind, and may have to spend a session or two just in that position. For P.T.S.D., it’s really intuitive. We provide a lot of options and put them into the hands of the clinician.”

One of these is Karen Perlman, a civilian psychologist who uses Virtual Iraq with patients at the Naval Medical Center San Diego. Perlman is an apple-cheeked, middle-aged native Californian with cascading brown hair, who, when I met her, was wearing an elegant short black dress with a pink-blue-and-purple tie-dyed silk scarf. At first glance, Perlman does not seem to be the sort of person a young marine would cotton to, but Rizzo says that she has a gift, and so far eight of the nine patients she has treated no longer meet the criteria for P.T.S.D. (This number does not account for those who dropped out.) “It’s a very collaborative relationship,” she told me in February, when Skip Rizzo and I drove down to San Diego. “I know which stimuli I’m going to add as the therapy progresses. I’m not going to overwhelm them. There are no surprises. I say, ‘I think you’re ready for the I.E.D. blast or for more airplanes.’ I’m not only adding more, but increasing the duration of each one. It’s intensive, but for P.T.S.D. you need a treatment that is intensive.”

The team have published some published some initial studies from the treatment which looks promising.

The project joins a growing number of studies that have found VR a promising method for treating trauma.

Link to New Yorker article ‘Virtual Iraq’.

The Strange Case of the Electronic Lover

The Strange Case of the Electronic Lover was an influential article by Lindsy Van Gelder that examined how a case of gender-bending identity faking from the early days of online chatrooms impacted on a virtual community.

I’d read it many years ago when it was published in the book, Computerization and Controversy, but have just found a scanned copy on the net as a <a href="”>pdf.

It’s entirely anecdotal but it’s a fascinating read (although has been scanned in sideways, so you’ll have to print it, or rotate it on screen – Acrobat users, you can right click to rotate documents).

What I hadn’t remembered was the identities of the person and the alter-ego:

I soon learned that [Talkin’ Lady’s] real name was Joan Sue Green, and that she was a New York neuropsychologist in her late twenties, who had been severely disfigured in a car accident that was the fault of a drunken driver. The accident had killed her boyfriend.

Joan had spent a year in hospital being treated for brain damage, which affected both her speech and her ability to walk. Mute, confined to a wheelchair, and frequently suffering from intense back and leg pain, Joan had been at first so embittered about her disabilities that she literally didn’t want to live.

Then her mentor, a former professor at John Hopkins, presented her with a computer, a modem, and a year’s subscription to CompuServe to be used specifically doing what Joan was doing – making friends online…

Over the next two years, she became a monumental on-line presence who served as both a support for other disabled women and as an inspiring stereotype-smasher to the able-bodied. Through her many intense friendships and (in some cases) her on-line romances, she changed the lives of dozens of women.

Thus it was a huge shock early this year when, through a complicated series of events, Joan was revealed as being not disabled at all. More to the point, Joan, in fact, was not a woman. She was really a man we’ll call Alex – a prominent New York psychiatrist in his early fifties who was engaged in a bizarre, all-consuming experiment to see what it felt like to be a female, and to experience the intimacy of female friendship.

I first came across the case in Sherry Turkle’s book on the psychology of online identity, Life on the Screen, where she described the story as already having “near-legendary status” in 1995 cyberculture.

There is now a growing body of scholarly work on the psychology of the internet but several episodes seem to have become part of the mythos of the subject, partly because they were used to illustrate psychological points before rigorous empirical work had been started.

Incidentally, I tried to look up the author, Lindsy Van Gelder, on the net but found few details. However, I did find this article from the 1980s where she defends her counter-culture credentials against the fact she owned an IBM PC! (a 5150 if I’m not mistaken).

pdf of Van Gelder’s ‘The Strange Case of the Electronic Lover’.

Decline of a Baghdad psychiatric hospital

The New York Times covers the disturbing state of the Ibn Rushid hospital, one of only two psychiatric hospitals in Baghdad that serves the entire population of 6 million.

The article is equally moving and disturbing as it describes how the local citizens are suffering the effects of war with little available assistance while the doctors resort to desperate measures to try and help.

The hospital’s fortunes have changed markedly during the occupation. Apparently in decline since the days of Saddam Hussein, a 2004 Psychiatric News article described how it had been refurbished after being looted by armed men shortly after the beginning of the war.

It now seems that a sharp decline is in progress once more as medication is increasingly scarce and ECT is being given on faulty equipment without anaesthetic or muscle relaxants.

One aspect of Iraq’s mental health system which has been consistently reported since the occupation is the fact that many Iraqi psychiatrists have left the country owing to violence and kidnapping that has targeted doctors.

Both major Baghdad hospital have been sacked by armed looters and have been affected by nearby fighting.

The NYT article is accompanied by a photo essay that documents a day in the life of the Ibn Rushid hospital.

Link to NYT article ‘War Takes Toll on Baghdad Psychiatric Hospital’.
Link to NYT photo essay.

Virtual paranoia

The Royal College of Psychiatrists podcast has a fascinating interview with psychologist Daniel Freeman who discusses his recent study that used virtual reality to study paranoid thinking.

Freeman has pioneered the use of VR in studying paranoia to try and understand how individual psychological differences contribute to suspiciousness and fear.

Of course, it’s possible to use real life environments to see how exposure relates to paranoid thinking. In fact, the same research group has studied how patients with paranoid delusions react to urban environments.

Those familiar with South East London might be interested to know that stressful urban stimulus in this experiment was a walk down Camberwell High Street (as a resident of Camberwell it is disconcerting, although not entirely surprising, to find out I’m living in an experimental condition used to induce paranoid reactions).

For a scientific point of view, one difficulty with using real-life environments to study paranoia is that they are constantly changing and reactive.

This latter point is important because people who are very paranoid might, for instance, behave in a manner that other people find strange and that attracts attention, or in a way that sparks hostility in others.

One way of getting round this is to expose all participants to a virtual reality environment programmed to be identical, so any differences in paranoid thinking between individuals are almost certainly related to how they interpret the situation and not how the environment reacts to them.

In this latest VR study, the environment was programmed to be neutral (a simulation of the London Underground carriage) but about a third of participants from the general population reported paranoid thoughts.

Some of the paranoid thoughts reported in the paper are really quite striking: “There was an aggressive person ‚Äì his intention was to intimidate me and make me feel uneasy” and “One guy looked pissed off and maybe one guy flicked the finger at me”.

I’ve actually been in the simulation, having taken part in a pilot study for a related project, and although it’s a bit clunky (as you can see from the picture) it’s remarkable how its difficult not to have human reactions to the ‘people’ on the train.

Interestingly, the study found that anxiety, worry and the tendency to have anomalous perceptual experiences were associated with paranoid thoughts, as was ‘cognitive inflexibility’ – the tendency to be unable to see alternative explanations for ideas or beliefs.

In the audio interview, Freeman discusses this latest study in more detail and how it relates to what we know about the psychology of paranoia.

UPDATE: Thanks to PsyBlog for alerting me to the fact that a streamed video from the Wellcome Trust has an interview with Dan Freeman and footage from the experiment itself.

Link to RCPsych to podcast on VR and paranoia study.
Link to abstract of study.