The itch is special

The New Yorker has an excellent article on the neurology of the itch, that curious cutaneous sensation that seems to be handled quite differently from other bodily sensations by the brain.

I warn you, the article is quite icky in places, with a particularly stomach churning case study in one place, but I was quite fascinated to find out that the sensation of the itch seems to rely on itch dedicated nerve cells, distinct from the nerves that transmit pain.

It prompted me to look up some of the literature on the cognitive neuroscience of itch and it turns out there’s quite a healthy number of research studies that are suggesting there may be distinct brain networks for processing itch sensations.

One of the most interesting things is that itch seems to be one of the sensations most sensitive to psychological state. For example, I guarantee you’ll feel more itchy just reading the article (and probably already reading this).

The New Yorker does a great job of relating this work to wider cognitive science discoveries in perception and the neurology of body image, even touching on the fact that people with phantom limbs can feel itches.

Link to New Yorker article ‘The Itch’ (via Frontal Cortex).

Breakdown in the Globe and Mail

All this week, Canada’s Globe and Mail has a fantastic special on mental health entitled Breakdown, relating the personal experiences of people who’ve experienced the extremes of thought and mood, and talking to some of the mental health professionals who work to assist people through times of mental turmoil.

During the coming week, articles on employment and mental health, addiction, mental illness and the law, fighting stigma and the Canadian way of treating mental disorder will be published on a day-by-day basis.

It’s already incredibly comprehensive though, with video interviews, articles and audio slideshows focusing on the life stories of people who’ve been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and anxiety disorders, as well as an interview with psychiatrist David Goldbloom, one of Canada’s head honchos in mental health.

From what I’ve seen already, and I’m still exploring, it’s a wonderfully put together, powerful and engaging project.

Hats off to The Globe and Mail.

UPDATE: I just watched the interview with psychiatrist David Goldbloom and the last five minutes have a striking reading from an 1841 letter. After hearing the letter, the author might surprise you. Well worth checking out.

Link to Globe and Mail special (via MeFi).

Encephalon 48 makes an entrance

Neuroanthropology has just released the latest edition of the Encephalon psychology and neuroscience writing carnival, where there’s a line-up of the last fortnight’s best in mind and brain blogging.

A couple of my favourites include an interesting look at the science of out of body experiences, and another on the Amazonian Mundurucu tribe who have no formal maths but who apparently have a logarithmic mapping of numbers onto space.

It’s quite a diverse edition and it seems some of the anthropologically inclined readers of Neuroanthropology have submitted posts as there’s some welcome new faces.

Link to Encephalon 48.

Psychobabble and the expressions we love to hate

PsyBlog has asked readers to nominate the worst examples of psychobabble, to identify verbal crimes against neuroscience, and to nominate where the language of cognitive science is being most used and abused. The best of the worst will be collected and published online, so now’s your chance to name and shame.

There are a few great examples there already and you can either add your contribution to the comments or email Jeremy with your nomination.

My contribution would be the term “hardwired”, which is surely one of the most abused terms in both science journalism and everyday language.

Presumably, it originally meant an innate behaviour or process that is almost entirely genetically determined, or at least, is present from birth without the need for prior experience.

However, it gets used to refer to almost biological finding or reported sex difference.

According to even usually quite reliable sources, we’re “hardwired” for money, risky behaviour, religion, feeling others’ pain, art, fraud, oh, and liking pink, if you’re a girl of course.

Anyway, if you’ve got any misleading jargon that’s been bothering you, do send them on.

Link to PsyBlog’s request for psychobabble.

Suicide, phone masts and magnetic underpants

The Sunday Express is one of the UK’s biggest selling Sunday papers and today’s front page is spectacularly half-cocked, attempting to link suicides to phone masts based on an unpublished study, by a man who sells cranky radiation protection devices, and who seems to have only the feintest grasp of neurobiology.

Roger Coghill (incorrectly described as Dr Coghill in the article), is an independent researcher who argues that radiation from mobile phone masts and electricity cables causes cancer, kills children and, now, is a suicide risk.

The study isn’t published, is not available on his website, and may still turn out to be an interesting well controlled study of mobile phone mast proximity and suicide risk. I’ve requested a copy of the research report, so hopefully I’ll find out, but from the way it is described, I suspect it won’t be.

According to the article, the people who recently killed themselves in a spate of suicides centred around the South Wales town of Bridgend lived closer to a mobile phone mast than the average for each home across the country.

Now, it strikes me that the average distance from a mobile phone mast in any small town is going to be less than the national average because mobile phone masts tend to be clustered around where people live.

So you’d want to do two things. The first, is control for population density, the second is compare the correlation between suicide rate and mobile phone mast distance with other small towns, because you’d want to be sure that this wasn’t a spurious correlation. Neither are mentioned.

According to Mr Coghill, however:

What seems to be happening is that the electrical energy is having an effect on the chemistry of the brain, depleting serotonin levels. We know that in depression serotonin levels are low and that a standard treatment for depression is to give drugs to boost serotonin levels. As they begin to work, the patient’s depression lifts.

So what evidence is there that mobile phone mast radiation affects serotonin levels in the brain? None that I can find. Really, nothing at all. I’d be interested to hear otherwise.

In fact, the whole idea that serotonin, depression and suicide are linked so simply is highly suspect.

Studies that have looked at this association using measures of serotonin metabolites, transporter proteins, receptor density and binding, depletion studies and genetics show remarkably mixed results.

While, on average, there seems to be something up with serotonin neurotransmission in the brains of people diagnosed with depression, the evidence suggests that the ‘low serotonin = depression’ idea is so over-simplified to be virtually useless.

However, those of you who are keen to take precautions even without a good scientific basis may be interested in purchasing some ‘protective devices’ that also lack a good scientific basis.

Mr Coghill’s company also sells lots of useful devices to ‘shield’ you and your pet, and a number of other devices to harness the ‘healing power’ of magnets.

This includes a ‘small discrete unit that attaches to your underwear’ to boost your flagging libido.

This rather obvious conflict of interest is not mentioned in the article.

Anyway, I will await the mystery research report and see whether I need to be avoiding phone masts or putting magnets down my pants.

Link to shining example of how not to do science journalism.

Popcorn reinforcement

Miss Conduct, one of the columnists from The Boston Globe, has picked up on our post about the uncanny resemblance between psychologist Joey Tempest and 80s rock legend Steven Pinker, and noted several other surprising likenesses in the world of cognitive science.

Pictured is the probably-separated-at-birth behaviourist B.F. Skinner and popcorn mogul Orville Redenbacher.

There are several others which raise the question whether celebrities have been routinely disguising themselves as psychologists throughout the years.

Or whether psychologists have been disguising themselves as celebrities. Or wombats, in one case.

Link to Miss Conduct on psychology likenesses.

Female PsyOps soldier dies in Afghanistan

The papers are full of reports about Corporal Sarah Bryant, the first female soldier from the UK forces to die in Aghanistan at the tragically young age of 26. Bryant was serving in Afghanistan as a member of the 15 (UK) Psychological Operations Group, a tri-service PsyOps support service to the British Armed Forces.

The group released a 2007/2008 annual report, and the pdf is available online via the excellent PsyWar website.

One of the key roles of 15 (UK) PSYOPS Group seems to be similar to the US military’s human terrain system, that is, understanding the structure and dynamics of the local society and influencing the people within it.

The bedrock underpinning effective PSYOPS is Target Audience Analysis (TAA) linked to timely intelligence support. TAA involves the systematic study of people in order to enhance our understanding of a military psychological environment. TAA is crucial to the PSYOPS Estimate process and aims to: identify Target Audience attitudes, vulnerabilities and susceptibilities, developing lines of persuasion, key communicators and appropriate symbology and media to exploit a line of persuasion.

In the introduction to the report, the Group Commanding Officer cites ‘Manoeuvrism‘ as one of their key philosophies – an approach that aims to unpredictably strike the enemy at their weak points, rather than use sheer force in pitched battle.

Needless to say, accurate, up-to-date intelligence is essential for this approach and PsyOps has become a key part in this process.

Which is probably why these services seem to have been keen to recruit human scientists during the last few years to try and expand their services.

pdf of 15 (UK) PSYOPS Group 2007/2008 annual report.
Link to PsyWar website.

Rock psychology

The Guardian profiles the life and work of psychologist Steven Pinker, noting both his controversial views on human nature and his “trademark rock-star chic”.

Here at Mind Hacks, we’re glad someone else has finally picked up on Professor Pinker’s rock n’ roll credentials as we’ve noted for some time that he bears an uncanny resemblance to Joey Tempest, lead singer of 80s rock band Europe.

Has anyone ever seen them in the same place? Is there something missing from Pinker’s official biography? I think we should be told.

Link to profile in The Guardian.

2008-06-20 Spike activity

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

Clear thinking science writer Carl Zimmer discusses the evolution of the mind in a video lecture.

Pure Pedantry looks at a new study on serotonin and rejection in the Ultimatum Game.

The increasingly excellent Frontier Psychiatrist has a good post on neurosyphilis.

The New York Times has a brief piece on the neuroscience of schizophrenia with funky animation and auditory commentary.

Developmental language disorder is the subject of a Health Report special.

The Chicago Reader interviews the author of ‘Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness’ (thanks Melissa!).

Neurophilosophy examines new research on the neuropsychology of confabulations.

Senior moments and the ageing brain are discussed on NPR Radio.

Not Exactly Rocket Science covers some fascinating research on the facial expression of fear and the experimental creation of ‘anti-faces’.

Illusion Sciences is a great blog about the science of visual illusions.

Popular herbal supplement Ginkgo ‘does not treat dementia’, according to BBC News.

Research on porn and mirror neurons involves a sloppy reverse inference. Sadly, not as sexy as it sounds.

Furious Seasons on the fact that GlaxoSmithKline are being investigated for allegedly falsifying data on paroxetine and suicide.

People who are sexually attracted to walls, computers and a range of other inanimate objects are featured in an article in Bizarre magazine.

New Scientist suggest that self-obsessed, manipulative and deceitful men have the most sex… oh hang on, it should be ‘report having the most sex’. I knew there was a flaw in there somewhere.

Some excellent local news reporting on the brain imaging research of Nottingham neuroscientist Richard Ramsey.

Film content, editing, and directing style affect brain activity. As does popcorn I presume.

The Telegraph looks at the science of why we scream.

Political philosophers seem to vote less often than other philosophers, according to Eric Schwitzgebel’s fantastic ongoing project to examine the utility of philosophy.

Discover Magazine has a great short video on research showing that ADHD may be delayed brain maturation that eventually catches up.

The endowment effect and the psychological influence of property is discusses by The Economist.

The Atlantic publishes two pages of absolute drivel about brain scans and FKF Research (who else?). Slate takes them to task for publishing such nonsense.

Rabble rousing psychologist Richard Lynn cites IQ – atheism correlation as causal in the Times Higher Ed.

Reality at the far reaches of the world

Anthropologist and explorer Wade Davis gave a couple of inspiring talks to the TED conference on how the beliefs and traditions of different cultures fundamentally alter not only views about the world, but the experience of reality itself.

Both are fantastic, not only because Davis is a gripping speaker, but also because he highlights the sheer beauty and diversity of the world’s peoples and cultural practices – from Voodoo rituals in Haiti to the Inuit of Northern Canada.

The first explores cultures in some of the world’s harder to reach areas, while the second focuses on the diversity of belief and ritual across the planet.

Davis is perhaps best known for his early work on Voodoo, the process of zombification, and his discovery that the neurotoxin tetrodotoxin may be an essential part of the process.

This work was published in the scientific literature, but also in two well-known books, The Serpent and the Rainbow and Passage of Darkness.

Administration of tetrodotoxin is unlikely to be the sole explanation for zombification, however.

A 1997 paper in the medical journal Lancet reported on three cases, where what Western medicine would call mental illness and neurological impairment seemed to be present in three cases of people labelled zombies by locals in Haiti.

Anthropology is perhaps one of the smallest schools of human study, but, I think, one of the most important. It constantly reminds us that our way of seeing the world is firmly located in the culture that we live in, and that everything we understand is filtered through our own perspective.

Link to video of ‘Cultures at the far edge of the world’.
Link to video of ‘The worldwide web of belief and ritual’.
pdf of ‘Clinical findings in three cases of zombification’.

Good vibrations

While looking through the Journal of the American Medical Association, I found this fascinating and glowing review of Rachel Maines’ book ‘The Technology of Orgasm’ that uncovers the history of how vibrators were originally popularised created to cure ‘hysteria’ in women as a Victorian medical treatment.

Hysteria has had many medical meanings through the millenia, but at the time Maines was writing about, it was a catch-all anxiety-related diagnosis usually applied to women.

While perusing turn-of-the-century magazines such as Modern Priscilla and Woman’s Home Companion, Maines was surprised to find any number of advertisements for electric vibrators. As early as 1899, she writes, machines that closely resemble modern sexual aids were marketed to women as health-promoting, antiaging devices. “All the pleasures of youth will throb within you,” proclaimed one such advertisement for White Cross vibrators in 1913. Was this early vibrator, which predated the invention of the vacuum cleaner and electric iron by a decade, merely a sexual toy sold under the guise of a medical device?

Not so, according to Maines, who describes how the vibrator was invented in the 1880s as a medical appliance. In a scrupulously researched chapter‚Äîone of the best in her book‚ÄîMaines provides a unique and fascinating history of hysteria, ending with Freud’s revision of the diagnosis in the early 1900s. Maines shows that hysteria is described in medical texts as early as 2000 BC in Egypt. Although physicians throughout history disagreed about the exact symptoms of hysteria, “anxiety, sleeplessness, irritability, erotic fantasy, sensations of heaviness in the abdomen, lower pelvic edema, and vaginal lubrication” were said to be among its many manifestations.

Believing hysteria to be caused by sexual frustration, physicians proposed that the uterus became engorged with “seed” and wandered upward inside the body until it threatened to choke its host. Treatments for hysteria, described as early as the fifth century, include stimulating the vagina and labia of the afflicted patient in order to induce a “hysterical paroxysm.” This “crisis,” during which a patient might thrust her pelvis suggestively, utter cries of pleasure, and briefly appear to lose consciousness, was thought to return the uterus to its rightful place. Maines goes on to say that treatment for hysteria was protracted, with patients typically seen weekly for an indefinite period.

Probably for those cases of treatment resistant hysteria I would imagine.

Slate has a NSFW slideshow tracking the early history of the vibrator with photos of some of these original adverts and ‘medical aids’. Although, it’s NSFW, it’s not really that erotic I’m afraid. Sorry about that.

The review is from 1999 and it turns out that the book won two prestigious academic history awards after publication.

Sadly the JAMA book review is closed-access and behind a pay wall. Don’t the American Medical Association know information is like love? It’s better when it’s free.

Link to JAMA book review, closeted behind a pay wall.
Link to Slate slideshow on the history of the vibrator.
Link to more info on Rachel Maines’ book.

Counting in the language without numbers

The Pirah√£ are a tribe in the Brazilian Amazon who apparently don’t have words for specific numbers. A recent study reported by Science News suggests that despite this, the Pirah√£ people can do numerical tasks, challenging the idea that we need number words to think about and recognize exact quantities.

The study was led by psycholinguist Michael Franks who was interested in previous reports that the Pirah√£ only have words for ‘one’, ‘two’ and ‘many’.

Previous researchers had put a single object on a table, asked a Pirah√£ participant “How much is this?”, added another, asked again and so on, while responses were recorded when different words were used for different quantities.

Frank did the same, but also counted down, starting with a large number of objects and taking one away each time.

He got different answers for the same number of objects and it transpired that the words didn’t mean ‘one’, ‘two’ and ‘many’, as previously thought, but ‘few’, ‘some’ and ‘more’.

In fact, the researchers noted that the Pirah√£ have no linguistic method whatsoever for expressing exact quantity, not even ‘one’.

In a subsequent part, the researchers asked the Pirah√£ participants to do several matching tasks. Some just involved the researchers lining up several objects and asking the participants to match the quantity with a different type of object, with some variation for position and grouping.

Other tasks involved the researchers counting out objects and then hiding them, or counting them into a can.

The Pirah√£ were easily able to do the more straightforward matching tasks, but as soon as they needed to transform the number of items across position or after a delay, they started making errors.

The researchers argue that this suggests we don’t need number words to think about quantity, but they are useful tools to augment our memory.

In other words, numbers are a culturally developed cognitive technology allowing us to remember and compare information about quantity over time and across situations.

Link to abstract of scientific study.
Link to Science News article ‘Numbers beyond words’.

Psychology Today blog network launches

Popular psychology magazine Psychology Today have launched their own blog network with some of the biggest names in psychology, psychiatry and philosophy of mind regularly writing for it.

As a magazine, PsyToday has had a long reputation for being a bit populist and light on what most psychologists what actually think of as psychology.

That seems to have been changing in recent years and there’s been a consistent increase in the quality of the articles.

For their blog network, they seem to have recruited some of the most interesting and well-known researchers from around the world to write for them, including Dan Ariely, Jesse Bering, Peter Kramer, Nassir Ghaemi, Roy Baumeister, Nancy Segal, Scott Lilienfeld to name but a few of the many.

The latest posts are at the top, but scroll down for the (huge!) complete list of contributors.

Link to Psychology Today blog network (via Neurophilosophy).

Number of bumper stickers predicts road rage

Pure Pedantry has picked up on a wonderful study that has found that incidences of road rage correlate with the number of bumper stickers a person has on their car.

The abstract below suggests that bumper stickers are potentially an expression of territorial markers and that aggressive people are more likely to use more, but I think we all know it’s just down to the fact that “my other car is a Ferrari” just isn’t funny any more.

Territorial Markings as a Predictor of Driver Aggression and Road Rage

Journal of Applied Social Psychology, Vol 38 (6) p1664-1688, June 2008

William J. Szlemko, Jacob A. Benfield, Paul A. Bell, Jerry L. Deffenbacher, Lucy Troup

Aggressive driving has received substantial media coverage during the past decade. We report 3 studies testing a territorial explanation of aggressive driving. Altman (1975) described attachment to, personalization of, and defense of primary territories (e.g., home) as being greater than for public territories (e.g., sunbathing spot on a beach). Aggressive driving may occur when social norms for defending a primary territory (i.e., one’s automobile) become confused with less aggressive norms for defending a public territory (i.e., the road). Both number of territory markers (e.g., bumper stickers, decals) and attachment to the vehicle were significant predictors of aggressive driving. Mere presence of a territory marker predicts increased use of the vehicle to express anger and decreased use of adaptive/constructive expressions.

Link to Pure Pedantry on the study.
Link to abstract of scientific study.

Polishing the rough edges of neuroscience

Boss magazine has a great article on both the cutting edge and the rough edges of neuroscience, discussing how the rapid commercialisation of brain science is pushing us into grey areas of social change.

The piece is by ABC All in the Mind journalist Natasha Mitchell and is only hampered by the fact it’s displayed by a bizarre Flash interface that is presumably meant to stop people cutting and pasting.

Over the past year, what has made headlines includes the brains of US voters, murderers, wine drinkers, coma patients, even cockroaches. Studies that caught our attention probed political persuasion, mind-reading, morality, alcoholism, adolescence and ageing. Believe the headlines and we’ve entered an age of neuro-marketing, neuro-economics, neuro-theology, neuro-leadership and even neuro-architecture.

Many people hold much hope for this research. Brain banks are on the increase, with folk bequeathing their most precious organ to the scientific cause. Scientists are starting to better understand the neural and genetic underpinnings of behavioural and neurological problems, and of healthy heads too. But are we at risk of taking this knowledge too far, too fast? Absolutely.

The same goes for Flash programming obviously.

With perfect synchronicity, this week’s edition of ABC Radio National’s All in the Mind covers similar territory, discussing the potential impact of the widespread use of ‘smart drugs’ such as modafinil and methylphenidate.

Link to Flash encased article ‘Studying the species’.
Link to AITM on smart drugs and neuroethics.

Return of the ‘gay brain’

News that a neuroimaging study has found that the brains of gay participants more closely resemble those of their straight, opposite sex counterparts is being widely reported, but one of the most interesting details is largely being ignored.

The study was completed by neuroscientists Ivanka Savic and Per Lindstrom and had two parts.

The first and most widely reported part compared the brain structure of 25 homosexual men, 25 heterosexual men, 20 homosexual women and 20 heterosexual women.

The punchline is that in a measure of brain symmetry, straight men and gay women were similar, and gay men and straight women were similar.

But this isn’t the most interesting part in itself. Structural brain differences between gay and straight participants have been reported before, although this new study was better designed as it included both males and females.

What is most intriguing about this new study is a further investigation assessed amygdala function in each side of the brain. In particular, it looked at the balance of activity between the two hemispheres when the participants were asked just to breath in unscented air.

The study found that straight men and gay women had greater right sided activity, whereas gay men and straight women showed equal activation on both sides. As with the structural comparisons, the measurements from homosexual participants were similar to their straight, opposite sex counterparts.

The reason this new study is interesting is because it found a functional brain difference in a task that was not specifically linked to sex or attraction.

Previous studies have found functional differences in the brains of gay and straight people, but they have tended to use experiments where participants were presented with either sexual images, gender specific faces, or stimuli linked to sexual activity, such as pheromones.

These are interesting findings, but they may be the result of same-sex sexual activity, rather than an explanation for why people seek it out.

If you have experience of sleeping with same-sex partners, it’s hardly surprising that you may have a different response to same-sex material.

These new findings were from a neutral task. Now it’s possible that lots of same sex experience could affect your brain response to fresh air, but it’s highly unlikely.

It is possible, of course, that same-sex experience could alter the function of specific brain circuits which affects even non-sex related tasks, but these results also suggest the possibility that some more general differences in brain organisation are responsible for a number of effects, including sexual orientation.

This last explanation is what the researchers suggest, and it is another clue that sexual orientation is not simply the result of experience.

Of course, it’s not definite proof, but it is an interesting and important pointer.

Link to abstract of study.
Link to write-up from New Scientist.