2008-06-27 Spike activity

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

More on experimental philosophy. Scientific America has an excellent piece on the curious new form of conceptual engineering.

The BPS Research Digest looks at new research on ‘non-criminal psychopaths‘.

How to win friends and influence people. Cognitive Daily covers some recent research on popularity at school.

NeuroScene has monthly podcast interviews with mind and brain researchers.

I’m a Blind Climber Who “Sees” With His Tongue. Not only a perfect chat-up line, but also an article for Discover Magazine.

The 1930s Marital Scale is now available as an online test!

The Immanent Frame discusses Pascal Boyer’s cognitive explanation of the evolution of religious thought.

Documentary photographs from institutions for people with learning disabilities from 1960s American, discovered by Neurophilosophy.

If you need an antidote after those somewhat disturbing photos, could I recommend the rocktastic Heavy Load.

How Smart Is the Octopus? asks Carl Zimmer.

The Language Log picks up on some sexual pseudoscience from CNN.

Oxytocin may be a useful treatment for social anxiety, reports The Times.

The Onion radio news reports on a successful case of gay conversion therapy.

NeuroQuantology. Not sure quite what to make of it.

<a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/24/health/24deme.html?ei=5087&em=&en=66e6d3978799d897&ex=1214452800&adxnnl=1&adxnnlx=1214330421-orjv8mJqWsiyfnOUB4Wt0w&pagewanted=all
“>Antipsychotics dangerous and overprescribed in dementia, reports The New York Times.

The mighty Neuroanthropology has a great piece on cybernetic theory and neuroanthropology hot from a recent conference.

The Times has an article on government-by-cognitive-bias book ‘Nudge‘.

Psychologist Deric Bownds reviews the brain’s default network.

The second social scientist from the US military’s Human Terrain System is killed in the ongoing conflicts, reports Wired.

Sharp Brains has an excellent interview with psychologist Arthur Cramer about, well, sharpening the brain!

Hot Spanish psychologist talks about psicología y los hombres como mero instrumento de placer. Not the sort of Spanish lessons I remember, sadly.

Advances in the History of Psychology picks up on an intriguing new book on the history of ignorance.

Pharma industry spent $168 million, yes that was $168 million, lobbying US lawmakers in 2007, up by a third from 2006, notes Furious Seasons.

Developing Intelligence has an excellent piece on untraining the brain and the use of meditation and hypnosis to decouple automatic attentional processes.

PsychCentral hits Time

PsychCentral, one of the original internet psychology sites, has recently been featured by Time magazine as one of the 50 best websites of 2008.

One of my favourite PsychCentral features is Flashback which says what was featured on the site 1, 5 and 10 years ago.

That’s a fantastic pedigree for an internet site and being featured in Time is surely a testament to the hard work psychologist John Grohol has put into keeping it updated with quality news and information.

Time allows you to rate each site, so if you’re a fan like me, drop by and show your appreciation.

Link to PsychCentral on Time’s 50 Best Websites 2008.

A strange rite of nudity

“In a way, young Dr Highsmith had plenty of warning. He should have known all was not well that day he came home and discovered his wife performing a strange rite of nudity.

But Highsmith was too wrapped up in the psychiatric problems of a lovely model named Barbara to be aware what was happening to his marriage. Though sex was his business, he found it difficult to keep it strictly business – especially with Barbara giving him an increasing role in her haywire love life…”

The description of Henry Lewis Nixon’s 1954 pulp novel Confessions of a Psychiatrist, billed as “a titillating treatise on the love therapy racket, told with daring sophistication and unblushing frankness”.

It looks like it was also published as a double bill with another book, which, unfortunately, was not about psychiatrists and their daring sophistication / unblushing frankness.

Sadly, there are few details about the book on the net, so if you’re dying to find out what the “strange rite of nudity was”, you’re going to have to track down a copy for yourself.

Link to a few more details.

The fMRI smackdown cometh

Over the last few months, the soul searching over the shortcomings of fMRI brain scanning has escaped the backrooms of imaging labs and has hit the mainstream.

Numerous articles in hard hitting publications have questioned some common assumptions behind the technology, suggesting a backlash against the bright lights of brain scanning is in full swing.

There are two strands to this debate, and both stem from the fact that the technology and conceptual issues of brain imaging are incredibly complex.

To fully understand what happens during a brain imaging experiment you need to be able to grasp quantum physics at one end, to philosophy of mind at the other, while travelling through a sea of statistics, neurophysiology and psychology. Needless to say, very few, if any scientists can do this on their own.

So the first strand involves how brain imaging experiments are reported in the media. Under the sheer weight of conceptual strain, journalists panic, and do this: “Brain’s adventure centre located”.

It’s a story published this morning on the BBC News website based on an interesting fMRI study looking at brain activity associated with participants choosing a novel option in a simple gambling task. But out of the four words of the headline, only the first is accurate.

And this leads to the second strand of the debate, which, until recently, has been largely conducted away from the media’s gaze, amongst the people doing cognitive science themselves.

It starts with this simple question: what is fMRI measuring?

When we talk about imaging experiments, we usually say it measures ‘brain activity’, but you may be surprised to know that no-one’s really sure what this actually means.

Neuroscientist Nikos Logothetis published an important paper in Nature a couple of weeks ago explaining exactly what we know so far about the link between what brain scans measure and what the brain is actually doing.

It’s very wide-ranging and includes lots of grit-your-teeth hardcore neurophysiology, but is, I think, essential reading if you’re neuroscientifically inclined.

It focuses on BOLD, the signal that reflects the ratio of oxygenated and deoxygenated blood measured by fMRI, and the fact that it can be altered by a huge range of different biological process and neural firing patterns.

One of the main points of the paper is that the brain is not simply an array of tiny localised processors, but it is more like an an ecosystem of communication.

Activity can result from sending more signals, trying to send less, or, from what seems to be particularly important – maintaining a balance of excitation and inhibition.

Furthermore, it seems that a great deal of neural activity is not from neurons that might be directly involved in a task, but from ‘neuromodulation’ – general processes of management and coordination, often linked to attention. This can wax and wane, can spread like ripples and can occur in all sorts of non-linear ways that makes interpretation difficult.

What this means is that brain imaging experiments need to be carefully designed to control for these effects, but this entirely depends on our understanding of the effects themselves.

In other words, our understanding of what brain scanning data tells us evolves over time. A study conducted ten years ago might mean something different now.

An article in Science, published in the same week as Logothetis’ paper, reports on new statistical methods for interpreting imaging data, a different issue again.

The latest edition of The New Atlantis has an article that attempts to come to grips with some of the philosophical aspects of brain imaging experiments, in terms of the conceptual limits in inferring mental states from biological changes.

I have to say, it’s a bit miscued in places, assuming that brain imaging relies on ideas about brain modularity (which it doesn’t) and seemingly confusing it with the notion of pure insertion, and suggesting some rather strange notions about mental causation, but it has many good points and is worth a read.

It’s important that these sorts of issues come to light, because it hopefully heralds a time of increased caution in our interpretation of brain scans – and that goes for scientists, the media and the general public.

This is essential, because this data is starting to be used, literally, in life or death decisions.

The same issue of The New Atlantis has an article on neuroimaging that discusses the ethical dilemmas in applying this imperfect technology to legal decisions concerning capital punishment.

Link to Logothetis on ‘What we can do and what we cannot do with fMRI’.
Link to Science article ‘Growing pains for fMRI’.
Link to New Atlantis on ‘The Limits of Neuro-Talk’.
Link to New Atlantis on Neuroimaging and Capital Punishment.

Works like a charm

The March edition of HR Magazine has an unintentionally hilarious cover article on ‘The Brain at Work’ which informs us that we can ‘squirt’ neurotransmitters into each others’ brains, tell us how we can reboot dendrites and is strangely obsessed with the basal ganglia.

It’s full of fantastic howlers and misplaced metaphors which you’ll have the pleasure of discovering for yourselves, but the stuff about the basal ganglia is just plain odd.

Tired of listening to her employees vent, she told them, “No longer will I listen to a problem unless you submit at least a portion of the solution.”

Weber explains what happened next in neuroscientific terms: “The next day, the basal ganglia were at work continuing to vent about the problems with no solution.” One employee went to the HR professional’s office. He didn’t have a solution, so she sent him away.

“About three days later, workers realized she was serious. So, a different person went into her office with a solution to the problem. The HR professional agreed to and supported the solution put forward with slight revisions to keep it under budget.”

That simple change transformed the employees’ dynamics — and their brains — by turning control over to them. “The conversation in the basal ganglia went from problem-focused to solution-focused,” says Weber. “When people in that department went to sleep at night, they rewired their brains for the new behaviors.”

Let’s just pause there for a moment.

Nope, it doesn’t help.

The curious thing is that the article is generally full of quite sensible advice for managing employees but its just wrapped up in this bizarre alternative universe neurobabble.

Somehow we’ve got to the point where people feel they can’t give good advice without waving poorly-understood neuroscience around like it was a recently enlarged willy.

Link to ‘The Brain at Work’.