The future is nonlinear

There have been some excellent articles recently on the psychology of time but one of the most fascinating is from Developing Intelligence who look at a new study that suggests our concept of time becomes nonlinear as we look into the future – in other words, not all futures are equal.

The research, led by psychologist Gal Zauberman, riffs on an effect called ‘hyperbolic discounting‘, where immediate rewards seem more valuable than rewards in the future.

Studies have offered people, for example, ¬£5 now, or more money in the future. Despite the fact that in economic terms they’re better off waiting even for a small amount more, people tend to want considerably more money in the future to make the wait ‘worth it’.

As the DevIntell article notes, this has largely been explained by impulsivity in the past, but a new study considers a radical alternative.

What if the effect is not because we’re impulsive, but because our concept of time is non-linear? In other words, we are reasoning rationally but not on the basis of how much additional time there actually is, but how much longer the wait seems.

These are quite different concepts – for example, we know logically that waiting four weeks is exactly four times as long as waiting a week, but it might not feel exactly four times as bad.

The study asked participants how much extra they’d have to be paid to receive a $75 gift voucher, either in 3 months, 1 year or 3 years. They also had to mark a line to indicate how long each wait seemed, from ‘Very Short’ at one end to ‘Very Long’ at the other.

When compared against the actual time, participants seemed to show hyperbolic discounting, but when compared against the subjective judgement the discounting effect disappeared.

The study goes on to test the effect in different ways, but also added another intriguing angle – when participants were asked to estimate the duration of how long various activities would take, essentially better calibrating their subjective time with actual time, the discounting effect was reduced.

I also really recommend another recent DevIntell post on time perception, discussing how cognitive science theories are attempting to explain how we can perceive something that doesn’t have any ‘sensation’ attached to it.

Any if you’re still hungry for more time, science writer Carl Zimmer has an article in Discover Magazine about how the brain keeps track of time.

Link to DevIntell on distortions in future time perception.
pdf of full-text of study.
Link to DevIntell on time perception and time ‘sensation’.
Link to Carl Zimmer’s article on neuroscience of time.

Neuroscience recordings

If the words Neuroscience Recordings make you think of depth electrodes, you may be surprised to hear its also the name of a record label specialising in techno and trance.

I am rather taken by this track, although even if techno isn’t your thing, they do have this rather catching range of t-shirts.

Now if only someone would name their record label ‘cognitive neuropsychology’ I’d have a great excuse for wearing a geeky cognitive science t-shirt without having to admit that I’m wearing a geeky cognitive science t-shirt.

No ladies, it’s not an anorak, it’s a light-weight sports jacket.

Link to Neuroscience Recordings.

Visual cliff hanger

Vimeo has some video of what looks like footage from Gibson and Walk’s original 1960 ‘visual cliff’ experiment where they tested whether infants had depth perception by attempting to get them to walk over glass plates suspended above a drop.

Unfortunately, the video doesn’t fully describe the experiment, which is a pity as it was a fantastic idea.

The researchers wanted to find out whether 6 to 14 month-old infants could perceive depth. Babies are not the best conversationalists, but they do have a natural sense of danger, so the experiment is based on the idea that the babies will avoid perceived danger, even if it’s completely safe.

The study put the infants, one at a time, in the middle of a table, with one side replaced by glass so you could see the ‘drop’.

Their mothers would try and tempt them over both sides, and if the kids had no depth perception, the glass ‘drop’ wouldn’t seem scary and they’d just walk straight over. Those who could see the ‘drop’ would avoid it.

Pretty much none of the infants wanted to walk across the ‘visual cliff’, suggesting that even kids of 6 months old could perceive depth.

Children younger than that generally can’t crawl though, so it makes it a bit harder finding out at what age depth perception develops.

In 1973, a study by psychologist Andrew Schwartz placed five and nine-month olds on each side of the ‘visual cliff’ and measured their heart rate.

When placed over the glass ‘drop’, the five month olds typically showed no increase in heart rate, suggesting there was no danger response. This suggests depth perception probably kicks in between about five and six months old.

More recent research has shown it’s a more complex picture than this, as depth perception has many parts which don’t all seem to develop at the same rate, but the ‘visual cliff’ experiment is still widely used in psychology.

Link to video of ‘visual cliff’ experiment.
Link to text of original study.

Bonkersfest! strikes this Saturday

Bonkersfest! South East London’s fantastic festival of mirth and madness, kicks off this Saturday with its biggest ever event. It’s also finally getting the recognition it deserves with a fantastic article in The Times and another in the New Statesman covering the upcoming celebrations.

In fact, it was also recently name dropped in a Guardian article and a story in The New York Times, although I can proudly say that we covered the mayhem back when it first started in 2006, when it was launched by the Mayor of Southwark firing a banana laden cannon.

From The Times:

So Dolly Sen, 37, an artist and writer, will spend the day trying to screw a light bulb into the sky because “the world is dark enough as it is”. There will also be a moving padded cell, a de-normalisation programme, and performance art by Bobby Baker featuring seven adults dressed as frozen peas.

Does it sound a bit crazy? Well, that’s the point. “There’s a history of many artists and writers being diagnosed with mental illness,” says Baker. “People who were unusual and different used to be more celebrated and accommodated, but now there’s a tremendous amount of fear. I feel people like me have a sensitivity and creativity that is very valuable, as well as an enormous sense of humour about the whole thing.”

The irreverent tone and celebration of all things outside the norm make it quite different from your average mental health event – even if the rock bands, circus performers and techno DJs are also a giveaway.

Bonkersfest! has just got better each time and always seems to be blessed by wonderful weather and great performers (although, I have to say, I did almost evaporate waiting for John Hegley to come on stage in a rather warm marquee last year).

It’s organised by Creative Routes, a grass roots arts association for people with mental health difficulties, who are one of the gems of South London.

It happens on Camberwell Green (not the site of the original Bedlam Hospital, as the NYT seemed to think) but still only two minutes walk from the Maudsley Hospital – the spiritual home of British psychiatry.

The Times article also features Liz Spikol, whose name I’m sure you’ll recognise if you’re a regular visitor to Mind Hacks.

Also, one of the organisers of Bonkersfest! changed her name by deed poll to Sarah Tonin, and you gotta respect that.

Link to Bonkersfest! website.
Link to article in The Times.
Link to article in the New Statesman.

Facebook ate my psychiatrist

Sometimes I just despair. I almost understand it when the media gets its knickers in a twist about ‘internet addiction’ and similar nonsense, because most outlets never been great at separating the wheat from the chaff. But it beggars beliefs why otherwise respectable professionals can spout similar drivel when they’re supposed to be trained to deal with the evidence.

Case in point. At the recent Annual Meeting of the Royal College of Psychiatrists Dr Himanshu Tyagi gave a widely reported talk where he said social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace could damage young people’s relationships and make them more susceptible to suicide, despite the evidence suggesting exactly the opposite.

On this occasion, the icing on the cake was provided by the Royal College, who for some reason decided to press release this scandalous scaremongering.

I shall reproduce the critical paragraph below, because it pushes so many media panic buttons you’d think it was from one of the UK tabloids:

‚ÄùThis is the age group involved with the Bridgend suicides and what many of these young people had in common was their use of Internet to communicate. It’s a world where everything moves fast and changes all the time, where relationships are quickly disposed at the click of a mouse, where you can delete your profile if you don’t like it and swap an unacceptable identity in the blink of an eye for one that is more acceptable,‚Äù said Dr Tyagi. ‚ÄúPeople used to the quick pace of online social networking may soon find the real world boring and unstimulating, potentially leading to more extreme behaviour to get that sense.

”It may be possible that young people who have no experience of a world without online societies put less value on their real world identities and can therefore be at risk in their real lives, perhaps more vulnerable to impulsive behaviour or even suicide. This is definitely a line of reasoning that warrants more investigation and research.”

So what evidence is there that Facebook damages social relationships? None. In fact, less than none because the little amount of existing research suggests it actually encourages social cohesion.

One recent study published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication found exactly this and noted that “students reporting low satisfaction and low self-esteem appeared to gain in bridging social capital if they used Facebook more intensely”.

Another study found that students use Facebook to enhance relationships they already formed in real life. One study did find that using such sites could lower self-esteem, but only when (wait for it) users got negative feedback from others, it boosted self-esteem when they got positive feedback.

Furthermore, the fact that Tyagi and the Royal College are allowing a link to be made with a spate of suicides in Bridgend is in really bad taste.

Bridgend is a county in South Wales that has suffered a number of suicides of young people during the last year, and the UK tabloids initially ran scare stories about ‘internet suicide cults’ because almost all of them used social networking sites.

I’m sure you’ve already picked up on the flawed logic here, and, indeed, this theory was quickly dismissed by the authorities (presumably alongside the ‘eats crisps’ and ‘wears jeans’ suicide cult theories).

So goodness knows why the Royal College are promoting this tasteless insinuation alongside a load of evidence-free and frankly sensationalist drivel.

Oh, did I mention that Tyagi is a partner in a large online medical education website for doctors?

Link to Facebook study.

Psychiatrists’ association faces drug funding probe

After a number of investigations into the under-disclosure of drug industry earnings by top psychiatry researchers, The New York Times reports that US Senator Charles Grassley is aiming at the mothership of American psychiatry, the American Psychiatric Association.

Grassley is a Republican senator who has been pushing for transparency in the drug industry for some time and has particularly focused on drug payments to researchers and clinicians in recent months.

He’s been behind some recent high profile investigations which have indicated that some of America’s most influential psychiatrists have been receiving millions of dollars in undisclosed payments.

Grassley has recently focussed his attention on the APA itself, which, according to the NYT piece got about $20 million from the drug industry in 2006. These 2006 figures are the most recent, however, as the full details of the association’s funding are not made public.

The issue is not solely one about funding large organisations or the high flying opinion-leaders though.

Soft money is awash throughout the profession with drug company bonuses being routinely paid to individual psychiatrists who agree to talk on behalf of the company, while those that don’t take hard cash are likely to be taken out for expensive meals, given all expenses trips to plush conferences and given other barely-concealed incentives.

However, it is clear that this is not solely a problem with psychiatrists, as patient groups are often heavily funded by the drug industry, to the point where they’ve been described as being “perilously close to becoming extensions of pharmaceutical companies’ marketing departments”.

Link to NYT article on scrutiny of APA funding (via Furious Seasons).

Punk rock pogo robots

In early July, London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts hosted three nights of punk rock chaos with a difference, some of the audience were artificially intelligent robots designed to pogo when they recognised punk music being played.

The project was led by artist Fiddian Warman who created the headlining band, Neurotic and the PVC’s for the event, while collaborating on the robot design with computational biologist Peter McOwan and neurologist Barry Gibb.

Actually, this is not the first time we’ve had to resist making a Bee Gees joke about Dr Gibb, as we covered some of the media (over)excitement about a bit in his book The Rough Guide to the Brain last year.

The website for the project is fantastic and has lots of details about the project including a bit about the design of the neural network built and trained to recognise punk rock.

BBC News has some great video of the gigs, and the band even has its own MySpace page with some of the tracks ready for listening (which are actually pretty good).

Link to Neurotic and the pogoing robots website.
Link to BBC News story and video.
Link to Neurotic band MySpace page.

2008-07-11 Spike activity

Some slightly belated links from the past week in mind and brain news:

Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science follows up the piece on the ‘mobile network causes suicide’ nonsense, plus an interesting additional section on the plausibility effect.

Not Quite Rocket Science discusses the ‘Lady Macbeth effect’ and how physical cleanliness moral cleanliness are linked.

The recent study on mapping the brain’s white matter network is discussed in a short video by Scientific American.

The Boston Globe has an article about the recovery of child psychologist Seymour Papert, who suffered a serious brain injury 18 months ago.

My Mind on Books lists some forthcoming cognitive psychology books for 2008.

A career in forensic psychology is discussed by US psychologist Stephen Diamond.

The science of how melody and harmony combine to produce music is covered by Seed Magazine.

The New York Times reviews the debut novel of medic Rivka Galchen which seems to be about the Capgras delusion.

Better golfers see bigger holes according to research covered by PsyBlog.

Neuroanthropology looks at the work of anthropologist Felicitas Goodman on the connection between trance states and body posture which has some interesting parallels between work on hypnotisability and body posture.

Genes implicated in learning may also be linked to autism, reports Scientific American.

The Situationist has a video of Sam Gosling discussing his new book Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You.

Call-Me-Kenneth prototype the Care-o-Bot is profiled by the AI and Robots blog.

The Neurocritic discovers the newly launched photoshopped ‘Journal of Speed Dating Studies’. No, really. No, not at all it seems!

United States of Analgesia

DrugMonkey has alerted to me an interactive map of the USA which displays rates of prescription drug abuse across all 50 states.

You can select the year up the top, the drug of abuse on the left-hand side, and point the mouse at a particular state to get the details.

It’s part of an investigation by the paper into why so many of these drugs are being used illicitly, and why Nevada, the state in which Las Vegas resides, seems to have one of the highest rates of abuse.

All the drugs are opioids and the maps on the right show the rates of consumption for oxycodone, a drug nicknamed ‘hillbilly heroin’.

You can see how the 2000 map clearly shows the highest rates of consumption in the ‘hillbilly’ areas across the Appalachian Mountains, although by 2006 the West Coast has caught up and most of the rest of the country seem to have got into the painkiller habit.

Link to interactive drug map.
Link to Las Vegas Sun series on prescription drug abuse.

Cat psychology (no, really)

I just found this curious empirical study, published last year in the academic journal Psychological Reports, on the personality structure of domestic cats.

The study analysed owner ratings and found four underlying components of cat personality.

Personality in domestic cats.

Psychol Rep. 2007 Feb;100(1):27-9.

Lee CM, Ryan JJ, Kreiner DS.

Personality ratings of 196 cats were made by their owners using a 5-point Likert scale anchored by 1: not at all and 5: a great deal with 12 items: timid, friendly, curious, sociable, obedient, clever, protective, active, independent, aggressive, bad-tempered, and emotional. A principal components analysis with varimax rotation identified three intepretable components. Component I had high loadings by active, clever, curious, and sociable. Component II had high loadings by emotional, friendly, and protective, Component III by aggressive and bad-tempered, and Component IV by timid. Sex was not associated with any component, but age showed a weak negative correlation with Component I. Older animals were rated less social and curious than younger animals.

How long before we start having ‘personality disorder‘ for domestic cats I wonder. Cat psychiatrists, start your engines.

Link to PubMed entry for paper.

Mental illness: in with the intron crowd

Today’s Nature has an excellent feature article on the heated scientific debates over why its so hard to link genes to specific mental illnesses.

Genetics is a complex business, but psychiatric genetics even more so, because it attempts to find links between two completely different levels of description.

Genes are defined on the neurobiological level, while psychiatric diagnoses are defined on the phenomenological level – in other words, verbal descriptions of behaviour, or verbal descriptions of what it is like to have certain mental states.

There is no guarantee, and in many people’s opinion, probably no likelihood, that these ‘what it is like’ descriptions actually clearly demarcate distinct processes at the biological level.

It’s a bit like classifying people as heavy metal fans if they have five or more heavy metal albums.

By definition, there’s a biological difference between people who like heavy metal and those who don’t, but it could be a whole number of distinct differences at the level of brain function which are all just recognised as ‘being a heavy metal fan’ in day-to-day life.

Actually, psychiatric diagnosis has an additional problem, in that for some diagnoses, the same classification can be made when the people don’t share any symptoms. For example, two people could be classified as having schizophrenia / being a heavy metal fan, when they have no symptoms / albums in common.

Some psychiatric geneticists just argue that we don’t have enough data yet, because it seems that when connecting genes to psychology each gene contributes very little and the effect is when the influence of many small effect genes add up and interact.

Others argue that we should look for effects on ‘endophenotypes‘ – the cognitive building blocks of more complex mental life. So instead of trying to connect genes to a collection of ‘what it is like’ experiences, we look at how genes influence neuropsychological processes – such as the mechanisms in the prefrontal cortex that control attention.

Increasingly, some researchers are starting to suggest that the genetic results show that existing psychiatric classifications are invalid, and that we should rethink them as new data comes in.

One thing psychiatry has traditionally been very bad at though, is refining diagnoses on the basis of lab studies.

Definitions are often revised to make them statistically more reliable (i.e. so people can reliably agree what is and what isn’t a particular diagnosis), but this is not the same as having something which is a good basis for scientific enquiry.

Unfortunately, psychiatry is (ironically) a bit too emotionally attached to the traditional diagnostic categories because diagnosis is such a core part of what psychiatrists do.

Anyway, the Nature piece is an excellent guide to the debate on whether we should be attempting to link genes to the neuropsychology of mental disorder.

Link to article ‘Psychiatric genetics: The brains of the family’.

Imagine all the people

The BPS Research Digest covers an intriguing study that found that imagining friends, parents, and romantic partners differently affected how we rate ourselves on personality measures.

The study suggests that being primed with certain sorts of relationship seems to alter either our personality, or how we perceive our personal characteristics.

Dozens of female university students were led to believe they were participating in an investigation into the effect of visualisation on heart rate, with the appropriate medical paraphernalia in place to make the story more convincing.

The students were asked to visualise a range of fairly mundane items or experiences and then at the end they were asked to visualise in detail either one of their parents, a recent romantic partner, or a friend. Afterwards they completed a range of personality and self-esteem tests. Post-experimental debriefing confirmed they hadn’t guessed the true purpose of the study.

Students who visualised a parent subsequently rated themselves as less sensual, adventurous, dominant, extraverted and industrious, than did students asked to visualise a friend or romantic partner, consistent with the idea that people revert to a more submissive “child role” with their parents.

The paper itself doesn’t mention it, but the study has some striking relevance to rather confusingly named ‘object relations theory‘, which could be much more clearly named ‘human relations theory’.

It’s a development of a Freudian idea, but instead of suggesting that sex and aggression are the core drives which shape our psychological landscape, it suggests, rather more sensibly, that relationships are the main factor that influence who we are.

In fact, it suggests that the ‘self’ is malleable and tends to be defined in terms of the people we interact with.

One of the genuinely useful legacies of psychoanalytically-inspired psychology has been the focus on the emotional interaction between people as an important shaping force in how we think and behave.

Most of Freud’s original (lets be polite and say) ‘kookiness’ has been stripped away, which leaves us with an approach that is often both empirically testable and supported by scientific studies.

For example, psychologist Susan Anderson has done a huge amount of experimental research on ‘transference’, where feelings from one relationship affect another because the two people are perceived as similar in some way.

Link to BPSRD article ‘Mind who you think of’.

Interrupting the final curtain

One of the myths of suicide is that if a person wants to kill themselves, they’ll always find a way. While this can occur in some cases, evidence that making methods of self-harm less accessible can reduce the suicide rate suggests that deaths can be prevented with simple safety measures.

The New York Times has a thought-provoking article on exactly this topic looking at how, particularly impulsive suicides, can be prevented.

What makes looking at jumping suicides potentially instructive is that it is a method associated with a very high degree of impulsivity, and its victims often display few of the classic warning signs associated with suicidal behavior. In fact, jumpers have a lower history of prior suicide attempts, diagnosed mental illness (with the exception of schizophrenia) or drug and alcohol abuse than is found among those who die by less lethal methods, like taking pills or poison. Instead, many who choose this method seem to be drawn by a set of environmental cues that, together, offer three crucial ingredients: ease, speed and the certainty of death.

The NYT article focuses on jumping and firearms and how erecting barriers and storing guns in locked boxes are effective preventative measures.

However, if you want a flavour of really how simple the safety measures need to be to make a difference to suicide rate, research has found that putting pills in blister packs reduces lethal overdoses.

It’s amazing if you think about it, simply making it necessary to pop each pill out of its plastic packaging rather than tipping them out of a bottle means less people kill themselves.

The difference is likely a matter of minutes, but it gives time for brief impulsive urges to pass, and every popped pill requires a single deliberate action towards suicide that gives a chance for the distressed person to reconsider. Obviously, many do.

The article merits a read in full, and Liz Spikol has an interesting video commentary on the piece that’s also well-worth checking out.

Link to NYT article ‘The Urge to End It All’.
Link to Liz Spikol on ‘Is Suicide Preventable?’.

Neurowarfare and the modern Rogue Trooper

Wired has picked up on a US military report that warns of the threat posed by neuro-enhanced enemy soldiers, just released by the “Pentagon’s most prestigious scientific advisory panel”.

The full report is available online as a pdf file, and covers how pharmaceuticals and brain-computer interfaces could be used by enemies of the US to create hordes of sleep-resistant super-intelligent neurosoldiers who can kill at the speed of thought.

Obviously, I paraphrase, but it’s interesting that the report is not your usual blue-sky speculation. It actually covers the science in considerable detail.

It also discusses cultural attitudes to cognitive and brain enhancements of various sorts, and how this might affect how and why they might be used.

Non-medical applications of the advances of neuroscience research and medical technology also pose the potential for use by adversaries. In this context, we must consider the possibility that uses that we would consider unacceptable could be developed or applied either by a state-adversary, or by less-easily identified terrorist groups. In the following, we consider first the issues of what types of human performance modification might alter a military balance, and how those issues can be evaluated. We then address two broad areas where there are significant, and highly publicized, advances in human performance modification. These are the areas of brain plasticity (permanently changing the function of an individual’s brain, either by training or by pharmaceuticals), and the area of brain-computer interface (augmenting normal performance via an external device directly linked to the nervous system).

Link to Wired write-up.
pdf of report.

The ambiguous gift of sign names

BBC Ouch! magazine has a completely fascinating article on sign names in the deaf community. They are like mandatory formal nicknames decided by a consensus of your peers that reflect something distinctive about you.

The article describes how assigning and accepting one can be a tricky social negotiation with some having to mount campaigns against unwanted sign names.

Sign names are a weird and wonderful thing, where your average hearing names like Matt, Jack or Jane look positively plain.

But before you get too excited about the possibility of throwing your dull, former identity away, let me point something out: you don’t get to choose your sign name. You don’t even get power of veto on it. It is given to you.

It makes sense. If deaf people could choose their name, you’d get loads of guys wandering around calling themselves Stud, Beer Belly or Jackie Chan’s Lovechild. Women would probably call themselves Lip Gloss, Model or Soft Hair. I’m generalising, and stereotyping, but you get my point.

When a sign name is given to you, it’s special. A bit like losing your deaf virginity. It‚Äôs thought up after an intense period of observation, when people have worked out firstly whether they like you enough to give you one (a sign name, that is), and they’ve taken all your habits and mannerisms into account to find a name that best sums you up.

I have to say, I find watching sign language completely enthralling. It always seems like a wonderful form of cognitive ballet to me.

Obviously, it has its practical uses to, as demonstrated by this video tutorial on how to flirt using sign language.

Link to article on the social complexities of sign names (via MeFi).

Encephalon 49 evolves

The 49th edition of the Encephalon psychology and neuroscience writing carnival has just appeared online, this time hosted by Neuroscientifically Challenged – a blog that’s new to me but looks very good.

A couple of my favourites include a sceptical look at gene therapy in psychiatry and an interesting overview of a theory of how the brain and culture co-evolved.

There’s much more where that came from so check it out for the last fortnight’s highlights.

Link to Encephalon 49.