2008-07-25 Spike activity

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

Neurophilosophy has a beautiful quote from the great Spanish neuroscientist Santiago Ramon y Cajal.

The miseries of losing one’s sense of smell are covered by an interesting Slate article on this neglected sense.

Cognitive Daily looks at a study which attempts to answer the question ‘Why do more Asians have perfect pitch?‘.

Two novels on identity theft are touched on by My Mind on Books.

The New York Times has an excellent multimedia feature on ‘The Voices of Bipolar Disorder’ where people affected by the condition discuss their experiences.

Delusions reflect Hollywood movie ‘The Truman Show‘.

Nature reviews the latest Disney animated feature about an artificially intelligent robot Wall-E.

The Female Brain or one female’s perspective? Neuroanthropology reports from a recent ‘critical neuroscience’ conference and a discussion about popular books on sex difference.

Scientific American on why anecdotal evidence can undermine scientific findings for most people.

SciAm’s Mind Matters blog on the neural energy drain of decision-making.

The BPS Research Digest looks at a study that reports novelty seekers have a right-sided spatial bias.

The neuroscience of insight is discussed in a tantalising excerpt from a New Yorker by The Frontal Cortex.

Psych Central has an interview with the insightful psychiatrist Daniel Carlat.

BooYaa! Straight-talking judge has some hard words for Eli Lilly in the ongoing court case over antipsychotic olanzapine (Zyprexa).

Misdirected magic

Just one more on the magic. I just got this email from Mind Hacks readers Stefano suggesting that stage magicians that use psychological language actually pollute the public’s understanding of science. He also gives a much better, and, I’m guessing, more accurate explanation of the hand-raising trick in Keith Barry’s TED performance.

As a psychologist, I have to say I dislike the new sort of mentalism that we’re seeing nowadays. Derren Brown (an incredibly talented performer, as you said) tries to portray his show as something more than old-fashioned magic by introducing psychological terms and studies, somewhat erratically. I understand that his use of scientific terminology might be part of the misdirection, but it really makes me cringe to see he perform ridiculous feats and justify it by citing things like the Milgram study, concentration abilities or persuasion techniques. Almost every time he mentions a psychological concept, he either misrepresents it or uses it to explain absurd stuff that he did with stooges or simply old magic tricks.

I didn’t know Keith Barry, but I have to say his TED lecture made me put him on the same category as Derren Brown: old mentalist tricks disguised as “persuasion and psychological techniques”. He even managed to fool you, it seems: the trick that you attributed to hypnosis has nothing to do with it, being achieved simply by the performer applying pressure on the feet of the subject instead of his hand. Notice how he never says where the pressure will be, and his left leg is covered by the table. His other live tricks are equally simple, and have nothing do with psychology, except for the fact that everything you do to an audience – even cheating/fooling them – is part of it.

Stefano makes an interesting point that these acts rely, in part, on misinforming people about psychology. Derren Brown is a classic example where he often gives explanations after the trick so the viewer feels they are being let in on the secret, but which are obviously misleading and so are part of the more general misdirection that the feats are achieved through the ‘power of the mind’.

In terms of the hand raising trick that Stefano mentions, looking back at the video, this seems a much more likely explanation. In which case, this is a ‘theory of mind‘ illusion, where we are fooled into attributing a different mental state to the person picked from the audience than they actually have.

I hope you don’t mind me publishing part of your email Stefano, I did try and email and ask but unfortunately the address wasn’t valid. Do get in touch if you have a website or blog and I’ll happily link to it and many thanks for your interesting commentary.

Dennett on magic and misdirection

While musing over yesterday’s post on the use of psychological language as a form of a magician’s misdirection, I remembered Dennett’s 2003 article [pdf] on consciousness where he uses exactly this as a metaphor for why consciousness doesn’t exist as some scientists think it does.

Dennett argues that the ‘hard problem‘ is a red herring – the whole question of how conscious first person experience arises from the biological function of the brain assumes that consciousness is a single thing that needs explaining.

He suggests that there isn’t a single thing that is consciousness, just a collection of mental components, but the fact we’ve named it as a single thing fools us.

In his article Explaining the “Magic” of Consciousness, he gives a great analogy of how the use of the word ‘the’ was used in a card trick to make it seem completely mysterious even to fellow professional magicians.

The tempting idea that there is a Hard Problem is simply a mistake. I cannot prove this. Or, better, even if I can prove this, my proof will surely fall on deaf ears, since CHALMERS, for instance, has already acknowledged that arguments against his convictions on this score are powerless to dislodge his intuition, which is beyond rational support. So I will not make the tactical error of trying to dislodge with rational argument a conviction that is beyond reason. That would be wasting everybody’s time, apparently. Instead, I will offer up what I hope is a disturbing parallel from the world of card magic: The Tuned Deck.

For many years, Mr. Ralph Hull, the famous card wizard from Crooksville, Ohio, has completely bewildered not only the general public, but also amateur conjurors, card connoisseurs and professional magicians with the series of card tricks which he is pleased to call “The Tuned Deck”…

Ralph Hull’s trick looks and sounds roughly like this:

Boys, I have a new trick to show you. It’s called ‘The Tuned Deck’. This deck of cards is magically tuned [Hull holds the deck to his ear and riffles the cards, listening carefully to the buzz of the cards]. By their finely tuned vibrations, I can hear and feel the location of any card. Pick a card, any card… [The deck is then fanned or otherwise offered for the audience, and a card is taken by a spectator, noted, and returned to the deck by one route or another.] Now I listen to the Tuned Deck, and what does it tell me? I hear the telltale vibrations, … [buzz, buzz, the cards are riffled by Hull’s ear and various manipulations and rituals are enacted, after which, with a flourish, the spectator’s card is presented].

Hull would perform the trick over and over for the benefit of his select audience of fellow magicians, challenging them to figure it out. Nobody ever did. Magicians offered to buy the trick from him but he would not sell it. Late in his life he gave his account to his friend, HILLIARD, who published the account in his privately printed book. Here is what Hull had to say about his trick:

For years I have performed this effect and have shown it to magicians and amateurs by the hundred and, to the very best of my knowledge, not one of them ever figured out the secret. …the boys have all looked for something too hard [my italics, DCD].

Like much great magic, the trick is over before you even realize the trick has begun. The trick, in its entirety, is in the name of the trick, “The Tuned Deck”, and more specifically, in one word “The”! As soon as Hull had announced his new trick and given its name to his eager audience, the trick was over. Having set up his audience in this simple way, and having passed the time with some obviously phony and misdirecting chatter about vibrations and buzz-buzz-buzz, Hull would do a relatively simple and familiar card presentation trick of type A (at this point I will draw the traditional curtain of secrecy; the further mechanical details of legerdemain, as you will see, do not matter).

His audience, savvy magicians, would see that he might possibly be performing a type A trick, a hypothesis they could test by being stubborn and uncooperative spectators in a way that would thwart any attempt at a type A trick. When they then adopted the appropriate recalcitrance to test the hypothesis, Hull would ‘repeat’ the trick, this time executing a type B card presentation trick. The spectators would then huddle and compare notes: might he be doing a type B trick? They test that hypothesis by adopting the recalcitrance appropriate to preventing a type B trick and still he does “the” trick – using method C, of course. When they test the hypothesis that he’s pulling a type C trick on them, he switches to method D – or perhaps he goes back to method A or B, since his audience has ‘refuted’ the hypothesis that he’s using method A or B.

And so it would go, for dozens of repetitions, with Hull staying one step ahead of his hypothesis-testers, exploiting his realization that he could always do some trick or other from the pool of tricks they all knew, and concealing the fact that he was doing a grab bag of different tricks by the simple expedient of the definite article: The Tuned Deck.

pdf of article Explaining the “Magic” of Consciousness.

Sleight of mind

I’ve just watched a video of an immensley entertaining TED presentation by ‘brain magician’ Keith Barry who does an act with various ‘mind control’ or ‘mind reading tricks’.

It reminded me of an early book by Derren Brown, an English magician who has a similar pitch. Brown is better known for his more recent TV shows and books, but some of his early publications are fascinating because they not only discuss his approach, but also shed light on our increasingly psychology-focused culture.

Keith Barry’s TED presentation contains part suggestion that would be well-known to hypnotists (in fact, the arm raising and lowering is used in standard hypnotisability measures) and part stage magic, all wrapped up in the language of psychology.

He starts the presentation by noting that the redirection of attention is an important part of magic and gives an example of our tendency to follow the magician’s gaze.

In fact, this is preceded by a clasping trick which surely demonstrates this, where the audience’s attention, and rather unfairly for the internet viewer – the camera, are diverted away from him reclasping his hands in a different manner.

I’m not going to pretend that all of the tricks in Barry or Brown’s shows are obvious, as some leave me completely baffled and in awe. I suspect only poor magicians will allow their tricks to be apparent even to the most curious of psychologists.

However, in Brown’s now sadly out-of-print book Pure Effect he makes the fascinating point that the narrative itself is part of the redirection, and describes how framing magic tricks in psychological language leads to certain expectations which, of course, make certain redirections more easily achievable.

This classic presentational ploy that Banachek calls ‘psychological direction’ allows for the illusion of enormous skill, as long as you let the participants figure out for themselves that you are employing such methods. I believe I earn their respect by denouncing psychic ‘psychic power’ as woolly guff and I challenge those lobotomised flower fairies who believe in such nonsense, appealing to their intelligence and belief in themselves as sceptical creatures. The other advantage of this angle is that is allows the effect to sit comfortably with a magic routine that suggests that similar ploys are at work.

The two sets become connected by a seductive undercurrent of apparently deft manipulation of the participant’s minds. At first, these techniques are being employed to produce wonderful, artistic and mystical effects. Then the tone darkens, and the performer, almost with an air of reluctance, sensing the correct rapport in the group, casts aside his props and amusements and begins to rely entirely on his knowledge of human nature to delve into the thought processes of the group. The spectators sense this intensifying of the situation, and adjust their interpretation of the event accordingly. What we are seeing is no longer trickery.

Such an approach uses our cultural familiarity and belief in psychological explanations to redirect our thinking to one place, while the magician is working the ‘magic’ below our level of awareness. In other words, most of the magic is done before the trick even starts.

This is what most impresses me about professional magicians. The slight of hand and the perceptual tricks are cool, but its the cognitive magic, the shaping of expectancies through narrative, that makes them seem so wondrous.

UPDATE: I just noticed this rather well-timed article on Wired Science entitled ‘Magic Tricks Reveal Inner Workings of the Brain’ that expands on the topic. Enjoy!

Link to Keith Barry TED ‘brain magic’ presentation.

Head in a vice

Scientific American has an article on migraines that takes a comprehensive look at the science of this painful and hallucinatory disorder.

The piece updates the science on migraines from the traditional but oversimplified ‘constricted blood vessels’ explanation to explore the interplay between nerves, neurotransmitters and lifestyle.

A crucial process seems to be cortical spreading depression that may be responsible, at least in part, for both the intense pain and the aura:

Aura appears to stem from cortical spreading depression—a kind of “brainstorm” anticipated as the cause of migraine in the writings of 19th-century physician Edward Lieving. Although biologist Aristides Leão first reported the phenomenon in animals in 1944, it was experimentally linked to migraine only recently. In more technical terms, cortical spreading depression is a wave of intense nerve cell activity that spreads through an unusually large swath of the cortex (the furrowed, outer layer of the brain), especially the areas that control vision. This hyperexcitable phase is followed by a wave of widespread, and relatively prolonged, neuronal inhibition. During this inhibitory phase, the neurons are in a state of “suspended animation,” during which they cannot be excited.

Neuronal activity is controlled by a carefully synchronized flow of sodium, potassium and calcium ions across the nerve cell membrane through channels and pumps. The pumps keep resting cells high in potassium and low in sodium and calcium. A neuron “fires,” releasing neurotransmitters, when the inward flow of sodium and calcium through opened channels depolarizes the membrane—that is, when the inside of the cell becomes positively charged relative to the outside. Normally, cells then briefly hyperpolarize: they become strongly negative on the inside relative to the outside by allowing potassium ions to rush out. Hyperpolarization closes the sodium and calcium channels and returns the neurons to their resting state soon after firing. But neurons can remain excessively hyperpolarized, or inhibited, for a long time following intense stimulations.

The article is remarkably comprehensive, probably as it’s written by neurologists David Dodick and John Gargus.

Link to SciAm article ‘Why Migraines Strike’ (via 3Q).

Through the looking glass

The New York Times has a great article on the psychology of mirrors that shows that they’re both cognitively challenging and have the power to change our social behaviour.

As a kid I spent hours puzzling over the fact that mirrors seemed to swap left and right but not up and down and it seems that there’s much about mirrors that we just don’t get very easily – such as judging how big our reflection will be. As it turns out, it’s always half our size.

Another curious aspect is that simply the presence of a mirror in a room changes our social behaviour because it seems to make us more self-aware.

Other researchers have determined that mirrors can subtly affect human behavior, often in surprisingly positive ways. Subjects tested in a room with a mirror have been found to work harder, to be more helpful and to be less inclined to cheat, compared with control groups performing the same exercises in nonmirrored settings. Reporting in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, C. Neil Macrae, Galen V. Bodenhausen and Alan B. Milne found that people in a room with a mirror were comparatively less likely to judge others based on social stereotypes about, for example, sex, race or religion.

“When people are made to be self-aware, they are likelier to stop and think about what they are doing,” Dr. Bodenhausen said. “A byproduct of that awareness may be a shift away from acting on autopilot toward more desirable ways of behaving.” Physical self-reflection, in other words, encourages philosophical self-reflection, a crash course in the Socratic notion that you cannot know or appreciate others until you know yourself.

Unfortunately, the article misses out one of the most fascinating scientific findings – the fact that our understanding of mirrors can be selectively impaired after brain injury.

It’s called mirror agnosia and is a condition where people lose their sense of reflection.

In these cases, the patient still has intact knowledge about mirrors, they can describe what they do and how they work, but they can’t seem to put it into practice.

For example, the patient stands in front of a mirror and the researcher holds a pen over the patient’s shoulder and asks him to reach for it. Most people would reach backwards, people with mirror agnosia reach forwards and bang their hand into the glass.

In this study, the researchers noted that “all four patients kept complaining that the object was ‘in the mirror’, ‘outside my reach’ or ‘behind the mirror’. Thus, even the patients’ ability to make simple logical inferences about mirrors has been selectively warped to accommodate the strange new sensory world that they now inhabit”.

Even more curious are cases of mirrored-self misidentification, a delusional variant where patients look into the mirror, see themselves, and believe it is another person.

Here’s a case description from a 2001 study of a patient with the condition:

TH described his reflection as a person who was a ‘dead ringer’ for himself. TH frequently attempted to talk to the person, and said that as the person never replied he could only assume he had something wrong with his voice or tongue. When asked what he thought the person’s personality was like, TH replied that the person had not given him any reason to be suspicious. Asked where the person lived, TH said he lived in an apartment adjoining TH’s own apartment (although there was no other apartment on that block of land).

Link to NYT article ‘Mirrors Don‚Äôt Lie. Mislead? Oh, Yes’

Five minutes with psychedelics researcher Bill Richards

Psychologist Bill Richards studies the medical potential of the hallucinogenic drug psilocybin, the active ingredient in ‘magic mushrooms’.

He’s part of the research team at the respected Johns Hopkins Medical School who are studying whether psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy can help people with cancer cope with the psychological impact of their condition.

The project is a hot topic at the moment, partly because the research team are looking for volunteers with a diagnosis of cancer to take part in the pioneering study, and also because several of their recent findings have made headlines.

These have included the widely-reported results from their recent studies where participants reported that some of the psilocybin experiences remained deeply and personally meaningful, even after a year.

Bill has been a clinical psychedelics researcher since the 1960s and so has a wealth of experience with these curious compounds, and he’s also kindly agreed to talk to Mind Hacks about the current pioneering research project.

Continue reading “Five minutes with psychedelics researcher Bill Richards”