What is it like to drill a hole in your head?

Neurophilosophy has secured an interview Heather Perry, a lady who has drilled a hole through her own skull as part of a self-treppaning ritual, and is asking readers to suggest questions.

Treppaning is an ancient art but for obvious reasons, it’s rarely done these days except during brain surgery.

Nevertheless, a dedicated band of devotees argue it has spiritual and psychological benefits.

I have to admit, I’m more than a little sceptical of these benefits, but I’d be fascinated to hear from anyone whose had it done.

So if you’ve got any burning questions, head on over to Neurophilosophy and Mo will select the best ones from the comments to put to Heather.

Link to Neurophilosophy call for trepanning questions.

Connected to the highways of the brain

A fantastic new study which looked at the ‘connectedness’ of the human brain has identified which aspects of the underlying network are the most important routes of communication.

The research was led by neuroscientist Patric Hagmann and combines brain imaging with network mathematics to not only visualise the brain’s network but also to understand which are the most important hubs and connections.

The study used diffusion spectrum imaging or DSI to map out the white matter wiring of the brain in five healthy individuals.

It’s a type of diffusion MRI that identifies water molecules and tracks how they move. In a glass of water, water molecules will move randomly, but when trapped inside nerve fibres, they move along the length of the fibre, allowing maps to be created from the average paths of the moving molecules.

The researchers then took the maps of fibres, as illustrated by the top image, divided the brain up into sections, and created a simplified network map, shown in the bottom image, which allowed them to mathematically test how connected the different areas were.

They used network theory, more typically used in social network analysis, which allows mathematical measures of network properties.

The researchers calculated which areas were the most connected to the rest of the network in terms of connections going directly in and out of the area, but also which areas were the most strategically important ‘hubs’.

This meant the researchers could identify areas of the cortex that are the most highly connected and highly important, forming a structural core of the human brain.

You can see two of the maps on the right. The one in red illustrates which brain areas are the most highly connected. You can see it’s the area at the top and back of the brain. As you can see better on the original image, its very centrally located, like a neural mohawk.

The image in blue on the right shows the network ‘backbone’, the information highways of the brain.

What’s perhaps most interesting it that the most connected brain areas are many of those which are more active when we’re at rest, compared to when we’re engaged in a mental task that requires concentration and effort.

This has been dubbed the ‘default network’ in the scientific literature, and, rather annoyingly, the ‘daydreaming network’ by the popular press.

It’s not entirely clear what the network is for, with some studies directly linked it to ‘stimulus independent thought’ (yes, daydreaming), while others more explicitly define it as internally focused, rather than externally focused thought and cognition.

Unfortunately, most cognitive neuroscience experiments work by measuring the effect of tasks on brain function, so a brain network which seems to be switched off by any sort of task is quite hard to study. A recent study found that even the noise of the brain scanner affects it.

Link to PLoS Biology article on brain connectivity.
Link to write-up from The New York Times.
Link to write-up from Neurophilosophy.
Link to write-up from Science News.

Clutter press

For those wanting an update on the ‘phone network causes suicide’ nonsense that inexplicably made it onto the front page on a national newspaper, Ben Goldacre over at Bad Science contacted the person behind the story who apparently claims to have ‘lost’ the data behind the nonsensical claims.

I contacted Dr Coghill, since his work is now a matter of great public concern, and it is vital his evidence can be properly assessed. He was unable to give me the data. No paper has been published. He himself would not describe the work as a “study”. There are no statistics presented on it, and I cannot see the raw figures. In fact Dr Coghill tells me he has lost the figures. Despite its potentially massive public health importance, Dr Coghill is sadly unable to make his material assessable.

The claims didn’t even make sense as they were reported, and the fact this sort of rubbish managed to get on the front page of a paper is quite shocking.

Bad Science does a great job of picking up on all the bizarre angles of this ‘funny if it wasn’t so influential’ piece of headline scaremongering.

Link to Bad Science on Coghill nonsense.

Intuitions about phenomenal consciousness

Illustrating how this ‘experimental philosophy’ idea has really struck a chord, Scientific American Mind has an article on our intuitions about whether things can have mental states, whether that be animals, humans, machines or corporations.

The piece is by philosopher Joshua Kobe and contains lots of fascinating examples of how we tend to be comfortable attributing mental states likes ‘beliefs’ to corporations, but not emotions.

The same goes for robots, it turns out, but one key factor seems to be not what we think about its thinking ‘machinery’ but how human the body seems.

In one of Huebner’s studies [pdf], for example, subjects were told about a robot who acted exactly like a human being and asked what mental states that robot might be capable of having. Strikingly, the study revealed exactly the same asymmetry we saw above in the case of corporations.

Subjects were willing to say:
• It believes that triangles have three sides.
But they were not willing to say:
• It feels happy when it gets what it wants.

Here again, we see a willingness to ascribe certain kinds of mental states, but not to ascribe states that require phenomenal consciousness. Interestingly enough, this tendency does not seem to be due entirely to the fact that a CPU, instead of an ordinary human brain, controls the robot. Even controlling in the experiment for whether the creature had a CPU or a brain, subjects were more likely to ascribe phenomenal consciousness when the creature had a body that made it look like a human being.

Link to ‘Can a Robot, an Insect or God Be Aware?’
pdf of draft Huebner paper.

Dan Gilbert on the importance of social psychology

Dan Gilbert has a brief interview in this month’s (paywalled) Psychologist magazine. From which the following nugget of wisdom:

Psychologists have a penchant for irrational exuberances, and whenever we discover something new we feel the need to discard everything old. Social psychology is the exception. We kept cognition alive during the behaviourist revolution that denied it, we kept emotion alive during the cognitive revolution that ignored it, and today we are keeping behaviour alive as the neuroscience revolution steams on and threatens
to make it irrelevant. But psychological revolutions inevitably collapse under their own weight and psychologists start hunting for all the babies they tossed out with the bathwater. Social psychology is where they typically go to find them. So the challenge for social psychologists watching yet another revolution that promises to leave them in the dustbin of history is to remember that we’ve outlived every revolutionary who has ever pronounced us obsolete.

Link Gilbert Lab
Link Psychologist Magazine (sorry, subscribers only, but you can browse issues older than six months for free)