The music’s too loud and you can’t hear the lyrics

Today’s Nature has a teeth-grittingly bitchy review of psychologist Daniel Levitin’s new music and psychology book The World In Six Songs that would be entertaining were it not so surprisingly vitriolic.

I’ve not read the book, but when someone is criticising the author’s musical taste as immature, not once, but twice, in the world’s leading science publication, you know the review has gone beyond the point of healthy knock-about into the zone of below-the-belt punches.

What is it about Nature book reviews? We covered one in 2007 where the reviewer got stuck in despite not seeming to have read the book.

Actually, no one does a good book barney like the philosophers, who at least have the good grace to wrap their barbs in dry wit and satire rather than just spitting venom at each other (although they do that too).

If you want to get an idea of Levitin’s basic premise, New Scientist has an online article on the book. It seems to be applying the ‘basic plots’ idea to music.

This is widely discussed in literature where many people have claimed to have identified the seven, eight, twenty, thirty six (you get the idea) basic plots in stories, literature and plays throughout history.

Link to hatchet job in Nature.
Link to NewSci on The World In Six Songs.

Who needs sleep? The evolutionary slumber party

PLoS Biology has a cozy essay entitled “Is Sleep Essential?” that addresses the mystery of the purpose of sleep.

The article looks at sleep across the whole of the animal kingdom to examine how different species sleep and whether there are any animals that don’t sleep at all.

There are no convincing cases of sleepless animals it seems, and the authors, neuroscientists Chiara Cirelli and Giulio Tononi, argue that sleep is therefore likely to be an essential function of living creatures.

The three corollaries of the null hypothesis [‘sleep is not required’] do not seem to square well with the available evidence: there is no convincing case of a species that does not sleep, no clear instance of an animal that forgoes sleep without some compensatory mechanism, and no indication that one can truly go without sleep without paying a high price. What many concluded long ago still seems to hold: the case is strong for sleep serving one or more essential functions. But which ones?

The article goes on to examine the hypotheses that sleep is important for regulating the body’s core functions, the brain, individual cells and that it is common to all species and must involve something that cannot be provided by quiet wakefulness.

More interesting is the question of whether all animals dream – and perhaps most intriguing, if so, how they might dream.

Indeed, it would be interesting to discover whether dreaming is a necessary function of sleep, or whether it is specifically linked to certain neurocognitive processes or even particular creatures.

Link to PLoS Biology article ‘Is Sleep Essential?’ (via Wired Science).

Extracting the stone of madness

Art-science blog Bioemphemera has an excellent piece on how Renaissance artists depicted madness as involving a stone in the head. Numerous paintings from the 16th and 17th century show operations to remove the stone and presumably cure the insane of their ‘folly’.

Despite the widespread depiction of this procedure, many examples of which are wonderfully illustrated in the Bioemphemera post, it’s not clear whether these paintings were documenting widespread practices of medical fakery, or whether they were entirely metaphorical.

Perhaps owing to this element of mystery, and to the striking artworks, the topic is often featured in science and medical journals.

A 1999 article in Trends in Neurosciences is probably the most comprehensive treatment, and makes an excellent complement to the Bioephemera piece.

Link to Bioephemera post ‘The Stone of Madness’.
Link to TINS article ‘Psychosurgery in Renaissance art’.
Link to PubMed entry for article.


Somatosphere is an excellent new blog on medical anthropology, the study of how culture influences our understanding of health, illness and medicine.

While we tend to think of illnesses as specific encapsualted ‘things’ that happen to the body, it turns out that our culture and psychology has a huge influence on not just what we think of illness, but how we actually become ill.

Culture also shapes what we think of as ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’, ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ and this is one of the main driving forces behind how we express physical or psychological distress and expect it to be treated.

Of course, in the West, drug companies are persistently trying to shape our cultural understanding of what constitutes illness to better promote their product.

The picture is taken from an interesting Somatosphere post on methylphenidate (Ritalin) and ADHD. It’s a 1960s advert for the drug showing it was marketed as an antidepressant before ADHD was ever talked about.

The blog is written by several professional medical anthropologists and let’s hope it continues as it’s started as I’m throughly enjoying reading it.

Link to Somatosphere (via Neuroanthropology).
Link to Somatosphere post on Ritalin.

Book review: Sight Unseen


I cannot recommend strongly enough Goodale & Milner’s book on vision ‘Sight Unseen’. The title refers to the idea they pursue throughout the book that our everyday conception of vision is thoroughly misleading. Rather than vision just being ‘what we experience’, it is, in fact, a collection of specific eye-behaviour links (‘visuomotor functions’) of which our conscious perception of the world is only an evolutionary-recent addition. Goodale & Milner have spent their careers investigating this area and base their narrative around a selection of seminal experiments and case-studies of patients with selective brain injuries. Almost no background knowledge is assumed yet the book takes the reader into the intricacies of the psychology of vision. The triumph of the book is that it gives a flavour of how research proceeds while also managing to provide an intuition-shaking overview of the whole topic. I will never think about seeing in the same way again. This is a rare book which is accessible but will also be of interest to those working in the field. If you have any interest in how a research field develops or in the psychology of vision then you should read it.

Goodale, M. & Milner, D. (2004). Sight Unseen: An Exploration of Conscious and Unconscious Vision. Oxford: Oxford University Press

(Full disclosure: I did not get asked to do this review, nor did I receive payment or a free book. I did it because I liked the book. I am actively engaged in research in this area)

Reminiscence rising

I had the pleasure of seeing the initial run-through of the upcoming London play Reminiscence on Friday and was completely blown away.

Inspired by a case study by world-renowned neurologist, Oliver Sacks (from his book, The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat), Reminiscence is the story of Mrs O’Connor who, in a bizarre neurological twist is transported, via evocative music, to the surreal world of her memories.

As her condition becomes increasingly difficult to fathom, Mrs O’Connor and her doctor go on a journey of discovery to the limits of science’s ability to fully account for what happens in our minds, and to the limits of our mind’s ability to fully recapture the past.

Reminiscence is a stunning piece of total theatre using live music (originally composed and inspired by the folk melodies of Eastern Europe) and spectacular visuals to take the audience on a fantastical, poignant and ultimately moving journey through the mind.

It’s going to be running from 9 ‚Äì 20th September in Jackson’s Lane Theatre in Highgate, and from what I’ve seen, it should be fantastic.

Effy, one of the composers, has managed to sort out some ‘2 for 1’ ticket offers, and says “you can contact the theatre and request two tickets for the price of one on 9 and 10th September (evening performances) and 17th September (matinee performance) but you must quote ‘epilepsy action’ when calling at the box office (020 8341 4421) to obtain this offer.”

I’ve been involved with the play for the last year or so, discussing the dilemmas of neuropsychology with the director, actors and composers.

After meeting the team I knew it was going to be good, but I was quite unprepared for how incredibly inventive and touching it is.

The piece literally plays with the fabric of reality and the original music is woven wonderfully throughout the piece.

By the way, I’m not financially involved in the play in any way, but can’t wait to see the final version as it should be emotionally, visually and musically stunning.

They’ll also be a free panel discussion after the show on the 14th and matinee on the 17th with some of the creative team, myself, and professionals from Headway and Epilepsy Action, all discussing the issues raised by the play – personal, ethical and scientific.

Link to Reminiscence website and details.

Kanizsa kiwi

A brilliant illustration of the Kanizsa triangle made out of kiwi fruit by Flickr user Yves Moreaux.

The Kanizsa triangle is often used to argue that a purely ‘bottom-up’ approach to understanding vision – that says we generate our perception solely from building up from the small details of what we see – is flawed.

In this case, it seems we fill in the outline of the triangle partly based on our prior expectations, because if we follow the contours in the image, there isn’t actually a triangle there.

The triangle illusion is named after the Italian psychologist Gaetano Kanizsa.

Kanizsa was also an accomplished artist who created numerous paintings that played with the concepts of perception.

Link to Yves Moreaux’s brilliant Kanizsa kiwi.
Link to online exchibition of Kanizsa’s paintings.