Attending van Gogh and his asylum art

This month’s British Journal of Psychiatry includes a letter that gives an interesting insight into the relationship between the legendary Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh, the three doctors that variously treated him for his epilepsy and insanity, and some of his most famous paintings.

Three medical doctors were involved with the treatment of van Gough: Dr Felix Rey (1867–1932), who diagnosed van Gogh’s epilepsy; Dr Théophile Zacharie Auguste Peyron (1827–95) of Saint-Remy asylum who also diagnosed ‘a type of epilepsy’ – he was a very understanding physician who arranged facilities within the asylum for van Gogh’s paintings and artwork; and Dr Paul Gachet (1828–1909) who treated van Gogh during his last 10 weeks of life.

van Gogh painted two portraits and an etching of Dr Gachet, one of which (Portrait of Doctor Gachet, June 1890) was auctioned in 1990 for an astounding sum of US$ 82.5 million. Young intern Dr Rey probably maintained distance because he saw van Gogh during his psychotic state, shortly after the ear mutilation episode. He failed to value the artist’s creativity and thus was not possessive of the gift presented to him, which he described afterwards:

“Vincent was above all a miserable, wretched man,… he would talk to me about complementary colours. But I really could not understand why red should not be red, and green not green!… When I saw that he outlined my head entirely in green (he had only two main colours, red and green), that he painted my hair and my mustache ‚Äì I really did not have red hair ‚Äì in a blazing red on a biting green background, I was simply horrified. What should I do with this present?”

Dr Gachet was very supportive of van Gogh and valued his creative instinct. Vincent had found a ‘true friend’ in him. It is a matter of pride for the medical fraternity that Dr Gachet was highly admired by van Gogh and that he tried his best to keep van Gogh’s tormented soul at peace and allow his creativity to flourish in the village atmosphere of Auvers. van Gogh created a series of paintings, at least 14, illustrating the Saint-Remy asylum. Any of them may be appropriate for the Journal to focus on with regard to his creativity of the use of colour and space to astonishing effect. Those paintings are carrying the historical value of mental health perspectives so far as the asylum culture of his time is concerned.

The picture on the left is The Starry Night, one of his most famous, which he draw looking out of his window while a resident in the Saint-Remy asylum.

Link to letter in BJP (closed access for some unknown reason).

Trapped: Mental Illness in America’s Prisons

Photographer Jenn Ackerman has created a stunning and extensive video essay on Kentucky’s correctional facility for prisoners with mental illness, interviewing the inmates, staff and clinicians who form part of America’s biggest provider of residential psychiatry – the prison system.

Of course, the prisons were never designed to be providers of mental health care, but as a recent Time article noted, they have become the default treatment facility for the many people who fall through the cracks.

Ackerman has created a introductory film and also has put several prisoner interviews online, where we meet people in various states of distress and recovery. There’s also a fantastic film on ‘inmate watchers’ who have the responsibility to checking on vulnerable, volatile or suicidal inmates.

The films are sometimes disturbing, bleak in places and occasionally sublime, but are immensely revealing and show remarkable sensitivity in their construction.

From Ackerman’s written essay that accompanies the piece, I suspect that we only get to see the least affected people as those who are most ill are unlikely to be able to consent to being interviewed, meaning that even this bleak portrayal is likely to be a relatively positive depiction.

A man has been singing songs at the top of his lungs for the last two days, while another, hunched on his bed, wails from under a blanket. In a cell across the hall, a man shakes as he yells to his wife he has not seen in five years and to the thug down the street. In reaction to the noise, another man bangs endlessly on his cell door until an officer comes by and asks him to stop. He smiles and says he just wanted someone to talk to.

“We are the surrogate mental hospitals now,” says Larry Chandler, warden at the Kentucky State Reformatory in La Grange, Ky. With the rising number of mentally ill, the reformatory was forced to rebuild a system that was designed for security. Never intended as mental health facility, treatment has quickly become one of their primary goals.

Unfortunately, this situation is not unique to Kentucky. The continuous withdrawal of mental health funding has turned jails and prisons across the US into the default mental health facilities.

A 2006 report by the U.S. Department of Justice shows that the number of Americans with mental illnesses incarcerated in the nation’s prisons and jails is disproportionately high. Almost 555,000 people with mental illness are incarcerated while fewer than 55,000 are being treated in designated mental health hospitals.

Ackerman also has a gallery of still photographs and says she intends to make a feature length film which, if it has the impact of her online work, is likely to be profoundly moving.

Link to Trapped: Mental Illness in America’s Prisons.

Imagining missing limbs helps pain, reorganises brain

Neurology journal Brain has just published an elegant open-access study on how just six weeks of mental imagery training can help reduce phantom limb pain as well as reorganising the sensory and motor maps in the brain.

Phantom limbs are when amputees feel sensations that seem to be coming from the missing limb. Sometimes this can include pain which can either be constant or transitory.

Sensations from the nonexistent limb are thought to be due to the brain reorganising the areas which represent the body.

In the case of a phantom arm, for example, the area is no longer receiving sensations from the limb and so stops being so carefully defined. Areas serving other body areas (like the face) start to creep in and facial stimulation can be felt in the missing arm due to the fuzzy neurological boundaries.

This new study, led by neuroscientist Kate McIver, decided to test whether mental imagery can help keep these areas active and prevent the fuzziness creeping in, potentially reducing the phantom pain.

This is based on extensive research to show that imagining something activates similar brain areas to actually perceiving the sensation or executing the action. For example, imagining the sensation of a cool breeze across your arm actually increases activity in the brain areas responsible for arm sensations, while imaging picking something up activates arm-related motor areas.

The research team asked participants to rate their phantom limb pain and used fMRI to look at which brain areas were most active during some movement-related tasks. While in the scanner, the participants were asked to imagine actions with either the existing or phantom hand, to move the existing hand or were asked to purse (push together) their lips.

This last action tends to activate what was previously the hand area in the brain in people with phantom limbs, but doesn’t in people with intact limbs. Indeed, this is exactly what the initial brain scans reported, indicating that their brains had reorganised sensory boundaries.

The researchers then invited each participant for six weekly sessions that involved a mental ‘body scan’ technique that involved imagining free and comfortable movement in their phantom limb such as they could “stretch away the pain” and “allow the fingers, hand and arm to rest in a comfortable position”. Participants also practised in their own time.

After six weeks, pain ratings were taken again and the brain scanning was re-run. The painful sensations had significantly reduced and lip pursing no longer activated the hand area.

The mental imagery seemed to have ‘simulated’ arm actions and sensations well enough so that the neurological boundaries remained sharp and cross-area fuzziness didn’t encourage phantom pain.

Link to full text article in Brain.
Link to PubMed entry.

Don’t get high on your own supply

An article from Forensic Sciences International investigated evidence for addiction in anaesthetists by analysing hair samples.

The paper reports on four court cases where anaesthetists were suspended for suspected addiction to the drugs they use to put people to sleep or kill pain during operations.

Each case involved hair analysis to gather evidence, owing to the fact that many drugs will leave traces in the hair as it grows, leaving a timeline of drug use.

Chemical dependency is a disease that can affect all professions. Among the health care professionals, anesthesiologists represent a specific group. Numerous factors have been proposed to explain the high incidence of drug abuse among anesthesiologists. These include: easy access to potent drugs, particularly narcotics, highly addictive potential of agents with which they are in contact, and easy diversion of these agents since only small doses will initially provide an effect desired by the abuser.

Opioids are the drugs of choice for anesthesiologists, and among them fentanyl and sufentanil are the most commonly used. Alcohol is mostly abused by older anesthesiologists. Propofol, ketamine, thiopental and midazolam are also abused. In fact, all but quaternary ammonium drugs can be observed. Signs and symptoms of addiction in the hospital workplace include: unusual changes in behavior, desire to work alone, refusal of lunch relief or breaks, volunteer for extra cases, call, come in early and leave late, frequent restroom breaks, weight loss and pale skin, malpractice, behind on charts ….

Toxicological investigations are difficult, as the drugs of interest are difficult to test for. In most cases, half-lives of the compounds are short, and the circulating concentrations weak. It is, therefore, necessary to develop tandem mass spectrometry procedures to satisfy the criteria of identification and quantitation. In most cases, blood and/or urine analyses are not useful to document impairment, as these specimens are collected at inadequate moments. Hair analysis appears, therefore, as the unique choice to evidence chronic exposure.

Depending the length of the hair shaft, it is possible to establish an historical record, associated to the pattern of drug use, considering a growth rate of about 1cm/month. An original procedure was developed to test for fentanyl derivatives. After decontamination with methylene chloride, drugs are extracted from the hair by liquid/liquid extraction after incubation in pH 8.4 phosphate buffer. Fentanyl derivatives are analyzed by GC-MS/MS. The following cases are included in this paper:

Case 1: 50-year-old anesthetist, positive for fentanyl (644 pg/mg); Case 2: 42-year-old anesthetist, positive for fentanyl (101 pg/mg) and sufentanil (2 pg/mg); Case 3: 40-year-old anesthetist, positive for codeine (210 pg/mg), alfentanil (30 pg/mg) and midazolam (160 pg/mg); Case 4: 46-year-old nurse, found dead, positive for alfentanil (2 pg/mg) and fentanyl (8 pg/mg). In these cases, the combination of an alternative specimen (hair) and hyphenated analytical techniques (tandem mass spectrometry) appears to be a pre-requisite.

A recent review article noted that while doctors were generally healthier than the general popular, addiction remains a particular risk for physicians, stating “addiction impairs more physicians than any other disorder or disease. Though alcohol use, abuse, and dependence are no more prevalent among physicians than other professionals, physicians display higher rates of prescription drug abuse and dependence than the general population.”

Link to abstract of study on hair analysis.
Link to abstract of study on prescription drug abuse among physicians.

Magic in mind

Interest in the cognitive science of magic is really hotting up with Nature Neuroscience having just published a review article jointly authored by some leading cognitive scientists and stage illusionists. They argue that by studying magic, neuroscientists can learn powerful methods to manipulate attention and awareness in the laboratory which could give insights into the neural basis of consciousness itself.

The neuroscientists involved are Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde, while the magicians are Mac King, James Randi, Apollo Robbins, Teller from Penn and Teller, and John Thompson.

If this collection of names sounds familiar, it’s because this time last year the same group presented a symposium at the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness on ‘The Magic of Consciousness’.

The new article rounds up the conference discussion and The Boston Globe has a piece looking at some of the highlights.

This is not the only cognitive science article that explores what neuroscience can learn from the mystic arts. In a forthcoming article [pdf] for Trends in Cognitive Sciences psychologist Gustav Kuhn.

Kuhn has done some fantastic experimental studies looking at eye movements and attention of people watching magic tricks.

It’s not only an academic interest as Kuhn is apparently an illusionist himself and he’s one of a number of psychologists who also happen to be stage magicians. Just off the top of my head psychologists Richard Wiseman and Robert Moverman are also ex-professional conjurers. I’ve come across several others and so its perhaps not so surprising that these new articles have been published, but more that they took so long.

Both articles look at some common and no so common magic tricks and explain the cognitive science behind how they work:

Persistence of vision is an effect in which an image seems to persist for longer than its presentation time12, 13, 14. Thus, an object that has been removed from the visual field will still seem to be visible for a short period of time. The Great Tomsoni’s (J.T.) Coloured Dress trick, in which the magician’s assistant’s white dress instantaneously changes to a red dress, illustrates an application of this illusion to magic. At first the colour change seems to be due (trivially) to the onset of red illumination of the woman. But after the red light is turned off and a white light is turned on, the woman is revealed to be actually wearing a red dress. Here is how it works: when the red light shuts off there is a short period of darkness in which the audience is left with a brief positive after-image of the red-dressed (actually white-dressed but red-lit) woman. This short after-image persists for enough time to allow the white dress to be rapidly removed while the room is still dark. When the white lights come back, the red dress that the assistant was always wearing below the white dress is now visible.

Link to Nature Neuroscience article (via BB).
pdf of Trends in Cognitive Science article.
Link to Boston Globe write-up.

Encephalon 51 arrives with a flourish

The rather poetic 51st edition of the Encephalon psychology and neuroscience writing carnival has just been published online and is graciously hosted by The Mouse Trap.

It has a distinctly poetic theme on this occasion, with a set of cognitive science haikus enlivening proceedings.

A couple of my favourite posts include one on the continuing mirror neuron hype and another on the cultural feedback loop between psychiatry and our expression of mental distress.

Link to Encephalon 51.

On the edge of truth

Discover Magazine has a brief but interesting interview with ex-NSA psychologist Eric Haseltine, who directed research into interrogation and lie detection.

He discusses the use of new technologies that measure body and brain function – i.e. the still not-yet-very-good ‘brain scan lie detectors’ – but also talks about the skills humans need to be able to pick up when someone is trying to deceive them.

Interestingly, he cites the development of human skills as where the biggest advances are likely to be made in the future:

What is the hottest area today in deception detection?

Human lie detectors. I think the low-tech training of humans to be better interpreters of information is where the most productive work is going to be. The reason being that you can either train a human to do it or train a computer to do it, and human brains are still much better computers than computers are.

Link to Discover Magazine interview with Haseltine.
Link to New Yorker article on the shortcomings of ‘brain scan lie detection’.
Link to past interview with Haseltine on US national security.

Interview with self-trepanner, Heather Perry

Neurophilosophy has a fantastic interview with Heather Perry, a 37-year old British woman who organised a modern-day trepanation to insert a hole in her skull in an attempt to alter her state of consciousness.

Perry gives a lucid insight into her motivations and describes the rather ad-hoc operation in rather gory detail:

How exactly did you perform the trepanation?

I used a hand trepan initially, but that wasn’t proving to be terribly successful. Then there was a problem with the people who owned the property we were staying in, so we decided we’d have to just leave it. I wrapped my head up in a towel and we got out of there. A couple of days later, we had another go. We abandoned the hand trepan and got an electric drill instead. I injected myself with a local anaesthetic and then slashed a big T-shaped incision in my scalp, right down to the bone. I was sat there in the bathroom feeling quite relaxed and they started with the drill. It didn’t take that long at all, probably about 20 minutes. Eventually I could feel a lot of fluid moving around. Apparently, there was a bit too much fluid shifting around, because they’d gone a little bit too far and I was leaking some through the hole, but this wasn’t especially dangerous as there are three layer of meninges before you get to the brain.

It’s an interesting read not least because Perry is rather circumspect when discussing the procedure.

You might expect that someone who had arranged for a hole to be drilled in her skull to be completely convinced about the rather far-out claims for trepanation.

While she does mention some claimed effects and findings, she seems quite measured in her assessment and largely seems to have tried the procedure as an exploration rather than a ‘cure’ in any specific sense.

Link to Neurophilosophy interview with Heather Perry.

On the brains of the assassins of Presidents

This is a wonderfully written summary that tells the story of how two father-and-son doctors were involved post-mortem brain examinations of the assassins of the US Presidents James Garfield and William McKinley.

The article is by neuroanatomist Duane Haines although unfortunately, I haven’t read or even got access to the full paper. Luckily, the abstract is just a joy to read in itself. A curious slice of neurological history in 300 words.

Spitzka and Spitzka on the brains of the assassins of presidents.

J Hist Neurosci. 1995 Sep-Dec;4(3-4):236-66.

Haines DE.

Although four American Presidents have been assassinated (Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, Kennedy), only the assassins of Garfield (Charles Julius Guiteau) and McKinley (Leon Franz Czolgosz) were tried, convicted, and executed for their crime. In 1882 Edward Charles Spitzka, a young New York neurologist with a growing reputation as an alienist, testified at the trial of Guiteau.

He was the only expert witness who was asked, based on his personal examination of the prisoner, a direct question concerning the mental state of Guiteau. Spitzka maintained the unpopular view that Guiteau was insane. In spite of aggressive and spirited testimony on Spitzka’s part, Guiteau was convicted and hanged. However, even before the execution it was acknowledged, by some experts, that Spitzka was undoubtedly right.

About 20 years later, in 1901, Edward Anthony Spitzka, the son of Edward Charles Spitzka, was invited to conduct the autopsy on Czologsz, the assassin of McKinley. At the time Spitzka the younger, who had just published a detailed series of papers on the human brain, was in the fourth year of his medical training. It was an unusual series of fortuitous events that presumably led to Edward A. Spitzka conducting the autopsy on the assassin of the President of the United States while still a medical student. This, in light of the fact that other experts were available.

Each Spitzka went on to a career of note and each made a number of contributions in their respective fields. It is however, their participation in the ‘neurology’, as broadly defined, of the assassins of Presidents Garfield and McKinley that remains unique in neuroscience history. Not only were father and son participants in these important events, but these were the only times that assassins of US Presidents were tried and executed.

Edward Spitzka was also known as one of the main proponents of the idea that masturbation caused madness, and wrote an 1887 article outlining 12 cases of ‘masturbatic insanity’.

Link to PubMed entry.

Constraining the ancient mind

As part of Seed Magazine’s on innovative thinkers in science, they published a podcast interview with archaeologist Lambros Malafouris who is pioneering the study of ancient cultural artefacts as a way of constraining theories in evolutionary psychology.

One of the criticisms of some evolutionary psychology is that it too often involves over-interpretation and ‘just so’ stories – explanations of why we have certain psychological attributes that are stories rather than hypotheses that can be easily tested.

Malafouris has taken the novel approach of using the findings from archaeology to systematically generate and test theories of the evolution of the mind. He seems particularly interested in embodied cognition, the idea that the mind can only be understood in relation to how it interacts with the world through body and action.

The mainstream approach to cognition holds that it happens in the mind and that material culture is nothing more than an outgrowth of our mental capacities. Archaeologist Lambros Malafouris is challenging this deep-seated idea with a radical new notion: the hypothesis of extended mind, which posits that material culture is not a reflection of the human mind but an actual part of it. Take, for instance, a blind man’s stick. “Where does the blind man end and the rest of the world begin?” he says. “You might see the stick as something external, but it plays a very important role in the perceptual system of this person. It extends the boundaries of this human‚Äîthe stick becomes an integral part of the cognitive architecture.”

If material culture is an extension of human cognition, our engagement with it has actively shaped the evolution of human intelligence, Malafouris argues. For example, ancient clay tablets that allowed people to actually write down records were not mere objects, he says. Instead, they became integral adjuncts of the human memory system. The invention of such a technology “changes the structure of the human mind,” says Malafouris, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Cambridge. Rather than happening wholly in the head, he argues, cognition develops and evolves through the interplay between intelligence and material culture.

In fact, there’s an increasing focus on related ideas. Some of my favourite studies have been done by psychologist Dennis Proffitt who has found numerous effects of tool use on thinking and perception.

One of my favourite studies is where he found that we perceive distances as shorter when we have a tool in our hand, but only when we intend to use it.

Malafouris is using these ideas and adds to the relatively new but exciting field of cognitive archaeology.

Link to Seed interview with Lambros Malafouris.

Avalance of new SciAmMind articles

The new edition of Scientific American Mind has just appeared with a whole host of new freely-available articles available online covering the psychology of storytelling, gifted children, genius, animal intelligence, scent, smell and learning through error.

My favourite is the article on the psychology of storytelling and narrative, and why it could intricately bound up in the cognitive abilities we’ve developed to navigate the social world.

The article is quite wide ranging, dipping into anthropology, cognitive and evolutionary psychology to explore why stories are so central to cultures across the world.

Perhaps because theory of mind is so vital to social living, once we possess it we tend to imagine minds everywhere, making stories out of everything. A classic 1944 study by Fritz Heider and Mary-Ann Simmel, then at Smith College, elegantly demonstrated this tendency. The psychologists showed people an animation of a pair of triangles and a circle moving around a square and asked the participants what was happening. The subjects described the scene as if the shapes had intentions and motivations—for example, “The circle is chasing the triangles.” Many studies since then have confirmed the human predilection to make characters and narratives out of whatever we see in the world around us.

But what could be the evolutionary advantage of being so prone to fantasy? “One might have expected natural selection to have weeded out any inclination to engage in imaginary worlds rather than the real one,” writes Steven Pinker, a Harvard University evolutionary psychologist, in the April 2007 issue of Philosophy and Literature. Pinker goes on to argue against this claim, positing that stories are an important tool for learning and for developing relationships with others in one’s social group. And most scientists are starting to agree: stories have such a powerful and universal appeal that the neurological roots of both telling tales and enjoying them are probably tied to crucial parts of our social cognition.

Link to August 2008 SciAmMind.

Cognitive restructuring and the fist bump terrorists

The recently satirical New Yorker cover depicting Obama and his wife as fist-bumping Islamic terrorists comes under fire in an article for The Chronicle by psychologist Mahzarin Banaji who argues that it irresponsibly creates an implicit association between “Obama and Osama”. Banaji is almost certainly right, but neglects higher levels of cognition which can make this ineffectual.

Banaji is most known for her extensive work on the implicit association test (IAT), which we discussed only the other day. What this and other work has shown is that despite our conscious thoughts (“hair colour has no association with intelligence”) we still might have an unconscious bias that associates certain concepts (‘blonde’ and ‘dim’).

Along these lines, Banaji suggests that the artist, Barry Blitt, who created the picture has harmed the political debate by unintentionally strengthening an inappropriate link:

The brain, Blitt would be advised to understand, is a complex machine whose operating principles we know something about. When presented with A and B in close spatial or temporal proximity, the mind naturally and effortlessly associates the two. Obama=Osama is an easy association to produce via simple transmogrification. Flag burning=unpatriotic=un-American=un-Christian=Muslim is child’s play for the cortex. Learning by association is so basic a mechanism that living beings are jam-packed with it ‚Äî ask any dog the next time you see it salivating to a tone of a bell. There is no getting around the fact that the very association Blitt helplessly confessed he didn’t intend to create was made indelibly for us, by him.

It is not unreasonable, given the inquiring minds that read The New Yorker, to expect that an obvious caricature would be viewed as such. In fact, our conscious minds can, in theory, accomplish such a feat. But that doesn’t mean that the manifest association (Obama=Osama lover) doesn’t do its share of the work. To some part of the cognitive apparatus, that association is for real. Once made, it has a life of its own because of a simple rule of much ordinary thinking: Seeing is believing. Based on the research of my colleague, the psychologist Daniel Gilbert, on mental systems, one might say that the mind first believes, and only if it is relaxing in an Adirondack chair doing nothing better, does it question and refute. There is a power to all things we see and hear ‚Äî exactly as they are presented to us.

It strikes me that Banaji is perhaps being a little disingenuous here. Certainly the advert does strengthen that unconscious association, but, as as the intention of most satire, it attempts to include another association into the mix – that of absurdity.

In other words, the idea of the cartoon is presumably to trigger the association Obama = terrorist, but also include another so it becomes Obama = terrorist = absurd. It’s the humourists equivalent of the reductio ad absurdum argument.

Of course, this can rely as much on the same implicit associations as Banaji mentions, but it can be also seen to work very effectively through a process of reinterpretation that alters the impact of automatic connections through changing their meaning.

In fact, this process so can be so powerful that it is used to treat psychiatric problems.

In clinical work it is called ‘cognitive restructuring’. For example, in panic disorder, people begin to interpret normal bodily reactions (increased heart rate, temperature etc) as a sign of impending heart attack or other danger, which leads to more anxiety, further interpretations and a spiral of terrifying anxiety.

Cognitive restructuring teaches people that these bodily changes and worried thoughts aren’t signs of an impending heart attack, they’re normal reactions, and the spiral of anxiety is not a risk to your health, just a pattern you’ve got into. In other words, they begin to believe something different about the significance of the link.

Humour also relies on a process of reinterpretation. Most theories of humour stress that it usually requires the reframing of a previously held association.

However, the key to good satire is that this reframing should be obvious and we might speculate that the reframing effect should be more powerful than the effect of simply reviving the old association.

We can perhaps wonder then, whether the controversy over the New Yorker cover is not that it made an association between Obama and terrorism, but that it was not effective enough in making it obviously absurd.

I suspect one of the difficulties is that the cartoon was actually attempting to satirise not Obama, but the media discussion of him. This is always a risky strategy because it requires so much cognitive abstraction that the automatic association is far more apparent.

Link to Banaji’s article in The Chronicle.

2008-08-01 Spike activity

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

Awesome Developing Intelligence post gives a remarkably concise review of cognitive science and discusses what this tells us about the best targets for cognitive enhancement.

BookForum looks at two memoirs that recount the psychological and physical intricacies of illness of the body and brain.

The mighty Language Log has a great analysis looking at the fallacies of yet another popular piece on sex differences in mind and brain.

The Economist has an article on the science of cognitive nutrition.

The ideas behind ‘critical neuroscience‘ are discussed by Neuroanthropology.

Eric Schwitzgebel on the Wittgensteinian puzzle of whether philosophy solves problems with language or problems with the world.

ABC Radio National’s The Philosopher’s Zone has an interesting discussion on the philosophy of moral dilemmas.

While we’re on the subject of morality the NYT Freakanomics blog has two guest posts on moral hypocrisy.

Sharp Brains has a special on mind and brain haikus.

ABC Radio National’s In Conversation looks at the anthropology of sisters, mothering and motherhood across the world’s cultures.

Dr Petra has the most sensible post you’ll read about the recent news reports on Viagra supposedly increasing sexual function in women who take antidepressants.

Advances in object recognition around age 2 may herald symbolic thought, reports Science News.

Pure Pedantry has an interesting commentary on the merits of postponing your alcoholism.

Perpetually falling woman learns to balance with her tongue. The Telegraph has a story about a woman who has lost her sense of balance owing to brain injury.

The Primary Visual Cortex is an excellent new blog on vision science and perception.

A robot that “resembles the love child of a monkey and an iMac”. The Times has an excellent piece on robots designed to emotionally interface with humans.

Not Quite Rocket Science looks at a new study on language evolution in the lab and Wired Science has some further in-depth analysis.

A new book called ‘Brain Research for Policy Wonks’ is reviewed by Nature Reviews Neuroscience.

New Scientist has a special article and video report on the somewhat recursively titled ‘Seven Reasons Why People Hate Reason‘.

The psychology of motivation – when passionate interest becomes a business – is discussed by The Washington Post.

The New York times examines the methods and motivations of web trolls.

An eye-tracking study that compared how individuals with Williams syndrome (“hyper social”) and autism (“hypo social”) view pictures of social scenes is covered by The Neurocritic.