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.