Harmonious analgesia

You’re in the operating theatre, about to undergo a serious surgical procedure and the anaesthetic is starting to take effect. You can hear a beautiful acapella song that seems to be a remarkably geeky composition on anaesthesiology, but you’re not sure whether it’s the consciousness altering drugs that are causing strangely harmonious hallucinations or whether the doctors are really doing multi-part harmonies.

Actually, it turns out that a group of anaesthetists are really singing an acapella song dedicated to the practice of painkilling and they’ve been kind enough to upload their version to YouTube.

The medical group is called the Laryngospasms and their strangely melodic song is replete with classic lines like “Co2 is high, I think you’re going to die”.

And if that isn’t bizarre enough, I recommend another wonderful track called ‘Waking Up Is Hard To Do’ with the line “patient’s going down, doobie doo down down”.

Unconsciousness never sounded so good.

Link to Laryngospasms song ‘Breathe’.
Link to Laryngospasms song ‘Waking Up Is Hard To Do’.

Autism’s False Prophets

Salon has a good discussion of a new book on the culture and pseudoscience of vaccination scares by a paediatrician who received death threats after his public debunking of the overblown dangers.

The book is Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure and the paediatrician is Paul Offit, who examine both the claims and culture of the anti-vaccination lobby who are currently obsessed with autism.

This hasn’t always been the case though. As Ben Goldacre has noted, the US lobby seems to be concerned with thimerosal while the UK lobby believe the same thing about MMR, whereas previous unsupported scares have focused on hepatitis B jabs and multiple sclerosis.

In fact, as a BBC Radio 4 programme documented, a vaccination scare happened as the first ever vaccine for small pox appeared.

It’s a timely article, note least because yet another study has recently been published showing MMR vaccination was unrelated to autism. This is one of many many others, and an excellent article by Respectful Insolence rounds up the past evidence but also notes this latest study is particularly poignant as the first author is someone who has previously supported the scare.

Link to Salon article.
Link to more info on book Autism’s False Prophets.
Link to Respectful Insolence summary article.

Finally, APA bans work on ‘war on terror’ interrogations

After media allegations of psychologists’ role in torture, senior resignations, accusations of rigged committee votes and underhand tactics, a partial condemnation, a clarification, an ‘anti-torture’ candidate standing for the presidency and the forcing of a referendum, the American Psychological Association has finally and unequivocally banned participation of its members in military interrogations after a popular vote.

The debate has largely been sparked by the existence of psychology-led Behavioural Science Consultation Teams (aka ‘biscuit teams‘) in Guantanamo Bay who study inmates and recommend ‘personalised’ interrogation techniques – some of which were described as “tantamount to torture” in a leaked report from the International Committee of the Red Cross and explicitly condemned as torture by the United Nations.

The text of the new resolution states that “psychologists may not work in settings where persons are held outside of, or in violation of, either International Law (e.g., the UN Convention Against Torture and the Geneva Conventions) or the US Constitution (where appropriate), unless they are working directly for the persons being detained or for an independent third party working to protect human rights”.

The effect of the ban on these practices is questionable, however, and the influence is more likely to be at the organisational level.

Despite the psychiatric and medical associations’ immediate and unequivocal ban on their members’ participation in ‘war on terror’ interrogations, the complicity of medical staff is widely reported.

The fact that APA membership is optional for many psychologists and that most of the contested interrogations occur in secret or closed facilities means that disciplining individual psychologists will remain difficult at best.

However, the ban will mean that the APA will find it difficult to show any public support for the role of psychology in interrogations, and, perhaps more importantly, to make explicit organisational links between the psychologists’ governing body and the US intelligence services.

Some have speculated that the two years of APA heel dragging suggest a more chummy relationship with the military than has been admitted publicly and this new ban may be a bigger blow than is obvious if this turns out to be true.

Link to APA announcement of ballot result and full ban.
Link to good write-up from the New York Sun (via MeFi).

Fearing pharmaceutical modifications

Psychology Today journalist Matthew Hutson covers an interesting study that investigated which drug-based enhancements people are most comfortable with and which changes to the self people view negatively.

It seems drugs that potentially change our fundamental character traits are treated with most suspicion whereas those that change our abilities are thought to be the most acceptable.

Collaborators Jason Riis at NYU, Joseph Simmons at Yale, and Geoffrey Goodwin at Princeton first asked people to rate how fundamental a series of traits were to personal identity. In order of rated importance, the traits were: reflexes, rote memory, wakefulness, foreign language ability, math ability, episodic memory, concentration, music ability, absent-mindedness, self-control, creativity, emotional recovery, relaxation, social comfort, motivation, mood, self-confidence, empathy, and kindness. So people tend to think that emotional traits are more fundamental than cognitive ones.

The researchers then found that people are most reluctant to take pills that enhance the highly fundamental traits. Their most cited concern was personal authenticity…. When rating which types of enhancements should be banned, people instead based their decisions on concerns about competitions and fairness–morality rather than identity.

Link to write-up.
Link to study abstract.

2008-09-19 Spike activity

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

The New York Times discusses the recent case in India where a controversial ‘brain scan lie detection’ test was used to convict someone for murder.

Screaming energy! A fan site that reviews energy drinks with, rather predictably, excessive levels of enthusiasm.

“Thinking about Not-Thinking”: Neural Correlates of Conceptual Processing during Zen Meditation. Fantastic study published in open-access science journal PLoS One.

Sharp Brains has an interview with the wife of Bob Woodruff, a reporter who has made and written about his recovery from brain injury.

Do recent neurological studies prove once and for all that homosexuality is biological? Salon has an interview with neurologist and gay activist Jerome Goldstein.

Not Exactly Rocket Science covers new research suggesting political beliefs can be reflected in more fundamental cognitive processes.

The Frontal Cortex continues the theme with a study that provides a lovely example of motivated reasoning and bias in judging political contradictions.

A reporter for Popular Mechanics throws himself out of a plane as part of an experiment on the psychology of fear.

The New York Times has a surprisingly uncritical article on ‘child bipolar disorder’. Furious Seasons has a good counterpoint.

Even music played before or after a film character is shown affects our perception of their emotion. Fascinating piece of research covered by Cognitive Daily.

Time magazine looks at the US Military’s plans for advanced brain-computer interface controlled weapons systems.

ABC Radio National’s Philosopher’s Zone has a great discussion on the concept of love while the The LA Times looks at the psychology of commitment and infidelity.

Neuroanthropology has a video discussion from behavioural economist and ‘Nudge’ author Richard Thaler.

Neuropsychiatrist and ex-English literature professor Nancy Andreasan is interviewed by The New York Times.

Electric blue

I’ve just found this fascinating article about how electricity became featured in entertainment shows shortly after it was harnessed and took on an erotic undercurrent, leading to theories of sexuality that attempted to explain the differences between male and female ‘electric fire’.

The abstract alone is wonderful to read:

Sparks in the dark: the attraction of electricity in the eighteenth century.

Bertucci P.

Electricity was the craze of the eighteenth century. Thrilling experiments became forms of polite entertainment for ladies and gentlemen who enjoyed feeling sparks, shocks and attractions on their bodies. Popular lecturers designed demonstrations that were performed in darkened salons to increase the spectacle of the so-called electric fire. Not only did the action, the machinery and the ambience of such displays match the culture of the libertine century, it also provided new material for erotic literature.

This is one of the many curious paragraphs from the actual article:

Women became essential protagonists of electrical soirées. Electrical performances staged in courts and salons counted on their active participation and played with sexual difference. Although both men and women could experience the electric fire with their bodies, they would tackle it in different ways. The most common electrical experiments provide a glimpse into the different roles salon culture codified for ladies and gentlemen. One of the most popular demonstrations of the time was the electrifying Venus, or electric kiss. Invented by the German professor Georg Matthias Bose, it was soon replicated throughout Europe. The experiment was simple to organize. The selected lady would stand on an insulated stool while an operator charged her body with an electrical machine. Gentlemen in the audience would then be invited to kiss her, but alas, as they tried to approach her lips a strong spark would discourage any attempt, while exhilarating the lady and the rest of the audience.

Link to article ‘Sparks in the dark’.
Link to PubMed entry.

Robotic thoughts

The Economist has a good write-up of a recent PLoS One study that found that the perceived ‘human-ness’ of another player in a game altered the extent of activation in brain areas associated with understanding others’ mental states.

The participants were asked to play the prisoner’s dilemma game in a brain scanner and were introduced to four opponents – software on a laptop, a laptop controlled by robotic hands, a humanoid robot and a real human. In reality though, the other players’ moves were all randomly generated.

Dr Krach and Dr Kircher chose the “prisoner’s dilemma” game because it involves a difficult choice: whether to co-operate with the other player or betray him. Co-operation brings the best outcome, but trying to co-operate when the other player betrays you brings the worst. The tendency is for both sides to choose betrayal (thus obtaining an intermediate result) unless a high level of trust exists between them. The game thus requires each player to try to get into the mind of the other, in order to predict what he might do. This sort of thinking tends to increase activity in parts of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex and the right temporo-parietal junction.

The scanner showed that the more human-like the supposed opponent, the more such neural activity increased. A questionnaire also revealed that the volunteers enjoyed the games most when they played human-like opponents, whom they perceived to be more intelligent. Dr Krach and Dr Kircher reckon this shows that the less human-like a robot is in its appearance, the less it will be treated as if it were human. That may mean it will be trusted less—and might therefore not sell as well as a humanoid design.

It’s an interesting extension of a type of study first pioneered by psychologist Helen Gallagher and colleagues where she asked people to play ‘paper, scissors, stone’ supposedly against human and computer opponents in a PET scanning study.

Like with this recent study, all ‘opponents’ were actually just a series of randomly generated moves but the participants showed significantly greater brain activation in the frontal cortex when playing against the supposedly ‘human’ opponent than versus the computer.

The philosopher Daniel Dennett suggests that attributing mental states is a particular way of thinking about something that he calls the ‘intentional stance‘.

For example, we might play a chess computer and treat it if it was ‘intending’ to take our our bishop, or as if it ‘believed’ that getting the Queen out would be an advantage, but this says nothing about whether the machine actually has intentions or beliefs.

Of course, we can apply this to humans, and just because we find it useful to talk about others’ beliefs, it doesn’t mean belief is necessarily a scientifically sound concept.

Link to Economist article ‘I, human’.
Link to full-text article in PLoS One.

Full disclosure: I’m an unpaid member of the PLoS One editorial board.