Encephalon 53 hails from a big continent

The 53rd edition of the Encephalon psychology and neuroscience writing carnival comes to us from the beautiful continent of Africa and has all the latest from the last fortnight in mind and brain news.

A couple of my favourites include an article from the appropriately named Brain Stimulant on the experience of a person with Asperger’s who took part in a TMS experiment, and another from Neuronism on the expert perceptual judgements of players vs wannabees in basketball.

This fortnite’s Encephalon is hosted by Ionian Enchantment a blog which I’d not discovered before but looks very good and is updated remarkably frequently.

Link to Encephalon 53.

It’s all gone scare shaped

The Guardian is currently running a series of extracts from Ben Goldacre’s new book, Bad Science. The first two are witty, acerbic and address how implausible vaccine scare stories get picked up by a scandal hungry media, and how pharmaceutical companies attempt to persuade us that every discomfort is a medical disorder.

Actually, I’m still waiting for the copy I’ve ordered to arrive so haven’t seen the whole thing yet, but if you’re a fan of the Bad Science column then the extracts suggest that the book will be just as insightful.

Times have changed. The pharmaceutical industry is in trouble: the golden age of medicine has creaked to a halt, the low-hanging fruit of medical research has all been harvested, and the industry is rapidly running out of new drugs. Fifty “novel molecular entities” a year were registered in the 1990s, but now it’s down to 20, and many of those are just copies of other companies’ products, changed only enough to justify a new patent. So the story of “disease mongering” goes like this: because they cannot find new treatments for the diseases we already have, the pill companies have instead had to invent new diseases for the treatments they already have.

Recent favourites include social anxiety disorder (a new use for SSRI antidepressant drugs), female sexual dysfunction (a new use for Viagra in women), the widening diagnostic boundaries of “restless leg syndrome”, and of course “night eating syndrome” (another attempt to sell SSRI medication, bordering on self-parody) to name just a few: all problems, in a very real sense, but perhaps not necessarily the stuff of pills, and perhaps not all best viewed in reductionist biomedical terms. In fact, you might consider that reframing intelligence, loss of libido, shyness and tiredness as medical pill problems is a crass, exploitative, and frankly disempowering act.

Night eating syndrome? No wonder those Goths look so pale.

Link to ‘The media‚Äôs MMR hoax’.
Link to ‘The Medicalisation of Everyday Life’.
Link to book details.

A vision of a daydream, or a fragment of reality

The Boston Globe has an interesting piece on daydreaming, touching on the link between daydreaming and creativity and discussing the possibly brain networks that might support our pleasant mental wanderings.

The article discusses some of the recent work on the default brain network and how this might be related to daydreaming:

Every time we slip effortlessly into a daydream, a distinct pattern of brain areas is activated, which is known as the default network. Studies show that this network is most engaged when people are performing tasks that require little conscious attention, such as routine driving on the highway or reading a tedious text. Although such mental trances are often seen as a sign of lethargy – we are staring haplessly into space – the cortex is actually very active during this default state, as numerous brain regions interact. Instead of responding to the outside world, the brain starts to contemplate its internal landscape. This is when new and creative connections are made between seemingly unrelated ideas.

“When you don’t use a muscle, that muscle really isn’t doing much of anything,” says Dr. Marcus Raichle, a neurologist and radiologist at Washington University who was one of the first scientists to locate the default network in the brain. “But when your brain is supposedly doing nothing and daydreaming, it’s really doing a tremendous amount. We call it the ‘resting state,’ but the brain isn’t resting at all.”

It’s worth bearing in mind that the connection between this network and daydreaming is only one theory, and other researchers think of it quite differently.

The ‘default network’ was suggested owing to measurements of how the brain uses energy at rest, and when brain imaging researchers noted that certain parts of the brain (mainly midline areas) were more active when participants didn’t seem to be doing very much but showed reduced activity when we participants were most engaged in attention-demanding tasks.

Neurologist Marcus Raichle has been most vocal in proposing that the network is linked to what we might broadly call daydreaming, mostly notably on the basis of a study that found that default network activity was related to what they called ‘stimulus independent thought’.

They determined this by training people on a memory task until they could do it so easily their minds wandered. They then put people in a scanner, compared brain activation in this condition to brain activation with a similar memory task but where the material was new, so they had to concentrate and weren’t able to think about other stuff.

They found that the practised condition was associated with activity in a default network, and, therefore, they linked it to daydreaming.

The trouble is, is that they only confirmed that participants were doing more off topic thinking, not what they were thinking about.

We might think of daydreaming as having thoughts about being the lead singer of an all-girl skiffle band, fighting a dragon if it happened to burst through the lab door, or screwing the research assistant who took us through the consent form, but it could be that the participants were just focused on the other stuff that was happening around them at the time.

Like the horrendous noise of the fMRI scanner, as some commentators suggested. Or perhaps, they were just being more aware of their wider environment.

And in fact, one theory suggests that the default network is not concerned with daydreaming, but maintains a background level of watchful attention to detect potentially dangerous external events (real dragons, for example), or perhaps processes memories – essentially doing our mental filekeeping.

One big problem with this area, is that it attempts to study a network which is supposedly most active when when not doing deliberate mental tasks, by extrapolating from data that involves the participants doing deliberate mental tasks.

This makes it difficult to tie it specifically to daydreaming, which is a subjective mental state that has a tendency of dancing away whenever we try and catch it.

Link to Globe article ‘Daydream achiever’ (via Frontal Cortex).

Monty Python’s fluent aphasia

Thripshaw’s Disease was a fictional medical condition shown in a sketch from the classic comedy series Monty Python’s Flying Circus that bears a remarkably similarity to fluent aphasia, a speech impairment that can occur after brain injury.

Mind Hacks reader Patricio sent in this fascinating observation, and we can see from the sketch that the man can understand what is said to him (intact comprehension), but produces fluent but jumbled sentences.

Speech problems after (usually left-sided) brain injury are called aphasia and the concept reflects the various ways speech can be impaired.

Sometimes aphasia affects speech production, so people can hardly seem to get a word out, while other people can produce fluent speech although it can be full of misplaced words, odd word order or nonwords. Often in fluent aphasia, people can also have difficulties in understanding what is said, but it’s not always the case.

Of course, there can be a mix of all sorts of problems, but the type of speech disorder depicted in the Monty Python sketch is called paragrammaticism and was tackled by a classic study by Butterworth and Howard.

Most interestingly, the researchers found that these errors are identical to the grammatical errors people without brain injury tend to make on a day-to-day basis, but just happen much more frequently.

Here’s one of the examples from the study:

My father, he is the biggest envelope ever worked in Ipswich. He strikes every competition and constitution that’s going. He’s got everybody situated and they’ve got to talk to him.

And there’s also a lovely example from this book:

I’ll tell you, not like before, I must say that once the beginning happened in the beginning, as I arrived and naturally it was, of course, quite decisive.

The gentleman in Monty Python sketch also shows paraphasias (saying the wrong word where you intended to say another) and neologisms (creating instant nonsense words).

Interestingly, the interviewer on the TV chat show slightly later in the sketch shows a classic transcortical motor aphasia – a slow halting speech with inappropriate word stress – typically caused by damage to areas of the mid part of the left frontal lobe.

This character is played by Graham Chapman who studied medicine and qualified as a doctor although apparently never practiced owing to the success of Monty Python.

I wonder if he was inspired by some of the usual speech patterns of aphasia, or whether this was just an interesting coincidence.

Link to video of Monty Python sketch (thanks Patricio!).
Link to Butterworth and Howard study.
Link to PubMed entry for study.