Pentagon requests robot packs to hunt humans

New Scientist reports on a new Pentagon request to develop a pack of robots “to search for and detect a non-cooperative human”.

I am a strong believer in the fact that everyone who takes a course in artificial intelligence should be made to watch post-apocalyptic film The Terminator as a stark warning, in the same way that everyone who works with MRI scanners is made to watch serious videos about ‘what can go tragically wrong and how you can prevent it’.

I also suspect though, that the students who come out of those lectures rooting for the robots are recruited into military research teams.

From the Pentagon document:

Typical robots for this type of activity are expected to weigh less than 100 Kg and the team would have three to five robots.

PHASE I: Develop the system design and determine the required capabilities of the platforms and sensors. Perform initial feasibility experiments, either in simulation or with existing hardware. Documentation of design tradeoffs and feasibility analysis shall be required in the final report.

PHASE II: Implement the software and hardware into a sensor package, integrate the package with a generic mobile robot, and demonstrate the system‚Äôs performance in a suitable indoor environment. Deliverables shall include the prototype system and a final report, which shall contain documentation of all activities in this project and a user’s guide and technical specifications for the prototype system.

PHASE III: Robots that can intelligently and autonomously search for objects have potential commercialization within search and rescue, fire fighting, reconnaissance, and automated biological, chemical and radiation sensing with mobile platforms.

PHASE IV: Die puny humans die!

PHASE V: To the bunkers! Run for your lives! Arggghhhhh!

PHASE VI: Sarah Connor, we’re going to send you back in time to make a movie to warn everybody about the coming annihilation of the human race. Recruit a political leader so people will take it seriously – like Governor Schwarzenegger, for example.

Earlier this year, Israel announced that they want to develop an AI-controlled missile system that “could take over completely” from humans. If you’re still chucking, the UK military satellite system is called Skynet.

Link to NewSci on Pentagon opening Pandora’s box.
Link to Pentagon solicitation request.

Towards a neuropsychology of religion

This week’s Nature has a fascinating essay by anthropologist Pascal Boyer discussing the quirks of spiritual belief and how they may result from the evolution of our mind and brain.

Boyer is best known for his book Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought where he argued that religion can be understood as where the cognitive abilities we’ve developed through evolution are applied to things like group identity, ritual, or the explanation of otherwise mysterious things, such as weather or disease.

Essentially, Boyer argues that there are cognitive restraints on religious practice and belief, which he illustrates by pointing out some interesting inconsistencies in our intuitive ideas about spiritual agents. According to Boyer, this suggests that our mental capacities define what are supposed to be all-powerful or all-knowing entities.

This clip of Boyer being interview by Jonathan Miller is fascinating because he points out, contrary to popular belief, what most religions are concerned with. He notes most religions do not concern themselves with the creation of the world or the afterlife, while the presence of unseen agents is almost universal.

There is now a growing interest in the cognitive science of religion and one of my favourite articles is by psychiatrist Quinton Deeley who discusses how different form of religious ritual may influence specific cognitive functions to pass on religious teachings and commitments (full disclosure: Deeley is a friend and research collaborator).

Deeley argues that the well-known distinction between ‘doctrinal’ rituals which are frequent and low intensity (such as everyday prayers or practices), and ‘imagistic’ high-intensity, less-frequent rituals (such as exuberant religious celebrations) serve different psychological purposes.

‘Doctrinal’ rituals help create semantic memories of key concepts and emotional response through associative learning, while ‘imagistic’ rituals help create episodic memories of specific situations that may involve altered states of consciousness and the experience of other realities.

Deeley also did a fascinating talk on ‘Ritual, Possession Trance, and Amnesia’ where he discusses some of the neuropsycholgical mechanisms that might underlie trance and possessions states.

Link to Boyer’s Nature essay ‘Religion: Bound to believe?’.
Link to brief interview with Boyer on religion.
Link to Deeley’s article ‘The Religious Brain’.
Link to video of talk ‘Ritual, Possession Trance, and Amnesia’.

Neuropsychiatry in Venezuela

Apologies for the lack of posts, but I’ve just arrived in Punto Fijo in Venezuela, as I’ve kindly been invited to be a guest of the Venezuelan Psychiatric Society at their annual conference, where I shall be talking about the cognitive neuropsychiatry of psychosis later in the week.

Unfortunately it’s dark and I’ve been travelling since yesterday, so all I know about Punto Fijo is that it is supposed to be remarkably beautiful and it’s incredibly humid.

However, I spent a fantastic day in Caracas with Jorge, a superb colleague from Medellín, and Jose and Claudia, a Venezuelan psychiatrist and psychologist couple who graciously toured us through the city and showed two weary travellers some warm Venezuelan Hospitality.

Updates to follow shortly (after some well deserved sleep).

Monochrome dreaming

Watching black and white television as a child may explain why older people are less likely to dream in colour than younger people, according to new study reported in New Scientist.

The study is from psychologist Ewa Murzyn, who was interested in how early experience could affect our dream life.

She first asked 60 subjects – half of whom were under 25 and half of whom were over 55 – to answer a questionnaire on the colour of their dreams and their childhood exposure to film and TV. The subjects then recorded different aspects of their dreams in a diary every morning.

Murzyn found there was no significant difference between results drawn from the questionnaires and the dream diaries – suggesting that the previous studies were comparable.

She then analysed her own data to find out whether an early exposure to black-and-white TV could still have a lasting effect on her subjects dreams, 40 years later.

Only 4.4% of the under-25s’ dreams were black and white. The over-55s who’d had access to colour TV and film during their childhood also reported a very low proportion of just 7.3%.

But the over-55s who had only had access to black-and-white media reported dreaming in black and white roughly a quarter of the time.

It’s an interesting study because, as we recently discussed, philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel argued that exposure to TV was an unlikely explanation for the effect where we’ve tended to report more coloured dreams in modern times and suggested this actually showed we’re not very good at introspecting into our own minds.

This study provides some evidences that the effect may be more reliable than we think.

However, I’m still puzzled by why television would seem to have such a big influence so many years later when most of the visual experience the person would have received as a child, even if a heavy TV watcher, would be from the ‘real’ coloured world.


Link to NewSci on black and white dreams study (thanks Laurie!).
Link to scientific paper.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

Colombian Congress of Psychiatry report

I recently got back from the Colombian Congress of Psychiatry and was incredibly impressed both by the high standard of scientific work and the wonderfully welcoming people I met.

I have to say, I didn’t see quite as much of the conference as I normally would owing to the rather relentless pace of partying that seems to occur in Bogot√° (things I haven’t seen at UK psychiatry conferences: the president of the national psychiatric association stood atop a table getting everyone to wave their hands in the air like they just don’t care).

For me, one of the academic highlights was actually from a Spaniard, Julio Sanju√°n, who talked about some innovative research he’s doing on auditory hallucinations.

In one elegant study, Sanju√°n and his team decided to look at what sort of brain activation is triggered by neutral and emotional words in patients with schizophrenia who hear voices.

It’s remarkably how many studies in schizophrenia have been done of changes in visual perception when one of the major problems for many people with the diagnosis is that they hear intrusive and unpleasant hallucinated voices.

Sanju√°n came up with the idea of simply looking at how the brains of people with schizophrenia react to hearing emotional words (such as swear words) compared to neutral words – matched for word type and frequency.

The image on the right shows the remarkable difference, whereby emotional words cause a much larger response in the brain. In fact, they found they triggered much greater frontal lobe, temporal cortex, insula, cingulate, and amygdala activity, largely on the right.

It’s a ‘why didn’t I think of that’ study that might help explain why people with schizophrenia often find their voices so disabling when other people in the population can hear voices and remain undisturbed.

In terms of drug company ridiculousness that often appears as part of the ‘educational effort’ in European Conferences (i.e. models on bikes), it was remarkably muted in comparison.

However, one particular lowlight was finding out the session I was speaking at was being used by Janssen to advertise their ‘new’ antipsychotic paliperidone – which is actually little more than a repackaged risperidone.

Did I mention risperidone has just gone out of patent and can now be produced much more cheaply by other drug companies? Obviously nothing at all to do with Janssen having a newly patented drug to sell I’m sure.

Wave your hands in the air like you just don’t care.

Link to Sanju√°n study on emotional word reactivity.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

The sexual distractions of cheese crumbs

Another fantastic quote from Bonk, a book about sex research by science writer Mary Roach, this time about the effects of distraction on female sexual arousal (from p251):

A thousand images can play on a woman’s mind: work, kids, problems with Ultrasuede. One nonpharmaceutical solution is to teach women to redirect their focus and pay more attention to physical sensations – a practice called mindfulness.

A pilot study – meaning it’s a preliminary investigation with no control group – by Lori Brotto and two colleagues at the University of British Colombia had promising results. Eighteen women with complaints about their ability to become aroused participated in mindfulness training. Afterward, there was a significant jump in their ratings of how aroused they’d been feeling during sexual encounters.

If it’s any solace, even female rats have trouble focusing. I give you a sentence, my favourite sentence in the entire oeuvre of Alfred Kinsey, from Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female: “Cheese crumbs spread in front of a copulating pair of rats may distract the female, but not the male”.

Full disclosure: I was sent a free copy of the book by the publishers about six months ago but I’ve only just got round to reading it.

Link to Mary Roach’s website.
Link to previous Mind Hacks review of Bonk.

Looking for the mind in a haystack of words

The New York Times has an article on the simple but effective idea that a statistical analysis of word frequency in written text can be a guide to the psychological state of the author. It’s a technique that’s been pioneered by psychologist James Pennebaker who has conducted a considerable amount of intriguing research to back up his technique.

In fact, he’s completed a huge number of studies looking at word frequency in everything from bereavement to suicidal and non-suicidal poets.

However, some of his most impressive work has focused on the benefits of getting distressed or ill people to write, finding that it benefits recovery from trauma, but perhaps more surprisingly seems also to boost immune system function in HIV patients.

The evidence and theory behind the work was described in a great 2003 review article which notes that the importance lies not so much in the subject or action words, but in the ‘bitty’ parts of speech, such as the use of pronouns (I, you, we and so on).

These seem to relate to the focus of the thoughts and Pennebaker was asked by the FBI to apply the technique to the communications of Al Queda:

Take Dr. Pennebaker’s recent study of Al Qaeda communications — videotapes, interviews, letters. At the request of the F.B.I., he tallied the number of words in various categories — pronouns, articles and adjectives, among others.

He found, for example, that Osama bin Laden’s use of first-person pronouns (I, me, my, mine) remained fairly constant over several years. By contrast, his second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahri, used such words more and more often.

“This dramatic increase suggests greater insecurity, feelings of threat, and perhaps a shift in his relationship with bin Laden,” Dr. Pennebaker wrote in his report [pdf], which was published in The Content Analysis Reader (Sage Publications, July 2008).

Interestingly, the FBI have their own in-house text analysis technique but I’m damned if I can remember the name or find it on the net. Answers on an encrypted telegram please…

Link to NYT piece ‘He Counts Your Words (Even Those Pronouns)’.
Link to review article ‘Psychological aspects of natural language’.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

Ice age

ABC Radio National’s All in the Mind recently had an excellent programme on amphetamine, discussing its varying uses from its original selling point as a widely abused nasal decongestant to its modern popularity as a kiddie behavioural control agent in the age of methylphenidate (Ritalin).

One of the most fascinating parts is where the guest, history of science professor Nicolas Rasmussen, discusses how after amphetamine was discovered in the 1930s the drug companies desperately tried to find an illness which it could be prescribed for.

Smith, Kline & French wanted to find a big market and so they looked at common diseases that you know might plausibly be treated by an adrenaline derivative and they tried it out on a huge range of conditions. Menstrual cramps, bed wetting, you name it — it turns out actually to work for bed wetting if you give it to little kids who have that problem, probably by making them sleep shallower — but also in psychiatry for depression, and that’s what really caught on.

They tried it for an enormous range of conditions through medical experts and the clinical trials where the drug didn’t work out well weren’t published, because that was already the arrangement then, when a drug company funded a trial unless it fit their marketing needs the results wouldn’t be published.

Great to see the spirit of the 1930s is still with us today.

The programme also discusses how the subculture use of the drug interacted with its ‘official’ uses in the mind of the public and policy makers to give speed the image it has today.

It seems the programme is based on a new book by Rasmussen called On Speed and I love the link at the bottom of the book’s website which says ‘Purchase On Speed’. I’ve drunk a lot of coffee. Will that do?

If you’re interested in a book on the science of amphetamines, Leslie Iverson’s book Speed, Ecstasy, Ritalin is simply wonderful and just so much fun to read, as I noted in an enthusiastic review last year.

The AITM programme is a fantastic introduction to the fascinating story of amphetamine, so a great place to begin.

Link to ‘Wakey Wakey! The many lives of amphetamine’.

2008-10-17 Spike activity

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

The Waves of Mu art project is reviewed by The Neurocritic. Looks as beautiful as it sounds.

BBC News says internet use ‘good for the brain’? The scientific article has not yet appeared and the guy has a book out on, er, how good the internet is for your brain. I remain suspicious until I see the hard data.

Fantastic Neurophilosophy piece discusses a new study where a man with a surgically re-attached hand shows brain re-organisation to its pre-amputation state.

The New York Times has another one of its great features on the personal experience of mental illness – this with stories of men and women with eating disorders.

Another fascinating study on the effect of death salience (reminding people of their mortality) finds it can influence environmental concerns – in either direction, according to the BPS Research Digest.

M’Lady, PsyBlog has a short but sweet piece on a study that has found romantic thoughts increase male chivalry.

A conversation between BBC News and a robot – who happens to be the winner of the 2008 Loebner Prize for artificial intelligence. You can have a conversation with the same robot yourself.

H+ Magazine launches for the transhumanist in your life. Full of slightly unrealistic but commendable neuroscience speculation.

Robert Burton, neurologist and author of ‘Being Certain’, is interviewed by SciAm Mind Matters.

Neuroanthropology has a video segment on what archaeology can tell us about early behaviour (sometimes called ‘cognitive archaeology’).

A patient left in the coma-like persistent vegetative state after a car crash recovers some function after magnetic brain stimulation, reports BBC News.

My Mind on Books previews an interesting looking tome called ‘Obsession: A History’.

The ever-excellent Cognitive Daily tackles whether love and sexual desire are the same.

Memory, brainwashing and the Cold War

I’ve just watched part two of Adam Curtis‘ series on the relationship between memory and the history of the 20th century where he explores the link between brain washing, the emergence of cognitive science and the politics of the cold war.

Curtis is a documentary maker who is particularly interested in the link between psychology and history and creates gripping programmes that are always thought-provoking even if you don’t agree with all of his analysis.

He has a gift for finding archive material and this programme is no exception where he finds film footage from previously secret research programmes.

The programme is actually from his 1995 series The Living Dead which tackles the relationship between memory and the political manipulation of history.

The first part is about how the ‘official’ memory of the Second World War was created – a process psychologists call ‘social remembering‘. Essentially, the social psychology of how we construct history, either on the scale of cultures, subcultures or families.

However, the second part focuses specifically on the rise of cognitive science and how theories of memory during the 50s and 60s were key to some of the Cold War efforts to research and create ‘brain washing’ and other mind manipulation techniques.

Curtis is probably best known to psychologists for his remarkably 2002 series Century of the Self where he tracked the Freudian idea of the self as one of the major social influences of the 20th century.

Virtually all of Curtis’ programmes are available on Google Video and they’re fantastic viewing. One of the few people who can genuinely said to be making powerful intellectual arguments on psychology through the medium of video.

Link to part two of The Living Dead.

The Lazarus sign: a slight return

Occasionally, brain-dead patients make movements, owing to the fact that the spinal reflexes are still intact. The most complex, and presumably the most terrifying, is called the Lazarus Sign. It is where the brain-dead patient extends their arms and crosses them over their chest – Egyptian mummy style.

About 20% to 40% of brain dead patients can show spontaneous movements particularly when the body is pricked with sharp objects.

While these movements are usually brief twitches, occasionally the movements can be in an extended sequence, as reported in this 1992 Journal of Neurosurgery case study about a 67-year-old lady who died from a brain haemorrhage.

At 11:15 am on February 20, brain death was declared and consent for final respirator removal was obtained from the patient’s family. The possibility of the appearance of Lazarus’ sign was explained to the family, and a video recording was made.

Five minutes after respirator removal, respiratory-like movements occurred three times; both shoulders adducted and slow cough like movements were identified. Lazarus’ sign immediately followed these respiratory-like movements. The forearms were pronated and the wrist joints extended bilaterally. Fingers on the left hand were extended, but those on the right were flexed as if grasping. Subsequently, flexion and extension in the knee and foot joints were repeatedly observed. Slow supination of both feet occurred. Finally, the left forearm was adducted to the side of the body, and the right hand pronated.

The movements continued for about 3.5 minutes, during which time blood pressure was 46/35 mm Hg and pulse rate was about 90 beats/min with a regular sinus rhythm. Cardiac arrest occurred at 11:35 am.

Link to PubMed entry for case study.
Link to brief popular article on Lazarus sign.

Myths of the sleep deprived

New Scientist has an interesting piece by sleep psychologist Jim Horne who sets about busting the myth that modern society causes large scale sleep deprivation.

It’s full of fascinating facts and uses the phrase “to eke out the very last quantum of sleepiness” which is just lovely.

Until recently, people living above the Arctic circle slept much longer in winter than in summer. There are reports from the 1950s of Inuit sleeping up to 14 hours a day during the darkest months compared with only 6 in the summertime. Given the opportunity, we can all learn to significantly increase daily sleep on a more or less permanent basis. When it is cut back to normal we are sleepy for a few days, and then the sleepiness disappears.

Far from our being chronically sleep-deprived, things have never been better. Compare today’s sleeping conditions with those of a typical worker of 150 years ago, who toiled for 14 hours a day, six days a week, then went home to an impoverished, cold, damp, noisy house and shared a bed not only with the rest of the family but with bedbugs and fleas.

What of the risk of a sleep shortage causing obesity? Several studies have found a link, including the Nurses’ Health Study, which tracked 68,000 women for 16 years (American Journal of Epidemiology, vol 164, p 947).

The hazard, though real, is hardly anything to worry about. It only becomes apparent when habitual sleep is below 5 hours a day, which applies to only 5 per cent of the population, and even then the problem is minimal. Somebody sleeping 5 hours every night would only gain a kilogram or so of fat per year. To put it in perspective, you could lose weight at the same rate by reducing your food intake by about 30 calories per day, equivalent to about one bite of a muffin, or by exercising gently for 30 minutes a week.

One of the lessons from sleep research is that we’re actually pretty bad at judging how much sleep we need and even how much we actually get.

This seems to be particularly the case for people with insomnia who tend to underestimate the amount they sleep and overestimate the time it takes them to drop off.

The article is great guide to sleep myths and how they’re addressed by the scientific research and surprisingly for New Scientist, the article is open-access.

NewSci staffer having sleepless nights over their closed-access policy or just someone asleep at the wheel? Answers on a night cap please…

Link to NewSci piece ‘Time to wake up to the facts about sleep’.

Encephalon 56 springs into life

The latest edition of the Encephalon psychology and neuroscience writing carnival has just hit the wires, if you interpret ‘just’ as meaning three days ago (sorry about that, I can only connect to the internet when sitting in the bathroom for reasons of signal unusualness). However, it’s being hosted by the excellent Combining Cognits and is ready for action.

A couple of my favourites include a post from The Neurocritic on a recent study on cortisol and anti-social behaviour and a piece from Sports are 80% mental on psychological momentum and winning streaks in sport.

There’s plenty more mind and brain writing, and good to see a few new authors in the latest run-down.

Link to Encephalon 56.

Test your moral radar

Philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel and psychologist Fiery Cushman have designed a ‘Moral Sense Test‘ that asks respondents for their takes on various moral dilemmas so they can compare the responses of philosophers and non-philosophers.

You may recognise Schwitzgebel’s name as he writes The Splintered Mind blog that we often link to, owing to his talent for great ideas and explaining philosophy of mind in a compelling and eye-catching manner.

He’s been involved in project comparing the intuitions of philosophers and non-philosophers for a while now, and he’s now asking that you take part in the research.

The test takes about 15-20 minutes and has a number of interesting moral dilemmas for you to ponder.

Link to the ‘Moral Sense Test’.

Psychedelic Brittanica

Today’s Nature has an interesting review of a new book, called Albion Dreaming, on the history of LSD in the UK. The book also has a slightly ramshackle but wonderfully engrossing website which is full of fascinating information on LSD.

The site has a great collection of quotes by famous Britons where they describe their experiences with LSD. One of the most eloquent is by the actor, writer and general all round good chap, Stephen Fry, where he writes in his autobiography:

I don’t know if you have ever taken LSD, but when you do so the doors of perception, as Aldous Huxley, Jim Morrison and their adherents ceaselessly remind us, swing open wide. That is actually the sort of phrase, unless you are William Blake that only makes sense when there is some LSD swimming about inside you. In the cold light of the cup of coffee and banana sandwich that are beside me now it appears to be nonsense, but I expect you know what it is taken to mean.

LSD reveals the whatness of things, their quiddity, their essence. The wateriness of water is suddenly revealed to you, the carpetness of carpets, the woodness of wood, the yellowness of yellow, the fingernailness of fingernails, the allness of all, the nothingness of all, the allness of nothing. For me music gives access to every one of these essences of existence, but at a fraction of the social or financial cost of a drug and without the need to cry ‘Wow!’ all the time, which is one of LSD’s most distressing and least endearing side-effects.

The review notes that Albion Dreaming discusses how the UK played quite a significant role in the LSD revolution of the 1960s.

In fact, at one point, half the world’s LSD was produced in the UK before the production was smashed by Operation Julie. The BBC has a fantastic website about the history of Op Julie that talks to some of the key figures and discusses the legendary trip-impeding police operation.

Link to Nature review of Albion Dreaming.
Link to Albion Dreaming website.
Link to BBC website on Operation Julie.