Online opium museum

The Opium Museum is a fascinating website by the author of a book called The Art of Opium Antiques that tracks the forgotten history of a hugely popular recreational drug of the early 1900s.

It has images of some remarkably intricate opium smoking paraphenalia, but probably the most interesting part is the sections with photos of opium smokers from the late 1800s to early 1900s.

It was a habit largely associated with the Orient and also prevalent among immigrant communities around the world.

The collection illustrates that opium smoking was common in all classes of society and until the crackdowns in the 1930s onwards, it was not considered to be necessarily seedy or degenerate.

It’s an interesting contrast to a photo collection on the current Afghan Drug War, also over opium, although the Afghan crops are largely destined for the heroin trade. Opium wars have been a traditional pastime of the British, and this is the most recent in one of many.

The Afghan photo collection is by photographer Aaron Huey, but are hidden behind some god awful Flash wrapping meaning you can’t link to it directly. So you’ll need to go to the website, click on ‘Features 1’ and then on ‘Afghanistan Drug War’.

Link to the Opium Museum.
Link to photographer website (via BoingBoing).

Encephalon 57 on Mind Hacks

Welcome to the 57th edition of the Encephalon psychology and neuroscience writing carnival, where we have the honour of hosting the best in the last fortnight’s mind and brain writing, here on Mind Hacks.

We start off with two great interviews. The first is a video interview with pioneering neuroscientist Rodolfo Llin√°s, known for his radical ideas on consciousness, picked up by Channel N. One of the great names in cognitive science makes an appearance on Sharp Brains as Michael Posner is the subject of a recent interview.

One of Posner’s great achievements, along with Marcus Raichle was to invent the subtraction method for the analysis of brain imaging data to allow us to make inferences about how the mind is working. The Neurocritic has an excellent piece on some of the state-of-the-art work which is attempting to advance this technology, almost 30 years after the original breakthrough, by looking at links between electrical activity in the cortex and spontaneous fluctuations in signals from fMRI scanner.

Also on a neuroimaging tip, Pure Pedantry covers a recent study on the neuroscience of hypothesis generation, or how we think up possible explanations to explain causality in our booming, buzzing confusion of a world.

The masters of making sense of out of confusion are, of course, children, and a couple of great articles look at some of the latest research showing how the developing brain seems to work its magic. Looking at the remarkable development of language, the consistently excellent Cognitive Daily discuss a child’s use of gesture to communicate and whether it slows language learning. Songs from the Wood has a great piece on infantile amnesia – that curiosity of development where we typically cannot remember anything that happened before the age of 3-4 years.

But if you want to learn more about what makes memories stick, Physiology Physics looks at long-term potentiation – one of the most important neuroscience discoveries in the last fifty years and one of the cornerstones of remembering.

If you’re interested in where all this childhood experience ends up, one destination is our personality or personal style of interacting with each other and the world. The Mouse Trap looks at some of the most influential of these theories in <a href="”>three great posts that discuss character traits, emotional maturity and emotional intelligence.

Obviously, if you’ve been reading the same dodgy research that Dr Shock has, you’ll know that one part of emotional maturity is saying no to computer games because THEY BURN YOUR SOUL. Or, maybe they don’t and the researchers are trying to spin a positive result into a negative one to get their unsupported point across. Ah, the joys of science.

Entering more unusual territories, Brain Blogger has a brief guide to the syndrome where people lose control of their hands after brain injury, carious known as anarchic or alien hand syndrome. PodBlack stays with the uncanny in a post about sex differences in superstitions and paranormal beliefs. It’s actually the last part of the four part series looking at superstitions and all are well worth a read.

Equally mysterious and no less controversial is the placebo effect and Brain Health Hacks has an interesting piece on what the the science of placebo might tell us about the neuroscience of hope. I’m sure there’s an election joke in their somewhere but I’ll leave that as a exercise for the reader.

Talking of culture in a more general sense, the newly launched Culture and Cognition blog has an interesting piece that discusses a recent Nature paper on culture and the brain and another on what can only be described as culture hacking.

From culture hacking to baseball hacking as sports psychology blog 80 Percent Mental looks at the cognitive science of baseball including some illustrative videos and perfect timing for the World Series.

From the best in baseball, to the best in online writing about Bipolar Disorder (calling Liz Spikol…) as PsychCentral ranks its Top 10 Bipolar Blogs for 2008. Keeping with the positivity, Brain Blogger looks at tetrabenazine, a drug which shows promise in treating Huntingdon’s disease.

Finally, we finish with some articles about our animal friends. The always thought-provoking Neuroanthropology which provides two posts with video footage of cooperative hunting in chimpanzees. As they say – “The videos raise questions about our own animal nature, as well as what is the dividing line between our own minds and the minds of some of our closest relatives.”

Obviously, none of those chimpanzees have robotic cyber-implants, unlike the monkey discussed in a Pure Pendantry piece on a recent Nature Neuroscience article. But it’s not just cyber-monkeys, it’s also radioactive mice! Neurotopia has the low-down on the effects of exercise on hippocampal cell proliferation in irradiated mice. I’m sure there’s a Marvel comic that starts like that but I dread to think which one.

Along the same lines of a science-fiction plotline become reality, Neurophilosophy looks at recent research on how individual memories were erased in mice. And if your hero needs a daring getaway, there’s more from the same source on staggering escape mechanism of the crayfish.

Synaesthesia induced by hypnosis

Wired Science has an interesting preview of an upcoming study that used hypnosis to induce colour-number synaesthesia in highly hypnotisable participants.

Synaesthesia is where the senses merge, and in colour-number synaesthesia, the affected people experience colours associated with specific numbers.

This new study used hypnosis to induce exactly this experience in people who didn’t have it before:

The researchers, led by Roi Kadosh of University College, London and Luis Fuentes of Spain’s University of Murcia, put three women and one man under hypnosis, then instructed them to perceive digits in color: one as red, two as yellow, three as green, and so on.

Upon waking, the subjects found it difficult to find numbers printed in black ink against correspondingly colored backgrounds. The numbers seemed to blend in — a telltale sign of synesthesia. When the hypnosis was removed, the ability vanished.

How the synesthesia formed so suddenly isn’t clear, but the researchers said that new neural connections are probably not responsible. “Such new anatomical connections could not arise, become functional, and suddenly degenerate in the short time scale provided by the current experiment,” they wrote.

Instead they suggest that hypnosis broke down neurological barriers between sensory regions. Marks agreed, but cautioned against extrapolating the findings too broadly: Many different varieties of synesthesia exist, from seeing emotions to tasting sounds, and may have different neurological and psychological origins.

Hypnosis has been studied before for it’s ability to induce anomalous colour experiences.

In a study published in 2000, the researchers used hypnosis to induce the experience of colour when the participants were viewing a black and white image, as well as the reverse.

What was most fascinating about this particular study was that it was run in a PET scanner and the researchers discovered that the colour-based focused hypnotic suggestions actually altered the function the colour perception areas in the visual cortex, which is known to be involved in the perception of colour.

In other words, it is likely that hypnosis was not simply leading the people to make false claims, but was actually affecting what they perceived.

Link to ‘Hypnosis Lets Regular People See Numbers as Colors’.
Link to PubMed entry for colour study (with full-text link).

I am a committee, chaired by a hedonist

Psychologist Paul Bloom has written a wonderfully eclectic article for The Atlantic magazine about the psychology of pleasure and why it suggests that we have multiple situation-specific selves.

The piece is a little disjointed in places but it is packed full of information and if nothing else you get a good sense of the enthusiasm for this developing field.

One area of pleasure research not mentioned in Bloom’s piece is the fascinating work of Michel Cabanac, who has a theory that pleasure is the decision-making currency of the brain.

New Scientist had an excellent article on Cabanac’s work which you can read online, and makes an excellent complement to The Atlantic piece.

However, Bloom is more concerned with how we resist the temptation of pleasure using ‘self-binding’ – in other words, doing things that will reduce the chances of us succumbing to temptation later on. Like getting someone to hide your cigarettes if you’re trying to give up.

For adult humans, though, the problem is that the self you are trying to bind has resources of its own. Fighting your Bad Self is serious business; whole sections of bookstores are devoted to it. We bribe and threaten and cajole, just as if we were dealing with an addicted friend. Vague commitments like “I promise to drink only on special occasions” often fail, because the Bad Self can weasel out of them, rationalizing that it’s always a special occasion. Bright-line rules like “I will never play video games again” are also vulnerable, because the Bad Self can argue that these are unreasonable—and, worse, once you slip, it can argue that the plan is unworkable.

For every argument made by the dieting self—“This diet is really working” or “I really need to lose weight”—the cake eater can respond with another—“This will never work” or “I’m too vain” or “You only live once.” Your long-term self reads voraciously about the benefits of regular exercise and healthy eating; the cake eater prefers articles showing that obesity isn’t really such a problem. It’s not that the flesh is weak; sometimes the flesh is pretty damn smart.

Link to Atlantic article ‘First Person Plural’.
Link to NewSci piece ‘The Pleasure Seekers’.

Milgram’s culture shock

ABC Radio National’s Radio Eye has one of the best documentaries on Milgram’s conformity experiments that I’ve ever heard. It follows up several of the people who took part in the original experiment and weaves their stories into the audio from the original and chilling tapes of the actual sessions.

You’ll have to be quick because the audio is only online for another week or two and it’s a 50-minute must-listen programme that is wonderfully produced.

The tapes of the actual sessions are remarkable and you can feel the psychological tension as the study progresses.

As well as being a detailed guide to the study, it’s a fascinating look at the experience of taking part in a process that had as much impact for the ethical changes that it triggered as for the implications for what we know about conformity and social pressure.

Link to Radio Eye ‘Beyond the Shock Machine’ (via AITM Blog).

Creationists unaware of past, doomed to repeat it

New Scientist has an article on a group of creationists who are attempting to argue that we have a soul based on the difficulty of reducing mental events to neurobiology. The article makes out that this is a new front on the ‘war on science’ but I wouldn’t be manning the barricades quite yet, as the issue has been around as long as neuroscience itself.

The creationist-affiliated researchers suggest that the ‘mind-body problem‘ – the difficulty in explaining subjective mind states in terms of objective biological processes – means that the mind must be partly non-material and, therefore, have some spiritual aspect to it (i.e. the soul).

What’s interesting in this debate as many scientists respond by simply denying there is a problem and suggesting that this is just a issue of progress and eventually we will be able to explain every mind state in terms of brain function.

This is unlikely, however, owing to the fact that the mind and brain are described with different properties and so cannot be entirely equivalent. Therefore, one will never be completely reduced to the other.

This does not imply that there must be a soul or non-material mind at work. If this doesn’t seem obvious to you, try this example.

Why does Elvis not want you to step on his blue suede shoes? You buy a copy of the track on CD but analysing the physics of the sound waves in the song will not fully answer your question.

You might find out that the volume or pitch increases at specific points to highlight certain key phrases, but you can’t fully understand why Elvis is so protective of his new shoes through physics alone.

In other words, you can’t explain everything about the song through objective scientific methods. This does not mean your CD, or the sound waves, have a soul.

The same goes for the mind and brain. There are some things we talk about in terms of experience, mental events and thoughts that will not be adequately explained at the level of objective biological measures. Similarly, this does not imply the existence of a soul.

Importantly, it doesn’t disprove the existence of a soul either, because unless you make specific falsifiable statements about what a soul actually does in the brain in an empirically testable way, science can’t test it one way or another. It can only make inferences.

On the basis of the fact that no proposed ‘soul effect’ has ever been detected, most neuroscientists think that a non-material aspects to the mind doesn’t exist. The mind, like Elvis songs, are just part of the world, even if we need to use different levels of meaning to fully explain them.

However, some neuroscientists think different, and have done for as long as neuroscience has been around, and this is why this ‘new’ development is unlikely to be a big threat.

In fact, Nobel-prize winning neuroscientist Sir John Eccles believed until his dying day that there was a non-material aspect to the mind. Dana Magazine has a great article on Eccles’ dualism which is well worth reading if you want a summary of his views.

But this just illustrates the point that the recent claims by creationist-affiliated researchers are neither new nor particularly threatening. Neuroscience has not come crashing to the ground, and science seems remarkably untroubled.

UPDATE: The Neurologica Blog also has some great coverage of the NewSci piece and has more of an in-depth analysis.

Link to NewSci piece ‘Creationists declare war over the brain’.
Link to Dana article on Eccles’ dualism.

2008-10-24 Spike activity

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

Being altruistic makes you hot, finds new research covered by Medical News Today.

Neuronarrative is a high-quality new mind and brain blog. Highly recommended.

The San Franciso Chronicle has an excellent piece on the place of brain scans in the courtroom.

In light of the recent controversy over a murder conviction in India where ‘brain scan lie detection’ was admitted as evidence, Wired covers the aftermath and the protest of Indian scientists.

BBC News has a video on research looking at the link between dancing style, attractiveness and ‘fitness’ as a potential mate.

Hypnosis, memory and amnesia are discussed by one of the leading hypnosis research groups in the Scientific American Mind Matters blog. This see post for our own coverage of the this fascinating study.

BBC News covers new research that finds mentally demanding jobs may protect against Alzheimer’s. More evidence that staying active keeps the brain healthy.

Creationist ‘fossilised brain‘ ridiculousness is covered by Pharyngula. Looks more like a cauliflower to me.

But wait, brain found inside watermelon. The final nail in the coffin for evolutionary theory.

Alternet has an extended article on the Johns Hopkins research into the medical benefits of the hallucinogenic drug psilocybin (thanks Sandy!).

Neuroanthropology previews an upcoming conference on the ‘encultured brain‘.

The Top 10 Bipolar Blogs of 2008 are presented by PsychCentral.

Being a <a href="”>daddy makes you kinder and smarter, reports the Times. Presumably, this helps make up for the sleep deprivation.

New Scientist reports that a computer circuit has been built from brain cells. NetBSD port to follow shortly.

Paul Bloom is interviewed by The Boston Globe about the psychology of believing in the soul. Presumably it refers to the eternal soul rather than Marvin Gaye.

The BPS Research Digest covers an interesting study on social norm violations in fans queuing for a U2 gig.

A funky guide to all things dopamine is provided by Neurotopia.