The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex is a hugely entertaining book on sex research that is chaotic, delightful and utterly compelling.

The book is by science writer Mary Roach, whose past book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers is one of my favourite science books of all time and when the publishers offered to send me a free copy of her new book I jumped at the chance.

Roach does something different to most other science writers – she writes about the research itself and not just about the findings. This means you get a fascinating insight into how people go about researching sex, what motivates them, and often most surprisingly, what exactly they’ve chosen to investigate.

One of the joys of the book is its asides and footnotes which make it a bit like getting a bit drunk with a knowledgeable and slightly overenthusiastic friend. Take this section on spinal cord injury and orgasm:

It’s strange to think of orgasm as a reflex, something dependably triggered, like a knee jerk. [Sex researcher] Sipski assures me that psychological factors also hold sway. Just as emotion affect heart rate and digestion, they also influence sexual response. Sipski identifies orgasm as a reflex of the autonomic nervous system that can be either facilitated or inhibited by cerebral input (thoughts and feelings).

The sacral reflex definition fits nicely with something I stumbled upon in the United States Patent Office web site: Patent 3,941,136, a method for “artificially inducing urination, defecation of sexual excitation” by applying electrodes to “the sacral region on opposites sides of the spine.” The patent holder intended the to help not only people with spinal cord injuries but those with erectile dysfunction or constipation.

The author also takes part in several studies herself, describing the slightly surreal situations that arise from bringing the personal into the lab, and doesn’t lapse into nods and winks when the gritty detail is needed.

Like, Jeff Warren’s excellent The Head Trip: Adventures on the Wheel of Consciousness it’s sort of an educational travelogue through the world of science, where we encounter the people associated with sex research and the research itself. It’s both completely fascinating and very funny in places.

Link to more details about the book.
Link or mp3 to Salon interview with Roach on the book.
Link to review from the International Herald Tribune.
Link to interview on NPR radio.

Medellín at last

After several sleep-defying flights from the UK, I’m pleased to say I’ve arrived in Medell√≠n and look forward to working with some of the many talented cognitive scientists and clinicians they have here in Colombia.

I’ve been kindly looked after by Jorge and his wife Claudia who are both local psychiatrists and in addition to looking out for sleep-deprived psychologists, teach and treat patients in the city.

I’m particularly indebted to Jorge who is largely responsible for my being here in Colombia and has been enthusiastic and helpful in equal measure.

I should have a permanent internet connection in the near future (I’m currently working off a dialup) so hopefully normal Mind Hacks service should resume shortly.

2008-10-03 Spike activity

A belated and backdated round-up of quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

SciAm Mind Matters has an excellent piece on ‘Metaphors of the Mind: Why Loneliness Feels Cold and Sins Feel Dirty’.

Socially isolated people feel physically colder, according to a new study covered by BBC News.

Seed Magazine discusses the recently famous photo of an “uncontacted” isolated tribe in the Amazon and finds they’re not quite as they’re portrayed.

IQ zealot and author of controversial book the ‘Bell Curve’ is the subject of a revealing piece by Frontal Cortex.

American Scientist has a good review of a new book entitled ‘On Deep History of the Brain’.

Under fire psychiatry researcher Charles Nemeroff resigns after revelations about failures to report industry cash-ins, reports Furious Seasons. Not a moment after the NYT finds more financial irregularities.

Not Exactly Rocket Science has an excellent piece on toxoplasma, the brain parasite that has curious character – and maybe culture – changing psychological effects.

Do we all have some synaesthetic ability? asks New Scientist on the basis of a genuinely fascinating new study that suggests we have.

I’ve got a list of links as long as my arm from the ever excellent Neurophilosophy which I’ll get round to waxing lyrical about soon, but in the meantime if you haven’t checked it out recently you’re missing out.

Trouble With Spikol on the legal changes that means America has made mental health care legally equivalent to other medical treatments and enters the 21st century (OK, the 20th, but it’s still a welcome move). Kinda ironically, it’s been tagged onto the recent US bill designed to bailout the banks and prevent a global depression.

Projection, fear, sex, Freud and evolutionary psychology (all vices I note) are covered in a heady post from Cognitive Daily.

New Scientist suggests Francis Crick was right about a possible ‘vision filter‘ in the brain.

The ‘BBC Prison study‘, a project based on Zimbardo’s famous Stanford Prison Experiment has a information rich new website.

Neuroanthropology has an interesting aside on ‘neuroprospecting‘.

A new study on the genetics of dyslexia is covered by Science News.

Feeling out of control sparks magical thinking

Psychology Today journalist Matthew Hutson covers some fascinating experiments just published in this week’s Science that found that reducing participants’ control increase the tendency for magical thinking and the perception of illusory meaning in random or patternless visual scenes.

Hutson covers all six experiments, but here’s a sample from his article which should give you the general idea:

In the fourth study, people who recalled a situation where they lacked control were more likely to see nonexistent images in snowy pictures and were also more likely to suspect conspiracies in ambiguous vignettes. (In one story, three local construction companies raise their prices after their owners all spend the same weekend at one bed and breakfast. In another, the protagonist was denied a promotion right after his boss and a workmate exchanged a flurry of emails.)

The fifth experiment showed that describing the stock market as volatile (versus stable) renders people more likely to spot false correlations in reports on company financials—and then make stock investments based on their unfounded conclusions.

Finally, the sixth study showed that feeling good about yourself reduces the frantic grasping for straws. There were three groups. One group recalled not having control, another recalled not having control and then performed a self-affirmation task, and a third group did neither. The first group saw more figures in snowy pictures and perceived more conspiracies than the other groups did. Apparently, increasing self-esteem fosters a sense of control over one’s life and reduces the need to seek additional stability in random noise.

Two of the ‘snowy pictures’ are shown on the right. The one on the top is completely random, the other has an embedded picture.

This is particularly interesting to me, because one of my own studies I completed with some colleagues in Cardiff also involved getting participants to perceive images in random visual patterns.

We did something a little different though, in that we didn’t have any hidden images, so every time someone saw something we knew it was illusory.

However, we also managed to alter how often people saw the images, but we used electromagnets (a technique called TMS) to alter the function of the temporal lobes which have been previously thought to be involved in the magical thinking spectrum – from everyday examples to diagnosable psychosis.

This study was inspired by an earlier study by neuroscientist Peter Brugger, who found that people who professed a belief in ESP (‘telepathy’) were more likely to see meaningful patterns in visual noise than those that didn’t.

Both the new study and our study are interesting because they show how this type of magical thinking can be manipulated.

However, this new study takes it to a whole new level because it involves a whole range of magical thinking tests (not just the ‘snowy patterns’) and shows how a number they are subject to the tides of emotion and feelings of being in control.

Link to Hutson’s excellent write-up.
Link to study in Science.
Link to DOI entry for same.

SciAmMind tackles implants, scans, death and terror

The latest edition of Scientific American Mind has just arrived on the shelves and the online articles are one of the best selections I’ve seen in a very long time – with pieces on brain-computer interfaces, five ways in which brain scans mislead us, toddlers and their temper tantrums, the science of gossip, why we can’t imagine death and why metaphors are shaping the ‘war on terror’.

The article on the psychology of death is from the always interesting Jesse Bering and has been inspired by an evolutionary view of death concepts:

The common view of death as a great mystery usually is brushed aside as an emotionally fueled desire to believe that death isn‚Äôt the end of the road. And indeed, a prominent school of research in social psychology called terror management theory contends that afterlife beliefs, as well as less obvious beliefs, behaviors and attitudes, exist to assuage what would otherwise be crippling anxiety about the ego‚Äôs inexistence…

Yet a small number of researchers, including me, are increasingly arguing that the evolution of self-consciousness has posed a different kind of problem altogether. This position holds that our ancestors suffered the unshakable illusion that their minds were immortal, and it’s this hiccup of gross irrationality that we have unmistakably inherited from them. Individual human beings, by virtue of their evolved cognitive architecture, had trouble conceptualizing their own psychological inexistence from the start.

This is reflected in the many studies which have show that we reason what might be thought as rather oddly about death – we have a tendency to attribute mental states to dead people.

Even if you believe in an immortal soul, it is unlikely that the mind continues in any way which we could conceive, and yet we tend to implicitly assume that certain abilities and attributes continue after death.

The other freely available articles are also fantastic. It’s one of the best issues in ages, so well worth having a look at.

Link to October SciAmMind.

Neuropod on depression, theatre, speech and credit

The September edition of the Nature Neuroscience podcast Neuropod recently appeared online and covers the treatment of depression, how deaf people retain their ability to speak, a psychoanalytic contribution to the understanding of stock market instability, and a feature on the London play Reminiscence (in which I make a brief appearance).

The discussion on depression is particularly interesting as it’s based on a recent review article by Robert DeRubeis that looked at the neural effects of antidepressants and cognitive therapy as they help treat depression.

The piece on the psychoanalytic study of financial markets struck me as completely left-field but is also very interesting, as psychologist David Tucket argues that fund managers have too much information and so internalise models or rules of thumb that are as equally affected by emotion and concerns about their job as hard evidence, meaning that as a population, the whims of the human psyche can cause large economic effects.

The rest is very interesting too, and the interview with myself and Michael and Effy from the Reminiscence team is a lovely conclusion to a hugely enjoyable project.

Link to Neuropod homepage with streamed audio archive.
mp3 of September edition.

Autism in 100 words

A micro explanation of autism by Simon Baron-Cohen from this month’s British Journal of Psychiatry as part of their monthly feature which tries to explain a key concept in psychiatry in 100 words.

Autism – in 100 words

Simon Baron-Cohen

Autism Spectrum Conditions (ASC) occur in 1% of the population, are strongly heritable, and result from atypical neurodevelopment. Classic autism and Asperger Syndrome (AS) share difficulties in social functioning, communication and coping with change, alongside unusually narrow interests. IQ is average or above in AS with average or even precocious age of language onset. Many areas within the `social brain’ are atypical in ASC. ASC has a profile of impaired empathy alongside strong `systemising’. Hence, ASC involves disability (when empathy is required) and talent (when strong systemising would be advantageous). Psychological interventions that target empathy by harnessing systemising may help.

Link to piece in BJP.

The action potential, through the medium of dance

Dana Kotler and Joy Gibson are two dancers and medical students at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine who decided they’d like to illustrate the neuronal action potential through the medium of modern dance. It’s a rather unique interpretation and one that will likely stay with me for a while.

And if that doesn’t interest you, just think of girls in leotards throwing salt at each other in the service of a scientifically accurate dance spectacular. And from what I can make out, they’ve illustrated potassium flow with bananas.

Even better, they even go on to illustrate how the action potential breaks down during demyelenating diseases.

And if you still have your dancing shoes on, Scientific America has a brief but interesting article discussing why we might enjoy dance at all.

Link to Action Potential – the performance.
Link to SciAm on ‘Why do we like to dance?’