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.