A very rough guide to highlights of 2008

A not very thorough list of my personal 2008 highlights in mind and brain news, dredged from my memory and reproduced for your reading pleasure:

Funniest (unintentional)
USA Today publishing an alarmist story about ‘digital drugs’ that can, according to the article, mimic the effects of alcohol, marijuana, LSD, crack, heroin, sex, heaven and hell. Sadly not true, although hilarious to read.

Funniest (intentional)
The Web Therapy web series staring Lisa Kudrow as an incompetent psychologist. Wonderfully produced, cleverly satirical and very funny to boot.

Best film
The English Surgeon. A profoundly beautiful documentary about the work of London-based neurosurgeon Henry Marsh and his colleague Igor Kurilets in the Ukraine. Do not miss it. See the comments!

Best podcast / radio episode
RadioLab’s delicious programme on Orson Well’s War of the Worlds broadcast and its subsequent psychological impact. Just pure audio delightfulness.

Best video lecture
A gripping lecture at the University of California by historian Prof Alfred McCoy on the ‘psychological torture: a CIA history’.

Most interesting new concept
Brain-computer interfaces to weapons systems pose problems for the definition of a ‘war crime’ if they’re triggered preconsciously, according to an interesting analysis by lawyer Stephen White.

Most interesting interview
A tie between sociologist Harry Collins discussing his work on the social interactions of physicists and what this tells us about what we have to do to be considered an expert and what types of expertise there are, and an Neurophilosophy interview with Heather Perry who trepanned herself and is remarkably reflective about the experience.

Most useful academic article
Nikos Logothetis’ article in Nature about what fMRI is really measuring and what we can and can’t infer about the mind and brain from neuroimaging experiment.

Best example of neurobabble
The cover article on neuroscience-based management in an issue of HR Magazine which has to be read to be believed. Or maybe that’s just your basal ganglia talking.

Most tangential post
I start off talking about blond girls in t-shirts and end up talking about philosophy of mind. Actually, usually happens the other way round in real life.

Best cognitive science art project
Artificially intelligence punk rock pogo robots. Enough said.

Best random clip of TV documentary
A TV presenter is intravenously injected with differing mixtures of the active ingredients of cannabis as part of the BBC documentary Should I Smoke Dope?.

Most overdue decision
The American Psychological Association banning participation in torture. Did it really need all the fuss?

To the bunkers! Most likely to hasten the coming robot war
Pentagon requests robot packs to hunt humans. Uh huh.

Understanding numbers: let me count the ways

The latest edition of The Economist has an interesting article about whether our ability to count and estimate quantity is an innate ability that we have from birth.

The article covers studies on babies, people who speak languages that only have number words for “one”, “two”, “few” and “many”, people who have never developed certain maths skills and others who have lost specific number abilities after brain injury:

Lisa Cipolotti, a neuropsychologist, studied a Signora Gaddi, who used to run a hotel and keep its accounts. After a stroke she could find the number of things in a small group only by counting—when asked how many arms a crucifix had, she got Dr Cipolotti to hold out her arms so she could count them. Signora Gaddi’s problems seemed to affect only numbers. She could still read, speak and reason, remember historical and geographical facts, and order objects by their physical size.

In fact, Signora Gaddi’s difficulties went even deeper than Charles’s. The stroke which damaged her innate understanding of small numbers also robbed her of the entire numerical edifice built on that foundation. For her, numbers stopped at four. When asked to count up from one, she got to four and no further. If there were more than four dots on a page she could not count them. She could not say how old she was or how many days were in a week, or even tell the time.

Link to Economist article ‘Easy as 1, 2, 3’.

For the caffeine conneisseur

The Caffeine Examiner is a review site that perhaps thinks about tachycardia-inducing products a little more than is healthy. Indeed, it’s just released it’s list of best caffeine products of 2008, voted for by the readers.

In fact, they have awards for 2008’s best energy drinks, best energy shots and best energy products.

Just looking at the names is interesting enough, with products called things like Spike, Bomba and Cocaine (pictured).

Interestingly, the site also lists the strongest energy drink, called Redline Rush, which has 500mg of caffeine, the equivalent of 6 1/2 shots of espresso, and has a health warning the size of a small essay.

“WARNING: NOT FOR USE BY INDIVIDUALS UNDER THE AGE OF 18 YEARS. DO NOT USE IF PREGNANT OR NURSING. Consult a physician or licensed qualifie health care professional before using this product if you have a family history of, heart disease, thyroid disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, depression or other psychiatric condition, glaucoma, difficulty in urinating, prostate enlargement, or seizure disorder, or if you are using a monoamine oxidize inhibitor (MAOI) or any other dietary supplement, prescription drug, or over-the-counter drug containing ephedrine, pseudo-ephedrine, or phenylpropanolamine (ingredients found in certain allergy, asthma, cough or cold, and weight control products).

Do not exceed recommended serving. Exceeding recommended serving may cause adverse health effects. Discontinue use and call a physician or licensed qualified health care professional immediately if you experience rapid heartbeat, dizziness, severe headache, shortness of breath, or other similar symptoms. Individuals who are sensitive to the effects of caffeine or have a medical condition should consult a licensed health care professional before consuming this product. Do not use this product if you are more than 15 pounds over weight. The consumer assumes total liability if this product is used in a manner inconsistent with label guidelines. Do not use for weight reduction. KEEP OUT OF REACH OF CHILDREN.”

Link to the Caffeine Examiner (via MeFi).

Is this the end of the mystery of self-awareness?

Edge has an interesting essay by V.S. Ramachandran arguing that while we may not be any closer to understanding consciousness, an understanding of the neuroscience of ‘the self’ may be within our grasp as demonstrated by studies showing how our perception of self-awareness breaks down in curious ways after brain injury.

There are lots of wonderful examples of how the self can become warped, but I’m not sure that it is entirely held together with Ramachandran’s long held enthusiasm for the explanatory power of mirror neurons.

However, it’s an entertaining and provocative read and well worth your time despite, and probably because of, the somewhat expansive tone in places.

There is one odd section though, the second section of bullet-pointed text, where he refers to the “anterior cumulate” which almost certain should refer to the frontal brain area the ‘anterior cingulate‘, as the anterior cumulate doesn’t exist (an example of Bell’s Frontal Nomenclature Hypertrophy syndrome I wonder?).

Following that paragraph is another where he suggests akinetic mutism is the lack of visual consciousness, which is exactly what it isn’t. In fact, it’s the inability to independently initiate action without external prompting, linked to anterior cingulate damage, and one of the defining features is that the problems are not caused by visual impairments.

Link to Edge on ‘Self Awareness: The Last Frontier’.

The Human Terrain System, 1867

I was under the impression that the US Military’s Human Terrain System, their new band of ‘militarised’ anthropologists, was a relatively new development but I just found a fascinating article on the use of social scientists by the Russian army during their invasion and occupation of Turkestan in the 1860s.

As with the modern military project, this also generated formal academic research which has surprising echoes with the modern push to get academics involved in focused foreign policy-oriented research.

The project was the brain child of Konstantin von Kaufman (pictured), a Russian army veteran who was appointed Governor-General of the newly acquired territories of Turkestan.

Learning from failure, Konstantin von Kaufman made ethnographic knowledge ‚Äúthe core‚Äù of his administrative policies in Turkestan…

But beyond religious tolerance, von Kaufman‚Äôs ethnographic inquiry was being undertaken with the utmost enthusiasm. Geographers, linguists, ethnographers, artists, natural scientists and other social scientists were employed to carry out von Kaufman‚Äôs project…

[Modern historian Daniel] Brower goes on to describe the “flood” of scholarly and popular articles and publications on Turkestan that followed. The attempt to classify the peoples of Central Asia met with confusion as people’s identities were frequently “multiple and contradictory.” But the “real needs of Kaufman’s ethnographic project were met.” Kaufman’s influence was, despite some interruptions, a lasting policy that even influenced the Soviets’ policies in Central Asia.

The article is taken from a blog written by Christian Bleuer, a doctoral student studying the social, political and military dynamics of Afghanistan.

There’s another good post on the site directly relevant to the modern Human Terrain System, which describes the fluctuating and complex social power structures of Afghani society which makes understanding it such a challenge.

Link to piece on Russia’s ‘Human Terrain System’ of the 1860s.
Link to piece on social power structures of Afghanistan.

Voodoo correlations in social brain studies

Image by Ben Mathis: poopinmymouth.comI’ve just come across a bombshell of a paper that looked at numerous headline studies on the cognitive neuroscience of social interaction and found that many contained statistically impossible or spurious correlations between behaviour and brain activity.

The article is currently ‘in press’ for the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science but the preprint is available online as a pdf file.

Social cognitive neuroscience is a hot new area and many of the headline studies use fMRI brain imaging to look at how activity in the brain is correlated with social decision-making or perception.

This new analysis, led by neuroscientist Edward Vul, was inspired by the fact that some of these correlations seem to good to be true, and so the research team investigated. The abstract of their study is below, and it’s powerful stuff – indicating that many of the results are due to flawed analyses.

If you’re not familiar with neuroimaging research it might be useful to know that what a ‘voxel‘ is before reading the abstract.

Essentially, brain scanners digitally divide the scanned area into a block of tiny boxes and each one of these is called a voxel (think 3D pixel).

This allows the scans to be analysed by comparing the activity or tissue density in each voxel to another measure – which could be the same voxel during another scan, or it could be something entirely different, such as a measure of emotion or social decision-making.

The newly emerging field of Social Neuroscience has drawn much attention in recent years, with high-profile studies frequently reporting extremely high (e.g., >.8) correlations between behavioral and self-report measures of personality or emotion and measures of brain activation obtained using fMRI. We show that these correlations often exceed what is statistically possible assuming the (evidently rather limited) reliability of both fMRI and personality/emotion measures. The implausibly high correlations are all the more puzzling because social-neuroscience method sections rarely contain sufficient detail to ascertain how these correlations were obtained.

We surveyed authors of 54 articles that reported findings of this kind to determine the details of their analyses. More than half acknowledged using a strategy that computes separate correlations for individual voxels, and reports means of just the subset of voxels exceeding chosen thresholds. We show how this non-independent analysis grossly inflates correlations, while yielding reassuring-looking scattergrams. This analysis technique was used to obtain the vast majority of the implausibly high correlations in our survey sample. In addition, we argue that other analysis problems likely created entirely spurious correlations in some cases.

We outline how the data from these studies could be reanalyzed with unbiased methods to provide the field with accurate estimates of the correlations in question. We urge authors to perform such reanalyses and to correct the scientific record.

The paper notes that some of the most widely-reported studies in recent years contain this flaw and this new paper has the potential to really shake up the world of social cognitive neuroscience.

pdf of preprint of ‘Voodoo Correlations in Social Neuroscience’.

‘War on terror’ social science funding announced

Wired has the list of funded projects from the Pentagon’s new $50 million ‘Minerva’ programme that supports social science research intended to have a strategic benefit for the ‘war on terror’.

Named after the Roman goddess of wisdom and war, the project is part of the US Government’s increasing reliance on social science to fight the ‘war on terror’ and it comes in the wake of the controversy over its Human Terrain System.

However, a key difference is that the Human Terrain System is a team of social scientists employed by the US Army to directly assist the military with its ongoing operations, while the Minerva project funds university research.

The seven funded projects cover sociology, psychology, religious studies and political science and Wired gives brief rundown:

Susan Shirk of the University of California at San Diego. Shirk will lead a project titled “The Evolving Relationship between Technology and National Security in China: Innovation, Defense Transformation and China’s Place in the Global Technology Order.”

Arizona State Religious Studies prof Mark Woodward. His team will investigate “counter radical-Muslim discourse.” (Read Woodward’s recent commentary on the Bush shoe-throwing incident here.)

Arms control expert Patricia Lewis, who is deputy director and scientist-in-residence at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Her project will look at Iraqi perspectives on the U.S. wars in the Middle East.

Jacob Shapiro of Princeton University. Shapiro studies the organizational aspects of terrorism; his proposal was titled “Terrorism Governance and Development.”

San Francisco State University psychology prof David Matsumoto, who leads a project called “Emotion and Intergroup Relations.”

Foreign policy expert James Lindsay of the University of Texas. He is leading an investigation into the effects of climate change on state stability in Africa.

MIT’s Nazli Choucri. Her project will focus on “cyber international relations.”

Unfortunately, the announcement is a little short on details and we only have the titles so far, but the projects seem interesting at first glance as they are much more general than the typical Pentagon funded research in this area which is often highly applied and bears upon an immediate and pressing problems.

Wired notes that the Minerva project was announced, in part, to ‘heal the rift’ between the government and social scientists, some of whom have expressed their anger at the ‘militarization’ of their discipline.

Thanks to the excellent Advances in the History of Psychology for the heads-up on this.

Link to Wired’s closer look at Minerva’s funding.