‘Internet addiction’ built on foundations of sand

A study just published in the journal CyberPsychology and Behavior has reviewed all of the available scientific studies on internet addiction and found them to be mostly crap. And not just slightly lacking, really pretty awful.

To quote from the research summary:

The analysis showed that previous studies have utilized inconsistent criteria to define Internet addicts, applied recruiting methods that may cause serious sampling bias, and examined data using primarily exploratory rather than confirmatory data analysis techniques to investigate the degree of association rather than causal relationships among variables.

Rather disappointingly though, the authors just suggest that better research is needed when it’s quite obvious that the whole concept is fundamentally flawed.

So badly flawed that it’s a logical fallacy, a category error, in fact. To revisit the point, the internet is a medium of communication and it is not possible to be addicted to a medium of communication because the medium does not specify an activity.

It’s like saying someone is a ‘language addict’ or is ‘addicted’ to transport. It just makes no sense.

Unfortunately, none of the so-called diagnostic scales or indeed, researchers, actually get this point, so it’s perfectly possible to be diagnosed with internet addiction if you’re putting in a lot of long-stressful hours running a business. If you use the internet to communicate with your employees that is.

If, on the other hand, you’re putting in a lot of long-stressful hours running a business and you use an alternative medium of communication, then you’re not an internet addict. Same motivations, same emotional impact, same psychological effect. But if you use the internet you have a mental illness, and if you don’t, well, you don’t.

You can switch ‘running a business’ for anything that is stressful, preoccupying and intrusive (following a sports team perhaps) and if you use the internet as a tool, you’re diagnosable.

At least with the current methods – which, it turns out, are not even based on even a semblance of scientific reliability.

This is not to say that there aren’t people who use the internet excessively to the detriment of themselves and their families. But there are people who follow football in a similarly problematic way, and people who spend too much time going to folk concerts, and people who can’t tear themselves away from the stock market.

This doesn’t make them addicts and the sooner we stop trying to apply addiction to people as a clumsy way to trying to avoid the language of blame the quicker we can tackle their social and emotional difficulties in a more relevant and appropriate way.

There’s a good write-up from Dr Shock and another on PsychCentral both of which I recommend as antidotes to the internet addiction foolishness.

Link to study.
Link to DOI entry for same.

The art of the dying brain

Neurophilosophy has found a wonderful collection of historic neuropathology drawings from the 1800s that manage to be both gruesome and beautiful in equal measure.

The collection is from an 1831 addition to the book Reports on Medical Cases, Selected with a View to Illustrate the Symptoms and Cure of Diseases by a Reference to Morbid Anatomy.

The medical text was authored by Richard Bright who employed various distinguished painters to create the illustrations, including a royal portrait artist.

Neurophilosophy has selected some of the finest and most striking drawings of the nervous system that make for some compelling viewing.

Link to Neurophilosophy on ‘Beautiful diseased brains’.

Moving sensations from missing hands

The ‘rubber hand illusion’ is where we can be fooled into feeling a sensation in a fake hand. A group of researchers have used this same technique with arm amputees and found that they can induce sensations that seem to be located in the rubber hand even in people who have had their real hand amputated.

The study has just been published online by the neurology journal Brain, and it could have important implications for the development of prosthetic limbs that can relay touch sensations which could seem to be experienced in the mechanical fingers.

The study is from the same team that recently hit the headlines with their virtual reality ‘body swapping’ study, which, like the ‘rubber hand illusion’, is based on the same general principal.

This is the now widely replicated finding that when we see a fake but convincing body part being touched, and we feel a genuine sensation on the actual body part, our brain ‘moves’ the sensation to where the fake body part is.

The ‘body swapping’ study used camera trickery to do this – each person had a camera by their eyes but had goggles which displayed what the person sitting opposite saw. When they shook hands, each person saw themselves from the other person’s perspective and with the genuine touch from the handshake, it produced the illusion that the person was located ‘inside’ their opposite.

However, the ‘rubber hand illusion’ is a much simpler way of producing a similar effect. It requires that you sit with your real hand out of sight, under the table perhaps, and a rubber arm placed on top of the table as if it were in the natural position of your limb.

When both the real hand and the false hand are touched in an identical way, such as the little finger being stroked with a pen, the sensation seems to be located in the rubber hand, despite the fact you know it to be fake and you’re aware your real hand is under the table. There’s a video of it online if you want to see an example of the set-up.

This is obviously a little difficult to do with people who have had their arm amputated, but the researchers used the same procedure but stroked the stump of the amputated limb.

Probably because this stimulates the remaining nerve fibres, the same illusion was triggered, and the sensation ‘moved’ to the rubber hand.

To check the effect wasn’t just the participants saying what the experimenters wanted to hear, they wired the participants up to a skin conductance measure – something known to increase when people are stressed.

They then stabbed the rubber hand with a syringe. When this happened after the illusion was induced, the stress response was significantly greater, indicating that the effect was real and compelling enough to increase anxiety.

Interestingly, the illusion was weaker in people who had their hand amputated for longer periods. This is likely due to the fact that the mapping of how brain areas represent body parts slowly rearranges after amputation.

It continues rearranging over time and areas previously used to represent the hand start to be used for representing other existing body parts, making the illusion less compelling. This also explains why phantom limbs often fade or ‘warp’ over time.

UPDATE: I’ve just noticed that Scientific American has a good brief article on the rubber hand illusion that appeared this month.

UPDATE TWO: Neurophilosophy also takes a look at the study and actually does a better job than me!

Link to open-access study from Brain.

Neuroscience Boot Camp

bootcampheader.jpgThe University of Pennsylvania have announced a Neuroscience Boot Camp. Over 10 days in August 2009, through “a combination of lectures, break-out groups, panel discussions and laboratory visits”, the Boot Camp promises to cover all the neuroscience you need to know to be an informed consumer of neuroscience research.

The Boot Camp is aimed at grad students and professionals from law, policy, education, business, ethics and other fields for which recent neuroscience research could be relevant. The Boot Camp is based out of Penn’s Neuroethics centre, so it is sure to be run by people who are used to thinking through the possible implications of findings from cognitive and affective neuroscience research.

Link Neuroscience Boot Camp
Link Neuroscience Boot Camp goals

The fire within

The Beautiful Mind is an online gallery of stunning neuroscience photographs, aiming to demonstrate the beauty within.

Although it’s currently an online exhibition, it will be touring Europe in 2009 and aims to promote art-science integration.

If you can suffer the shrink wrapped Flash interface, it has some wonderful images. The one featured in this post is a photo of mitochondria from astrocytes in cell culture.

Link to The Beautiful Mind exhibition (thanks Sandra!).

Human brain tissue found after two thousand years

CNN has an interesting piece on how an archaeological dig in the North of England has dug up intact human brain tissue, preserved for 2,000 years.

Rachel Cubitt, who was taking part in the dig, described how she felt something move inside the cranium as she cleaned the soil-covered skull’s outer surface. Peering through the base of the skull, she spotted an unusual yellow substance.

“It jogged my memory of a university lecture on the rare survival of ancient brain tissue. We gave the skull special conservation treatment as a result, and sought expert medical opinion,” she said in a statement on York University’s Web site.

A sophisticated CT scanner at York Hospital was then used to produce startlingly clear images of the skull’s contents.

Philip Duffey, Consultant Neurologist at the Hospital said: “I’m amazed and excited that scanning has shown structures which appear to be unequivocally of brain origin. I think that it will be very important to establish how these structures have survived, whether there are traces of biological material within them and, if not, what is their composition.”

Link to ‘Britain’s oldest human brain unearthed’ (via BoingBoing).

2008-12-12 Spike activity

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

Bad Science unclothes the latest in the line of bogus formula-based adverts – this time for the naughtiness of Britney’s breasts.

Hello Google porn surfers. Enjoy the neuroscience!

Interesting memory manipulation study reported by New Scientist who include a spurious reference to the brain in the title.

Cognitive Daily has a one two punch on whether seeing objects in a scene help us remember them.

Hypothesis / conclusion confusion hits BBC News as a study on HSV1 virus in Alzheimer’s plaques somehow reported as cold sores ‘an Alzheimer’s risk’.

Neurophilosophy has a good piece on whether the brain’s fear response is culture-specific.

[A small amount of the variance in] the quality of a man’s sperm depends on [well, correlates with] how intelligent he is, reports The Economist.

Neuroanthropology is one year old and celebrates with their top 10 posts.

The 50 greatest movie drug trips are listed by Den of Geek, although depending on how you read Rosemary’s Baby it mightn’t be a drug trip at all. She could be becoming psychotic.

Lack of sleep has genetic link with type 2 diabetes, reports Science News.

Advances in the History of Psychology has an excellent piece on systematic disobedience in Milgram’s studies.

Daniel Dennett and Andy Clark write in to New Scientist to react to claims of a ‘non-materialist neuroscience’. You can guess the rest.

The New York Times explores our sense of touch: primal, acute and easily duped.

Brain-to-computer interfaces are new portable, inexpensive, but are not ready for prime time yet, reports Scientific American.

Science Daily reports on the effects of unconscious constant exposure to adverts.

Some fantastic videos of developmental trajectories in cortical thickening are discussed by Developing Intelligence.

Scientific American Mind Matters blog reports of the role of the serotonin transporter gene 5-HTTLPR in affecting how people are affected by trauma.

Women more like to hand out phone number when most fertile, reports New Scientist.

Channel N finds an interesting video on the irresitible pull of irrational behaviour.

Medical jargon alters our understanding of disease

A new study just published in PLoS One reports that simply using technical-sounding labels for newly popularised medical conditions changes our understanding of the condition itself, leading us to think it is more serious and more less common.

The study is interesting as it speaks to the debate about disease mongering – the over-medicalising of problems that were previously considered unfortunate but normal parts of life.

The research team, led by psychologist Meredith Young, gave 16 descriptions of medical conditions to two groups of participants.

Eight were conditions that were previously not considered medical disorders but have been ‘medicalised’ in the last 10 years with new technical sounding names common in press reports. For example, impotence is now commonly described ‘erectile dysfunction’ while baldness has been labelled ‘androgenic alopecia’.

The other eight conditions were established medical disorders that have medical and everyday names that are both widely used in the popular press, such as stroke (cerebrovascular accident) and heart attack (myocardial infarction).

One group of participants was given descriptions of the conditions with the common names, and the other group was given the technical names, and each were asked to rate how serious it was, how prevalent it was and whether they thought it was a real disease or not.

For the recently medicalised conditions, the technical label led people to rate it as more serious, more less common and more likely to be a real disease.

For the established conditions, the technical name didn’t effect how the condition was perceived.

Simply giving a condition a technical label seems to change our understanding of the condition itself, making it seem more of a risk and more medically significant.

These findings follow-on from another interesting study from Young, where she found that diseases are thought to be more common and serious the more they’re mentioned in the media.

Participants considered diseases that occur frequently in the media to be more serious, and have higher disease status than those that infrequently occur in the media, even when the low media frequency conditions were considered objectively ‘worse’ by a separate group of participants.

We now know that our beliefs about disease and understanding of illness has a significant effect, not only how we cope with the experience, but how the disease takes its course.

Pharmaceutical companies often promote the benefits of their product, but they also regularly attempt to change our understanding of the problem itself, so the use of their medication seems the most sensible option.

However, there are many other players in the public discussion of illness and certain ideas about causes, symptoms and treatments are often pushed by people because it fits in with other agendas they have.

This is particularly relevant for scientific theories and it is no accident that many of the most significant public medical debates in recent years have been over the acceptance of certain explanations – such as the role of the MMR vaccine in autism, the role of neurotransmitters in mental illness, the role of genetics in obesity.

There is no explanation of illness independent of culture and an understanding of how popular ideas influence our personal medical beliefs is an essential part of understanding medicine itself.

Link to study on medical language and perception of illness.
Link to study on press reporting and perception of illness.

Full disclosure: I’m an unpaid member of the PLoS One editorial board.

Encephalon 60 makes an entrance

The 60th edition of the Encephalon psychology and neuroscience writing carnival has just been published on Living the Scientific Life, as GrrlScientist takes us through the best of the last fortnight’s online mind and brain writing.

A couple of my favourites include an interesting write-up on the role of context in the perception of beauty and an excellent piece on attempts to develop an objective test of diagnose ADHD.

There’s much more in the latest edition, including everything from gendered computer games to paranormal beliefs and aliens, so do have a look if you’re looking for some thought-provoking reading material.

Link to Encephalon 60.

Hazy paving

The photograph is of some visual illusion paving stones found in Bogot√°’s Zona T this morning. They give the impression of an uneven surface despite being completely flat.

I was in Bogotá to give a talk to the Asociación Colombiana de Psiquiatría Biológica who kindly invited me to their Christmas meeting.

Many thanks to them, and to the town planners of Bogot√°.

New Scientist neuroscience top 10 available online

New Scientist have recently made a years’ worth of articles freely available online and have compiled a list of 2008’s top 10 neuroscience articles.

There are some fantastic articles in there, my favourite being a piece on Karl Friston’s ‘unified theory of the brain’ which argues that it’s essentially a hierarchy of Bayesian probability functions. We discussed it back in May if you want a brief overview.

If you’re not sure what Bayesian probability functions are or even if you do and it sounds like a long-shot theory, have a read as it’s a thought-provoking idea.

Some of the other pieces are also well worth checking out, and includes topics such as whether autism is an exaggeration of certain otherwise normal brain function, whether the brain has built in randomness and what happens to the sleeping brain, to name but a few.

A great collection and wonderful to see NewSci opening up their archive. Good stuff.

Link to NewSci 2008 brain science top 10.

Death of a psychologist

This time last week Marjorie Kisner Mira was leaving home to make one of her regular community visits. She never returned, and after several days of frantic searching her barely recognisable body was found in a deserted area of Medell√≠n, Colombia’s second city.

A recently qualified clinical psychologist, Kisner worked for the city’s Peace and Reconciliation programme, a project to help ex-paramilitaries reintegrate into society as part of the solution to the ongoing civil war.

Only 34, she lived only a few blocks away from my current home, in the mid-scale barrio of Laureles, and was last seen alive in Villa Hermosa, a more troubled neighbourhood to the north of the city.

Unfortunately, this is not the only tragedy to befall Colombian psychology this week. While writing this post, news of the the murder of the 25-year-old psychologist Yamid Correa has emerged, a victim of the FARC left wing guerilla group.

Correa worked in the rural south of Colombia for the mobile medical unit of the Instituto Colombiano de Bienestar Familiar, a humanitarian organisation that helps families in crisis. He was travelling with colleagues when their vehicle was attacked, killing Correa and the driver and injuring a social worker, nutritionist and child specialist.

To understand why psychologists are at risk, you need to understand a little about the role of psychology in Colombian society.

Unless you work privately for well-off clients, clinical psychologists are not well paid here, making only 2-3 times the minimum wage. They are, however, well respected. Colombia has an official ‘day of the psychologist’ in November and psychology is considered key to solving some of the country’s social problems.

Some weeks ago I was in one of Medell√≠n’s poorest barrios, famous for a Spanish-built library that is imposing and inspiring in equal measure and I was surprised to see that the top floor of the library was dedicated to courses in communication and body language for the local children.

The idea being that if kids are better able to know when trouble is about to kick off, or are better able to resolve conflicts when they do occur, it will lead to a reduction in violence.

Unlike in Europe and the US, where social psychology is largely a topic for research, here it is a vibrant, active and applied discipline that is considered one of the principal methods for dealing with social problems.

It follows that psychologists often working in some of the most dangerous areas, attempting to diminish the cycle of violence by working within the most affected communities. But more than this, they are often working against the people who use violence to maintain control.

It’s difficult writing about the problems of Colombia because it a country cursed by the stereotypes of drugs and violence, when it is so much more than the clich√©s.

It is not that these problems don’t exist, it is simply that they are too frequently used to define the country when they are only part of the Colombia’s warm and vibrant human fabric.

Marjorie Kisner and Yamid Correa were two examples of how this fabric is woven through society and their deaths are an unfortunate tribute to their dedication to their work and their faith in a better future.

Link to a tribute to Marjorie Kisner from El Colombiano.
Link to news of Yamid Correa’s death from El Tiempo.

The Psychologist on men, gossip and Kahneman

The editor of the The Psychologist magazine has just made the full issue of the January 2009 edition available online for free. It’s been uploaded to a service called issuu, so you can see every page as it appears in print, something that is usually only available to subscribers.

The Psychologist is the monthly magazine of The British Psychological Society, the professional body for UK psychologists, and aims to tackle current scientific and professional issues.

After a long time of it being, well, a bit dull, it has transformed in recent years and now looks sharp, has a dedicated journalist (friend of Mind Hacks, Christian), and is reaching out to a wider audience.

In the service of full disclosure, I’m an unpaid member of the editorial board, and am now a semi-regular columnist for the magazine discussing cross-cultural and interdisciplinary issues.

You can read my first column on page four where I discuss civil war, Jesuit priests and what psychologists can learn from Latin America.

The magazine also has feature articles on the psychology of gossip, testosterone and male behaviour, stigma and help-seeking, psychology and obesity and an interview with Nobel prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman.

Link to January 2009 issue of The Psychologist.

Does going to Mecca make Muslims more moderate?

As the annual Muslim Hajj pilgrimage comes to an end, I’m reminded of this interesting Slate article from earlier this year which reported on research that looked at whether going to Mecca makes Muslims more moderate.

Although Islam has been associated with extremism in recent years, one of the key parts of the Hajj is the wearing of Ihram clothing to emphasise the fact that all people are created equal.

The article discusses a recent study that used a quirk of the distribution of Saudi Arabian visas to Pakistani Muslims. Only some of those who apply will be randomly allocated a visa to attend the Mecca pilgrimage, meaning the researchers could compare the views of those who went with those who didn’t.

Six months after the Hajjis of ’06 returned home to Pakistan, Clingingsmith, Khwaja, and Kremer had a survey team track down 1,600 Hajj applicants, half of whom had been selected to go to Mecca and half who hadn’t. The Hajjis were asked questions on topics ranging from religious practices (frequency of prayer and mosque attendance, for example) to women’s issues. Perhaps not surprisingly, the study found that after a monthlong immersion in communal prayer, the pilgrims were 15 percent more likely to report following mainstream Muslim practices, such as praying five times a day and reciting the Quran. This came at the expense of local Pakistani religious traditions‚ÄîHajjis were 10 percent less likely to follow local rituals like using amulets or visiting the tombs of local saints…

Even more surprising, Hajjis were 25 percent less likely to believe that it was impossible for Muslims of different ethnicities or sects to live together in harmony—a finding that would seem to be of particular interest for those trying to bring peace to the streets of Baghdad. This greater sense of goodwill among peoples even extended to non-Muslims (who were obviously not represented in Mecca). Hajjis were more likely than non-Hajjis to hold the opinion that people of all religions can live in harmony. Hajjis were also less likely to feel that extreme methods—such as suicide bombings or attacks on civilians—could be justified in dealing with disagreements between Muslims and non-Muslims.

The article discusses some of the other findings from the study, including more tolerant views on the place of women in society, which suggests that the Hajj has an effect of increasing pilgrims’ goodwill towards both fellow Muslims and other people in the world.

Link to Slate article ‘The Pilgrim’s Progressiveness’.
Link to study.

The big tease

The New York Times has an interesting article arguing that the recent public trend for outlawing ‘teasing’ as a form of bullying is a step too far, owing to psychological research showing that it’s part of normal social interaction and can actually enhance relationships.

The piece is by psychologist Dacher Keltner, and looks at teasing among children, as well as in adults and romantic partners.

He argues that teasing is not only wrongly outlawed, but is a form of social play that is essential for learning to manage complex social interactions.

Our rush to banish teasing from social life has its origins in legitimate concerns about bullies on the playground and at work. We must remember, though, that teasing, like so many things, gets better with age. Starting at around 11 or 12, children become much more sophisticated in their ability to hold contradictory propositions about the world — they move from Manichaean either-or, black-or-white reasoning to a more ironic, complex understanding. As a result, as any chagrined parent will tell you, they add irony and sarcasm to their social repertory. And it is at this age that you begin to see a precipitous drop in the reported incidences of bullying. As children learn the subtleties of teasing, their teasing is less often experienced as damaging.

In seeking to protect our children from bullying and aggression, we risk depriving them of a most remarkable form of social exchange. In teasing, we learn to use our voices, bodies and faces, and to read those of others — the raw materials of emotional intelligence and the moral imagination. We learn the wisdom of laughing at ourselves, and not taking the self too seriously. We learn boundaries between danger and safety, right and wrong, friend and foe, male and female, what is serious and what is not. We transform the many conflicts of social living into entertaining dramas. No kidding.

It’s quite a comprehensive piece, looking at how we use the subtleties of language to signal the ‘teasing mode’ as well as passing on important social messages without being explicit.

I wonder how this translates across cultures. I’m always struck who the British tendency to ‘take the piss’ out of each other and themselves is not necessarily shared by other cultures, at least to the same degree or in the same situations.

Link to NYT piece ‘In Defense of Teasing’.

Mainstreaming cognitive enhancement

Nature has just published an article arguing that the use cognition enhancing drugs by healthy individuals should be by accepted by society and appropriately regulated.

The authors are an interesting mix. They consist of several cognitive neuroscientists, a lawyer, an ethicist and the Nature editor-in-chief.

The piece follows a survey and discussion pieces published earlier this year by the magazine to try and kick-start the debate on these widely but often illicitly obtained substances.

It’s a thoughtful piece covering both practical and ethical issues which argues seven main points:

Based on our considerations, we call for a presumption that mentally competent adults should be able to engage in cognitive enhancement using drugs.

We call for an evidence-based approach to the evaluation of the risks and benefits of cognitive enhancement.

We call for enforceable policies concerning the use of cognitive-enhancing drugs to support fairness, protect individuals from coercion and minimize enhancement-related socioeconomic disparities.

We call for a programme of research into the use and impacts of cognitive-enhancing drugs by healthy individuals.

We call for physicians, educators, regulators and others to collaborate in developing policies that address the use of cognitive-enhancing drugs by healthy individuals.

We call for information to be broadly disseminated concerning the risks, benefits and alternatives to pharmaceutical cognitive enhancement.

We call for careful and limited legislative action to channel cognitive-enhancement technologies into useful paths.

However, I can’t help but thinking that the piece has the feel of trying to move the use of these drugs from the ‘bad’ to the ‘good’ category, where I tend towards thinking that we need to be less concerned about classifying drugs types and more about distinguishing between responsible and irresponsible drug use, which, of course, can differ between situation, purpose, and the specific drug being discussed.

For example, I wonder how easy it is to define ‘cognitive enhancers’. If someone has a drink before public speaking to help them relax and so make fewer mistakes – are they using a cognitive enhancer?

Link to ‘Towards responsible use of cognitive-enhancing drugs by the healthy’.