2009-02-20 Spike activity

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

I’ve just discovered the excellent Psychology of Beauty blog.

3QuarksDaily has an interview with cognitive science philosopher Shaun Gallagher on psychotic delusions and multiple realities.

Missed this a few weeks ago: an interesting article from The New York Times on using social information on energy bills to increase energy efficiency.

Brain Hammer has just sprung into life again with a series of interesting posts.

The Colonization of Pharmaceutical Science by Marketing. Somatosphere covers the interface between medicine and marketing.

The Morning News has a great list of ‘Mindfuck Movies‘ – classics with a psychological twist. Definitely check out La Jet√©e, awesome original inspiration for 12 Monkeys.

Attendance at religious services, but not religious devotion, predicts support for suicide attacks, reports Not Exactly Rocket Science.

Dr Shock tracks the varying trends in the rise and fall of ECT treatment in Europe.

Think you’d remember the face of your torturer? Unlikely suggests a new study reported by Wired.

The Boston Globe has an article on legal wranglings and human stories related to killings related to the US Army’s ‘Human Terrain System’. Wired notes the HTS pay scale has been greatly reduced.

Five minutes with the authors of two recent influential psychological studies on TV commercials and East – West facial recognition from the BPS Research Digest.

Seed Magazine briefly covers new research suggesting oxytocin plays a key role in social memory.

Another good one from Not Exactly Rocket Science, one of the few places to correctly report on the latest propranolol trauma dampening study.

Does philosophy tells us about the world or our concepts? Eric Schwitzgebel explores the two key concepts in philosophy.

The Fortean Times has an excellent article on the surprising range of behaviour reported to occur during sleep walking.

Is genius born or can it be learned? asks Time magazine.

Neuroanthropology has a fascinating commentary on measuring basketball success with stats and why traditional stats may reflect little about a player’s ability, although it has wider implications for how we understand and measure human abilities.

The New York Times has an article on the emerging neuroscience of envy.

More ‘Facebook causes cancer’ debunking from PsychCentral.

The Monthly magazine hosts a video lecture by Norman Doidge, author of The Brain that Changes Itself. Presented by Natasha Mitchell of Mind Hacks favourite All in the Mind.

Dodgy war in Afghanistan heroin seizure statistics are subjected to the cold hard light of data by Bad Science.

Furious Seasons tackles a recent ‘scary’ editorial in the journal Current Psychiatry.

Weird Science in MIT’s AI Lab, 1966

I just found this photo in the Life magazine archive. It’s from 1966 and entitled ‘MIT student using a MAC computer for project study of artificial intelligence’.

Is it me, or does the young student bear an uncanny resemblance to Anthony Michael Hall in the 80s film Weird Science where two computer geeks use an early micro computer to programme their ideal woman in the form of the lovely Kelly LeBrock?

Unfortunately, I can’t find any of the classic images of the boys at their computer creating the digital Ms LeBrock for you to compare, but here’s one where you can see the uncanny MIT photo / Weird Science similarity.

So just what were MIT researching in the mid-60s?

UPDATE: We have another photo! Thanks to Daniel for suggesting this one.

Link to photo in Life archive.

Encephalon 64 powers up

The 64th edition of the Encephalon psychology and writing carnival has just appeared on The Neurocritic and is waiting for your rapt attention.

It’s a wonderfully put-together edition and a couple of my favourites include an article on the surprising fact that the doctor whose name lives on in ‘Tourette’s Syndrome’ was shot in the back by a patient, and a piece on psychosis, dopamine and salience dysregulation.

There’s plenty more (and I mean plenty more, videos and all) in the latest edition, so head over to browse the menu.

Link to Encephalon 64.

The Psychologist on stigma, statistics and S&M

The British Psychological Society’s monthly magazine The Psychologist is continuing to dip its toes into the world of open-access and has made the entire March edition freely available online.

A couple of articles stand out. The first is on stigma that discusses studies on how we internally structure information and notes that even here, the golden ratio may play a role, with a crucial 68% / 32% split on negative and positive information being linked to stigmatised people.

The other is a surprising article on an interpretation of the sexually explicit sado-masochist novel The Story of O in light of Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance.

More tea vicar?

In comparison, my page 9 column on language-dependent psychosis rather pales in comparison.

The magazine is available as an embedded document, so you get to see the whole magazine as it appears in print, although I’m not sure you can link to individual papers so you’ll have to explore!

Link to March edition of The Psychologist.

Full disclosure: I’m an occasional columnist and unpaid member of the editoral board for The Psychologist.

Facebook causes marble loss

Photo by Flickr user chefranden. Click for sourceYou know that awkward feeling you get when you stop laughing because you realise the person you’re talking to isn’t actually joking? I’ve just had it after reading the news reports that tell us ‘Facebook raises cancer risk’, ruining what I thought was a very funny parody.

They’re based on an appalling article by psychologist Aric Sigman which was published in the magazine Biologist. You can read it online as a pdf and it is a wonderful example of cherry-picking evidence and citing correlations as causes.

His claim is that electronic media, and particularly the use of social networking sites, are leading us to interact face-to-face less and that this has health risks.

So what evidence does Sigman cite to support his claim that social networking sites and face-to-face interaction are linked – a correlation showing that as social media use has increased, face-to-face interaction has decreased. Really, that’s it, and as we shall see it’s largely nonsense.

He then goes on to cite evidence that subjective loneliness is associated with various biological effects and health risks.

The last bit is well supported, loneliness is associated with negative health risks, but Sigman neglects to cite any studies that test the link between face-to-face interaction and the use of services such as Facebook.

This is not surprising, because so far, they’ve typically found that people who who these sites actually feel more socially connected and have better social ties.

Like this study that found that students use Facebook to enhance relationships they already formed in real life, or this study that found that Facebook use was associated with greater levels of social capital and psychological well-being.

In contrast, the link between loneliness and internet communication has not been reliably established and it is notable to we have almost nothing but correlational studies. So we don’t know whether internet communication increases loneliness in some people, or whether lonely people just use the internet to try and make themselves less lonely.

In fact, studies have reported correlations in both directions. Interestingly, while the early studies tended to find a link, later studies have been much less likely to do so, and in fact, many find exactly the opposite to what Sigman claims, but these are not mentioned.

For example, like one study that found that older adults who use the internet more report lower levels of loneliness, or this study in children that found internet use was associated with less loneliness, or this study that found no link in adolescents.

I’d like to be charitable and assume that this one-sidedness was down to ignorance, but the conclusion of the article makes me think it was deliberate cherry-picking. He writes:

A decade ago, a detailed classic study of 73 families who used the internet for communication, The Internet Paradox, concluded that greater use of the internet was associated with declines in communication between family members in the house, declines in the size of their social circle, and increases in their levels of depression and loneliness. They went on to report ‚Äúboth social disengagement and worsening of mood… and limited face-to-face social interaction… poor quality of life and diminished physical and psychological health‚Äù (Kraut et al, 1998).

This study was indeed a classic. It was so important that the same research team followed up the same participants several years later and published their results in a study called Internet Paradox Revisted that you can read online as a pdf file.

What they found was that the negative effects reported in the first study, except for a measure of daily hassles, had disappeared, and that the internet use was associated with better a social life:

Internet was associated with mainly positive outcomes over a range of dependent variables measuring social involvement and psychological well-being, local and distant social circle, face-to-face communication, community involvement, trust in people, positive affect, and unsurprisingly, computer skill.

Just typing ‘internet paradox’ into Google brings up both studies, but the second seems to be missing.

The article is quite clearly drivel if you spend more than 20 seconds on Google, but it seems to have been swallowed by most mainstream press outlets without question.

What is it about mentioning the internet that makes the press lose their marbles? I blame it on not using the internet.

Sleep and psychopathology

New Scientist has a fascinating article on sleep and mental illness. While it’s long been known that mental illness can disrupt sleep the article discusses the much less explored connection where loss of sleep might trigger symptoms of mental illness in some.

Until recently, however, the assumption that poor sleep was a symptom rather than a cause of mental illness was so strong that nobody questioned it. “It was just so easy to say about a patient, well, he’s depressed or schizophrenic, of course he’s not sleeping well – and never to ask whether there could be a causal relationship the other way,” says Robert Stickgold, a sleep researcher at Harvard University. Even when studies did seem to point in the other direction, the findings were largely overlooked, he says.

Scientifically, sleep and mental illness have been long linked. Theories of bipolar disorder as a disruption to circadian rhythms have been kicking round for years and treatments that reduce disruption to sleep routines are known to have a therapeutic effect.

The NewSci article reviews various studies that suggest sleep problems can increase risk for mental illness, but it doesn’t mention an equally interesting link.

We also know that sleep deprivation can help otherwise untreatable mood disorders. For example, missing a night’s sleep can be used as a treatment in depression.

Link to article ‘Are bad sleeping habits driving us mad?’.

Why smokers blunt their caffeine hit

Image by Flickr user sheeshoo. Click for sourceI was just reading an interesting paper on the interaction between antipsychotic drugs, caffeine and smoking and I found this interesting snippet on how smokers need to take in three to four times more caffeine than non-smokers to get the same effect, owing to the fact that by products of increases enzymes in the liver which break-down caffeine.

Byproducts of tobacco smoking, particularly the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, are metabolic inducers. These byproducts are inducers of the [liver enzyme] cytochrome P450 isoenzyme 1A2 (CYP1A2) and of the less understood UDP-glucuronosyltransferases (UGTs).The metabolic inductive effects are not specific to tobacco smoking; they can also be expected from marijuana smoking.

Because inducers require the synthesis of new enzymes, several weeks are usually needed before the maximum effects of inducers are seen. Inducers’ effects may take a few weeks to disappear as well….

Additional pharmacologic support of the relevance of smoking’s inductive effects comes from caffeine intake studies. Caffeine, a drug that is more than 90 percent dependent on CYP1A2 for its metabolism and that is widely used in the United States, can exemplify smoking’s effects on drug metabolism.

The C/D [concentration-dose ratio] of caffeine appears to be threefold to fourfold as high among nonsmokers compared with smokers. This higher ratio means that smokers need three to four times the caffeine “dosage” as nonsmokers on average to get the same plasma caffeine levels.

It turns out that two antipsychotic drugs, olanzapine and clozapine, are also broken down by the same enzyme, so smoking will reduce the effect of these drugs.

Hence smokers need larger doses to have the same effect, and patients on these drugs who give up smoking might find a sudden increase in side effects if the dose isn’t dropped.

We tend to think of the effect of psychotropic drugs as happening in the brain but drug metabolism happens all over the body with the liver and kidneys being particularly important and having a profound impact on the effect of the compound.

Link to ‘Atypical Antipsychotic Dosing: The Effect of Smoking and Caffeine’.

It was planted on me

I have discovered that there is small but budding group of cognitive scientists who study the psychological impact of indoor plants.

For example, here is a study on the effects of an indoor plant on creativity and mood from the Scandinavian Journal of Psychology.

Effects of an indoor plant on creative task performance and mood.

Shibata S, Suzuki N.

Scandinavian Journal of Psychology. 2004 Nov;45(5):373-81.

In this study, we investigated the effect of an indoor plant on task performance and on mood. Three room arrangements were used as independent variables: a room with (1) a plant, or (2) a magazine rack with magazines placed in front of the participants, or (3) a room with neither of these objects.

Undergraduate students (M= 35, F= 55) performed a task of associating up to 30 words with each of 20 specified words in a room with one of the three room arrangements. Task performance scores showed that female participants performed better in view of the plant in comparison to the magazine rack (p < 0.05).

Moreover, mood was better with the plant or the magazine rack in the room compared to the no object condition (p < 0.05). However, the difference in task performance was highly influenced by the evaluation about the plant or the magazine rack. It is suggested that the compatibility between task demand and the environment is an important factor in facilitating task performances.

Somehow, I feel my world view has not actually changed after reading that study.

But wait, there are also published research studies on:

Effects of the foliage plant on task performance and mood.

Effects of indoor plants on task performance and mood: a comparison between natural and imitated plants.

Influence of limitedly visible leafy indoor plants on the psychology, behavior, and health of students at a junior high school in Taiwan.

The association between indoor plants, stress, productivity and sick leave in office workers.

And someone even did their PhD on “Randomized clinical trials evaluating therapeutic influences of ornamental indoor plants in hospital rooms on health outcomes of patients recovering from surgery”.

Link to PubMed entry for Scandinavian Journal of Psychology study.

A cognitive science of spiritual healing?

Time magazine has an interesting article on the neuroscience of spiritual experience and why religious belief has been linked to better health.

It’s not the most gripping article in the world and starts with some annoying experience = brain area phrenology but it does gives a good overview of some of the main research areas.

Probably the most interesting aspect is where it tackles the link between religious belief and health in light of other belief based health benefits such as the placebo effect or beliefs about illness itself.

The section on the effects of prayer also has this fascinating snippet about early experimental psychologist Francis Galton:

As long ago as 1872, Francis Galton, the man behind eugenics and fingerprinting, reckoned that monarchs should live longer than the rest of us, since millions of people pray for the health of their King or Queen every day. His research showed just the opposite — no surprise, perhaps, given the rich diet and extensive leisure that royal families enjoy.

Studies on the curative properties of prayer have a long and interesting history, with one of the most striking moments also linked to a psychologist and an (in)famous study – discussed in a 2002 Wired article.

Link to Time article ‘The Biology of Belief’.

The scientific legacy of HM’s missing memories

The latest edition of Neuron has a fantastic tribute to the recently departed amnesic Patient HM, “probably the best known single patient in the history of neuroscience”, covering the scientific work he participated in and what it has told us about the structure of memory.

The piece is by respected memory researcher Larry Squire and he tackles HM’s personal history while also reviewing his contributions to science through numerous landmark studies.

It can be said that the early descriptions of H.M. inaugurated the modern era of memory research. Before H.M., due particularly to the influence of Karl Lashley, memory functions were thought to be widely distributed in the cortex and to be integrated with intellectual and perceptual functions.

The findings from H.M. established the fundamental principle that memory is a distinct cerebral function, separable from other perceptual and cognitive abilities, and identified the medial aspect of the temporal lobe as important for memory.

The implication was that the brain has to some extent separated its perceptual and intellectual functions from its capacity to lay down in memory the records that ordinarily result from engaging in perceptual and intellectual work.

The article is fascinating not least because it dispels a few common myths about HM – such as the original study showed the hippocampus was necessary for memory when HM also had the amygdala and parahippocampal gyrus removed and so it wasn’t possible to say which were most important.

It also notes that the original studies over-stated how much brain was removed owing to the basic knowledge of neuroanatomy that existed at the time.

Link to ‘The Legacy of Patient H.M. for Neuroscience’.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

You change your diagnosis like a girl changes clothes

A recently published study in the Journal of Affective Disorders found that clinicians are less likely to suggest a diagnosis of bipolar disorder if the patient is described as having recently fallen in love, even if they are reported to have all the necessary symptoms.

I notice that Katy Perry addressed exactly this issue in her global pop hit Hot N’ Cold.

You’re hot then you’re cold
You’re yes then you’re no
You’re in and you’re out
You’re up and you’re down

Someone call the doctor
Got a case of a love bipolar

Perry clearly demonstrates that she’s not subject to this particular diagnostic bias as she is able to recognise that the patient has fallen in love, but also qualifies for a diagnosis of bipolar based solely on presenting features.

Link to PubMed entry for study.
Link to video of Katy Perry’s Hot N’ Cold.

Killing the veneration of unbending concentration

A few days ago I wrote a piece criticising the arguments of author Maggie Jackson on the effects of digital technology and concentration. The piece garnered some fantastic reader comments, including a thoughtful response from Jackson herself, which I’ve reproduced below:

In my interview with Wired and my book Distracted, I don’t argue that we need to venerate unbending concentration and single-tasking. In fact, that’s a monochromatic Industrial Age vision of attention that I reject! In cultures where work and productivity are now information-based, we do need to hone skills related to multitasking and split-focus, skimming and non-linear reasoning.

But in the US and other tech-centric societies today, we’ve become so reliant on this narrow band of skills that we’ve begun to undermine our ability to go deeply in thought and relations. We’re fragmenting and diffusing our multifaceted attentional abilities – and this is not by any means “progress.”

As for cooking and babies, I’d agree that at any time in history, the environment makes demands on our attention. Attention is in essence how we interact with our environment! But attention is also central to the pursuit of goals, to planning, judgment, vision. The point is, are we using our powers of attention well by cultivating environments of interruption, fragmentation,and skimming, and by losing time/space for reflection, disciplined problem-solving, deep reading?

In short, the “concentration oasis” is a myth I don’t subscribe to. And yet it’s truly short-sighted to fail to consider the costs of cultivating a culture of distraction and inattention.

Link to the original post and comments.

A pharmacopeia of t-shirts

T-shirts with molecules on the front are now available from a multitude of online shops, but I’ve just found one internet t-shirt shop which has over 40 drug molecules you can choose from – from LSD to Prozac.

As well as the usual suspects from the street drug molecules, Molecule Wear also has a surprisingly large number of other psychoactive drugs and compounds including antidepressants, painkillers, neurotransmitters and a couple of curve balls (e.g. MSG!).

Pictured is the Ritalin t-shirt, although my favourite is probably the ether shirt which could also pass as an ASCII art seagull.

Link to Molecule Wear.

Love and immortality

Image by Flickr user egroj. Click for sourceWe have a burning instinct for life and yet we know, ultimately, that we will die. We fear the one thing we cannot escape.

The question ‘why live?’ has preoccupied thinkers from the alpha to the omega of human history, but only relatively recently have we considered the question of ‘how’ – how do we live with this fear, this knowledge of our own demise?

We recognise love as our companion and protector and we now think that it may even shield us from death itself, at least while we’re alive.

‘Terror management theory’ sounds oddly militaristic to the modern ear, but it was never intended to makes us think of politics. It was developed by psychologist Sheldon Solomon and his colleagues to help explain how we live with existential angst.

The theory suggests we have various ways of keeping the fear of death out of our conscious mind, and of understanding what makes our life meaningful.

Traditionally, researchers have focused on the effect of a social element – how we feel we fit in to our culture’s ideas about what makes a meaningful life, and a personal element – how we feel about ourselves, but more recently psychologists have been focusing on love as one of the most important ways of managing our existential fears.

Love beyond life is a constant poetic theme, and yet these are not simply poetic theories, they have been drawn from empirical research.

Never afraid to strip the poetry from the profound, cognitive scientists have labelled their most important existential paradigm ‘mortality salience’.

It involves reminding people of death – an experimental memento mori – and numerous studies have found that simply focusing people on their time-limited lives changes how they think and behave.

One of the most reliable effects, is that being reminded of death makes us more socially minded – more likely to want to be physically close to others, more likely to want to have children, but also more likely to support the norms and stereotypes of your own social group.

A group of Israeli psychologists were inspired to wonder whether love might protect us against our fear of death, and whether our anxieties motivate us to seek out love.

In an ingenious 2002 study, they found that reminding people of their demise increased their self-professed romantic commitment, that thinking about a committed relationship reduced the effects of morality salience on harsh social judgements, and that thinking about the end of a relationship increased thoughts of death.

A year later, they reviewed research on love and death and came to the conclusion that close relationships help us manage the anxiety of mortality, partly through the strength of the bond, but partly through the fact that romantic partnerships give us a symbolic way of transcending death – as families provide a way for our contribution to ‘live on’ after the final curtain.

These studies are some of the first on what has been called ‘experimental existential psychology’ that seek to understand how we manage our lives in the face of the unknown.

But the fact remains that we will die, and hopefully, we will love. Perhaps we have no profounder response.

Link to ‘The existential function of close relationships: introducing death into the science of love’.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

Christina the Astonishing and the saints of epilepsy

I’ve just read a fascinating article on the wonderfully named Christina the Astonishing, a 12th century saint who died during an epileptic seizure, rose from the ‘dead’, and according to some accounts, levitated to the roof of the church.

The paper, published in the medical journal Neurology, discusses her case because while various people have suggested that the supernatural experiences of the saints can be nowadays explained as epilepsy, Christina was thought to both be holy and have epilepsy by her contemporaries.

However, the paper begins with this fascinating bit about the history of the relationship between saints and the long mythologised condition:

In 1930, Kanner catalogued no less than 37 saints associated with “the falling sickness” and the eventful lives of many of these are illuminated in Murphy’s excellent paper “The saints of epilepsy.” While many made their name casting out demons and curing epilepsy, Pope Benedict XIV tightened up the rules relating to miraculous cures of seizures in 1743, particularly in relation to a relapse of the condition. No one has been canonized on the basis of a miraculous cure of epilepsy since.

Other saints have a more oblique connection to the condition. For example, St. Albanaus of Mainz (400 AD) was decapitated and the subsequent writhing of his headless body apparently resembled a convulsion, hence his connection. St. Sebastian, who survived being shot by arrows only to be later clubbed to death, is invoked as his initial recovery from near death represents the recovery from a seizure, which at first may seem fatal.

The three wise men of nativity fame, who bestowed gifts on the infant Christ, are also sometimes invoked against epilepsy as they “fell down” before the infant when they found him. In the 14th century, it was thought to be beneficial to whisper the names of these saintly wise men into the ears of people as they convulsed to stop the seizure.

A number of the saints of epilepsy are thought to have suffered seizures themselves, including those from the very highest echelons — see St. Paul. While these diagnoses remain speculative and can often only be inferred from minimal fragments of information, some have gone to considerable lengths to examine their hypotheses, including the investigation of the original court manuscripts in the case of St. Joan of Arc and the examination of a 600-year-old skull in the case of St. Birgitta.

Christina’s case is fascinating in itself and the article is well worth a read.

Link to article.
Link to PubMed entry for same.