2009-02-13 Spike activity

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

An interview with a psychologist Meg Barker, who studies polyamorous relationships, is published by Dr Petra.

Neurophilosophy has an excellent piece on the neuroscience of dinosaurs!

What Makes You Uniquely ‘You’? Discover magazine discusses the self and consciousness with Nobel prize-winning biologist Gerald Edelman.

The Colbert Report has a funny interview with Jonah Lehrer discussing his new book on the psychology of decision-making.

Shanghai surprise. The Guardian has an excellent personal account of an English teacher’s experience of psychosis in China.

Science News covers an interesting study on what people believe about dreams – suggesting that most people think they have symbolic meaning about their life, but mostly when they already agree with what they think.

Another trip on the same old merry go round. BBC News reports UK government’s drugs advisory panel recommends legal reclassification of ecstasy based on its relatively low health risk, government ignores them.

New Scientist looks at research on the <a href="Ecstasy's legacy: So far, so good
http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20126954.500-ecstasys-legacy-so-far-so-good.html”>long-term effects of ecstasy and finds a small but reliable impact on mood and cognition. Shh, don’t tell the government.

A very funny satirical news report from The Onion on Despondex, a new pharmaceutical drug for the overly chirpy.

Wired has an interview with Oliver Sacks on the unusual hallucinations of Charles Bonnet syndrome.

Ex-Labour spin doctor, now current Labour spin doctor, meanwhile psychotherapist, Derek Draper threatens legal action over people who question his psychotherapy qualifications. Gimpy has the low down. If they’re that obvious, why do you need legal action?

New York’s excellent BrainWave festival is back with a host of neuroscience talks and events.

PsyBlog has an excellent piece on how the tip-of-the-tongue effect also affects deaf sign-language users.

Horizon the BBC’s science documentary series recently broadcast an interesting but not perfect documentary on cannabis. The <a href="
http://thepiratebay.org/torrent/4701726/BBC_-_Horizon_-_Cannabis__The_Evil_Weed_”>torrent for the programme is online.

People in love who think about their objet d’amour are less focused on attractive faces of other people, reports Scientific America.

Science News reports that post-partum (after childbirth) psychosis is most likely in the month directly after giving birth.

Wealthy people use less welcoming and more impolite body language than poorer people, reports Scientific American

Slate has an article discussing the psychology of race and conspicuous consumption.

Research on whether personality and facial structure are linked is discussed by New Scientist.

Science News reports on a recent finding that parenting shapes genetic risk for <a href="http://sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/40392/title/Parenting_shapes_genetic_risk_for_drug_use
“>drug use.

Research on whether the attentional blink effect can be used to test sex offenders is covered by Cognitive Daily.

The whole story of Ben Goldacre being threatened by legal action over his challenging of MMR nonsense is on Bad Science.

Distress targeted Twitter spam

An interesting if dubious Twitter phenomenon: a $200 an hour online therapist website is spamming people who express distress in their twitter bulletins with a reply advertising their service.

The service is called AskAnAlly and the Twitter spam has really pissed a number people off.

Like many of the other people, I can’t help reading the name as AskAnally, which I shall be charitable and assume is a reference to Freudian psychotherapy.

It seems life imitates Web Therapy.

Thanks for Mind Hacks reader Rachel for letting me know.

Leadership can be based on quantity not quality

Photo by Flickr user llawliet. Click for sourceTime magazine reports on an intriguing new study finding that groups select natural leaders on the basis of how much each person contributes to group discussions, even when their contributions have no relation to their actual competence.

Psychologists Cameron Anderson and Gavin Kilduff, asked several groups to complete tasks for a $400 dollar prize.

They found that those who spoke more were rated as more competent and influential. Wondering whether this genuinely reflected their actual competence, they decided to test this out with a similar task where the group had to solve math problems.

But this time, they had the participants’ mathematics exam results and could see exactly how many problems each person had solved.

When the work was finished, the people who spoke up more were again likelier to be described by peers as leaders and likelier to be rated as math whizzes. What’s more, any speaking up at all seemed to do. Participants earned recognition for being the first to call out an answer, but also for being the second or third ‚Äî even if all they did was agree with what someone else had said. Merely providing some scrap of information relevant to solving the problem counted too, as long as they did so often enough and confidently enough.

When Anderson and Kilduff checked the participants’ work, however, a lot of pretenders were exposed. Repeatedly, the ones who emerged as leaders and were rated the highest in competence were not the ones who offered the greatest number of correct answers. Nor were they the ones whose SAT scores suggested they’d even be able to. What they did do was offer the most answers ‚Äî period.

The researchers conclude that one way dominant people attain influence is simple through acting in ways that make them appear competent, even when this isn’t the case.

Link to Time article ‘Competence: Is Your Boss Faking It?’.
Link to PubMed entry for study.

Happy birthday Charles Dickens

Today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and Nature has a podcast celebrating his work including some of his research on psychological development and emotion.

For those of you not familiar with Darwin’s work, he’s most famous for his theory of revolutions that he discovered when he went on a voyage with his beagle. The theory of revolutions states that we tend to keep things we inherit if they make us sexier, even though the person who acquired it may have done so in a game of chance.

Darwin is only really discussed by creationists these days, but he’s not completely irrelevant – the Darwin podcast notes that he was also one of the originators of developmental psychology.

In his 1877 paper A Biographical Sketch of an Infant, Darwin completed one of the first comprehensive studies of the psychological development of a child – his own in fact – which was cited as an influence by many later child psychologists.

Link to Nature podcast.
Link to A Biographical Sketch of an Infant.

The myth of the concentration oasis

Wired has an interview with author Maggie Jackson who’s recently written a book called ‘Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age’ in which she argues modern life and digital technology constantly demand our attention and are consequently damaging our ability to concentrate and be creative. The trouble is, I just don’t buy it and it’s easy to see why.

The ‘modern technology is hurting our brain’ argument is widespread but it seems so short-sighted. It’s based on the idea that before digital communication technology came along, people spent their time focusing on single tasks for hours on end and were rarely distracted.

The trouble is, it’s plainly rubbish, and you just have to spend time with some low tech communities to see this is the case.

In some of the poorer neighbourhoods Medell√≠n, my current city of residence, there is no electricity. In these barrios, computers, the internet, and even washing machines and telephones don’t exist in the average home.

Pretty much everything is done manually. By the lights of the ‘driven to digital distraction’ argument, the residents should be able to live blissfully focused distraction-free lives, but they don’t.

If you think twitter is an attention magnet, try living with an infant. Kids are the most distracting thing there is and when you have three of even four in the house it is both impossible to focus on one thing, and stressful, because the consequences of not keeping an eye on your kids can be frightening even to think about.

The manual nature of all the tasks means you have to watch everything. There is no timer on the cooker, so you need to watch the food. The washing has to be done, by hand, while keeping an eye on everything else.

People call all the time, because, well, there is no other way of communication. Street vendors pass by the house and shout what they’re selling. If you miss out on something, it might mean your days food planning has gone down the drain.

On top of this, people may be working to make a living in the same building. Running a shop, mending stuff, selling food, or whatever their business might be.

The difference between this, and the “oh isn’t email stressful” situation, is that you can take a break from email and phone calls. You can switch everything off for an hour so you can concentrate. You can tell people you won’t be available.

For people trying to work and run a family at the same time, not only are the consequences of missing something more important and potentially more dangerous, but it’s impossible to take a break. A break means your kids are in danger, your family doesn’t get fed and you’re losing money that buys the food.

Now, think about the fact that the majority of the world live just like this, and not in not in the world of email, tweets and instant messaging. Until about 100 years ago everyone lived like this.

In other words, the ability to focus on a single task, relatively uninterrupted, is the strange anomaly in the history of our psychological development.

New technology has not created some sort of unnatural cyber-world, but is just moving us away from a relatively short blip of focus that pervaded parts of the Western world for probably about 50 years at most.

And when we compare the level of stress and distraction it causes in comparison to the life of the average low-tech family, it’s nothing. It actually allows us to focus, because it makes things less urgent, it controls the consequences and allows us to suffer no more than social indignation if we don’t respond immediately.

The past, and for most people on the planet, the present, have never been an oasis of mental calm and creativity. And anyone who thinks they have it hard because people keep emailing them should trying bringing up a room of kids with nothing but two pairs of hands and a cooking pot.

Link to Wired interview with short-sighted digital doomsayer.

Bionic arm technology reroutes nervous system

Damn this is cool. The New York Times has an article on an innovative technology that allows people to naturally use mechanical prosthetic arms.

While most of the media attention has been focused on implanting electrodes directly into the brain as a form of ‘neuroprosthetics’, this technology takes a novel and remarkably ingenious approach with impressive results.

The technique, called targeted muscle reinnervation, involves taking the nerves that remain after an arm is amputated and connecting them to another muscle in the body, often in the chest. Electrodes are placed over the chest muscles, acting as antennae. When the person wants to move the arm, the brain sends signals that first contract the chest muscles, which send an electrical signal to the prosthetic arm, instructing it to move. The process requires no more conscious effort than it would for a person who has a natural arm.

Researchers reported Tuesday in the online edition of The Journal of the American Medical Association that they had taken the technique further, making it possible to perform 10 hand, wrist and elbow movements, a big improvement over the typical prosthetic repertoire of bending the elbow, turning the wrist, and opening and closing the hand.

It’s an inventive technique because it takes a whole chunk of the hard work away from the technology.

With neural implants, the major obstacle is developing the technology to reduce the noisy neural information into simpler signal channels. The patient then needs to be trained to generate the right brain activity to funnel the activity into the broad channels of the digital signal processor.

This technology takes advantage of existing healthy nerves but just reassigns them to other muscles and the activity in these is just converted into mechanical actions.

Of course, it isn’t useful for people who are completely paralysed, but the results are quite spectacular.

The article has an embedded video which illustrates the remarkable dexterity that the woman with the prosthetic arm is able to achieve.

The scientific article describing the technology has just been published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and describes five prosthetic limb patients who were asked to complete a number of manual dexterity tests.

The study found that they completed tasks only marginally less well than comparison participants who had no damage and were using their original arms.

UPDATE: Mo has reminded me that Neurophilosophy covered an single case of the same procedure earlier in its development cycle. Mo also notes that the technology has the potential to feed-back touch information to the phantom limb!

Link to NYT article ‘In New Procedure, Artificial Arm Listens to Brain’.
Link to scientific article.
Link to JAMA entry for same.

Pioneers of psychology, in their own words

The Wellcome History of Medicine Centre has interviewed some of the UK’s cognitive science elders about the early days of neuropsychology and psychiatry research and have put all the video clips online.

The interviews are a wonderful insight into the earliest days of cognitive science research which are only hampered by their annoying presentation, so I’ve created YouTube playlists so you can just sit down and just watch each of the interviews from end-to-end.

Here they are:

Elizabeth Warrington was one of the pioneers of clinical and cognitive neuropsychology in the 60s and 70s and defined much of the field as we know it today. She was working at a time when it was rare for women to be working in medical research, let alone neuroscience.

Michael Rutter was one of the founders of child psychiatry and had a huge influence on the development of psychiatric epidemiology.

Richard Gregory is a highly influential cognitive psychologist who is famous for his work on visual perception and top-down (meaning-induced) influences on what we perceive.

Uta Frith is one of the world’s foremost autism researchers and has been involved in child neuropsychology research since the 1960s.

All of the interviewees have been working for over 50 years, have been founders of their field, and are still involved in research.

Elizabeth Warrington is a personal hero of mine. She not only made some of the foundational discoveries in neuropsychology, but also was one of the creators of many of the assessment methods and techniques we use both for assessing the extent of brain injury and the understanding of what brain damage can tell us about normal brain function.

Actually, I have the minor honour of being Elizabeth Warrington’s neuropsychological ‘grand child’, as I learnt a huge amount working with neuropsychologist Pat McKenna (another one of my personal heroes), who was one of the first people who was trained by Warrington.

A minor connection but one I am proud of, and I’m sure you can see why when you hear her discuss her work in the interview.

The other interviews are also thoroughly engrossing and are like being told stories of times past by people with wisdom of experience behind them.

Buck Rogers is not a blueprint

A quote from a recent Wired article that discusses a project to create a computer architecture based on the neurobiology of the brain. It sounds suspiciously like it’s based on Dr Theopolis from 70s TV series Buck Rogers in the 25th Century:

In what could be one of the most ambitious computing projects ever, neuroscientists, computer engineers and psychologists are coming together in a bid to create an entirely new computing architecture that can simulate the brain’s abilities for perception, interaction and cognition. All that, while being small enough to fit into a lunch box and consuming extremely small amounts of power.

Just because you didn’t mention Buck Rogers in the grant application, it doesn’t mean we don’t know what you’re up to.

I mean, I’d love to recreate the magic of ‘Planet of the Amazon Women’ too, but you’ll need more than a fully conscious cognitively aware AI than runs off two AA batteries.

If you’re completely mystified, and / or under the age of 30, you may want to check out this clip on YouTube. Dr Theopolis is the, er, lunch box like-AI on the table. He usually hangs round the neck of the annoying android Twiki.

On a slightly more serious note, I just checked out Kwabena Boahen’s Stanford talk where he discusses exactly this sort of project to create neurally inspired computer chips. Definitely worth a look.

Link to Wired article on cognitive computing.
Link to Kwabena Boahen’s talk on neurally inspired chips.

Formerly schizophrenia

The February edition of the British Journal of Psychiatry has a thought-provoking editorial by psychiatrist Jim van Os, arguing that we should reject the diagnosis of schizophrenia owing to its lack of validity and replace it with a concept of a ‘salience dysregulation syndrome’.

If you’re not familiar with the use of the term salience, it is used widely in cognitive science to describe the attention grabbing quality of things and psychosis is widely thought to involve, at least in part, a problem with the regulation of salience so normally unremarkable things seem important or alarming.

Although this idea has been kicked around for many years, it was popularised in recent years by an influential article by psychiatrist Shitij Kapur called ‘Psychosis as a state of aberrant salience’, as differences in dopamine function are regularly found in studies on delusions and hallucinations.

Importantly, disturbance in dopamine-regulated salience does not seem specific to schizophrenia, but is common across all psychotic disorders.

Consequently, van Os reviews the scientific literature that has repeatedly found that the diagnosis of schizophrenia does not seem to be a cut-and-dry category and that psychosis appears in various forms to differing degrees throughout the population.

He particularly argues for the importance of explicitly naming the problem as a ‘syndrome’, as despite that fact that most people accept that it is not a single disorder, it can get treated as such simply out of habit:

First, although criticisms about the diagnostic construct of schizophrenia may be deflected with the argument that it is merely a syndrome (the association of several clinically recognisable features that often occur together for which a specific disorder may or may not be identified as the underlying cause), the problem is that its very name and the way mental health professionals use and communicate about the term results in medical reification and validation through professional behaviour rather than scientific data, exposing psychiatry to ridicule and hampering scientific progress. It may be argued, therefore, that if it is a syndrome, calling it as such may serve to remind professionals (and downstream of these, the rest of the world) of the relatively agnostic state of science in this regard.

Second, given the fact that maximum utility in terms of conveying clinical information may be obtained by combining categorical with dimensional representations of psychopathology, DSM–V and ICD–11 may be best served by creating separate categorical and dimensional axes of the psychopathology of psychotic disorders.

Link to article ‘A salience dysregulation syndrome’.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

Music to my mind

I’ve just realised that a new series of ABC Radio National’s excellent All in the Mind just kicked off the other week with a fantastic programme on the therapeutic potential of music.

The programme is both wonderful to listen to because music is threaded woven throughout the interviews, but it’s also a critical and well-balanced look at music therapy.

It immediately tackles the fallacy of ‘Mozart makes you smarter’ but then goes on to discuss the evidence behind music therapy itself.

This form of treatment is usually regarded with a great deal of enthusiasm by staff and patients but doesn’t have a huge research base to back it up in comparison to other forms of psychological treatment, largely, it has to be said, because music therapists get very little in the way of research training.

However, the studies that have been done (for example, see this Cochrane review on its effect in schizophrenia) suggest it can be quite effective.

The programme is a really great introduction to the topic and great to see AITM back with a new series.

Link to AITM on ‘Music: Is it really therapeutic?’.

The light controlled brain and other tales

Stanford University have put a series of engaging TED style 10 minute lectures up on YouTube where some of their leading researchers discuss cutting-edge cognitive science research – curing blindness with neural implants, brain computer interfaces, neural pathway mapping, creating brain inspired computer hardware, visualising desire and controlling neurons with light.

Getting lab scientists to do short, engaging online lectures aimed at a bright and curious audience is a fantastic idea. These new Stanford talks have a high production quality and have obviously been prepared with a great deal of care as they are incredibly easy to watch.

I’ve not watched them all yet, but so far the talk on the neuroscience and stem cell treatment of blindness is a particular highlight.

In this presentation, psychologist Brian Wandell discusses the science of perception and the treatment, as well as the remarkable case of Mike May, the world-record holder for blind downhill skiing who volunteered to try the experimental treatment.

A fantastic series that’s well worth checking out.

Link to Stanford neuroscience TED-style talks.

Weaving a history of psychiatry from states of mind

BBC Radio 4 have just concluded a fantastic five part radio series called States of Mind on the history of psychiatry in the UK since the 1950s, covering the death of the asylum, to the age of Prozac, to visions of the future.

It’s produced and presented by the fantastic Claudia Hammond and weaves together historical research, commentary from researchers and the personal stories of patients and staff who have memories of treatment through the last 60 years.

Although it specifically focuses on the UK, in many ways it reflects the history of mental health in many parts of the world owing to the fact that Britain has tended to be a leader in both psychiatric treatment and radical views of mental health.

The five parts, all of which have the streamed audio available online, are:

Total Institution
Altered States
Community Care?
Happiness in a Pill?
Which Way Now?

I was altered to the series by the increasingly excellent Frontier Psychiatrist blog which is also well worth checking out.

Link to States of Mind page.

Encephalon 63 hits the jackpot

The 63rd edition of the Encephalon psychology and neuroscience writing carnival has just been published online and has the latest from the last fortnight’s mind and brain hot topics.

A couple of my favourites include Ouroboros on the link between pessimism and premature ageing, and an article on the commonly discussed relationship between phases of the moon and behaviour from PodBlack.

There’s much, much more where that came from, so hit the links to get the full monty.

Link to Encephalon 63.

If It’s Difficult to Pronounce, It Must Be Risky

I’ve just found a short-but-sweet study recently published in Psychological Science that shows that we tend to rate things with difficult to pronounce names as more risky than those with names that we can say more fluently.

Psychologists Hyunjin Song and Norbert Schwarz created names of notional food additives and asked the participants to rate how hazardous they seemed.

Easy to pronounce ‘additives’ with names like Magnalroxate were consistently rated as less risky than names such as Hnegripitrom.

Wanting to see whether the same effect held for risks that could be seen as exciting, they ran a similar experiment but where participants were asked to rate amusement park rides.

Rides with names like Ohanzee were rated as less likely to make you sick than difficult-to-pronounce rides with names like Tsiischili, but were also rated as less adventurous.

The researchers note that their study is in line with previous research on cognitive biases, which has found that we tend to underestimate the risk of familiar things and over-estimate the risk of things we don’t know so well.

Link to PubMed entry for study.

2009-02-06 Spike activity

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

Furious Seasons has the curious news that FDA has linked anti-depressants to the development of neuroleptic malignant syndrome. Curious as NMS is traditionally linked to dopamine inhibitors, and serotonin syndrome has several similar symptoms but is already known.

Readers build vivid mental simulations of literary narratives, suggests brain scanning study.

Brain has a interesting commentary on the vascular theory of migraine – ‘a great story wrecked by the facts’.

The wonderful RadioLab has a brief post-season follow-up programme with an excellent section on ‘stereotype threat‘.

USA Today covers an fMRI study on a women with hypermnesia or ‘super memory’ as the paper calls it.

Speed dating as a method for studying the psychology of attraction is discussed by Science News.

Not Exactly Rocket Science covers research suggesting colours affect the mind – red improves attention to detail, blue boosts creativity.

Hypothesis / conclusion confusion hits BBC News, again, as it says Alzheimer’s ‘is brain diabetes’.

Neurophilosophy has a typically excellent article on a study looking at how the age of a memory being recalled is linked to which brain areas are active during remembering.

A study on the epidemiology and prognosis of coma in soap operas is covered by Neurotopia.

Time magazine asks will plastic surgery make you happier? Unlikely, is the answer.

Financial bubbles, economic crashes and cognitive biases are discussed by The Atlantic.

Nth Position reviews an interesting looking new book on the ‘globalisation of addiction‘.

A study on the negative effects of violent video games on social helping is discussed by New Scientist.

BoingBoing notes news that a Hollywood film about amnesic patient H.M. could be in the pipeline.

Activities performed in unison, such as marching or dancing, increase loyalty to the group, according to a new study covered by New Scientist.

BPS Research Digest asks how much thought do we put into our moral judgements?

There’s only so much science can tell us about human morality, argues Howard Gardner in an article for Slate.

Cognitive Daily has a great piece on how the Kanizsa illusion is being used to study how we recognise shapes.

Never mind the quality, look at the width

Image by Flickr user Scott Robinson. Click for SourceThe New York Times has a fascinating snippet on how cooperation with others to get a monetary reward is not influenced by the value of the reward, but by the numbers that describe it.

In the study, when the reward was described as rising from 3 cents to 300 cents cooperation increased – but when it was described as rising from 3 cents to 3 dollars, it had no effect.

The experiment was carried by psychologists Ellen Furlong and John Opfer who were interested in comparing how our reasoning is affected by the representation of value.

The researchers asked volunteers to take part in a behavioral test known as the prisoner’s dilemma, in which two partners are offered various rewards to either work together or defect.

The idea is that in the long term, the participants earn the most money by cooperating. But in any given round of play, they make the most if they decide to turn against their partner while he stays loyal. (The reward is lowest when both partners defect.)

When the reward for cooperation was increased to 300 cents from 3 cents, the researchers found, the level of cooperation went up. But when the reward went from 3 cents to $3, it did not.

We covered a study late last year that also found a similar effect: people were swayed more by higher numbers in adverts even when the alternative described exactly the same thing but using smaller units.

Link to short NYT piece ‘$1? No Thanks. 100 Cents? You Bet’.
Link to academic article on study.
Link to DOI entry for same.