Looking into the mind of God

This week’s New Scientist has an interesting article summarising the current thinking on the psychology of religion.

The research treats religion and belief in God or other supernatural entities as a natural consequence of how the brain works.

This has taken two main strands in the research literature: the first is that these tendencies to believe in supernatural forces have evolutionary benefits for social cohesion and kinship, which is why they have been selected for.

The other is that these beliefs are a side-effect of the actions of other useful cognitive processes we have developed. In other words, we have certain mental abilities, typically attributing intention and desire, which we unwittingly over-apply and hence attribute random uncontrollable events to mysterious but intelligent beings.

The article is not particularly in-depth but is notable for its breadth of coverage and will give you a taste for the direction in which the cognitive science of religion is heading.

Link to NewSci article ‘How your brain creates God’.

NeuroPod on pheromones, neural nets, fMRI and sleep

The latest Nature Neuropod neuroscience podcast has just hit the net, with a great selection of discussions and interviews covering everything from pheromones and sexual attraction to the impact of poor quality sleep on memory.

This final section on an intriguing and recently published study found that even mild disturbance that didn’t wake the sleeper but knocked them out of deeper sleeper into the shallower sleep stages could still disrupt the retention of material learned the previous day.

However, as I am remarkably tired myself I need as much deep sleep as I can get, so I shall leave the rest of the podcast as a voyage of discovery. Enjoy!

Link to Neuropod home page with audio.
mp3 of latest podcast.

The hashish inspired art of Jean-Martin Charcot

While searching for material on the famous 19th Century French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, I noticed that a number of online art shops sell drawings he did, apparently while under the influence of hashish – so I’ve been trying to find out more.


The strip above is only part of the image, as despite the fact that it is now in the public domain, most of the online sources deliberately obscure it, presumably in an attempt to get you to buy their posters while pissing off potential customers at the same time.

However, it seems that the picture is likely to be genuine. This is from a book on Charcot’s life where a contemporary recounts their hashish smoking escapades:

As soon as he was under the influence of the narcotic, a tumult of phantasmogoric visions flashed across his mind. The entire page was covered with drawings: prodigious dragons, grimacing monsters, incoherent personages who were superimposed on each other and who were intertwined and twisted in a fabulous whirlpool bringing to mind the apocalyptic visions of Van Bosh and Jacques Callot.

A 2004 article in the medical journal European Neurology discussed his lifelong interest in art and drawing, and contains a sketch of a scene from Hell also apparently created while stoned.

If anyone does know of a high quality online source of these drawings online, do let me know, as I’d particularly love to see the larger image in its full glorious detail.

Link to European Neurology on ‘Charcot and Art: From a Hobby to Science’.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

Like tears in the rain

The New York Times has a great short article on the science of crying, covering recent studies that have investigated the common idea that it is a useful way of releasing pent-up emotion.

The idea that crying is cathartic has been researched more than I realised with numerous large scale studies tackling in what situations people cry, as well what impact it has on our emotional state.

Now, some researchers say that the common psychological wisdom about crying ‚Äî crying as a healthy catharsis ‚Äî is incomplete and misleading. Having a ‚Äúgood cry‚Äù can and usually does allow people to recover some mental balance after a loss. But not always and not for everyone, argues a review article in the current issue of the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science. Placing such high expectation on a tearful breakdown most likely sets some people up for emotional confusion afterward…

In a study published in the December issue of The Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, Dr. Rottenberg, along with Lauren M. Bylsma of the University of South Florida and Ad Vingerhoets of Tilburg University in the Netherlands, asked 5,096 people in 35 countries to detail the circumstances of their most recent crying episode. About 70 percent said that others’ reactions to their breakdown were positive, comforting. But about 16 percent cited nasty or angry reactions that, no surprise, generally made them feel worse.

The science of crying was also covered in a recent BPS Research Digest post that discussed another one of Rottenberg’s studies that focused entirely on females.

Link to NYT piece ‘The Muddled Tracks of All Those Tears’.

Hello, my name is Trouble

Time magazine has an interesting article on links between given names and behaviour, with a new study finding children with unpopular names are more likely to be get in trouble with the law.

This doesn’t mean that being called an unusual name causes criminality – the article notes that boys with unpopular names are likelier to live in single-parent households and be poorer, which are also known to be linked to higher levels of offending.

However, it does add to a growing body of research suggests that our names have a curious influence on our life.

A great review article in The Psychologist from last year covered much of findings, including the fact that people tend to buy products they share initials with, those whose names start with C or D are more likely to receive those grades than are other students, and people called Louis are more likely to live in St. Louis, Mary in Marysville and so on.

The same effect also seems to happen with initials, so Marys are also more likely to live in Manchester.

However, the Time article focuses more on how your name affects how others react towards you and perceive you, which may have a reciprocal impact on your own life chances:

The short answer is that our names play an important role in shaping the way we see ourselves — and, more important, how others see us. Abundant academic literature proves these points. A 1993 paper found that most people perceive those with unconventionally spelled names (Patric, Geoffrey) as less likely to be moral, warm and successful.

A 2001 paper found that we have a tendency to judge boys’ trustworthiness and masculinity from their names. (As a guy whose middle name is Ashley, I can attest to the second part.) In a 2007 paper (here’s a PDF), University of Florida economist David Figlio found that boys with names commonly given to girls are likelier to be suspended from school.

And an influential 1998 paper co-authored by psychologist Melvin (a challenging first name if there ever was one) Manis of the University of Michigan reported that “having an unusual name leads to unfavorable reactions in others, which then leads to unfavorable evaluations of the self.”

Link to Time on the effects of names.

If Freud were a woman

I’ve just found this clever short essay that parodies Freud by imagining that he was a woman.

It discusses the work of Phyllis Freud, rather than the better known Sigmund, who puts a female perspective in the centre of his male-centric theories.

As Phyllis observed…there was ‚Äúyet another surprising effect of womb envy, or the discovery of the inferiority of the penis to the clitoris, which is undoubtedly the most important of all…that masturbation…is a feminine activity and that the elimination of penile sensuality is a necessary pre-condition for the development of masculinity.‚Äù

In this way, Phyllis Freud wisely screened all she heard from her testyrical patients through her understanding, still well accepted to this day, the men are sexually passive, just as they tend to be intellectually and ethically. After all, the libido is intrinsically feminine, or, as she put it with her genius for laywoman’s terms, “man is possessed of a weaker sexual instinct.”

This was also proved by man’s mono-orgasmic nature.

Apparently it’s taken from one of the many, many feminist critiques of Freud’s work, who famously focused on theories of male psychology because women just seemed too baffling.

Link to ‘What if Freud were Phyllis?’

Peering into the darkness, through the key hole

Locked-in syndrome is a dramatic condition where, after brain stem damage, patients are conscious but paralysed and can only communicate with the outside world by an eye-blink or muscle twitch.

Because of limited communication it has been difficult to assess the impact of the damage on thinking and reasoning, but a French team have created tests that can be completed by simple yes / no movements – allowing the first comprehensive study into the cognition of the locked-in mind.

The syndrome usually occurs after a stroke, where an interruption to the blood supply selectively damages the neurological ‘relay station’ that transmits movement impulses to the rest of the body, leaving an almost total paralysis – classically except for a facial muscle.

It has been assumed that affected people are paralysed but cognitively intact – their thinking isn’t affected.

In one famous example, the editor of Elle magazine, Jean Dominique Bauby, wrote the book The Diving Bell and the Butterfly after suffering locked-in syndrome by painstakingly selecting letters with an eye-blink. It’s both stunningly beautiful and eloquent, demonstrating a keen and focused mind.

But because of extremely limited communication, it’s difficult to say whether this level of preserved mental ability is common because traditional neuropsychological tests usually require relatively complex responses.

To address the problem, a French team, led by neurologist Marc Rousseaux, designed tests to assess nine patients that included everything from visual recognition tasks to logical-mathematical reasoning problems, all which could be answered with yes / no responses – just eye-blinks in some cases.

The appendix of their article has the full list of the tests and they are remarkable for their ingenious design.

They team found that while the patients were generally mentally sharp, problems in particular areas were not uncommon, with a significant minority showing selective impairments in areas such as comprehension, understanding meaningful connections, or problem solving.

Sadly, this means that it is unlikely that all locked-in patients share Jean-Dominique Bauby’s remarkably preserved intellect, but the development of these ingenious tests means that we can better understand the impact of the syndrome, and the strengths and weakness of affected patients.

Link to full-text of study on locked-in patients.

Literature and psychiatry

This month’s British Journal of Psychiatry has another one of its fantastic ‘psychiatry in 100 words’ series, with this month’s column focusing on literature.

The short piece is by psychiatrist Femi Oyebode who is the author of a recent book (pictured on the left) on the subject that covers everything from literary accounts of drug abuse to the use of narrative in fictional accounts of mental illness.

Literature and psychiatry — in 100 words

Reading works of fiction and attending to the language, the dialogue, the mood is like listening to patients. In both activities, we enter into other worlds, grasp something about the inner life of characters whose motivations may be unlike our own. D. H. Lawrence referring to this aspect of the novel wrote: `It can inform and lead into new places the flow of our sympathetic consciousness, and it can lead our sympathy away in recoil from things gone dead. Therefore the novel, properly handled, can reveal the most secret places of life’. Is this not also, partly, the task of psychiatry?

Link to ‘Literature and psychiatry ‚Äî in 100 words’.
Link to details of ‘Mindreadings: Literature and Psychiatry’ book.

The long term effects of banging heads on the field

Sportsmen who suffer concussion in early adulthood may experience long-term reduction in brain function well into later life, according to a study released this week.

Although the study had only 40 participants, it is striking as it looked at the effects 30 years after the original concussions and used a wide and diverse range of tests for cognitive and neurological function, the majority of which showed some level of impairment.

This comes in the same week that Boston University School of Medicine reported that former American football player, Tampa Bay Buccaneer Tom McHale, was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease caused by head trauma, when he died in 2008 at the age of 45.

CNN has a good write-up of the news with photos and images of the long-term effects of persistent sports concussion and we covered the work of Dr Bennet Oamlu, who does post-mortems on cognitively impaired American football players, back in 2007.

Repititive sports concussion is now recognised as having a significant neurological impact and has also been found in rugby and boxing.

Interestingly, ex-professional football players (known as soccer players to Americans and other football philistines) probably have higher levels of dementia and there is an ongoing debate about whether this is due to the low level impact of heading the ball.

Some think it is, other think it might be due to the fact footballers consume a lot of alcohol, and so the higher levels of dementia just might be wear and tear from all the booze.

Link to full text of long-term sports concussion study.
Link to CNN on sports concusion and dementia (via NeuronCulture).