Neurosurgeon has mid-operation heart attack, continues

BBC News is reporting that neurosurgeon Claudio Vitale had a heart-attack during an operation to remove a brain tumour, but continued with the surgery as he knew the patient wouldn’t recover if he left the theatre.

According to reports, Mr Vitale started to feel chest pains part way through the operation at Naples’ Cardarelli Hospital.

When the pains worsened, Mr Vitale’s team urged him to stop the procedure and get treatment, but he refused.

He agreed to undergo a blood test, which confirmed a heart problem, but the neurosurgeon insisted on completing the operation before getting medical help, reports say.

ABC News also has a good write-up.

Link to BBC News article ‘Doctor in mid-surgery heart scare’ (via MeFi).

Focus me

Photo by Flickr user GJ Charlett III. Click for sourceThe Journal of Sex Research has a fascinating article on the role of attention in sexual arousal and how we use our mental focus to explore and control excitement during sex.

We can see from our everyday lives that attention is important for sex. We can distract ourselves to avoid sexual arousal when our mind has wandered onto sexual topics and we don’t want to get aroused, or we want to prolong sexual enjoyment without getting over-aroused.

We also can do the reverse and focus strongly on sexual fantasises or our partner to dispel other thoughts and lose ourselves in the sexual moment.

However, the article looks at the scientific research on attention during sex and discusses how this can help us understand and treat sexual problems.

The drug industry has a lot invested in telling people that sexual difficulties are almost entirely due to problems with the genitals.

For example, the website for Viagra promotes the line that erectile dysfunction is a problem with your cock, saying that “It happens when not enough blood flows to the penis”.

Which is a bit like saying poverty is when not enough money gets to poor people. It describes the outcome but not the cause.

The article makes clear that many sexual problems can be best understood in terms of how the mind is working and many sexual problems can be equally well treated with psychological methods.

In other words, it’s often not that the genitals are ‘not working’, but that we’ve got into a situation where it’s hard to achieve the necessary level of sexual arousal because of, for example, distraction, anxiety or low self-confidence which cause a negative feedback loop that takes our focus away from making love and onto other non-arousing things.

Based on such findings, Barlow (1986) posited a model of erectile dysfunction, central to which is the idea that increased autonomic arousal results in a narrowing of attentional focus (Wiegel, Scepkowski, & Barlow, 2007). The model outlines a process whereby a male focuses his attention on either erotic cues or nonerotic, self-evaluative cues (e.g., fears over performance). In both cases, autonomic arousal (due to sexual arousal in functional men and anxiety in dysfunctional men) creates a feedback loop, further narrowing the man’s attentional focus on the information to which he is already attending.

In sexually functional men, attention becomes increasingly focused on erotic information, creating a positive feedback loop. This feedback loop facilitates sexual response and erection, which in turn leads to approach behavior. In the case of sexually dysfunctional men, attention becomes more focused on nonsexual, task-irrelevant material, creating a negative feedback loop.

In clinical psychology, many problems, particularly with anxiety, are understood as malfunctioning feedback loops, where the person’s attempt to control their anxiety actually serve to maintain it in the long-term.

Interestingly, the article touches on the use of mindfulness meditation, known to cause attention changes and anxiety reduction, in the treatment of sexual problems.

For example, some preliminary studies have been completed by psychologist Lori Brotto and colleagues with promising results.

Link to ‘The Role of Attention in Sexual Arousal’.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

2009-03-27 Spike activity

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

Brain Hammer is on fire at the moment, lots of great posts on philosophy of mind.

Dodgy fMRI ‘lie detection’ evidence to be submitted as evidence in court, reports Frontal Cortex and piece from Wired. Next in court, lie detection through reading the clouds.

Alzheimer International has an awesome short promo video. In Spanish but you don’t need the language to understand it. Beautiful.

Daniel Dennett discusses the risk of robot war in a short video for Big Think.

Technology Review has an article on an exciting new technology to chart human activity, on city maps, on mobile devices, in real time.

The excellent BPS Research Digest is now on Twitter.

PsyBlog has an excellent, and beautifully illustrated, article on the ‘attention spotlight‘.

The miracle fruit, which changes our taste by interfering with tongue receptors, is discussed on CNN.

Eric Schwitzgebel has more on his compelling exploration over whether philosophical study influences real world behaviour, finding political scientists don’t go to vote differently from most other people.

A fantastic study on the genetics of white matter structure and link to IQ is discussed by NPR. Take the stuff about ‘thinking faster’ with a pinch of salt. They didn’t analyse speed of processing directly, they’re just inferring ‘speed’ from white matter integrity.

The Frontal Cortex has a great piece on male female differences, or the lack of them, in the psychology of decision-making.

Philosopher Alva Noe discusses his new book on consciousness and embodiment in an interview for Salon.

Wall Street Journal Blog reports that the Journal of the American Medical Association has created an inadequate new policy after the editors bullied a neuroanatomy professor who pointed out undeclared conflicts of interest in a paper they published. The Economist covers the fall out, patients’ group call for editors to resign.

“The medial prefrontal cortex exhibits money illusion” reports paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. I wondered where magicians get all those coins from.

The New York Times reports depression is linked to thinned brain cortex.

The American Psychiatric Association starts to remove the drug company teat from its mouth by halting industry-funded symposia and free lunches at its conferences – according to Medical News Today.

Where time becomes a loop

New Scientist has an excellent article on the neuroscience of deja vu, tackling how our brain can generate the anomalous feeling that we are reliving an event when it has happened for the first time.

The article tackles both experiments that try to trigger and measure deja vu in healthy participants, as well as in people who experience, sometimes permanent, deja vu because of epilepsy of brain injury.

There is one slightly awkward bit in the article however.

One possibility is that d√©j√† vu is based on a memory fragment that comes from something more subtle, such as similarity between the configuration or layout of two scenes. Say you are in the living room of a friend’s new house with the eerie feeling that you have been there before, yet knowing you can’t possibly. It could be just that the arrangement of furniture is similar to what you have seen before, suggests Cleary, so the sense of familiarity feels misplaced…

Although the familiarity idea appeals to many, Moulin, for one, is not convinced. His scepticism stems from a study of a person with epilepsy that he conducted with Akira O’Connor, now at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri. This 39-year-old man’s auras of d√©j√† vu were long-lasting enough to conduct experiments during them. The researchers reasoned that if familiarity is at the root of d√©j√† vu, they should be able to stop the experience in its tracks by distracting the man’s attention away from whatever scene he was looking at. However, when he looked away or focused on something different, his d√©j√† vu did not dissipate, and would follow his line of vision and his hearing, suggesting that real familiarity is not the key. The fact that an epilepsy aura can cause d√©j√† vu at all suggests that it is erroneous activity in a particular part of the brain that leads to misplaced feelings of familiarity, suggests Moulin.

This dichotomy is interesting because it implies that ‘brain activity’ and ‘misplaced familiarity’ are somehow separate, when we know each can just be descriptions of the same thing on different levels of interpretation.

However, it also implies that deja vu can only be caused in one particular way, when it could be caused by many different processes.

For example, think about trying to understand why someone got angry. We could be studying one person who gets angry when his football team loose, another when he is wrongly accused and another when he has a seizure in his limbic system.

You could use each one of these explanations to say that the other explanation is wrong if you believed that anger could only be caused in one way.

However, if we accept that it is an experience described at the level of psychology or behaviour there could be many ways of explaining it, and many paths that lead to the same experience, each cause does not cancel the other out.

Like deja vu and probably many other experiences, there are many causes and ways of explaining causes for the same phenomena.

Link to NewSci article ‘D√©j√† vu: Where fact meets fantasy’.

Much madness is divinest sense

I’ve just found this fantastic poem by 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson, where she discusses the link between conformity and madness.

Madness is defined partly in terms of what we consider normal and one of the great critiques of psychiatry is that it is used a method of control over those who do not conform to acting with the acceptable range of behaviour.

To what extent this is necessary or ethical for people who may not have good insight into their extreme states of mind has been one of the key debates in mental health for hundreds of years.

Dickinson describes the 19th method of control (“handled with a chain”) although I can’t say I ever seen an angry person declared sane, as we still have this implicit idea that being able to control your emotions when necessary or in your interest is a sign of sanity.

Dickinson’s poem:

Much madness is divinest sense
To a discerning eye;
Much sense the starkest madness.
’T is the majority
In this, as all, prevails.
Assent, and you are sane;
Demur, you ’re straightway dangerous,
And handled with a chain.

Dickinson is probably best known among cognitive scientists for her poem on the brain (‘Wider than the sky’), which is perhaps one of the most beautiful literary pieces on our second favourite organ, and widely quoted by researchers.

Link to Bartleby entry for ‘Much madness is divinest sense’.

Why children don’t make us happy (on average)

Photo by Flickr user carf. Click for sourceThe Psychologist has a counter-intuitive article on research that indicates, contrary to popular belief, that having children tends not to make people happier. In fact, parents reliably report that they feel less happy than in their child free days, and less happy when compared to childless couples.

Over the past few decades, social scientists like me have found consistent evidence that there is an almost zero association between having children and happiness. My analysis in the Journal of Socio-economics (Powdthavee, 2008) is a recent British example of parents and non-parents reporting the same levels of life satisfaction, on average.

But the warnings for prospective parents are even more stark than ‘it’s not going to make you happier’. Using data sets from Europe and America, numerous scholars have found some evidence that, on aggregate, parents often report statistically significantly lower levels of happiness (Alesina et al., 2004), life satisfaction (Di Tella et al., 2003), marital satisfaction (Twenge et al., 2003), and mental well-being (Clark & Oswald, 2002) compared with non-parents.

It’s an interesting article as it tackles not only why having children tends not to make us happier, but also why we think it does in cultures across the world.

Link to ‘Think having children will make you happy?’.

Full disclosure: I’m an occasional columnist and unpaid associate editor for The Psychologist.

Tonic to aphrodisiac to energy drink

Image from Wikipedia. Click for sourceThe journal Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine has an interesting open-access article about guarana, a stimulating Amazonian berry that was used by the local peoples but is now a global ingredient in energy drinks and ‘aphrodisiacs’.

It is often advertised as an ingredient in energy drinks to make them sound more ‘exotic’ or ‘natural’, but the kick is largely from caffeine, and it contains about four times as much as the coffee bean.

Indeed, the article notes that guarana seeds contain more caffeine than any other plant in the world.

Guaran√° (Paullinia cupana H.B.K., Sapindaceae) is a rainforest vine that was domesticated in the Amazon for its caffeine-rich fruits. Guaran√° has long been used as a tonic and to treat various disorders in Brazil and abroad and became a national soda in Brazil about a century ago. In the last two decades or so, guaran√° has emerged as a key ingredient in various ‘sports’ and energy drinks as well as concoctions that allegedly boost one’s libido.

For some time, guaran√°’s high caffeine content was thought to be a detriment because of health concerns about excessive intake of caffeine-rich drinks. But it is precisely this quality, and the fact that it has a mysterious name and comes from an exotic land, that has propelled guaran√° into a global beverage.

The article is fairly brief but is a great guide to this curious plant that is becoming increasingly used as a pick-me-up ingredient.

Link to full-text of article.
Link to PubMed entry for same.