2009-05-22 Spike activity

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

Neuroanthropology has a great article on identity formation and internet booze show-offs. A neat bit of online anthropology.

Psychopathic traits in children associated with severe deficits in emotional empathy across all ages for males, but not females, finds new study published in Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

Scientific American has a short but interesting piece on how hand movements during discussion may aid cognition. I would do the ‘sounds a bit handy wavy’ joke but I suspect I’ve been beaten to the punch.

Actually, I’d just like to apologise for the pun in the line above while I have the chance.

Science Daily reports that intelligence and physical attractiveness are both related to income. Which explains a lot about my current situation, actually.

Doctor saves young lad’s life by drilling into his brain with a power drill, reports the Aussie News site. The embedded video seems to have been made by The Onion though.

PsyBlog rounds up its recent excellent series on functions and dysfunctions of attention in one handy place.

Psychiatrist bemoans the ignorance about the benefits of lithium treatment among junior doctors in The New York Times.

Science News reports another in a long line of studies suggesting the benefits of meditation. In this case, that it’s linked to increased grey matter in key emotion areas.

Lacan’s florid and Byzantine model of the unconscious is covered in two posts by Somatosphere.

The Harvard Gazette reports on ‘super-recognisers‘, people with exceptionally good face recognition abilities. See this 1999 study for a report of a super-over-recogniser.

Musicians have better memory not just for music, but words and pictures too, according to a study expertly covered by Cognitive Daily.

The Economist looks at a recent study that finds that living abroad can increase creativity.

Risk of violence in schizophrenia almost entirely explained by illicit drug use, finds new study reported on by PhysOrg.

Science News reports that people who have a higher alcohol tolerance are more likely to become alcoholic.

The summer fundraiser for Phil Dawdy, the world’s only publicly funded psychiatry-dedicated investigative reporter kicks off on Furious Seasons.

The New York Times has an excellent piece on the ‘super memory club‘, people who live beyond the age of 90 with sharp-as-a-razor cognitive abilities.

A study investigates the typical psychological traits of people who believe in conspiracy theories, which is covered by Science News.

Science Daily reports on a freaky ass robot intended to improve social skills, presumably built by researchers who have spent too much time in the lab.

The excellent Situationst blog has a must-read piece on the controversy over implicit bias, one of the most heavily researched aspects of our unconscious.

To the bunkers! Time magazine reports that replicant Ray Kurzweil is still at large.

On a wing and a prayer

Photo by Flickr user Rickydavid. Click for sourceNPR has an interesting audio series on brain function, spiritual experience and the growing field of neurotheology. It’s takes a fairly broad brush approach and has audio, video, an interactive thingy, and plenty of supporting material.

You might get slightly annoyed at some of the section titles (‘The God Chemical’, ‘The God Spot’) but there are some great little audio vignettes in there where people describe their spiritual experiences, whether they’ve been caused by prayer or even psilocybin – the main active ingredient in magic mushrooms.

The project borders on the edge of being a bit hokey at times but it saved by the commentary and interviews with neuroscientists working in the area.

There’s also a good article in June’s Scientific American entitled ‘Why People Believe Invisible Agents Control the World’ which looks at the origin of belief in angels, demons, spirits and the like.

Link to NPR interactive brain / god thingy.
Link to ‘Why People Believe Invisible Agents Control the World’.

Bolt from the blue triggers bizzare hallucinations

I just found this amazing case study of a female mountaineer who was struck by lighting while climbing the Latemar Peak in the Alps and subsequently experienced a series of unusual symptoms.

She was taken off the mountain by helicopter and was so agitated in hospital she had to be put under for three days. On wakening she was having some remarkably bizarre hallucinations.

On 3 September 2004, a 23-year-old healthy woman was hit by a “bolt from the blue” while climbing on a ridge at 2750 m shortly before reaching the Latemar Peak in the Alps from a southern direction. The accompanying climber was about 50 m from the casualty, and reported that at the time of the incident (about 15:00 Central European Time (CET)), the sky was clear and sunny. He heard cracking thunder and was thrown to the ground by a massive shock wave.

The patient was also thrown to the ground, lost consciousness for a few seconds and was confused afterwards. She had no vision, dazzled by a bright light. On arrival of the air rescue team, her Glasgow Coma Scale was 9. She was hospitalised and because of extreme agitation, set to a drug-induced coma for 3 days. The initial CT scan showed bilateral occipital oedema, but no intracerebral or subarachnoid haemorrhages or skull fractures…

In the evening, still awake and 6 h after extubation, strange phenomena occurred. These exclusively visual sensations consisted of unknown people, animals and objects acting in different scenes, like a movie. None of the persons or scenes was familiar to her and she was severely frightened by their occurrence. For example, an old lady was sitting on a ribbed radiator, then becoming thinner and thinner, and finally vanishing through the slots of the radiator.

Later, on her left side a cowboy riding on a horse came from the distance. As he approached her, he tried to shoot her, making her feel defenceless because she could not move or shout for help. In another scene, two male doctors, one fair and one dark haired, and a woman, all with strange metal glasses and unnatural brownish-red faces, were tanning in front of a sunbed, then having sexual intercourse and afterwards trying to draw blood from her.

These formed hallucinations, partially with delusional character, were in the whole visual field and constantly present for approximately 20 h. At the time of appearance, the patient was not sure whether they were real or unreal, but did not report them for fear that she might be considered insane.

Link to PubMed entry for case study.

Tall people have slower nerves, sensory lag

Frontal Cortex has alerted me to an interesting NPR radio segment on the fact that taller people have longer nerves and so will have slight sensory lag in comparison to shorter people.

It prompted me to look up some of the research in the area and I found an eye-opening study looking at a range of factors that can effect nerve conduction.

The researchers found that, after controlling for sex, age and temperature (it turns out your nerves are quicker when you’re warm), there was a 0.27 m/s decrease in the conduction speed of one of the leg nerves (the sural nerve) for each additional centimetre in height.

This is interesting because it is not only a reduction in time because the same speed signal is travelling a longer distance, but it actually seems that nerve signals travel more slower through longer nerves as well, owing to the fact the nerves get thinner the longer they are.

The radio segment suggests that taller people don’t experience the world as any different, because our brains try to make everything seem ‘in sync’.

In fact, this is a problem for everyone, no matter how tall we are, because we know we can update our actions quicker than the sensory signals can reach the brain.

In one of the most popular theories that attempt to explain this it it thought that we have an internal simulation of our actions that we can use to make fast decisions which is updated as and when sensory information arrives.

However, I tried to find some studies on whether taller people actually have slower reaction times, but I couldn’t find any, so let me know if you do.

Link to NPR ‘The Secret Advantage Of Being Short’.
Link to study on nerve conduction factors.
Link to DOI entry for same.

I think I’m losing my walnuts

This page on herbal treatments for amnesia made me laugh out loud:

Amnesia is usually caused by some traumatic event, like an accident or a blow to the head. It may also be caused by taking certain sedatives. Some cases are caused by disease like Alzheimer’s, which directly affects the brain, or because of poor brain circulation. A poor memory may also be exacerbated by a lack of stimulation. Some cases of amnesia are also psychologically based, caused by neurosis or anxiety…

Herbal Treatments

Rosemary ‚Äì taking rosemary tea may help improve the memory as well as support the entire body’s systems. This tea can be taken as needed for forgetfulness…

Walnut ‚Äì this proven memory booster is a good natural remedy for loss of memory. Eating walnuts on a regular basis will help recover memories…

Black pepper ‚Äì mix five finely ground black pepper seeds with a teaspoon of honey and take it twice per day to help the memory and to improve amnesia…

Rosemary, Walnut and Black Pepper? There’s probably some vegan restaurant in San Francisco that’s cured hundreds by now.

Link to herbal cures for amnesia page.

Send a signal to table three please

Photo by Flickr user Rob Lee. Click for sourceThere’s a brief but interesting article in The New York Times about how we use consumer goods to ‘send signals’ to other people. It illustrates this with a fantastic example and then misses the point. Luckily another recent study on unconscious influences on doctors hits the punchline.

The idea that each product has a meaning and that we use our purchases to construct an identity from the ‘language of brands’ is not completely new, indeed, we’ve covered it before on Mind Hacks, but there’s a nice illustration of this in the most recent NYT article:

Most of us will insist there are other reasons for going to Harvard or buying a BMW or an iPhone — and there are, of course. The education and the products can yield many kinds of rewards. But Dr. Miller says that much of the pleasure we derive from products stems from the unconscious instinct that they will either enhance or signal our fitness by demonstrating intelligence or some of the Big Five personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness, stability and extraversion.

In a series of experiments [pdf], Dr. Miller and other researchers found that people were more likely to expend money and effort on products and activities if they were first primed with photographs of the opposite sex or stories about dating.

After this priming, men were more willing to splurge on designer sunglasses, expensive watches and European vacations. Women became more willing to do volunteer work and perform other acts of conspicuous charity — a signal of high conscientiousness and agreeableness, like demonstrating your concern for third world farmers by spending extra for Starbucks’s “fair trade” coffee.

Unfortunately, the article then goes on to say that we may do these things because we try and send signals to others but that people don’t notice because who can really remember whether the guy we met the other day was wearing a designer shirt or not?

The reason this misses the point is that the influence can be both dramatic and entirely conscious as nicely demonstrated by a recent study on doctors that was also reported in the NYT and, ironically, seems to have done unnoticed.

Researchers asked medical students about their attitudes to two blockbuster anticholesterol drugs: Lipitor and it’s competitor, Zocor.

The students were tested in two groups, but in one the researchers incidentally used Lipitor branded pens, clipboards and the like – the typical sort of banal junk that drug companies leave scattered around a typical doctor’s office.

The researchers then tested unconscious associations using the IAT and found that students in the condition where researchers used the branded promotional material had much stronger positive associations with Lipitor.

Interestingly, the students reported no explicit preference for the drug, suggesting that the effect of the branding slipped in under the radar of consciousness. The message got through despite it being not being held as a conscious memory.

Social psychology has taught us that we are more much complex than we can understand at any one moment, but many of those messages still get through.

Link to NYT piece on consumer signalling.
Link to NYT piece on small gifts influencing doctors.
Link to full-text of study.

Medical fetish lacks passion

Dr Petra has alerted me to an excellent article in The Boston Globe about a new campaign to get the ‘doctor out of the bedroom’ and de-medicalise sex and sexual problems.

The piece is particularly focused on how sex is being increasingly portrayed in terms of physiology, bodily mechanics and disorders while ignoring the role of psychology and relationships.

This is particularly pertinent at the moment, owing to millions being pumped into the so-far fruitless search for a ‘female Viagra’ intended to increase sexual desire in women.

Eager to replicate the outsized profits that erectile dysfunction drugs have brought, several pharmaceutical firms are in hot pursuit of a women’s version. Because female sexual desire is far less straightforward than men’s, success has been thus far elusive, but there are several candidates in the pipeline. Whether any of them will work well enough – and without significant adverse health effects – to gain FDA approval remains to be seen. (In Europe, a testosterone patch to boost sex drive in post-menopausal women has been approved, but its efficacy is debated.)

For critics, the problem is not whether a women’s Viagra will work, but what happens if it does. They argue that the very concept of “female sexual dysfunction,” the condition that such drugs would be targeting, is not an actual medical condition so much as a creation of the pharmaceutical industry. While surveys show that 20 to 40 percent of women describe themselves as having a lack of interest in sex (the higher figures tend to come from studies funded by pharmaceutical companies), only about a quarter of those women describe that as a problem. It’s hard to call something a disorder or a dysfunction, some sex researchers argue, if the people who experience it don’t tend to see it that way.

The piece looks at a group of sex researchers and clinicians who are arguing for a ‘New View’ that doesn’t think of all sexual difficulties as medical disorders and focuses upon the important role of psychology in sexual arousal, motivation and exploration.

As Petra notes, it’s unusual to see a mainstream article straying from the now well-worn path so get it while it’s, er, hot.

Link to Boston Globe article ‘The New Romantics’.
Link to Dr Petra on the piece.

Numbers up for dopamine myth

Photo by Flickr user the underlord. Click for sourceI’ve just read an elegant study on the neuroscience of gambling that wonderfully illustrates why the dopamine equals pleasure myth, so often thrown around by the media, is too tired to be useful.

I have seen countless news reports that claim that some activity or other causes dopamine to be released; that dopamine is the ‘pleasure chemical’; and that it’s also released by ‘drugs’, ‘sex’, ‘gambling’ and ‘chocolate’ (a quartet I have named the four dopamen of the neurocalypse).

Normally, this breathless attempt to make something sound sexy is followed by a slightly sinister bit where they say that this dopamine activity is also likely to make it ‘addictive’.

Dopamine is involved in drug addiction, but the over-extended clich√© is drivel, not least because the dopamine neurons start firing in the nucleus accumbens when any reward is expected. Whether it be heroin, a glass of water when you’re thirsty, or your favourite book on calculus – if that’s what floats your boat.

And herein lies the subtlety. Our best evidence tells us that while the dopamine system has many functions, it’s not really a reward system – it’s most likely a reward expectancy system of some kind. Theories of exactly what form this takes differ in the details, but it certainly seems to be active when we’re expecting a reward, whether it actually turns up or not.

The study on gambling, led by neuroscientist Luke Clark, demonstrates that this is true even when the actual experience is unpleasant.

The research team looked at the activity differences in the dopamine-rich mesolimbic system in a gambling task – comparing wins, misses and near-misses. Near-misses were where the reels on a slot machine just missed the payout.

It turns out that near-misses activate almost exactly the same dopamine circuits as actual wins – but here’s the punchline – they were subjectively experienced as the most unpleasant outcome, even worse than total misses.

In other words, the dopamine system was firing like a rocket display but the experience was awful.

Interestingly, although near-misses were experienced as aversive they increased the desire to play the game but only when the person had some perception of control, by choosing what the ‘lucky’ picture would be.

Of course, like choosing ‘heads or tails’, it’s only an illusion of control because the outcome is random anyway.

But because of reward expectancy the dopamine system is most active when we think we can control the outcome and modify our strategy next time, even if that sense of control is completely false.

Link to full-text of study on near-misses and dopamine.
Link to good coverage of study from Quirks and Quarks.

The psychology of being scammed

Photo by Flickr user wootam!. Click for sourceI’m just reading a fascinating report on the psychology of why people fall for scams, commissioned by the UK government’s Office of Fair Trading and created by Exeter University’s psychology department.

It’s a 260 page monster, so is not exactly bed time reading, but was drawn from in-depth interviews from scam victims, examination of scam material, two questionnaire studies and a behavioural experiment.

Here’s some of the punchlines grabbed from the executive summary. The report concluded that the most successful scams involve:

Appeals to trust and authority: people tend to obey authorities so scammers use, and victims fall for, cues that make the offer look like a legitimate one being made by a reliable official institution or established reputable business.

Visceral triggers: scams exploit basic human desires and needs – such as greed, fear, avoidance of physical pain, or the desire to be liked – in order to provoke intuitive reactions and reduce the motivation of people to process the content of the scam message deeply.

Scarcity cues. Scams are often personalised to create the impression that the offer is unique to the recipient.

Induction of behavioural commitment. Scammers ask their potential victims to make small steps of compliance to draw them in, and thereby cause victims to feel committed to continue sending money.

The disproportionate relation between the size of the alleged reward and the cost of trying to obtain it. Scam victims are led to focus on the alleged big prize or reward in comparison to the relatively small amount of money they have to send in order to obtain their windfall.

Lack of emotional control. Compared to non-victims, scam victims report being less able to regulate and resist emotions associated with scam offers. They seem to be unduly open to persuasion, or perhaps unduly undiscriminating about who they allow to persuade them.

And here’s a couple of counter-intuitive kickers:

Scam victims often have better than average background knowledge in the area of the scam content. For example, it seems that people with experience of playing legitimate prize draws and lotteries are more likely to fall for a scam in this area than people with less knowledge and experience in this field. This also applies to those with some knowledge of investments. Such knowledge can increase rather than decrease the risk of becoming a victim.

Scam victims report that they put more cognitive effort into analysing scam content than non-victims. This contradicts the intuitive suggestion that people fall victim to scams because they invest too little cognitive energy in investigating their content, and thus overlook potential information that might betray the scam.

Interesting, people who fall for scams often have a feeling that it’s dodgy. The report suggests we trust our gut instincts. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

We like to think that only other people fall for scams, but as I’m working my way through the report it’s becoming clear that those things that we think make us resistant to scams (a keen analytical mind) are not what help us avoid being a victim.

A really fascinating read and a great example of applied psychology.

Link to Office of Fair Trading report page and download.

Grand Theft Neuro

I like Susan Greenfield, a neuroscientist and director of science education charity the Royal Institution, but recently she’s lost the plot. Bad Science picks up on her recent crusade to warn everyone about the potentially ‘brain damaging’ effects of computer games and the internet in the face of absent or contradictory evidence.

And when I say I like her, I genuinely do. Not least because she wrote Brain Story probably the finest neuroscience documentary series ever produced, presented the Christmas Lectures in a red leather cat suit, and replied to me when I was a lowly MSc student after I emailed her following a talk she did on consciousness.

But she’s got a bee in her bonnet about computers and the internet, and keeps making headline grabbing pronouncements that are completely divorced from the actual science.

She keeps warning about the ‘neurological dangers’ of electronic media, saying that it might be causing ADHD, obesity, social impairments and the like, despite not citing a single study on the topic.

In this month’s Wired UK she argues that the credit crunch could have been caused by bankers brain damaged by computer games they played as children.

Her arguments almost always take a similar form: computers are about the “here and now” (whatever that means), frontal lobe damage makes people impulsive, children play computer games and experience affects brain development, therefore children could be being brain damaged by computer games.

Apart from the obvious problem with the logic, studies actually on computer use and attention, or computer use and social functioning actually tend to show that people who have experience of electronic media generally show slight benefits in these areas.

This evidence seems to have entirely passed her by. In her chapters on the ‘dangers’ of electronic media in her (surprise, surprise) recently published new book ID: The Quest for Identity in the 21st Century she cites not a single study that shows a negative effect of computers on the mind or brain.

And in fact, Greenfield has promoted, wait for it, some ‘brain training’ software that she claimed improved mental performance.

Now, I’ve got no problem having wacky theories, or even reasonable fears, but if you’re the head of a science education charity you should at least read the literature. Oh, and refrain from promoting scare stories.

Link to Bad Science on Greenfield digital worry mongering.

2009-05-15 Spike activity

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

The BPS Research Digest covers a study finding that people judged as likeable in the flesh also make good first impressions online.

A short but sweet Jonah Lehrer article on the neuroscience of creativity is published in Seed Magazine.

Dr Petra has more on the recent not very convincing ’emotional intelligence boosts female orgasms’ story that got the media’s knickers in a twist.

Will <a href="http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20227083.700-will-designer-brains-divide-humanity.html
“>designer brains divide humanity? asks New Scientist who seem to like sensationalist headlines about cognitive enhancement.

Furious Seasons asks whether suicidality was covered-up in the landmark STAR*D depression study? A fantastic bit of investigative journalism.

Cruelty and spitefulness are put under the evolutionary spotlight by New Scientist.

Neuronarrative has a good piece on belief in the paranormal and susceptibility to the conjunction fallacy. Interesting in light of Jung’s concept of synchronicity.

Halle Berry neurons, visual recognition and sparse coding are discussed by Discover Magazine.

New Scientist has an almost-there article on how beliefs affect how we experience illness.

How mediation improves attention. PsyBlog continues riffing on it’s attention theme.

Science News reports that school-age lead exposure is most harmful to IQ.

Summertime blues. The Neurocritic covers a study finding that suicide rates in Greenland are highest during the summer.

The New York Times has an excellent piece on ‘high functioning alcoholics‘.

A difference between child and adult brains is a switch from local to distributed organisation, suggests a new study in PLoS Computational Biology.

Dr Shock has a good summary of a recent review article on the neuroscience of exercise.

Smiles in yearbook photos predict marriage success many years later according to a study covered in The Economist.

Neurophilosophy covers a fascinating study on how music affects how we perceive facial expressions.

Walk on the wild side

Frontier Psychiatrist has discovered an account of a curious incident where The Velvet Undergound played to the New York society for clinical psychiatry who had convened a high class dinner to discuss creativity.

But the 70s art rockers had the last laugh when they blasted the audience with distorted noise and bizarre questions, apparently as revenge for Lou Reed’s electric shock treatment he’d been given as a teen to ‘cure’ him of homosexuality.

The account is apparently give in an interview with John Cale, published in this week’s Guardian (although I’m damned if I can find it):

The second the main course was served, the Velvets started to blast and Nico started to wail. Gerard and Edie jumped up on the stage and started dancing, and the doors flew open and Jonas Mekas and Barbara Rubin with her crew of people with camera and bright lights came storming into the room and rushing over to all the psychiatrists asking them things like:

What does her vagina feel like?
Is his penis big enough? Do you eat her out?
Why are you getting embarrassed? You’re a psychiatrist; you’re not supposed to get embarrassed…

There’s plenty interesting material in Lou Reed’s songs for those interested in the mind and brain.

Of course, the heroin inspired lyrics of Perfect Day, but also the character sketches in Walk on the Wild Side:

Jackie is just speeding away
Thought she was James Dean for a day
Then I guess she had to crash
Valium would have helped that dash

She said, hey babe, take a walk on the wild side

‘Jackie’ refers to Jackie Curtis one of the gender-bending artists in Warhol’s The Factory. She was a enthusiastic drug user and became psychotic owing to her amphetamine use, apparently genuinely thinking she was James Dean at one point.

Valium, a long-acting anxiety-reducing and sleep-inducing benzodiazepine could have helped, but cutting out the speed probably would have been a better option. Curtis eventually died of a drug overdose in 1985.

There’s a fantastic documentary on Curtis’ life and art called Superstar in a Housedress.

And if you’re interested in the history of rock n’ roll psychiatry fusions, see one of our previous posts on The Cramps playing Napa State Mental Hospital.

Link to Frontier Psychiatrist on New York psychiatry rock chaos incident.

US military pours millions into ‘EEG telepathy’

I get the feeling that DARPA, the American military research agency, only ever select their research projects from sci-fi comics.

Wired reports that their latest multi-million dollar project is to create an EEG-based ‘telepathy’ communication system for the battlefield solder:

Forget the battlefield radios, the combat PDAs or even infantry hand signals. When the soldiers of the future want to communicate, they’ll read each other’s minds.

At least, that’s the hope of researchers at the Pentagon’s mad-science division Darpa. The agency’s budget for the next fiscal year includes $4 million to start up a program called Silent Talk. The goal is to “allow user-to-user communication on the battlefield without the use of vocalized speech through analysis of neural signals.” That’s on top of the $4 million the Army handed out last year to the University of California to investigate the potential for computer-mediated telepathy.

Before being vocalized, speech exists as word-specific neural signals in the mind. Darpa wants to develop technology that would detect these signals of “pre-speech,” analyze them, and then transmit the statement to an intended interlocutor. Darpa plans to use EEG to read the brain waves. It’s a technique they’re also testing in a project to devise mind-reading binoculars that alert soldiers to threats faster the conscious mind can process them.

It’s all getting a bit Rogue Trooper isn’t it?

Link to Wired on DARPA barmyness.

Visual Illusion Contest 2009 winners

The results of the annual visual illusion contest have just been announced and the 2009 winner is a doozy.

Like all the best visual illusions it’s conceptually simple but perceptually striking. In this case a falling ball seems to drop vertically when you look straight at it but seems to glide away at an angle when you see it in your peripheral vision.

Rather nicely, you can switch between the two effects just by looking back and forth. Make sure you click on the ‘Reversal’ button as well for a free-wheeling alternative version.

Visual illusions: the scooby snacks of perceptual psychology.

Link to Visual Illusion Contest website (via @mocost).

The Dark End of the Street

I’ve just found Steven Okazaki’s 1999 documentary Black Tar Heroin: The Dark End of the Street on YouTube that follows the chaotic lives of heroin addicts in Southern California.

It’s not polemic and tries as much as possible to simply document, but it’s a dark journey into the void with many of the people involved in the 1990s heroin scene.

It’s not easy to watch, but it is a rare insight into the lives of people who are often hidden in plain sight.

Link to Part 1 (links to other parts on right).