The hunting of the SNARC

Cognitive Daily has an excellent article on the fascinating SNARC effect, where we react quicker to numbers with the hand that most approximates their position in space as if they were written out in front of us.

In other words, people react faster with their left hand for small numbers, and faster with their right hand for big numbers. This suggest that our number concepts are mapped partly mapped out in space.

Photos by Flickr user James Cridland. Click for source

Of course, this has largely been tested on English readers, who all read left to right, but Cognitive Daily reports on some new research that tested Arabic readers, for whom larger numbers would be on the left, and found that they show show the same effect, but in reverse.

Finally, the study investigated the effect on Israeli students, who know both left-right and right-left texts, as they learn both English and Arabic, and found that the effect didn’t appear.

In case you’re wondering, SNARC stands for the rather unwieldy phrase ‘spatial numerical association of response codes’.

While we’re on the subject of the excellent Cognitive Daily blog, you may be interested to know that they’ve started a new in-depth feature called ‘Cognitive Monthly‘ which you can download to your computer, iPhone or Kindle reader for $2.

They kindly sent me a free copy of the first edition, on the psychology of film and theatre, and I can heartily recommend it as excellent.

Link to post on culture and the SNARC effect.
Link to Cognitive Monthly details.

Mad pride of place

Newsweek has a good article on the ‘Mad Pride’ movement in the US, a British import where those diagnosed with mental illness reject the medical view of their experiences and decide to live with ‘extreme mental states’ both good and bad.

It makes a good complement to last year’s New York Times article on ‘mad pride’ although this focuses on the impressive The Icarus Project, a group of activists who campaign for mental health reform and work to support those who decide to forego psychiatric treatment.

After all, aren’t we all more odd than we are normal? And aren’t so many of us one bad experience away from a mental-health diagnosis that could potentially limit us? Aren’t “normal” minds now struggling with questions of competence, consistency or sincerity? Icarus is likewise asking why we are so keen to correct every little deficit‚Äîit argues that we instead need to embrace the range of human existence.

While some critics might view Icaristas as irresponsible, their skepticism about drugs isn’t entirely unfounded. Lately, a number of antipsychotic drugs have been found to cause some troubling side effects.

There are, of course, questions as to whether mad pride and Icarus have gone too far. While to his knowledge no members have gravely harmed themselves (or others), Hall acknowledges that not everyone can handle the Icarus approach. “People can go too fast and get too excited about not using medication, and we warn people against throwing their meds away, being too ambitious and doing it alone,” he says.

Link to Newsweek article ‘Listening to Madness’.

Help, I’m a prisoner in a brain fiction factory

The Sunday Times has one of the most gullible neuroscience articles I’ve read in a very long time. While most mainstream press articles are happy to make a hash of one study at a time, this manages to misinterpret virtually every headline-grabbing neuroscience experiment from the last couple of years.

The article claims that neuroscience is much more advanced than we realise and sets out to demonstrate this by over-interpreting recent discoveries, padding the article with false information, and using fallacies to discuss the implications.

It’s full of howlers:

Then, in the 1980s, a range of new technologies began to emerge, including positron emission tomography (Pet) computerised axial tomography (Cat) and, perhaps the best known, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

PET was invented in the late 1960s / early 1970s, CAT was invented at virtually the same time, and fMRI was invented in the 1990s.

In a simplistic example, a scientist might show a picture of a scantily-clad woman to a man, and then see the parts of the brain associated with sex and lust lighting up as they consumed more oxygen. Meanwhile, the areas linked to reasoning and morality might go dark as they rapidly shut down.

I’m not sure whether “simplistic example” is a malapropism, a Freudian slip, or a grim admission of the the nonsense to come. Not only is the description of the technique completely misleading (all functional scans are comparisons between different situations, not just a measure of one reaction) but the example is completely bizarre.

The piece then goes on to suggest that neuromarketing gives a better idea how to market products (not one example to date), that brain scanning is a form of advanced lie detection (so advanced it doesn’t work very well) and that studies on the neuroscience of criminal behaviour (like writing crap brain articles) “suggest it could be wrong to hold such people responsible for their actions” (you wish).

I can’t face going through the rest of the examples because I keep weeping over my computer, but look out for the ‘this complex human attribute = this one brain area’ drivel, a profound confusion where brain activation is used to justify a behavioural or psychological conclusion, and the invention of the term “brainjacking” which is reported as if it’s already used.

I also noted that one of the quotes has just been lifted from other news reports.

Perhaps its only redeeming feature is that it could be a useful teaching aid if you’re giving a class on how neuroscience gets misrepresented in the media because it has at least virtually every type of slip-up in one handy place.

Link to ropey Sunday Times article.

Art and mental illness at the birth of modern psychiatry

If you’re in London before the end of June, make sure you drop into the Wellcome Collection museum which has two fantastic free exhibitions on the art and history of mental illness. If you can’t make it, the exhibition website is excellent and has video and images from the shows.

The first exhibition, Madness and Modernity, explores mental illness and the visual arts in Vienna in 1900, then the epicentre of the medical world.

Modern psychiatry was beginning to emerge and the ‘mad doctors’ employed some of Europe’s most pioneering architects to create asylums that were intended to be therapeutic by their very design.

For example, this poster is for one of the newly developed asylums of the time, as well as being beautiful in itself. The image to the right is the somewhat more intimidating ‘Tower of Fools’.

Also the use of art as a tool to document and disseminate ideas about mental illness became popular, as did an interest in the ‘art of the insane’.

There’s a video on the site which is a wonderful summary of the exhibition as well as being a great standalone discussion of how art and psychiatry influenced each other in the heady culture of 1900s Vienna.

The other exhibition is a series of diary paintings made by artist Bobby Baker from 1997-2008, as she charted her experience of mental illness and treatment. They’re only really done justice when seen as larger pictures, and the online gallery will give you a feel for their impact and humour.

A couple of things you can’t get online are the free events that accompany the exhibitions, which sadly seem all booked up, and the bookshop, which has a special section where they’ve collected (curated?) a great collection of books on almost everything to do with madness, the mind, art and history.

If you’re just visiting the website, you may need to do a bit of clicking around to see the best of the online material, but it’s well worth the visit. Watch the video if nothing else.

Link to Wellcome Collection Art and Mental Illness website.

Full Disclosure: I’m an occasional grant reviewer for the Wellcome Arts scheme, but I’m not associated with this exhibition in any way.

Tell me about your mother superior

I found this fascinating aside in a 1969 article on ‘Psychiatric Illness in the Clergy’ about a group of monks who underwent psychoanalysis, causing two thirds of them to realise they were “called to married life”.

The Pope immediately banned psychoanalysis from the priesthood as a result:

[Bovet] suggests that many clergy would benefit from psychotherapy during their training. This was attempted in Mexico when in 1961 a group of 60 Benedictine monks underwent group and individual psychoanalysis. However, of the original 60 monks taking part in this experiment, only 20 are still monks ; and of the 40 who have left the monastery it is reported that “there are some who realized that they were really called to married life” (Lemercier, 1965).

The Papal Court answered this “threat” the following decree: “You will not maintain in public or in private psychoanalytical theory or practice, under threat of suspension as a priest, and you are rigorously forbidden under threat of destitution to suggest to candidates for the monastery that they should undergo psychoanalysis” (Singleton, 1967).

This would not be the last time psychotherapists cause stirrings in the faithful.

The book Lesbian Nuns, Breaking Silence contains a chapter by the former Sister Mary Benjamin of the Immaculate Heart of Mary convent in California.

Psychotherapists Carl Rogers and William Coulson arranged for the nuns to take part in encounter group, essentially a form of fashionable 60s group psychotherapy aimed at well people rather than patients for ‘personal growth’.

The effect was disastrous for the convent, with hundreds of the nuns defaulting on their vows, and several, including Sister Mary Benjamin, discovering repressed lesbian desires.

The convent eventually collapsed and was closed in 1970.

There’s a brief online article that also recounts this story and I was intrigued to see a footnote at the end:

Having abandoned his once lucrative career, Dr. William Coulson now lectures to Catholic and Protestant groups on the dangers of psychotherapy, with a particular emphasis upon the “encounter group” dynamic.

There’s a whole novel right there in that footnote.

Link to summary of ‘Psychiatric Illness in the Clergy’.
Link to online article about Dr William Coulson.

Between a rock and a kind face

Newsweek has an article on human good and evil that trots out the usual Milgram-fuelled moral pondering before morphing into a fascinating piece on the psychology of compassion.

The most interesting part is where it discusses which psychological traits predict compassionate behaviour:

A specific cluster of emotional traits seem to go along with compassion. People who are emotionally secure, who view life’s problems as manageable and who feel safe and protected tend to show the greatest empathy for strangers and to act altruistically and compassionately.

In contrast, people who are anxious about their own worth and competence, who avoid close relationships or are clingy in those they have tend to be less altruistic and less generous, psychologists Philip Shaver of the University of California, Davis, and Mario Mikulincer of Bar-Ilan University in Israel have found in a series of experiments. Such people are less likely to care for the elderly, for instance, or to donate blood.

The Newsweek article labels these characteristics ’emotional traits’ but the researchers are actually using the psychological concept of attachment – an approach to relationships and human interaction style that can be seen throughout the lifespan.

The same research team has completed studies showing that increasing people’s perceived security increases altruistic behaviour.

Link to Newsweek on ‘Adventures In Good And Evil’.

2009-05-01 Spike activity

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

Wired has a great piece on illusionist Teller and how stage magic could help cognitive science.

Some fascinating research on the use of video to give insight to brain injured patients unaware of their own paralysis is covered by BPS Research Digest.

The Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry has a case report on restless legs syndrome affecting a phantom limb.

The curious link between the urban environment and schizophrenia is explored by Frontier Psychiatrist.

Channel N finds a video lecture on mental illness and creativity by Kay Redfield Jamison.

Funny or offensive? Probably both. The Onion has a satirical news report on World’s Oldest Neurosurgeon Turns 100.

BoingBoing finds an usual vintage comic book series entitled ‘The Strange World of your Dreams‘.

In 2001, all illicit drugs were decriminalised for personal use in Portugal. Time magazine investigates what happened, it turns out drug use has fallen.

The New York Times has an extended article on the meeting of Zen Buddhism and Freudian psychoanalysis.

A wonderful neurophilosophical quote from Melville’s Moby Dick is captured by Brain Hammer.

Cognition and Culture reviews new book ‘The Art Instinct’.

Do ‘brain training‘ games really work? asks ScAim. The answer, a bit.

PsyBlog has an excellent post on the psychology of consumption.

The media creates concept of media psychologists, encourages them to be unethical, then acts amazed when they are, says Dr Petra.

Wired talks to psychologist Craig Haney about the mental impact of solitary confinement.

Important new research on the genetics of autism spectrum is covered by Not Exactly Rocket Science.

BBC News reports on musician Prince discussing his childhood epilepsy and how he revealed it in a coded message on The Love Symbol Album.