Weird Al’s brain explodes

Comedian “Weird Al” Yankovic has made a 3D movie about the brain that stars himself and will premier at the Orange County Fare in California. I didn’t think I’d ever find myself writing that sentence, but life is strange like that.

According to the spiffy website, the 10 minute movie is intended to be both entertaining and educational, and from the clips on the website, it looks kinda loca. Click on ‘Adventures of Al’s Brain’ for a taste of the chaos.

It’s interesting how neuroscience has made its way so firmly into popular culture. While walking into the tube at London’s Euston station the other day, I noticed a huge advert for a new Mercedes sports car with the slogan “Warning: May increase serotonin levels” emblazoned across it.

Presumably they’re relying on the ‘antidepressant boosts serotonin’ angle without realising that SSRIs more reliably produce sexual dysfunction than happiness.

I like to think that a bit of their unconscious was shining through.

Link to Al’s Brain website with video and merchandise (via @mocost).

I’ve hidden the drugs inside this political football

The BBC World Service broadcast an interesting programme on the effect of Portugal’s 2001 policy to decriminalise all illicit drugs, from cannabis to heroin. Far from what you might expect from your local politician, the effect was rather positive. As also recounted in a recent article for Time magazine, drug use has actually dropped.

Recreational drugs are a fascinating area precisely because the political view and the health view are so completely out of whack in most countries.

As we have reported several times in the past, the UK has a regular public ritual where the government commissions a panel of scientists to report on the health dangers of drugs, and then completely ignores them when they point out that the current policies make no sense and don’t reflect the actual impact of the substances.

This week’s Bad Science column has another example, where a now leaked 1991 World Health Organisation report [pdf] on the impact of cocaine was suppressed by the US government because it pointed out that it’s not as intrinsically poisonous to health or society as it’s made out by drug war propaganda.

This political double book-keeping is probably why the severity of drug laws around the world have virtually no relation to the drug use of the population.

I’m morbidly curious about how we’ve arrived at this odd situation where one of the culturally universal human activities, modifying our consciousness with drugs, must be looked down on publicly to the point where our politicians are free to ignore evidence when it suits them.

It’s a conspiracy of ignorance that would be unthinkable if it was applied to swine flu but perfectly acceptable for something that already kills thousands upon thousands of people every year.

Link to BBC World Service on Portugal drug decriminalisation.
Link to Time ‘Drugs in Portugal: Did Decriminalization Work?’
Link to Bad Science on suppressed WHO cocaine report.

2009-06-12 Spike activity

A slightly belated selection of quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

If you’re a mental health professional from a low or middle income country you can apply for a grant to attend the Global Mental Health Summit happening this September in Greece. Applications need to be in by June 20th.

The mood we are in affects the way we see things by modulating the activity of the visual cortex, according to a new study expertly covered by Neurophilosophy.

Discover Magazine has a brief look at some EEG kit that aims to integrate both electrical activity from the brain with human action recording.

Altruism may have resulted from a form of natural selection caused by a state of near-continual warfare, according to a study covered by the Independent. Hang on, isn’t that the plot of 1984?

Time magazine has an article on complexity theory that doesn’t seem to have a punchline as such but is an interesting tour through various studies that can be understood on various level of explanation.

Ignore the title and skip the first line and the Boston Globe has an interesting article on the use of transcranial magnetic stimulation to study the neuropsychology of autism. The ‘testing reflexes’ bit is a minor part of it.

New Scientist covers a study that finds we prefer advice from a confident source, even when the person has a poor track record.

This is an absolutely fascinating study covered by the BPS Research Digest. We seem to have a ‘blind spot’ for our own body language.

The New York Times has an brief piece on how new guidelines on whether young athletes should return to play after a concussion are causing controversy.

Anthropology in crisis – what, still? The excellent Culture and Cognition blog looks at why anthropology is still a contested field.

New Scientist covers a wonderfully elegant study on what causes ‘tip-of-the-tongue’ just can’t remember that word experiences.

The excellent Channel N mind and brain video blog has moved. Update your bookmarks!

Neuronarrative covers some interesting research on how fictional depictions of organ donations on medical dramas affect whether people want to sign up for this life saving option.

The work of a burqa wearing Islamic <a href="
“>sex therapist who practices in Dubai is covered by The New York Times.

Furious Seasons covers a new study on how antidepressant paroxetine (Serpxat / Paxil) is linked to sperm damage in some men.

An excellent piece by an epilepsy doctor and researcher asking for a better understanding of the seizure disorder is on the BBC News site.

Wired Science reports that the Pentagon are investigating pills for PTSD prevention.

Time moves too slowly for hyperactive boys, reports New Scientist. Don’t I just know it.

The excellent philosophy of mind blog Brain Hammer has moved. Update your bookmarks!

Another big name psychiatrist gets in hot water for undeclared payments from Big Pharma. The Wall Street Journal blog has the story.

Search Magazine has an article on the neuroscience of forgiveness. It misses a study on exactly this that recently appeared in Neuropsychologia.

Excessive use of “neuro” in a book title: Neuropsychological Neurology: Neurocognitive Impairments of Neurological Disorders (thanks @sarcastic_f!)

Evidence for Freudian projection inadvertently found in a study of whether dogs can have a guilty expression or not – turns out, owners just perceive the expression when they think the dog has done something wrong but the canine face doesn’t change. BBC News is on the case.

Not Exactly Rocket Science finds an intriguing study showing that five-month-old babies prefer their own languages and shun foreign accents.

There’s a review of an interesting-looking new book and ethnographic study on heroin injectors and crack smokers on the streets of San Francisco over at Neuroanthropology.

Language as a looking glass

Edge has a fantastic essay on how the language we speak can affect how we experience and think about the world.

The piece is by psychologist Lera Boroditsky whose work has shown that the not only are there differences across people with different mother tongues, but that asking people to use different words can affect their perceptions.

Boroditsky’s article is full of fascinating snippets about how language structure enforces a different mental set on the speaker.

For example, she notes that in Russian you need to change verbs to indicate whether the action was completed or not (when someone read a book, did they finish the book or just manage part of it). In Turkish verbs indicate whether you saw the thing yourself or whether you’re describing what someone else has told you.

But one of the most vivid examples is from the language of a small Aboriginal community in Australia:

Follow me to Pormpuraaw, a small Aboriginal community on the western edge of Cape York, in northern Australia. I came here because of the way the locals, the Kuuk Thaayorre, talk about space. Instead of words like “right,” “left,” “forward,” and “back,” which, as commonly used in English, define space relative to an observer, the Kuuk Thaayorre, like many other Aboriginal groups, use cardinal-direction terms ‚Äî north, south, east, and west ‚Äî to define space.

This is done at all scales, which means you have to say things like “There’s an ant on your southeast leg” or “Move the cup to the north northwest a little bit.” One obvious consequence of speaking such a language is that you have to stay oriented at all times, or else you cannot speak properly…

The result is a profound difference in navigational ability and spatial knowledge between speakers of languages that rely primarily on absolute reference frames (like Kuuk Thaayorre) and languages that rely on relative reference frames (like English).

Simply put, speakers of languages like Kuuk Thaayorre are much better than English speakers at staying oriented and keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar landscapes or inside unfamiliar buildings. What enables them — in fact, forces them — to do this is their language. Having their attention trained in this way equips them to perform navigational feats once thought beyond human capabilities.

This research is interesting because it relates to the much maligned Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that claims that language shapes how we experience the world.

When I was a student this theory wheeled out in psycholinguistics classes to show how naive we used to be. I’m no expert on psycholinguistics, but I suspect that this was due to the dominance of Noam Chomsky’s idea that all languages are based on an underlying universal grammar, implying that, fundamentally, we all think about things in broadly similar ways. Jerry Fodor’s language of thought hypothesis might also have been a culprit.

What ever the cause, the effect of language on perception and understanding was neglected for many years and only recently have some of these interesting effects come to light through the work of people like Boroditsky.

Link to ‘How does language shape the way we think?’

Beautiful otherness

New Scientist has a gallery of artwork by savant artists, people who show exceptional artistic talents despite having impaired mental abilities in other areas.

Savantism is typically associated with autism to the point where many people assume that having a stand-out exceptional ability is present in everyone with the diagnosis.

This is not the case and although many people with autism-spectrum conditions will have a special interest, only about 10% will have what autism researchers Francesca Happ√© and Uta Frith call ‘the beautiful otherness of the autistic mind’.

Perhaps the most famous artist with autism is Stephen Wiltshire who can create stunningly vivid landscape paintings from a barely more than a single glance.

However, my favourite such artist is Jessica Park who paints the most striking paintings of buildings and architectural features but in the most inventively colourful way.

The New Scientist gallery is interesting take on the area as each picture has been selected to illustrate something about the psychology of savant abilities.

Link to New Sci ‘Savant art: A window into exceptional minds’.
Link to excellent Happé and Frith article on savantism.

Television tunnel vision

This week’s Nature has a feature article on how visual motion media impacts on young children. It’s an interesting article because it focuses largely on television.

This is notable for two reasons: the first is that numerous research studies have found that, as a generalisation, watching television negatively impacts on children’s concentration, increases the risk of obesity and interferes with play and communication. The second is that this rarely makes the headlines.

Despite studies appearing regularly in the medical literature, it simply isn’t fashionable to panic about television – that’s so last century.

In contrast, evidence-free panicking about computers or the internet gets broadcast across the world, because it’s something new to panic about, and that’s what the media does best.

It’s not all bad news about television and children though. There’s some evidence that it increases imaginative play and broadens knowledge.

You also may be interested to know that Sesame Street was developed with psychologists to specifically help children improve social attitudes and increase numeracy and literacy.

The programme has been carefully and scientifically evaluated, tweaked and re-evaluated and many of the studies appear in the academic literature. It was the first and most successful evidence-based children’s programme.

Link to Nature article ‘Media research: The black box’.

Brain Storm Rag

From 1907, the front cover from sheet music for a ragtime tune called Brain Storm Rag, from way before it was cool to label everything as being related to neuroscience in some way.

If you’re musically inclined you can also download the full publication as a PDF, musical notation included, to play at your leisure.

If you’d like to record it and upload it to the net, do let us know and we’ll happily link to it as I’d love to find out what is sounds like.

Link to Brain Storm Rag online version.

A night at the opera

Photo by Flickr user Now I'm Always Smiling. Click for sourceThe International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry has a brief case report of a man who began hallucinating whole operas that would start every evening shortly after sunset.

A 74-year-old retired mathematician had to undergo emergency surgery due to an ischemic perforation of the colon. Three days after the operation, he began to suffer from near complete insomnia and mentioned only briefly that ‘this monkey music’ kept him awake. His condition deteriorated and 5 days later he admitted, that he heard complete operas at night from the very first to the last chord, ‘and you know how long these operas are’.

He could not offer any explanation as to where these sounds came from, could not distance himself from his elaborate musical perceptions, had no means of interrupting them, and feared the first notes of another overture (which reliably rang out soon after sunset).

On examination during daytime he appeared tired and irritable, rather uncooperative with poor concentration, but without overt evidence of a severe confusional state. His medical history was inconspicuous, but it became obvious that he was a dedicated opera-lover with a profound musical expertise, which he had acquired over decades of studying scores and librettos in every detail.

Link to PubMed entry for case report (via @sarcastic_f).

Why sigh?

An interesting study from Psychophysiology attempting to understand why we sigh by studying in what contexts these wistful expressions are most likely to occur. It seems, we are most likely to sigh when relieved.

Why do you sigh? Sigh rate during induced stress and relief.

Psychophysiology. 2009 May 21. [Epub ahead of print]

Vlemincx E, van Diest I, de Peuter S, Bresseleers J, Bogaerts K, Fannes S, Li W, van den Bergh O.

Whereas sighing appears to function as a physiological resetter, the psychological function of sighing is largely unknown. Sighing has been suggested to occur both during stress and negative emotions, such as panic and pain, and during positive emotions, such as relaxation and relief. In three experiments, sigh rate was investigated during short imposed states of stress and relief. Stress was induced by exposure to a loud noise stressor or by anticipation of it. Relief was induced by the end of the stressor or the anticipation that no stressor would follow. Breathing parameters were recorded continuously by means of the LifeShirt System. Results consistently showed that more sighing occurred during conditions of relief compared to conditions of stress.

Link to

The time flies paradox

Photo by Flickr user NathanFromDeVryEET. Click for sourceTime flies when you’re having fun, but why? It’s curious if you think about it. Someone whose visual perception was affected by enjoyment would seem rather unusual but the fact that our ability to judge time changes dramatically when we enjoy ourselves seems perfectly unremarkable.

A recent article in the scientific journal Philosophical Transaction of the Royal Society attempts to answer exactly this question by reviewing the evidence for the curious link between emotion and time perception.

One of the greatest paradoxes in the field of time psychology is the time‚Äìemotion paradox. Over the last few decades, an increasing volume of data has been identified demonstrating the accuracy with which humans are able to estimate time. Confronted with this amazing ability, psychologists have supposed that humans, as other animals, possess a specific mechanism that allows them to measure time…

However, under the influence of emotions, humans can be extremely inaccurate in their time judgements (Droit-Volet & Meck 2007). For example, the passage of time seems to vary depending on whether the subject is in an unpleasant or pleasant context. It drags when being criticized by the boss but flies by when discussing with our friends. That is the time–emotion paradox: why given that we possess a sophisticated time measurement mechanism, are we so inaccurate in our temporal judgements when experiencing emotions?

The article is full of studies that found surprising ways in which our time perception is distorted: by the emotional expression on other people’s faces or by the age of people we meet (older people slow time, younger people quicken it).

Link to scientific article on the time-emotion paradox.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

Plant psychology

Science News has an intriguing article on what we might call ‘plant psychology’ as some biologists are increasingly thinking of our green leafy friends in terms of their memory, communication and behaviour.

On a related note, an edition of ABC Radio National’s All in the Mind from the end of last year focussed on the ‘psychology’ of bacteria.

These sorts of discussions are the interesting result of our current most popular way of understanding the mind: the cognitive approach.

This attempts to explain the mind in terms of an information processing system, so mental processes are defined in terms of how they perform computations.

For example, memory is the process of encoding, storing and retrieving information. Perception transforms sensory data, such as light spots on the retina, into elaborated experiences; and attention selects which channels of processing to prioritise.

In its most basic, and somewhat caricatured form, the cognitive approach says our minds are just calculations because we have been able to successfully describe what parts of it do using maths.

But if the mind is just calculations, it makes it very difficult to say what is and what isn’t a mind.

If something learns, reacts and communicates, all of which can be described in information processing terms, than many things could be described as having minds. Computers, plants, bacteria, perhaps even whole ecosystems.

Indeed, many of the big debates in psychology (consciousness, intentionality and so on) are attempting to define the mind outside of the computation metaphor, and this is where the hard work lies.

Discussions about whether plants have minds make us think about how we define our own minds, as simply saying ‘a mind is what humans have’ doesn’t help us understand how to make sense of them.

Link to Science News on plant cognition.
Link to All in the Mind on bacteria cognition.

Encephalon 72 launches new range

The 72nd edition of the Encephalon psychology and neuroscience writing carnival has seemingly been taken over by Apple and transformed into the iCephalon carnival, which is much the same but costs more and has a hipster fan club.

A couple of my favourites includes a damning review of the new US psychiatric drama ‘Mental’ from The Neurocritic, and news that while tall people have higher status, high-status individuals also look taller, from Neurotopia.

There’s a whole range of shiny new text products being introduced so head on over to Cognitive Daily who are the generous hosts for this fortnight’s edition.

Link to Encephalon 72.

Are you sleeping comfortably? Then we’ll begin

The Boston Globe has an excellent article on the moment when a a group of huddled doctors turned a side-show curiosity into the medical revolution of surgical anaesthesia.

16th October 1846, Boston, Massachusetts, was when the first operation under anaesthesia was conducted in with a brave patient and liberal doses of ether.

The piece is interesting because it notes that the pain killing properties of certain gases or vapours, like laughing gas (nitrous oxide) and ether, were already well known, but the use of them in an operation needed a fundamental change of attitude in the medical establishment.

This was largely due to the fact that pain was considered beneficial during an operation, as it ‘stimulated’ the patient and supposedly made them less likely to die, but because that experiencing pain was considered to be morally virtuous.

Removing pain through ‘artificial’ means was therefore considered ethically dubious and consequently regarded by suspicion by the high horse riding doctors of the time.

Interestingly, the article notes that some of these views continue to this day in attitudes regarding anaesthetics and ‘natural’ childbirth:

Before 1846, the vast majority of religious and medical opinion held that pain was inseparable from sensation in general, and thus from life itself. Though the idea of pain as necessary may seem primitive and brutal to us today, it lingers in certain corners of healthcare, such as obstetrics and childbirth, where epidurals and caesarean sections still carry the taint of moral opprobrium.

In the early 19th century, doctors interested in the pain-relieving properties of ether and nitrous oxide were characterized as cranks and profiteers. The case against them was not merely practical, but moral: They were seen as seeking to exploit their patients’ base and cowardly instincts. Furthermore, by whipping up the fear of operations, they were frightening others away from surgery and damaging public health.

The article is by Mike Jay who wrote the The Air Loom Gang, a biography of madman, spy and accidental architect James Tilly Matthews.

The biography is one of my favourite books of all time and was interested to see that Jay has another book just out called The Atmosphere of Heaven about a Victorian medical society who pioneered the study of laughing gas.

Link to Boston Globe article ‘The day pain died’.

Obscuring the horror of war

A sardonic paragraph from Lt Col Dave Grossman’s excellent book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. It discusses the psychology of ending another’s life, the history of how the military have dealt with the natural reluctance to kill and the personal impact of doing so.

From p36:

Even among the psychological and psychiatric literature on war, “there is”, writes Marin, “a kind of madness at work.” He notes, “Repugnance toward killing and the refusal to kill” are referred to as “acute combat reaction.” And psychological trauma resulting from “slaughter and atrocity are called ‘stress,’ as if the clinicians… are talking about an executive’s overwork.” As a psychologist I believe that Marin is quite correct when he observes, “Nowhere in the [psychiatric and psychological] literature is one allowed to glimpse what is actually occurring: the real horror of war and its effect on those who fought it.”

Link to more info on the book.

The possible causes of ‘space headache’

A new study has surveyed 17 astronauts to see what sort of headaches they experienced while on space missions. Headaches were much more frequent than on earth and didn’t fit a known type, suggesting that zero or micro gravity may be a specific trigger for a pounding head.

Below is the part of the article where the researchers discuss how the weightless conditions of space might affect the brain to cause the headache.

To describe headache, most astronauts used terms such as ‘exploding’ and/or ‘a heavy feeling’, confirming previous observations and suggesting a change in intracranial pressure. This is compatible with headache attributed to disorders of homeostasis, which can change during a state of microgravity. Certain haemodynamic [blood flow] changes might explain the occurrence of space headache. Alteration of cerebral blood flow and volume have been shown during exposure to microgravity.

The most striking change is the cephalad fluid shift, when body fluid redistributes and the blood volume in the upper body increases. The fluid shift towards the brain and probable brain oedema [swelling] could lead to an increase in intracranial pressure. Insofar as microgravity is also known to induce hypoxia [reduced oxygen supply to brain tissue], it also might be considered as a plausible trigger for space headache

Link to article.
Link to PubMed entry for same.
Link to write-up from BBC News.

2009-06-05 Spike activity

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

Carriers of 5-HTTLPR gene version have higher rates of addiction but teen counselling nullifies the risk, reports Wired Science.

Science News reports on a study finding that people who feel pressure to look attractive are more fearful of being rejected.

Neurotech booster Zack Lynch is summarising the punchlines of his recent academic article on ‘The future of neurotechnology innovation’. Part one neuroimaging and disease treatment, part two on crossing the blood-brain barrier.

The Wall Street Journal discusses the highs and lows of nicotine vaporising ‘electronic cigarettes‘. Will the UK version be called e-fags I wonder?

Antipsychotics for kids effective but with substantial risks according to FDA briefing covered by Furious Seasons.

UK iPlayer viewers can still view BBC documentary ‘A World of Pain: Meera Syal on Self-Harm’ online.

Confabulatory hypermnesia. A case of a patient who believes, falsely, to have perfect recall, is expertly covered by Neurophilosophy.

68% of task-force members for upcoming DSM-V psychiatric diagnosis manual report taking money from drug companies, report USA Today. Good to see psychiatry cleaning up it’s act. Oh no, my mistake.

Reuters covers the latest book by Will Elliott, who wrote an acclaimed debut novel about a clown with schizophrenia. Elliot has apparently been diagnosed with the condition himself.

Staying together ‘for the sake of the kids’ doesn’t necessarily help them, says a study reported by Science Daily.

Talking Brains asks whether fMRI adaptation can demonstrate or refute the existence of mirror neurons in response to Iacoboni’s comments on our recent post on the topic.

A new series of BBC Radio 4’s All in the Mind has just launched on the newly decimated, information scorched BBC website. Permanent audio archive? Useful programme guides? So last season.

Time magazine looks at the psychology of ‘conspicuous altruism‘.

The fantastic ‘culture and compulsion‘ series is rounded-up in one handy place on Neuroanthropology.

BPS Research Digest reports that girls attract American men best with direct chat-up lines.

Presumably, this includes the situation when the whole process is reduced to a tick box. Talking of which, during speed-dating women become less choosy when they, rather than men, move from table to table, according to a new study reported on by Nature News.

Scientific American has a brief article on how to tap the wisdom of the crowd in your head. Tap their wisdom? I just want them to stop throwing popcorn at the screen.

Can psychotherapists detect liars? Better than average but only very slightly, according to a study covered in Psychotherapy Networker magazine.

Wired Danger Room reports that the US military still getting funded for their sci-fi science fantasies. This time the Air Force looks for the ‘core algorithms‘ of human thought. As the article says “Good luck with that, guys.”

A whole load of great links on how music works, and the psychology of the tune, on Metafilter.

The LA Times reports that a third of US kids with autism are prescribed SSRI drug citalopram while a new study find it’s no better than placebo and has worse side-effects.

UK readers. The BPS Research Digest has an excellent Twitter feed that keeps you up-to-date with TV shows, radio programmes and events about the mind and brain.