March of the robot t-shirts

Dapper British t-shirt blog Hide Your Arms have collected 101 of the best robot t-shirts available anywhere on the net.

It has every type of robot reference you can possibly think of and there are some genuinely beautiful garments hidden amid the torrent of mechanised irony.

Enjoy them while you can because when the robot war comes we’ll all be naked except for a bar code tattoo.

It’ll be worse than it sounds. I promise.

Link to Hide Your Arms 101 robot t-shirts.

Hushed thunder

ABC Radio National has a fantastic programme on El, a 27 year old woman with selective mutism – essentially a speaking phobia that enforces an anxiety-driven silence with everyone except her family.

The documentary is deeply poignant but has several moments of sublime irony that really stopped me in my tracks.

El stopped speaking to anyone except her family as a young child and has spent the large part of her life not being able to utter a word to anyone else.

The programme details the painful impact this has had on her life, how she was verbally attacked by pupils and staff in school, and how she has found it difficult to get a job, or hasn’t been respected in the work she’s done.

In one aside, she mentions she has a degree in communication.

In my mind, a thousand stories were unfurled by the breeze of this simple fact.

El, by the way, is an incredibly articulate communicator. The photo to the right is one of her own artworks and her words, spoken by an actress, are clear and evocative.

The ending to the programme is like hushed thunder.

The documentary is part of an innovative ABC Radio National series entitled Stories of Silence that explores the many meanings of quiet.

Link to El’s story (via AITM Blog).

Out of control decision-making

I’ve just noticed that TED has recently put another talk online by the entertaining and thought-provoking behavioural economist Dan Ariely where he discusses why our feeling of being in total control of our decision-making may be false.

We mentioned an earlier and similarly interesting TED talk on the psychology of cheating previously, but this one is more concerned with what we might call decision-making inertia, where the ‘default’ options or red herrings have a huge sway over our reasoning

This is despite the fact that most people are completely unaware of how irrelevant information has such a profound impact on our choices.

Link to Dan Ariely TED talk on whether we’re in control of our choices.

A phantom head

I’ve just been reminded of one of the most remarkable case studies in the psychiatric literature, of a patient who believed he had two heads and who seriously injured himself with a gunshot wound trying to remove the ‘second’ head.

He described a second head on his shoulder. He believed that the head belonged to his wife’s gynaecologist, and described previously having felt that his wife was having an affair with this gynaecologist, prior to her death. He described being able to see the second head when he went to bed at night, and stated that it had been trying to dominate his normal head.

He also stated that he was hearing voices, including the voice of his wife’s gynaecologist from the second head, as well as the voices of Jesus and Abraham around him, conversing with each other. All the voices were confirming that he had two heads; the voice from the second head had been telling him that it was the ‘king pin’, and would also say to him that it was going to take his wife away. He did not describe any other hallucinatory or delusional experiences.

“The other head kept trying to dominate my normal head, and I would not let it. It kept trying to say to me I would lose, and I said bull-shit.” “I am the king pin here” it said and it kept going on like that for about three weeks and finally I got jack of it, and I decided to shoot my other head off.”

He stated that he fired six shots, the first at the second head, which he then decided was hanging by a thread, and then another one through the roof of his mouth. He then fired four more shots, one of which appeared to have gone through the roof of his mouth and three of which missed. He said that he felt good at that stage, and that the other head was not felt any more. Then he passed out. Prior to shooting himself, he had considered using an axe to remove the phantom head.

I was reminded of the case study by McKay and colleagues chapter in the academic book Delusion and Self-Deception. I’ve been sent a free copy to review for an academic journal and am currently ploughing through it. It’s not very accessible for the general reader but is full of thought provoking theories on the cognitive science of delusions.

Link to case study.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

2009-06-19 Spike activity

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

PsychCentral awards its 2009 Online Mental Health Journalism Awards. Mind Hacks makes the list. Still no word from Shakira.

The wonderful Dr Mezmer’s Psychopedia of Bad Psychology is released as a full free edition.

The Economist on a study finding that repeating positive statements to oneself has a negative effect of people with low self-esteem. Is this the death of Émile Coué?

An excellent article on the curious pharmacological properties of the curious hallucinogen salvia divinorum is on Terra Sigillata.

BBC News covers a new call to rethink how courts should handle eyewitness testimony in the light of the science of memory.

Stereotypes about the drivers of certain cars affect our perception of how fast we think the car is going, according to a study covered by BPS Research Digest.

The Guardian Book Club podcast discusses Steve Pinker’s The Blank Slate.

There’s an excellent special issue of ye olde Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society on predictions in the brain – using our past to prepare for the future.

The Telegraph wees itself in public.

Mental time travel and the importance of remembering forward in time are discussed by the ever excellent Neurophilosophy.

The New York Times has a rough guide to borderline personality disorder.

Patients with schizophrenia least likely to commit suicide after being treated by young female psychiatrists, according to a study in Schizophrenia Bulletin. Via the excellent Spanish language blog Nietos de Kraepelin.

Frontier Psychiatrist has an excellent piece on the complexities and depression and antidepressant prescribing.

Can a <a href="http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/features/can-lack-of-sleep-drive-you-mad-1705954.html
“>lack of sleep drive you mad? asks The Independent. Correlation-causation warning applies for some of the points.

The New York Times reports on a recent study finding a higher rate of mental illness in the Chinese population than previously thought.

Hooked on a feeling. Newsweek discusses the science of placebo.

Rethinking Autism has produced a series of sexy videos to promote sensible science on autism. A strange brew indeed.

Booze to brain in six minutes. Live Science covers a study of people getting pissed in brain scanners.

An article for the ACLU Blog delves into the history of the American Psychological Association’s collusion with war-on-terror interrogation / torture / shadyness. You may be interested to know that the APA are currently focussed on backpeddling.

The New York Times tackles the ‘a glass of wine a day is good for you‘ meme, which doesn’t actually have a lot of solid evidence backing it up.

There’s a good in-depth review of Flynn’s new book on intelligence and the Flynn effect over at American Scientist.

The Kinsey Institute has a twitter feed! Make your own coming thick and fast jokes. I’m above that sort of thing.

A dodgy study that, despite its claims, didn’t find antipsychotic aripiprazole is particularly associated with increased subjective well-being is tackled in an excellent analysis by Neuroskeptic.

Discover Magazine has an excellent Carl Zimmer article on the benefits of the wandering mind and the brain’s ‘default network’.

A Harvard psychiatrist writes a spoof article on zombie neurobiology – sadly we only have a secondhand <a href="http://io9.com/5286145/a-harvard-psychiatrist-explains-zombie-neurobiology
“>write-up from io9. If only those scientists in Day of the Dead had a copy, maybe it wouldn’t have turned out so bad.

Neuron Culture has the best write-up anywhere on the recent metanalysis of the link between the 5-HTTLPR gene and depression: The (Illusory) Rise and Fall of the “Depression Gene”.

To the bunkers! New Scientist covers a plan to teach military robots the rules of war. Don’t you realise, that’s exactly what they want you to believe!

The Splintered Mind has a philosophical dream.

Unloaded dice

Photo by Flick user Darren Hester. Click for sourceA new edition of the beautifully produced RadioLab has just hit the airwires with an excellent programme on the science of randomness.

The hour long science trip largely focusses on how we make sense of random or unpredictable events, from coincidences to statistical white noise.

There’s a wonderful part where the presenters visit statistician Deborah Nolan who has a neat party trick to demonstrate the properties of random sequences to her students.

She asks one group of students to write down the results of 100 coin flips, and another to write a list of imaginary coin flips. She then leaves the room, waits while each sequence is written down, returns, and tells the students which sequence was imaginary.

It works because humans are bad random number generators. Nolan looks for longer runs of heads or tails which are not included in imaginary sequences because we underestimate the variation in randomness.

In fact, there’s been quite a bit of research on how we generate ‘random’ number sequences, and it turns out that far from being a messy and effortless function of the brain, it requires some heavyweight intervention of the frontal lobes.

Brains are very good at stereotyped routines but it’s breaking these learned patterns which takes the real effort. To generate ‘random’ sequences, we need to check we’re not repeating ourselves and match the sequence against a model of randomness in our heads.

In fact, asking people to generate a sequence of random numbers is a good test of frontal lobe function, the more mathematically random it is, the better functioning the frontal cortex. And if we dampen down frontal cortex function using electromagnets, we see a drop in actual randomness of the numbers.

There are plenty more fantastic insights into the science of the unpredictable in the programme with the constantly surprising RadioLab team.

Link to RadioLab on randomness.

The holy grail of military psychiatry

Photo by Flickr user Army.mil. Click for sourceNeuron Culture covers a new study on predictors of PTSD in deployed American combat troops. Predicting whether a soldier will break down through combat has been one of the Holy Grails of military psychiatry and the impressive results of this study suggest that this may be getting closer.

World War One was the crucible of military psychiatry as it became clear that even the bravest and best soldiers could break down due to combat stress.

When World War Two arrived, the British and American militaries invested a great deal in psychological screening to attempt to distinguish which soldiers would break down more quickly.

The project was widely regarded as a failure as the only reliably predictor seemed to be the duration and ferocity of the combat the soldier was exposed to.

However, as Dobbs notes, this new study finds that a simple measure of physical health could be a powerful way of preventing half of all PTSD cases in combat deployed troops.

The study found that the least healthy 15% of the troops in the study who saw combat accounted for well over half — 58% — of the post-combat PTSD cases, as indicated by either the study’s own criteria or by self-report of a PTSD diagnosis from the soldiers during follow-up.

This is a pretty stunning result. And it certainly suggests that, as the study put it, “more vulnerable members of the population could be identified and benefit from interventions targeted to prevent new onset PTSD.” The beauty of this finding is that fairly general measures of health are the indicators, so you can predict a lot from fairly simple and easy-to-collect data.

Obviously not all of the 15% who scored lowest on PTSD; but that bottom 15% accounted for more cases than do the entire remaining 85%. So at a time when we are much concerned with reducing PTSD in combat troops, it seems fairly plain that we could cut the PTSD rate by more than 50% simply by keeping the least healthy 15% — as measured by fairly simple health questionnaires we already have in any and — out of combat zones.

He also notes a curiosity that while the study was on US troops, the paper was published in the British Medical Journal, and wonders whether there were some PTSD politicking that meant it was rejected from American journals.

As we’ve discussed before, PTSD is perhaps the most politicised psychiatric diagnosis. It was originally called post-Vietnam syndrome and was created to allow the US healthcare system treat Vietnam veterans.

The direct effects of trauma where never previously thought to be a mental illness in itself, although it was known to be a risk factor for a number of conditions.

Psychologist Dave Grossman, author of On Killing, convincingly argues that Vietnam was particularly conducive to combat trauma for US troops, owing to the fact that US forces had no front line and hence no ‘safe’ areas to relax in, and that they often found themselves fighting a irregular army of civilians including women and children.

Link to Neuron Culture on predicting PTSD in combat troops.
Link to full-text of study from BMJ.