Warning: brain underload

Photo by Flickr user star5112. Click for sourceThe Times has a long and tiresome article about how the ‘digital overload’ is affecting our brains which is only notable for one thing, it mentions not a single study on how digital technology affects the brain.

Imagine that. You can write 2,000 words for one of the world’s leading newspapers without a single established finding in the whole piece. Not one.

Actually, it’s worse than that, as this article contains an anti-fact. It cites the ’email damages IQ’ PR stunt as the results of a legitimate study when it was a marketing exercise for, ironically, a computer company.

Rather oddly, a recent article from New York Magazine followed exactly the pattern (no relevant studies, email damages IQ gaff), but came to the opposite conclusion.

As we mentioned at the time, the studies on the effect of digital technology support none of this public pant wetting.

Journalists. Have you been affected by the economic downturn? Are you finding that it’s difficult to get your work in print?

Don’t waste your time writing about politics or the economy and be imprisoned by the tyranny of evidence – write whatever the hell you want about technology and the brain and get the world’s finest publications to pay your bills. Your editor clearly can’t tell the difference.

…and breathe. In with anger, out with love.

No, it’s not working.

Link to where do they get these people from?

Rapture of the deep

Photo by Flickr user SteelCityHobbies. Click for sourceWhen scuba divers start swimming deep under water they can sometimes start feeling dreamy, light-headed and mentally fuzzy, an effect nicknamed ‘rapture of the deep’ but better known as nitrogen narcosis.

It is caused by changes in the way nitrogen, one of the gases in the divers’ air tank, dissolves in the body when under high pressure from the depth of the water.

No-one is quite sure exactly how it affects the brain, but many divers have noted the similarity between nitrogen narcosis and being drunk.

Psychologist Malcom Hobbs was intrigued by this connection and conducted a study [pdf], published last year in Undersea and Hyperbaric Medicine, to investigate the psychological similarity between the two states.

The experiment compared the subjective experience and effects on problem solving of alcohol and narcosis, but, also rather elegantly, looked at whether the two effects could be caused by a similar neurobiological process by seeing whether people with high alcohol tolerance also had a high narcosis tolerance.

Hobbs divided a group of divers into experienced and novice divers, as those with more experience should be more tolerant to narcosis, and made a further division between those who drank a lot of booze and those who drank very little, to look at differences in alcohol tolerance.

In the first experiment, they found the interesting effect where experienced divers adapted to the subjective effects of narcosis, but not the behavioural effects. While they felt more in control than novice divers, they actually weren’t. This chimes with an identical effect seen in heavy vs light drinkers.

But crucially, Hobbs also found that those affected to a greater degree by nitrogen narcosis are affected to a greater degree by alcohol on both subjective experiences and performance on the problem solving task (and vice versa), indicating that there is cross tolerance between the two states.

This suggests that they may affect the brain in similar ways. Although more research needs to be done on the actual neurobiology of the two states to be sure of the exact relationship, this study suggests that divers may indeed be ‘drunk’ when experiencing the rapture of the deep.

UPDATE: I just got emailed this interesting snippet by an experienced diver friend (thanks Ben!):

Something extra which happens with narcosis (which deviates from the alcohol analogy) is that, unless you’re already dead, the effects are completely reversible with no discernible side effects (eg hangover). One of the tricks divers use if they recognize narcosis (most often in their buddy than in themselves) is that ascending a few metres will often bring immediate clarity.

Even more interesting is that once clarity is achieved, descent back to the narcotic depth doesn’t necessarily bring back the narcotic effect of the nitrogen, which hasn’t really been explained yet. Theories abound regarding rate of descent and physiological effects of increasing ppN [partial pressure of nitrogen] and how it’s dissolved into various tissues.

Divers have known for years about this and have developed practical methods to deal with its effects (decreasing N content in breathing gases, replacing N with other inert gases etc). Actually, it’s known that oxygen also has a role to play in narcosis (as in nitrous oxide) but since some of it is metabolized, it’s effects are considerably less than the inert gas it accompanies.

I quite like the feeling of a little narcosis; but it does make time fly, and unfortunately time is the real enemy underwater!

pdf of full-text scientific paper.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

Scintillating zigzags and surrealism

I’ve just found this interesting 1988 article from the British Medical Journal on how surrealist artist Giorgio de Chirico took inspiration from visual distortions he experienced as part of his migraines.

According to the article, he clearly recorded experiencing the symptoms of migraine, including the marked visual disturbances, and these can be seen in some of his paintings.

One of the most common visual disturbances in migraine aura is scintillating zigzag edges, but it can also commonly induce sparkling, dazzling, dancing, or flickering lights, fire rings, stars, and moving lines.

There are three sets of de Chirico’s pictures that closely resemble patients’ illustrations of classical migraine attacks. In a set of prints illustrating Cocteau’s Mythologie the jagged effect of the water is very similar to the advancing edge of a scotoma and may be compared to a painting from the national migraine art competition.

The second example, a painting from the 1960, has as its central feature the silhouette of a man with a spiky edge, while figure 4, a lithograph from 1929, shows a black sun motifintruding into an interior scene. Both of these are reminiscent of drawings of negative scotomata by patients suffering from migraine. Other migrainous phenomena, such as the distortion of space, may be discernible in a series of paintings known as “Metaphysical interiors.” This association, however, is more tenuous.

The article is illustrated with some of de Chirico’s paintings and comparison pictures by people who were deliberately attempting to illustrate their migraine aura.

Link to article on PubMedCentral.