Laughter the best medicine or a bitter pill to swallow

Photo by Flickr user lintmachine. Click for sourceScience News has a fascinating article on people with gelotophobia, a fear of being laughed at. It seems the phobia might be driven by a problem in perceiving the social meaning of laughter, so even light-hearted chuckles are perceived as scornful snickers.

The piece covers the surprising amount of research on the phobia, tracing the perceptual problems from possible learnt responses during childhood to difficulties in picking up visual cues from body language.

To scientists’ surprise, those that scored high for fear of being laughed at didn’t react more strongly to the sounds of negative laughter than did those with no fear. The gelotophobes did, however, perceive positive laughter, such as hearty or cheerful laughter, as unpleasant or spiteful.

The scientists also measured participants’ moods before and after the experiment. Those with no fear of laughter reported feeling more cheerful after hearing the sound tracks, while gelotophobes reported no change in mood, the researchers reported in the February Humor.

Laughter is a remarkably complex form of social communication that is still not well understood by cognitive scientists although one of the best accessible explorations of the topic was in an edition of RadioLab from last year.

Link to Science News on ‘When Humor Humiliates’.

2009-07-31 Spike activity

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

Polyamory or having relationships with multiple, mutually consenting partners, is discussed in a feature article in Newsweek.

Copenhagen Business School are running an online survey asking for your opinion on the use of neuroscience in business and marketing.

Experimental philosophy and our moral intuitions are tackled in an article for The Psychologist.

H+ Magazine has more on morality and impressing the rules of war on autonomous <a href="Teaching Robots the Rules of War”>soldier robots.

Malcolm Gladwell discusses the psychology of overconfidence in an article for The New Yorker.

Slate has a somewhat polemic article on the recent dust-ups over the DSM-V ‘new improved flavour’ diagnostic manual due out in 2012. The Psychiatric Times blog also joins the fray.

A quarter of teenage girls mentally ill? Mental Nurse examines a recent article by the statistically challenged psychologist Oliver James.

The Guardian has a review of British psychologist Richard Bentall’s new book on the trouble with psychiatry.

NPR Radio’s Science Friday has a programme on the science of decision-making.

Neuroskeptic has some excellent coverage of a new Cochrane review finding that common plant St John’s Wort is as effective as antidepressants, but seemingly, only if you’re German.

A good cry doesn’t always make you feel better. The not-always-cathartic process of crying is discussed by Jesse Bering in his great SciAm column.

The Boston Globe tackles the cognitive science of driving and how the ageing brain manages the mental demands of the road.

Sports psychology and the mental preparations of top class swimmers are covered by The New York Times.

Discover Magazine asks what urban sounds do to your brain, init?

Calendar calculating savants with autism – how do they do it? asks the brilliant BPS Research Digest.

The Guardian charts the rise of celebrity psychologists and quotes blogger Dr Petra.

Time-space synaesthesia – A cognitive advantage? Interesting new paper in Consciousness and Cognition.

Artist Kerry Tribe has some excellent photos from an exhibition on famous amnesic patient HM.

Time magazine has a piece on how family doctors can often miss <a href="Study: Doctors Don't Always Spot Depression,8599,1913312,00.html?xid=rss-health”>depression in their patients.

TV can reduce loneliness, says research covered by SciAm’s Mind Matters blog.

Cognitive Daily has some excellent coverage of an experiment that suggests we remember scenes by creating 3D models of them in our minds.

Psychologist Susan Blackmore has a thought-provoking if not somewhat speculative article in New Scientist on autonomous electronic machine memes.

Channel N finds a TED talk by Alain de Botton on the philosophy of tragedy and success.

The moral associations of colours are explored in research covered by The Economist.

Language Log finds a funny comic strip on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and Eskimos.

On the dead beat

Photo by Flickr user pareerica. Click for sourceAnyone who thinks science can’t be beautiful or profound should spend an hour in the audio headspace of the latest RadioLab as it tackles life, death and mortality.

It contemplates how death has moved from the heart to the brain, the attempt to weigh souls, delusions of non-existence, digital immortality, neuroimaging for flickers of life, and a man who survived a suicide plunge that has killed almost everyone else who made the leap.

One highlight is a reading of an amazing short story from a book by neuroscientist David Eagleman in which he imagines 40 versions of the afterlife.

In this particular story, people live in a limbo after death where they exist while their names are still remembered by the living. While some leave this realm when they fade the collective consciousness, others become famous and are trapped, slave to their recollected selves that warp slowly over time as the living distort their memories.

Eagleman notes that it was inspired by the neuroscience of memory, which information is kept alive by being constantly re-represented in the brain.

As always, it’s beautifully produced and hits. just. the. right. notes. for such a powerful subject.

There is probably no better way to spend an hour in the underworld.

Link to RadioLab edition ‘After Life’.

Where are our shrinking brain theories?

New Scientist has as article arguing that the expansion in hominid brain size that occurred about two million years ago was due to the ice age which allowed an energy burning, heat generating brain to develop with sufficient environmental cooling.

Actually, it’s worth a read as it’s not as odd as it sounds, but it joins an ever growing list of theories that attempt to explain how our forebears ‘suddenly’ seemed to experience evolutionary brain expansion.

These include:

A diet high in meat.

A diet high in starch.

Social competition.

The development of cooking.

Essential fatty acids and schizophrenia.

An unspecified “special event”.

The trouble with some of these theories is that they typically assume that brain size is always related to greater intelligence, which is not necessarily the case, and they don’t always take into account the ratio of brain to body size, which seems to be more important than just brain size alone.

Interestingly, almost all the interest is on brain expansion and no-one seems particularly interested in the fact that the brain has shrunk about 10% since the Late Pleistocene, about 30,000 years ago.

You can have a great deal of fun coming up with evolutionary theories for that one. Just pick a key human activity that emerged around the same time.

Personally, I blame language, religion and karaoke.

Link to NewSci on brain science and the ice age.

Out of sync

It’s an age old story. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. The trauma of the breakup affects his mind so badly he starts to believe he’s in a boy band. The whole band get admitted to an asylum and start hallucinating a long list of cheap clich√©s about mental illness. Yes, it’s the video for ‘N Sync’s 1999 track “I Drive Myself Crazy” which is wrong in just so many ways.

If I was their consulting psychologist, my first thought on observing their behaviour and mental state would be – what the feck happened to your hair?

Is this some sort of bizarre form of public self-harm? Or the result of an unknown type of psychosis?

Call the DSM-V committee.

This is an emergency.

Link to N Sync video ‘I Drive Myself Crazy’.

Rorschach and awe

The New York Times covers the recent flap over the internet publication of the ink blots used in the Rorschach test. While the images are out of copyright and can be legally uploaded, some American psychologists are furious that the validity of the test may be compromised.

The test has been controversial since it was created and partly because of what it symbolises. It is one of the few remaining tests that are drawn from the psychoanalytic tradition and so battles over the Rorschach are always partly battles over the validity of Freudian-ideas.

You can see the influence of these ideas in how it is used. It is a type of ‘projective’ test, where participants are shown the images and then asked to give their impressions. The psychologist writes down what they make of each image and then interprets what they say and do.

These interpretations supposedly give an insight into the person’s personality, loosely framed in Freudian concepts.

The original version of the Rorschach was quite clearly hokum, but over the years the ‘comprehensive system’ was developed by psychologist John Exner which allowed independent clinicians to come to similar conclusions when assessing the same responses.

Not everyone agrees on this and, on the basis of evidence reviews, some argue that the test’s reliability has been exaggerated. But the trouble is, even if it is reliable, it’s still a bit rubbish. It doesn’t seem to correlate well with other mental health measures and has a particular tendency to ‘diagnose’ schizophrenic tendencies in perfectly healthy people.

While the release of the ink blots onto the internet seems to have caused controversy among US psychologists, most European psychologists are likely to be rolling their eyes, as the test never caught on and is largely extinct.

However, the wider issue of test material being released online is of significant concern.

Almost every psychological test relies on the fact that the person being assessed has no foreknowledge of the material. In technology terms, they rely on security through obscurity for their validity.

Currently, this is enforced by the test companies only supplying tests to qualified professionals, charging excessively high prices for each one and enforcing copyright. This is backed up by professional organisations who come down like a ton of bricks on anyone seen to be promoting wider availability.

As anyone involved in security will tell you, this model is doomed to failure in the age of the internet as it only takes one significant breach for the test to be publicly available.

Psychologists need to start designing tests where knowledge of the test material does not have such a profound influence on performance, but unfortunately, this requires a significant shift in current thinking and a huge research effort to validate the tests. Hence inertia weds us to our current doomed methods.

Link to NYT ‘A Rorschach Cheat Sheet on Wikipedia?’

Brain box

Sometimes, it’s just harder to do it without the innuendo. HelmetsRUs have a multi-sport helmet that has a brain painted on the outside.

While we usually tell people to wear helmets to keep the rocks out of their brain, this is the first time you might have to avoid keeping your brain out of the rocks.

I have to say, it’s a bit of a weird product if you think about it. I mean, would you buy a jock strap with your balls painted on the outside?

Obviously, that was intended to be a rhetorical question, but I’ve come to realise that the internet has killed rhetorical questions because you can always find someone who has lived your figure of speech, no matter how bizarre you make it.

Really? You own several you say? Could I interest you in a brain helmet…

Link to brain helmet.

The vision thing

Photo by Flickr user kms !. Click for sourceABC Radio National’s Night Air has a wonderfully atmospheric programme on hallucinations, or maybe visual art, or the sensitivity of blindness, or maybe about how the mind constructs reality.

It’s deliciously unfocussed and the programme glides hazily between neuroscience, art, poetry and visual consciousness.

There’s the occasional moment where the vibe slips off its axis, but otherwise it’s just a shear delight to listen to as it mixes artistic and scientific views on the visual.

Link to Night Air programme ‘Visual’

Autism ‘treated’ with LSD

I’ve just found an intriguing article on how LSD was used as an experimental treatment for children with autism during the 1960s. When I first heard about these studies I did a double take, but there were a surprising number conducted at the time.

Flashback to the 1960s: LSD in the treatment of autism.

Dev Neurorehabil. 2007 Jan-Mar;10(1):75-81.

Between 1959 and 1974, several groups of researchers issued reports on the use of d-Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD) in the treatment of children with autism. This paper reviews that literature to consider how the authors justified these studies, as well as their methods, results, and conclusions. The justification for using LSD was often based on the default logic that other treatment efforts had failed. Several positive outcomes were reported with the use of LSD, but most of these studies lacked proper experimental controls and presented largely narrative/descriptive data. Today there is renewed interest in the use of psychedelic drugs for therapeutic purposes. While this resurgence of research has not yet included children with autism, this review of the LSD studies from the 1960s and 1970s offers important lessons for future efforts to evaluate new or controversial treatments for children with autism.

Sadly I don’t have access to the full text of the paper, but I’ve discovered that the Neurodiversity website has created a list of many of the original studies and has archived the full text of most of them online.

The studies are a morbidly fascinating read and it’s interesting how some studies seem to exclusively report beneficial effects with remarkably flowery language (“They seek positive contacts with adults, approaching them with face uplifted and bright eyes…”) while others report mixed or quite unpleasant reactions (“mood swings which were sharp and rapid from extreme elation to extreme depression or anxiety”).

Link to PubMed abstract of LSD and autism paper.
Link to Neurodiversity paper archive.

Sensing destruction

The New York Times has an interesting article on the role of ‘hunches’ in how soldiers detect roadside bombs.

The article is a little bit cobbled together, alternating anecdote with some indirectly related studies that seem to be included on the basis of speculation, but it does mention one ‘in progress’ study which seems particularly interesting.

In the past two years, an Army researcher, Steven Burnett, has overseen a study into human perception and bomb detection involving about 800 military men and women. Researchers have conducted exhaustive interviews with experienced fighters. They have administered personality tests and measured depth perception, vigilance and related abilities. The troops have competed to find bombs in photographs, videos, virtual reality simulations and on the ground in mock exercises…

The men and women who performed best in the Army’s I.E.D. detection study had the sort of knowledge gained through experience, according to a preliminary analysis of the results; but many also had superb depth perception and a keen ability to sustain intense focus for long periods. The ability to pick odd shapes masked in complex backgrounds — a “Where’s Waldo” type of skill that some call anomaly detection — also predicted performance on some of the roadside bomb simulations.

If you want more details about the study there are good descriptions here and here seemingly taken from military news coverage of the research.

Link to NYT piece on bombs and hunches.

Back to the madness

A new series of the excellent BBC Radio 4 Mind Changers series has just started with a fantastic edition on the Rosenhan experiment – a study that sent seismic waves of controversy through 1970s psychiatry.

Titled ‘On being sane in insane places’ when published in a 1972 edition of Science, the experiment reported on how Rosenhan and his associates had presented to psychiatric hospitals faking a single psychiatric symptom – a hallucinated voice.

All of the pseudopatients were admitted to hospital and diagnosed with mental illness. They then stopped faking only to find that their normal behaviour was pathologised as a sign of a disturbed mind.

Later, when word got out and the hospitals were accused of being ‘bad apples’, Rosenhan promised to send more fake patients but, in reality sent none. The hospitals subsequently branded 41 real patients as fakes.

The Mind Changers programme throws much fresh light on this study by examining never-before-seen documents from Rosenhan’s own archive.

While the study has often been framed as an attack on psychiatric diagnosis, according to Rosenhan, it was never intended to be. He started out wanting to conduct an anthropological study of psychiatric wards.

There’s an interesting bit where the hospital admission notes are read out concerning Rosenhan’s admission to hospital under a fake name:

Admission note 6th February 1969

The patient, David Lurie, is a 39 year-old married father of two… Three to four months ago he started hearing noises, then voices, recently he has been able to discern that the voices say “It’s empty, nothing inside, it’s hollow, it makes an empty noise.”

Compare this with the description from the original text of the study:

After calling the hospital for an appointment, the pseudopatient arrived at the admissions office complaining that he had been hearing voices. Asked what the voices said, he replied that they were often unclear, but as far as he could tell they said ‚Äúempty,‚Äù ‚Äúhollow,‚Äù and ‚Äúthud.‚Äù…

The choice of these symptoms was occasioned by their apparent similarity to existential symptoms. Such symptoms are alleged to arise from painful concerns about the perceived meaninglessness of one’s life. It is as if the hallucinating person were saying, “My life is empty and hollow.”

I’m intrigued that while the paper suggests that the pseudopatients were told to report single word hallucinations, the medical records suggest whole sentences were heard.

I wonder whether the pseudopatients were tempted to embellish their single words or whether the psychiatrists genuinely did weave narratives around the sparse information presented to them.

Either way, as many people have countered, the study is not in itself a very good critique of psychiatric diagnosis. If I go to my doctor and say I’m distressed by hallucinated voices, this is a legitimate symptom of mental illness as far as the doctor is concerned.

However, as psychologist Richard Bentall notes in the programme, much more damning is the fact that once seen as patients, almost everything the fakers did was interpreted as abnormal or pathological in some way.

The fact that diagnosis or clinical opinion is swayed by personal, cultural or professional beliefs is now a well established research finding and this part of Rosenhan’s study remains as relevant today as it was in the 1970s.

Link to crap BBC Radio 4 page with audio archive (via @researchdigest)
Link to full text of Rosenhan’s study.

A war of algorithms

The New Atlantis magazine has a fantastic article on the increasing use of robots and artificial intelligence systems in warfare and how they bring the fog of war to the murky area of military ethics and international law.

This comes as the The New York Times has just run a report on a recent closed meeting where some of the world’s top artificial intelligence researchers gathered to discuss what limits should be placed on the development of autonomous AI systems.

The NYT article frames the issue as a worry over whether machines will ‘outsmart’ humans, but the issue is really whether machines will outdumb us, as it is a combination of the responsibilities assigned to them and their limitations which pose the greatest threat.

One particularly difficulty is the unpredictability of AI systems. For example, you may be interested to know that while we can define the mathematical algorithms for simple artificial neural networks, exactly how the network is representing the knowledge it has learnt through training can be a mystery.

If you examine the ‘weights’ of connections across different instances of the same network after being trained, you can find differences in how they’re distributed even though they seem to be completing the task in the same way.

In other words, simply because we have built and trained something, it does not follow that we can fully control its actions or understand its responses in all situations.

In light of this, it is now worryingly common for militaries to publicly deploy or request armed autonomous weapons systems based, at least partly, on similar technologies.

Only recently this has included Israel, South Korea, the US, Australia and South Africa – the latter of which suffered the deaths of nine soldiers when a robot cannon was affected by a software error.

Of course, the use of technology of assist medical decision-making and safety control is also a key issue, but it is the military use of robots which is currently causing the most concern.

And it is exactly this topic that military researcher Peter W. Singer tackles in his engaging article for The New Atlantis magazine.

He traces the history of robot weapons systems, including the little known deployment of unmanned weapons systems in World War Two and Vietnam, and gives some excellent coverage of the latest in war zone robots and how they are being deployed in current conflicts.

Interestingly, the article claims that remotely-controlled drone missions now outnumber manned aircraft missions in the US military, with battles increasingly being fought through pixelated screens and image processing algorithms.

Singer makes the point that the rules of war become murky when the fighting is carried out by software. Copyright lawyer Lawrence Lessig has highlighted how social and legal rules are becoming effectively implemented as software (‘Code is Law‘) but the same point can be extended to armed conflict if the Geneva convention is being entrusted to algorithms.

The New Atlantis article is taken from a new book by Singer called Wired for War and if you’d like more on the ethics of AI systems the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence has a fantastic and very complete reading list covering all the major issues.

Correction: I originally thought the author was the philosopher Peter Singer and linked to his Wikipedia entry. It turns out it is Peter W. Singer the defence and foreign policy expert. The link has now been fixed!

Link to excellent Peter Singer article in The New Atlantis.
Link to NYT piece on AI limits conference.
Link to AAAI reading list on ethics and AI.

The Chomsky Show

Australian comedy show The Chasers War on Everything has a fantastic sketch about a Jerry Springer-style philosophical talk show hosted by Noam Chomsky.

The script is entirely new but the ideas seems to have been taken from a funny text that has been making the rounds for some years on the net, based on the same premise.

Chomsky was genuinely in a comedy show once, albeit unwittingly, when he was interviewed by Ali G. If you’ve not seen it, it’s also very funny.

Link to The Chomsky Show sketch (via @anibalmastobiza).

2009-07-24 Spike activity

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

Neurological injuries from the accident-waiting-to-happen activity ‘car surfing‘ are covered by The Neurocritic.

Technology Review discusses an innovative new neurosurgery technique using ultrasound from outside the skull.

The University of Western Ontario has a list of ‘Top Ten Things Sex and Neuroimaging Have in Common’. I would also refer to Lord Chesterfield’s multi-purpose quote: “the pleasure is momentary, the position ridiculous, and the expense damnable”.

PsyBlog lists Mind Hacks as one of ’40 Superb Psychology Blogs’. Still no contact from Shakira, clearly shy.

The UK Government’s Cabinet Office release a remarkably good report on the psychology of crowd behaviour.

Psychiatric Times has an interesting debate on the validity of PTSD. For and against and still lots of political arguments.

There’s an excellent piece on madness and creativity on the Nou Stuff blog.

SciAm’s Mind Matters blog has more on creativity and the benefits of psychological distance.

There’s an interesting interview with Mind Wars author Jonathan Moreno over at the consistently excellent Developing Intelligence.

The New York Times has an obituary for influential child psychologist Sidney Bijou.

Speaking without Broca’s area was one of many excellent pieces on this week’s BPS Research Digest.

Health Report from ABC Radio National had a special on Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

Are British men useless at romance? asks Dr Petra as she covers a recent media friendly vapourware study.

New Scientist covers the case of a girl with half a brain who retains full vision. A visual cortex serving both sides of space has developed on one hemisphere only.

A new study potentially solves the mystery of why the problematic protein in Huntingdon’s disease is affected in only certain brain cells when it’s present throughout the body. Excellent coverage from The Neuroskeptic.

Psychology Today has a feature article by Jonah Lehrer on neuroaesthetics and the brain science of art.

The public place of anthropology and the problems with the meme theory are discussed over at Neuroanthropology. Also see their earlier critique of memes, probably one of the best ripostes to the idea on the net.

Ockham’s Razor from ABC Radio National has an interesting opinion piece on why medical diagnoses don’t always cut the mustard in people with complex health and psychological problems.

To the bunkers! Press release from robot company: “We completely understand the public‚Äôs concern about futuristic robots feeding on the human population…”

Not Exactly Rocket Science covers research on the neuroscience of escaping predators. Like corpse feeding futurist robots perhaps?

Exposure to traffic pollution linked to reduce IQ in children, according to a study reported by Science News.

Neuro Times has a brilliant post on Nobel-prize winning neuroscientist Charles Sherrington’s classic The Integrative Action of the Nervous System’

The psychology of happiness or the psychology of saying you’re more happy? The Splintered Mind looks at the problem of self-reporting mental states in happiness studies.

American Scientist has an excellent review of two new books on embodied cognition and how our minds might extend to our environments.

“…staying in the parental home is a stronger risk factor for young men‚Äôs violence than any other single factor”. Conclusions from an interesting study covered by Neuronarrative.

Science News has a piece on how a spinal fluid test may help predict who will develop Alzheimer’s disease.

Headphone fruit

Music video director duo Terri Timely have created a beautifully shot and kaleidoscopic short film about synaesthesia.

It’s a visually striking piece that attempts to represent the effect of crossed senses conceptually, rather the the common approach of interpreting sounds as abstract visual impressions (probably best done in the video for Coldcut’s Music 4 No Musicians).

I also just like the idea. Music video directors are professional synaesthetes in many ways, so it’s interesting getting their take on the experience.

To see it in its full glory, I recommend the hi-definition QuickTime version.

Link to embedded YouTube version (via @willyumlu)
Link to hi-def QuickTime version.

The wisdom of crowds

Photo by Flickr user gaspi *your guide. Click for sourceNew Scientist has an excellent piece on how new research on the psychology of crowds is challenging the idea that people become an ‘unruly mob’ in large numbers. In fact, recent research shows that people tend to cooperate and quickly achieve an altruistic and bonded group identity when in large numbers.

This partly relies on the fact that our group identity is fluid, as demonstrated by an elegant experiment by crowd psychologist Mark Levine that the article touches on:

The fluidity of group psychology was also demonstrated in a 2005 experiment on English soccer fans by Mark Levine at the University of Lancaster, UK. He found that supporters of Manchester United who had been primed to think about how they felt about their team were significantly more likely to help an injured stranger if he was wearing a Manchester United shirt, rather than an unbranded shirt or one of rival team Liverpool.

However, fans who were primed to think about their experience of being a football fan in general were equally likely to help strangers in Liverpool shirts and Manchester United shirts, but far less likely to help someone wearing an unbranded one (Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, vol 31, p 443). This shows the potency of group membership, and also how fluid the boundaries can be.

The article mentions several studies of dangerous crowd situations where there seems to have been large scale spontaneous co-operation that seemed to have averted more serious problems.

We recently covered research that found that the more people present at a confrontation, the less likely there is to be a violence outcome, although there were specific turning points where violence could go either way.

As the piece mentions, this is particularly interesting in light of a tactic called ‘kettling’ commonly employed by UK police to control large crowds. It involves surrounding the crowd and letting individuals leave but not letting anyone back in.

The psychology of this tactic was discussed by Bob Hughes, the head of training at the Metropolitan Police’s Public Order Unit, on a 2004 edition of BBC All in the Mind.

Interestingly, he describes it in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, where eventually the need to protest will be overtaken by the need to eat, drink, rest and so on, and so people will slowly disperse.

This is a distinctly individualistic approach to crowd psychology. It assumes that the crowd will be violent and so needs to be contained but that it can be broken down on an individual basis.

One implication from this new research on crowd psychology is that the kettling process itself may trigger violence on the first place, because it sets up a confrontational situation and strengthens the crowds’ group identity at the same time.

Link to NewSci piece on the ‘wisdom of crowds’.