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.