The automated phrenologist

I’ve just discovered the excellent This Week in the History of Psychology podcast series which has a particularly good episode on the ‘psycograph’, an automated phrenology device created in 1905.

The idea is that it would ‘read’ the bumps on your head by the use of mechanical plungers and it would then print a profile of your ‘character’ in a matter of seconds.

There’s a remarkable amount of information about this device on the web (and yes, “psycograph” is the correct spelling) including a fantastic page of original advertising.

You can download the relevant podcast as an mp3 and the others are also well worth checking out.

They are written and presented by mind and brain historian Christopher Green, who you may know from the Classics in the History of Psychology website, or his involvement with Advances in the History of Psychology blog.

Don’t be put off by the headache-inducing website, unlike many other special podcasts, is very well produced with high quality audio and an impressive line-up of researchers.

Link to This Week in the History of Psychology podcasts.

To the scent side

Photo by Flickr user SteffanyZphotgraphy. Click for sourceThe New York Times covers an interesting study finding that if you smell different odours in each nostril the brain doesn’t blend the scents, instead, your experience of smell alternates between the two.

This nostril rivalry, as the researchers describe it in a paper in Current Biology, is similar to what happens when the eyes are presented with different images, or the ears with different tones.

The researchers experimented with 12 people using two chemicals, one that has an odor like a marker pen, the other that smells like a rose. All 12 experienced switching between the two odors, with no pattern as to when and how often they switched.

And as with hearing and vision, smell sensitivity is related to the general tendency for left or right hemisphere activation in the brain.

Because this general tendency is also related to a bias for magical thinking and unusual perceptual experiences, we know that differences in nostril sensitivity can be found between people who have high numbers of paranormal-like experiences and those who don’t.

Link to NYT piece ‘How the Nose Copes With Nostril Rivalry’.
Link to PubMed entry for study.

I’ll give you a piece of my printed mind

We occasionally thrown down a few mind and brain t-shirts for you here at Mind Hacks but I’ve recently discovered a whole t-shirt label dedicated to the stuff between your ears.

The Printed Mind has a number of fantastic big graphic t-shirts dedicated to the mind and brain, and because they look so great, I think we can ignore the occasional lapse (*cough* total disregard) for anatomical correctness.

I mean, you wouldn’t want a naked lady tattoo where someone had got the anatomy wrong, so why would you want it on a t-shirt?

Maybe if it was glow in the dark?

Now you’re talking.

Link to The Printed Mind online shop (via Coty Gonzales).

2009-09-04 Spike activity

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

Neuroskeptic reports on a study finding that antidepressant use in the USA has doubled in the last decade. Interestingly, peak use is in 50-64 year-olds.

There’s some organic robot art inspired by Rorschach inkblots over an Seed Magazine.

The New York Times has an excellent piece about the role of guilt in regulating behaviour in children.

The effect of our beliefs and expectations on the taste of <a href="
“>wine is explored in the Sensory Superpowers blog.

Science News covers a study on how baby girls more quickly associate fear with snakes and spiders than boys.

There are some interesting talks on culture and neuroscience from the Neurocultures Workshop despite the audio being a bit poor. See left hand side bar for links to video and mp3.

The New York Times has a fascinating article on projects that crawl the web and look for indicators of people’s mood, creating global emotion maps.

A new antipsychotic, named lurasidone, is likely to be hitting the market shortly, according to Furious Seasons. Promises to improve treatment of psychosis, probably won’t.

The Economist covers a study on the role of female testosterone levels in financial risk taking.

Continuing on the testosterone theme, a study covered by New Scientist finds that men with higher levels of the hormone spend less time with their children.

Neuronarrative has a fantastic post on a study finding that during a simulated crime, researchers were able to induce false confessions in nearly everyone using faked video evidence.

Another interesting study into the remarkable self-organising properties of crowds is covered by the ever excellent BPS Research Digest.

Technology Review blog covers an interesting paper arguing that measuring the entropy of reaction times within a psychology experiment may be a better way of inferring cognition.

Neuroscientist Nancy Kanwisher recently gave a keynote talk to the Association for Psychological Science and you can read or watch it via The Situationist.

New Scientist covers an absolutely fascinating study that looked at how different types of dementia break down the small world network of the brain’s neural architecture in specific ways.

There’s an interesting review of studies on how written language style earlier in life can predict the chance of getting Alzheimer’s disease when older at Language Log.

Culture Matters has an interesting post about cultural differences in attitudes to sexual aids like Viagra and penis enlargers in the Arab world.

The not so grateful dead

Photo by Flickr user Zach K. Click for sourceIf you suddenly find your web filter is blocking Mind Hacks, it’s because this post is about necrophilia. A paper just published in the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine has proposed the first classification of sexual attraction to death and the dead.

I maintain an amateur interest in the forensic psychology literature because there is nothing that lays out the full range of human behaviour in such stark contrast and nothing which will challenge your assumptions about the things society feels least comfortable talking about.

This paper is a good example. You can probably think of nothing more revolting than necrophilia but the review makes clear that the link between sexual arousal and death can include consenting adults acting out B-movie fantasies to people who are unable to get aroused except by anything corpses, with almost everything in between.

Apparently, there was previously too little research in the area to allow a coherent classification of the different types and this is the first paper that attempts to map the range of sexual attraction to death.

There is nothing gratuitous in the article and it is a seriously scholarly piece, but if you’re not comfortable with some of the darker corners of human existence you may find it hard going.

Link to paper on the classification of necrophilia.
Link to PubMed entry for same.


I was told of this funny bit of medical jargon yesterday by a psychiatrist friend of mine, which, apparently, is occasionally used by physicians when they want a medical sounding way of saying that the patient’s symptoms exist only in their imagination.

Luckily I found a great definition on Urban Dictionary:


A word used by doctors and nurses to imply that a patient’s problems are all in their mind. The tentorium is a membrane just under the brain, so “supratentorial” refers to what is above that, namely the brain. This term can be used in front of the patient or patient’s family because it sounds like technical jargon.

Patient: “Every time Dr Phil comes on TV, my arms and legs start twitching!”

Doctor, quietly to nurse: “Seems to be a supratentorial problem.”

Then to patient, condescendingly: “Sorry, dear, we’re just talking shop. Go on.”

Link to Urban Dictionary definition (thanks Quinton!)

Zombie brain cupcakes

Photo by Flickr user xsomnis. Click for sourcexsomnis is a Flickr user with a passion for the patisserie who has made these wonderful brain cupcakes for the next time you have some distinguished zombies round for afternoon tea.

She’s even created a Flickr set that explains how to make the sweet brain toppings.

They almost look too good to eat. Unless you’re undead of course.

Link to zombie brain cupcakes.
Link to brain topping instructions.

Placebo has strength in numbers

Photo by Flickr user anitacanita. Click for sourceWired has an excellent article on how the placebo effect is increasing in drug trials and how drug companies are trying to understand why. It’s an intriguing article but it conflates two distinct concepts of ‘placebo’ that need to be separated to fully understand the effect.

The term ‘placebo effect’ is used to refer to two things in the medical literature. The first is a statistical concept and it refers to the improvement in patients given an inactive treatment in a drug trial in comparison to those given the actual drug. The second is a psychological concept and it refers to improvement due to expectancy and belief.

If you’re not sure how these are different, you may be surprised to learn that you don’t need a mind to demonstrate the placebo effect – in fact, even rocks can show it.

Let’s say an oil tanker has sunk, the local beach is covered in oil, and you want to compare how effective two cleaning products are – the first, liquid soap, our active treatment, and the second water, our placebo.

So we randomly assign oily stones to a bucket of soapy water or to a bucket of water. It turns out that while stones in the soap condition become less oily, so do stones in the placebo condition, although, perhaps, the effect is weaker. Oil breaks down on its own, water movement disperses it, oxygenation happens. There’s a whole bunch of stuff which means our placebo ‘treats’ the stones.

Statistically we have a placebo effect, because in a trial anything which causes improvement not to do with the active treatment is chalked up to the placebo effect.

In humans, similar effects are at work. Most illnesses improve on their own, when we catch anything at its worst typically it will return to its normal state (an effect known as regression to the mean), people change their behaviour to become more healthy when they’re ill, and so on. None of these are to do with expectancy or beliefs about taking a pill.

But here’s the other thing. Because the statistical concept of placebo is drawn from the study data, the study itself has an effect.

For example, the strength of the placebo effect is measured relative to the active treatment. The Wired article says that placebo is getting stronger, which is another way of saying that the difference between placebo and the drug is getting smaller.

It turns out that the more rigorous the study the less strong the drug effect is, or, in other words, the stronger the placebo effect.

For example, we know that better designed and higher quality studies show smaller drug effects. This includes things as simple as randomisation. If your method for randomly allocating people to groups is more susceptible to bias, it’s more likely to produced biased results. Better randomisation improves the placebo effect, again, nothing to do with expectancy or belief.

So one reason why the placebo effect might be increasing is that studies are just more rigorous these days.

Of course, on top of all of these things, individual psychology plays a part as it adds improvement, and anything which leads to improvement gets captured by the statistical placebo effect.

However, the lab-based studies which investigate placebo look almost exclusively at the psychological placebo effect. They examine the effects of beliefs and expectations but usually carefully control the presence of the unpleasant thing, like pain, so it doesn’t naturally improve and you can’t change your behaviour like you would in real life.

You can’t explain the statistical placebo effect just with psychology. It’s part of it, but not the whole story.

So when I read the article which said that drug companies are busily doing lab studies to understand why the placebo effect is increasing I became a bit suspicious.

The first thing you’d do is look at how your studies have been run, not look at the psychology of belief. Drug companies undoubtedly know this. They’re masters of drug trial sleight-of-hand and know research methods inside out.

The article touches on a likely explanation – marketing. They would like to influence your beliefs so the drug works better for you, because once it’s on the market, it’s the customers’ experience that brings them back for more.

In an industry where genuinely new drugs are rare and most are just no-better copies of rival medications, your beliefs could make all the difference.

Link to Wired on the increasing placebo effect.
Link to previous Mind Hacks post on the psychology of placebo.

The sexual transformation delusion

Photo by Flickr user jcoterhal. Click for sourceMedical journal Epilepsy and Behavior has a curious case study of a female patient who had the experience of changing sex when she had a seizure.

The patient in question had a small tumour near the right amygdala and showed abnormal right temporal lobe activity on an EEG. Interestingly, when she had the experience of changing sex, she also experienced other females in the vicinity as also transforming into males.

She experienced a sensation of dull nausea rising from the epigastrium [abdomen] with concomitant fear, sometimes also accompanied by déjà vu, in isolation, several times per week. Occasionally this developed into a complex alteration of perception, which she explained as follows: ”I’m no longer feeling to be a female. I have the impression to transform into a male. My voice, for example, sounds like a male voice that moment. One time, when I looked down to my arms during this episode, these looked like male arms including male hair growth.”

This particular kind of perceptual disturbance was not restricted to herself, but also characterized her perception of female persons nearby during the episode: “One time another woman, a friend of mine, was in the same room, I perceived also her as becoming a male person including changing sound of her voice.” After introduction of anticonvulsive treatment with carbamazepine, only the elementary simple-partial phenomena of epigastric aura and déjà vu persisted. Secondary generalized tonic–clonic seizures never occurred.

Sex change delusions have been reported in the medical literature before, but usually in longer-term psychoses in people with diagnoses like schizophrenia, rather than occurring as a short-term effect of a seizure.

In fact, sex change delusions were reported by one of the most famous psychiatric patients in history: Daniel Schreber, a 19th century German judge who wrote about his experience of insanity in his book Memoirs of My Nervous Illness.

Among other experiences he describes how he believed that his mind was attracting ‘rays’ from God causing him feminising sensations of ‘voluptuousness’ which he noticed as female body changes.

Temporary sex change ‘delusions’ have also been created using hypnosis in highly hypnotisable people in two remarkable studies that attempt to understand how the mind justifies a belief clearly contrary to reality.

Link to DOI entry and summary of case study.

Ten year high

Photo by Flickr user MyDigitalSLRCamera. Click for sourceOriginally an academic project to study the science of happiness, positive psychology has spawned a hippy fringe of life coaching and self-help. In a thoughtful review of the field, The Chronicle of Higher Education looks at the state of the elation after its first decade in existence.

Positive psychology maintains a core of rigorous empirical science but it is clear from the article that there is considerable tension between those who simply want to investigate the building blocks of the good living and those who want to extend (and sometimes over-extend) the work into life guidance.

Although it has gained considerable respectability, the field is still treated with suspicion in some corners of mainstream psychology, not least because of the tendency for academia to privilege austere seriousness and to treat anything with mass appeal with elitist disdain.

But still there is a slightly evangelical feel to positive psychology which make some people uncomfortable.

Two of the field’s founders and most enthusiastic proponents became famous for some of the darkest and bleakest studies in psychology: Martin Seligman’s work on depression and learned helplessness was based on how some dogs give up trying to escape when repeatedly tortured with inescapable electric shocks and Philip Zimbardo’s prison experiment showed that respectable people can be turned into brutal abusers when the context encourages it.

Whether Seligman and Zimbardo feel they’re repenting for their dark past or not, many who associate with the field have the zeal of those reborn from a science previously obsessed with human misery.

The Chronicle article is a insightful look into both the science and culture of positive psychology, taking a particularly close look at the tensions which are shaping how we understand human growth and potential.

Link to Chronicle on 10 years of positive psychology (via @researchdigest).

Brain fibres

concertinapieces is a psychology student who makes wonderful crochet neurons that you can buy over the interwebs, although she warns that “your neuron may vary slightly in dendritic branches as no two are alike :)”

Her online shop has motor, bipolar and hippocampal pyramidal neurons that you can use to begin creating your reanimated textile zombie brain.

Actually, I quite fancy the idea of a crochet Purkinje neuron but I suspect it would need so much wool you’d need a truck to deliver it.

Might make for a great duvet though.

Multi media, we don’t need it do we?

Photo by Flickr user iPocrates. Click for sourcePeople who spend lots of time monitoring multiple sources of information are worse at switching between tasks and are less able to focus exclusively on single sources according to a new study published in the Proceedings in the National Academy of Sciences.

It’s a well designed, rigorous study of the type that we are sorely missing in the debate over the psychological effects of media which, sadly, often amounts to little more than hot air.

It’s also been picked up by hundreds of news sources, almost all of which miss the subtlety of what it’s actually telling us.

Here are some of the headlines that miss the point: Hi-tech addicts scrambling their brains; Multi-media use muddles the mind; and my favourite Electronic Multitaskers Not Really ‘Information Gods’ (damn you Microsoft, fooled again!)

The experiment compared groups of people who frequently monitor multiple media sources compared to those who do it rarely. Big media has picked up on the ‘multi media’ angle and has focused solely on digital technology but the study was much broader than this.

It divided groups into high and low ‘media multitaskers’ but ‘media’ included a whole bunch of sources, including:

print media, television, computer-based video (such as YouTube or online television episodes), music, nonmusic audio, video or computer games, telephone and mobile phone voice calls, instant messaging, SMS (text messaging), email, web surfing, and other computer-based applications (such as word processing).

In other words, listening to music while reading a book counts as ‘media multitasking’, as does chatting on the telephone while watching television, none of which need digital technology. In fact, you could have multitasked five out of the twelve activities (print, TV, music, nonmusic audio, phone calls) in the 1950s.

This is actually one of the study’s major advantages. It makes sense to look at how people monitor multiple sources in the real world rather restrict ourselves to the computer technology, because there is nothing necessarily distinctive about ‘digital media’. A digital radio is not psychologically different to an analogue one in terms of its output.

So the researchers compared the high and low multitaskers on several tasks looking at whether peripheral information affected performance on visual and memory monitoring tasks, and on a task-switching experiment.

High media multitaskers were generally more affected by peripheral information but this is not a bad thing in itself. You could interpret it as them being more distractable, or simply that they have a wider net of attention and are more able to pick up peripheral information. They might be open to noticing more stuff.

But the task-switching experiment was quite striking. Participants were presented with a letter and number combination, like “a6” or “i7” and were asked to do one of two tasks: one was to hit the left button if they saw an odd number and the right for an even; the other was to press the left for a vowel the right for a consonant.

They were warned before each letter-number combination appeared what the task was to be, but high multi-taskers responded on average half a second more slowly when the task was switched.

In reaction time terms, half a second is a very long time. Bruce Lee could have made mincemeat of you by then.

Of course, what we can’t tell from this study is whether heavy parallel media monitoring causes these effects, or whether people who are less able to exclusively focus and switch prefer more media concurrently. Maybe they’re actually absorbing more of it in total. We don’t know from this study.

Despite big media going off half-cocked, this is a valuable study because we need to start understanding how information technology affects us in our day-to-day life.

We have precious few of these studies and we need more.

Link to paper.
Link to DOI entry for same.
Link to great write-up from Not Exactly Rocket Science who beat me to the punch.

Learning reality in the first few months of life

Photo by Flickr user kton25. Click for sourceRadioLab has just released an excellent brief podcast on how babies’ experience of the world is quite different during the first months of life due to some startling differences in brain function that they rapidly lose.

It’s a discussion with developmental psychologist Charles Fernyhough who has pieced together the perceptual world of young children from studies on newborns.

It’s full of fascinating insights, like the fact that the lenses in the eyes of newborns have yet to acquired the yellow tint of adults which filters out blue light – so children see a much brighter whiter world.

One of the most surprising bits is about a phenomenon I’d never heard of before – something called sticky fixation – where babies lose control of their vision at about two months old and seem to lose the ability to look away from interesting things.

This seems to be due to the fact that vision is initially controlled by subcortical brain systems but about two months the control shifts to the cortex. During the ‘changeover’ the competition between the two systems seems to lead to the stalemate of sticky fixation.

It’s a really fascinating way to spend 10 minutes and I think virtually everything featured was quite new to me.

And if you’re wanting more about the fascinating science of baby development Edge has an interesting discussion with psychologist Alison Gopnik.

One interesting thing to note here is how Bayesian statistical models are now appearing everywhere in cognitive science as models of thought and behaviour.

Influential neuroscientist Karl Friston has been championing them as a ‘theory of everything’ for the brain for a couple of years now and they’re starting to be more widely accepted as you can see by the way Gopnik riffs about them with regards to infant psychology.

Link to RadioLab short ‘After Birth’.
Link to Edge on ‘Amazing Babies’ with Alison Gopnik.

You see us as you want to see us

The LA Times has a reflective piece on the late teen movie director John Hughes‘ vision of adolescence in light of today’s fashion for medicating teenagers:

“If the brooding, solitary Andie played by Ringwald in “Pretty in Pink” were in high school in 2009, it’s hard to imagine she wouldn’t be a candidate for anti-depression therapy. Likewise, if “The Breakfast Club,” which is about five teens serving time in Saturday detention, took place in a post-Prozac, post-Columbine America, Ally Sheedy’s mostly mute, kleptomaniac misfit would have undoubtedly been medicated, and Anthony Michael Hall’s character would have received a lot more than detention for bringing a flare gun to school. As for Ferris Bueller, the kid obviously needed Ritalin.

“I’m not suggesting that any of us were better off when legitimate disorders went unrecognized and untreated. But in a culture in which diagnoses sometimes seem to get handed out like conservation-awareness fliers in front of the supermarket, it’s worth asking ourselves if old-fashioned eccentricity — of the teen or adult variety — can too easily be supplanted by the ease of assigning a code from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Hughes, who left the movie business in the early 1990s because he feared the impact Hollywood would have on his children, should be remembered not just for the way he appreciated weirdness but for the way he normalized it — not with pills but with paisley.”

The monologue that bookmarks The Breakfast Club, with the line “You see us as you want to see us – in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions”, succinctly captures how society’s view of youth changes and yet always stays the same.

For the current younger generation, the simplest terms are mostly taken from psychiatry. This will eventually change and our recurrent anxieties about the young will largely be expressed in the next most convenient definition.

As a society, we are strangely blind to the complexities of youth.

Link to LA Times piece ‘He made weird normal’ (via Furious Seasons).

Weight affects our perceptions of importance

We often use weight as a metaphor for importance, describing something as a ‘weighty issue’ or dismissing an argument as ‘not holding much weight’ but a new study suggests that this is not just a figure of speech.

A research team found that they could alter people’s judgement of importance just by getting them to answer questions using a heavier clipboard.

In a series of short elegant experiments, a research team led by psychologist Nils Jostmann found that people holding a heavy clipboard would, for example, value foreign currencies more highly than those using a lighter clipboard.

Of course, this might be because of the simple association that larger amounts of money weigh more, so they looked at whether more abstract judgements about value could be affected by weight.

Subsequent studies showed that heavier clipboards led to participants placing more importance on the university listening to student opinions, and that participants were more likely to link their opinion of whether Amsterdam was a great city to the competence of the mayor.

A final study found that visitors who were stopped in the street and asked their opinion on a controversial subway were more confident in their opinion and were more likely to agree with strong arguments for the plan.

The researchers link these findings with the growing field of embodied cognition that suggests that much of our experience of the world is actually mediated through how we interact with it.

Much of this research shows that altering the physical condition of the body affects how we perceive and understand, even for concepts that we think are nothing but metaphors.

Link to summary of ‘Weight as an Embodiment of Importance’.

2009-08-21 Spike activity

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

Secrets of Hypnosis is a cheap-ass website hawking dodgy-looking hypnosis CDs that has completely ripped off Mind Hacks without attribution.

A four thousand year old violent attack is uncovered through the analysis of a neolithic grave reported in Science News.

The New York Times has an update on the recent episode over the public release of the Rorschach ink blot images on Wikipedia. Quick summary: the poo flinging continues with official complaints.

Neither begging for mercy nor sobbing will prevent a course on ‘NeuroPR‘ from going ahead in London.

The New York Times has a piece on how CBT-style brief training is going to be given to US Army personnel in a bid to prevent trauma. Best of luck with that.

To the bunkers! Wired reports on a group of artificially intelligent robots that evolved deception. No professor, he must have fallen into the incinerator by accident.

The BPS Research Digest covers a fascinating study finding that acquiring a second language affects how people read in their native tongue.

Ghostwriting scandal 1: Drug company Glaxo had a major ghostwriting project to offer authorship to doctors for scientific papers they hadn’t written to promote their leading antidepressant. Furious Seasons is on the case.

Ghostwriting scandal 2: Drug company Wyeth had a major ghostwriting project and PLoS Medicine recently had all their documents unsealed by court order and have put all 1500 online.

PsyBlog has an interesting piece on why brainstorming sessions don’t work very well and how they can be fixed.

The psychology and neuroscience of human navigation is discussed by New Scientist.

The New York Times has a powerful piece on palliative or end-of-life care for dying patients.

Neurofeminism has arrived and Experimental Philosophy has the announcement. Personally, I’m still waiting for neurovegetarianism.

ABC Science has a brief article on how ‘mind-reading’ headsets work that gets the basics right but seems to think “each of your thoughts has a particular signature” – even if we can’t understand it with our most sophisticated lab equipment.

Obama has bipolar disorder announces the White House via satirical news source The Onion.

New Scientist reports on a study that has found that people who are tone deaf have fewer brain connections in an area involved in language and speech.

A wonderful study on whether people lost in indistinct landscapes really walk round in circles is covered by Not Exactly Rocket Science.

Scientific American has a short piece on how language analysis programmes are finding links between our linguistic patterns and our personalities.

Emotions are still universal. Thank you Neuroskeptic for the most balanced coverage of the over-exaggerated ’emotion recognition isn’t universal’ story that hit the headlines this week.

Cognitive Daily has an excellent article on the attention grabbing properties of angry faces.

Brand new $300 a day clinic for ‘internet addiction’ has a Twitter stream. The irony, it burns!

The Neurocritic looks at a couple of studies that seem to have drawn different conclusions from the same findings depending on the context. Religion, students and neurotocism, oh my!

To the bunkers! Wired reports that the UK government is developing an AI system to detect ‘hostile intent‘ in humans.