Seeing the mind amidst the numbers

Photo by Flickr user Koen Vereeken. Click for sourceI’ve just a read a fantastic New York Times article from last year on the ongoing $1,000,000 Netflix challenge to create an algorithm that will predict what unseen films customers will liked based on their past preferences.

As well as an interesting insight into how companies are trying to guess our shopping preferences it is also a great guide to one of the central problems in scientific psychology: how we can reconcile numerical data with human thought and behaviour.

The Netflix prize teams have a bunch of data from customers who have rated films they’ve already seen and they have been challenged to write software that predicts future ratings.

Part of this process is hypothesis testing, essentially an experimental approach to find out what might be important in the decision process. For example, a team might guess that women will rate musicals higher than men. They can then test this prediction out on the data, making further predictions based on past conclusions, theories or even just hunches.

The other approach is to use mathematical techniques that look for patterns in the data. To use the jargon, these procedures look for ‘higher order properties’ – in other words, patterns in the patterns of data.

Think of it like looking at the relationship between different forests rather than thinking of everything as individual trees.

The trouble is, is that these mathematical procedures can sometimes find reliable high level patterns when it isn’t obvious to us what they represent. For example, the article discusses the use of a technique called singular value decomposition (SVD) to categorise movies based on their ratings;

There’s a sort of unsettling, alien quality to their computers’ results. When the teams examine the ways that singular value decomposition is slotting movies into categories, sometimes it makes sense to them — as when the computer highlights what appears to be some essence of nerdiness in a bunch of sci-fi movies. But many categorizations are now so obscure that they cannot see the reasoning behind them. Possibly the algorithms are finding connections so deep and subconscious that customers themselves wouldn’t even recognize them.

At one point, Chabbert showed me a list of movies that his algorithm had discovered share some ineffable similarity; it includes a historical movie, “Joan of Arc,” a wrestling video, “W.W.E.: SummerSlam 2004,” the comedy “It Had to Be You” and a version of Charles Dickens’s “Bleak House.” For the life of me, I can’t figure out what possible connection they have, but Chabbert assures me that this singular value decomposition scored 4 percent higher than Cinematch — so it must be doing something right. As Volinsky surmised, “They’re able to tease out all of these things that we would never, ever think of ourselves.” The machine may be understanding something about us that we do not understand ourselves.

In these cases, it’s tempting to think there’s some deeply psychological property of the film that’s been captured by the analysis. Maybe all trigger a wistful nostalgia, or perhaps each represents the same unconscious fantasy.

It could also be that each is under 90 minutes, or comes with free popcorn. It could even be that the grouping is entirely spurious and represents nothing significant. Importantly, the answer to these questions is not in the data to be discovered, we have to make the interpretation ourselves.

Experimental methods go from meaning to data, while exploratory methods go from data to meaning. Somewhere in the middle is our mind.

The Netflix challenge is this problem on steroids and the NYT piece brilliantly explores the practical problems in making sense of it all.

Link to NYT piece ‘If You Liked This, You‚Äôre Sure to Love That’

Going under

I’ve just found a curious historical article discussing the early debates over whether anaesthesia could trigger sexual dreams in patients. As this was Britain in the 1800s, much of the fuss was centred on whether the Victorian lady was actually capable of such things:

In January, 1849, a discussion of ‚ÄúChloroform in Midwifery‚Äù occurred during a meeting of the Westminster Medical Society in England. One of the physicians, Dr. G. T. Gream (Obstetrician, Queen Charlotte‚Äôs Lying-In Hospital, London, England) enumerated several reasons why he did not think that chloroform was appropriate for obstetric use, and in so doing, he ‚Äúalluded to several cases in which women had, under the influence of chloroform, made use of obscene and disgusting language. This latter fact alone he considered sufficient to prevent the use of chloroform in English women‚Äù…

In a subsequent issue of The Lancet, notes from the Medico-Chirurgical Society of Edinburgh of February 7, 1849, were published. Sir James Young Simpson (Obstetrician, Edinburgh, Scotland, developer of chloroform anesthesia, and President of the Royal College of Physicians in 1849; 1811–1870) stated that after 15 months of use in thousands of cases, “he had never seen, nor had he ever heard of any other person having seen, any manifestation of sexual excitement result from the exhibition of chloroform…. The excitement, he was inclined to think, existed not in the individuals anesthetized, but was the result of impressions harbored in the minds of the practitioners, not in the minds of the chloroformed.”

Of course, there are some cases of criminal clinicians who have used sedation to attack their patients, but we now know that some modern anaesthetics, particularly midazolam and propofol, really do seem to be involved in causing sexual hallucinations and imagery in patients.

As far as I know, the reason why certain anaesthetics spark sexual imagery is still a mystery.

As we discussed earlier this year, the introduction of anaesthesia was controversial, partly because of the belief that pain was useful in keeping people alive and partly because experiencing pain was considered morally virtuous.

Link to PubMed entry for paper.

Lifetime blindness prevents schizophrenia?

Rather mysteriously, no one can find anyone who has been blind from birth and has later been diagnosed with schizophrenia. I found this interesting snippet from a short article from Behavioral and Brain Sciences:

Five independent searches, varying considerably in scope, methods, and population, failed to identify even one well-defined co-occurrence of total blindness and schizophrenia (Abely & Carton 1967; Chevigny & Braverman 1950; Feierman 1982; Horrobin 1979; Riscalla 1980). We dedicated portions of 2000 and 2001 to e-mail and postal mail surveys of relevant professionals; e-mail and telephone discussions with officials of health, mental health, blindness, and schizophrenia organizations and research institutes; and extensive keyword probes of Medline, PsychINFO, and ScienceDirect databases. Some ambiguity was introduced by very low return rates for our surveys, but the consistent result of all these inquiries was that no instance of totally blind/schizophrenic co-occurrence was found.

The authors give a speculative hypothesis that this is because visual experience during development helps to shape brain pathways heavily reliant on the neurotransmitter glutamate and the NMDA receptor.

It is widely accepted that this system plays a role in the development of psychosis but the idea that it is shaped by visual experience to the point where schizophrenia is impossible is just an interesting idea at the present time.

That’s not to say no-one with schizophrenia is blind (in fact, there are numerous tragic cases of self-blinding) but it is still the case that no-one has yet produced an example of someone who has been blind from birth who later has become psychotic.

If you do hear of anyone, get in touch, contact your nearest cognitive scientist, or if you are a researcher yourself, write up a case study, as it’s an interesting anomaly in the medical literature.

Link to summary of paper on blindness and schizophrenia.

Restructuring the metaphysics of a jazz thing

I love this abstract of a scientific paper on ‘Neurological Problems of Jazz Legends’. It’s full of medical jargon but if you read it out loud it sounds like a beat poem. Try it with the same rhythm as Ginsberg’s poem Howl.

Neurological problems of jazz legends

J Child Neurol. 2009 Aug;24(8):1037-42.

Pearl PL.

A variety of neurological problems have affected the lives of giants in the jazz genre.

Cole Porter courageously remained prolific after severe leg injuries secondary to an equestrian accident, until he succumbed to osteomyelitis, amputations, depression, and phantom limb pain.

George Gershwin resisted explanations for uncinate seizures and personality change and herniated from a right temporal lobe brain tumor, which was a benign cystic glioma.

Thelonious Monk had erratic moods, reflected in his pianism, and was ultimately mute and withdrawn, succumbing to cerebrovascular events.

Charlie Parker dealt with mood lability and drug dependence, the latter emanating from analgesics following an accident, and ultimately lived as hard as he played his famous bebop saxophone lines and arpeggios.

Charles Mingus hummed his last compositions into a tape recorder as he died with motor neuron disease.

Bud Powell had severe posttraumatic headaches after being struck by a police stick defending Thelonious Monk during a Harlem club raid.

If beat poetry aint your bag, try dropping it to the beat of Gang Starr’s wonderful track Jazz Thing, which, among other things, taught me the recondite word ‘recondite‘.

Link to PubMed entry for ‘Neurological Problems of Jazz Legends’.
Link to Gang Starr’s Jazz Thing.

Rebel without a couch

I’ve just discovered that the classic James Dean movie Rebel Without a Cause was inspired by a true life account of a psychiatrist’s analysis of a young ‘psychopath’.

According to this 1944 article from Time magazine, the book, called Rebel Without A Cause: The Hypnoanalysis of a Criminal Psychopath, was written by psychiatrist Mitchell Lindner and gave the public “one of the few play-by-play accounts of a psychoanalytic treatment ever published”.

Lindner’s subject is Harold, 21, serving a long term for a serious, unnamed crime. Harold, the son of a bull-tempered Polish laborer who speaks no English, has been in trouble with the police, mostly for pilfering, since the age of twelve. His most conspicuous psychopathic symptom was a constant blinking of his eyes.

Lindner began in orthodox analytic fashion by having the boy lie on a couch and encouraging him to talk freely. (Lindner got his transcript via a microphone concealed in the couch. Told about this at the end of the analysis, Harold himself urged the analyst to publish the record.) Without much hesitation, Harold gave the details of a hair-raising career of gun-toting, stealing, vandalism, fornication. Like all psychopaths, Harold was “a rebel without a cause, a revolutionary without a program,” a grownup infant with no self-restraint and a craving for instant satisfactions.

If you’re puzzled by the term ‘hypnoanalysis’ in the title, it was a form of Freudian psychoanalysis but where the patient was put into a hypnotic trance supposedly to encourage free association and facilitate access to the unconscious.

The idea was that it was a type of cranked up psychoanalysis that could give quicker results but, as the article notes, it was considered rather suspect by the forever orthodox Freudians.

An alternative juiced up version was ‘narcoanalysis’ that typically used barbiturate drugs for the same reason. This was the origin of the truth drug as it was wrongly thought that people hiding the truth might let it slip through if their unconscious was ‘loosened’ somewhat.

The connection between the book and the film seems to be fairly cursory though, as while the movie shares the title and is also about an antisocial young man, it’s otherwise quite different.

Link to 1994 Time article on the book.

Connected by threads

The Boston Globe covers several recent studies that have been able to work out sensitive personal details from information made public on social networking sites, possibly including your sexual orientation.

As we discussed earlier this week, huge amounts of information can be gleaned about your life through social network analysis simply from the patterns in your interactions.

In computer security and counter intelligence this is part of a technique called traffic analysis which has a long history in law enforcement. For example, before the days of the internet the UK police would use the Harlequin system to work out social networks from phone call patterns as these were much easier to obtain than court orders allowing phone taps.

Now, we put much of this information online ourselves but are unaware of how much the explicit personal information that we deliberately keep private is still available implicitly in the public data trail.

Sociologists have known this for years but the rapid spread of electronic communication has spurred the development of analysis tools as well as providing the real world data on which it can be applied.

Discussions of privacy often focus on how to best keep things secret, whether it is making sure online financial transactions are secure from intruders, or telling people to think twice before opening their lives too widely on blogs or online profiles. But this work shows that people may reveal information about themselves in another way, and without knowing they are making it public.

Who we are can be revealed by, and even defined by, who our friends are: if all your friends are over 45, you’re probably not a teenager; if they all belong to a particular religion, it’s a decent bet that you do, too. The ability to connect with other people who have something in common is part of the power of social networks, but also a possible pitfall. If our friends reveal who we are, that challenges a conception of privacy built on the notion that there are things we tell, and things we don’t.

Link to Globe article on social networks and personal info (via MeFi).

Oliver Sacks on the varieties of hallucinatory experience

Oliver Sacks has done a wonderful TED talk on hallucinations that has just been released online. He particularly focuses on the hallucinations of Charles Bonnet syndrome where damage or decay of the retina can cause strikingly complex hallucinations of people and animals that seems to be a natural part of the visual scene.

Interestingly, the people affected by the condition are usually well aware that they are hallucinating and remain lucid throughout.

The talk is wonderful and Sacks is engaging as ever, but some of his neuroscience explanation seems a little dodgy.

He discusses the well-known role of an area in the temporal lobes called the fusiform gyrus in face recognition and relates disturbance in this area to face hallucinations:

There’s an area in the anterior part of [the fusiform gyrus] where teeth and eyes are represented and that part of the gyrus is activated when people get the deformed hallucinations [of people with big teeth and eyes].

There is another part of the brain that is especially activated when one sees cartoons. It is activated when one recognises cartoons, when one draws cartoons and when one hallucinates them…

There are other parts of the brain that are involved in the recognition and hallucination of buildings and landscapes.

Actually, all of this seems quite dodgy. I couldn’t find any evidence that part of the fusiform gyrus is specialised for teeth and eyes.

I found one study which linked the viewing of moving mouths or pair of eyes to activation on the superior temporal gyrus, but this is the other side of the temporal lobe. Also, he seems to be suggesting that specific face parts are mapped to specific areas of the fusiform gyrus, again, which I could find no evidence for.

I suspect the bit about specific parts of the brain for buildings, landscapes and cartoons comes from a misunderstanding of neuropsychology experiments as these sorts of pictures are also often used in experiments on face recognition.

One of the big debates in face perception research is whether the fusiform gyrus is dedicated to face recognition or whether it is specialised for any sort of expertise needed for fine grained visual distinction – for example, recognising car types, or birds and so on.

Hence, experiments often will test people on face recognition, but then also on building or drawings so the researchers can find out whether the problem is specific to faces or just a general visual recognition problem. For example, this exact procedure was used in this 2005 study on four people with prosopagnosia, a selective impairment in face recognition.

Apart from maybe a few minor hallucinations from Sacks himself, the talk is excellent and comes highly recommended.

Link to Oliver Sacks TED talk on hallucinations.

Scientists find area responsible for emotion in dead fish

Neuroskeptic covers a hilarious new study that involved brain scanning a dead salmon and finding activation in the brain as it ‘looked’ at photos of human faces.

The authors are not genuinely arguing that dead fish have brain activity but have run the experiment to show that some common statistical methods used in fMRI research will give false positives if they’re not adequately controlled for.

The research, led by neuroscientist Craig Bennett, was presented as a poster at a recent conference and has the brilliant title of “Neural correlates of interspecies perspective taking in the post-mortem Atlantic Salmon: An argument for multiple comparisons correction” and is available online as a jpg.

I’d say that this research was justified on comedic grounds alone, but they were also making an important scientific point. The (fish-)bone of contention here is multiple comparisons correction. The “multiple comparisons problem” is simply the fact that if you do a lot of different statistical tests, some of them will, just by chance, give interesting results.

Most statistics used in psychology, and indeed brain imaging, are based on calculating a p value.

Usually, a p value of less than 0.05 is considered significant and this means that if there was genuinely no difference in the things you were comparing, you would get a false positive less than 5% of the time.

But your average fMRI brain scan analysis can involve 40,000 comparisons, so even if there’s nothing going on, some bits of the brain are going to seem active just through falsely detecting noise and measurement error as real effect.

To help prevent this, you can correct for multiple comparisons by reducing the 5% cut-off to a smaller amount. Unfortunately, some of the standard methods of doing this can be so strict as to create false negatives, when genuine differences are dismissed as statistical noise.

There is no hard and fast rule about which methods to use, but our salmon neuroscientists have graphically illustrated how misleading results can occur if we naively assume that not correcting accounting ‘multiple comparisons problem’ will give us an accurate picture of brain function.

Kudos to the Neuroskeptic blog for picking up on this and for some excellent coverage of this study.

Link to Neuroskeptic on dead salmon study.
jpg of conference poster.

2009-09-18 Spike activity

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

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Neurophilosophy has an excellent piece on how eye movements can reveal the unconscious detection of changes in a ‘change blindness’ demo that the conscious mind is unaware of.

Illusion Sciences has an an excellent visual illusion that changes direction depending on where you look at it.

The sad case of a 9-year-old girl diagnosed with early onset dementia is covered by The Telegraph.

A new study covered by Science News finds that at least 60% of the population experiences depression, an anxiety disorder or substance dependence by the age of 32 and discusses whether this questions the validity of diagnoses or whether like physical illness, mental illness is actually very common.

The BPS Research Digest has an analysis of Derren Brown’s recent lottery prediction stunt and lambasts him for misinforming people about psychology for the purpose of trickery.

The psychology of gay male sex preferences is discussed in an excellent article by Jesse Bering for Scientific American. At this point I normally compliment Bering for his magnificent column, but I shall refrain on this occasion.

In the same vein (oh stop it) Dr Petra look at a recent study that was widely reported as saying that larger penis size means more orgasms. Needless to say, the devil is in the detail.

Cerebrum, Dana’s excellent online neuroscience magazine, has an interesting piece on how arts training improves attention and cognition.

Some fantastic talks about the placebo effect from the Harvard Placebo Study Group are featured on The Situationist.

Cognitive Daily covers an intriguing study on change deafness.

Uncovered emails from GlaxoSmithKline suggests they were prepared to bury data if it suggested a link between antidepressant drug Paxil and birth defects. Bloomberg on the case.

Seed Magazine has an excellent short article about what visual illusions tell us about the psychology of perception. By one of the writers for Mind Hacks favourite Cognitive Daily.

There’s an article on ‘psychocutaneous disorders’, psychiatric problems affecting the skin, in Psychiatric Times. Some fairly unpleasant photos. Not safe for work, or lunch for that matter.

Not Exactly Rocket Science has a typically excellent piece on how rowing as a group increases pain thresholds. I suspect this effect might be why meetings are so protracted and tortuous.

A study on employee satisfaction finds that promises can be broken but career progression is golden, according to New Scientist.

Neuroanthropology finds an interesting lecture by Antonio Damasio on art and emotion.

The development of brain surgery through the nose is covered by ABC News

A history of the brain frame

Neurosurgical Focus has an excellent article on the development of stereotactic neurosurgery where an external frame is usually screwed into the skull and fixes the head in place to allow surgeons to precisely locate brain areas in a standard 3D space.

In modern stereotactic surgery, the system is usually used with an electronic tracking system that maps the surgeon’s instruments onto a previously acquired brain scan in real-time. The frame allows the brain scan and the actual brain to be precisely aligned.

This means the surgeon can, for example, place a depth electrode into a precise spot without having to physically see that area while still being confident that they’re in the right place.

The system is also used in research labs to ensure that, for instance, the brain is stimulated in precisely the right spot with magnetic pulses, using a technology called transcranial magnetic stimulation or TMS.

For example, if researchers wanted to see the effect of stimulating the auditory cortex they could run a listening experiment in an fMRI machine, see exactly where your auditory cortex is by mapping the activity on your brain scan, and then use a stereotactic system (e.g. this one) to guide the TMS machine to exactly this spot on your actual brain.

With all of its high-tech trappings, I never realised that the first human stereotactic system was created in 1918 with the system you can see in the picture.

The Neurosurgical Focus article looks at how the technology has developed from the original brass contraptions to the modern age of neurosurgery.

Link to Neurosurgical Focus on the history of stereotactic brain surgery.

Carl Jung’s mythical Red Book to be published

The New York Times has a huge article on the forthcoming publication of the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung’s ‘Red Book’, the notebook he kept during the six years of his ‘creative illness’ in which he was clearly psychotic but found inspiration for some of his most influential ideas.

Jung is one of the most interesting people in the history of psychology. He was both an experimentalist and an analyst in the Freudian tradition, before rejecting Freud (causing him to feint at one point!) and branching out into his own system of analytical psychology.

His works are often concerned with interests that even at the time were considered a little outlandish, such as the far reaches of world religions, UFOs and myths, but he explained almost all of them in terms of psychological phenomena.

He was the first to create a comprehensive classification of personality and his work still forms the basis of the Myers-Briggs personality inventory. He has been accused of being a Nazi, and, although untrue, it is clear that he was ambiguous about the Third Reich when a firm rejection was needed.

And most interesting, perhaps, was what he called his ‘confrontation with the unconscious’, shortly after his split from Freud, when he spent six years, largely isolated at home, having visions, hearing voices, fighting what he interpreted as his own internal forces.

Jung came out of this period with some of his most distinctive ideas all of which he noted in his ‘Red Book’ which has been kept behind closed doors by the Jung family for years.

The book has gained an almost mythical status and The New York Times article is as much about the long saga of getting into print, almost 90 years after it was written, as it is about Jung himself.

It also gives an interesting insight into the culture of Jungian analysts themselves, who have been a breed apart ever since their subversion of the Freudian mainstream after Jung went his own way.

A fascinating piece of psychological history.

Link to NYT on ‘The Holy Grail of the Unconscious’.

Mass hysteria, crazes and panics

The Fortean Times has an article and some fantastic excerpts from a new encyclopaedia on mass hysteria, social panics and fast moving fads called Outbreak: The Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Social Behaviour.

The book tackles some of the most curious and surprising outbreaks from medieval times to the present day, covering everything from medieval dancing plagues to modern day penis theft panics to the worldwide hula-hoop craze of 1958.

It’s by sociologists Hilary Evans and Robert Bartholomew both of whom are well known for their work on how unusual beliefs and experiences are shaped by culture. However, mass hysterias and the like and still one of the most mysterious aspects of human psychology.

There have been many attempts to account for the kinds of outlandish collect­ive behaviour that so fascinate forteans – the book provides entries on many of these related theories and explan­ations, from Altered States of Consciousness and Anxiety to False Memory Syndrome, Hysteria and Psychosomatic Phenomena. Many once-favoured ideas don’t really stand up to much scrutiny: consider the fad among 19th-century physicians for ‘curing’ masturbators with bizarre surgical ‘intervention’ and for terrifying their hapless patients with the prospect of bodily ruin and eternal damnation. It could be argued that none of the theories that have been put forward – even the more promising ones – actually applies in all cases.

Ultimately, it’s clear there is no consensus on just why human behaviour should include such anomalies, or how and why they occur. Just possibly, they may be pathological forms of the more healthy processes that cement our personal and social lives and which are only noticed when they go wrong. In many cases, the best that can be done is to understand the local social, political and cultural dynamics, but even so the causes of many such outbreaks remain obscure. This is important, because such erratic collective behaviour casts an awful shadow over human history, and we are no closer to understanding it now than Mackay was in 1841.

In fact, Bartholomew wrote one of my favourite books of all time. Called Little Green Men, Meowing Nuns and Head-Hunting Panics: A Study of Mass Psychogenic Illnesses and Social Delusion (ISBN 0786409975) it was the first book that made me wake up to the power of social influence on individual psychology.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must say that I was sent a PDF of the new encyclopaedia some months ago in the hopes that I would write some blurb for the back, which I was more than happy to do as it is a wonderfully complete collection of social curiosities.

The Fortean Times article has some great excerpts covering an outbreak of feinting in a marching band in 1973 Alabama (a classic case of mass hysteria), an outbreak of cat-like meowing in India in 2004, the 1958 hula-hoop craze, a goblin scare that affect Zimbabwe in 2002, a ‘culture bound syndrome’ with the unusual name of the jumping Frenchmen of Maine from the 18th and 19th centuries, various outbreaks of fears about chemtrails, a giant earthworm hoax that panicked a Texas town in 1993, and a version of Orson Well’s War of the Worlds that caused widespread rioting in Ecuador in 1949.

And if you want more on ‘mass hysteria’, I highly recommend a 2002 article from the British Journal of Psychiatry by Bartholomew and psychiatrist Simon Wessely.

Link to Fortean Times article ‘Outbreak!’
Link to more details on the book.
Link to BJP article on mass psychogenic illness.

Do deaf people hear hallucinated voices?

Photo by Flickr user piccadillywilson. Click for sourceI always assumed the question of whether people deaf from birth could hear hallucinated voices was similar to the question of whether a tree falling in a forest makes a sound if no-one is there, but it turns out that there have been several studies on auditory hallucinations in deaf people.

In fact, I’ve just read a remarkable paper that reports ten case studies of people who became deaf before they learnt language and who report hearing voices as part of a psychotic mental illness. And this isn’t the only study, PubMed has several more.

I always assumed that a born-deaf person would hallucinate signs instead (and apparently, this has also been reported) but this study carefully asked the people concerned about and they seemed to be clear that they were ‘hearing’ the voices.

In one of the most interesting bits in the study they asked the deaf patients how they could ‘hear’ voices when they were deaf:

Although the patients were only rated as having auditory hallucinations if they were emphatic that they heard voices rather than received information in some other way, and several gave the sign for talking, questioning about how they were able to hear, being deaf, was typically uninformative. Most commonly the patients merely shrugged, gave a ‘don’t know’ reply, or indicated that they could not understand the question.

Others made attempts at explanation which were superficial, facile or otherwise unsatisfactory, such as ‘maybe talking in my brain,’ or ‘sometimes I’m deaf, sometimes I hear’. One patient argued that he could hear music if he turned it up loud (which probably represented perception of vibration), and implied that the same was true for speech. Still others made untrue or delusional claims that they could hear or used to be able to hear.

Such patients made statements like ‘I’m not deaf‘, or ‘I can hear on one side, on the right’, or ‘I used to be able to hear a little, a year ago’. One patient, who was diagnosed as deaf at the age of 2 years, stated that she could hear before the age of 5 years, but then she hit a brick wall and became deaf. One patient believed that his hearing had been restored by God.

These sorts of seemingly half-hearted explanations are not uncommon in patients with delusional syndromes. For example, if you ask a patient who is paralysed after brain damage but is unaware of it (something called anosognosia) to lift their hand they can often give answers like “it’s fine where it is” or “I can’t be bothered right now” while continuing to claim that they could move it if they wanted.

I notice a recent article criticises the idea that deaf people can hear voices saying that the interpretation of these hallucinatory experiences relies on hearing people imposing their ideas onto what they’ve been told. In the case studies above some of the deaf people clearing and unambiguously signed that they ‘heard’ the voices but sadly I don’t have access to this critical article so can’t say quite how convincing this argument is.

On a related note, I’ve heard several people discuss whether blind people could experience ‘visual’ hallucinations (usually in reference to LSD) but I’ve had no luck finding any reports of this.

Link to study of hallucinated voices in deaf people.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

Unweaving the tangled web

The New York Times has a brilliant article on how human traits and behaviours, including everything from happiness to obesity, can spread through social networks.

It discusses the findings of the Framington Heart Study. Originally designed to be a study of heart disease in a small American town, it recorded each participant’s family and friends in case the researchers lost touch with anyone.

This data allowed sociologists Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler to reconstruct the social networks of the participants and test how family, work and friendship connections affected the spread of things like happiness, obesity and smoking. Their data suggests that even quite nebulous experiences like happiness ‘travel’ through our web of relationships, as we discussed when they released this study last year.

Coincidentally Wired has also just published an article on the same topic which has some of the stunning network maps from the study, but I really recommend reading the New York Times in full as it is not solely on this one study, it also serves as a nuanced discussion about the usefulness and limitations of social network analysis.

Not least is the difficulty of judging to what extent these effects ‘travel’ through relationships or how much the ‘birds of a feather’ effect means similar people just flock together.

You need to understand social network analysis because it is becoming one of the most powerful method to understand human behaviour. As we’ve discussed before, the fact that digital communications technology is so common means that we’re constantly creating data trails that can reveal surprising amounts of intimate information with relatively simple methods.

For example, the BPS Research Digest just covered a study that could infer about 95% of friendships just from looking at location data from mobile phones – something that is one of the most basic information trails in the rich data stream automatically produced by social media.

This approach to understanding human networks is also likely to be increasingly important for human science. The last few decades have seen a massive increase in understanding on how genetics influences our minds and behaviour and social network analysis will see us increasingly linking individual discoveries from biology and cognitive science to the role of our relationships in our lives.

Link to NYT piece ‘Is Happiness Catching?’
Link to Wired piece ‘The Buddy System’.
Link to Mind Hacks on ‘The distant sound of well-armed sociologists’.

Fifty years of Madness and Civilisation

ABC Radio National’s Philosopher’s Zone has a fantastic programme discussing Michel Foucault’s influential book ‘Madness and Civilisation’ on the 50th anniversary of its publication.

The book is nominally a history of madness since the enlightenment. Foucault argues that the age saw a cultural shift where madness was distinguished from reason and the civilised mind and where the mad were marked out and separated from mainstream society.

He argues that Europe began creating legal and social mechanisms to control those they deemed mad. Not least among these was the invention of the asylum and Foucault cites the 17th century as where lunatics began to be banished to these imposing human warehouses in what he called the ‘great confinement’.

Except, it never happened. As the late great medical historian Roy Porter noted in his book A Social History of Madness (ISBN 1857995023), there is no evidence of a systematic confinement of the mad in the 17th century.

The records show that France was the only country in Europe to centralise its administration of services for the ‘pauper madman’ while other countries didn’t typically have any legislation in place until the 19th century.

This detail is glossed over by the programme but, by examining some other of Foucault’s claims, it does make a similar point that Madness and Civilisation isn’t actually a very good history book.

This has only recently become clear to many as while an abridged version has been available for years in English, the full translation, including the now clearly inadequate references to historical sources, was only published in 2005.

Perhaps the book’s lasting legacy is not in the details of the rather shaky arguments but in the way in which Foucault approached the subject: showing that medical and scientific concepts are influenced as much by cultural beliefs and fashions as by empirical data.

By the way, Porter’s A Social History of Madness is a little academic in it’s style but is otherwise absolutely fantastic. It got glowing reviews from pretty much everyone in psychiatry including arch ‘anti-psychiatrist’ Thomas Szasz, which is quite an achievement in itself.

Link to Philosopher’s Zone on Madness and Civilisation.

Encephalon 75 shimmers in

The 75th edition of the Encephalon psychology and neuroscience carnival has just appeared online, as if by magic, at Ionian Enchantement.

A couple of my favourites include an excellent piece from Cognitive Daily on mood and memory and great coverage by Neuronarrative of research showing fake video evidence can be persuasive, even to the people falsely implicated by it.

There are many cognitive rabbits being pulled out of internet hats, so roll up for more at the link below.

Link to Encephalon 75.