Transhuman nature

ABC Radio National’s All in the Mind has just had an excellent programme on ‘the singularity‘, the idea that at some point in the future computer power will outstrip the ability of the human brain and then humanity will be better off in some sort of vague and unspecified way.

The idea, is of course, ludicrous and is based on a naive notion that intelligence can measured as a type of unitary ‘power’ which we can adequately compare between computer and humans. The discussion on All in the Mind is a solid critical exploration of this wildly left-field notion as well as the community from whence it comes.

It’s a popular theme among transhumanists who, despite seeming to have a mortal fear of human limitations, I quite like.

Transhumanists are like the eccentric uncle of the cognitive science community. Not the sort of eccentric uncle who gets drunk at family parties and makes inappropriate comments about your kid sister (that would be drug reps), but the sort that your disapproving parents thinks is a bit peculiar but is full of fascinating stories and interesting ideas.

They occasionally take themselves too seriously and it’s the sort of sci-fi philosophy that has few practical implications but it’s enormously good fun and is great for making you re-evaluate your assumptions.

By the way, there’s loads of extras on the AITM blog, so do check it out.

Link to All in the Mind on ‘the singularity’.
Link to extras on AITM blog.

Migraine as inspiration

Photo by Flickr user Auntie P. Click for sourceI’ve just found a brief but interesting study finding that migraines are much more common in neurologists than the general public which inspired an interesting reply by Oliver Sacks.

The prevalence of migraine in neurologists

Neurology. 2003 Nov 11;61(9):1271-2.

Evans RW, Lipton RB, Silberstein SD.

To assess the prevalence of migraine among neurologists and neurologist headache specialists, the authors performed a survey of neurologists who attended a headache review course. The 1-year and lifetime prevalences of migraine in the 220 respondents were as follows: male neurologists, 34.7%, 46.6%; male headache specialists, 59.3%, 71.9%; female neurologists, 58.1%, 62.8%; and female headache specialists, 74.1%, 81.5%. Migraine is much more prevalent among neurologists than in the general population.

Sacks later wrote to the journal to mention an earlier study finding much higher levels of migraine-related visual disturbances in doctors than other people. He also wonders:

Speculating on the possible reasons for the prevalence of migraine in neurologists, and particularly headache specialists, Evans et al. wonder, among other possibilities, whether “a personal history of migraines might stimulate an interest in neurology and headache as a subspecialty.” For myself, with a personal history of classical migraines (and, more often, isolated visual ones) going back to childhood, the extraordinary phenomena of the aura (which for me included transient or partial achromatopsia, akinetopsia, as well as visual agnosias, alexias, etc), excited an interest in the brain, and especially in visual processing, at an early age. These migraines were certainly one of the reasons I was attracted to neurology, why I chose migraine as the subject of my first book, and why I devoted a large part of this book to illustrating the varied presentations of visual auras in my patients

However, he gets short shrift from the researchers who curtly point out that their survey asked whether neurologists’ experience of migraine had influenced their career choice and they said no, so it can’t be true.

This is clearly not the finest psychological reasoning in the world and I remain fascinated by whether personal experience shapes the specialisation of clinicians.

It only happens in some cases of course. It’s probably rare that neurologists had their interest sparked after major brain damage or oncologists after experiencing cancer.

We do know, however, that psychiatrists are more likely to have experienced mental illness than other doctors and I wonder how many other links between clinical speciality and illness experience there might be.

Link to PubMed entry for study (via @anibalmastobiza)

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.