2009-11-13 Spike activity

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

<img align="left" src="http://mindhacks-legacy.s3.amazonaws.com/2005/01/spike.jpg&quot; width="102" height="120"

Wasting your corporate money on neuromarketing? That’s so last season. You should be wasting your money on genomarketing instead. The Neurocritic looks at the birth of an interesting new field which will undoubtedly get inappropriately commercialised any time now.

Not Exactly Rocket Science has an excellent post on how manipulating dopamine levels in the brain changes how much enjoyment we judge a future event to bring.

There’s an excellent short article on a new theory of dreaming and lucid dreams over at The New York Times.

The Situationist covers some fascinating research on whether we can judge people’s personalities purely from their appearance.

An exciting advance in gene therapy that halted the progression of a fatal neurodegenerative disease in two 7-year-olds is reported by Wired Science.

BBC News reports on government moves to reduce the prescription of antipsychotics to elderly people with dementia, owing to massive increases in short-term mortality (yes, that’s death folks).

Another big name article complains that the ‘internet is killing storytelling’ and mistakes anecdote for evidence. BrainSpin has a good analysis.

Vanity Fair has a Malcolm Gladwell satire: Gladwell explains Christmas.

Narcotecture! Afghan Desk has a photo tour of the opulent Afghan houses built through poppy growing profits.

The Guardian warns of extra heart dangers from mixing cocaine and alcohol.

The ‘peeriodic‘ table of optical illusions is described by veteran vision research Richard Gregory who classifies them according to how they affect perception in a piece for New Scientist.

PsyBlog has an interesting piece on how low mood tend to bounce back after a dip.

Pfizer caught manipulating studies for gabapentin. Busted by the New England Journal of Medicine, reported by MSBNC.

The New York Times discusses combat stress and mental illness in light of the recent Fort Hood shootings.

Carl Sagan explores the brain in his 1980 TV series, thanks to a video found by The Neuro Times. Starts by riffing on McLean’s outdated ‘triune brain’ theory (all that ‘reptilian brain’ nonsense) but otherwise great.

The BPS Research Digest reports on intriguing research on how performing horizontal eye movement exercises can boost your creativity.

Who says love hurts? Romantic partners alter our perception of pain. Another great piece from Jesse Berring in his Scientific American column.

Counter Punch discusses the controversy over the increasing use of social scientists in the military.

Rejection massively, albeit temporarily, reduces IQ, according to New Scientist who perhaps a little over-sensationalise the distracting effect of feeling shit in their headline.

The New York Times has a piece by Simon Baron-Cohen who argues that Asperger’s syndrome should not be removed from the diagnostic manuals (although doesn’t address why high functioning autism and Aspergers are different diagnoses despite differing solely in terms of a detail over when someone started talking).

There’s a great piece on the long-term effects of day care for kids over at Cognitive Daily.

Lot of places reported variations on the ‘being miserable is good for you’ theme. You’re best of reading the original study summary for a more sensible take.

EEG leads to murder conviction

Wired UK has a fantastic investigative article concerning a recent case in India, where, for the first time, an ‘EEG lie detector’ was used to convict a 23-year-old woman of murder.

Aditi Sharma was described as being in a love triangle and her ex-boyfriend died through arsenic poisoning. She maintained it was suicide but the prosecution successfully argued that her and her new boyfriend murdered the ex. The judge apparently felt that the EEG was decisive and revealed ‘experiential knowledge’ which proved her to be guilty.

The general idea does have a scientific basis, but its not widely considered to be anything except a research tool because its never been tested thoroughly enough or proved to be reliable enough to form the basis of legal evidence.

The research version is called the guilty knowledge or concealed knowledge test and is based on the fact that, on average, recognising something you’ve seen before has a distinct EEG waveform when compared to seeing something completely new.

The idea is that the investigator can show you things from the crime scene and just ‘read off’ your brain’s electrical activity and infer whether you were there or not. The technology described in the Indian case apparently uses a technique where statements are read out to the accused, although this is not a common format.

It is currently not admissible as evidence in court, but as the Wired UK article reveals, a similar technology has now been turned into a minor industry in India and there is a shocking acceptance by the legal system that the technology is a genuine ‘lie detector’ – way beyond what anyone has shown reliably in the lab.

The laboratory of the Directorate of Forensic Science in Mumbai has been running Brain Electrical Oscillations Signature (BEOS) tests on criminal suspects for two years. Business is good: when Wired visits, another room is being added to accommodate a second EEG machine, which sits covered in bubble wrap. ‚ÄúWe consider the brain as a computer, where information is stored and can be retrieved,‚Äù explains Sunny Joseph, the lab‚Äôs 33-year-old assistant chemical analyser. The psychology department has two other staff members ‚Äì both in their twenties, both rushed off their feet, with case after case being sent by the courts. ‚ÄúReferral rates have been really high,‚Äù Joseph adds. ‚ÄúWe do possibly 15 cases a month.‚Äù A growing heap of brown-foldered case reports sit in the corner…

A colleague of Joseph’s later points out that brain-imaging allows an overstretched police force to speed up the conviction process by eliminating innocent suspects from their enquiries and by corroborating evidence. That is why Mumbai is not the only Indian city to have invested in BEOS technology. The government’s forensic science directorate in Gandhinagar, in Gujarat, has been using it since 2003 and has now tested 163 subjects in 88 criminal cases. Support came directly from India’s chief forensic scientist, Dr MS Rao. “The technique has great potentiality to become an infallible tool in crime investigation,” he wrote in a paper presented to the All-India Forensic Science Conference in January. “It can become a revolutionary technique like DNA fingerprinting if its evidential strength and judicial acceptability are established.” A third such facility opens soon in the northern Indian city of Chandigarh.

The young lady accused of murder, Aditi Sharma, has apparently been sentenced to life imprisonment on the basis of the technology, although I’ve not been able to find out if there has been an appeal since her sentencing in June.

Link to article ‘The brain police: judging murder with an MRI’.

Full disclosure: I’m a contributing editor to Wired UK and have never been EEG lie-detected.

Taking the neurotrash out

Neuroscientist Raymond Tallis has a barn-storming and somewhat bad tempered article in The New Humanist where he rails against the increasing tendency to explain everything from beauty to crime in terms of brain function.

He begins by criticising how neuroscience is now appearing as a handy ‘neuro-‘ prefix to more and more areas of human society, leading to the likes of “neuro-jurisprudence, neuro-economics, neuro-aesthetics, neuro-theology” and so on.

This is probably the bad tempered bit. While he makes an excellent point about the over-enthusiastic interpretation over brain activity in relation to these concepts, I don’t have a problem with people researching these areas, even if they do it in a rather vague and cursory way.

This, after all, is the typical pattern of most new areas of scientific investigation. It’s the tried and tested ‘flailing around in the dark and wild theory making’ stage that we will all look back on and laugh at in a century’s time.

It’s quite a necessary stage though, and only 20 years ago, many mainstream scientists would have regarded the neuroscience of consciousness in the same way.

Tallis seems to criticise all attempts to reduce complex social and cultural interactions to biology, but not all are equal in their conceptual distance from the more fundamental functions of the brain.

Who would have guessed that recognising faces would be one of the more specialised brain functions and most closely tied to a specific area whereas universal disorders like psychosis are not? It’s only through studying these things do we know the how well we can relate them to specific patterns or circuits.

Because of this, the ‘patchy reductionism’ approach, where we assume some mental and social concepts will just be more easily tied to clear neurobiological functions than others, is becoming widely accepted in applied areas of medicine such as psychiatry.

Tallis’ subsequent point is right on the mark though: theory and speculation on these matters are being increasingly touted as a basis for legal and public decision making, and indeed, being increasingly offered as a commercial service.

We are not at a stage where even our most detailed of neuroscience theories could be used as a basis for general social rules and it is doubtful they will be in the majority of cases because they attempt to describe human behaviour at a different level of explanation.

It’s like someone trying to create employment laws for actors based on the plot of Romeo and Juliet, and the equivalent is becoming common in discussions of neuroscience.

Tallis is always worth listening to and this is one of the most critical pieces on neuroscience you’re likely to read in a while.

Link to ‘Neurotrash’ article.

All tied up

If you’re attending one of those high class neuroscience events, you probably need a stylish neuron tie to set off your lounge jacket and flannel slacks.

I’m assuming, of course, that you get invited to high class neuroscience events. I tend not to get many invitations these days on account of that unfortunate Rocky Horror / Royal Society mix up.

If you’ve managed to avoid such embarrassing mistakes (and if you think turning up to a scientific meeting in suspenders is bad, try asking Dr. Frank-N-Furter for his raw data) you can get a tie in either microfibre or silk.

UPDATE: It seems the ties have all sold out! There is one more here but otherwise you may have to contact the chap to request some more.

Link to microfibre neuron tie.
Link to silk neuron tie.

The Madame Butterfly Effect

I’ve just found a curious study on whether opera fans are more accepting of suicide in the case of dishonor to one’s family in real life, in light of the fact that this is a common theme in several well known stage masterpieces.

It turns out that they are, and the researchers label the phenomenon the ‘Madame Butterfly effect’ after the famous opera of the same name where one of the lead characters kills themselves to avoid dishonour.

Opera subculture and suicide for honor.

Death Studies. 2002 Jun;26(5):431-7.

Stack S.

The influence of music-based subcultures on suicidality has been the subject of much debate but little scholarly research. While previous work has documented that suicide is a remarkably frequent cause of death in opera, it has not explored the related consequences on opera’s audience. In particular, the possible influence of the opera subculture on suicide acceptability has been largely unexplored. Suicide in the case of life without honor, the “Madame Butterfly Effect,” is a theme in opera. Persons who are drawn into and/or influenced by the opera subculture of honor are hypothesized to be more accepting of suicide in the case of dishonor to one’s family. Data are from the national general social surveys (N = 845). A multivariate logistic regression analysis finds that opera fans are 2.37 times more accepting of suicide because of dishonor than nonfans. Only two variables, religiosity and education, are more closely related to suicide acceptability than opera fanship. These are the first empirical results on the subject of opera and suicide acceptability.

Link to PubMed entry for opera and attitudes to suicide study.

Terrorism, society and psychology

The latest edition of Monitor on Psychology has an excellent article on the psychology of terrorism, looking at both what motivates people to join terrorist organisations and what influences attitudes to terrorist groups.

Being an article in the publication of the American Psychological Association, it’s a round-up of American research on terrorism, however, there are two findings on terrorism which perhaps suggest one of the political challenges in dealing with the problem.

One of those is from terror management theory, in which making people temporarily conscious of a risk to their life or their impending mortality affects how people think about a range of issues, including response to terrorism:

To test whether the theory applies to the conflict between the Middle East and the West, Pyszczynski’s team conducted a set of studies in the United States, Iran and Israel. In all three countries, people who were subtly reminded of their mortality‚Äîand thus primed to cling more strongly to their group identities‚Äîwere more likely to support violence against the out group. Iranians were more likely to support suicide bombing against Westerners. Americans were more likely to advocate military force to battle Islamic extremists, even if it meant killing thousands of civilians. Israelis were more likely to condone violence against Palestinians.

So discussing mortal threat increases people’s desire for violent responses to perceived terrorism.

However, the article makes clear that radicalisation is potentially increased by violent responses and that successful deredicalisation programmes take a supportive rather than a punitive approach:

In preliminary research, Kruglanski and colleagues note that many of these programs share:

‚Ä¢ An intellectual component, often involving moderate Muslim clerics who hold dialogues with imprisoned detainees about the Qu’ran’s true teachings on violence and jihad.

‚Ä¢ An emotional component that defuses detainees’ anger and frustration by showing authentic concern for their families, through means such as funding their children’s education or offering professional training for their wives. This aspect also capitalizes on the fact that detainees are weary from their lifestyles and imprisonment.

• A social component that addresses the reality that detainees often re-enter societies that may rekindle their radical beliefs. A program in Indonesia, for instance, uses former militants who are now law-abiding citizens to convince former terrorists that violence against civilians compromises the image of Islam.

So the political dilemma seems to be that simply discussing the threat of terrorism makes people less likely to support the most effective counter-terrorist programmes, owing to the effect of mortality awareness increasing the desire for violent responses, which, if carried out, could increase support for terrorism in the target population.

Answers on a postcard please…

Link to article ‘Understanding terrorism’.

The wall in the heads

Photo by Flickr user Photos o' Randomness. Click for sourceLooking back on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Somatosphere discusses how the wall became incorporated into German psychological theories as a diagnosis, a metaphor and a social force.

Apparently, an East German psychiatrist even went as far as suggesting a specific diagnosis of ‘the wall disorder’:

“…the book Die Berliner Mauerkrankheit (The Berlin wall disease) written by a prominent East German psychiatrist, Dietfried M√ºller-Hegemann (1973), shortly after the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 (but not published until after his emigration to the West). M√ºller-Hegemann drew on his collection of patient histories to highlight the deleterious social and psychological consequences of a society encircled by the wall. He investigated what Berliners had already started to talk about‚Äîwhether the newly built wall was causing a novel psychological disease: ‚Äúthe wall disorder,‚Äù

Link to Somatosphere on the Berlin Wall in German psychology.

Orchids, dandelions and cognitive genetics

The Atlantic has an excellent article on how our assumptions about genetic vulnerability to mental illness may be misplaced, as many studies have missed out how the same genetic factors may cause people to thrive but only in quite specific circumstances.

One of the difficulties with psychiatry research is that it often has a sample bias, a blind spot if you will, as it typically studies people who turn up in front of mental health professionals because they’re a problem to themselves or others.

It finds social, psychological or biological factors associated with the problem and then speculates that these might be involved in causing the problem.

Many times throughout history, however, it has later been discovered that perfectly functional people have the same traits but they weren’t specifically looked for and so weren’t included when the theories were devised.

In this case, the article tackles how genes originally identified as ‘risk factors’ for mental illness, could, in fact, be equally well conceived of as ‘sensitivity factors’ that heighten response to all situations.

When these situations include tragedy, abuse, or what in the medical literature are euphemistically called ‘life events’ (essentially, the shit in ‘shit happens’) the result may be an increased chance of mental illness, but when the situations are positive, life-enhancing opportunities, this extra sensitivity may lead to better outcomes.

Though this hypothesis is new to modern biological psychiatry, it can be found in folk wisdom, as the University of Arizona developmental psychologist Bruce Ellis and the University of British Columbia developmental pediatrician W. Thomas Boyce pointed out last year in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science. The Swedes, Ellis and Boyce noted in an essay titled “Biological Sensitivity to Context,” have long spoken of “dandelion” children. These dandelion children—equivalent to our “normal” or “healthy” children, with “resilient” genes—do pretty well almost anywhere, whether raised in the equivalent of a sidewalk crack or a well-tended garden. Ellis and Boyce offer that there are also “orchid” children, who will wilt if ignored or maltreated but bloom spectacularly with greenhouse care.

At first glance, this idea, which I’ll call the orchid hypothesis, may seem a simple amendment to the vulnerability hypothesis. It merely adds that environment and experience can steer a person up instead of down. Yet it’s actually a completely new way to think about genetics and human behavior. Risk becomes possibility; vulnerability becomes plasticity and responsiveness.

Link to Atlantic article ‘The Science of Success’.

Emulating the brain on a chip

Discover Magazine has an article on an innovative project to create silicon chips which work like neurons. If you’re thinking these are standard digital chips that run neural network software you’d be wrong, they’re part-analogue devices that are specifically built to emulate the physical operation of brain cells.

The article riffs on the work of neuroscientist Kwabena Boahen who leads the ‘Brains in Silicon’ project.

If you’re not familiar with the difference between analogue and digital calculation it’s worth just briefly getting to grips with it so you can see how revolutionary this project is.

Most computer chips are digital. They encode numbers as lists of 0s and 1s because they are made up of millions of transistors which can switch on (a ‘1’) and off (a ‘0’). The chip can then do operations or maths on the numbers, by flipping the switches, depending on what functions are built-in and how software makes use of them.

So if you wanted to calculate, lets say, how fast a crowd of people walk through a door, you would need to enter numbers for the size of the door, how fast the people are walking, the amount of interference caused by jostling and crowding and your mathematical formulae which ties it all together. The chip would do the calculation, and you would get your answer.

An analogue calculation is more more like a simulation. For example, you might find that ball bearings and a funnel give you a good approximation of the answer. You just change the size of the funnel, the number of ball bearings and the pressure from behind and you just observe what is happening to get the answer. It might not be as pinpoint accurate, but its much easier to build and run.

The traditional approach to artificial neural networks is the first. Each virtual neuron is a mathematical simulation of the electrical and chemical processes and how it influences other virtual neurons. This needs huge amounts of calculations because each of the simulated neurons is mathematically complex and any change means every connected neuron needs also to be recalculated.

This is the approach taken by the Blue Brain Project and it is no accident that they use one of the world’s biggest supercomputers to run the simulation.

This is where Boahen’s project comes in. While the traditional digital approach is very accurate, its very time and energy intensive. While the Blue Brain project needs a warehouse of tech to support it, the actual noisy error-prone brain runs in the space of a bag of Doritos.

So instead of going for the pinpoint accuracy of digital simulation, Boahen has created chips that are an analogue simulation, or really, an analogue emulation of neurons.

As neurons use electrical impulses, much of their function can be described as electrical circuits. In fact, the Hodgkin-Huxley model of the neuron can be drawn as an electrical circuit.

So instead of writing mathematical equations to simulate the circuit and then getting a chip to do the digital calculations, you could just build the circuit. Using the circuit would tell you exactly how the neuron would behave.

Complete neurons are more complex than the simple Hodgkin–Huxley circuit (which just aims to describe the electrical action potential signal) but the same approach applies. Instead of building a chip to run digital simulations of circuits, just build the circuits. The result is noisy, dirty but fast, very low power and good enough Рjust like the human brain.

We covered Boahen’s work back in 2007 and there’s a great talk he did which introduces the project, but the Discover article is a great update on the research which has the potential to turn neurally inspired computing on its head.

It also has loads of background information and is a great introduction to how the brain deals with its noisy and surprisingly unreliable neurons.

Link to Discover article on brain chips.

Like a hole in the head: a very medical tribute

Harvey Cushing was not only a pioneering neurosurgeon but a fantastic artist, as can be seen from his amazing scientific illustrations. It turns out, he gave a few below-the-radar tributes in his drawings, as he based several illustrations of brain surgery ‘patients’ on portraits of his colleagues.

On the left is a drawing from Cushing’s 1908 book Surgery: Its Principles and Practice. It shows a craniotomy in a patient with a gunshot wound that had damaged the motor cortex (actually, I’ve flipped this image so it better matches the picture below).

The image at the bottom is a portrait of the Canadian physician William Osler, and you can see that the ‘patient’ is really a portrait of Osler.

Apparently, the two men had a warm friendship and a strong mutual admiration:

Osler and Cushing became firm friends, with their common bond a scholarly interest in medical biography and an avid love of books. Geoffrey Jefferson graciously assessed Cushing’s ties with Osler:

“The friendship which sprang up between the two proved to be a vital factor in his life, and probably no less in Osler’s‚Ķ. No special reason requires to be shown for matters of feeling; not the least was that they just liked one another a lot. They shared ideals in the meaning and the uses of the medical life in its highest intellectual plane, as well as at a humanitarian level, as the similarities of their writings on these subjects show”…

After Osler’s death in 1919, responding to the invitation of Lady Osler, Cushing spent 5 years writing his monumental opus, The Life of Sir William Osler. Published in two volumes, it was awarded a Pulitzer prize for literature

I found this interesting snippet in a great article on the history of modern brain surgery in a 2003 article from the Journal of Neurosurgery.

Link to PubMed entry for history of neurosurgery article.

Alien hands in fiction

Alien or anarchic hand syndrome is where you lose conscious control of one of your hands after brain damage, to the point where it seems to have a ‘will of its own’. There’s a great short article in this month’s Cortex examining how this curious phenomenon has appeared in fiction.

Famously, something similar appears in the film Dr Strangelove to the point where the disorder is sometimes called the ‘Dr Strangelove syndrome’.

But it turns out that self-directed hands have also appeared in numerous other works of fiction. I was particularly taken by this plot device:

The phenomenon is usually accounted for as resulting from lesions to the contralateral Supplementary Motor Area (SMA). However, it has also been associated to the severance of the Corpus Callosum and William Boyd, in his short story, ‘‘Bizarre Situations’’, from the collection ‘‘On the Yankee Station’’, embraced this anatomical interpretation of the syndrome. The main character of this novel, who underwent a callosotomy, does not know whether or not his left hand shot his best friend’s wife dead.

The Cortex article is by neuropsychologist Sergio Della Salla who has done a great deal of the research on this condition himself and who also wrote a great article on the condition for The Psychologist back in 2005.

However, it misses out one of the most famous depictions of a hand with a ‘mind of its own’ – from the film The Evil Dead II – where Ash’s hand becomes possessed and he ends up having to chainsaw it off. There’s a clip of the scene here, which is a bit icky if you’re not into that sort of thing.

Link to ‘Dr Strangelove syndrome’ in literature.

Straight outta Bedlam

I’ve just found an odd study on whether rap and heavy rock music encourages ‘inappropriate behaviour’ in psychiatric patients when compared to easy listening and country tunes.

It sounds like it could be something from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest but as I don’t have access to the full text, I’m still not sure what the ‘inappropriate behaviours’ were (air guitar? MC Hammer trousers?)

A comparison of the effects of hard rock and easy listening on the frequency of observed inappropriate behaviors: control of environmental antecedents in a large public area.

Journal of Music Therapy. 1992 Spring;29(1):6-17.

Harris CS, Bradley RJ, Titus SK.

Observation of clients at a state mental health hospital by direct care staff indicated that they appeared to act in more inappropriate ways when “hard rock” or “rap” music was played in an open courtyard than when “easy listening” or “country” music was played. A study was conducted to compare the inappropriate behavior of clients when hard rock and rap music were played (21 days), followed by easy listening and country and western music (21 days). This comparison was followed by a reversal phase in which hard rock and rap music were again played (18 days). The behaviors of the clients were observed and recorded via a controlled methodology. The results demonstrated that more inappropriate behavior was observed under conditions in which hard rock and rap music were played than when easy listening and country western music were played. The implications of these findings are discussed.

Link to PubMed entry for music study.

Psychiatric tales

Darryl Cunningham draws amazing comics about psychiatry and mental illness, drawn from his time working as a student nurse on psychiatric wards.

His comic strip Psychiatric Tales has been regularly appearing online and he’s just posted the amazing and heartfelt last chapter along with an announcement that the series is to be published as a book by Blank Slate Publishing in February.

If you want to get a feel for Cunningham’s work, set aside some time and have a look at some of the piece at the links below – they’re well worth the time.

People With Mental Illness Enhance Our Lives

Dementia Ward

Suicide

Schizophrenia

Cut and Delusions

Last Chapter

The strips are brilliantly written and drawn, and do something quite rare in discussion of mental illness – they manage to capture both the experience of people with psychiatric difficulties and the experience of the staff caring for them.

There are other chapters on his website so do go and have a look. Fantastic stuff.

Link to Darryl Cunningham’s blog.

2009-11-06 Spike activity

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

<img align="left" src="http://mindhacks-legacy.s3.amazonaws.com/2005/01/spike.jpg&quot; width="102" height="120"

What should count as an illness in the DSM-V? Asks Psychiatric Times with a brief discussion on the concepts of mental disorder.

Addiction Inbox is a fantastic blog about drug abuse and addiction.

There’s an excellent article on the anthropology of office gossip over at The New York Times.

New Scientist reports on a convicted murderer who got a reduced sentence on appeal owing to the fact he has a version of the MAOA gene that has been linked to an increase chance of aggression. Biological determinism alive and well in the Italian courts. Is that the ghost of Lombroso I see?

Recently sacked drugs advisor to the UK government writes a scathing editorial in New Scientist. There’s also some good commentary in the British Medical Journal from psychopharmacologist David Colquhoun.

CNN reports on a case of a women who experiences transient global amnesia after sex.

The highs and lows of transcranial magnetic stimulation are discussed by Inkling Magazine.

The New York Times reports on female soldiers from the US military who have suffered post-traumatic stress.

A recent study that contradicts the child bipolar over-excitement is covered by Furious Seasons.

Neuroskeptic has some excellent coverage of a recent study comparing the effects of real vs placebo coffee.

A vintage public information film on psychoanalysis apparently from the late 1940s makes for fascinating viewing on YouTube.

New Scientist meets Terry Pratchett to talk about his work and his diagnosis of an uncommon form of Alzheimer’s disease.

Research on what increases altruism in toddlers in covered by the wonderful BPS Research Digest.

Frontal Cortex muses on several studies showing the mental impact of a bad night’s sleep.

Internet pant-wetters take note. A new study from the Pew Research Center finds that internet users are more social offline than non-users and that internet use isn’t linked to social isolation. Good coverage from CNET.

Not Exactly Rocket Science has an excellent post on how new born babies’ cries have a recognisable ‘accent‘, depending on native language.

A new documentary about psychedelic drugs is previewed by Dr Shock.

New Scientist has a good article on why good decision making and IQ aren’t necessarily linked.

What’s the best way to take a study break? asks Cognitive Daily with the research to back up the answer. My answer of ‘fly to Jamaica’ is apparently not evidence-based.

The New York Times discusses how Asperger syndrome may be taken out of the forthcoming revised diagnostic manual and merged into a single autism spectrum diagnosis.

The US airforce apparently want top ‘overwhelm enemy cognitive abilities’ with something biosciencey, according to a new research effort covered by Wired’s Danger Room.

The Guardian has what seems to be the best obituary of legendary and hugely influential anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, probably because it was written by a fellow anthropologist.

Philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel has a ‘very simple argument against any general theory of consciousness’ on his blog The Splintered Mind.

New Scientist has a short news piece on how we can sense our heartbeat with our skin.

Another nice piece on self-deception research, this time on how we over-estimate our ability to resist impulses, is discussed by Neuronarrative. The correct link to the original study is here.

The Neuroscience Boot Camp annual summer crash course held at the University of Pennsylvania is recruiting!

Psychologist says

I’ve discovered that if you search for “says psychologist” on Google, you get a giant avalanche of wtf. I encourage you to try it for yourself, but here are a few of the highlights, all taken from headlines of news stories.

Twitter makes you dumb, says psychologist
Boys have it worse, says psychologist
Faith schools breed terrorism, says psychologist
Change is possible for gays, says psychologist
Music tugs at monkeys’ hearts, says psychologist
Pakistan no longer fear failure, says psychologist
Killer of 4 feared loss of love, says psychologist
Britney has lost control and needs help, says psychologist

You get the idea. There are plenty more where they came from.

As has been noted by Dr Petra for a while now, you can get virtually anything, and anyone, into the media just by describing them as a psychologist, even when they aren’t.

We are at a point in history where there is a huge popular interest in the mind and brain and so psychological sounding explanations are given huge weight and plenty of airtime.

If you have a look at the stories brought up by the “says psychologist” search you’ll notice that they range from charlatans giving their opinion on celebrities they’ve never met to the results of research published in the scientific literature, and everything in between.

But no matter, because it can all be condensed into the handy format of “…says psychologist”. This seems to be such a pervasive format that even the American Psychological Association use it for press releases.

Actually, I’ve just discovered that if you search Google Images for the same you get a stream of random images with “says psychologist” underneath. It’s kind of poetic in a surreal sort of way.

Link to “says psychologist” search.

The mind and brain in 2010

The latest issue of Wired UK has a cover feature on breaking ideas for 2010. Mind and brain innovations feature strongly and several are freely available online.

I might immodestly recommend the piece on ‘neurosecurity‘ and how researchers are having harden neural implants against hackers, as it was written by me. Regular readers will know we broke the story back in June, although it was great to have it selected as one of the ‘ideas of the future’ by Wired UK.

There’s also a fascinating piece on ‘hyperopia‘ – a cognitive bias where people falsely assume they’ll be happier in the future by forgoing an indulgent pleasure and doing something ‘sensible’ that will benefit the long-term.

It was described by psychologists Anat Keinan and Ran Kivetz and their original paper is available online as a pdf. It’s a lovely flip-side to the self-control research, that has shown the ability to delay gratification predicts success in a number of areas of life. Hyperopia demonstrates that this ability can make people worse off if used in excess.

There’s also a couple of great pieces on the interface between psychology and technology.

The article on ‘bionic noticing‘ discusses how portable networked devices both allow us to be passively alerted to things in our environment through location specific information sources but also how simply having the technology can change of awareness: for example, the ability to instantly post pictures online from mobile devices can change how we look at the environment.

There’s also a piece on ‘digital forgetting‘, arguing that the ability to permanently store photos, conversations and social network interactions is a bug, not a feature, and we need to build in forgetting processes to facilitate to the traditional social practice of ‘putting things behind us’.

The print version has lots of other breaking ideas for 2010 which are not available online, including a piece by me on ‘networked drugs’.

Link to Wired UK neurosecurity article.
Link to Wired UK hyperopia article.
Link to Wired UK bionic noticing article.
Link to Wired UK digital forgetting article.

Full disclosure: I’m contributing editor at Wired UK and my neural implant has no password.