The addiction affliction

Slate has just published an article I’ve written on the over-selling of addiction. It discusses how difficulties with doing some things to excess – shopping, sex, internet use – are being increasingly described as addictions due to a perfect storm of pop medicine, pseudo-neuroscience, and misplaced sympathy for the miserable.

Like a compulsive crack user desperately sucking on a broken pipe, we can’t get enough of addiction. We got hooked on the concept a few centuries back, originally to describe the compulsive intake of alcohol and, later, the excessive use of drugs like heroin and cocaine. Now it seems like we’re using it every chance we can get‚Äîapplying the concept to any behavior that seems troublesome or ill-advised…

This creeping medicalization of everyday life means that almost any problem of excess can now be portrayed as an individual falling foul of a major mental illness. While drug addiction is a serious concern and a well-researched condition, many of the new behavioral addictions lack even the most basic foundations of scientific reliability.

Link to Slate article ‘The Addiction Habit’.

The stress of ancient Peru

Photo by Flickr user magnusvk. Click for sourceAn ingenious technique, just published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, was used to look at patterns of stress in their lives of long-dead people from Peru, some who lived more than a thousand years ago.

The study analysed strands of hair from bodies dug up from five archaeological sites for traces of the hormone cortisol – known to be released when we experience stress.

Hair grows about a centimetre a month and as the body creates the hair, it incorporates traces of chemicals that are present at the time. This means it is possible to look back over the length of a strand of hair and see which chemicals were affecting the person’s body at the time when that bit of hair was formed.

This is the basis of drugs tests that analyse hair for substances like heroin and cocaine, but a few years ago it was discovered that cortisol also left its mark.

A team of researchers, led by anthropologist Emily Webb, took this idea and applied it to the hair of long-dead people from ancient sites across Peru to see how stress affected their lives in the months and years before their deaths.

The researchers found that, in general, stress increased in the months leading up to death – perhaps suggesting death through chronic illness or maybe that the individuals were aware of their impending demise.

The results also showed that in some individuals, stress could suddenly drop for certain periods, perhaps for a month at a time, whereas for others the patterns of stress seemed to go in cycles.

What this does suggest is that then, as now, while there are clearly some things which tend to stress us all, many stress responses are highly changeable and probably quite individual.

Link to DOI entry and summary of study.
Link to write-up by ars technica (via Neuron Culture).

2009-12-18 Spike activity

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

The New York Times reports that antipsychotics are more likely to be prescribed to children from poorer families in the US.

There’s an excellent piece on Tiger Woods, the media, and the selling of sex addiction over at Dr Petra.

Time magazine reports on the climbing suicide rate in the US military with only a third happening in war zones.

UN advisor claims banks knowingly welcomed billions of laundered drug money into the system at the height of the financial crises to prevent collapse, according to a piece in The Guardian.

Wired Science reports on a study finding that geek stereotypes like Star Trek put women off an interest in technology careers. If you think that’s bad, Counsellor Deanna Troi nearly put me off a career in psychology.

A fascinating study on actually feeling pain through watching others’ discomfort is expertly covered by Neurophilosophy.

The Boston Globe covers the UK government’s recent fingers-in-ears la la la not listening firing of their top drugs advisor.

There’s a wonderfully in-depth analysis of the motivations of internet trolls over at Culture and Cognition.

New Scientist has an interesting piece on the psychology of saying the wrong thing despite deliberately trying to avoid it.

A fascinating if slightly baffling study on the cognitive effects of cuteness is covered by The Neurocritic.

CNN Money ranks clinical psychologist as the 23rd best job in America, psychiatrist as 24th.

Drug company Glaxo are said to have paid $1 billion to settle law suits over their Paxil antidepressant, according to Bloomberg.

Furious Season’s Phil Dawdy, the internet’s only crowd-funded investigative mental health journalist is having a fund-raiser and it’s been a bit slow. There’s still a chance to support his work.

Alzheimer’s risk linked to level of appetite hormone, reports BBC News.

Not Exactly Rocket Science covers an ingenious study find that even non-verbal hints in TV dramas can perpetuate racial biases.

There’s an interesting piece about important subtleties in the reporting of brain surgery for mental illness over at Neuroskeptic.

The Economist has a fascinating piece on a new study finding that stressed mothers are more likely to spontaneously miscarry male foetuses than female ones.

Information deluge will overload the brain, say numerous press stories based on a report funded by AT&T, Cisco, IBM, Intel, LSI, Oracle, and Seagate.

PsyBlog has an excellent summary of the fundamental attribution error and a brilliant study on trainee priests.

A Japanese department store is to sell two humanoid robots modelled on the purchaser, reports Wired UK.

Science Daily reports on a new study finding that a type of psychological treatment called Interpersonal Psychotherapy is useful in preventing obesity in ‘at risk’ teenage girls.

People really are happier in those US states identified as having better ‘quality of life’? asks the BPS Research Digest.

The Splintered Mind light-heartedly considers whether academics should try product placement.

Why do people dance? asks The Guardian covering some curious and intriguing research on the psychology of ‘dance confidence‘.

The Society for Neuroscience posts the video of a discussion between scientist and professionals magicians on consciousness, cognitive science and the art of magic.

Patricia Churchland on neuroscience

The BBC World Service recently hosted a discussion with philosopher Patricia Churchland, one of the pioneers of a type of philosophy of mind that directly engages with ongoing discoveries in cognitive and neuroscience.

The discussion starts of with the inevitable recap of Cartesian dualism, where mind and brain were thought to be completely separate entities, before launching into an interesting debate on how we can integrate our experience of the self and subjective experience with evidence from brain science.

The discussion took place at London’s Wellcome Collection who also have a brief interview with Churchland who discusses what she’s currently working on.

Churchland has become interested in oxytocin, which must rank alongside dopamine as one of the most misused bits of brain-behaviour evidence in popular discussion.

While she doesn’t entirely avoid the current over-excitement which portrays oxytocin as a form of ’empathy potion’ she tackles the science far more completely than you’ll find in your average mainstream media discussion.

Link to BBC World Service discussion with Patricia Churchland.
Link to brief interview at Wellcome.

The ancient mind was planning earlier than thought

Science News covers a fascinating new archaeological study that mapped the the remains of an 750,000 year-old settlement lived in by the ancestors of the human race and found evidence for tasks being organised in different areas, suggesting a degree of intelligence and problem solving that was not thought to have arisen until much later in evolution.

The study, just published in Science, analysed the pattern of artefacts in the Gesher Benot Ya’aqov site, located in what is now Northern Israel.

Previously, only modern humans, Homo sapiens, were thought to have developed the mental capacity to organise and separate their daily tasks. However, this site was settled by hominin ancestors of the human race and shows distinct signs of planned organisation:

Daily behaviors occurred in two main parts of a rectangular living area excavated at GBY, the researchers conclude. One area hosted primarily flint-tool making and preparation of fish for eating. In another area, situated around a large hearth, residents resharpened used stone tools, fashioned new tools out of basalt and limestone, ate fish and crabs, and cracked nuts after roasting them.

Roasting allowed the inedible shells of various nuts to be easily peeled off. It also reduced levels of bitter substances, called tannins, found in acorns.

‚ÄúHominids who were responsible for the organization of space at GBY had very advanced cognitive abilities that have generally been considered an important marker of human intelligence,” Goren-Inbar says.

Many researchers have thought that the mental capacity to plan and organize living spaces around different activity areas first arose among Homo sapiens roughly 100,000 years ago, well after the species originated around 200,000 years ago.

Until now, hominid sites from before 100,000 years ago had yielded stone tools and bones of various animals but no signs of separate activity spots in common living spaces.

Link to write-up from Science News.
Link to summary of scientific study in Science.

Travelling at the speed of thought

Discover Magazine has an excellent Carl Zimmer piece discussing efforts to understand the speed of the human nerves – a quest that has lasted for well over one hundred years.

Although our experience of the world seems instantaneous, different nerves in the body work at different speeds and, of course, cover different distances – to the point where taller people experience a slight sensory lag compared to shorter people owing to the greater length of some of the nerve pathways.

Speed is not necessarily of the essence, however, and as with dancing, it is timing and co-ordination that seems key:

Sometimes our brains actually need to slow down, however. In the retina, the neurons near the center are much shorter than the ones at the edges, and yet somehow all of the signals manage to reach the next layer of neurons in the retina at the same time. One way the body may do this is by holding back certain nerve signals—for instance, by putting less myelin on the relevant axons. Another possible way to make nerve impulses travel more slowly involves growing longer axons, so that signals have a greater distance to travel.

In fact, reducing the speed of thought in just the right places is crucial to the fundamentals of consciousness. Our moment-to-moment awareness of our inner selves and the outer world depends on the thalamus, a region near the core of the brain, which sends out pacemaker-like signals to the brain’s outer layers. Even though some of the axons reaching out from the thalamus are short and some are long, their signals arrive throughout all parts of the brain at the same time—a good thing, since otherwise we would not be able to think straight.

Link to Discover article ‘What Is the Speed of Thought?’

On the soul of robots

Image by Flickr user FlySi. Click for sourceNew Scientist has an interesting article discussing research on how we attribute personality traits to robots. This is not just the human-like android from research labs, it’s the robots that are already in widespread use in the workplace and home like the floor-cleaning Roomba.

This is a fantastic snippet about a study on the commercially available Aethon TUG robot, used to deliver supplies on hospital wards, and what staff made of the machine:

TUG, which is made by Aethon, can navigate a building’s corridors and elevators on its own and tell humans it has arrived with a delivery…

The lack of any social awareness led interviewees to complain that they felt “disrespected” by the robot. “It doesn’t have the manners we teach our children,” said one, “I find it insulting that I stand out of the way for patients… but it just barrels right on.”

Luckily for TUG, its unvarying, one-size-fits-all social skills happened to be a natural fit in the relaxed atmosphere of the post-natal ward, says Mutlu. But the same default settings were interpreted as demanding and attention-seeking on the oncology ward, which is a more stressful and busy place to work. “If you are going to design robots with human-like capabilities you have to design the appropriate social behaviour that goes along with it,” Mutlu says.

This reminds me of perhaps the only study that has evaluated what personality traits people attribute to the synthetic speech on a voice mail system, rating it as practical, intelligent, courteous, efficient, straight-forward, sophisticated, methodical, progressive and alert.

Link to NewSci article ‘Learning to love to hate robots’.

Understanding witchcraft

YouTube has a fantastic documentary about the work of the pioneering anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard who was one of the first researchers to try and understanding the psychology of people he was studying.

He is most well known for his 1937 book Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande where he studied the role of magic and prophecy in the lives of the Sudanese Azande people from their perspective.

This was one of the first times that an anthropologist had attempted to understand other cultural beliefs as a coherent system, rather than simply listing the ‘odd’ or ‘irrational’ practices from a Western perspective.

One of his main conclusions was that the Azande were making rational decisions based on different assumptions, in contrast to the general colonial opinion that the people of Africa were somehow ‘backward’.

Evans-Pritchard became one of the founders of social anthropology and was influential in a change of perspective in understanding other cultures.

He was also a keen photographer and there is a fantastic collection of his photos that attempted to record the people he met at the Oxford University Pitt Rivers museum.

The documentary is a great overview of both the man and his work with the Azande and Nuer people in Africa.

Link to documentary ‘Strange Beliefs: Sir Edward Evans-Pritchard’.

The psychiatric bible: the state of play

New Scientist has a good piece which outlines the current state of play in the contentious and recently delayed revision of the forthcoming psychiatric diagnostic manual, the DSM 5.

If you’ve been following the bad-tempered tussling among the psychiatric community over the re-writing of the manual, you probably won’t find much new in the main piece but it is a great summary and is accompanied by some examples of contentious disorders that are being considered for the new version.

These include complicated grief, a form of extended and unresolved grieving; changes to ‘gender identity disorder’, which currently describes the state of feeling like you’re a different gender; and hebephilia, a sexual interest in pubescent children.

The NewSci article is also accompanied by an interesting editorial that argues that the American Psychiatric Association should ditch the book and move to a database format where individual diagnoses could be updated when necessary as new evidence requires.

Link to NewSci article ‘Psychiatry’s civil war’.
Link to editorial ‘Psychiatry’s bible: Its time has passed’.

A great write-up of Project HM

Neurophilosophy has an excellent write-up of Project HM, the ongoing mission to thinly slice and digitise the brain of Henry Molaison, famous as amnesic Patient HM, who died last year.

Molaison was only one of a very few patients who had a radical operation that removed inner sections of both temporal lobes to cure otherwise untreatable temporal lobe epilepsy.

At the time, it wasn’t known that removing the hippocampus on both sides of the brain would lead to a profound amnesia that left the patient with the inability to create new ‘declarative’ memories – ones that can be recalled into the conscious mind.

The procedure was only carried out on a handful of patients before the profound effects became clear. The neurosurgeon William Scoville later campaigned against its use.

The rest, as they say, is history and owing to Molaison’s cheerful participation in numerous memory experiments we know a great deal more about the neural basis of memory. Hopefully the new high resolution digitised brain slices will allow a fine detail look at the relationship between HM’s brain and his abilities.

You’ll not find a better account of the project, so do head over and check out the Neurophilosophy piece.

My only slight addendum would be that the distinction between short and long-term memory was not initially drawn from HM. This distinction was originally made by ‘father of psychology’ William James who described it as ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ memory in his 1890 book Principles of Psychology.

However, because HM had intact short-term memory (for example, he could repeat telephone numbers back to himself) but was not able to store anything effectively in long-term memory, he gave the first clues that this distinction was reflected in the structure of the brain.

This was all but confirmed in 1970 when neuropsychologists Tim Shallice and Elizabeth Warrington reported on Patient KF who had the reverse pattern of impairment – no short term memory, but with with normal long-term memory.

This showed that each of the two forms of memory could be independently impaired after brain damage and so almost certainly depend on distinguishable brain systems.

Link to Neurophilosophy on ‘Project H.M. Phase I’.
Link to Project HM website.

Ad Nauseum

adnauseam.jpgI am reading Ad Nauseam: A Survivor’s Guide to American Consumer Culture, edited by Carrie McLaren and Jason Torchinsky. The book is a funny, smart and sometimes shocking collection of articles from Stay Free Magazine and blog. I first came across Stay Free when I was researching the psychology of advertising and was impressed by their sophisticated take on how adverts affect consumers’ decision making. They discuss in Ad Nauseam how advertising is often misunderstood, with people relying on an intuitive ‘Advertising doesn’t effect me’ view or swinging to the opposite extreme of the ‘Sinister Advertisers Manipulate Consumers with their Mind Control Tricks’ position. Both positions distract from the very real, but not magical, power of advertising.

The book has a great discussion of Wilson Bryan Key’s Subliminal Seduction, the book that launched the idea that subliminal, and often sexual, figures are embedded in random features of adverts such as in ice cube shadows. The idea of these ’embeds’ is nonsense, of course, but great fun to look for and a great distraction from the real persuasive content of the advert. The book also has a chapter on the origins of modern advertising practice in 19th century pharmaceutical advertising (the manufacturing of ailments for which ready made ‘cures’ can be sold has been covered by Vaughan on before, in relation to the mental health). Packed with critical analysis of the advertising industry, more informative history and some shocking examples of how consumerism has worked its way into many aspects of our daily lives, this book is essential intellectual self-defense, managing to be critical and aware without ever being sanctimonious or hysterical.

Cross-posted at

Psychology in the New York Times Year in Ideas

I really recommend the 2009 Year in Ideas review from The New York Times as it is packed full of developments in the world of psychology and social science.

If you’re a regular Mind Hacks reader you’ll recognise some of the ideas from experiments and studies we’ve covered during 2009, but there are many more curiosities that make for compulsive reading.

Probably the majority of the articles will be of interest to mind and brain enthusiasts but I particularly enjoyed Literary Alzheimer’s, Lithium in the Water Supply, Treating P.T.S.D. With Tetris, Cognitive Illiberalism, The Counterfeit Self, Drunken Ultimatums and to be fair, pretty much all the others too.

My only complaint is the short pieces don’t link to the original sources (suggestion for Year in Ideas 2010: inline links!) but otherwise if you like the sort of stuff we post on Mind Hacks there’s plenty to keep you occupied here as well.

Link to NYT Year In Ideas 2009.

2009-12-11 Spike activity

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

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New Scientist has an excellent piece on homosexuality throughout the animal kingdom.

Action video games “induce a general speeding of perceptual reaction times without decreases in accuracy of performance” according to a scientific review article in Current Directions in Psychological Science. To be widely publicised by Susan Greenfield. Oh no, my mistake.

Wired Science covers an interesting archaeological study finding possible signs of mass cannibalism from 7,000 years ago.

There’s well written, competent although slightly behind the curve article in Science News on the difficulties with functional brain scan cognitive neuroscience.

Dr Petra has more on the ‘in preparation’ and not very effective sex drug for women, flibanserin.

Well lookie here. The Economist uncovers UK government refusal to release its own report on the effectiveness of its anti-drugs strategy because it might ‘confuse the public’.

Not Exactly Rocket Science covers a fantastic study that found that testosterone made people more selfish, but only if they knew they were taking it.

You can find a working torrent of the recent and excellent BBC Horizon documentary ‘Why Do We Talk?’ on the psychology and neuroscience of speech and language here.

The New York Times reports on research finding that fathers can also experience post-partum (post-birth of child) depression.

There’s a fantastic article on the cognitive benefits of travel by Jonah Lehrer over at his blog Frontal Cortex.

Forbes magazine may be the first mainstream publication to get past the hype of commercial neuromarketing companies with an appropriately skeptical article.

“To a psychologist, climate change looks as if it was designed to be ignored”. Interesting article from The Washington Post.

Neuron Culture announces that if you liked the recent Atlantic ‘Orchid and the Dandelion’ article on how risk genes may really be sensitivity genes, science writer David Dobbs has agreed a deal to write a book riffing on the idea.

Brain structure and circuitry offer clues to consciousness in non-mammals, says an interesting cross-species article in Science News.

New Scientist has a piece on how the gaze of a computer generated disembodied head is being used to study the ability to follow eye direction and create shared or joint attention – a key social skill.

If you’ve not heard the latest RadioLab do so. A beautiful programme on numbers with plenty of psychology material.

Not Exactly Rocket Science has another great piece on a study finding fear memory associations can be reduced if a reminder of the feared thing is briefly presented a short while before an ‘extinction trial’ – a string of other reminders.

A blog at The Economist reports that the reported inmate suicides at Guantanamo Bay are <a href="Death at Guant√°namo”>unlikely to have been suicides.

Neuroworld is a new and promising looking brain science blog over at recently launched True/Slant network.

The lack of a fully formed prefrontal cortex may help young kids accumulate knowledge rapidly, according to research covered by the LA Times.

The Splintered Mind has news that Eric Schwitzgebel’s brilliant study on whether ethicists steal more books has appeared in the journal Philosophical Psychology.

A wonderfully contrarian review of a new book on art and evolution called The Play’s the Thing appears in American Scientist

Science Daily reports that a hidden sensory system discovered in the skin.

Antidepressants linked to personality changes, particularly a reduction in neuroticism, according to new study covered by the LA Times. Which, if you’re familiar with Eyesenck’s concept of neuroticism is a pretty unsurprising finding.

Science Now reports on study finding that first-borns are less co-operative in an economic bargaining game.

There’s a profile of psychologist and Deputy Director of the US Office of National Drug Control Policy who has faced numerous addiction problems in the family in The New York Times.

Metafiler picks up on an interesting new survey on ‘what philosophers believe‘ – tracking everything from political orientation to their take on hot philosophical issues.

My day with the mental health professionals. The Guardian has a life in the day of a community psychiatric team in a tough bit of North London.

New Scientist has a piece on a new brain imaging study looking at the neural correlates of not fulfilling a promise in an investment game. Daft headline, but it turns out the hubris is from the original badly titled original study.

The psychology of social status is discussed in an excellent piece for Scientific American’s Mind Matters blog.

Fan violence: take a swing when you’re winning

Popular sporting occasions have long been associated with violence and it was long assumed that assaults were more likely to be initiated by losing fans taking out their frustration. This has been contradicted by recent research that suggests it is fans of the winning team whom are more likely to be violent.

These studies are from the Violence and Society Research Group at Cardiff University who have an interesting history. The group was started by Jonathan Shepherd who is not a psychologist, sociologist or criminologist but a facial and dental surgeon.

He noticed that many of the injuries that he was treating were due to attacks, as the face is a common target of attack, and wondered if he could go about reducing facial injuries by reducing violent incidents.

The medical school is near Cardiff’s Millenium Stadium, one of the biggest sporting venues in the country, and so the group had the opportunity to study the effect of sporting events on assault and aggression.

In an initial study they found that violent incidents rose when the home team, Wales, won, rather than lost, regardless of the sport being played. A subsequent study evaluated fans on measures of aggressiveness, happiness and intention to drink alcohol before and after the match.

It turned out that aggressiveness was increased in winning fans but not losing fans. A win did not increase happiness but losing or drawing decreased it and intention to drink was not affected by the match result.

This concurs with the results of a somewhat disturbing study on domestic violence that found that assaults against women in the Washington area specifically increased when the Washington Redskins American football team won.

This is interesting in light of one of the main theories of violence, proposed by James Gilligan in his influential book Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic, that says violence is typically a response to humiliation and serves to restore a perceived loss of status.

We don’t really have a good analysis of what triggers these specific violent incidents and it could be that winning sports fans are more sensitive to self-perceived humiliation, in line with the theory, but these sports violence studies could equally be evidence against this idea – with the rather unpleasant possibility that assaults are partly the result of a form of post-win triumphalism.

Link to Pubmed entry for study on effect of winning on assaults.
Link to Pubmed entry for study on effect of winning on aggression.

Publication of new DSM diagnostic manual put back

The American Psychiatric Association has announced that it has put back the publication of the forthcoming ‘DSM 5’ revision of the influential diagnostic manual of mental disorders back one year to May 2013.

The press release, available online as a pdf, notes:

“Extending the timeline will allow more time for public review, field trials and revisions,” said APA President Alan Schatzberg, M.D. “The APA is committed to developing a manual that is based on the best science available and useful to clinicians and researchers.”

Which could equally well be code for ‘owing to the recent shitstorm over our behind-closed-doors policy and strident criticism from past committee members about the scientific quality of our review process, we’ve decided we need a bit of breathing space’.

As long as the time is genuinely used to get a better scientific footing for the project it could be genuinely beneficial, although to be fair, it’s hardly likely that any new revision of the controversial manual will be greeted with universal approval.

pdf of APA press release on DSM 5 delay (via @DrDavidBallard).

Mystery shoppers for mental hospitals

The New York Times has an article on an interesting scheme by a Dutch hospital where three ‘mystery shopper’ psychiatric nurses were admitted onto the psychiatric ward pretending to be patients in an attempt to evaluate the care.

The article mentions a similarly to the famous experiment where psychologist David Rosenhan asked several volunteers to report to a psychiatrist that they heard a hallucinated voice say “empty”, “hollow” and “thud”. When admitted to hospital, all the ‘pseudopatients’ acted normally but none were suspected as faking. In a subsequent study, staff ‘detected’ a range of genuine patients as ‘fakers’.

The similarity with the mystery shopper scheme is only cursory, however, as in this case the diagnostic systems are quite different, the ‘mystery shoppers’ extensively trained, and the staff were warned but were not deliberately looking out for the ‘impostors’.

The article finishes with an interesting commentary by psychologist Richard Bentall on why the scheme is using ‘mystery shoppers’ at all and what this says about how we regard patients’ own opinions:

“Having covert observation is going to provide you with information you probably wouldn’t get in any other way,” he said.

But Dr. Bentall also sees some irony in using proxy mental patients to illuminate the experiences of real ones. “Their stories are neglected,” he said, “and their understanding of how they got to be in the hospital is not considered important.”

Link to NYT article on mystery shopper patients (via AITHoS).