A Brilliant Madness online

I’ve just discovered that the excellent PBS documentary A Brilliant Madness that looks at the life of Nobel-prize winning mathematician, John Nash, is available online either as streamed video or as a torrent.

Nash was famously the subject of the Oscar-winning film, A Beautiful Mind, although the while the main plot elements are true – he both won the Nobel prize and experienced decades of psychosis – his life was heavily fictionalised to the point of being schmaltzy.

The PBS documentary is a more honest, but no less inspirational, look at Nash, and is based on the Pulitzer Prize winning biography by Silvia Nasar.

Nash himself gives an articulate account of his own illness and how society deals with those who experience other realities, while the documentary traces Nash’s sometimes less-than-flattering earlier life story to his later years where he is widely considered to be an altogether more gentle and humane individual.

If you want to know the real story behind A Beautiful Mind or more about Nash it is essential viewing.

Link to information on the documentary from PBS.
Link to flash streamed version.
Link to torrent.

Cognitive Daily has left the bulding

Cognitive Daily, one of the most established and respected psychology blogs on the internet, has just announced it has come to an end on the five year anniversary of its first post.

We’ve been fans of CD since, well, since they started as they kicked off only a few months after we did.

However, all is not lost, as both Dave and Greta will continue with their many online projects and there is a mysterious ‘new project’ soon to be announced (greatest hits? musical? concept album?)

What will we do with all that time we’ve freed up? Greta plans to continue her work as Professor of Psychology at Davidson College, teaching and mentoring students, conducting research, and sharing her love of music, literature, and art. Dave will continue as editor of ResearchBlogging.org and weekly columnist for SEEDMAGAZINE.COM, and he’ll maintain his personal blog, Word Munger and his obsessively-updated Twitter account. In addition, Dave’s planning a new project, to be unveiled within the next few weeks. Look for more information about it on Twitter and Word Munger.

Many thanks to you both for five years of fantastic psychology coverage on Cognitive Daily and we wish you all the best for future projects.

Link to Cognitive Daily announcement.

Lost in frustration

Photo by Flickr user honikum. Click for sourceNew Scientist has a piece on culture and psychological distress by Ethan Watters, the same chap who wrote the recent and widely discussed New York Times article on the ‘globalisation of mental illness’. This new article looks at similar territory but also pulls out some examples of where concepts and symptoms don’t translate well between different societies.

The meaning matters as much as the event,” says Ken Miller, a psychologist at Pomona College, Claremont, California, who studied in Afghanistan and elsewhere the reactions to war trauma.

He found many psychological reactions that were not on any western PTSD symptom list, and a few with no ready translation into English. In Afghanistan, for example, there was asabi, a type of nervous anger, and fishar-e-bala, the sensation of agitation or pressure.

Giathra Fernando, a psychologist at California State University, Los Angeles, also found culturally distinct psychological reactions to trauma in post-tsunami Sri Lanka. By and large, Sri Lankans didn’t report pathological reactions in line with the internal states making up most of the west’s PTSD checklist (hyperarousal, emotional numbing and the like). Rather, they tended to see the negative consequences of tragic events in terms of damage to social relationships. Fernando’s research showed the people who continued to suffer were those who had become isolated from their social network or who were not fulfilling their role in kinship groups. Thus Sri Lankans conceived the tsunami damage as occurring not inside their minds but outside, in the social environment.

It’s probably worth mentioning that this goes both ways and there are many everyday psychological concepts in English and Western society that don’t translate well into other languages.

Some of these become obvious when you read studies that have attempted to translate questionnaires originally in English into other languages.

For example, here’s an excerpt from a study that translated a mental health questionnaire from the World Health Organisation into Urdu:

This item [“Do you have trouble thinking clearly?”] presented considerable problems in translation. It measures the disturbance in concentration and cognition associated with depressive disorders. We could not find an exact substitute for the term, “clear thinking” in colloquial Urdu, and the nearest semantic and technically equivalent term that was acceptable in back translation was “wazay soch bichar”

Unfortunately, it doesn’t say what ‘wazay soch bichar’ is in English, so if you’re an Urdu speaker do get in touch as I’d love to find out.

It’s also often the case that words such as ‘anxiety’ may have a related word in another language but the sensations associated with it are not the same.

The New Scientist piece, taken from a forthcoming book by Watters, argues that Western concepts are now being exported around the world and local people are increasingly describing mental and social distress in terms of Western, and particularly, American, diagnoses.

UPDATE: Many thanks to Mind Hacks reader Matt for getting in touch with the translation:

i have a translation of ‘wazay soch bichar’ for you. my colleague nasir says the literal translation of it is ‘obvious thinking’ and agrees there is no direct translation of ‘thinking clearly’ in urdu and that ‘wasay….’ is the best available.

Link to ‘How the US exports its mental illnesses’.

Leave my soul alone

I’m re-reading the excellent book Into the Silent Land by neuropsychologist Paul Broks and was reminded of a part where he recounts an eerie poem about a 1938 operation to remove a brain tumour.

The poem is by Welsh poet and doctor Dannie Abse and, looking it up on the internet, I discovered that the poetry archive has a wonderful entry for the piece online that not only includes the text but also a recording of Abse introducing and reading the poem.

The uncanny incident, probably caused by stimulation of the cortical surface, was witnessed by Abse’s brother, also a doctor, when observing an operation by the famous neurosurgeon Lambert Rogers.

In the Theatre
by Dannie Abse

(A true incident)

Sister saying—‘Soon you’ll be back in the ward,’
sister thinking—‘Only two more on the list,’
the patient saying—‘Thank you, I feel fine’;
small voices, small lies, nothing untoward,
though, soon, he would blink again and again
because of the fingers of Lambert Rogers,
rash as a blind man’s, inside his soft brain.

If items of horror can make a man laugh
then laugh at this: one hour later, the growth
still undiscovered, ticking its own wild time;
more brain mashed because of the probe’s braille path;
Lambert Rogers desperate, fingering still;
his dresser thinking, ‘Christ! Two more on the list,
a cisternal puncture and a neural cyst.’

Then, suddenly, the cracked record in the brain,
a ventriloquist voice that cried, ‘You sod,
leave my soul alone, leave my soul alone,’—
the patient’s dummy lips moving to that refrain,
the patient’s eyes too wide. And, shocked,
Lambert Rogers drawing out the probe
with nurses, students, sister, petrified.

‘Leave my soul alone, leave my soul alone,’
that voice so arctic and that cry so odd
had nowhere else to go—till the antique
gramophone wound down and the words began
to blur and slow, ‘ … leave … my … soul … alone … ’
to cease at last when something other died.
And silence matched the silence under snow.

Link to poetry archive entry for ‘In the Theatre’.

The dream life of children

Photo by Flickr user Grace. Click for sourceWhile we may have an elaborate dream life as adults, it seems we develop the ability to have rich and vivid dreams as we grow – children start off having relatively simple dreams that become more complex throughout childhood.

Below is an excerpt from a scientific review article on ‘dreaming and the brain’, shortly to be published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, that addresses how our dream life changes and develops during our early years.

One of the criticisms of these findings might be that dreams seem less complex in younger children because their language isn’t rich enough to describe them fully. However, there is good evidence against this idea – the complexity of dreams is not strongly related to verbal ability, although it is to the vividness of the child’s mental imagery.

When do children start dreaming, and what kind of dreams do they have? Given that children often show signs of emotion in sleep, many assume that they dream a great deal. However, a series of studies by David Foulkes showed that children under the age of 7 reported dreaming only 20% of the time when awakened from REM sleep, compared with 80–90% in adults.

Preschoolers’ dreams are often static and plain, such as seeing an animal or thinking about eating. There are no characters that move, no social interactions, little feeling, and they do not include the dreamer as an active character. There are also no autobiographic, episodic memories, perhaps because children have trouble with conscious episodic recollection in general, as suggested by the phenomenon of infantile amnesia.

Preschoolers do not report fear in dreams, and there are few aggressions, misfortunes and negative emotions. Children who have night terrors, in which they awaken early during the night from SWS [slow-wave sleep] and display intense fear and agitation, are probably terrorized by disorientation owing to incomplete awakening rather than by a dream. Thus, although children of age 2–5 years can see and speak of everyday people, objects and events, they apparently cannot dream of them.

Between the ages of 5‚Äì7 years, dream reports become longer, although they are still infrequent. Dreams might contain sequences of events in which characters move about and interact, but narratives are not well developed. At around 7 years of age, dream reports become longer and more frequent, contain thoughts and feelings, the child’s self becomes an actual participant in the dream, and dreams begin to acquire a narrative structure and to reflect autobiographic, episodic memories.

It could be argued that perhaps all children dream, but some do not yet realize that they are dreaming, do not remember their dreams, or cannot report them because of poor verbal skills. Contrary to these intuitive suggestions, dream recall was found to correlate best with abilities of mental imagery rather than with language proficiency… Put simply, it is children with the most developed mental imagery and visuo-spatial skills (rather than verbal or memory capabilities) that report the most dreams, suggesting a real difference in dream experience.

I’ve removed the numeric references for ease of reading, but you can find the full research sources in the original article.

Link to PubMed entry for article.
Link to DOI entry for same.

Hard as nails

Tom alerted me to this fantastic brief case published in the British Medical Journal where a builder is admitted to hospital in great pain after a nail penetrated all the way through his boot. But it turned out that the pain was entirely psychological, as the nail had missed his foot by sliding between his toes.

A builder aged 29 came to the accident and emergency department having jumped down on to a 15 cm nail. As the smallest movement of the nail was painful he was sedated with fentanyl and midazolam. The nail was then pulled out from below. When his boot was removed a miraculous cure appeared to have taken place. Despite entering proximal to the steel toecap the nail had penetrated between the toes: the foot was entirely uninjured.

As Tom mentioned “One of the things I love about it is that the builder had no incentive to ‘fake’. He knew he should have acted tough so we know that the pain he felt wasn’t over-acting. It was imaginary pain, but it was real imaginary pain!”

This isn’t really the nocebo effect, where ‘side-effects’ appear after having taken nothing but a placebo, but more similar to what doctors might describe in its persistent form as somatisation disorder where physical symptoms appear that aren’t explained by tissue damage.

However, both are similar in that real pain arises from beliefs, expectations and perceptions. We now know that all pain has a significant mental component and, consequently, psychological therapy is an effective treatment for chronic pain.

It’s no coincidence that Tom picked up this snippet in a talk by psychologist Stuart Derbyshire who has done some fantastic studies on the neural basis of psychologically controlled and induced pain by using hypnosis in fMRI scanners.

Link to brief piece in the BMJ.

You’ve got mail…

A curious case of a woman who believed she was receiving email directly into her body near to where a diamond teddy bear was residing, published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry:

We report the case of an elderly lady with no experience of using a personal computer or internet technology, whose delusional experiences included the direct personal receipt of email. Ms T, an 84-year old female with a 40-year history of schizoaffective disorder, presented with a delusional belief that something precious and of value ‘for all people’ had been inserted into her body by a doctor in Germany in the 1950s.

She had sought medical help because she believed that an abdominal operative procedure would be necessary to remove a ‘‘rat and a teddy bear made of diamonds’’ that she believed had grown within her. Following admission, she remained highly guarded, distressed and preoccupied with the need of urgent surgery, which she demanded every time she met her medical team.

When asked about the origins of this belief and her desire for surgery, she said that she had gained knowledge about this from a friend, whom she had seen last in 1945. She explained that she received emails from this friend. These arrived in her mind, exactly like electronic mail, but were managed without a computer. Rather than receiving messages in text form, she received what she described as ‘an impression in my mind’, which conveyed an unequivocal meaning to her.

She also believed that her friend had some valuable information for the medical team and that he would be able to contact the senior physician by a similar mechanism. Following 4 weeks of treatment with risperidone 1.0 mg bd her mental state improved to the point where she stopped receiving the emails, gained insight into her primary belief and told us that she was satisfied that surgery was no longer needed.

Link to PubMed entry for case study.

Chasing the digital dragon

Wired has an excellent report on abuses in China’s ‘internet addiction’ boot camps in the wake of the death of a young man from a beating only hours after he was admitted to one of the facilities.

As we reported last August, after years of promoting the ‘psychiatric dangers’ of the internet, the Chinese government has started to rein in its own clinics after criticisms of its treatments (that included electroshock) and has begun to crack down on the numerous private clinics after reports of widespread abuses.

The Wired piece follows the story of Deng Senshan, the young man who was beaten to death in one of the camps, and explores how the rise of the treatment clinics have followed the increase in anxiety about young people using the internet.

The article also pulls out some of the cultural factors that drive the concept of internet addiction in China, which are quite different from those that are common in the United States.

In fact, this was discussed in a study by anthropologists Alex Golub and Kate Lingley, who noted that in America, parents typically take their children to internet addiction clinics because they don’t spend any time outside or don’t socialise, whereas in China, people take their children to Internet addiction clinics because their children are playing basketball, dating, and playing video games instead of studying.

Link to Wired article ‘Obsessed With the Internet: A Tale From China’.
Link to our previous report on China’s ‘net addiction’ clinics.
Link to study on cultural factors behind Chinese ‘net addiction’.

Patients with no skull are a window on brain activity

I’ve just clocked a stunning experiment, shortly to be published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, that recorded brain activity from patients who had part of their skull surgically removed for several months and had only flaps of skin between their brain and the outside world.

The operation is called a hemicraniectomy and is often used when the brain swells or the pressure builds up inside the skull to the point where it is damaging the brain.

Neurosurgeons will sometimes remove a portion of the skull (see the scans on the left) and just leave the scalp protecting the brain until the swelling subsides, before replacing the skull flap some months later.

As an aside, sometimes the surgeons will surgically insert the piece of skull into the abdomen so the bone marrow doesn’t die and it can be replaced ‘alive’ when the time comes. There’s a great description of this here.

The patients normally wear helmets, for obvious reasons, but they are unique in having such a thin covering of the brain.

A team of researchers, led neuroscientist Bradley Voytek, realised this provided a unique opportunity to examine the exactly how the skull affects EEG, one of the most common techniques for measuring the electrical activity of the brain.

EEG records brain activity from electrodes on the skull, but the signal gets ‘smeared’ as the electrical charge passes through the bone and so the source of the activity can’t be located very precisely to specific brain areas.

By working with the hemicraniectomy patients, the researchers could compare electrical activity on one side of the brain – recorded through just the skin, and the other, where recordings were made normally – through electrodes on the skull.

The researchers found that the non-skull signals were richer, were less subject to interference, were more closely tied to specific tasks and could be better linked to specific brain areas.

On the right is a comparison of the signal coming from a listening task, where participants are suddenly presented with an ‘oddball’ noise in the midst of a bunch of otherwise identical sounds. The brain reacts strongly to the change and this is reliably reflected in a positive spike in the electrical activity at about 50 milliseconds (consequently, the wave is called the ‘P50’ signal).

You can see that the activity on the craniectomy side is much stronger, tighter and cleaner whereas on the skull side it is quite indistinct. The team found similar results in several other tasks.

This not only helps us better understand EEG results on people with intact skulls, but it also meshes with brain activity recordings that are taken from electrodes implanted directly in the brains of patients undergoing neurosurgery.

Link to PubMed entry for study.
pdf of scientific article.
Link to Bradley Voytek’s blog post about his work.

2010-01-15 Spike activity

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

Herbert Spiegel, legendary pioneer of hypnosis research, has left the building. The New York Times has an obituary.

Corpus Callosum covers a possible new non-addictive anti-anxiety drug. We have a long history of new ‘non-addictive’ anti-anxiety drugs turning out to be addictive. Fingers crossed for this one.

Jenny McCarthy dismisses a recent scientific study on autism and demands more anecdotal data, according to a report by Discovery News.

The Smithsonian Magazine has an article on ‘Phineas Gage: Neuroscience’s Most Famous Patient’.

There’s an excellent piece about the history of child bipolar disorder, a culture-bound syndrome specific to American psychiatry if ever there was one, over at Neuroskeptic.

Vox Project is a BBC Radio 4 documentary on the neuroscience of speech and language. Shortly to evaporate into the black hole that is the time-limited BBC archive, so catch it while you can.

There are some beautiful cut-away illustrations of MRI, PET and CT scanners here.

BBC News reports on the second biggest danger associated with taking cocaine, after acting like a cock.

Viewing headless bodies causes changes in how we perceive faces, according to an intriguing study covered by Neurophilosophy.

The New York Times reviews the new movie documentary on the life of Nobel-winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel.

The top ten most popular posts on the excellent Addiction Inbox blog are listed for your perusal.

The Splintered Mind notes philosopher of mind Eric Schwitzgebel is doing a UK tour. T-shirts presumably available at the venues.

Jewellery and make-up suggest neanderthals were smart, according to archaeologists who have clearly never been down Watford High Street on a Saturday night. Wired UK covers the story.

Scientific American has an excellent article on online social networks and mental health which is locked behind their newly imposed paywall. Science!

The effect of stereotypes and how the unconsciously influence our behaviour is covered in a great piece on PsyBlog.

The New York Times covers new concerns about human rights abuses in China’s drug rehab centres.

An awesome looking book on the history of prion brain disease kuru is reviewed by The Neuro Times.

American Scholar magazine has a quirky A-Z narrative journey through brain science that shouldn’t work, but does.

There’s a great piece on the history of giving beef flavoured Prozac to dogs for ‘canine separation anxiety’ over at Frontier Psychiatrist.

The LA Times covers the debate over cognitive behavioural therapy vs traditional psychological treatments that continues to rumble on. I assumed it was all dolphin therapy in LA.

The US Navy wants troops wearing brain-scanners and doing cognitive assessments in the war zone, according to a report by Wired Danger Room.

Neuroethics at the Core has some excellent coverage of the state-of-play with the ‘next generation’ ampakine cognitive enhancers.

Post-shit-hitting-the-fan morphine cuts combat PTSD rates in half, according to a new study discovered and discussed by Neuron Culture.

The New York Times reports that AI pioneer, Ray Solomonoff, has left the building and has an obituary.

The uncanny valley and the digital Beatles are discussed by the Sensory Superpowers blog.

BBC News reports on a new study finding that angiotensin receptor blocker drugs cut dementia rates.

The latest Brain Science Podcast is an interview with pioneering emotion neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp.

Charlie Rose has part three of his brain series where a cluster of high profile neuroscientists discuss action and the brain.

In a rather timely post, The Frontal Cortex covers a recent imaging study on the neuroscience of charitable giving.

The New York Times has an interesting account of how a judge has tried to reconfigure the court system for low-level drug offenders to promote behavioural change.

A British law automatically sacking MPs who need more than six months out for mental health problems when no such rule exists for physical health problems is being challenged, reports BBC News.

The San Francisco Chronicle reports on how Yahoo! is tooling up with social scientists.

The dying art of Braille reading and how the blind community is using technology is covered by an interesting piece in The New York Times.

New Scientist has an interesting piece on ‘Five emotions you never knew you had’ that tackles various feelings recently classified by psychologists.

An elegant study that helps explain why light makes migraines worse is covered by Science News.

In The Pipeline covers an interesting example of the nocebo effect: residents complain that a new cell phone tower making them ill, company reveals it wasn’t switched on.

Beyond crossed senses in synaesthesia

Cognitive Daily covers a super-elegant study that helps us understand whether synaesthesia is really just a case of ‘crossed senses’ or whether the perceptual blending effect requires the person to have processed some of the meaning of the triggering experience.

The traditional explanation of most types of synaesthesia is that the brain’s sensory areas are overly connected, so activation of one sense triggers activity in another area which causes the experience. However, there has been some recent evidence that synaesthesia doesn’t work purely at this basic sensory level.

For example, a recent study by neuropsychologist Jamie Ward and colleagues reported that letter-colour synaesthetes needed to be concentrating on the letters to trigger colours – seeing them ‘out of the corner of the eye’ didn’t work – suggesting there must be some involvement of focus and concentration and not just a reliance on incoming sensory information.

To test the idea further, it would be ideal to be able to separate out experiences where we process just sensory information and experiences where we also understand meaning but as we tend to deal with both at once, this is not easy to do.

But this new study managed to do exactly this in people with colour-speech synaesthesia, where affected people experience colours when they hear specific words, using a perceptual illusion called the McGurk effect.

It’s an intriguing effect that you can see in action on the Cognitive Daily page, but essentially, it shows that seeing someone mouth a word affects what we hear, so if we are played the syllable ‘gah’, but see someone mouthing ‘bah’, the brain makes a compromise and we experience hearing the syllable ‘dah’.

So the effect is a perfect tool to separate out sensory information and meaning, because the researchers can play exactly the same sound but change what word the participants hear simply by showing clips of people mouthing different words.

If colour-speech synaesthesia works only through crossed-senses then the McGurk effect should make no difference to the colours because the exact same sound is played each time, but if this form of synaesthesia is triggered by meaning, the colours should differ because the McGurk effect changes which words are perceived and understood, despite the identical sound.

This is exactly what the researchers found, providing additional evidence that synaesthesia is not just a sensory confusion, it is based in how the brain understands meaning.

It’s an incredibly elegant study and the Cognitive Daily piece covers it equally as elegantly.

Link to CogDaily on ‘Synesthesia and the McGurk effect’.
Link to PubMed entry for study.
pdf of study full text.

The museum of narcoculture

The Washington Post has an absolutely astounding gallery that looks inside Mexico’s ‘Museum of Drugs’ that is only open to government and army officials and chronicles the ongoing narcowar.

It’s not only a museum of drugs samples and smuggling methods, it also captures some of the culture of the narcotraffickers – including captured diamond encrusted guns and items from branded clothing created by cartels for their members.

Around the corner, the exhibits show how drugs are smuggled, and here human ingenuity is on full display. There is dope hidden inside picture frames, logs, gas tanks, clay pots, tamales, concrete blocks, truck tires, soda cans, car bumpers, shoes, stuffed armadillos and a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

There is a kind of James Bond or Dr. Evil quality to some exhibits. An attache case confiscated from an outlaw surveillance team holds computer boards and other gadgetry to monitor cellphone calls. The cartels now employ their own fleets of semi-submersible submarines. On display is a large sea buoy with a coded beacon device the traffickers attach to huge payloads of drugs they can dump into the sea and pick up later.

Also, apparently, the narcos now have their own line of clothes. There are dark blue polo shirts sporting a kind of family crest for the Zetas, a notorious cartel founded by former special forces soldiers that controls vast swaths along the Gulf of Mexico from Brownsville, Tex., to Cancun. The shirts, which appear to be 100 percent cotton, are emblazoned with a Z and the words: “Cartel del Golfo.”

One of the most fascinating pictures is of a shrine to the unofficial saint Jes√∫s Malverde, literally worshipped by the drug trafficker subculture to bring good luck. It turns out there are a great deal of Malverde videos on YouTube, some of which are tribute videos, others are clips of films or songs about him.

The museum is clearly curated with a great deal of care and consideration and has an slightly uncanny kitsch style that belies its morbid undertones.

Link to WashPost gallery of Mexico’s drug museum.
Link to WashPost article on a visit to the museum (via BoingBoing).

The ominous power of confession

I’ve just read a remarkable article [pdf] on 125 proven cases of wrongful conviction in the US justice system where the accused made a false confession.

While we tend to think that no-one would confess to a crime they’ve never committed the phenomenon is a lot more common than we assume. The article cites studies where convicted people have been subsequently proved innocent, largely through DNA evidence, and 14-25% had made a false confession.

Research has now established that certain police interrogation techniques can lead to false confessions, and it is not only through intimidated suspects confessing even though they know they’re innocent. In some cases, categorised as ‘coerced-internalized’ false confessions, the person starts to doubt their own memory and actually comes to believe that they did commit the crime.

Interestingly, there is evidence that this is most likely to occur in the most serious crimes, possibly because the police themselves are under pressure to solve the cases. In this study, 81% of false confessions were for murders, 9% for rapes and 3% for arsons.

The article also outlines the impact of a confession on the justice system. We discussed an experimental study on the persuasive effect of confessions previously, but below is a remarkable run down of evidence from the ‘real world’.

I’ve taken out the numerical references for ease of reading, but if you want to check out the sources for the following section, it’s taken from p920:

…a suspect‚Äôs confession sets in motion a virtually irrefutable presumption of guilt among criminal justice officials, the media, the public and lay jurors. A suspect who confesses‚Äîwhether truthfully or falsely‚Äîwill be treated more harshly at every stage of the criminal justice process. Once police obtain a confession, they typically close the investigation, clear the case as solved, and make no effort to pursue other possible leads‚Äîeven if the confession is internally inconsistent, contradicted by external evidence or the result of coercive interrogation.

Like police, prosecutors rarely consider the possibility that an entirely innocent suspect has been made to confess falsely through the use of psychologically coercive and/or improper interrogation methods. When there is a confession, prosecutors tend to charge the defendant with the highest number and types of offenses and are far less likely to initiate or accept a plea bargain to a reduced charge. Suspects who confess will experience greater difficulty making bail (especially in serious cases), a disadvantage that significantly reduces a criminal defendant’s likelihood of acquittal.

Defense attorneys are more likely to pressure their clients who have confessed to waive their constitutional right to a trial and accept a guilty plea to a lesser charge. Judges are conditioned to disbelieve claims of innocence and almost never suppress confessions, even highly questionable ones. If the defendant’s case goes to trial, the jury will treat the confession as more probative of the defendant’s guilt than virtually any other type of evidence, especially if—as in virtually all high profile cases—the confession receives negative pre-trial publicity.

Confession evidence (regardless of how it was obtained) is so biasing that juries will convict on the basis of confession alone, even when no significant or credible evidence confirms the disputed confession and considerable significant and credible evidence disconfirms it. Sadly, if a false confessor is convicted, he will almost certainly be sentenced more harshly

The article, ‘The Problem of False Confessions in the Post-DNA World’, originally published in the North Carolina Law Review is quite long but a gripping read.

pdf of article.
Link to citation and summary of article.

Coming down like a ton of clicks

BoingBoing has found a brilliant spoof video report on ‘Does the Internet make you dumber?’ which finishes on a surprisingly profound note.

It’s a hugely entertaining riff on some of the recent ‘is the internet affecting the brain?’ hang-wringing from the tech savvy chaps from the popular Search Engine podcast.

Link to brilliant ‘Does the Internet make you dumber?’ video.

The Rough Guide to Brain Training (Moore & Stafford, 2010)

rgbt_cover_small.jpgThe Rough Guide to Brain Training is a puzzle book which incluces essays and vignettes by myself. The book has 100 days of puzzles which will challenge your mental imagery, verbal fluency, numeracy, working memory and reasoning skills. There are puzzles that will look familiar like suduko, and some new ones I’ve never seen before. Fortunately the answers are included at the back. Gareth made these puzzles. I find them really hard.

I have 10 short essays in the book, covering topics such as evidence-based brain training, how music affects the developing brain, optimal brain nutrition and what the brains of the future will look like. As well as the essays, I wrote numerous short vignettes, helpful hints and suprising facts from the world of psychology and neuroscience (did you know that squids have dounut shaped brains? That you share 50% of your genes with a banana? That signals travel between brain cells at up to 200mph, which is fast compared to a cycle courier, but slow compared to a fibre optic cable). Throughout the book I try to tell it straight about what is, isn’t and might be true about brain training. I read the latest research and I hope I tell a sober, but optimistic, message about the potential for us to change how we think over our lifetimes (and the potential to protect our minds against cognitive decline in older age). I also used my research to provide a sprinkling of evidence-based advice for those who are trying to improve a skill, study for an exam or simply remember things better.

Writing the book was a great opportunity for me to dig into the research on brain training. It is a topic I’d always meant to investigate properly, but hadn’t gotten around to. The claims of those pushing commercial brain training products always seemed suspicious, but the general idea – that our brains change based on practice and experience – seemed plausible. In fact, this idea has been one of the major trends of the last fifty years of neuroscience research. It has been a big surprise to neuroscientists as experiment after experiment has shown exactly how malleable (aka ‘plastic’) the structure and function of the brain is. The resolution of this paradox of the general plausibility of brain training with my suspicion of specific products is in the vital issue of control groups. Although experience changes our brains, and although it is now beyond doubt that a physically and mentally active life can prevent cognitive decline across the lifespan, it isn’t at all clear what kinds of activities are necessary or essential for general mental sharpness. Sure, after practicing something you’ll get better at it. And doing something is better than doing nothing, but the crucial question is doing something you pay for better than doing something else that is free? The holy grail of brain training would be a simple task which you could practice (and copyright! and sell!!) and which would have benefits for all mental skills. Nobody has shown that such a task or set of tasks exists, so while you could buy a puzzle book, you could also go for a jog or go to the theatre with friends. Science wouldn’t be able to say for certain which activity would have the most benefits for your mental sharpness as an individual – although the smart money is probably on going jogging. It is to the credit of the editors at the Rough Guides that they let me say this in the introduction to the Rough Guide to Brain Training!

There wasn’t room in the book for all the references I used while writing it. This was a great sadness to me, since I believe that unless you include the references for a claim, you’re just spouting off, relying on a dubious authority, rather than really talking about science. So, to make up for this, and by way of an apology, I’ve put the references here. It will be harder to track specific claims from this general list that it would be with in-text citations, so if you do have a query, please get in touch and I promise will point you to the evidence for any claims I make in the book.

Additionally, I’ll be posting here a few things from the cutting room floor – text that I wrote for the book which didn’t make it into the final draft. Watch out, and if you do get your hands on a copy of this Rough Guide to Brain Training, get in touch and let me know what you think.

Amazon link (only £5.24!)

Scientific references and links used in researching the book

Bragging for beginners

The BPS Research Digest covers an interesting study on the perception of boasting, looking at whether there are specific contexts in which bragging actually leads people to think more highly of you and whether there are those where people end up thinking you’re a bit of an arse.

It turns out, there are. Participants were asked to rate the character and personality of a chap called ‘Avi’ who boasted about his A grade exam performance in a number of scenarios. The results showed that bragging only had the desired effect when someone else brought up the subject that Avi wanted to boast about:

The crux of it: context is everything when it comes to boasting. If Avi’s friend raised the topic of the exams, Avi received favourable ratings in terms of his boastfulness and likeability, regardless of whether he was actually asked what grade he got. By contrast, if Avi raised the topic of the exams, but failed to provoke a question, then his likeability suffered and he was seen as more of a boaster.

In other words, to pull off a successful boast, you need it to be appropriate to the conversation. If your friend, colleague, or date raises the topic, you can go ahead and pull a relevant boast in safety. Alternatively, if you’re forced to turn the conversation onto the required topic then you must succeed in provoking a question from your conversation partner. If there’s no question and you raised the topic then any boast you make will leave you looking like a big-head.

I was interested that the study was from Israel and wondered how well the results apply to other countries.

I’ve informally noticed that the social acceptability of ‘talking oneself up’ varies greatly between countries – from the USA, where moderate self-praise is standard social currency, to the UK, where it is only acceptable when followed by a self-deprecating comment or joke, to Sweden where it is only acceptable when one is threatened by armed men or the future of the world hangs in the balance.

However, I’ve not been able to track down any studies on the topic, so I’m not sure how well my observations reflect the wider world.

Link to BPSRD on bragging study.
Link to DOI entry and abstract of study.