2010-02-19 Spike activity

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

Neuro-linguistic programming: Cargo cult psychology? An excellent piece debunking NLP from the Journal of Applied Research in Higher Education appears online as a pdf. It always struck me as Scientology without the aliens.

PsyBlog has an excellent round-up of 10 influencers of conformity. Fuck me I will do what you tell me.

The US crime rate has been consistently falling, so why do the US public tend to think it’s on the rise? The Boston Globe investigates.

The BPS Research Digest has yet another nail in the coffin for the Freudian idea of repressed memories.

The chairman of the DSM-IV committee writes a stinging attack on the DSM-V for Psychiatric Times.

The Onion gathers the public’s view on the draft of the new psychiatric bible. “If they change which planets men and women are from, I’ll be pissed.”

Some lovely research on how pupil dilation reflects cognitive functions, in this case decision-making, is discussed by the mighty Neurophilosophy.

The LA Times has a story of how a new business model for dealing high purity heroin is targeting the middle-class. A Slate article from ’96 notes that this is an often repeated media story.

There’s an engaging interview with Iain McGilchrist, who’s just written a book about the brain’s hemispheres, over at Frontier Psychiatrist.

The Guardian has a short piece on why slot machine gamblers are so hard to study.

Peter Hughes is a psychiatrist blogging about his work on a Haiti mental health programme, over at the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

Newsweek has an excellent piece on how we assume neuroscience studies done on Westerners reflect universal human traits and recent efforts to develop local neuroscience resources.

What distinguishes women with unusually high numbers of sex partners? Barking Up the Wrong Tree reports the surprising answer of one study on the topic.

BBC News reports on continuing and mysterious deaths of (mostly) Scottish heroin users from anthrax. Interestingly, almost exactly the same thing happened a decade ago.

There’s a good report from the recent Cultural and Biological Contexts of Psychiatric Disorder conference over at Somatosphere.

The Brandon Sun reports that a man is found not responsible for killing a nun during an epileptic fit. The news is now officially complete. Move along.

Film from the original Pavlovian conditioning experiments is dug up by the wonderful Advances in the History of Psychology blog.

Reuters reports on a study finding that beds less visible from the nurses’ station in intensive care units have higher death rates.

“do women want to be humped for 13 minutes straight?” asks Neurotopia who is calling for an empirical investigation into the matter.

The Onion reports that the CIA are forced to complete all scheduled torture in one hectic weekend. “We were already way behind on false executions as it was”.

Pissed up on booze? Or a hard night on the alcohol breakdown product acetaldehyde? Neuroskeptic, a spectacularly good blog, covers an interesting new study.

The Library of Congress Music and the Brain podcast is excellent.

Oh Christ, Louann Brizendine has written a follow-up to her stereotype-waving book ‘The Female Brain’ called (can you guess?) ‘The Male Brain’. Elle, yes that Elle, has an ass-kicking review and interview.

New Scientist covers a study that used mobile phone signals to track daily movements and finds we’re actually very predictable.

The now widely reported genetic overlap between mental disorders should be undermining the diagnostic boundaries of psychiatric diagnoses but don’t shake the tree man, because, like, who knows what’ll fall out? Wiring the Brain discusses the evidence.

BBC News reports on a dating study that found women prefer ‘men who are kind’. No word on whether they prefer men who have more enthusiasm than talent and drink too many energy drinks.

Placebo treatments stronger than doctors thought”. Not sure whether that’s a headline or a philosophy puzzle. Either way, it’s a story in the Seattle PI.

The Splintered Mind introduces the concept of cognitive shielding. Permits you to shout “They canne hold captain!” when losing an argument.

Sleep is a feminist issue, claim prominent feminists. Noami Wolf disagrees in The Times.

Teenagers: hyper-mortals

Photo by Flickr user Nik Doof. Click for sourceA common belief about teenagers is that they implicitly assume that they are invincible or immortal and think little about their own deaths. A new study just published in the Journal of Adolescent Health shows this to be a myth, however, as they vastly over-estimate their chances of dying within the next year.

By the mid-teens, our ability to judge the likelihood of uncertain events is usually equal to that of adults, so we might expect that adolescents can judge the chance of death as accurately as grown-ups.

This study, led by psychologist Baruch Fischhoff, surveyed 3,436 14-to-18 year-old adolescents and a local group of 124 seventh graders and 132 ninth graders asking them to estimate their chance of dying in the next year, enquiring about what sort of neighbourhood they lived in, whether they’d experienced or witnessed any violent events and whether they’d had any serious health problems.

Although the statistical death rate is 0.08%, the most common estimates where that they had a 5% of 10% chance of dying within the next year. Interesting, there was a larger than expected number of teens who judge their chance of dying within the next year as 50%, although this likely suggests that they were indicating a sort of 50/50 answer as a way of expressing “I don’t know”.

Adolescents assumptions about how likely they were to die were strongly related to their reports of how much crime they expected to experience and not or only very weakly related to if they’d experienced violent events or had health problems.

In other words, teenagers seem to be personally pessimistic and live in a world where they perceive themselves to have a high chance of dying despite the relatively small actual risk.

Link to PubMed entry for study.

Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies

Photo by Flickr user adamknits. Click for sourceFlattery can work it’s magic, even when we know it’s insincere. The Boston Globe covers a new study that found that even when we realise the compliments we’re hearing are an attempt to butter us up, they can still have a persuasive effect.

Insincere flattery gets a bad rap. Sure, it sounds cheesy or even awkward. But new research suggests that one’s initial conscious reaction Рdiscounting the flattery as a self-serving ploy Рmay mask a more durable implicit positive emotional association with the flatterer. People who were given a printed advertisement from a department store that paid compliments to their sense of fashion had higher opinions of the store, but only when they weren’t given much time to think about it, or when they were asked several days later. This effect was boosted after people engaged in self-criticism but was nullified after people engaged in self-affirmation, suggesting that flattery Рeven the patently insincere type Рwill be especially effective on folks who are down on their luck.

Sadly, the study itself is locked behind a paywall, but there’s a longer summary of the experiment at the journal website which has a few more details.

By the way, could I just say what a lovely gas mask you’re wearing? Mind Hacks, getting the readers we deserve since 2004.

Link to brief Boston Globe write-up.
Link to study abstract.
Link to longer summary of study (via Neuromarketing).

A crime, criminality and forensic psychology blog

Forensic psychology and psychiatry attempt to understand criminality and legal reasoning and are among the most interesting areas of cognitive science, but, sadly, there are few good blogs on the internet which tackle the area. The In The News blog is an exception, however, and regularly has in-depth coverage of the psychological issues behind big legal news stories.

Like forensic psychology itself, it’s not the most instantly appealing of destinations, but the writing is fantastic. The author is California-based forensic psychologist Karen Franklin and some of the recent articles give a flavour of what to expect.

For example, coverage of the death of the oldest death row inmate at 94, and the legal battles that centred around his mental competency to appeal and be executed, discussion of whether ad-hoc diagnoses are being created to detain people whose crimes don’t amount to long-term imprisonment but are predicted to be a future menace to society, or whether the ‘war on drugs’ is being quietly abandoned by the Obama administration.

It’s probably worth noting that US forensic psychology and psychiatry can be quite different from other places, in that it is more much focused on working with courts, rather than offender treatment focused approaches which are more widespread in Europe.

However, In The News has long been a favourite read of mine and long may it stay so.

Link to In The News blog.

State of the art in cave painting

France has some of the world’s most spectacular cave paintings that depict wild animals in vivid outline surrounded by what were thought to be purely decorative markings.

These markings have been all but ignored until recent research, covered in a fascinating New Scientist article, gathered examples from 146 cave sites and found they shared core symbols and were arranged in meaningful patterns.

While some scholars like Clottes had recorded the presence of cave signs at individual sites, Genevieve von Petzinger, then a student at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, was surprised to find that no one had brought all these records together to compare signs from different caves. And so, under the supervision of April Nowell, also at the University of Victoria, she devised an ambitious masters project. She compiled a comprehensive database of all recorded cave signs from 146 sites in France, covering 25,000 years of prehistory from 35,000 to 10,000 years ago.

What emerged was startling: 26 signs, all drawn in the same style, appeared again and again at numerous sites (see illustration). Admittedly, some of the symbols are pretty basic, like straight lines, circles and triangles, but the fact that many of the more complex designs also appeared in several places hinted to von Petzinger and Nowell that they were meaningful – perhaps even the seeds of written communication.

According to the article, these seemingly meaningful groupings, potentially representing a sort of proto-writing, raise the question of whether symbolic communication developed far earlier than was previously thought.

It’s a wonderfully thought-provoking article and don’t miss the fantastic illustrations that accompany the piece.

Link to NewSci article ‘The writing on the cave wall’.

Human brain electrodes capture the twilight zone

Photo by Flickr user Alyssa L. Miller. Click for sourceSleep is a nightmare for neuroscientists but a new study using electrodes implanted deep within the brains of people going about their daily lives has revealed that the brain falls asleep from the inside out, contrary to what was expected.

Most neuropsychology studies require people to complete tasks while the brain is being monitored and the technologies that allow passive recording either only measure activity on the brain surface (EEG, MEG) or are too uncomfortable to measure realistic sleep (fMRI, PET). This is one of the reasons human sleep has been difficult to study and why we still understand little about it.

A new study just published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences used the innovative technique of recording from semi-permanent electrodes implanted in the brains of 13 people undergoing assessment for difficult-to-treat epilepsy. These electrodes stay in for several weeks, meaning the researchers had access to brain activity as people continued their lives and, of course, as they drifted off to sleep.

Certain types of epilepsy don’t respond to normal treatment and neurosurgery to remove a small part of the brain that triggers the seizures is known to be an effective treatment in many cases. However, this is only feasible when it’s possible to locate where the seizures originate.

In rarer cases still, a standard EEG or brief surgical test doesn’t give a good idea of where this might be, so surgeons can insert depth electrodes into the most likely areas. These remain in place and record any unusual activity directly from locations across the brain.

The researchers, led by neuroscientist Michel Magnin from the University of Lyon, asked the patients if they could also use this data to help understand what happened during sleep onset.

They found that as people drifted off to sleep, the deep brain area the thalamus wound down several minutes before the cortex.

This is surprising because the thalamus has traditionally been considered a structure that regulates alertness and ‘relays’ information to the rest of the brain from the body and the spinal cord.

It was often assumed that it would ‘shut down’ the cortex first, because this is often considered to be where our ‘higher’ conscious functions like abstract thought and complex perception lie, while continuing with its minimal vigilance functions. A bit like a neural ‘standby’ setting.

Instead, what seems to happen is that the thalamus ‘disconnects’ itself and leaves the cortex freewheeling before it finally settles down into inactivity.

Indeed, freewheeling is, perhaps, a good description here. The researchers found lots of uneven activity in the upper brain areas as they were left to drift off.

Interestingly, sleep onset is one of the times when we are most likely to experience hallucinations. In fact, they are so common as to have been given their own name – hypnagogic hallucinations – while this drifting off period is known as hypnagogia.

Although they didn’t specifically ask about the whimsical thoughts and unusual perceptions that typically occur in this state, the researchers speculate that this pattern of freewheeling close-down might explain why hallucinations are so common at this time.

Link to PubMed entry for study.

On the brain train

Tom kindly sent me a copy of his new book The Rough Guide to Brain Training which I’ve been thoroughly enjoying reading. I don’t think you’re ever going to get the most objective review from someone who’s already an admirer of Tom’s work, but I shall do my best.

I have to say, I’m not a big fan of puzzles, largely, it must be said, because I’m useless at them. The book is full of puzzles, but thankfully for me, they are interspersed by essays and snippets that give you a remarkably honest and science-based view of ‘brain training’ and the evidence for it.

In fact, right on the first page, in the introduction, the book is clear:

For now, it is safe to say that we don’t know of any magic bullets for brain training – there is no single kind of task or set of tasks which will improve brain fitness. And anyone who claims otherwise is probably trying to sell you something.

This is such as refreshing change from brain training books and games that make wild claims and go on about ‘neuroplasticity’ without understanding what it means and not knowing when it’s relevant.

There is none of that here. Everything is drawn from the science (Tom’s put all the references online, if you want to read up) and the book has many short essays that introduce you to how the brain works, how to keep it in good condition and how to optimise learning.

Also, virtually every page has a short paragraph giving a neuroscience fact taken from the research literature. For example:

American physician Robert Bartholow was the first to directly show that electrical activity on the surface of the brain controlled the body. In 1874, Bartholow was able to provoke movements of the body and limbs of patient Mary Rafferty by inserting electrodes through a hole in her skull.

There’s lots more where that came from. To be honest, if you’re not into puzzles there’s going to be a fair chunk of the book that’ll serve as no more than eye candy, but if you do, you’ll find them accompanied by some great short essays and snippets.

Link to more information on the book.
Link to essay written for the book but only available online.

Full disclosure: we both write for Mind Hacks, but I suspect if you’re reading this, you already know.