Down the pan

This is, I assume, the first neuropsychological test to appear on a bog roll. The ‘Mind Trainer Toilet Roll‘ has a different puzzle on each sheet and it includes the Stroop test, one of the most studied tests in cognitive science.

This means you’ll never be without the opportunity to measure attentional inhibition of automatic cognitive processes in the bathroom.

Now if only I could get a bidet that measured working memory, my life would be complete.

Link to Mind Trainer Toilet Roll.
Link to Wikipedia page on the Stroop effect (via @jonmsutton)

Rodent brain in sex claim shocker

Those tenacious chaps over at Language Log have followed up Louann Brizendine’s claims that men have a ‘defend your turf area’ by chasing up the references in her ominous new book The Male Brain which is showing all the signs of being as scientifically shaky as the last one.

Like a couple of people who commented on our post, they picked up on my previous and erroneous remark that the dorsal premammilliary nuclei had not been identified in humans – it has, but its function, as far as I know, has never been studied in humans (the previous post has now been updated).

Language Log also note that many of the Brizendine’s claims seem to be drawn from directly from rat studies and just assumed to apply to humans even when they specifically refer to, er, cat odor.

In other words, the DPN is involved in rats’ (passive) defensive responses to the presence of a cat, or even just to cat odor, but not to other sorts of threats such as the open arms of a maze, or an electric shock to the foot, where odor is not involved. Thus the DPN is more (and also less) than “the defend-your-turf area” in rats ‚Äî it responds to predator threats as well as threats from dominant conspecifics, but it’s apparently not involved in more active or aggressive forms of defense. Who knows what its homologue’s functions are in humans ‚Äì but presumably the mediation of instinctive “freezing, avoidance, and stretch” responses to cat odor are not among them.

The book was just reviewed in The New York Times which also wasn’t impressed by its scientific basis, noting “Brizendine‚Äôs trick, after all, is to give a scientific veneer to ‚ÄúMen Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.‚Äù”, although you can bet it will still be all over the glossy magazines.

To be fair, I’ve not read Brizendine’s new book, although I read the last one and her ‘male brain’ articles I’ve read so far just seem equally dodgy.

Link to Language Log on ‘The defend-your-turf area?’.
Link to NYT review.

One Night in Birdland

I’ve just re-read an interesting biographical study from last year on the ‘Neurological problems of jazz legends’ and noticed a interesting snippet about Charlie Parker:

As a result of a car accident as a teenager, Parker became addicted to morphine and, in turn, heroin. Contemporary musicians took similar drugs, hoping to emulate his playing. Through the 1940s, Parker’s career flourished. He recorded some of his most famous tunes, including ‘‘Billie’s Bounce’’ and ‘‘Koko.’’ Yet, he also careened erratically between incredible playing and extreme bouts of alcohol and drug abuse. This deteriorated in 1946, when after the recording of the song ‘‘Lover Man,’’ Parker became inebriated in his hotel room, set fire to his mattress, and ran through the hotel lobby wearing only his socks. Parker was arrested and committed to Camarillo State Mental Hospital, where he stayed for 6 months. This stay inspired the song ‘‘Relaxin at Camarillo (1947).’’

The track Relaxin at Camarillo is available on YouTube and it has a wonderfully rambling swing-backed sound. As far as I know, it is the only song about a stay at a mental hospital, but as musicians have had more than their fair share of hospital stays, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were any others, so do let me know if you know of any others.

By the way, the full article on the neurological problems of jazz legends is available online and has six biographies of jazz greats. There’s also a fascinating anecdote related by the author regarding a possible emperor’s new clothes moment during Thelonious Monk’s mental decline:

A personal anecdote: The author’s father, a professional jazz trumpeter, attended an outdoor concert in which Monk simply stared at the keyboard for the 16 bars of his solo but ultimately returned to playing as the next soloist took his course. The audience applauded wildly, assuming that if Monk was thinking through the course but not actually playing, then it must have been astounding, even immanent and transcending a human’s ability to perform much less understand. In retrospect, Monk’s mental status was disordered enough [whether dominated by depressed mood or confusion] that he must have been unable to perform for that verse.

Likely a moment of confusion but I prefer the version where the internal music soars above Monk’s declining skills.

Link to ‘Neurological problems of jazz legends’.
Link to PubMed entry for same.
Link to Relaxin’ at Camarillo.
Link to previous entry on the study’s beat poem abstract.

Debugging the free will relationship

In 1987, British TV station Channel 4 had a series called Voices that included four programmes on psychoanalysis. One of the guests was psychologist Sherry Turkle, years before she became well-known for her groundbreaking work on the internet and identity, and she makes some strikingly prophetic comments about free will and technology that ring true today but were dismissed at the time.

This is from the book (ISBN 0851244920) of the discussions. In this part, Turkle was talking with presenter Michael Ignatieff and psychoanalysts Philip Rieff and Geoffrey Hartman. Unfortunately, the text is a direct transcript so it retains the awkwardness of the spoken word written down but you can see that she had remarkable foresight.

Turkle: I’m seems to me that the issue of free will is for us today what sex was for the Victorians. The same urgency about sexuality and interdictions about sexuality that so tormented the Victorian spirit, we are now tormented by questions having to do with whether or not we are actors, our own centre, whether, to take computer examples, whether we are programmed from the outside. In what sense are we not like machines? In sociobiology, it raises the question in what sense are we like or not like animals, in a very serious way. It seems to me that fields of study like Artificial Intelligence, like sociobiology, the use of computer metaphors to describe people in everyday parlance, much as psychoanalysis was picked up in everyday parlance – ‘I’m debugging a relationship’ – that kind of talk, raises the issue of free will and to the extent to which we are actors in a very urgent, hot way. And that Freud remains an urgent and a hot thinker, not just for the contribution about sexuality, the family, the question of parents, but by this discovery of the unconscious which makes us take seriously a way of talking about this sense in which we are not our own centre.

Rieff: I don’t think that that is what is happening. I think that the self, the ego, the agent of reality is being fragmented…

The FBI Evil Minds Research Museum

Photo by Flickr user -MRTN-. Click for sourceThe FBI has an appointment-only display called the Evil Minds Research Museum that displays the letters, art and artefacts of serial killers in an attempt to understand their psychology. There’s not much about it online but it is discussed in the second part of the two part FBI podcast about their behavioural science programme.

This is the part where head of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, Greg Vecchi, describes the exhibit:

One of the most exciting research projects that we have, is we‚Äôve have started what we have labeled the ‘Evil Minds Research Museum.’ And what this is, this is actually a research museum where we are collecting serial killer and other offender artifacts.

And so these artifacts are like paintings, John Wayne Gacey paintings. Paintings that he was the Killer Clown back in Chicago several decades back, who would kill men and boys, and he would dismember their bodies and put them under his floor board. Well, after he was caught, well, he turned out to be a so-called killer of the community [NB: this is a transcription error, Vecchi actually says ‘pillar of the community’], and he would dress up as a clown and do gigs doing clown stuff for the kids. And so he would draw pictures or paint pictures of clowns, and he had clown paintings in the room where he dismembered the bodies. And he had clown paintings that he did after he got arrested and when he was basically on death row.

And so we got those paintings and we are studying those paintings. We want to look at the brush strokes. We want to look at what drives him, what changes, because the pictures are completely different. Before he was arrested, for instance, the clowns were Flippo the Clown, very happy clowns, very colorful; afterwards his paintings were very dark. It was basically a skeleton or a skull dressed up or painted up to be a clown.

We’ve have got thousands and thousands of pages of correspondence between a number of serial killers. Richard Ramirez, the night stalker. We’ve got Keith Hunter Jesperson, another famous serial killer, his complete manifesto of why he killed, written in his own handwriting. We have greeting cards, we have photos, we have serial killer art. But the museum itself, and here is where the value of it is, for the most part, almost all of the research of law enforcement is usually done interacting with the subject rather through an investigation, or, in what we do, more of a research-type of approach, where we would sit down with protocols and interview them like we do with the serial killers, or like we are doing with the hostage takers now. This is stuff that is taken out of their most personal possessions. Things that were not taken as law enforcement, but were taken on search warrants, or provided, maybe after they were executed, by their family. And so it gives a completely different perspective of their mindset—where they are coming from because this is correspondence to themselves, correspondence between them and their loved ones—their mother, their father—correspondence between them and other serial killers, and even correspondence between them and the many groupies that write to them and develop a relationship as a pen pal. And so this is a very exciting research, this research museum, where we are looking at their motivation and try to understand them from a perspective that, as far as we know, has never been undertaken.”

Although it’s not open to the public, you can apply to visit if you’re a genuine researcher with the visiting scholars programme.

One such visit is described in the latest issue of the Annals of the American Psychotherapy Association. You can download the magazine for free, although only in one 7Mb pdf. The article about the unit starts on page 14 and has pictures of several of the exhibits.

Interestingly, the article is followed by a museum advert which asks for donations of exhibits, although I have to say, it’s not the most tasteful piece of promotion I’ve ever seen as it looks more like a B-movie horror poster. Click here to see it in all its dubious glory.

By the way, did you know that the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit has a student intern programme? If you’re a student and would like to apply the details are online.

Link to part 1 of FBI podcast on behavioural science.
Link to part 2 of FBI podcast on behavioural science.
pdf of latest Annals of the American Psychotherapy Association.
Link to details of FBI behavioural science intern scheme.

Missing the mind’s eye view

Discover magazine has a fantastic Carl Zimmer piece about a man who lost the ability to see things in his mind’s eye after a minor neurological procedure.

Zimmer covers a recently published study on patient MX who lost his conscious visual imagery but could still do tests, like mental rotation, that were assumed to need the ability to mentally picture the procedure to work it out.

All the exams the scientists gave MX confirmed his claim that he was missing his mind’s eye. And yet he could do lots of things that would seem impossible without one. Without any effort he could give the scientists detailed descriptions of landmarks around Edinburgh, for example. He could remember visual details, but he couldn’t “see” them. Della Sala and Zeman asked MX to say whether each letter of the alphabet had a low-hanging tail (like g and j). He got every one right. They asked him about specific details of the faces of famous people (“Does Tony Blair have light-colored eyes?”). He did just as well as the architects.

The key insight came with a test derived from a classic psychological experiment invented in the 1970s by Stanford University psychologist Roger Shepherd. Della Sala and Zeman showed MX pairs of pictures, each one consisting of an object made up of 10 cubes. MX had to say whether the pairs of objects were different things or actually the same thing shown from two different perspectives. Normal people solve this puzzle in a strikingly consistent way, with their response time depending on how much the angle of perspective differs between the two objects: The bigger the difference, the longer it takes people to decide whether the objects are the same…

MX’s results flew in the face of that explanation. When he solved the puzzles, he always took about the same amount of time to answer—and he got every one right.

We still understand relatively little about the role and importance of visual mental imagery or what role it takes in problems or impairments.

A study I was part of found that people with congenital prosopagnosia, a genetic inability to recognise faces, had virtually absent visual imagery despite having no signs of brain damage or neurological abnormalities.

Patients who acquire prosopagnosia after brain damage often report that they can no longer imagine what faces look like, but in MX’s case, he seems to have lost his ability to mentally ‘see’ faces but has no problem recognising people.

The Discover article is a concise yet comprehensive take on this new study that helps us understand the link between how we experience the world and how we construct it inside our heads.

Link to Discover article ‘Look Deep Into the Mind’s Eye’.

2010-03-26 Spike activity

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

New Scientist has an excellent article on the ‘global workspace’ theory of consciousness.

Fast food logos unconsciously speed up our behaviour, according to new research covered by the old Not Exactly Rocket Science.

Not Exactly Rocket Science, just moved to Discover Blogs, asks ‘when is attempted murder more acceptable than harming someone by accident?’

Why are so many soldiers on antipsychotics? asks Pharmalot.

CNN considers the interesting question of whether school memorials for pupils who have killed themselves risk suicide contagion.

The fact and fiction behind the myth-attracting drink absinthe are discussed by Neuroskeptic.

Wired UK have another of their monthly columns by the brilliant Dan Ariely. This on the effect of anger on decision-making.

Facebook linked to rise in syphilis according to a dodgy press story debunked by Dr Petra.

The New Republic has a review of ‘Addiction: A Disorder of Choice’ by conservative psychiatrist Sally Satel.

A fossilized 13th century brain with intact cells was discovered, analysed, and Neurophilosophy has the low down with a remarkable image.

The New York Times has a short but sweet piece on why we need to dream by science writer Jonah Lehrer.

The excellent Addiction Inbox asks whether ‘meth babies‘ are fact or fiction in light of new research finding brain abnormalities to newborns exposed to speed in the womb.

Brainspin has more debunking of the scientific dodginess in the dreadful ‘why men obsess over sex’ article.

In societies with higher levels of disease, more masculine male faces are considered more attractive, more feminine male faces become more attractive when there’s less disease about, at least according to research covered in The Economist.

“I rather welcome the twang of bluegrass… from a patient‚Äôs cellphone during a psychotherapy session”. Insights into patients’ extra-therapy lives through one-side of a cellphone conversation considered by a therapist writing in The New York Times.

Psychiatry Fun looks like a promising new blog.

‘Pathways to and from violent extremism: the case for science-based field research’, just published in Edge.

The New York Times has a troubling piece about the mental health system in post-earthquake Haiti.

The award winning BPS Research Digest discusses research on how the sight of their own blood is important to some people who self-harm.

Frontier Psychiatrist has a fascinating post on how the ‘critical period’ in child development may be a result of modern family structure that differs from the collective childcare of times past.

The psychology of how certain issues become ‘sacred’ in negotiations is discussed in Scientific American.

The New York Times has a brief article on body dysmorphic disorder or BDD, where affected people come to believe that a part of their body is grossly unattractive or misshapen despite it seeming normal to others.

Study published in Frontiers in Cognition finds superior cognitive flexibility in first person shooter gamers. I have come here to chew bubble gum and switch tasks… and I’m all out of bubble gum.

When you feel weak, restating your core values can be a quick and easy self-control booster according to research covered by PsyBlog. “I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.” I feel better already.

Neuroworld asks the interesting question of why sex has never been offered as a legitimate public prize for doing good.