2010-04-30 Spike activity

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

You could not ask for a better combination. Coverage of the mirror movement mutation in a piece from Not Exactly Rocket Science and an article on Neurophilosophy.

The Independent covers the frankly mind-bending news that David Cronenberg is to make a film on the relationship between Freud and Jung with Keira Knightley playing Jung’s lover. I would have gone for Bruckheimer for director myself.

Fantastic research on whether it is best to knap at your desk or in bed covered by the BPS Research Digest. Why can’t we have more research like this? An evidence-based approach on the best day to chuck a sickie is sorely needed.

The Psychologist has an excellent article on the ‘impostor syndrome‘ with some fantastic detective work which sheds some new light on the idea.

That’s it. The Matrix is here. Mind boggling video from BoingBoing. Red pills at the ready.

New Jersey Magazine reporter Mara Altman volunteers for a study on female orgasm in the brain scanner.

There’s coverage of an odd decision by the Minnesota Supreme Court that bong water should considered an illegal substance over at the excellent Addiction Inbox.

New Scientist has an interview with Anil Seth, director of the new Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science.

There’s an awesome and in-depth post on how three studies now refute the presence of the XMRV virus in patients with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) at Laika’s MedLibLog. See a previous Mind Hacks post for background on this controversial issue.

NPR has a fantastic brief segment on the discovery of laughing gas and why its pain killing properties were dismissed as unhelpful.

Should results from studies on suicide be kept out of the media to avoid prompting suicides? asks science writer Mun Keat Looi.

PBS has what looks like an awesome documentary on behavioural economics that’s only available online to people in the States. If it was to *cough* appear *cough* as a torrent though it would just be swell.

Dating by blood type in Japan is covered by BBC News. My blood was tested for the first time in my life the other week. It got an A+. I was very proud.

Neuroanthropology has an excellent essay about the attraction of negative news stories and the psychology of media fear-mongering.

What Happened When I Went Undercover at a Christian Gay-to-Straight Conversion Camp. A piece on AlterNet.

The Smithsonian Magazine have an archive of all their psychology and brain articles.

Darryl Cunningham’s awesome Psychiatric Tales graphic novel is out, details on his blog.

Wired notes that the US military has put out a tender for for a system to train soldiers based on their neural and cognitive responses.

Video from BBC News about a private clinic offering money to addicts to be sterilised – just arrived in the UK. Really quite screwed up.

BBC News quotes Dr Penelope Leach who says leaving babies to cry ‘harms their brains’. Talking shit apparently not a danger.

If you think she might have been taken out of context, here she is on YouTube hawking the same nonsense. ‘High cortisol’ apparently the danger. In which case, breast feeding would be ‘harming’ their brains too! No wonder my head hurts.

Salon has a review of a book on the neuropsychology of wisdom. Interesting, because wisdom is a strangely neglected topic in psychology.

Why Humans Have Sex. A podcast for the The New York Academy of Sciences oddly fails to mention wanting to check out people’s bookshelves. Maybe that’s just me?

Popular Science has a gallery of vintage robots. Old and rusty. As they should be.

Have you seen the Wiring the Brain blog? Bloody fantastic.

The New York Times publishes several letters responding to their recent article on standards in the US military’s war trauma units.

The Top 25 Psychiatric Prescriptions for 2009 are over at PsychCentral. Top 10 almost all anxiety and depression drugs. The non-specific malaise golden goose cashes in.

The New York Times has an intelligent piece by prominent psychiatrist Dan Carlat on the swing of the medication pendulum in American psychiatry.

A play about the ethics of brain scanning called Interior Traces is currently touring the UK.

Against the grain

I’ve just discovered the powerful story of the German psychiatrist Alice Ricciardi-von Platen. She refused to take part in the growing eugenics movement in the 1930s Germany that targeted people with mental illness for sterilisation and euthanasia, resisted the Nazi party and wrote a book documenting Nazi medical abuses of psychiatric patients after being asked to observe the Doctors Trial at Nuremberg.

As a result, she was ostracised from the German medical community and her book was repressed. It wasn’t rediscovered by German historians until thirty years after it was published in 1948.

Afterwards she became highly respected for her work developing group therapy and worked in Britain and Italy right into her late nineties.

There is surprisingly little about her online or in the academic literature although she received two glowing obituaries in the British press when she died in 2008.

We like to think that each of us would stand up to human rights abuses even if everyone else around us was involved but we know from countless social psychology experiments that it is an incredibly difficult thing to do. Consequently, I always have immense admiration for people like Ricciardi-von Platen who did so in the most difficult of circumstances.

We also like to think that the Nuremberg trials put an end to the political abuse of psychiatry but a recent article in Schizophrenia Bulletin tracked the history of these abusive practices noting that they have been regularly used throughout the 20th century and into the 21st.

From the Soviet use of sluggishly progressing schizophrenia to silence dissidents, to the Nazi’s incorporation of psychiatry into eugenics, to psychiatrists’ collaboration with torture during dictatorial regimes in Latin America, to China’s use of psychiatric hospitals to persecute Falun Gong members and to the collaboration with ‘war on terror’ torture in the US (albeit in the light of outright condemnation from the American Psychiatric Association).

Sadly, psychiatry has been co-opted many times over as a tool of oppression. Complacency is the enabler of these abuses and people like Alice Ricciardi-von Platen are a reminder that even the most powerful forces can be resisted.

Link to obituary from The Times.
Link to obituary from The Guardian.

The endangered languages of New York City

The New York Times covers a fantastic project that is attempting to track down some of the world’s most endangered languages – by scouring the streets of the Big Apple.

The Endangered Language Alliance is a project that aims to connect speakers of rare tongues but also to use the opportunity to study the languages academically potentially before they disappear.

The article notes that New York City is the most linguistically diverse place on the planet and there are often more speakers of endangered tongues there than in their place of origin:

The chances of overhearing a conversation in Vlashki, a variant of Istro-Romanian, are greater in Queens than in the remote mountain villages in Croatia that immigrants now living in New York left years ago.

At a Roman Catholic Church in the Morrisania section of the Bronx, Mass is said once a month in Garifuna, an Arawakan language that originated with descendants of African slaves shipwrecked near St. Vincent in the Caribbean and later exiled to Central America. Today, Garifuna is virtually as common in the Bronx and in Brooklyn as in Honduras and Belize.

And Rego Park, Queens, is home to Husni Husain, who, as far he knows, is the only person in New York who speaks Mamuju, the Austronesian language he learned growing up in the Indonesian province of West Sulawesi. Mr. Husain, 67, has nobody to talk to, not even his wife or children.

There’s also some good context for the piece at a post on the ever-excellent Language Log and don’t forget to watch the accompanying video

Link to NYT piece on lost languages in New York.

Cell intelligence and surviving the dead of winter

New Scientist has an interesting article on whether single cells can be considered intelligent. The piece is by biologist Brian Ford who implicitly raises the question of how we define intelligence and whether it is just the ability to autonomously solve problems. If so, then individual cells such as neurons might be considered ‘intelligent’ even when viewed in isolation.

However, he finishes on a bit of an odd flourish:

For me, the brain is not a supercomputer in which the neurons are transistors; rather it is as if each individual neuron is itself a computer, and the brain a vast community of microscopic computers. But even this model is probably too simplistic since the neuron processes data flexibly and on disparate levels, and is therefore far superior to any digital system. If I am right, the human brain may be a trillion times more capable than we imagine, and “artificial intelligence” a grandiose misnomer.

It’s odd because it reads like blue-sky speculation when, in fact, the idea that neurons could work like “a vast community of microscopic computers” is an accepted and developed concept in the field supposedly doomed by this idea – namely, artificial intelligence.

Traditionally, AI had two main approaches both of which emerged from the legendary 1956 Dartmouth Conference.

One was the symbol manipulation approach, championed by Marvin Minsky, and the other was the artificial neural network approach, championed by Frank Rosenblatt.

Symbol manipulation AI builds software around problems where data structures are used to explicitly represent aspects of the world. For example, a chess playing computer would have a representation of the board and each of the pieces and in its memory and it works by running the simulation to test out and solve problems.

In contrast, artificial neural networks are ideal for pattern recognition and often need training. For example, to get one to recognise faces you put a picture into the network and it ‘guesses’ whether it is a face or not. You tell it whether it is right, and if it isn’t, it adjusts the connections to try and be more accurate next time. After being trained enough the network learns to make similar distinctions on pictures it has never seen before.

As is common in science, these started out as tools but became ideologies and a fierce battle broke out over which could or couldn’t ever form the basis of an artificial mind.

At the time of the Dartmouth Conference, the neural network approach existed largely as a simple set-up called the perceptron which was good at recognising patterns.

Perceptrons were hugely influential until Minksy and Seymour Papert published a book showing that they couldn’t learn certain responses (most notable a logical operation called a XOR function).

This killed the artificial neural network approach dead – for almost three decades – and contributed to what is ominously known as the AI winter.

It wasn’t until 1986 when two young researchers, David Rumelhart and James McClelland, solved the XOR problem and revived neural networks. Their approach was called ‘parallel distributed processing‘ and, essentially, it treats simulated neurons as if they are a ‘a vast community of microscopic computers’ just as Brian Ford proposes in his New Scientist article.

Artificial neural networks has evolved a great deal and the symbol manipulation approach, although still useful, is now ironically called GOFAI or ‘Good old fashioned artificial intelligence’ as it seems, well, a bit old fashioned.

How we define intelligence is another matter and saying that individual cells have it is actually quite hard to dismiss when they seem to be solving a whole range of problems they might never have encountered before.

Artificial intelligence seems cursed though, as true intelligence is usually defined as being just beyond whatever AI can currently do.

Link to NewSci on intelligence and the single cell (thanks Mauricio!)

Breathing a sigh of relief to reboot respiration

Photo by Flickr user sunshinecity. Click for sourceA delightful study on the function of sighing has just been published in the journal Physiology and Behavior which suggests that our wistful deep breaths reboot our respiration and work as an unconscious stress management strategy.

Researchers, led by psychologist Elke Vlemincx, asked participants to wear devices that kept track of their breathing and monitored chest muscles while they were asked to complete stressful pressured mental arithmetic tasks or an attention task that required similar bodily movements but without the mental stress.

The participants thought they were completing an experiment on the body’s responses to maths problems but, in reality, the researchers were looking at the effect of sighing. Researchers kept track of spontaneous sighs, but in the second high pressure maths task, the volunteers were asked to deliberately sigh.

In biological systems, adding a little randomness or noise can sometimes make a signal clearer as long as it doesn’t drown everything out – a phenomenon technically known as stochastic resonance.

Imagine you’re in a dark nightclub trying to make out people’s faces. Too little light doesn’t help, completely crazy lighting is just too dazzling to allow you to recognise anyone, but moderate disco lighting, even with the colours and movement, does allow you to identify individual faces among the crowd.

The same principle applies when the body is signalling to itself, of course, and the researchers suspected that sighs might work like a bit of added noise into the breathing system, allowing the internal breathing regulator to get back into its groove.

As it turns out, sighs do seem to work like the brain’s reboot button for regular breathing. During mental stress, the volunteers’ breathing became more and more irregular as participants increasingly relied on deliberate breath control, at which point, a sigh occurred, causing automatic regular respiration to kick in again.

Furthermore, muscle tension steadily built up before a spontaneous sigh and decreased afterwards, supporting the idea that sighing helps release tension.

Interestingly, when the participants were prompted to sigh by the researchers, muscle tension decreased by a much smaller amount and breathing become more irregular. Being instructed to deliberately sigh seemed to actual impair recovery from mental stress.

It’s a wonderfully elegant study because it helps us understand both the mental and physiological function of a behaviour usually associated with wistful distraction.

Link to DOI entry and summary for study.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

The politics of social engineering

My latest ‘Beyond Boundaries’ column for The Psychologist discusses politics, social engineering and the use of mimes as a traffic calming measure.

For those following the UK election, there are also elections here in Colombia, albeit to choose the president. In the running is the mathematician, philosopher and ex-Mayor of Bogot√° Antanas Mockus who, whether you agree with his policies or not, is genuinely one of the most interesting politicians in the world.

The (English language) documentary Cities on Speed – Bogot√° Change is a fascinating account of how he and subsequent mayor Enrique Pe√±alosa transformed the Colombian capital into the safe, modern city it is today. You can watch the whole thing on YouTube if you want to check it out. If you’ve never been interested in politics or social planning before, this documentary might just pique your interest.

The film puts the moment that Bogot√°’s transformation began when Mockus, then an unknown in the mayoral election, dropped his trousers in front of rioting students who were shocked into stunned silence.

Since I wrote the column, Mockus has announced he has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Despite this he says has no intention of abandoning his candidacy and has just taken a lead in the polls.

In 1995, the traffic in Bogotá, Colombia, was so chaotic that drivers had long since given up obeying the rules of the road, resulting in a disorderly free-for-all that was a major impediment to the city’s economy. The recently elected mayor of the city, who came to prominence after dropping his trousers to silence a hall of rioting students, decided on a creative solution to this similarly vexing problem: a troop of mimes.

Antanas Mockus realised that the people of Bogotá were more concerned about social disapproval than traffic fines, and so hired mimes to playfully reproach drivers that crossed red lights, blocked junctions and ignored pedestrian crossings. One cannot police by mimes alone and in a further measure to address driving behaviour, the mayor’s office brought in flashcards to allow social feedback. Each citizen was given a red card to signal to someone that their driving was poor and a white card to signal that the person who been particularly courteous or considerate.

When I tell British people this story, they seem mildly amused by the mimes, but fall about laughing when I mention the card scheme. It was, however, a great success both in terms of reducing traffic violations and in changing the culture of Bogot√° and was based on the best principles of social psychology. That is, we learn collegiate behaviour by social feedback and the best methods of social feedback are the ones that cause the least personal offence.

The British are much more averse to this sort of overt social engineering (it seems to evoke the “oh, come off it!” response identified by anthropologist Kate Fox) although subtler methods are now being raised in the run up to the elections. In late January, behavioural economist Richard Thaler and Tory Shadow Chancellor George Osborne wrote an article for The Guardian, championing behavioural economics as a way of altering citizens’ behaviour without mandating change. The idea is to take advantage of people’s cognitive biases and social tendencies – for example, they cite the fact that people use less energy when they get feedback on how much their using in comparison to similar homes in the area.

Whether this turns out to be an election gimmick to appeal to science literate voters or a genuine policy objective remains to be seen. Thaler was also involved in the Obama campaign who similarly touted behavioural economics as a policy measure, although the post-election reality has largely been business as usual.

Thanks to Jon Sutton, editor of The Psychologist who has kindly agreed for me to publish my column on Mind Hacks as long as I include the following text:

“The Psychologist is sent free to all members of the British Psychological Society (you can join here), or you can subscribe as a non-member by emailing sarsta[at]bps.org.uk”

Are crime dramas warping the legal system?

The Economist has an interesting article on the ‘CSI effect’ which suggests that television crime dramas are altering jurors’ expectations of the relevance and power of scientific evidence and hence affecting how court judgements are made.

The article is largely based on a forthcoming paper to be published in Forensic Science International that argues the ‘CSI effect’ is influencing how forensic evidence is interpreted and understood by professionals and the public alike.

Nevertheless, both The Economist piece and the academic article in Forensic Science International are notable for the fact they are largely based on anecdotes.

Actually, empirical (shall we say, forensic?) evidence for the effect is harder to come by. One of the few people who have systematically investigated the effect is trial judge and law professor Donald Shelton who came to significantly less alarming conclusions.

In a study on the effect published in the National Institute of Journal, Shelton reported that although to effect did appear in places, it mainly effected expectations and the effect on actual decisions was inconsistent and largely insubstantial:

There was scant evidence in our survey results that CSI viewers were either more or less likely to acquit defendants without scientific evidence. Only 4 of 13 scenarios showed somewhat significant differences between viewers and non-viewers on this issue, and they were inconsistent. Here are some of our findings:

* In the “every crime” scenario, CSI viewers were more likely to convict without scientific evidence if eyewitness testimony was available.

* In rape cases, CSI viewers were less likely to convict if DNA evidence was not presented.

* In both the breaking-and-entering and theft scenarios, CSI viewers were more likely to convict if there was victim or other testimony, but no fingerprint evidence.

Law professor Kimberlianne Podlas was even more damning in a paper [pdf] published in the Loyola of Los Angeles Entertainment Law Review, writing:

Notwithstanding the popularity of such claims, they are not grounded in case-studies or statistical data of increases in acquittals. Rather, they are based on anecdotes about cases wherein law enforcement lost their case while believing it should have won. However, anecdotes are not an adequate substitute for empirical evidence or a logical theory of media influence.

The ‘CSI effect’, it seems, probably wouldn’t stand up in court.

UPDATE: Many thank to Mind Hacks reader Brett for emailing to say that the Stanford Law Review published an article on the supposed ‘CSI effect’ and why it lacks evidence last April, which is also notable for tackling the reasons for why it has gained a cultural foothold despite such flimsy support.

Link to The Economist on the ‘CSI effect’ (via @crime_economist)
Link to Forensic Science International paper.
Link to study on ‘CSI effect’
pdf of Podlas’ article on CSI effect ‘fiction’.