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’.

US Army PTSD treatment: heaven and hell

BBC News and The New York Times have just each published articles on the US Army’s treatment of psychologically traumatised soldiers so different that you’d think they were talking about entirely distinct programmes.

Two articles have just appeared on the BBC website giving a very positive view of the US military’s treatment of Army veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health problems.

The articles largely focus on the programme at Fort Hood and despite some peculiarities (it mentions treatment includes acupuncture, reiki, sound therapy and seemingly chakra-based meditation) the picture is of a small but promising approach to treating psychologically disabled soldiers.

In contrast, The New York Times presents a damning picture of the treatment programme in which the service is poorly organised, where prescription and illicit drug abuse is rife and where clinicians rely largely on large doses of medication to manage soldiers’ symptoms.

It’s hard to know what to make of the articles, as the BBC seem to have made no effort to ask any difficult questions, while the NYT article seems to be largely based on interviews of soldiers who felt they were poorly dealt with, while the Army’s own surveys discussed in the piece suggest most are happy with the services.

The stuff about New Age treatments is just a bit odd. Is this where the First Earth Battalion have got to these days?

UPDATE: Thanks to PsychFun for pointing out they are, in fact, two distinct programmes! (Grabbed from the comments)

The WTU talked about in the NYT article is a military unit for wounded soldiers, many of whom have PTSD. The BBC article is talking about a 3 week intensive PTSD treatment program, as your own link shows. Darn those confusing US Army acronyms!

Link 1 and Link 2 to BBC News articles.
Link to New York Times article.

Can I get an amen?

Photo by Flickr user dhammza. Click for sourceThis is an fMRI study on how Christian faith healers influence the brains of believers and non-believers. It is an absolutely remarkable experiment when you think about it but I still don’t know quite what to make of it.

The power of charisma–perceived charisma inhibits the frontal executive network of believers in intercessory prayer.

Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2010 Mar 12. [Epub ahead of print]

Schjoedt U, St√∏dkilde-J√∏rgensen H, Geertz AW, Lund TE, Roepstorff A.

This study used functional magnetic resonance imaging to investigate how assumptions about speakers’ abilities changed the evoked BOLD response [changes in blood oxygenation indicating neural activity] in secular and Christian participants who received intercessory prayer. We find that recipients’ assumptions about senders’ charismatic abilities have important effects on their executive network. Most notably, the Christian participants deactivated the frontal network consisting of the medial and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex bilaterally in response to speakers who they believed had healing abilities. An independent analysis across subjects revealed that this deactivation predicted the Christian participants’ subsequent ratings of the speakers’ charisma and experience of God’s presence during prayer. These observations point to an important mechanism of authority that may facilitate charismatic influence, a mechanism which is likely to be present in other interpersonal interactions as well.

There’s a write-up over at the excellent Inkling Magazine if you want more.

Link to PubMed entry for study (via @anibalmastobiza)
Link to write-up on Inkling.

Questioning ‘one in four’

The Guardian has an excellent article questioning the widely cited statistic that ‘1 in 4’ people will have a mental illness at some point in their lives. The issue of how many people have or will have a mental illness raises two complex issues: how we define an illness and how we count them.

Defining an illness is a particularly tricky conceptual point and this is usually discussed as if it is an issue particular to psychiatry and psychology that doesn’t effect ‘physical medicine’ but it is actually a concern that is equally pressing in all types of poor health.

The most clear-cut definition of an illness is usually given as an infectious disease that can be diagnosed with a laboratory test. For example, you either have the bacteria or you don’t.

However, you will acquire lots of new bacteria that will continue to live in your body, some of which ’cause problems’ and others that don’t. So the decision rests not on the presence or absence of new bacteria, but on how we define what it means for one type to be ‘causing a problem’. This is the central point of all definitions of illness.

For example, when are changes in heart function enough for them to be considered ‘heart disease’? Perhaps we judge them on the basis of their knock-on effects, but this raises the issue of what consequences we think are serious, and when we should consider them serious enough to count. Death within weeks, clearly, death within two years, maybe, but is still this the case if it occurs in a 90 year-old?

The idea of a personal change ‘causing a problem’ is also influenced by culture as it relies on what we value as part of a fulfilling life.

In times gone past, physical differences that caused sexual problems might only have been considered an illness if they prevented someone from having children. A man who had children, wanted no more, but was unable to have recreational sex with his wife due to physical changes might be considered unlucky but not ill.

The idea of normal sexual function was different, and so the concept of abnormality and illness were also different.

The same applies to mental illness. What we consider an illness depends on what we take for being normal and what someone has the ‘right’ to expect from life.

The fact that the concept of depression as an illness has changed from only something that caused extreme disability (‘melancholy madness’) to something that prevents you from being content is likely due to the fact that, as a society, we have agreed that we have a right to expect that we enjoy our lives. There was no such expectation in the past.

The problem of correctly diagnosing an illness is a related problem. After we have decided on the definition of an illness, there is the issue of how reliably we can detect it – how we fit observations of the patient to the definition.

This is a significant issue for psychiatry, which largely relies on changes in behaviour and subjective mental states, but it also affects other medical specialities.

Contrary to popular belief, most ‘physical’ illness are not diagnosed with lab tests. As in psychiatry, while lab tests can help the process (by excluding other causes or confirming particular symptoms) the majority of diagnoses of all types are made by what is known as a ‘clinical diagnosis’.

This is no more than a subjective judgement by a doctor that the signs and symptoms of a patient amount to a particular illness.

For example, the diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis depends on the doctor making a judgement that the mixture of subjectively reported symptoms by the patient and objective observations on the body amount to the condition.

The key test of whether an illness can be counted is how reliably this process can be completed – or, in other words, whether doctors consistently agree on whether patients have or don’t have the condition.

This is more of an issue for psychiatry because diagnosis relies more heavily on the patient’s subjective experience, but it is wrong to think that bodily observations are necessarily more reliable.

For example, the Babinski response is where the toes curl upward after the plantar reflex is tested by stroking the bottom of the foot. It is commonly used by neurologists to test for damage to the upper motor neurons but it is remarkably unreliable. In fact, neurologists agree on whether it is present at a far lower rate than would be acceptable for the diagnosis of a mental illness or psychiatric symptom.

The problem of reliably diagnosing a condition is relatively easy to overcome, however, as agreement is easy to test and refine. The problem of what we consider an illness is a deeper conceptual issue and this is the essence of the debates over how many people have a mental illness.

The ‘1 in 4’ figures seems to have been mostly plucked out of the air. If this seems too high an estimate, you may be surprised to learn that studies on how many people qualify for a psychiatry diagnosis suggest it is too low.

There is actually no hard evidence for one in four ‚Äì or any other number ‚Äì because there’s never been any research looking at the overall lifetime rates of mental illness in Britain. The closest thing we’ve had is the Psychiatric Morbidity Survey, run by the Office of National Statistics. The latest survey, done in 2007, found a rate of about one in four, 23%, but this asked people whether they’d suffered symptoms in the past week (for most disorders).

We don’t know what the corresponding rate for lifetime illness is, although it must be higher. Several such studies have been done in other English speaking countries, however. The most recent major survey of the US population found an estimated lifetime rate of no less than 50.8%. Another study in Dunedin, New Zealand, found that more than 50% of the people there had suffered from mental illness at least once by the age of 32.

Psychiatry has a tendency for ‘diagnosis creep’ where unpleasant life problems are increasingly defined as medical disorders, partly due to pressure from drug companies who develop compounds that could genuinely help non-medical problems. The biggest market is the USA where most drugs are dispensed via insurance claims and insurance companies demand an official diagnosis to fund the drugs, hence, pressure to create new diagnoses from companies and distressed people.

Whenever someone criticises a diagnosis as being unhelpful a common response is to suggest the critic has no compassion for the people with the problem or that they are wanting to deny them help.

The most important issue is not whether people are suffering or whether there is help available to them, but whether medicine is the best way of understanding and assisting people.

Medicine has the potential to do great harm as well as great good and it is not an approach which should be used without seriously considering the risks and benefits, both in terms of the individual and in terms of how it shifts our society’s view of ourselves and the share of responsibility for dealing with personal problems.

So when you hear figures that suggest that ‘1 in 4’ or ‘50%’ of people will have a mental illness in their lifetime, question what this means. The figure is often used to try and destigmatise mental illness but the most powerful bit of The Guardian article shows that this is not necessary:

People who experience mental illness often face stigma and discrimination, and it’s right to oppose this. But stigma is wrong whether the rate of mental illness is one in four, or one in 400. We shouldn’t need statistics to remind us that mental illness happens to real people. By saying that mental health problems are nothing to be ashamed of because they’re common, one in four only serves to reinforce the assumption that there’s something basically shameful about being “abnormal”.

If you want more background on the ‘1 in 4’ figure or discussion about how we understand what is mental illness and who has it, an excellent three part series on Neuroskeptic tackled exactly this point.

Link to ‘How true is the one-in-four mental health statistic?’
Parts one two and three of excellent Neuroskeptic series

Charlie Rose Brain Series online and complete

The Charlie Rose discussion show has an ongoing series on the brain and all of the episodes are available online where some of world’s leading neuroscientists extensively tackle the big questions of the field.

I’m just watching the programmes at the moment and while they can seem a little stiff at times, it lovely to see neuroscience being discussed without being dumbed down but while key concepts are explained and explored.

The discussions are co-hosted by Charlie Rose and Nobel prize winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel and the seven shows so far have tackled The Great Mysteries of the Human Brain, The Perceiving Brain, The Acting Brain, The Social Brain, The Developing Brain, The Ageing Brain and The Emotional Brain.

Future shows include The Anxious Brain, The Mentally Ill Brain, The Disordered Brain, The Deciding Brain, The Artistic Brain and The New Science of the Mind, all of which will appear online just after they are broadcast on US TV.

A great introductory guide to contemporary cognitive neuroscience.

Link to Charlie Rose Brain Series.

Cultures of foreplay

Photo by Flickr user LLima. Click for sourceI’ve just read a fantastic article in the Journal of Sex Research on culture and how we decide what is a sexual disorder or ‘paraphilia’. It has a fascinating section where it talks about cultural variation in common or acceptable sexual practices and it touches on how foreplay differs between societies.

Kissing during foreplay, it seems, is not universal and seems to be a particular fetish of Western lovers.

Finally, in most cultures, sexual intercourse is preceded by some degree of foreplay—that is, sensory and sexual stimulation intended to induce arousal. This stimulation may be visual, tactile, or otherwise. When visual, it may be the sight of the partner or parts of his or her body or clothing, but these may vary across cultures (Bhugra, 2000). Kissing as part of sexual foreplay is common in the West but virtually unknown in other parts of the world (Ford & Beach, 1965). There are some cultures where penetration was the key element to intercourse, and neither foreplay nor afterplay was recorded. Ford and Beach pointed out that physical pain and biting are sometimes permitted as part of sexual foreplay and, therefore, such behaviors are likely to be readily incorporated into the sexual repertoire. Thus, individuals learn about methods of sexual arousal and sexual activity from their cultural habits and, in order to avoid being labelled and treated as deviant, they conform to prevalent and expected mores.

Unfortunately, the article is locked behind a paywall. Undoubtedly for your own good though. Imagine what would happen if you started to deviate from culturally accepted foreplay practices. Anarchy. And then where would we be?

Link to PubMed entry for article.

2010-04-23 Spike activity

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

The New York Times discusses how a belladonna hallucination could have been the start of alcoholics anonymous.

Dream rehearsal helps remembering, according to a study covered by Not Exactly Rocket Science.

The Times covers breezy people who go around saying yaka-wow. Some yaka-wow socks are also in progress.

An interesting in-scanner set-up for live face-to-face interaction during brain imaging experiments is covered by the BPS Research Digest.

The Smithsonian Magazine has an in-depth article on the neuroscience of how our brains make memories.

There’s an excellent discussion how to delay instant gratification and offset delay discounting with future thinking over at The Frontal Cortex.

Nature News covers genetic evidence suggesting that neanderthals may have interbred with humans.

To the bunkers! New Scientist covers the development of robots with sensing skin.

Neurophilosophy covers an interesting embodied cognition experiment where body movement influenced memory and emotions.

How should we explain the origins of novel behaviors? asks American Scientist.

Neurotopia discusses the neuroscience of ‘photic sneezing‘ or why we sometimes sneeze when we look at the sun.

Evidence on the link between obesity and dementia is discussed in The New York Times.

PsyBlog has an absolutely fascinating post on our tendency to be over-cynical about trusting other people and how it can be overcome through accurate feedback of others’ trustworthiness.

Is there search for extra-terrestrial life missing the most likely signs of <a href="Alien intelligence
http://www.economist.com/science-technology/displaystory.cfm?story_id=15905827″>alien intelligence? asks The Economist.

Minds of the Edge is a powerful documentary and online resource about mental health in the states. You can view all online.

I keep forgetting how good BrainBlogger is. Note to self: remind me more often please.

New Scientist has an article on Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, the ‘predictioneer‘, whose game theory based model of political prediction has been remarkably accurate.

Visions of the brain. The Beautiful Brain blog has a fantastic podcast that talks to three artists about their approach to visualising inner landscapes.

Popular Science have video of the autonomous garbage collecting ‘dustbot‘ designed to wander your neighbourhood. To the bunkers!

Is memory for music special? Asks Dr Shock. Apparently it is not.

Wired has excellent piece on the history of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies and how the scientific research organisation stands in relation to the drugs counter-culture.

The busy night

Two things I love are sleeping and data collection. Now, thanks to a new iPhone app, I can do both at once.

Sleep Cycle uses the accelerometer in the iPhone to record vibrations in your mattress caused by you moving in the night. In this way it acts as an actigraph, keeping a record of your body movement, which in this context reflects how deeply you are asleep.

sleepgraph.jpgHere is the data from my last night’s kip. As you can see I show a fairly typical pattern: sleeping deeper in the first half of the night, compared to the second half, and having alternating patterns of deep and light sleep (although I seem to cycle through the stages of sleep every hour, rather than the typically quoted every one and a half hours).

The app also has an alarm which promises to wake you up during a lighter stage of sleep, so saving you the unpleasant sensation of being woken by your alarm from deep sleep. I’ve yet to try this out but it sounds like a good thing, as long as avoiding the jarring sensation is worth forgoing the extra minutes shut-eye!

Link: to the Sleepcycle app

One thousand matter-of-fact dentists

Photo by Flickr user radiant guy. Click for sourceFor some reason, I find this study that analysed children’s drawings of dentists hilarious.

You can almost sense the existential despair of someone who spent months of their life analysing kids’ unconscious representations of dentists to discover they just think of them as the guy with the furniture and a patient.

Children’s drawings about dentistry.

Community Dent Oral Epidemiol. 1976 Jan;4(1):1-6.

Taylor D, Roth G, Mayberry W.

Drawings about the dentist at work were solicited from 1,101 children in grades 2, 4, 6 and 8 in an urban school district. A system to classify the contents of these drawings was developed. The frequency of various items occurring in the children’s drawings was determined. The “typical” or most frequent child’s drawing of the dentist at work was described. This drawing contained a normal dental chair, dentist, a patient in the chair and dental cabinetry or furniture. The picture was a very matter-of-fact representation. Abnormal or bizarre pictures occurred infrequently. A few children drew pictures that did not relate to dentistry.

Link to PubMed entry for study.

I know what you’re thinking Doctor…

I just found a completely charming study from 1977 that tested whether psychiatric patients with mind-reading delusions were really telepathic.

Telepathy in mental illness: deluge or delusion?

J Nerv Ment Dis. 1977 Sep;165(3):184-200.

Greyson B.

The belief that one can read others’ minds has long been considered a symptom of psychosis, despite reports in the parapsychological literature of veridical telepathy. All patients admitted to an inpatient psychiatric unit were screened for paranormal beliefs, and those claiming telepathic abilities were tested in a free-response ESP task. Eighteen per cent of the inpatient population claimed telepathic abilities; of the nine patients who completed the task, none performed above chance expectations. Higher frequencies of paranormal experiences than those reported previously in the psychiatric literature were attributed to the context of the study. Schneider’s first rank symptoms and a belief in telepathy discriminated schizophrenics more reliably than other paranormal experiences. Possible psychodynamics of delusions of telepathy were discussed in view of the predominance of women and younger men reporting them, as were the possible effects of such research on patients’ delusions.

Link to PubMed entry for study.