Silent stopwatch

This is just a quick tip for psychologists who want a silent or beepless stopwatch, as they are very easy to make.

Stopwatches are often used when psychologists do neuropsychological assessments as they involve the timing of participant responses. Beeps can sometimes be distracting, especially to people who may have brain injury or might be emotionally disturbed, so many assessments recommend stop watches that don’t beep every time you press a button.

Surprisingly, few actually have this option and I keep seeing online discussions about where to get a silent stopwatch. It’s no coincidence that one of the few that allows you to switch off the beep is most commonly sold with books about psychological assessment.

However, you can make virtually any stopwatch silent very easily. If you unscrew the back – you may need a smaller ‘watchmakers’ or ‘jeweller’s screwdriver’ like this one – on the back plate you can see the the piezoelectric speaker (the circular metal disc – on the left in the image). Just cover it with tape and voila! you have a silent stopwatch.

Cheaper than commercially available devices with silent options and works with every stopwatch I’ve found so far.

Decisions, decisions

The New York Times has a review of a new book called ‘The Art of Choosing’, by psychologist Sheena Iyengar, that tackles the psychology of choice and decision-making. I’ve not read the book myself but the review is very positive and like all good book reviews, it is full of interesting snippets and is worth reading in itself.

I didn’t recognise the author at first but she has done some fantastic work and is responsible for the classic experiment where a stall selling many varieties of jam had more people stop to look but sold little, where a stall with only a few varieties had fewer browsers but when they did stop they were much more likely to buy something.

This is among the many curiosities of decision-making (e.g. we say we want more options but we are consistently happier with our choice when we have only a limited selection) but the book seems to go further and discusses cultural differences in how we make and even define choices:

Take a mundane question: Do you choose to brush your teeth in the morning? Or do you just do it? Can a habit or custom be a choice? When Iyengar asked Japanese and American college students in Kyoto to record all the choices they made in a day, the Americans included things like brushing their teeth and hitting the snooze button. The Japanese didn’t consider those actions to be choices. The two groups lived similar lives. But they defined them differently.

It seems the book has picked up lots of good reviews so I might have to add this one to the list.

Link to NYT book review.
Link to more info about the book.

Inner strength

Photo by Flickr user joshjanssen. Click for sourceDiscover Magazine has an excellent piece by Carl Zimmer on the brains of elite athletes and how they have adapted with practice to process movement and the body differently.

There are lots of fascinating aspects to the article, but this particularly caught my eye:

To understand how athletes arrive at these better solutions, other neuroscientists have run experiments in which athletes and nonathletes perform the same task. This past January Claudio Del Percio of Sapienza University in Rome and his colleagues reported the results of a study in which they measured the brain waves of karate champions and ordinary people, at rest with their eyes closed, and compared them. The athletes, it turned out, emitted stronger alpha waves, which indicate a restful state. This finding suggests that an athlete’s brain is like a race car idling in neutral, ready to spring into action.

Del Percio’s team has also measured brain waves of athletes and nonathletes in action. In one experiment the researchers observed pistol shooters as they fired 120 times. In another experiment Del Percio had fencers balance on one foot. In both cases the scientists arrived at the same surprising results: The athletes’ brains were quieter, which means they devoted less brain activity to these motor tasks than nonathletes did. The reason, Del Percio argues, is that the brains of athletes are more efficient, so they produce the desired result with the help of fewer neurons. Del Percio’s research suggests that the more efficient a brain, the better job it does in sports. The scientists also found that when the pistol shooters hit their target, their brains tended to be quieter than when they missed.

There’s an interesting distinction here between what it means to have a quiet mind and what it means to have a quiet brain.

The EEG studies mentioned above found that during skilled athletic performance there were an increased number of alpha waves – electrical brain activity between 8-12Hz (cycles or waves per second) – usually associated with wakeful relaxation. In other words, mental calm.

However, these waves do not necessarily imply that the brain is similarly relaxed. In fact, a study that directly measured the link between alpha waves and the brain’s use of glucose found that more energy was need as alpha waves increased.

This whole brain energy / activity link is a little crude, however, and a more recent study using fMRI – a technique that measures the difference in oxygenated blood – has found increased alpha waves linked to reduced activity in parts of the occipital, temporal and frontal lobes, but with increased activity in the deeper brain areas the thalamus and insula.

In other words, it’s not that the whole brain just becomes ‘quieter’ (although you could say this about some specific areas) but that it seems to reconfigure the distribution of work.

Rather than becoming ‘relaxed’ the brain seem to become more ‘finely tuned’ with practice.

Link to Discover article on the brains of athletes.

High time for psychedelic medicine?

There’s an excellent article on the history of the Multidiscplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, an organisation that has done much to bring psychedelic drug investigation back into the mainstream of medical research, in that well known bastion of science journalism, Playboy.

I must admit to being a bit embarrassed when I was caught reading the article as I usually only buy the magazine for the photo-shopped pictures of girls in bikinis.

For people who want to avoid such embarrassment the organisation has put a 10Mb pdf of the article online that is mostly safe for work (artistic depiction of flying topless woman with a statue’s head, wings and pills coming out of her ears – sounds better than it is).

The piece weaves together the history of the organisation with a somewhat alarming account of a young woman with terminal cancer being treated by an ‘underground psychedelic therapist’.

The account itself is quite touching, although the fact there are people going around giving terminally ill patients various powerful and illegal hallucinogenic drugs doesn’t inspire me with a great deal of confidence to say the least. However, it is an interesting look into this phenomenon, which, I have to say, was news to me.

In terms of the use of such drugs in clinical research, the article doesn’t really give a good analysis of the likely advantages and disadvantages of such an treatment (the studies so far are promising but small and poorly controlled) but is an interesting insight into how psychologist Rick Doblin make hallucinogenic drug research cautiously respectable again.

There seems to also be a bit of an upsurge in public interest in the topic over the last few days, with an article in The New York Times and a piece in Scientific American discussing these reality bending compounds.

pdf of article ‘The New Psychedelic Renaissance’ [10Mb] (via @mocost)

2010-04-16 Spike activity

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

Should kids be bribed to do well in school? asks Time magazine. Oldest trick in the book tested out by researchers.

Neurophilosophy covers a study finding that wrinkle smoothing Botox injections may diminish the experience of emotion owing to their paralysing effect on facial muscles.

There’s an article that traces the history of placebo controlled studies back through tests of mesmerism into their origin in Christian exorcism rites in The Lancet.

Not Exactly Rocket Science has the best coverage of the headline making study that shows reduced racial biases in children with William’s syndrome – a genetic condition that is linked to virtually absent social anxiety.

Emotion’s Alchemy: how emotional expression and emotional feeling are handled differently by the brain are discussed in a great article for Seed Magazine.

Savage Minds, the excellent anthropology blog, is looking for an assistant editor to join the team.

ABC Radio National’s All in the Mind has an excellent programme on personal construct psychology and its possible application to understanding serial killers. A few straw men thrown in by the interviewees but a compelling programme.

The New York Times has an article on the recently revived and ongoing clinical research into the potential of hallucinogenic drugs.

‘Sleeping Beauty Paraphilia’ and body image disturbance after brain injury. The Neurocritic covers a fascinating case from the medical literature.

Prospect Magazine has a brief article on psychology of voting and the curious things that can influence the electability of candidates.

“I have decided that my campaign against Strunk and White’s toxic little compendium of unfollowable dumb advice, bungled grammar claims, and outright mendacity must be taken directly to America’s colleges”. Language Log rallies the troops.

The Independent has a brief piece on the development of the forthcoming DSM-V psychiatric manual.

Essential reading from The Neurocritic that evaluates the new study that claims to have found the first direct evidence for mirror neurons in humans.

The Fortean Times has an excellent article on the ‘Dream Machine‘ – essentially a rotating lampshade that can induce hallucinations in some people that was directly drawn from neurophysiology research from neurology research.

There are six psychological reasons consumer culture is unsatisfying over at the mighty PsyBlog.

Eurozine has a piece on ‘neurocapitalism‘ that notes that neuroscience “aggressively seeks to establish hermeneutic supremacy”. Bless. Actually, if you can wade through the jargon actually not too bad an article.

“If it wasn’t for war, porn and fast food, we might all still be living in caves”. ABC Radio National’s Counterpoint discusses the role of competition in technology development.

Not So Humble Pie has instructions on how to make the most delicious looking brain cupcakes ever.

There’s an article on the observation that some people with movement disorder Parkinson’s disease can ride bikes perfectly well in The New York Times.

Pharmalot covers a new study finding that there is no difference among antidepressants in raising a youngster’s risk of suicidal thoughts.

The [average] friendship patterns of [American] men are discussed in an article for the Wall Street Journal.

DrugMonkey has a classic interview about the effects of street drugs from Ali G.

There’s a review of the G.tec intendiX at-home mind-reading kit over at Wired UK. Only ¬£8,500. Doesn’t read minds.

Breezy people

The Times has an interview with neuroscientist Susan Greenfield, largely to do with the recent political tussles in UK science, but where she uses the opportunity to comment on how computer games are ‘as much of a risk to mankind as climate change’. But wait, the best is yet to come – this part is as beautiful as it is baffling:

She is concerned that those who live only in the present, online, don’t allow their malleable brains to develop properly. “It’s not going to destroy the planet but is it going to be a planet worth living in if you have a load of breezy people who go around saying yaka-wow. Is that the society we want?”

It certainly is not, and I for one would staunchly defend society against such a malign influence.

To be fair, this is probably a transcription error as Greenfield often talks about digital technology being full of “yuk and wow“, but the delightful phrase has triggered something of a fan club (nothing to do with me I might add) and there is now a hashtag, a Twitter stream, a poster and even a T-shirt.

Although I’ve disagreed with the Baroness on many occasions, it seems she hit the nail on the head with this particular prediction, as it seems that there are now a load of breezy people who go around saying yaka-wow.

UPDATE: This is pure genius.

Link to Greenfield interview in The Times.

Corridors of the mind

Photo by Flickr user wvs. Click for sourceI’ve just discovered the joy of searching Flickr for photos of psychiatric ward corridors which turns up some amazing images of hospitals past and present, and photos of institutions that are slowly, and sometimes beautifully, decaying.

The great numbers of abandoned hospitals are mostly due to the shutting down of the old monolithic psychiatric hospitals in the second half of the 20th century.

As the buildings were often built as large permanent structures, often with great architectural finesse, many are difficult to knock down or sell, and so have just remained to fade away. Needless to say, they’ve become a regular destination for urban explorers.

There are many striking photos to check out, but there’s one interesting historical shot. It’s a photo of the main corridor in the now closed down Friern Barnet psychiatric hospital on the edges of North London.

The place was built in 1853 and was originally called the Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum and the building had, so they say, the longest corridor in Europe, which is captured in the image.

As with many institutions of the time, the building, at least on the outside, was very beautiful. It has now been converted into ultra luxury flats called Princess Park Manor, which, as you can see, has a swish website to match.

So swish, it seems, that despite lauding the architectural heritage the building, it neglects to mention that it used to be one of London’s biggest asylums.

Link to photo of psychiatric hospital corridors.