A brief and incomplete history of telepathy science

Photo from Wikipedia. Click for sourceThe Fortean Times has a wonderful article that discusses the long and winding quest to find scientific evidence for telepathy, extra-sensory perception and other mysterious psychic powers.

The opening paragraph both made me laugh out loud and sets the scene for the rest of the article:

There are two truths universally acknowledged about extra-sensory perception (ESP). The first is that the anecdotal evidence is often fun and fascinating to read, whereas to peruse the experimental evidence is as boring as batshit, as our antipodean cousins say, and the investigative methods generally employed would for most of us banish insomnia for all time. We can’t avoid discussing these methods and their results in these entries, but we do promise to be brief and to strive personfully not to ruin your reading experience.

Link to Fortean Times on ‘Telepathy on Trial’.

Psychopath researcher threatens to sue critics

Photo by Flickr user Profound Whatever. Click for sourceRobert Hare is a psychologist who studies psychopaths and is best known for developing the ‘Hare Psychopathy Checklist’ or PCL-R, a standard diagnostic tool for assessing offenders. He is currently threatening to sue two psychologists who wrote an article critical of the theory underlying the checklist, as well as the academic journal, Psychologist Assessment, that accepted the piece for publication after it was peer-reviewed.

There’s an account of the affair over at the excellent forensic psychology blog, In the News, who note that the article was authored by respected researchers Jennifer Skeem and David Cooke and was titled “Is Criminal Behavior a Central Component of Psychopathy? Conceptual Directions for Resolving the Debate”. As a result of the legal threat the article has never come to light.

The letter from Hare’s lawyers apparently claimed that the he would:

“have no choice but to seek financial damages from your publication and from the authors of the article, as well as a public retraction of the article” if it was published. The letter claimed that Skeem and Cooke’s paper was “fraught with misrepresentations and other problems and a completely inaccurate summary of what amounts to [Hare’s] life’s work” and “deliberately fabricated or altered quotes of Dr. Hare, and substantially altered the sense of what Dr. Hare said in his previous publications.”

It’s probably worth noting that the PCL-R is big business. At current prices, each assessor who uses the checklist needs their own copy of the manual ($123) and the rating booklet ($68.50) and each individual assessment requires an interview guide at $5 each and a scoring form at about $3 each.

However, to use the assessment, each person needs to attend a training workshop at about $350 per person and workshops can easily involve 100 people at a time. Additionally, there is a follow-up correspondence course, price unspecified.

Because the assessments are used in the legal system, it is important that no-one (like an opposing lawyer in court) can find fault in the process and attending the ‘official’ training from the PCL-R company is considered the gold standard.

Recently, the affair has caught the attention of two lawyers and legal scholars who have just published their own analysis of the situation in the International Journal of Forensic Mental Health.

They express regret that Hare has chosen to use legal threats to counter his critics rather than to refute any points he felt were unfair in print himself, but also note that his strategy may actually undermine the usefulness of the PCL-R in court as opposing lawyers “may attempt to discredit that testimony by arguing that the literature relevant to evaluating the PCL-R has been tainted”.

Link to In the News on the case.

French government begins ‘neuropolicy’

Photo by Flickr user paul goyette. Click for sourceABC Radio National’s Life Matters covers the surprising news that France has created a brain and behavioural research unit specifically to form public policy.

The public policy in question is not just to do with the mind and brain and the director of the unit describes a ‘neuromarketing’ approach where the programme seems set to advise on how, for example, anti-smoking messages can be formulated.

As we’ve discussed several times, the ‘neuro’ of ‘neuromarketing’ is an interesting research focus but as an applied science it is completely premature and can currently tell us nothing about how best to appeal to the public that standard psychology can’t do already.

Rather worringly, unit director Olivier Oullier seems to think that ‘neuroscience’ and ‘neuroimaging’ allows access to unconscious and emotional responses that aren’t available to established behavioural research.

This is clearly crap and anyone who is aware of how neuroimaging studies are created knows that they rest on the quality of the psychological science.

It is also the case that not a single ‘neuromarketing’ study has shown a way to predict consumer responses, attitudes or preferences that improves on previously established cognitive science.

Psychology can be, and is, used to inform and evaluate public information campaigns and the effectiveness of public policy but at the current time brain scans are nothing but fairly lights.

UPDATE: Olivier Oullier got in touch to note that his interview was sparked by the release of a (very good) report [pdf] on ‘Improving public health prevention with behavioural, cognitive and neuroscience’. We’ve agreed to disagree on the value of neuroimaging in public policy right now, but he notes he’s actually a lot more measured in his analysis than you might of thought from my comments above.

Link to Life Matters on ‘Neuroscience and public policy’.

Mouse ache

Nature Neuroscience are about to publish a study that attempts to explain the biological basis of mouse acupuncture. If you’re checking in case you have accidentally slipped between universes, don’t worry, you haven’t. It’s just that this one has gone a bit strange.

The full paper is not out until later today and will eventually appear here, so I will reserve my full judgement (because, you never know, mouse acupuncture might be the next cure for cancer) but Not Exactly Rocket Science has read the paper and has a report of the bizarre study.

Apparently, it attempts to show a ‘biological basis’ for acupuncture by putting needles into mice at ‘traditional acupuncture points’ and then looks at the biochemical effects, particularly the release of a chemical called adenosine and riffs on the apparent ‘pain relieving effects’ from there.

The trouble is, no-one has reliably shown that acupuncture is more effective than placebo, and secondly, the Nature Neuroscience study itself apparently had no control condition, so you can’t even tell whether the effect in this study was specifically due to ‘acupuncture’ or not.

Just in case Ed at Not Exactly Rocket Science has got it completely wrong, I’ll have whatever he’s smoking, and if he hasn’t, I’ll have whatever they’re smoking in the Nature Neuroscience office.

Link to Not Exactly Rocket Science coverage.
Link where paper will eventually appear.

A scientific foil to your accidental brain injury

Inkling Magazine has a fantastic article detailing unusual objects which have accidentally ended up in the brain and have subsequently made the pages of medical journals as surprising case reports.

It covers everything from fairly lights to stiletto heels to human teeth and is cheekily titled ‘Not Right in the Head’. The article also mentions that the Neurophilosophy blog published a similar article two years ago, but rather surprisingly there was only one case that overlapped between the two.

The moral of the story is that if you can imagine it ending up in the brain, it probably has at some stage.

However, neither article mentions my all time favourite case, which involved a miniature fencing foil being lodged in the brain after being accidentally shoved through the nostrils (see a previous Mind Hacks post on things that have become stuck in the brain through the nose).

It was first reported in a 1968 article for the journal Neuropsychologia and just gives the following details:

N.A. (born July 9, 1938), a young American airman, was injured on December 15, 1960, while stationed at the Azores. The injury resulted from a mock duel with another serviceman, when a miniature fencing foil entered the patient’s right nostril and punctured the base of the brain, after taking an obliquely upward course, slightly to the left.

The case is not only notable for its strangeness, however, it is also one of the most important cases in the neuropsychology of memory.

NA suffered a dense amnesia, not unlike the famous Patient HM, without experiencing any other cognitive problems and while retaining his exceptional intelligence.

A major difference with HM was that HM had his hippocampi and surrounding tissue surgically removed on both sides while NA had a much smaller penetrating injury that largely affected his thalamus and a nearby pathway called the mammillothalamic tract – deep brain structures known to be widely connected to the brain’s outer cortical areas.

This was some of the first evidence that amnesia could be caused by damage to a ‘memory circuit’ and hence this type of conscious ‘declarative’ memory did not solely rely on the hippocampi, as was thought by some after the studies on HM.

We now know that damage to a circuit involving the hippocampus, fornix, mammillary bodies, the dorsalmedial nucleus of the thalamus and to a lesser extent, the septal nuclei, can cause strikingly similar amnesic problems and, hence, have been identified as key memory areas.

NA subsequently became one of the most studied patients in neuropsychology but because ‘NA’ is such a nondescript search term, in the age of the internet it has become easier to find studies on him by searching for “miniature fencing foil”.

A curious epitaph for such an important figure in our understanding of the brain.

Link to Inkling Magazine on unusual objects in the brain.
Link to Neurophilosophy on unusual penetrating brain injuries.

An explosion of visual hysteria

I’ve written an article for the magazine fotografya about how photography was initially used by doctors to document ‘hysteria’ in the 19th century but quickly became a vector through which the condition was spread.

The most influential photos came from the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, where, under the direction of neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, hysteria was redefined to mean the appearance of apparently neurological symptoms, like paralysis or epileptic-like movements, without any clear damage to the nervous system.

Harnessed due to its presumed ability to objectively record the symptoms of patients, the camera became a vector for the condition, causing doctors to diagnose it in far greater numbers and for patients to express their distress through ‘hysterical’ symptoms in increasing numbers. We tend to think of media fashions as transient and frivolous but we forget that popular culture is as much an influence on illness and its treatment as science itself. For many, Charcot’s iconic pictures became the public expression of their private anguish and their documentary potential extended beyond the hospital walls to capture the broken spirit of the times.

These conditions are now known diagnosed as ‘conversion disorder‘ or considered to be ‘psychogenic’ in nature because psychological factors are thought to be behind the symptoms rather than what they appear to be – namely brain damage.

This means that the conditions are more likely to appear in people who already have experience of them, so early depictions of them were part of the process that led to an explosion in their appearance and diagnosis.

fotografya is a Turkish magazine and it has my original in English but I recommend checking out the Turkish translation as it is wonderfully illustrated by some of the striking photos of the time.

The article traces the history of ‘photographing madness’ from its clinical origins to its place in 19th century pop culture.

Link to article ‘Studio Charcot’ in English.
Link to Turkish translation with awesome illustrations.

2010-05-28 Spike activity

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

Decorative illustrations of women scientists improves girls’ test scores on a chemistry test, according to research covered by Big Think.

The Philosopher’s Zone from ABC Radio National had a great discussion of Nietzsche and his idea of the ‘will to power’.

fMRI in 1000 words. An excellent piece from Neuroskeptic discusses the technology behind the popular neuroimaging technique, minus the analysis.

All in the Mind (the BBC version) has just started a new series. Still a little bit starched but (at bloody last) available as a podcast.

Spanish paper El País has a barnstorming piece on El mito de la adicción a Internet [The myth of internet addiction] which kindly quotes me.

The BPS Research Digest has a fascinating piece on how men with brown eyes perceived as more dominant but not because their eyes are brown.

A history of the ‘ultra pure heroin flooding the streets’ scare story. A brief but revealing article in Slate.

Neuron Culture has a wonderfully eclectic link shower featuring mechanical brides, lie detectors, enemies and risk taking.

The author of Drugstore Cowboy has just been arrested again, aged 73, for robbing drugstores, reports The New York Times.

Neurophilosophy covers a lovely study finding that watching forward or back computer motion directs idle thoughts to the future or past.

Does age mediate susceptibility to cognitive biases? asks Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Wired discusses Aperger’s, institutionalisation and ex-hacker Adrian Lamo.

Remember the two teenagers who died after reportedly taking now-banned ‘legal high’ mephedrone? BBC News reports on toxicology tests that found no such drug in their bodies. Another triumph for media-driven drugs policies.

The Globe and Mail reports on research investigating the brain effects of poverty, although doesn’t delve too deep into which aspects of poverty may be having the effects.

The late Syd Barrett of psychedelic pioneers Pink Floyd warrants a short article in The American Journal of Psychiatry.

Science News reports on research finding that a version of gene 5-HTT makes children more vulnerable to the effect of bullying.

Leading psychiatrist Peter Tyrer slams the UK governments Dangerous and Severe Personality Disorder programme, reports The Guardian. There is some defence of the scheme in The Psychologist.

In The News has an excellent analysis of US laws aimed at marking out sex offenders and their unintended side-effects.

Cynthia Pomerleau, author of Why Women Smoke is interviewed on the excellent Addiction Inbox.

Wired Science reports that a shot of testosterone makes people more suspicious of each other.

Racial bias weakens our ability to feel someone else’s pain, according to research covered by Not Exactly Rocket Science.

BBC News reports on a study finding that prescribing heroin to long-term relapsing heroin addicts gives them a better chance of kicking the habit.