Whack on, whack off

Photo by Flickr user Dude With Camera. Click for sourcePsychologist Jesse Bering has written an absolutely remarkable article about the psychology of masturbation for his latest Scientific American ‘Bering in Mind’ column.

I realise it’s now impossible to write anything about the piece without dropping innuendos like a nurse in a Carry On film but it’s worth checking out for the fact it’s both full of surprising findings and is very funny.

The article covers everything from monkey sex to wet dreams (it has ick and wow in equal measure) but this section on the psychology of sexual fantasy particularly caught my eye:

In their excellent 1995 Psychological Bulletin article [pdf] on sexual fantasy, University of Vermont psychologists Harold Leitenberg and Kris Henning summarize a number of interesting differences between the sexes in this area…

One of the more intriguing things that Leitenberg and Henning conclude is that, contrary to common (and Freudian) belief, sexual fantasies are not simply the result of unsatisfied wishes or erotic deprivation:

“Because people who are deprived of food tend to have more frequent daydreams about food, it might be expected that sexual deprivation would have the same effect on sexual thoughts. The little evidence that exists, however, suggests otherwise. Those with the most active sex lives seem to have the most sexual fantasies, and not vice versa. Several studies have shown that frequency of fantasy is positively correlated with masturbation frequency, intercourse frequency, number of lifetime sexual partners, and self-rated sex drive.”

Link to Bering in Mind psychology of masturbation article.
pdf of full text of Leitenberg and Henning sexual fantasy study.

Technology and the brain: the words as they were spoke

I’ve just noticed that the complete transcript of my House of Lords committee debate with Susan Greenfield on ‘What is the potential impact of technology, such as computer gaming, on the brain?’ is now online as a pdf file.

The debate was for the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Scientific Research in Learning and Education and, handily, the transcript has all the slides included next to the relevant text.

As with all direct transcripts it has the fluency of frozen mud: “And we saw a thing from the newspaper there and this was based on a report by Childwise” (clearly hitting one of my rhetorical highs at this point).

You can draw your own conclusions from the debate, however, what stands out for me, and what struck me at the time, is Greenfield’s completely unwillingness to engage with any of the scientific studies on the topic.

There’s also an interesting typo in the transcript. When talking about the research on video game violence during the questions I’m quoted as saying “There is a very good discussion about this in the Binary report”.

What I actually mentioned was the Byron report – a wide-ranging review commissioned by the UK government entitled ‘Safer Children in a Digital World’.

It is probably one of the best scientific reviews on the impact of computers on the well-being and behaviour of children. Interestingly, I met no-one in parliament who had read it and drew blanks whenever I mentioned it. Joined up government in action, I presume.

pdf of ‘impact of technology on the brain’ debate transcript.

Combined animal death delusions

Photo by Flickr user limonada. Click for sourceThe Journal of ECT has a case report of patient who endured the terrifying delusion that her body was rotting away and being replaced by parts of a pig.

The lady concerned was admitted to hospital for surgery but later developed psychosis:

Approximately 4 weeks after the surgery, she started expressing somatic delusions that her entire body was slowly rotting away. She claimed that the bones in her body were replaced by those of a pig and her own body parts were decomposing. She expressed that she deserved the ‘punishment’ by God in this way (decomposing her body) because she did not perform certain religious rituals and did not take a promised pilgrimage. Over the next few days, she also voiced delusions referring to her children‚Äôs body parts being replaced by those with pig‚Äôs body parts.

The disturbing false belief is described as a simultaneous case of both Cotard delusion, where someone believes they are dead or their body is decomposing, and lycanthropy, where someone believes they are transforming or have transformed into an animal.

The patient was apparently successfully treated with electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) although the authors, who like their patient, are based in India, give an interesting cultural interpretation of the delusion:

Interestingly, no reports of metamorphosis into pig/swine have been reported earlier. The metamorphosis into pig in our case can be understood from the Indian culture and mythological importance of the same. According to the Bhagavad Gita, Indra, king of the Hindu gods, was once transformed into a pig for lack of respect to guru Brihaspati. The index case also had strong guilt of not being able to perform certain religious rituals and a promised pilgrimage, which is similar to lack of respect to god and being punished for the same.

However, this is not the first case of a patient with simultaneous Cotard and lycanthropy delusions in the medical literature. In 2005, two Iranian psychiatrists reported on a patient who believed he had died and had also been transformed into a dog.

Link to latest combined Cotard and lycanthropy case report.

A brief glance in Jacques Lacan’s mirror

I’ve just found a very funny YouTube video that attempts to explain everything you need to know about French psychoanalyst and philosopher Jacques Lacan in one minute. It’s not entirely safe for work, which is part of its charm.

Clearly, it’s not intended to be taken too seriously, which I first suspected when it introduced Lacan’s ideas as “like Freud on high grade cocaine mixed with hallucinogens – and we mean that in the most admiring sense”.

The creator of the Lacan video, writer Mark Fullmer, has also just posted another – this time a rap about ‘philosophies of psychoanalyst and theorist Julia Kristeva‘.

In true hip hop style, it also waxes lyrical about how hot she is.

Link to ‘Jacques Lacan in 1 Minute’.
Link to the ‘Hot Kristeva Rap’.

Smells like retail

Photo by Flickr user misteraitch. Click for sourceBusiness Week has a fascinating article on the rise of ‘ambient scenting’ – a type of smell-based marketing used in High Street stores to alter the buying behaviour of shoppers.

There is now a small but determined scientific literature on the effect of scents on consumer behaviour. These studies have found, for example, that a well-chosen perfume can increase people’s liking of products, improve memory for aspects of the product, and when combined with similarly evocative music, can boost sales.

Interestingly, many studies suggest that shop scents seem to work well when they match the theme of the display but have a lesser or absent effect when the smell clashes with the product (and there’s been one study which found no effect at all).

In spite of the relatively small number of studies, the Business Week article charts how ‘scent branding’ has become big business with companies already offering to blend scents specifically for your store or product.

No longer confined to lingerie stores, ambient scenting became standard practice in casinos in the early 2000s and invaded the hospitality sector soon thereafter. Sheraton Hotels & Resorts employs Welcoming Warmth, a mix of fig, jasmine, and freesia. Westin Hotel & Resorts disperses White Tea, which attempts to provide the indefinable “Zen-retreat” experience. (Despite its abstraction, the line was successful enough to inspire Westin’s 2009 line of White Tea candles.) Marriott offers different smells for its airport, suburban, and resort properties. The Mandarin Oriental Miami sprays Meeting Sense in conference rooms in an effort, it claims, to enhance productivity. In the mornings, the scent combines orange blossom and “tangy effervescent zest.” In the afternoon, executives work away while sniffing “an infusion of Mediterranean citrus, fruit, and herbs.”

Scent branding is becoming just as prevalent in retail. Researchers believe that ambient scenting allows consumers to make a deeper brand connection, and data has led many other non-scent-related companies to join the fray. Recently, Gaurin, 41, helped create a fragrance for Samsung’s stores, which has been cited throughout the industry as a milestone in scent as design. He claims the research, which IFF declined to provide on account of contractual agreements, showed that not only did customers under the subtle influence of his creation spend an average of 20 to 30 percent more time mingling among the electronics, but they also identified the scent‚Äîand by extension, the brand‚Äîwith characteristics such as innovation and excellence.

Although this is touted as a relatively new innovation, more obvious applications of the ‘scent sells’ approach have been used on the High Street for some years.

For example, I notice sandwich chain Subway have designed their bread ovens so they vent the smell of freshly baked bread directly to the pavement so passers-by get an olfactory advert as they walk past the front door.

Link to Business Week piece on ‘Scent Branding’.

The sound of seduction

Photo by Flickr user James Jordan. Click for sourceIf you’ve ever wondered whether romantic music will enhance your chances of getting a date with the girl you fancy, wonder no more – science has the answer (and it turns out to be yes).

‘Love is in the air’: Effects of songs with romantic lyrics on compliance with a courtship request

Psychology of Music, Vol. 38, No. 3, 303-307 (2010)

Nicolas Guéguen, Céline Jacob, Lubomir Lamy

Previous research has shown that exposure to various media is correlated to variations in human behaviour. Exposure to aggressive song lyrics increases aggressive action whereas exposure to songs with prosocial lyrics is associated with prosocial behaviour. An experiment was carried out where 18—20-year-old single female participants were exposed to romantic lyrics or to neutral ones while waiting for the experiment to start. Five minutes later, the participant interacted with a young male confederate in a marketing survey. During a break, the male confederate asked the participant for her phone number. It was found that women previously exposed to romantic lyrics complied with the request more readily than women exposed to the neutral ones. The theoretical implication of our results for the General Learning Model is discussed.

There’s a great write-up of the study on Nou Stuff if you want more details.

Link to study abstract and DOI entry (via @danlevitin).
Link to write-up on Nou Stuff.

Don’t sweat the technique

Wooly Thoughts are a small online company who design and sell patterns for amazing optical illusion knitwear.

Some of these are for sweaters or scarfs that display well-known optical illusions such as café wall or the Necker cube illusions.

However, the company has also designed knitwear specific illusions that use raised stitches that involve two colours, one of which is only visible when viewed from the side.

This means that when seen from the correct angle, images jump out on what would otherwise seem to be little more than a plain striped pattern. If that wasn’t awesome enough, some of the patterns are for MC Escher designs.

UPDATE: Grabbed from the comments – thanks Alice!

I’m a big fan of illusion knitting (scroll down for v rough video [of a knitted DNA strand illusion!]):

The people behind woollythoughts.com do some of the best I’ve seen. Their “moonrise” is incredible (it can be quite hard to make the illusion knit patterns work).

Link to Wooly Thoughts website (via @alicebell).

Computationally, my dear Watson

The New York Times has an excellent article on IBM’s ‘Watson’ project which is an artificial intelligence system designed to answer natural language queries to the point where it can beat humans at Jeopardy! quiz show questions – where contestants are given an answer and they have to come up with the question.

Natural language questions are traditionally very difficult for computers because they involve a lot of assumptions. For example, take the question “How many people work in a bank?” To answer the question you need to understand that ‘bank’ refers to a financial institution and not a river bank.

Answering this question needs pre-existing knowledge and, computationally, two main approaches. One is constraint satisfaction, which finds which answer is the ‘best fit’ to a problem which doesn’t have mathematically exact solution; and the other is a local search algorithm, which indicates when further searching is unlikely to yield a better result – in other words, when to quit computing and give an answer – because you can always crunch more data.

If you’re not familiar with it, the quiz show Jeopardy! is a a particularly difficult version of this because it gives people answers and they have to provide correct question: such as “A singer who was touched for the very first time and became the material girl” – the winning contestant would be the first to respond with “Who is Madonna?”

In a major advance for artificial intelligence IBM have developed a system that can beat humans at the quiz. Although the ability to publicly trounce puny humans in quiz shows is not necessarily the greatest contribution to humanity, this is just a way of testing the system which could be deployed to answer unprepared question based on large datasets.

Watson applies computational linguistics to extract knowledge from text – a technique sometimes known as text mining and then applies constraint satisfaction and local search algorithms to produce reasonable answers quickly.

This could be very useful for asking questions of large datasets which someone may not have necessarily asked before – such ‘which drug shows the best promise for treating tuberculosis?’

The article has lots of great insights into the difficulties of artificial intelligence. I particularly liked this section:

To avoid losing money — Watson doesn’t care about the money, obviously; winnings are simply a way for I.B.M. to see how fast and accurately its system is performing — Ferrucci’s team has programmed Watson generally not to buzz until it arrives at an answer with a high confidence level. In this regard, Watson is actually at a disadvantage, because the best “Jeopardy!” players regularly hit the buzzer as soon as it’s possible to do so, even if it’s before they’ve figured out the clue. “Jeopardy!” rules give them five seconds to answer after winning the buzz. So long as they have a good feeling in their gut, they’ll pounce on the buzzer, trusting that in those few extra seconds the answer will pop into their heads. Ferrucci told me that the best human contestants he had brought in to play against Watson were amazingly fast. “They can buzz in 10 milliseconds,” he said, sounding astonished. “Zero milliseconds!”

Buzzing just on a ‘gut feeling’ is an example of what psychologists called ‘metacognition‘ or a little more crudely ‘thinking about thinking’. More specifically in this case its an example of humans relying on their ‘feeling of knowing‘.

‘Feeling of knowing’ is used a little differently in memory and decision making research, but it essentially boils down to the feeling that you know something, without necessarily having to bring the thing to mind. In some ways, it’s similar to when you look at something and decide whether you can lift it or not, without actually having to try and pick it up.

In other words, its being able to manage your mental resources based on estimations. This has become one of the core problems of artificial intelligence.

Computation is easy. Meta-computation, it turns out, is a bitch.

Link to NYT piece ‘What Is I.B.M.’s Watson?’

Divorce spreads through social networks

Photo by Flickr user Print North East. Click for sourceA completely fascinating study published on the Social Science Research Network looked at how likely a marriage was to survive depending on who else in the social network was getting divorced.

The study used data from the famous Framington Heart Study and found that while we tend to think of marriage as a ‘couple thing’ is turns out that even our most intimate bonds are deeply embedded into the social webs we weave.

Breaking Up is Hard to Do, Unless Everyone Else is Doing it Too: Social Network Effects on Divorce in a Longitudinal Sample Followed for 32 Years

Rose McDermott, Nicholas A. Christakis, James H. Fowler

Divorce is the dissolution of a social tie, but it is also possible that attitudes about divorce flow across social ties. To explore how social networks influence divorce and vice versa, we utilize a longitudinal data set from the long-running Framingham Heart Study. We find that divorce can spread between friends, siblings, and coworkers, and there are clusters of divorcees that extend two degrees of separation in the network. We also find that popular people are less likely to get divorced, divorcees have denser social networks, and they are much more likely to remarry other divorcees. Interestingly, we do not find that the presence of children influences the likelihood of divorce, but we do find that each child reduces the susceptibility to being influenced by peers who get divorced. Overall, the results suggest that attending to the health of one’s friends’ marriages serves to support and enhance the durability of one’s own relationship, and that, from a policy perspective, divorce should be understood as a collective phenomenon that extends far beyond those directly affected.

Link to full text of study (via The Situationist).

2010-06-18 Spike activity

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

Forensic psychology blog In the News hits the nail on the head with a final round-up of the psychopath research fight that recently came to light. Props to the blog for breaking the story.

Science News reports on a study that shows how our psychological associations with north and south (‘up’ and ‘down’) affect travel behaviour.

There’s an excellent analysis of the discovery of yet more autism risk genes over at Neuroskeptic.

The New York Times has an obituary for neurologist Fred Plum whose work helped advance our understanding of consciousness and the ‘persistent vegetative state’.

A study finding that obesity is linked to brain shrinkage and dementia is covered by a great post from Neurophilosophy.

New Scientist reports on research finding that people can accurately judge a male’s upper body strength just from listening to the sound of their voice.

There’s an excellent piece on how we can know whether colours look the same to everyone and have the same ‘colour qualia‘ over at Nature, Brain, and Culture.

Seed Magazine has an excellent piece on the links between suicidal thoughts, intelligence and antidepressants.

The results of the US Government’s annual state-by-state survey of drug use in America have just been released and Addiction Inbox has the low-down.

TechCrunch reports that Chatroulette is to develop a penis recognition algorithm. To help the smaller gentleman join in the fun I presume.

Hot avatars get all the breaks: even virtual attractiveness changes how people treat you, according to a new virtual world study cover by Neoacademic.

The New York Daily News reports that extroverted men and neurotic women are the most fertile combination. There’s a dating website business opportunity in there somewhere.

There’s a good analysis of the latest internet damages the brain, does so, does not, debate over at Neuron Culture.

Cerebrum, the online neuroscience from the Dana Foundation, has a great piece on the medical and ethical challenges in diagnosing and treating the minimally conscious state.

Our mental models of our hands are short and fat according to a fantastic study that asked people to blindly judge the architecture of their hands. Great write up from Not Exactly Rocket Science.

Colonial Psychiatry is an excellent blog about the history of colonial psychiatry in the British Empire. That, ladies and gentlemen, is why the internet is awesome.

“One day, neuroscientists may be able to describe the damage we do to our brains when we lie to ourselves and to others”. New Scientist has a completely baffling article by psychologist Dorothy Rowe.

Neuroskeptic has a list of new neuroblogs you may not know about.

South Korean man posts suicide note on Twitter, reports The Telegraph.

Discover Magazine has a piece on epigenetics, neuroscience and mental illness.

Lucky number plates go up in value when times are bad, reports the BPS Research Digest. Coincidentally, my lucky pants (Americans: smalls) go up in value when times are bad as well.

Time covers a new analysis finding that evidence from studies on whether lifestyle factors alter your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease are too inconsistent to draw firm conclusions.

Pro basketball player Ron Artest thanks his psychiatrist after the LA Lakers win the NBA Championship.

Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and Law has an open-access article on the language of revenge in two ‘pseudocommando‘ mass murderers.

Approval for Flibanserin, the experimental and not very good female sex drug (0.7 more ‘satisfying sexual events’ per month!) is rejected by the US Food and Drug Administration, reports The New York Times.

Newsweek has a piece on the folly of blaming bad behaviour on wonky DNA.

Does frequent sex help a marriage? “whilst much research has been done on marital sexual relations, very little has been conducted on the effects of the frequency of sex on marriage itself” Interesting study covered by Paracademia.

Facial expression techno ballet

Earlier this week we discussed how 1800s neurologist Duchenne studied the components of facial expressions by electrocuting individual face muscles.

It turns out someone has done a modern day version, but automated the process and set the dancing faces of four participants to the rhythm of abstract techno. The video to be seen to be believed.

The compelling clip was actually from posted in the comments of another recent Mind Hacks entry on whether we can fake the supposedly unfakeable ‘Duchenne smile’ and was kindly highlighted by reader ‘Thomas Exciting’, who gets top marks for both his YouTube-fu and his nickname.

The facial expression ballet is by Japanese artist Daito Manabe and you can see more of his work on his website.

Link to facial expression techno ballet by Daito Manabe

Architecture of the brain

The building for Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas is just beautiful.

The centre is a neuroscience research institute that was designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry.

It particularly focuses on Alzheimer’s disease and other degenerative brain diseases.

The ‘Lou Ruvo’ in the name is a tribute to the father of the centre’s founder who died from dementia.

Link to image from BoingBoing
Link to the centre’s website.

Are you near death experienced?

Photo by Flickr user mellyjean. Click for sourceA recent study in the Journal of Substance Use and Misuse reported on ‘near death experiences’ by users of the anaesthetic drug ketamine which is also widely used illicitly for its hallucinogenic effects.

‘Near death experiences’ are most commonly associated with being seriously ill or injured, although one of my favourite studies found that about half of people who reported the events were never actually in danger of dying.

NDEs typically involve a ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ experience, having life flash before your eyes, feeling detached from the body, the experience of making a decision to ‘return to life’, a sense of profound peace and a feeling of communicating with non-physical beings.

There were anecdotal reports that ketamine can produce similar effects with ‘out of body experiences’ being common at high doses. Additionally, the drug targets the glutamate system in the brain which has also been implicated in NDEs that don’t involved the drug.

To understand how closely the drug produces the classic NDE experiences, researchers Ornella Corazza‚Äå and Fabrizio Schifano‚Äå asked ketamine users to anonymously complete a questionnaire on the internet and then invited those who reported an NDE on a validated assessment for an interview.

The results are fascinating:

Interestingly, in 45 (90%) cases, the NDE state occurred either during the first five occasions of intake or during the first few experiences after long spells of ketamine-free periods. On further occasions of intake, ketamine was typically perceived as a stimulant. In terms of the Greyson NDE Scale (see Table 2), the subjects’ perception of time seemed to be altered as typically described during an NDE: 45 (90%) participants reported that everything seemed to be happening at once, or that time lost all its meaning, while 5 (10%) perceived a complete “absence of time” during the experience.

The sense of dissociation from the physical body was experienced by 44 subjects (88%), who claimed that they left their bodies and existed outside it or that they lost awareness of their bodies. Thirteen subjects (26%) clearly described a travel along a tunnel, or through a spiral, with a brilliant light at the end or experienced a more general sense of light, or of flashing lights. Fifteen (30%) participants somewhat met with a “being,” or heard a definite voice of mystical or unearthly nature. An infrequently described feature was the so-called “life review.” Twelve (24%) subjects reported that they were able to either vividly “review” past events, or felt that their past “flashed before them, out of control.”

Furthermore, 10 (20%) subjects reported that during their experience they were “aware of things going on elsewhere,” as if by extrasensory perceptions. At the question “Did you suddenly seem to understand everything?” most interviewees (26, 52%), answered that they achieved “a total understanding of the universe.” Only 4 (8%) participants approached a sort of “barrier” or “a point of no return,” which was described as “the limit between earthly life and the next life.” This could have been an edge, a wall, or a river, among other patterns. Thirty-six (72%) respondents experienced an ineffable sense of peace and pleasantness, and 38 (76%) subjects described an “incredible joy.”

Link to PubMed entry for study.

Headache pill reduces the pain of social rejection

Photo by Flickr user KatieL366. Click for sourceOver-the-counter headache pill paracetamol, also known as acetaminophen, reduces the pain of social rejection according to a new study just published in Psychological Science.

Based on past findings of an overlap between the brain circuits involved in physical pain and those involved in feeling rejected, the researchers wondered whether painkillers would also ease emotional distress stemming from exclusion.

Not all painkillers work the same though: some work by numbing the local nerves – like benzocaine-based sort throat lozenges that make your mouth go numb, while others affect the brain systems that process pain no matter where it originates from in the body.

Paracetamol is largely of the second type meaning if social rejection and physical pain really do share some of the same brain circuits, the drug should dull the hurt from both.

To test this out, the researchers recruited a group of healthy students and asked them to take a pill every day for three weeks: half got placebo while the other half were given paracetamol, although they didn’t know which they were taking.

Each evening the participants were asked to complete a standard questionnaire that asked about if they’d experienced hurt feelings or social exclusion during the day. While both groups started out reporting the same levels of hurt feelings, by the end of the three weeks, those taking paracetamol reported significantly less.

The second experiment of the study was similar but instead of filling in questionnaires the participants were asked to take part in a brain scanning experiment at the end of the three weeks.

Inside the scanner, they were asked to take part in a video game that involved tossing a virtual ball between players who they thought were human opponents. In reality, all the other moves were controlled by a computer programme that was preset to start excluding them from the game by not passing the ball to them.

The game was used in previous research and helped establish that brain activity in social rejection and physical pain overlapped.

The same overlap occurred in this new study, but the brain areas most linked to both physical and social pain – the anterior cingulate cortex and the insula – were less active in those who had been taking paracetamol for three weeks.

Those same participants also rated themselves as feeling less rejected on a brief post-game questionnaire than participants who had been taking placebo.

It’s an intriguing finding because it suggests that a common and cheap painkiller might be useful in reducing feelings of social rejection which can feature prominently in conditions like depression and borderline personality disorder.

If this was a brand new drug, you can bet the pharmaceutical industry would be jumping up and down with glee at these findings and would already be planning trials to see if it works as a useful treatment.

But because paracetamol is so old it can’t be patented and so there is virtually no profit to be made from it. Unfortunately, paracetemol can be toxic if taken too often, but it would be interesting to see if anyone does take up the baton to see if it might be a useful psychiatric treatment in appropriate doses.

Link to summary of study in PubMed.

The dynamics of open sexuality

The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom has just released a new document entitled ‘What Psychology Professionals Should Know About Polyamory’ which aims to educate therapists about people in consenting non-monogamous relationships.

The document reviews research on the well-being of people in open relationships and the emotional challenges that they can face, although, I’m afraid I don’t have the knowledge to judge how balanced the analysis actually is (where’s Meg Barker when you need her?)

However, I am reminded of a paragraph in the fantastic book Freud: A Very Short Introduction that discusses how the Freudian view of the traditional paired-off relationship runs into the wall of cultural differences:

Freud once thought of the Oedipus complex as universal; but it can be argued that it is very much a Western concept, which particularly applies to the small, ‘nuclear’ family. Do children brought up in extended families, in which polyagmy is the norm, experience the jealousy, possessiveness, and fear which Freud found in his patients? We do now know; but anecdotal evidence suggests the contrary. A Nigerian analyst told me that, during his training analysis, it took him over a year to make his analyst understand the entirely different emotional climate which obtains in a family in which the father has several wives.

Link to ‘What Psychology Professionals Should Know About Polyamory’.

US Army clipboard corps lose leader

Wired’s Danger Room blog has a short news item reporting that the co-founder and leader of the Human Terrain System, the US Army’s teams of battlefield social scientists, is no longer in post and has presumably been fired.

The HTS has been a controversial innovation of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and aims to understand the culture in which the conflict takes place to give the military a strategic advantage. Civilian social scientists have criticised the project as violating the ‘do no harm’ principal and branding the members ‘weaponised anthropologists’.

Colonel Steve Fondacaro co-created the military project and pushed it to prominence in the military who are increasingly relying on human intelligence to fight an insurgent-led conflict.

No specific details have been given for why Fondacaro is no longer leading the project but the article does provide a potted history of the Human Terrain System’s colourful history to the present time.

At last count, there were 21 Human Terrain Teams operating in Iraq and six more in Afghanistan, offering advice to commanders on the local cultural landscape.

There was a sense of perpetual chaos swirling around HTS, however. The program came under assault from nearly every angle: the quality of the Human Terrain “experts,” the depth of its training, the utility to infantry leaders, the competency of its managers, the exposure of civilian researchers to hostile environments, the ethics of turning social science into military intelligence.

Dozens left the program, disgruntled. Three social scientists were killed in action. One Human Terrain employee pleaded guilty to manslaughter. Another was charged with spying. A third was taken hostage in Iraq.

Link to Danger Room piece ‘Human Terrain Chief Ousted’