Rebranding PSYOPS

Photo by Flickr user nukeit1. Click for sourceWired Danger Room reports that the US Military are thinking of changing the name of their Psychological Operations or PSYOPS units to ‘Military Information Support and/to Operations’ that has the forgettable acronym MISO.

Apparently the suggestion has not gone down well with the (dare we say) image conscious PSYOPS troops. Perhaps rather worryingly, one self-identified member is reported as saying “Some of us joined Psychological Operations because it sounded awesome for it‚Äôs name alone.‚Äù

Interestingly, the UK military’s PSYOPS service, 15 (UK) Psychological Operations Group, seems to have pulled a lot of its material from the web. Despite the fact it used to have its own webpage (copy from it now seems only to be mentioned on a page on the Royal Navy website.

However, the Wired piece links to the ‘PSYOP Regimental Blog’ which has news about PSYOPS around the world and shop talk from US soldiers in the service.

Link to Wired on possible PSYOPs rebranding.
Link to the PSYOP Regimental Blog.

I feel what you mean

Not Exactly Rocket Science covers a fascinating study on how touching different objects influences how we perceive the world – based on abstract associations between things like weight and seriousness.

Weight is linked to importance, so that people carrying heavy objects deem interview candidates as more serious and social problems as more pressing. Texture is linked to difficulty and harshness. Touching rough sandpaper makes social interactions seem more adversarial, while smooth wood makes them seem friendlier. Finally, hardness is associated with rigidity and stability. When sitting on a hard chair, negotiators take tougher stances but if they sit on a soft one instead, they become more flexible.

The study, led by psychologist Joshua Ackerman, involved a series of innovative experiments that asked people to complete tasks and looked at the effect of simply changing texture or sensation on how the participants’ behaved or perceived the situation. For example:

Ackerman also looked at the influence of an object’s hardness. He asked 49 volunteers to touch either a hard block of word or a soft blanket, under the pretence of examining objects to be used in a magic act. Afterwards, when they read an interaction between a boss and an employee, those who felt the wood thought the employee was stricter and more rigid than those who touched the blanket (but no less positive)

This has obvious practical implications and I suspect attractive shop assistants will find themselves puzzled by sudden influx of the oddly alluring strangers who keep asking for a couple of peaches before asking them out.

Link to write-up from Not Exactly Rocket Science.

2010-06-25 Spike activity

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

Remember the study we covered on how a headache pill can ease the pain of social rejection? The Neurocritic has a skeptical look at the details.

The Atlantic has a fascinating article on witchcraft and the legal system in Central Africa.

The ‘Bloggers Behind the Blogs’ series is in full swing over at the BPS Research Digest. It seems we lack female psychology and neuroscience bloggers.

NPR has an engrossing case taken from the forthcoming Oliver Sacks book about a man who lost the ability to make sense of written words after a stroke. They call it ‘word blindness’ but it is more commonly known as ‘pure alexia’ in the medical literature.

Forensic psychology blog In the News discusses whether new proposals to make the propensity to rape a mental illness is a use or abuse of psychiatric diagnosis.

Scientific American Mind reports on a study finding that people with certain versions of the MAOA genes had 7.8% more credit card debt than those with different versions. Miscued ‘gene for credit card debt’ headlines in 3, 2, 1…

There’s a good analysis of a long overdue rethinking of the ‘disease model’ of addiction over at Addiction Inbox.

Nature News covers the ongoing problems with the US Military’s ‘Human Terrain System’ project that employs battlefield social scientists to understand the, er, human terrain.

There’s a fantastic picture set from Greystone Park, an abandoned state psychiatric hospital in New Jersey, over at the Environmental Graffiti blog.

New Scientist has an interview with the psychologists who created the fantastic ‘gorillas in our midst’ study. Don’t miss the new video in the article.

Seven ways to improve creativity taken from scientific experiments are covered by PsyBlog.

Science News covers news of a new hominid skeleton and what it might mean about human evolution. Needless to say, the debate is ongoing and heated.

Scientists can read your mind… as long as the’re allowed to look at more than one place in your brain and then make a prediction after seeing what you actually did. Excellent analysis of a new ‘neuromarketing’ study over at Applied Statistics.

Mental Nurse have been doing some fantastic investigative journalism on the debates about regulation of psychotherapists in the UK. Their latest piece is a gem.

There’s an excellent article on advances in human speech recognition technology over at The New York Times.

BBC News reports that synthetic street drugs grow in popularity while use of plant extracts cocaine and heroin declines.

An article on autism, the ‘biomed’ movement covers the lure of quack cures at New Scientist.

Discover Magazine has a brief piece on how you construct a brain map – by slicing up brains. With cool brain photo.

Crikey. The Huffington Post has a sensible science article. Neuroscientist Joesph LeDoux on ‘Why the “Right Brain” Idea is Wrong-Headed’. The end times are near.

The New York Times has a piece on neuroscience research to pick up the early signs of Alzheimer’s disease.

There’s an ongoing video interview series on key thinkers and debates in the sociology of health an illness over at Blackwell Publishing. Says they’re podcasts but actually embedded video.

Military brain interfaces for sci-fi warfare

The latest edition of Neurosurgical Focus has an interesting article on the use of brain-computer interfaces in the military.

One part talks about funded US military brain-computer interface projects and it seems someone in the rank and file has seen Avatar one too many times.

Alongside therapeutic interventions, rapid advances in BCI technologies will also create opportunities for neurosurgeons to participate in improving military training and operations, particularly through combat performance modification and optimization. In fact, the use of neuroscientific approaches for achieving these goals is already an evolving area of research.

During the last decade, the Pentagon’s DARPA launched the ‚ÄúAdvanced Speech Encoding Program‚Äù to develop nonacoustic sensors for speech encoding in acoustically hostile environments, such as inside of a military vehicle or an urban environment. The DARPA division is currently involved in a program called ‚ÄúSilent Talk‚Äù that aims to develop user-to-user communication on the battlefield through EEG signals of ‚Äúintended speech,‚Äù thereby eliminating the need for any vocalization or body gestures.

Such capabilities will be of particular benefit in reconnaissance and special operations settings, and successful applications of silent speech interfaces have already been reported.

The whole article is worth a read and luckily for us it seems to have been made open access.

Now, must get me some of those “”high-resolution BCI binoculars that can quickly respond to a subconsciously detected target or a threat”.

Actually, maybe it was Rogue Trooper the military have been overdosing on?

Link to article on neurosurgery and military BCI interfaces.

Coming out of left field

The Health Editor of The Independent has written a baffling article where he seems to confuse transcranial magnetic stimulation, a technique used in cognitive neuroscience to induce current in the brain through the use of large electromagnets, and dodgy ‘magnet therapy’ which involves wearing magnetic pendants that are advertised as curing various ailments.

Transcranial magnetic stimulation or TMS is a technique that takes advantage of the fact that if you move a magnetic field over a conductor, a current is generated.

Your brain, of course, is a conductor of electricity and TMS allows researchers or clinicians to electrically stimulate parts of the brain by applying a magnetic field from outside the skull.

But to generate enough electricity to actually cause neurons to discharge you need very large electromagnets. Typical TMS magnets generate pulses of about 1 telsa (30,000 times greater the the Earth’s magnetic field) for less than a hundred milliseconds.

In fact, this requires so much energy that if you use a TMS machine plugged into standard domestic power supply, the lights dim when you trigger a pulse.

Depending on the arrangement of pulses, TMS can be used to temporarily increase or decrease the activity in parts of the brain near the surface of the skull and there is now an increasing interest in using this to treat psychiatric or neurological disorders.

This new study used the technique to ‘tune down’ the activity of an area of the frontal lobe called the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) in patients with Alzheimer’s disease, finding that it improved the understanding of sentences when given over four weeks.

The trial only included 10 patients, 5 in each group but it is an interesting but preliminary pilot study.

Magnet therapy, on the other hand, is a practice from alternative medicine that claims that wearing a magnetic bracelet or drinking ‘magnetised water’ can relieve arthritis or cure minor ailments.

Curious then, that the article in The Independent, despite noting that there is no evidence for ‘magnet therapy’, suggest that results from this new TMS study “are likely to be seized on as further evidence of magnetism’s healing powers”.

In the same way, I presume, that obstetrics could be seized on as further evidence for the effectiveness of rebirthing therapy.

Needless to say, some of the people commenting on the article are less than impressed with the piece.

Link to article ‘Magnets can improve Alzheimer’s symptoms’.
Link to summary of scientific study.

Against narrativity

Photo by Flickr user happysweetmama. Click for source‘We understand ourselves through stories’ is a common, even fashionable, sentiment. Not everybody agrees. Philosopher Galen Strawson‘s 2004 article “Against Narrativity” is a both-barrels attack on this idea. Strawson identifies two theories which he wishes to emphatically reject. The psychological Narrativity thesis is the idea that it is unavoidable human nature to experience their lives as a story. The ethical Narrativity thesis is the idea that conceiving of one’s life as narrative is a good thing, essential to a moral life and true personhood.

It’s just not true that there is only one good way for human beings to experience their being in time. There are deeply non-Narrative people and there are good ways to live that are deeply non-Narrative. I think the [Narrativity theses] hinder human self-understanding, close down important avenues of thought, impoverish our grasp of ethical possibilities, needlessly and wrongly distress those who do not fit their model, and are potentially destructive in psychotherapeutic contexts.

Strawson goes on to identify two personality types, which he calls the diachronic type, the kind of person disposed to conceive of themselves connected to both their past and future selves, and the episodic type, which is the kind of person who does not tend to conceive of their momentary self as part of a chain of selves stretching into the past and future. Obviously the diachronic type, in Strawson’s scheme, will be disposed to narrativity, while the episodic won’t. Strawson suspects that

those who are drawn to write on the subject of ‘narrativity’ tend to have strongly Diachronic and Narrative outlooks or personalities, and generalize from their own case with that special, fabulously misplaced confidence that people feel when, considering elements of their own experience that are existentially fundamental for them, they take it that they must also be fundamental for everyone else.

Although Strawson makes reference to a wide range of western philosophy and literature, it is notable that he doesn’t allude to eastern philosophies such as Zen Buddhism in support of his argument. There is a strong anti-representational sentiment in Zen philosophy, which ties in with the claim that Enlightenment is the experience of reality without the mediation of abstract concepts (and thus also, presumably, unmediated by narratives also).

Link to Strawson’s article, “Against Narrativity
Previously on The story of our lives

Holidays through rose tinted sunglasses

Photo by Flickr user entelepentele. Click for sourceThe Boston Globe has a counter-intuitive piece on the psychology of holidays, noting, among other things, that overall enjoyment is not what makes a break likely to feel better and that we often enjoy planning the vacation more than taking it.

The article speculatively (but reasonably) applies findings from the behavioural economics of pleasure but also discusses research that specifically addresses our experience of taking time off.

But research looking at how people actually feel about their vacations suggests that, by and large, they remember them warmly — more warmly, in fact, than they feel while taking them. The psychologists Leigh Thompson, of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, and Terence Mitchell, of the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business, in 1997 reported the results of a study in which they asked people on three different vacations — a trip to Europe, Thanksgiving break, and a three-week bicycle tour of California — to fill out a series of emotional inventories before the vacation, during it, and then after.

They found that in all three cases, the respondents were least happy about the vacation while they were taking it. Beforehand, they looked forward to it with eager anticipation, and within a few days of returning, they remembered it fondly. But while on it, they found themselves bogged down by the disappointments and logistical headaches of actually going somewhere and doing something, and the pressure they felt to be enjoying themselves.

A recent Dutch study had a more striking finding. Looking not at vacation memories, but measuring general happiness level through a simple three-question questionnaire, the researchers found that going on vacation gave a notable boost to pre-vacation mood but had hardly any effect on post-vacation feelings. Anticipation, it seems, can be a more powerful force than memory.

Link to Globe article ‘The best vacation ever’.