Cycling for the Insane

The delightful conclusion to an 1890 article on ‘Cycling for the Insane’ published in The Journal of Mental Science:

For most of us the exquisite loveliness and delight of a fine summer’s day have a special charm. The very life is luxury. The air is full of sound and sunshine, of the song of birds, and the murmur of insects; the meadows gleam with golden buttercups, we almost fancy we can see the grass grow and the buds open; the bees hum for very joy; there are a thou sand scents, above all, perhaps, that of new-mown hay.

There are doubtless many patients before whom “all the glories of heaven and earth may pass in daily succession without touching their hearts or elevating their minds,” but, in time, it is possible even these would, by means of cycling, have their love of Nature, which had been frozen or crushed out, restored. Thus all Nature, which is full of beauties, would not only be a never-failing source of pleasure and interest, but lift them above the petty troubles and sorrows of their daily life.

Oddly, the article also mentions that both amphibious and aerial bicycles have been invented, with “the cost of each machine not being more than ¬£20”!

Link to sadly pay-walled article.

The scientific method – lego robots edition

At the University of Sheffield we’ve been teaching psychology using lego robots. This isn’t as peculiar as it might sound. You can learn a lot about your theories by trying to build them into a machine or computer programme. But while teaching the course, I discovered that you can also learn a lot about the methods used in experimental psychology by trying them out on robots.


This is one of the lego robots we were using. They are built using a Lego Mindstorms set and inspired by a book by Valentino Braightenberg called ‘Vehicles: Experiments in Synthetic Psychology‘.

The robot has a light sensor on each side and a nose-bumper which tells it when it has hit something. A simple brain connects these sensors with two independently powered wheels. Here’s the robot in action:

The suprising thing, and a crucial point of Braitenberg’s book, is that you can get what looks like complex behaviour (in this case line following) from simple rules. All that governs this robot’s behaviour is a positive connection between each light sensor and the wheel on the same side. This makes the robot turn away from lighter floor patches, so in this environment it traces the edge of the patten. An additional ‘fixed action pattern‘ makes it spin around and start in another direction if it bumps into something.

Many people look at these robots and over-intepret the complexity of their behaviour. You need skepticism and controlled experiments to discover exactly how simple the rules controlling the robot are. However, while I was trying to use the robots to teach this to my class, the robots and the class conspired to teach me something.

In a more advanced class I put a simple learning rule in the robot’s brain so that they could learn to slow down before hitting walls (actually, it is only true that I put the rule in the robot’s brain in the sense that Hitler invaded Poland. In truth I made a grad student programme the rule into the robot. Thanks Stuart!).

The task I set the class was simple, I thought: run an experiment to see the robot learn over successive trials. Because I’d programmed the rule into the robot I thought I’d be able to predict the robot behaviour. The predicted learning curve of the robot looked like this:


The results from the groups looked like this


Since each robot was identical – same body, same brain in the way only robots can be – and all the groups were doing the same experiment, I expected to get the same results from each group. No luck there! Some get an increase, but with some the line stays almost flat. Some it goes up smoothly, some get wild swings in performance up and down.

And this got me to thinking. If the results are this variable with experimental subjects which we understand completely – their simple bodies are made of lego for goodness sake! the brains are identical and programmed by us! – how unreliable will results be if you experiment on real people? Noisy humans have bodies and brains which are both vastly more complex than lego robots, and each body and brain is unique. With so many sources of variability between individuals it ios amazing that experimental psychologists ever get any results at all.

The moral is that experimental work is hard, really hard. You’d better be sure your experiment reduces sources of variability as much as possible because there will be enough uncontrollable variability without you adding any more.

Fortunately there is a light at the end of the tunnel, in the form of statistics. If you average the different noisy group results you get something a bit more like the underlying pattern I knew to be there:


Trying a simple experiment with the lego robots gave me a new respect for the experimental method, and the difficulty psychologists face when trying to discover the rules underlying the wonderous variety in human behaviour.

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’.