Fag hags and fairy queens

Jesse Bering’s brilliant Scientific American column ‘Bering in Mind’ has a fantastic discussion of the cultural concept of the ‘fag hag’ – a woman who supposedly hangs around with gay men due to her own inadequacies.

I always assumed that ‘fag hag’ was nothing more than a particularly snide homophobic insult from the English language but it turns out that the general concept exists across the world – from Mexico to Japan.

Bering covers a recent research study that set out to investigate the concept and test whether women who do have lots of gay friends have poor self-esteem, worse body image or less satisfactory relationships.

This turns out not to be the case, and, in fact, the more gay male friends that a woman had, the more sexually attractive she felt, although conversely, longer friendships with the closest gay friend predicted lower self-perceived attractiveness.

Bering does a fantastic job of picking apart possible explanations and caveats from what, after all, is a correlational study, but he also notes a fascinating observation at the end:

It occurred to me while writing this article that the social category of straight men that like to socialize with lesbians is astonishingly vacant in our society. Sure, you may hear about some random “dyke tyke” or “lesbro” (two terms that, unlike fag hag, are hardly part of the popular slang vocabulary and actually required me to do some intensive Googling), but their existence is clearly minimal. Do you have any good guesses on why there’s such a discrepancy in frequency between the two cases?

I wonder whether the disparity between the marking of ‘fag hags’ and the lack of similar names for men who hang out with lesbians at least partly reflects the fact that gay men have traditionally been more stigmatised than gay women, and hence there is a greater drive to stigmatise those who socialise with them.

I also wonder the situation is simply less common although I can’t find any research that has actually looked at the issue.

Link to ‘Studying the elusive fag hag.’

Dendritic coasting

Morphologica is the online Etsy shop of a neuroscience postgrad who makes laser cut jewellery and ornaments from the images she sees during her time in the lab.

We’ve mentioned her neuron earrings before but her drinks coaster in the shape of a dendritic tree is just fantastic.

And if your drink of choice is something strong, there’s a lovely symmetry as your drink leaves the dendritic tree, is absorbed by your body, to be passed on to the dendrites in your brain.

Although the analogy stops there really, as dousing your coaster in water ain’t gonna sober you up, I’m afraid.

Link to Morphlogica last cut dendrite coaster.

Sketch of the imagination

Photo by Flickr user jesse Draper. Click for sourcePsychologist Paul Bloom considers why imaginary characters and fictional plots can have such a powerful emotional effect in a fantastic article for the The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Bloom argues that we have a form of ‘dual representation’ for fictional reveries where we engage our emotions with the characters, plot or situation as if they were real while knowing that they are not.

Does this suggest that people believe, at some level, that the events are real? Do we sometimes think that fictional characters actually exist and fictional events actually occur? Of course, people get fooled, as when parents tell their children about Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny, or when an adult mistakes a story for a documentary, or vice versa. But the idea here is more interesting than that‚Äîit is that even once we consciously know something is fictional, there is a part of us that believes it’s real…

In an important pair of papers, Gendler introduces a novel term to describe the mental state that underlies these reactions: She calls it “alief.” Beliefs are attitudes that we hold in response to how things are. Aliefs are more primitive. They are responses to how things seem. In the above example, people have beliefs that tell them they are safe, but they have aliefs that tell them they are in danger. Or consider the findings of Paul Rozin, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, that people often refuse to drink soup from a brand-new bedpan, eat fudge shaped like feces, or put an empty gun to their head and pull the trigger. Gendler notes that the belief here is: The bedpan is clean, the fudge is fudge, the gun is empty. But the alief is stupid, screaming, “Filthy object! Dangerous object! Stay away!”

The point of alief is to capture the fact that our minds are partially indifferent to the contrast between events that we believe to be real versus those that seem to be real, or that are imagined to be real. This extends naturally to the pleasures of the imagination.

It’s a wonderfully wide-ranging article that explores imagination from all angles and poses some genuinely challenging ideas about how we keep one foot either side of the fantasy divide.

Link to article ‘The Pleasures of Imagination’.

The future isn’t what it used to be

I’ve just found a very odd news clip about an Australian project to create a disembodied virtual head that reminds people with dementia to take their medication.

The clip is from 2009 and is a little strange not least because the project is actually much more ambitious than described.

‘The Thinking Head Project’ (warning: rubbish website) is run by a heavyweight Australian research team that aims to design an artificially intelligent virtual head that you can communicate with just as you would with another human.

Unexpectedly, the team contains tech-artist Stelarc, known for creating work so astonishing you have to check to see if you haven’t shit yourself with surprise.

Stelarc is interviewed about the project on ABC Radio National’s Future Tense programme where you can hear a bit more about where the project is at the current time.

The disembodied virtual head also turns out to be an image of Stelarc himself, and it looks like they’ve now put it on the end of a fully mobile robot arm.

Philip K Dick didn’t come here to predict the future, he came here to change it.

Link to news clip.
Link to Stelarc interview on the project.

The tree of drunkeness

The flowers in the picture are from one of the most notorious plants in South America. Brugmansia is widespread across the continent and is strongly psychoactive causing disorientation, hallucinations and memory loss.

This is due to the fact that it contains high levels of the drug scopolamine and, as a result, it has been used for generations by many native peoples for shamanic rituals.

It is perhaps more commonly known for its criminal uses, however, particularly as a dried, powdered form, known as ‘burundanga’ where it is slipped into someone’s drink making them liable to assault, theft or worse.

There is an interesting popular belief about the drug, namely that it removes free will. The idea being that you have all your mental faculties but will do whatever is suggested to you without resistance, so criminals can get you to take out money from the cash machine or hand them the keys to your house.

This has never been tested though, so we simply don’t know, although one study indicates that scopolamine reduces our ability to keep information in mind but leaves the processes that manipulate it unaffected, perhaps suggesting that victims remain cognitively sharp, but mentally empty.

The plants are remarkably common (I took the photo above at the side of the road in the Risaralda department of Colombia) which probably accounts for their common use although they are not well known outside of Latin America. In fact, the only scientific review article on the psychology and neuroscience of ‘burundanga’ intoxication is in Spanish.

Work in published in English tends to focus on lab-based experiments using scopoloamine as a model of amnesia, plus the occasional sensationalist story in the press about ‘zombie drugs’.

However, the local name for the plant is ‘el borrachero’ – literally, the drunkeness.

Link to Wikipedia page on brugmansia.

2010-06-04 Spike activity

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

Brain scan ‘lie detection’ not admissible in a landmark case which has been considered a test for the legal acceptability of the technology, reports Wired Science.

The Frontal Cortex argues that the BP engineers should take a break from tying to solve the oil spill crisis from what we know about the psychology of creativity.

Video gamers are more likely to have lucid dreams according to research covered by Kotaku.

The Guardian list Mind Hacks among its ‘hottest science blogs.’ Shakira yet to call (not a Guardian reader it seems).

The tricky topic of SSRIs and suicide are discussed by The Neuroskeptic. Also a subject of a debate in this month’s British Journal of Psychiatry which is locked behind a paywall because debates are dangerous in the wrong hands.

The New York Times has an interview with neuroscientist Aniruddh Patel who studies music and the brain.

There’s a technical but engrossing post on how the binge-purge cycle in bulimia could be linked to the function of the vagus nerve over at Neurotopia.

The Boston Globe has a good article on how science is further uncovering the function of the long ignored glial cells in the brain – annoyingly calling them the “brain’s bubble wrap” – although otherwise an informative piece.

Drug company Boehringer Ingelheim are trying to get US government approval for their not very effective pill arguing that low sexual desire in women is a medical problem. Dr Petra begs to differ.

APA Monitor magazine has a cover feature on marijuana in light of the wider availability of ‘medical marijuana’ in the US.

An engrossing enthnographic study on how a homeless man manages his life to provide a sense of normality amid the public space of the city is brilliantly covered by the BPS Research Digest.

Olivier Oullier, neuroscientist mentioned in our piece on ‘neuropolicy’ got in touch to reply to our points and link to his centre’s report on neuroimaging and public policy. The post has been updated with all the relevant info.

Newsweek covers new research on the brain’s ‘default state‘. Despite using the slightly clumsy metaphor of the ‘brain’s dark matter’ its a good summary of an increasingly important topic.

A scheme where psychologists offer to help out philosophers with designing data collection studies is covered by The Splintered Mind.

ScienceNews covers a study finding that kids don’t reliably recognise the facial expression of disgust until surprisingly late – an average of about 5 years old.

“Is Internet ruining our minds?” asks Reuters. No, but it clearly cause problem with you grammar.

Technology Review has a brief piece on the use of neural networks to classify music. A million six-form arguments immediately subject to the power of technology.

Some great student articles on compulsion, sin and sex have been appearing on Neuroanthropology recently. Here’s the complete list.

The Times covers research on how dying people experience a spike in electrical activity in their brains moments before they shuffle of this mortal coil which may explain ‘near death’ experiences.

More brain activity in vegans and vegetarians when viewing animal suffering may be related to empathy, or it may not. The Neurocritic covers a new study on our lettuce munching friends.

The New York Times reports on research finding that happiness comes with age.

There’s an extended review of new book ‘The Cybernetic Brain’ on the history of neuroscience blog The Neuro Times.

The New York Times has a piece on the Vatican’s bizarre sexuality screening programme for priests. ‚ÄúWe have no gay men in our seminary at this time,‚Äù said Dr. Robert Palumbo – completely missing the point.

To the bunkers! Wired UK covers a research project to stop robots stabbing people. No research needed – just a spanner and a pure heart.

The Guardian interviews neuropsychologist and poet Sean Haldane who’s up for the Oxford professorship in poetry: “I tried farming, I tried living off the land in Canada. I tried publishing, and then I gravitated toward psychology and neuropsychology.”

Bored radiologists strip down a CAT scanner and crank it up to 11 in a brief YouTube video.

Slate asks ‘what determines the prices of a woman’s eggs?’ SAT scores, it turns out.

There are ‘five reasons neuroscience is not ready for the courtroom’ over at Brainspin. Although for ‘neuroscience’ read ‘functional neuroimaging’ as neuroscience of other types is regularly used in court.

Women’s Mag Science discusses the trouble with ‘sexperts‘.

A new study in the journal Psychological Science finds that superstition improves performance. Best of luck skeptics!

Concerned from Tunbridge Wells

The Guardian has been running a fun evolutionary psychology agony aunt column that’s been tackling questions such as ‘why do I fancy blonde women?’, ‘why do nice girls fall for bad boys?’ and ‘what can I do to stop my best friend marrying this idiot?’.

Despite it’s potential, evolutionary psychology has a tendancy to be a bit over-enthusiastic at times but the column just discusses the published studies in relation to the readers’ questions and turns out to be a concise guide to some of the field’s thinking on the area.

Clearly it’s not meant to be taken too seriously as an advice column but any agony aunt that gives references for her evolutionary advice is alright by me.

Link to Guardian’s ‘Ask Carole’ column (via @researchdigest)

An unwanted key to a devastating condition

The New York Times has a gripping article and video report about how a family in Colombia may be the key to unlocking the neuroscience of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, one of the most devastating forms of degenerative brain disease that can strike as early as the 30s or 40s.

Alzheimer’s disease is a form of dementia, meaning that the mind and brain decline quicker than would be expected through normal ageing, but usually it is a condition of the old.

Most dementias are not thought to have one specific cause and are put down to a lifetime’s ‘wear and tear’ combined with different levels of risk from a number of genes.

In contrast, there are some forms of dementias, known as early onset dementias, that typically strike in middle-age and are much more likely to be due to mutations in single genes or mutations in only a handful of genes.

While we understand the genetics of these conditions quite well these days, it is still not understood why they cause the terminal and rapid decline of the brain.

The New York Times article discusses research from my own university, the Universidad de Antioquia, because one family in the Antioquia region of Colombia has the highest known rate of early-onset dementia in the world.

Genetically, the Antioquia region is very interesting and is known as a ‘population isolate’ because there has been very little influence on the gene pool from outside the region for about two centuries, largely due to the imposing mountains for which the area is famous.

The population originates with settlers from the Basque region of Spain who intermarried with native people (interestingly, almost entirely Spanish men with native women) while subsequent generations largely intermarried with each other. A recent study of the region shows very little change in genetic variation across the region and little change in common surnames for 200 years.

In effect, the region is like a giant ‘petri dish’ for population genetics and this means it is a lot easier to link genetic influences to specific disorders of the mind and brain. The New York Times piece features the work from the neuroscience department while my department, psychiatry, have completed much work on the genetics of bipolar disorder for the same reason.

The article describes both the potential of the research and the challenges of working in the region and is a fantastic account both for its scientific content and its humane approach to the issue. If you do nothing else, however, watch the short video report which is a powerful piece of scientific film-making.

Link to NYT piece ‘Alzheimer‚Äôs Stalks a Colombian Family’.

Tripping in a PET scanner

The History of the Human Sciences journal covers the problem of psychedelic drug research and subjective experience. The article argues that the mind-bending nature of the drugs demand that scientists deal with the clash between the objective world view of science and the subjective experience of the participant that is often swept under the carpet in other areas of substance research.

One particular gem is where it has a report from a participant who describes his or her experience being PET brain scanned while tripping on psilocybin:

At the beginning of the trip I suddenly felt an urge to lie down in the lab. At that point, the optical ‘distortion’ began. First, I saw that some structures were moving and took up different colors and forms. From the gurney, I looked at the sink and the soap dispenser on the wall. All of a sudden, they looked as if they had been painted – as if you apply a filter to an image, which makes it look like an oil painting.

Before the scan, I went to the toilet, but I didn’t find my bearings there. All proportions were wrong: the toilet seemed to be huge, my hands were too big, the arms too long. The first minutes of the scan were also strange. When I realized the scientist in the corner of my eye, he looked like a rat, and the assistant’s face was a zombie-like grimace. As soon as I closed my eyes, my perception changed abruptly and totally.

I was gliding through bizarre geometric spaces, mostly cubic and intensively red. My field of vision was enormously wide, up to 270º, at the corners of which I perceived whispering human figures. Only with great effort, could I afterwards fill in the questionnaires. The answers did not seem suitable or too undifferentiated. Sometimes I did not understand the questions. But it was fascinating that I could read at least half of the questions on a page at the same time.

It’s a fascinating paper as it is based on fieldwork by medical anthropologist Nicolas Langlitz in a laboratory where neuroscientists are studying the effects of psychedelic substances.

It explores how the researchers’ personal experience of the drugs informs their experimental designs and hence requires them to deal with the link between subjective experience and empirical science.

For example, in one part, while piloting EEG research, a researcher has a ‘bad trip’ and the team realise they need to make the lab look more friendly and display warmer and more relaxing pictures to reduce the chances of negative reactions.

This is clearly equivalent to the well-known context effects of set and setting developed by 60s acid-heads, but obviously has a feed-back effect on the empirical science.

As there is no ‘correct’ set-up for the look of the lab but it will clearly affect the objectively recorded results, there is an interesting interplay between objectivity and personal experience.

Obviously, this happens in other settings but is typically ignored, owing to the fact that the outcomes are perhaps less dramatic, but the amplifying nature of psychedelics demands a response from the researchers.

Sadly, the article is locked behind a $25 dollar paywall so if you want to read the full text be prepared to give up the best part of a year’s subscription to Playboy. Bargain.

Link to DOI and summary of academic article.

Pointing the finger

Photo by Flickr user Adam Crowe. Click for sourceA brief yet intriguing description of a talk on pointing, by the ever versatile neuroscientist and philosopher Ray Tallis at the recent Hay Literary Festival.

A spellbinding hour with philosopher and self-confessed “many-layered anorak” Raymond Tallis on the subject of pointing. Yes, sticking your finger in the air and directing it at an object. It is, he argued, one of the attributes that mark us out as human beings with a sense of ourselves and others in a shared space: no other animal, including pointers and chimps, can use pointing fully. He reflected on its use for babies as a staging post towards acquiring language; and noted that in autistic children there is often an absence of pointing. He talked about pointing and power: the pointing that marks some unfortunate from a crowd and summons them to who-knows-what; the Malcolm Tucker-esque jabbing of the air that is tantamount to “a one-fingered punching at the self”. Then there is the disembodied, absent, generalised pointing of the fingerpost, which has “the ghost of intention about it”.

Link to description in The Guardian (via @Matthew_Broome)

The memory manipulators

Photo by Flickr user Andrew Mason. Click for sourceSlate has just finished an awesome eight-part special on how memory can be manipulated, shaped and reshaped even when we’re completely unaware of it.

The series is really a retrospective on the life and work of Elizabeth Loftus, one of the most important and influential researchers in the area of false and flexible memories.

The first part is description of an online memory experiment completed by the website. If you’re new to the area it’s worth checking out, but if you’re aware of how easy it is for people to say they’ve genuinely remembered false events, it may be worth skipping to part two where the series really kicks off.

The articles weave together Loftus’ life and scientific work, describing how her own experiences have shaped her interest in false memory and how she has applied her interest in the flexibility of memory to a remarkably wide range of fields.

She is probably best known for her research which countered much of the ‘recovered memories of abuse’ hysteria which arose in the 90s. Loftus demonstrated it was very easy for therapists to encourage false memories in their clients.

This is a wonderfully vivid passage that describes how she developed her early experiments that ‘implanted’ nondescript false memories (such as the experience of being lost in the mall) to more unusual scenarios:

So Loftus ran bolder experiments with more subjects, more trauma, and greater implausibility. She convinced people that they had nearly choked, had caught their parents having sex, or had seen a wounded animal after a bombing. Other researchers planted memories of nearly drowning, being hospitalized overnight, and being attacked by an animal. In one study, Loftus and her collaborators persuaded 18 percent of people that they had probably witnessed demonic possession.

Critics protested that Loftus still hadn’t proved the memories were fake. So she raised the ante. She persuaded 16 percent of a study population that they had met Bugs Bunny at Disneyland. In a follow-up experiment, researchers sold the same memory to 36 percent of subjects. This was impossible, since Bugs belonged to Warner Bros., not Disney. When critics complained that the Bugs memory wasn’t abusive, Loftus obliged them again. Her team convinced 30 percent of another group of subjects that on a visit to Disneyland, a drug-addled Pluto character had licked their ears.

The ‘recovered memories of abuse’ hysteria reached its peak with recovered memories of ‘satanic ritual abuse’ or SRA in which both the law and professionals got caught up in despite the fact that no reliable evidence was ever found for its existence.

It is now a matter of embarrassment not least due to several high profile cases, such as the Orkney scandal, where children were removed from their families owing to leading interviews and over-zealous social workers.

However, the ‘ritual abuse’ movement is not completely dead. In fact, only last year London’s John Bowlby Centre ran a conference on ‘Ritual Abuse and Mind Control’ (programme: pdf) which featured Valerie Sinason, author of the book ‘Treating Survivors of Satanist Abuse’, which was partly responsible for fuelling the panic.

The Slate series covers some of the most important research to show how people could come to believe they were involved in such incidents and has many extras and links to other resources and the original research.

Link to Slate’s false memory series.

Full disclosure: I’m an occasional writer for Slate

Disease rankings

There is a hierarchy of prestige in medicine. Numerous studies have found that surgery and internal medicine are thought of most highly by doctors while while psychiatry, geriatric and child medicine come near the bottom. A study published in Social Science & Medicine took this idea one step further and looked at which diseases have the most prestige among the medical community.

Sociologist Erving Goffman wrote a highly influential book about the social dynamics of stigma in which he suggested that it has its social power through associating people with stereotypes.

It’s interesting that doctors who specialise in working with people who have the least status in society (children, the ‘mad’, the ‘old’) also have the least status in medicine.

The Norwegian researchers asked senior doctors, general practitioners and medical students to rate diseases and came up with the following list, which ranks diseases from the most prestigious at the top, to the least prestigious at the bottom.

Needless to say, mental illnesses fill most of the bottom slots.

Myocardial infarction [heart attack]
Spleen rupture
Brain tumour
Testicle cancer
Pulmonary embolism [normally blood clot on the lung]
Angina pectoris
Extrauterine pregnancy
Thyroid cancer
Meniscus rupture [‘torn cartilage’]
Colon cancer
Ovarian cancer
Kidney stone
Ulcerative colitis [inflammation of the bowel]
Kidney failure
Duodenal ulcer [peptic ulcer]
Pancreas cancer
Ankle fracture
Lung cancer
Sciatica [‘trapped nerve’]
Bechterew’s disease [arthritis of the spine]
Femoral neck fracture
Multiple sclerosis
Inguinal hernia [abdominal wall hernia]
Apoplexy [internal organ bleeding]
Cerebral palsy
Depressive neurosis
Hepatocirrhosis [cirrhosis of the liver]
Anxiety neurosis

Link to PubMed entry for study.

On the edge of a nervous breakdown

Photo by Amparo Torres. Flick for sourceThe New York Times has an excellent article on the history of the ‘nervous breakdown’ – an inexact term that has never been officially recognised but which has been popular for over a century.

The article suggests that the phrase is common precisely because it sounds medical and, hence, significant, but remains vague enough to be used flexibly and by everybody without seeming pretentious.

The vagueness of the phrase made it impossible to survey the prevalence of any specific mental problem: It could mean anything from depression to mania or drunkenness; it might be the cause of a bitter divorce or the result of a split. And glossing over those details left people who suffered from what are now well-known afflictions, like postpartum depression, entirely in the dark, wondering if they were alone in their misery.

But that same imprecision allowed the speaker, not medical professionals, to control its meaning. People might be on the verge of, or close to, a nervous breakdown; and it was common enough to have had “something like” a nervous breakdown, or a mild one. The phrase allowed a person to disclose as much, or as little, detail about a “crackup” as he or she saw fit. Vagueness preserves privacy.

As the article notes, we have a long history of vague ’emotional exhaustion’ coveralls stretching from neurasthenia to burnout syndrome that come in and out of fashion.

Link to NYT On the Verge of ‘Vital Exhaustion’?