How hot models acquire their heat

Photo by Flickr user Tiago Chediak. Click for source3QuarksDaily has a fantastic article that examines how certain models became hot property during catwalk season by looking at the behavioural economics of fashion show buzz and why the success of top models is as much down to herd instinct as personal magnetism.

The piece is written by sociologist Ashley Mears, a model herself, who has been studying how the personal demands of the profession mesh and conflict with both the market for beautiful faces and the social world of the fashion industry.

The fashion modeling market also has a formal mechanism in place, known as the ‚Äúoption,‚Äù to ensure all tastemakers get in on the action. An option is an agreement between client and agent that enables the client to place a hold on the model‚Äôs future availability. Like options trading in finance markets, an option gives the buyer the right, but not the obligation, to make a purchase…

Options serve the symbolic purpose of ‚Äúsignaling‚Äù the model‚Äôs popularity to all other clients. During castings, clients are likely to ask models, ‚ÄúWhich shows are you optioned for,‚Äù thereby letting them know their competitors‚Äô tastes. Modeling agents drum up buzz using options as selling points too, as in, ‚ÄúRussell Marsh just optioned Coco Rocha for Prada!‚Äù To most fashion designers‚Äô ears, such words sound like warm honey; they greatly reduce the anxiety of having to sort Coco from 599 other striking teenagers…

In the language of economic sociology, options are performative; they create what they putatively just describe. In other words, the models have agency (that’s market models we’re talking about, not the fashion models, heaven’s no!). Options enable investors to anticipate other investors’ actions, which spurs herding behavior, where actors decide to disregard their own information (i.e., “That Coco Rocha, urgh!”) and imitate instead the decisions taken by others before them (but Russell Marsh optioned her).

One of Mears’ earlier studies looked at how models manage the stress of being treated as a commodity by the fashion market while trying to maintain their individuality, self-composure and emotional well-being.

Link to 3QD piece ‘How Supermodels Are like Toxic Assets’.

As above, so below

The Journal of Cranio-Maxillofacial Surgery has an intriguing article on head injuries from Ancient Greece which has a section on ‘Unusual cranial injuries in prominent men’.

There is something cosmically poetic in the fact that the ‘father of tragedy’ Aeschylos died from being hit on the head by a turtle.

The death of the father of tragedy, Aeschylos (524–455 B.C.) is a very unusual case of accidental head trauma. At the age of seventy Aeschylos was mortally injured by a turtle thrown by an eagle on his head (Aelian, 1971). “Aeschylos was seated upon a rock, meditating, … He had no hair on his head and was bald. Now an Eagle supposing his head to be a rock, let the Tortoise which it was holding fall upon it. And the missile struck the aforesaid poet and killed him”. This fulfilled a prophecy, the oracle predicting that Aeschylos would die by an arrow dropped from high in the sky.

An interesting case of concussion that caused a change of personality is described by Plutarch. Aridaios, an unscrupulous and hard man, fell from a height, struck his head and neck and became comatose without any obvious wounds. On the third day he regained consciousness, recovered his strength and senses and he instituted a change in his way of life that could hardly be believed (Plutarch, 1959). According to Plato “the neck is the “isthmus and boundary” between the head, the abode of the divine part of the soul, and the body, the abode of its mortal part” (Plato, 1925). This statement illustrates the belief that traumatic injuries above the neck can be associated with a change of personality.

Xenocrates (400–314 B.C.) a philosopher, mathematician and scholar of the Platonic Academy, is most likely to have died from a head injury “in consequence of stumbling by night against a dish, being more than 82 years of age” (Diogenes Laertius, 1972).

Link to PubMed entry for article.

Aldous Huxley’s final trip

This month’s edition of the cancer medicine journal Lancet Oncology discusses some ongoing trials of psychedelic drug assisted psychotherapy for people dying of cancer but notes that author Aldous Huxley actually died while on LSD – by his own request.

Today, in a small handful of laboratories across the USA, an equally small handful of patients with terminal cancer are volunteering to take part in psychotherapeutic treatment for anxiety and depression brought on by their diagnosis. But this psychotherapy comes with a unique twist: it involves the controlled and supervised ingestion of a psychedelic drug. A radical approach, some might say, even shocking. But pioneering? Perhaps not.

Back in November, 1963, the author and intellectual Aldous Huxley finally succumbed to the laryngeal cancer he had been diagnosed with 3 years earlier. Huxley’s life had already been touched by cancer, with the death from breast cancer of his first wife Maria in 1955. It was the experience of his first wife’s death, which led Huxley to conclude that ‚Äúthe living can do a great deal to make the passage easier for the dying, to raise the most purely physiological act of human existence to the level of consciousness‚Äù.

This desire for consciousness and awareness at the point of death was almost certainly the motivation for his deathbed request—written, according to his second wife, Laura, because his disease had robbed him of his voice—for “LSD, 100 μg, intramuscular”. Laura later wrote that she granted his request, and he died peacefully hours later.

A week after his death, Huxley’s widow ended a letter to his older brother, Julian, with this question: ‚Äúis his way of dying to remain our, and only our relief and consolation, or should others also benefit from it? What do you feel?‚Äù Over 40 years later, the current mini-renaissance in the experimental study of psychedelic drugs such as LSD and psilocybin for anxiety and depression in patients with cancer looks set to answer Laura Huxley’s question.

To be fair, the comparison is perhaps a little rhetorical because the current trials do not involve giving psychedelic drugs to people in their final moments, but instead during psychotherapy sessions in the weeks and months before death to assist in coming to terms with existential issues around the end of life.

Link to PubMed entry for Lancet Oncology item.

Creative beginnings

Newsweek has an eye-opening article on creativity which doesn’t really discuss why creativity is supposedly ‘declining’, as it claims, but is still full of fascinating and counter-intuitive snapshots of creativity research.

I have to say, I’m not very familiar with the scientific research on creativity, so I can’t say how well the article represents it as a whole, however, it does capture lots of interesting angles on creativity I’d not encountered before.

Nobody would argue that Torrance’s tasks, which have become the gold standard in creativity assessment, measure creativity perfectly. What’s shocking is how incredibly well Torrance’s creativity index predicted those kids’ creative accomplishments as adults. Those who came up with more good ideas on Torrance’s tasks grew up to be entrepreneurs, inventors, college presidents, authors, doctors, diplomats, and software developers. Jonathan Plucker of Indiana University recently reanalyzed Torrance’s data. The correlation to lifetime creative accomplishment was more than three times stronger for childhood creativity than childhood IQ.

There’s a few throwaway lines that bugged me (“Normally, the r-TPJ reads incoming stimuli” – not without the rest of the brain it doesn’t; “One likely culprit is the number of hours kids now spend in front of the TV and playing videogames” – evidence? none) but its generally a well written piece that integrates both neuroscience and psychology studies into a compelling exploration of what it means to think creatively.

UPDATE: Ashley Merryman, one of the authors of the Newsweek piece got in touch to say that there is some evidence on children’s TV viewing and creativity – finding that more time spent spent watching TV correlates with less creativity, although we still don’t have the evidence to say whether this is cause or effect.

Link to Newsweek article ‘The Creativity Crisis’.

Adjust the facts, ma’am

Photo by Flickr user Dustin Diaz. Click for sourceThe Boston Globe has an interesting piece on democracy, knowledge and reasoning biases, highlighting the fact that we can often decide facts are true based more on our pre-existing political biases than the evidence for their accuracy.

The article is full of fascinating snippets from recent studies. One, for example, finding that people who are the least well-informed are the ones most likely to be believe their opinions on the topic are correct.

However, there is also some intriguing discussion about how we filter, fudge and integrate new information into our existing beliefs:

New research, published in the journal Political Behavior last month, suggests that once those facts — or “facts” — are internalized, they are very difficult to budge. In 2005, amid the strident calls for better media fact-checking in the wake of the Iraq war, Michigan’s Nyhan and a colleague devised an experiment in which participants were given mock news stories, each of which contained a provably false, though nonetheless widespread, claim made by a political figure: that there were WMDs found in Iraq (there weren’t), that the Bush tax cuts increased government revenues (revenues actually fell), and that the Bush administration imposed a total ban on stem cell research (only certain federal funding was restricted). Nyhan inserted a clear, direct correction after each piece of misinformation, and then measured the study participants to see if the correction took.

For the most part, it didn’t. The participants who self-identified as conservative believed the misinformation on WMD and taxes even more strongly after being given the correction. With those two issues, the more strongly the participant cared about the topic — a factor known as salience — the stronger the backfire. The effect was slightly different on self-identified liberals: When they read corrected stories about stem cells, the corrections didn’t backfire, but the readers did still ignore the inconvenient fact that the Bush administration’s restrictions weren’t total.

It turns out that new information doesn’t always persuade us but the article does a good job of outlining how both psychological and situational factors influence our openness to updating our knowledge about the world.

Link to Boston Globe piece ‘How facts backfire’.
Link to study on facts and political bias (open access).

Is it weird in here, or is it just me?

Photo by Flickr user Svenmarck. Click for sourceNeuroanthropology tackles a recent psychology article which highlights the fact that the vast majority of research is done on Western students, who, in global terms, are a very unusual subgroup of the human race.

This group has been given the catchy acronym WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) although the problem is not so much that students are being studied but that researchers tend to draw conclusions about ‘human nature’ from this data, seemingly unaware of how unrepresentative they are of the world’s population.

The Neuroanthropology has an interesting take on the debate, noting that although important, the differences highlighted by the original article may also be a result of cultural bias themselves:

For example, when I brought one of my Brazilian subjects to an American university at which I previously taught, his characterization of the American students‚Äô differences from young Brazilians with whom he had more contact focused on none of these traits (W. E. I. R. or D.). He was more struck by their large size (both height and BMI, to put it nicely), their frumpy androgynous clothing (anyone here not wearing a sweatshirt?), their materialism, their clumsiness and physical ineptitude, and their ethnic and personal homogeneity. If my Brazilian colleague were to characterize the oddness of the WEIRD, he wouldn‚Äôt focus on the traits Henrich and colleagues have chosen in their designation…

I don’t think that my point is a fundamental disagreement with Henrich and colleagues, but a concern that the parameter of difference we choose to highlight, even in the simplest designation, might itself be a culturally-generated bias. Anthropologists are well acquainted with having our subjects point to traits that are invisible to the Western research as ‘the crucial’ characteristic for understanding the gap. For example, ‘rich’ may seem an obvious contrast to poverty, but we know that not all ‘poverty’ is the same, nor are all ‘rich’ people able to experience in the same way their material situation. Some economists have argued that inequality is more crucial for understanding the experience of deprivation, for example, than absolute wealth. And poor populations often fix, not on their material deprivation, but on other qualities to describe their difference from the wealthy (or the WEIRD). For example, religious differences, family dynamics, or caste might be salient to people from other cultural backgrounds.

This blind spot seems quite pervasive which is only something that has become clear to me since working in Latin America. For example, most science is published in English and reviewers of scientific papers will often suggest tests or analyses which don’t exist or aren’t relevant to a Spanish speaking population.

Furthermore, journal editors rarely feel it necessary to recruit reviewers familiar with the culture in which the study was completed, assuming that American or European experience applies ‘globally’.

For example, a researcher from London or New York would never have their work assessed by someone who had no knowledge of psychological assessments in those countries but this happens all the time to cognitive scientists from the rest of the world, meaning much less of this work gets published.

There is also the ‘world music’ effect, where anything from America or Europe is considered mainstream where anything from the rest of the world is considered to be about ‘culture’.

The Neuroanthropology piece is an in-depth discussion of the whether psychology research has a truly global vision, and, most importantly, where our unrecognised blind spots may lie.

Link to Neuroanthropology on WEIRD research.
pdf of research article ‘The weirdest people in the world?’

Gambling on our cognitive biases

The Economist has an excellent special report on gambling that covers everything from what makes slot machines attractive to the psychology of poker.

If you read the lead article there are links to the whole series in a sidebar embedded in the text. However, those particularly interested in the psychology of gambling may want to check out some specific pieces.

A short article looks at how compulsive gambling has become medicalised as it has been changed from a moral failing to a psychiatric problem.

Is poker a game of skill, as enthusiasts claim, or chance, as law defines it? An interesting discussion ensues on experience, success and gambling choices.

A computer system called ‘Polaris’ that claims to be the ‘Deep Blue’ of poker is also helping us understand the science of decision-making and is tackled by a particularly good article.

Another piece looks at the history of lotteries, the worst value gambling that money can buy and also the most popular.

I also liked this story on how slot machine companies sell you a guaranteed long-term loss.

When it comes down to it, over the longer term slot machines keep 5% of your money in return for a light show and a slimmish chance to win. But people keep playing. Slots pit humans against maths, and the maths always win. But successful slot machines get players to “like the feel of the maths”, explains Chris Satchell, chief technology officer for International Game Technology.

There are many more articles that explore wider issues such as economics, law and gambling’s effect on society. A really well-done series, as you’d expect from The Economist.

Link to Economist special report on gambling.

2010-07-09 Spike activity

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

The Wall Street Journal reports that ‘picky eating‘ is being considered as a new mental illness for the next DSM. I think they’re just trolling us now.

Becoming angry in negotiations was thought to be a widely effective strategy, but not, it turns out, when negotiating with people from an East Asian background. New study covered by The BPS Research Digest.

The Telegraph has an excellent article on the neuroscience of persistent vegetative state and other locked-in and coma-like states.

A fascinating case study of a man with constant musical hallucinations treated by magnetic brain stimulation is discussed by Neuroskeptic.

The Independent: “Scientists believe they have discovered the first hard evidence showing that conduct disorder in adolescents has a biological basis connected with brain chemistry”. This announcement made on behalf of the Steve Connor neuroscience education fund. Please give generously.

Excellent coverage of the science-politics of studies on the XMRV virus and chronic fatigue syndrome by the same journalist in The Independent. I know, confusing isn’t it?

.csv blog has a fantastic in-depth piece on new developments in artificial intelligence.

The author of PsyBlog is conducting some genuine online research into feeling low, online support groups and expressive writing with University College London. Wanna take part? Details here.

Life Matters on ABC Radio National has a discussion of why play matters, even for adults.

Hallucinations, hospitalizations and Angel’s Trumpet. Terra Sigillata has an excellent piece on toxic reactions to ‘brugmansia’ plants taken for their hallucinatory effects.

Time Magazine covers a recent study uncovering new ways unconscious motivations can influence us.

An eye-opening and worrying documentary about America’s prisons – seemingly the USA’s biggest provider of psychiatric care – is available in full over at In the News.

Reuters reports a new studying finding a link between early pot smoking and depression. Notable to separate cause and effect but useful to know either way.

The eccentric uncle of cannabis receptors, CB2, is gaining increasing attention and is discussed by Addiction Inbox.

Scientific American Mind has an intriguing piece about the ‘willpower paradox‘ where intention and motivation and not necessarily singing from the same hymn sheet.

There’s a fascinating piece about the artistic background of legendary neuroscientist Santiago Ramon-y-Cajal over at The Beautiful Brain.

Village Voice has an extended article about the how selling laughing gas at freewheeling gigs has become an intimidating and shady business.

How a broken heart can break your heart. Excellent piece from the ScienceBlogs Brasil highlights blog Brazillion Thoughts. ¿Y ScienceBlogs en español cuándo?

All Psych has a good summary of neo-Freudian theories and thinkers, minus Lacan for some reason.

Probably the funniest rant you’ll read for a while. Jesse Bering riffs on feminism, sexism and the relative pleasantness of bodily fluids over at Scientific American’s Bering In Mind.

Harvard Magazine has a thoughtful and moving piece on caregiving for a life partner with Alzheimer’s disease.

A discussion of why no-one realised that the recently deported Russian spies weren’t from where they claimed and why Americans find accents tricky over at Language Log.

The Loom has an excellent piece entitled ‘Facebook Is Not A Brain, And Other Failed Metaphors‘.

Cognitive biases are not equally opportunities misleaders, according to a study covered by Barking Up the Wrong Tree which finds men and women can be subject to different effects.

The Philosopher’s Zone on ABC Radio National had an excellent discussion of Derrida and deconstruction.

Why we have Eureka moments. The Vision Revolution blog has a piece that looks at instant inspiration.

The Neurocritic covers a study on the neuroscience of being turned off by porn.

Sports results can affect election results, according to a study covered by Not Exactly Rocket Science. Which explains a great deal about the UK.

First class in the mile high therapy club

Vanity Fair has a great article that charts the very early days of LSD. Before the drug became a symbol of hippy psychedelia, it was used by a select group of psychiatrists to facilitate ‘LSD psychotherapy’ and became popular among the Hollywood set of the 1950s.

To understand why LSD had such a grip on the American psychiatrists who had access to it, it’s useful to know some background about how psychiatry pictured the human mind in the mid-20th century.

Most importantly, it was the height of Freud’s influence when virtually all training was heavily influenced by psychoanalysis.

Psychoanalysis has a certain view of the unconscious that chimes very well with the effects of LSD. According to the Freudian model, the unconscious mind exists below the level of our awareness but still operates in terms of personal meaning.

Contrast this with the cognitive model of the mind in which the conscious mind is interpretable in terms of personal meaning but the unconscious mind is ‘subpersonal’ or only interpretable in terms of computation or neurobiology.

In other words, the conscious and the unconscious are connected but we can’t use the same concepts to understand the two.

In the Freudian model, the unconscious remains personally significant to the point where the mind may have to shroud this meaning in elaborate symbols to shield us from its unpleasant impact when any of it is revealed through thought or action.

To get to the true significance, psychoanalysis seeks to decode the protected symbols that have been put in place by our defence mechanisms.

Psychoanalysis says our thoughts, dreams, actions and perceptions are rich with hidden personal meaning. LSD reveals a world which seems rich with hidden personal meaning.

Therefore, it is not surprising that many of the psychoanalysts of the time thought the drug was a fast track to the unconscious where the normal route was years of painstaking therapy.

The Vanity Fair article traces the early years when it was used in therapy – a time just after LSD was invented and originally used by psychiatrists to see what madness might be like, and before it was taken up by Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert and 60s counter-culture.

Nevertheless, the influence of Freudian thought can be clearly seen in the psychedelic movement. The idea that you can ‘free your mind’ from ‘hang ups’ is almost a direct translation of the psychoanalysts creed that you need to ‘resolve’ your ‘neuroses’ in which society and the super ego play a similar role.

In fact, Leary, a psychologist himself, had extensive knowledge of psychoanalysis and, interestingly, couched the effects of psychedelic drugs in terms of Freud, neuroscience and computation.

This is from a lecture delivered to the 1961 International Congress of Applied Psychology, published as ‘How to Change Behaviour’.

Let’s assume that the cortex, the seat of consciousness is a millionfold network of neurons. A fantastic computing machine. Cultural learning has imposed a few pitifully small programs on the cortex. These programs may activate perhaps one-hundredth of the potential neural connections. All the learned games of life can be seen as programs which select, censor, alert and thus drastically limit the available cortical response. The consciousness expanding drugs unplug these narrow programs. They unplug the ego, the game machinery, and the mind (that cluster of game concepts). And with the ego and mind unplugged, what is left? ‚Ķ What is left is something Western culture knows little about. The Open brain. The uncensored cortex, alert and open to a broad sweep of internal and external stimuli hitherto screened out.

Link to Vanity Fair article (via The Frontal Cortex).

Scanning in another world

Neuroscientists sometimes forget just how different the experience of an MRI scan is from everyday life. I’ve just found this intriguing study that asked patients who had scans for the first time how they felt about the experience – the most common theme was the ‘sense of being in another world’.

There is a delightful bit in the study where one man compares it to being in a space capsule.

The participants’ overall experience of going through the MRI scan was a sense of being in another world. The environment, the enclosed space, the hammering metallic noise and sometimes the discomfort of lying on a hard bed, made the experience special and something out of their normal frame of reference. The experience of being in ‘another world’ was derived from the participants’ feelings of being isolated, far away, confined, lonely and dependent on others. ‘You feel confined, there is no door you yourself can open if you want to go out of there’ (P11). Being in the scanner was often associated with other enclosed spaces like coffins, a wooden sofa with a lid, a space capsule or ‘like lying almost as for cremation’ (P16).

All associations with other enclosed spaces were of a negative kind except for one man who had previously been inside a space capsule. He experienced that ‘I got a feeling, which is quite natural, that I entered a space capsule in NASA, Houston‚Ķ I was lucky I have been there’ (P17). The fact that the MRI department was situated in the basement contributed to the feeling that it was a different and scary place. Walking down the culvert made some participants imagine that this must be special as the MRI scanners had to be down here. A participant experienced a feeling of going to his own execution (P8).

The hammering noise added to the feeling of unreality and was associated with other sounds familiar to the participants. ‘When you have this sound in your ears it’s like listening to those who chop asphalt or concrete’ (P12). The unusual situation with the enclosed space and the sound at irregular intervals made the participants experience difficulties keeping track of time.

UPDATE: Thanks to Mind Hacks reader Brenner who posted a link to this article where a journalist describes their own experience of being MRI scanned:

“It was like being inserted headfirst into a giant, white cigar tube and having minimalist techno music hammered over my entire body. If robots were born and not made, it would be what a robot fetus experienced in the womb — if the robot’s mother was a bipolar drum machine stuck in manic phase”…

Link to PubMed entry for study.

The mixed blessing of children

New York Magazine has a truly excellent article on why having children tends to make people less happy. This result has come up in numerous studies but the article carefully explores this counter-intuitive finding in all the depth it deserves, reflecting on the changing culture and expectations of parenting.

The article starts with this lovely bit of academic trivia:

The idea that parents are less happy than nonparents has become so commonplace in academia that it was big news last year when the Journal of Happiness Studies published a Scottish paper declaring the opposite was true. “Contrary to much of the literature,” said the introduction, “our results are consistent with an effect of children on life satisfaction that is positive, large and increasing in the number of children.” Alas, the euphoria was short-lived. A few months later, the poor author discovered a coding error in his data, and the publication ran an erratum. “After correcting the problem,”it read,“the main results of the paper no longer hold. The effect of children on the life satisfaction of married individuals is small, often negative, and never statistically significant.”

However, the article questions what it means to say someone is ‘happy’ or ‘satisfied’ with their life and explores whether these studies are genuinely measuring the rich experience of parenting.

The piece explores how cultural expectations of parenting, and indeed, childhood, have changed and what practical implications this has had for day-to-day childcare.

It is one of those rare articles that combines scientific studies with personal experiences, without confusing the two and while using each to complement the other.

In-depth, wonderfully written and worth putting time aside for.

Link to New York Magazine ‘All Joy and No Fun’

Tripping into an artificial experiment

Photo by Flickr user One-Speed Photography. Click for sourceThe NeuroKüz blog covers a new study in which research participants were asked to take the hallucinogenic drug psilocybin before being asked to take part in a pretend brain scan in a fake fMRI machine.

If the situation seems a little odd, a bit trippy even, it’s actually more common than you think as almost all functioning brain scanning centres now have fake brain scanners that are used to test out experiments before running them ‘live’.

Brain scanning is a very expensive business and an hour of scanning time can easily cost ¬£500, so it wasn’t long before someone worked out that building a fake ‘dry run’ scanner was actually very economical.

Some of the time, experiments need to be tested out to see if they’re practically possible in the cramped space of the scanner and with the restrictions on equipment that are necessitated by having to avoid material that would be affected by the powerful MRI magnet.

Other times, its more a concern about the psychological well-being of the participants and how well they’d tolerate the conditions.

In this case, no-one had ever tried giving participants psilocybin and then asking them to do experiments while lying down in the restricted ‘tube’ of an fMRI machine, particularly as they hear the loud metallic scanning noises.

It could be a recipe for an unpleasant experience, so the researchers, who plan to do future fMRI research with the drug, tested nine people who stayed inside the mock scanner for 25 minutes after being injected with the substance.

As it turned out, no-one had a bad trip:

During the initial onset, some subjects described ‘quite strong’ drug effects. Synaesthesia was described by one subject (sounds influencing visual percepts) and this was also evident in other subjects’ 5-D ASC [5-Dimensions of Altered States of Consciousness questionnaire] ratings. Several subjects reported an altered sense of time (also seen in 5-D ASC ratings). There were no indications of distress during the acute experience and all subjects reported having found it interesting and insightful.

This doesn’t mean that the researchers will not need to worry about people feeling uncomfortable in future studies, although it does show that fMRI research on psilocybin can be done while participants remain relaxed and able to take part in the research.

Link to NeuroKüz on psilocybin and fake fMRI (via Thoughtful Animal).
Link to PubMed entry for study.

Civilian deaths and vengeance in Afghanistan

Photo by Flickr user DVIDSHUB. Click for sourceWired’s Danger Room reports on a new study finding that civilian causalities in Afghanistan lead to anti-coalition feelings and an increase in insurgent attacks. Although this would seem to be blindly obvious, the study adds some morbid detail to the picture and provides evidence for some in the US military who had suggested no such link existed.

The study was completed by four economists and it reports its uncomfortable results in stark statistical terms. Interestingly, not all civilian casualties are created equal in terms of their backlash:

‚ÄúWhen ISAF units kill civilians,‚Äù the research team finds, referring to the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan, ‚Äúthis increases the number of willing combatants, leading to an increase in insurgent attacks.‚Äù According to their model, every innocent civilian killed by ISAF predicts an ‚Äúadditional 0.03 attacks per 1,000 population in the next 6-week period.‚Äù In a district of 83,000 people, then, the average of two civilian casualties killed in ISAF-initiated military action leads to six additional insurgent attacks in the following six weeks…

But in their study, the researchers found that there’s a greater spike in violence after ISAF-caused civilian deaths than after insurgent-caused ones. “An incident which results in 10 civilian casualties will generate about 1 additional IED attack in the following 2 months,” the researchers write. “The effect for insurgents is much weaker and not jointly significant.”

Which is perhaps not particularly surprising if it is the insurgents who are setting most of the IEDs. However, the research also found a long-term effect of civilian deaths on the radicalisation of the local population.

Link to ‘Civilian Casualties Create New Enemies, Study Confirms’.
Link to study.

Neuroplasticity is not a new discovery

Image from the Wellcome Collection. Click for sourceWe recently discussed how the term ‘neuroplasticity’ is widely used as if it were a precise scientific concept, when, in fact, it is virtually meaningless on its own. Several commenters suggested that while not scientifically meaningful, it serves as a useful reminder that we no longer think the brain is ‘fixed’ as we did ‘about 20 years ago’. This is also part of the neuroplasticity hype, and, as I’ll demonstrate, discussions of neuroplasticity go back as far as the 1800s.

This is not to say that we haven’t discovered new ways in which the brain changes and adapts. But this hasn’t been a sudden discovery, and it hasn’t solely happened in the last few decades. On the contrary, these discoveries have peppered the last century and this knowledge has been slowly accumulating.

So here’s a hastily gathered list of scientific papers from before 1970 in which neuroplasticity was discussed, found with nothing more than Google Scholar and 30 minutes of time:

A 1896 paper from the Journal of Mental Science that discusses cortical plasticity as the basis of insanity, as well as tackling neural regeneration and recovery of function.

A 1897 paper from The American Journal of Psychology that discusses how “intelligence… enables the organism to make better adaptations. Its neural pre-requisite is plasticity”.

A 1932 study from Brain on recovery of function after brain injury.

A recent paper that reviews neuroplasticity in the work of neuroscientist Ramón y Cajal (1852-1934) who argued for fixed circuits but extensive local plasticity both in structure and function.

A 1943 review article from Brain on recovery from three types of nerve injury that discusses regeneration of nerve fibres.

The transcript of the 1950 Royal Society Ferrier Lecture on “Growth and Plasticity in the Nervous System”.

A 1967 paper from Acta Neurologica Scandinavica reviewing findings in sensory plasticity.

I’m sure there are many more examples that you could find for yourselves.

I suspect the neuroplasticity hype was fuelled by two main things: the 1998 discovery that adults humans have a limited ability to regenerate neurons and the growth of functional brain imaging in both science and the media.

In fact, neuron regeneration accounts for very little of our ability to learn and adapt, but after decades of thinking that ‘we are born with all the brain cells we’re ever going to get before we slowly decline’, it perhaps seems very significant to many and is certainly used in that way in popular discourse.

Functional brain imaging scans are often used as ‘visual proof’ that the brain changes. In reality, neuroimaging, almost by definition, relies on mechanisms that we must at least broadly understand already. But as a tool in popular discourse, it has increasingly come to stand for the brain’s flexibility.

I’m also interested by the fact that ‘neuroplasticity’ is often used in two seemingly contradictory ways.

The first is that it highlights ‘hidden potential’, the second that it highlights ‘hidden vulnerability’. These in themselves are not contradictory but often the message is that ‘we now know that your behaviour is now more susceptible to change than before’ but with an implicit message that once the change has taken place it is more permanent than before. Hence the additional risk or benefit. After all, your brain has changed, right?

To be clear, I am not suggesting that the brain is not flexible or that the discoveries about how the brain changes are not important. It’s simply that neuroplasticity has become a rhetorical device that, in itself, tells us nothing without further explanation.

All neuroscience is the science of how the brain changes and if you’re not being told exactly how this change is taking place, someone is likely wasting your time or trying to pull the wool over your eyes.

Link to previous Mind Hacks piece on neuroplasticity hype.

Sentiment mining your internet stream

Photo by Flickr user Click for sourceABC Radio National’s Background Briefing has good documentary on the growing practice of ‘sentiment mining’ social media networks where companies attempt to glean emotional reactions or consumer opinions – typically to products – from our spontaneous internet output.

Essentially it’s a form of text mining but applied to social media. For example, a specialist agency might scan for every mention of a product online over the last month and then apply custom analysis to draw out what people feel about it.

This is known as sentiment analysis and it is a booming industry in online marketing which numerous services having recently sprung into existence.

The programme discusses this technology exclusively in terms of marketing and business but military intelligence are also becoming interested in the technology, as news that the CIA recently bought into a social media analysis company indicates.

Link to ABC Radio documentary on ‘sentiment mining’.

On violating the computational contraints of the mind

Photo by Flickr user elycefeliz. Flick for sourceOne of the Reuteurs blogs has a somewhat rambly post about being wrong in journalism which does, however, contain this absolute gem:

I try hard to believe the opposite: that many if not most of my opinions are wrong (although of course I have no idea which they are), and that many of the most interesting and useful things I write come out of my being wrong rather than being right. This is not, as Wilkinson noted to Cowen, an easy intellectual stance to hold: he calls it “a weird violation of the actual computational constraints of the human mind”.

Link to Reuters on being wrong (via The Hardest Science; thanks Peter!).