You are in a maze of twisty little proteins, all alike

Time magazine has a brief but somewhat intricate article describing the relationship between the synapse and the APC protein.

It has a spectacularly complex and labyrinthine metaphor that doesn’t really help me understand what’s being discussed but is, nonetheless, a joy to read.

Findings by neuroscientists in various Tufts graduate programs—published in the August 18 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience—show a link between the APC protein and the development, or lack thereof, of something called a synapse.

If a synapse were a traffic intersection, the APC protein would be those annoying bridge tolls that are later used to develop roadways. Only instead of freight and passengers, the vehicles on this highway would carry information between neurons. A lack of tax collection will inhibit the development of the intersection—think potholes and faded, unreadable road signs—so that vehicles won’t be able to cross in the intended and most efficient way. In the same way, APC impairment blocks the synapse maturation that is crucial to the mental processes of learning and using memory.


Link to brief Time article (via @stevesilberman).

Infamous last words

The September issue of The Psychologist is completely open-access and has a fantastic article on the last words of executed prisoners.

The piece is by media analyst Janelle Ward who has been studying the final statements of prisoners executed by the US state of Texas, who list death row departees and their final words on a handy webpage (as I remember it used to list their last meal as well, but that information has since been removed).

Discourse analysis often focus on the ‘work’ being done by speech and statements, particularly with regards to impression management – that is, how we attempt to influence other people’s ideas about ourselves.

This is usually thought of in terms of future advantage, but in these cases, the future is only a couple of minutes at most, so this raises the question of what motivations might be behind any last words.

At the time we conducted the study we were only aware of one similar piece of work on the topic. Heflik (2005) published a content analysis of 237 last statements (between 1997 and 2005, also from the Texas death row) and found six themes: forgiveness, claims of innocence, silence, love/appreciation, activism, and afterlife belief. We expanded on Heflik’s method and examined 283 statements between 1982 and 2006 and searched for strategies of self-presentation (that is, opportunities to represent one’s identity).

We reported a textual framework that demonstrated a consistent pattern in the statements. Prisoners began by addressing relevant relationships and moved to expressing internal feelings. Next, they defined the situation (e.g. accepting or denying responsibility) and then dealt with the situation (e.g. through self-comfort, forgiveness or accusations). They ended with a short statement of closure.

We found that final statements are primarily used to construct a position self-image, stemming from an apparent desire to gain control over a powerless situation. The structure we uncovered works for both those expressing a discourse of acceptance (‘I am guilty’) or a discourse of denial (‘I am innocent’).

This issue of The Psychologist also contains article on the psychology of flavour, psychologists on Twitter, the evolution of Milgram’s infamous conformity experiment, and many more, all open and available to all.

Link to ‘Communication from the condemned’.
Link to table of contents for the whole issue.

Full disclosure: I’m an unpaid associate editor and occasional columnist for The Psychologist. My last words would probably be “I don’t think so”.

Distractingly attractive

Driver distractions are a major cause of road accidents. A new study has found that just a simple conversation with someone else in the car can be enough to increase driver errors and that the risk is greater if we fancy the passenger.

The research was conducted in a driving simulator by Cale Whitea and Jeff Caird from the Cognitive Ergonomics Research Laboratory (CERL) at the University of Calgary in Canada where they investigated something called a looked-but-failed-to-see error.

This is a form of change blindness, where we look at a scene but fail to notice something has changed. This is an important source of risk when driving, as we may be going through the motions of scanning the road but not taking in new information.

The study looked at how many of these errors would occur when drivers navigated their way through a simulated city, while also tracking their eye movements and errors with motorbikes and pedestrians on dangerous left-turns.

Crucially, the study compared how people performed when they were alone or with an opposite-sex passenger but also asked them about how attracted they were to the passenger and tested levels of extroversion and anxiety.

The results were striking:

Passenger conversations can be distracting. Higher rates of [looked-but-failed-to-see] LBFTS errors occurred when engaged in conversations with attractive passengers. In particular, those drivers who were most extroverted and attracted to the passenger also tended to be more anxious, drove slower, responded less to the pedestrian, and were involved in a greater number of emergency incidents with the motorcycle.

Considering eye gaze behavior was unaffected, the relationship between these social factors and performance variables suggest the nature of conversational distraction is cognitive. This attentional interference was sufficient in eliciting an eight-fold increase in LBFTS errors involving the motorcycle and four-times more pedestrian incidents.

In other words, conversation did not alter how people looked at the road, but it did affect how many dangerous situations people noticed – they just didn’t take them in. Fancying the passenger meant drivers missed more hazards. Their mind was clearly on other things.

Contrary to what parents might say (‘you were just showing off!’) participants actually drove more slowly when they were attracted to the passenger, but still made more errors.

It’s probably worth noting that it wasn’t the hotness of the passenger which was tested in the experiment, but the attraction of the driver, and that the distracting effect was stronger in women than men.

Link to PubMed entry for study.

An archive of buried brains, restored

The New York Times reports how a carefully assembled archive of human brains with tumours, collected by the pioneering neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing, was left to gather dust and decay at Yale university. Recently restored, it gives a glimpse of the early days of neurosurgery before brain scans or the consistent use of anaesthetic.

These chunks of brains floating in formaldehyde bring to life a dramatic chapter in American medical history. They exemplify the rise of neurosurgery and the evolution of 20th-century American medicine — from a slipshod trial-and-error trade to a prominent, highly organized profession.

These patients had operations during the early days of brain surgery, when doctors had no imaging tools to locate a tumor or proper lighting to illuminate the surgical field; when anesthesia was rudimentary and sometimes not used at all; when antibiotics did not exist to fend off potential infections. Some patients survived the procedure — more often if Dr. Cushing was by their side.

The collection has now been restored and organised and can be seen at the Cushing Centre at Yale.

Don’t forget to have a look at some of Cushing’s original photos of post-operation patients on the left hand side of the NYT article.

Link to NYT piece ‘Inside Neurosurgery’s Rise’ (via @bmossop).

The psychology of advertising in the Mad Men era

Film-maker Adam Curtis has just posted a fascinating look into how the Madison Avenue advertising agencies of the 1960s first understood and applied psychology to marketing.

As well as his account of these early forays into the consumerist mind he also posts some wonderful archive footage of the ad agencies’ training and discussions and some never before broadcast interview footage he recorded himself.

You may know Curtis from his numerous sociological documentaries, most notably The Century of the Self, which is a brilliantly made four-part series which puts forward a distinct and defendable argument about how our understanding of the mind changed through the 20th Century.

Part of this covered how advertisers began to take advantage and promote the increased focus on unconscious motivations and individuality to take advantage and promote the idea of the ‘self’ as consumer, and he expands on that in his BBC article:

The story begins at the end of the 1950s. There were two distinct camps on Madison Avenue. And they loathed each other.

One group was led by Rosser Reeves who ran the Ted Bates agency. Reeves had invented the idea of the USP – the unique selling point. You found a phrase that summed up your product and you repeated it millions and millions of times on all media so it “penetrated” the minds of the consumers.

His favourite was Lucky Strike’s “It’s Toasted”

He laid this all out, with diagrams, in his “bible” – called Reality in Advertising.

The other camp were known as “the depth boys”. They believed the opposite. That you penetrated the consumer’s mind by using all sorts of subtle psychological techniques to find out what they really wanted. These were feelings the consumer often didn’t even consciously realise themselves.

Both the video and the writing are really worth checking out for a revealing insight into how different ideas about the mind played out in the post-war consumerist dream.

Link to ‘Experiments in the Laboratory of Consumerism’ (via MeFi).

An epidemic of ghosts

Mozambique is being ravaged by an epidemic of spirit possession. These ‘outbreaks’ have traditionally been dismissed as superstition by commentators from afar, but it is becoming increasingly recognised that different cultures have different ways of expressing mental distress and social anguish – to the point where a team of medical scientists have just published the first large scale epidemiological study on spirit possession and its link to mental and physical illness in post-civil war Mozambique.

In this form of possession, the person feels as if their normal identity has been ‘pushed aside’ by a ‘spirit’, who takes control of their body and typically communicates with other people. After the possession episode, the person usually has amnesia for the episode.

In Western medicine, this is usually understood through a psychological process called dissociation – where normally integrated mental processes become disconnected. It’s like the psychological equivalent of when two teams in a company can’t communicate very well, so they start operating independently rather than as an integrated organisation.

In many societies around the world the concept of spirit possession plays an important role in understanding and explaining both the forces of nature and the psychology of individuals, to the point where it has both positive and negative effects.

Ethnographic studies have found that, during possession, ‘spirits’ may offer opinions or solutions to moral crises and may protect the individual from trauma and despair during times of violence.

However, negative possession states can causes problems or illnesses that are thought to be triggered by the harmful spirits, which can include anything from fertility problems, to family break-up, to physical aches and pains.

As times change, new spirits appear and old ones fade, each having different effects, benefits or risks. One legacy of the Mozambique war was the emergence of a new type of spirit that had a particular interest in the personal and social legacy of the conflict.

In the late twentieth century, as a result of the Mozambican protracted civil war, gamba spirits emerged. They became the principal harmful spirits and source of diagnosis. Gamba refers to the spirit of male soldiers who died in the war. Possession by gamba is a trauma of a double derivation. First, the host and patrikin [family on the father’s side] were severely exposed to warfare that led to vulnerability; and, second, to address that war-related vulnerability, the host’s patrikin were alleged to have perpetrated serious wrongdoings.

The person possessed by a gamba spirit publicly re-enacts the events of war, sometimes violently, and through the possessed person, the spirit demands public acknowledgement of the injustices they suffered. Spirits who are not appeased continue to torment the possessed person to the point of serious illness.

The study, led by medical anthropologist Victor Igreja and published in Social Science and Medicine, surveyed the extent of possession in two districts in central Mozambique and see how it was linked to trauma and physical health.

They used local criteria for the definition of spirit possession and validated interviews to assess trauma – such as the Harvard Trauma Questionnaire – developed to be used across cultures.

Households were selected at random, and out of 941 people evaluated, 175 (18.6%) reported some form of spirit possession while 5.6% had experienced multiple simultaneous spirit possession.

People who had been possessed were more likely to be women and have symptoms of physical illness but less likely to have had a baby. Those who went into trances as part of their possession were more likely to be experiencing psychological trauma, have fertility problems, have had a child die during their life and to suffer nightmares

One particularly striking finding was that the severity of psychological and physical symptoms was directly related to the number of spirits that a person had been possessed by, with more serious problems being associated with greater numbers of intruding spirits.

While the effects of spirit possession can be seen to have some relation to the Western diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression or anxiety, there are also many distinct features that reflect a more local concept of how a distressed person can express their mental anguish.

For people familiar with diagnoses drawn from the DSM and World Health Organisation ICD system, it is tempting to think that established descriptions are the ‘real’ disorders while cases of spirit possession are simply a local interpretation of them.

What is becoming increasingly clear, however, is that both our personal experience of psychological distress and how we express that to others, is shaped by our culture. In other words, diagnoses such as PTSD may be as much wedded to a particular culture as spirit possession.

Sadly, this new study is locked behind a pay-wall, but if you have access to the full thing I recommend giving it a read through as it is a curious combination of traditional statistical epidemiology applied to the ‘diagnosis’ of possession.

The paper demonstrates that spirit possession can be studied scientifically and makes as much sense as studying any other psychiatric problem that is defined by unusual or unhelpful behaviour, such as schizophrenia or panic disorder.

Link to PubMed entry for study.
Link to DOI entry for study.

When justice fails

I’ve just read a jaw-dropping Slate interview with the co-founder of the Innocence Project, an organisation that has uncovered hundreds of wrongful convictions on the basis of DNA analysis techniques which weren’t available when the case was prosecuted.

The interview is repeatedly astounding and has some terrifying insights into personal conviction, group think and the difficulty of admitting errors.

It tackles how individual motivations and perception mesh with the social structure and tools of the legal system to sometimes produce gross miscarriages of justice.

How do most wrongful convictions come about?

The primary cause is mistaken identification. Actually, I wouldn’t call it mistaken identification; I’d call it misidentification, because you often find that there was some sort of misconduct by the police. In a lot of cases, the victim initially wasn’t so sure. And then the police say, “Oh, no, you got the right guy. In fact, we think he’s done two others that we just couldn’t get him for.” Or: “Yup, that’s who we thought it was all along, great call.”

It’s disturbing that misidentifications still play such a large role in wrongful convictions, given that we’ve known about the fallibility of eyewitness testimony for over a century.

In terms of empirical studies, that’s right. And 30 or 40 years ago, the Supreme Court acknowledged that eyewitness identification is problematic and can lead to wrongful convictions. The trouble is, it instructed lower courts to determine the validity of eyewitness testimony based on a lot of factors that are irrelevant, like the certainty of the witness. But the certainty you express [in court] a year and half later has nothing to do with how certain you felt two days after the event when you picked the photograph out of the array or picked the guy out of the lineup. You become more certain over time; that’s just the way the mind works. With the passage of time, your story becomes your reality. You get wedded to your own version.

And the police participate in this. They show the victim the same picture again and again to prepare her for the trial. So at a certain point you’re no longer remembering the event; you’re just remembering this picture that you keep seeing.


Link to Slate interview with Innocence Project co-founder.