Distracted by the data

Wired has an incisive article looking at the science behind the ‘technology and multi-tasking are damaging the brain’ scare stories that regularly make the media.

The piece does a fantastic job of actually looking at specific studies on multi-tasking and distraction and questioning whether the ‘tech scare’ headlines are warranted given the findings.

The conclusion is neither that ‘all is well’ or that ‘we are all doomed’ but that we really have very little data – although none of it so far has given any credence to popular concerns that technology is impairing our intelligence.

The piece also hits on the crucial idea that talking of ‘technology’ or the ‘internet’ as a coherent whole is unhelpful because it has such different forms each with potentially different effects:

A solid consensus on digital multitasking is unlikely to be reached anytime soon, perhaps because the internet and technology are so broadly encompassing, and there are so many different ways we consume media. Psychological studies have seen a mix of results with different types of technology. For example, some data shows that gamers are better at absorbing and reacting to information than nongamers. In contrast, years of evidence suggest that television viewing has a negative impact on teenagers’ ability to concentrate. The question arises whether tech-savvy multitaskers could consume different types of media more than others and/or be affected in diffferent ways.

A research paper authored by a group of cognitive scientists titled “Children, Wired: For Better and for Worse” (pdf) sums it up best:

“One can no more ask, ‘How is technology affecting cognitive development?’ than one can ask, ‘How is food affecting physical development?’” the researchers wrote. “As with food, the effects of technology will depend critically on what type of technology is consumed, how much of it is consumed, and for how long it is consumed.”

There are some quotes from me included, but don’t let that put you off, as it remains a lively discussion of the science behind a common 21st century talking point.

Link to Wired piece on media, technology and brain studies.

The war changed me: brain injury after combat

The Washington Post has an amazing series of video reports on US soldiers who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan with brain injury – often leading to a marked change in personality.

The reports cover veterans who have suffered numerous types of brain injury, from shrapnel-driven penetrating brain injuries to concussion-related mild-traumatic brain injury, and how they have adapted after returning home.

The treatments range from brain surgery to psychological rehabilitation and the interviews cover the difficulties from all angles – including the patients’, families’ and medical professionals’ perspectives.

It’s probably worth noting that this combat brain injury is not an area without controversy and the Washington Post piece follows the US military orthodoxy on mild traumatic brain injury – that all problems after blast concussion are due to brain damage.

Owing to the widespread use of improvised explosive devices many soldiers get caught up in a blast without suffering any visible physical injury, although they may suffer concussion due to the shock waves.

The US military is focused on the idea that subsequent problems – such as headaches, mood problems, trouble concentrating, irritability, impulsiveness or personality change – are due to the physical effects of the blast. This cluster of symptoms is often diagnosed as post-concussion syndrome or PCS.

Studies have found that, on average, soldiers who have experienced a blast are more likely to show changes in the micro-structure of the brain. However, not every soldier who shows the PCS symptom cluster has detectable brain changes or shows a clear link between the symptoms and the blast.

This latter point is important because the same symptoms can arise from combat stress – being caused by the emotional impact of war rather than a direct result of a shock to the brain.

It becomes clear why this distinction is crucial when you read the US military’s guidance on screening for mild traumatic brain injury which doesn’t have a specific way of distinguishing the effects of emotional stress from the effects of brain disturbance.

Owing to the fact that blasts are such common experiences for soldiers, this could lead to false positives where veterans are thought to have brain damage when they would be better off being treated for combat stress.

In fact, this exact same scenario was played out in World War I where ‘shell shock’ was originally considered to be caused by blast waves affecting the brain (hence the name) only for it to be later discovered that not everyone who had the symptoms had even been near a shell explosion.

Regardless of this medical debate, The Washington Post special report is a fantastic combination of real life experiences and the neuroscience of combat-related brain injuries. Highly recommended.

Link to WashPost ‘Coming home a different person’ with intro clip.
Link straight to main menu.

Rehabilitating the most vilified

ABC Radio National’s 360documentaries has a confronting edition that interviews two child sex offenders currently in treatment along with their psychologist, examining their offending behaviour, what led up to it and what they hope to change in their lives.

It’s neither morbid sensationalism nor an apology for crimes committed but there are plenty of moments that don’t make for easy listening.

It does, however, challenge lots of stereotypes about the sort of person who undergoes treatment in such a programme as the two people involved are very different – one of which has never actually committed a personal offence against a child but who sought treatment after struggling with his desires.

The programme is a rare look at the sort of treatment programme that is often vilified by the press, despite strong evidence that such programmes reduce offending and keep the public safer as a result.

There are a few places in the piece that I thought could have been done better, but in general, it’s unlikely you’ll get a more stark insight into a difficult and controversial area.

Link to 360documentaries on sex offender treatment programme.

A nasty case of misery

BBC Radio 4 has a short but excellent programme on the increasing medicalisation of human sadness which notes that even everyday talk about difficult but necessary life events is being increasingly couched in medical terms.

The writer and presenter of the piece, journalist Mary Kenny, notes, for example, how the concept of trauma is being increasingly applied to mourning, previously considered a painful but normal response to tragic circumstances. She also tackles how this tendency is being reflecting in the ongoing widening of the criteria for mental illness.

Kenny’s piece neither relies on tired simplifications of ‘evil drug companies’ nor falls back on simple explanations for mental illness and makes for a insightful short analysis of how our understanding of human distress is changing.

Unfortunately, you can only listen to a streamed version of the piece and it will disappear in four days, so catch it while you can.

Link to ‘Medicalising Melancholy’ on BBC Radio 4.
Link to article on BBC News website based on the programme.

The taste of the past

The latest edition of The Psychologist has a fascinating article on ‘sensory history’ – the practice of investigating how people from the past differently interpreted and understood sensory experiences.

I was first alerted to the idea by a book review we covered back in 2009 which noted that the superstition of the ‘evil eye’ – where you can curse someone by looking at them – makes more sense when you realise people believed that the eyes actively emitted rays rather than passively receiving them.

This new article is by sensory historian Mark Smith, author of the book Sensing the Past, who examines how the meaning of the senses has changed over time.

This part particularly caught my eye (pun intended) as it describes how the print revolution made the sense of sight seem more ‘truthful’ and ‘objective’:

In part, at least, historians of the sensate attend to the nonvisual senses principally because we have, for so long, assumed the supremacy of the eye in the human sensorium. Historical interest in smell, sound, touch and taste has been animated often because of the assumed ascendancy of vision that emerged following the print revolution and the developments of the Enlightenment, many of which supposedly elevated the eye as the arbiter of truth, the producer of perspective and balance (courtesy of the invention and subsequent dissemination of visual technologies such as the telescope, microscope and camera) and, in the process, diluted the value placed on the nonvisual, often proximate senses of hearing, olfaction, tasting, and touching.

It seems – or, at least, some sensory historians now theorise – that this supposed revolution in the senses was so thoroughgoing that moderns –at least those of the Western 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century variety – increasingly dismissed the other senses as reliable indicators of reason and truth and, instead, came to associate them with emotionalism or, more often than not, hardly worthy of sustained scholarly investigation.


Link to ‘The explosion of sensory history’.

Full disclosure: I’m an unpaid associate editor and occasional columnist for The Psychologist who has trouble sensing breakfast, let alone history.

Inattention to details

Neuroskeptic has excellent coverage of the recent headline-making study on the genetics of ADHD that was overly-hyped as the ‘first direct genetic link’ to the disorder and overly-slammed as a drug company ploy.

For example, BBC News has a report on the study where you can see researcher Anita Thapar making some unrealistic claims for the significance of the interesting-but-preliminary study while the science-retardant child psychologist Oliver James counters by cherry picking evidence (and not even very accurately).

Neuroskeptic does a great job of untangling the actual import of the research and discusses why the finding of copy-number variations or CNVs in about 16% of the ADHD kids compared to 7.5% of the controls is neither a ‘direct genetic link’ nor evidence against the idea that the condition is ‘socially constructed’.

However, I was particularly drawn by Thapar’s comments that discovering the genetic component “should address the issue of stigma.”

The common idea is that if we can demonstrate a particular mental disorder is a ‘brain disease’ or the result of a biological dysfunction people who have the condition will be less stigmatised due to a vague notion that their behaviour ‘is not their fault’.

Unfortunately, studies to date have shown that biological explanations for mental disorder actually increase stigma in public, patients and mental health professionals because the affected people are typically seen as more unpredictable and dangerous than when social or psychological explanations are given.

It is genuinely important that we understand the genetic influences to behavioural problems, including those that get classified as ADHD, and this new study is a small but important step toward that aim.

But we kid ourselves if we think this evidence automatically decreases stigma and we do society a disservice if we make our acceptance and compassion for people with behavioural difficulties dependent on certain types of scientific explanation.

Link to excellent Neuroskeptic piece on genetics and ADHD study.

2010-10-01 Spike activity

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

The science of choking under pressure is discussed in a brilliant piece on Neuron Culture.

New Scientist has a debate on whether psychoanalysis should have a place in London’s Science Museum. Although getting science in London’s Freud museum would be the real challenge.

The performance of young children on the ‘mirror self-recognition test’ varies hugely across cultures, according to an bull-in-the-china-shop study covered by the BPS Research Digest.

TED has a great talk from neuroscientist Sebastian Seung on the ‘connectome‘ – the project to understand the brain’s ‘wiring diagram’ and what it means. Quite speculative in places but good fun.

Macho financial stereotypes affect female financial behaviour making women more risk averse. An intriguing study looking at how ‘stereotype threat’ impacts on economic behaviour elegantly covered by Not Exactly Rocket Science.

The Wall Street Journal has an article on ambivalence. Not too bad.

The idea that the time in the womb is one of the most powerful shapers of your life hits Time. See the essential background from Neuroanthropology.

Wired Science covers the under-researched area of group intelligence, finding that emotional awareness, not individual intelligence, contributes most to group problem-solving power.

A fascinating study explaining why self-touch on the site of an injury reduces pain but a touch from someone else on the same spot can be excruciating is covered by Nature’s The Great Beyond blog.

The Independent has a good piece on ‘blindsight‘ patients who are consciously blind who can be avoid obstacles.

To the bunkers! Largest ever swarm of flying robots takes to the sky. Wired UK pre-warns us of the threat from above.

A cherry picking lesson from Big Pharma, via Neuroskeptic.

The New Yorker has a big Malcolm Gladwell article on online social networks and damp squib activism. Don’t take without two fantastic commentaries: one from The Atlantic and another from The Frontal Cortex.

A first translation of the 18th century French Royal Commission Report on ‘animal magnetism‘ (i.e. ‘mesmerism’) is covered by Advances in the History of Psychology.

Time asks why do heavy drinkers outlive non-drinkers?

Every time you reach for something, there’s a squabbling match in your brain, according to a study covered by Not Exactly Rocket Science. Often, my brain keeps squabbling afterwards.

Discover Magazine has a short piece by Oliver Sacks on his hopes on how neuroscience will develop in the next thirty years.

There’s a fascinating look at the life and ideas of prison reform theorist Kenneth Hartman over at In the News. Unlike most other thinkers in the area, he’s currently serving life.

The Lancet has a fantastic piece on the psychology of selecting medical students to be good professional doctors. Science grades, it turns out, count for shit.

Fulfilling your child’s desires may help them understand those of others. An intriguing study covered by Evidence Based Mummy.

Slate has a fascinating piece on the history of male-female friendships, noting that before the 20th century, friendship was single-sex.

A new World Health Organisation report on mental health and mental illness in the developing world is covered by Providentia. “…over 80 per cent of people in need have no access to psychological or psychiatric treatment”.

New Scientist has an excellent piece on how handbags are flying over the science of evolved altruism.

Our brain connections become more sparse and sharp with aging. Deric Bownds’ MindBlog covers a new scanning study on inevitable decline – has some lovely images.

BBC News reports that US executions are delayed because of a nationwide shortage of sodium thiopental.