A poetry of muddlings and loss

Art critic Tom Lubbock developed a brain tumour which estranged him from language in subtle and unpredictable ways. The Guardian has a stunning article where the writer describes how his relationship with language was altered as the tumour encroached upon his brain.

It is one of the most powerfully nuanced accounts of language impairments I have yet read and you can feel the years of art-criticism experience poured into Luddock’s analysis as he charts the effects of the glioblastoma tumour on his temporal lobe.

For a period, suddenly, I cannot speak (or read aloud) any words except the most short, simple, basic. They are fine. And all the rest, the more complex ones, come out as a kind of garbled gobbledygook or jabberwocky. Yet the stress of all the words and sentences – sense or nonsense – is equally and perfectly accurate. I know what I mean to say and to a hearer what I say moves fluently, though in and out of meaningfulness. Simple and comprehensible words punctuate a sequence vocalised out of nonsense.

It is a permanent mystery how we summon up a word. Where are these connections located in the mind? How do we know how we do it and get it right? This mystery only becomes evident when our ability to summon up our words fails.

There are many vivid passages in the piece but I was particularly struck by the most recent October 2010 entry. It is genuinely poetry in the truest sense as it captures the state of the author’s fractured language in both its content and form while subtly communicating the emotional resonance of the changes.

Link to Tom Lubbock on when words slip away (thanks @bakadesuyo).

The confusing wisdom of crowds

Bad Science covers an interesting new replication of Asch’s famous conformity experiments – a classic study where participants stated that a line was longer or shorter than it really was simply because others in the room also gave the clearly erroneous answer.

In the original study (there’s some great video here), the other people in the room were stooges, asked by the experimenters to give the wrong answer, but this new study used technology to genuinely show different images to everyone except the conformity target and the results were strikingly different.

Instead of one real subject in a room full of stranger stooges, they used polarising glasses – the same technology used to present a different image to the left and right eye for 3D films – to show participants different images on the same screen, at the same time, in the same room. This meant that friends could disagree, legitimately, and so exert social pressure, but without faking it.

The results were problematic. Overall, sometimes the minority people did conform to peer pressure, giving incorrect answers. But when the results were broken down, women did conform, a third of the time, but men did not. This poses a problem. Why were the results of this study different to the original study?

The point of the piece is to highlight how science actually works, with conflicting results and context dependent changes in outcome, but there’s also a good discussion of possible reasons why the effect wasn’t replicated.

Link to Bad Science on conformity and .
Link to DOI and summary of new Asch replication study.
Link to original video from Asch on the conformity experiments.

Grief myths

Myths about grief are so widespread they frequently appear even as guidance for mental health professionals. A new study looked at textbooks given to trainee nurses and found that all had a least one unsupported claim about the grieving process and few had advice drawn from actual research.

Handily, the research paper, authored by nurse and psychologist E. Alison Holman and colleagues, has a fantastic table which lists the common myths about grief and compares them to what we actually know from studies on people who have experienced loss.

General Myths

  1. There are stages or a predictable course of grief that individuals should or typically will experience
  2. There is a specific timeline for when grieving processes will occur

    Emotional experience myths

  3. Negative emotions such as distress, depression, sadness, disorganization, loss of functioning,
    anger, guilt, fear or emotional pain ARE INEVITABLE following a loss

  4. Emotions need to be ‘‘processed’’: expressed, worked through, acknowledged, dealt with, experienced, attended to, focused on, made sense of
  5. Lack of experiencing or expression of emotions (e.g., denial, absent grief, delayed grief, inhibited grief) indicates pathology or negative consequences

    Resolution myths

  6. Recovery, acceptance, reorganization or resolution should be reached in ‘‘normal’’ grief
  7. Failure to find resolution indicates unhealthy, dysfunctional, pathological, or complicated grief

Evidence-based Findings

  1. Not all people experience grief in the same way
  2. Some grieving people do not report feeling distressed or depressed
  3. Some people experience high levels of distress for the rest of their lives without pathology
  4. Repressive coping may promote resilience in some people
  5. Resilience, growth, and/or positive emotions may be associated with loss


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

A shrink among the shady in 1920s New York

Neurophilosophy has a wonderful profile the pioneering forensic psychiatrist and criminologist Carleton Simon who was working the street in prohibition-era New York in the 1920s and 30s.

Apparently, a minor celebrity in his day owing to a constant stream of headline-grabbing busts and scientific discoveries, he has since faded into obscurity but this excellent new piece covers his life, work and innovations.

At the forefront of the city’s efforts to keep crime under control was a man named Carleton Simon. Simon trained as a psychiatrist, but his reach extended far beyond the therapist’s couch. He became a ‘drug czar’ six decades before the term was first used, spearheading New York’s war against drug sellers and addicts. He was a socialite and a celebrity, who made a minor contribution to early forensic science by devising new methods to identify criminals. He also tried to apply his knowledge to gain insights into the workings of the criminal brain, becoming, effectively, the first neurocriminologist.

The image above is a photo of Simon with a machine he invented to photograph the blood supply network in the back of the eye, following his discovery that the network of veins is as unique as a fingerprint.

Link to excellent Neurophilosophy profile of Carleton Simon.

2010-11-05 Spike activity

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

The science of makeup. An excellent piece on the psychology of how cosmetics enhance allure over at Observations of a Nerd.

The New York Magazine has an excellent piece on how the psychology of narcissism affects politics. Widens from its initial focus on current US politics.

We’re more persuaded when we see similarities between ourselves and others, according to research covered by PsyBlog.

The Onion reports on a hot new relationship book that warns women: Wake Up! He’s A Shapeshifter.

A fascinating history of the “you can’t tell by looking” message in adverts about sexually transmitted infections – by Dr Petra.

Scientific American has another excellent instalment of Jess Bering’s Bering in Mind column on the evolution of obesity.

Retinal implant partially restores sight to blind. The cyber future is here and Not Exactly Rocket Science has an excellent piece on the science.

Wired on a call from US neurologists for strict sports-concussion guidelines after recent research showing long-term dangers.

Does how masculine or feminine a person is predict sexual orientation? asks Barking Up the Wrong Tree

The Lancet has a study on the effect of a recent UK ban on the stimulant mephedrone: still available and twice the price.

Does torture work? asks The Lay Scientist. Does it matter, is probably more to the point.

Science News reports on how the first stone tools in Africa may have been made perhaps 50,000 years earlier than previously thought.

Is there such a thing as a ‘culture of poverty‘? Neuroanthropology take a considered look at the concept.

The New York Times has a piece on how there is an increasing drive to diagnose autism in younger children to try and apply therapy to improve outcome.

What economists refer to as “anomalies” are actually what everyone else would call “real life”. Emorationality on how anomalies in traditional economic theory are actually normal psychology.

Seed Magazine discusses how what goes into placebo pills is barely documented in clinical trials, despite the fact that the ingredients might have an impact.

A new study on brain damage suggests cognition isn’t a localisable as we like to think. Oscillatory Thoughts covers his own study. I think we need more scientists blogging their own research. Good stuff.

Time covers new research finding a specific link between the CNTNAP2 gene and the extent of inter-cortical connections in the brain of people with autism.

There’s a great piece on new ‘designer drug’ mephedrone over at Addition Inbox.

CNN reports on the unusual case where a group of kids saw their dead schoolmate’s brain in a jar on a school trip to the medical examiner’s office.

The designer of the Psychology Today 1970’s ‘racism board game’ comments on our recent post about the product. Some fascinating context.

Gizmodo has some rough Facebook data that shows what time of year relationship breakups are more likely to occur.

The neurochemistry of mood and sleep changes are covered by the excellent Neuroskeptic. Also see his coverage on the ‘bionic eye’ news.

The Varsity has an excellent piece on the psychological management of the trapped Chilean miners.

Dan Ariely on his Irrationally Yours blog lists the ‘Seven Most Powerful New Economists’.

Wired Danger Room reports on how the US Air Force wants neuroweapons to overwhelm enemy minds.

A ‘koro’ penis shrinking panic strikes an Indian labour camp and Providentia has the write-up.

The Independent reports on new revelations on how modern art was used as CIA Cold War propaganda.

Life in an elevator

Scientific American has a wonderful short article on the anthropology of elevators, tackling the psychology of travelling floor to floor and how they were eventually integrated into a resistant society.

The piece is full of gems about one of our most mundane of activities and I particularly liked this on a failed attempt at waylaying early fears about the technology’s safety:

Sociologist Joseph Gittler proposed that Americans initially resisted the elevator for personal use because they didn’t quite understand how it worked and this opacity contributed to fear for their personal safety. People were asked to put their trust in a system they could not see. In the confines of the car, visions of frayed cables came easily. Not even Elisha Otis and his “safety elevator” design were initially well received. Although, in truth, his unveiling at the 1853 New York World’s Fair was perhaps a bit dramatic and may have contributed to the elevator’s worrying reputation. Otis’ design included a mechanism that would stop a falling car – a version of which is still in use today. At the World’s Fair he essentially stood on a platform rigged with his device, had someone cut the rope holding the platform up, and dropped spectacularly before coming to a complete stop. While this did wonders for his business, and helped launch Otis Steam Elevator Works, it did not necessarily discourage public concern.

In contrast to the UK, I discovered it’s normal in Colombia to say hello and goodbye to people as you enter and exit the lift. This was so strange when I first encountered it that I just assumed that people must be recognising me and my memory was at fault.

The author of the piece turns out to write the Anthropology in Practice blog which I’ve just discovered and also is a great read.

Link to SciAm piece on the anthropology of elevators.
Link to Anthropology in Practice blog.

BBC All in the Mind new series: war and ethics

A new series of BBC Radio 4’s All in the Mind has just kicked off with the first programme looking at mental illness in war zones, the ethics of forcing psychiatric patients to take treatment in the community and whether antidepressants change our moral decision-making.

The discussion on military mental health is particularly good and goes some way to answering why UK troops show much lower rates of mental illness than US troops in the same war zones, as we discussed recently.

Also don’t miss the heated discussion on ‘community treatment orders’ or CTOs, which are a relatively recent innovation but become increasingly popular across the world.

They’re a change to the law that allows patients to told to take treatment in the community, otherwise they can be instantly taken back into hospital to be forcibly treated.

The UK introduced them in 2008 and they have been used ten times more than predicted, leading to a fierce debate about whether they are just being used to over-ride patient autonomy.

The antidepressant research, that has found the SSRIs alter how people respond to moral dillemas like the ‘trolley problem‘, is also an intriguing look into the neurochemistry of ethical choice, making for a strong start to the new series.

Link to BBC ‘All in the Mind’ page with streamed audio.
Link to ‘Medical Matters’ page where you can get the podcast.

Drug classification is out of order

Mark Easton’s BBC News blog tackles a recent study that has ranked the dangers of numerous recreational drugs – citing alcohol as the most hazardous to health ahead of even heroin and cocaine.

The study, just published in The Lancet, is interesting not just because it is yet another that shows the disconnect between official policy and the actual evidence on drug harm, but because the authors are some of the people who were sacked or resigned after the UK government got upset that they kept highlighting inconvenient evidence to this effect.

Its worth noting that ranking drug harms is an inexact science. For example, injecting any drug regularly massively increases the health risks, so opinion varies on whether you should count this is as a danger attached to a specific substance – when some drugs – like heroin, can be taken with or without injecting.

Regardless of the exact ranking, the general pattern found in this any many other studies highlights the ongoing reluctance to deal with drugs as they actually affect society.

Mark Easton’s BBC News blog is consistently excellent by the way, and a genuinely incisive attempt to get at the real evidence behind many pressing social issues.

Link to Mark Easton on ‘Drug Debate Hots Up’.
Link to paywalled Lancet study.

A consciousness raising exercise

I’ve just discovered the fantastic Conscious Entities blog that is full of wonderfully insightful discussions about the science and philosophy of consciousness.

As well as covering established theories it also tackles new ideas and controversies as they appear, with the fantastic coverage of philosopher Peter Hacker’s criticisms of just about everything in neuroscience and the subsequent backlash being a case in point.

Despite dealing with heavyweight issues, it’s also quite playful and I loved this explanation in the About page:

One possible source of confusion is that some of the discussions here are presented as dialogues between two different characters. One of these, whom I think of as ‘Blandula’, after the Emperor Hadrian’s verse addressed to his own soul, is represented by a sort of cherub, and is suspicious of reductive and materialist ideas: the other, (‘Bitbucket’, represented by an abacus) takes the opposite view. I hope this helps both sides to benefit from vigorous advocacy, but the two characters are merely figments of my imagination and I cannot supply email addresses for either of them.

Fun, smart, informative and, as far as I can make out, illustrated by the author.

Link to Conscious Entities (via @AlexKaula).

Urban thrall

RadioLab has just released a fantastic edition on how we become behaviourally enmeshed in cities and how they operate almost like independent organisms.

As always, the programme is like being wrapped in a shimmering fabric of sound and this edition looks at our relationship with the urban sprawl, from the link between the size of the city and how fast we talk, to how the infrastructure reflects the society that relies on it.

There’s no scientific metric for measuring a city’s personality. But step out on the sidewalk, and you can see and feel it. Two physicists explain one tidy mathematical formula that they believe holds the key to what drives a city. Yet math can’t explain most of the human-scale details that make urban life unique. So we head out in search of what the numbers miss, and meet a reluctant city dweller, a man who’s walked 700 feet below Manhattan, and a once-thriving community that’s slipping away.


Link to RadioLab on cities.

What price sobriety (in vouchers)?

BBC Radio 4 recently ran a fascinating one-off programme called Sugaring the Pill on schemes that pay people to lose weight, get vaccinated or stay off drugs. Payment turns out to be particularly effective at keeping addicts clean and this caught my eye because it seems to go against some of the core scientific beliefs about persistent drug users.

The programme explores the ethics of payment programmes and the public’s discomfort, particularly when applied to drugs, with handing out rewards for something we should perhaps be doing anyway.

Payment as treatment is known in the medical literature as ‘contingency management’ and has been found to be most effective in keeping heroin and cocaine addicts clean.

As the programme, and the research summary linked above, describe, a typical payment scheme will give a ticket for every clean urine test – usually starting with a small value like £1, and increasing by 50p each time.

Only when the patient has completed a whole series of clean drug tests, maybe after a month or two, can they exchange their tickets for shopping vouchers which they can spend in the high street.

The fact that these schemes are so effective is surprising, because they rely on abilities thought to be lacking or impaired in addicts – mainly the capacity to delay rewards and gratification.

There is now a host of research showing that addicts have problems with temporal discounting. We all have the tendency to judge future benefits as significantly less important than immediate ones but this seems to be enhanced in drug users who greatly overly prioritise rewards that arrive sooner.

Also, persistent drug use is widely believed to alter the brain’s reward system so positive reinforcement (wanting benefits) becomes less persuasive than negative reinforcement (the desire to escape an unpleasant sensation).

Similarly, research suggests that in addiction, the desire to take drugs become less modifiable by our executive system and so less amenable to voluntary control.

So, for people who should be primarily motivated by immediate chemical rewards over long-term abstract benefits, a slowly accumulating shopping voucher scheme would be the last thing you would predict to have such a reliable effect on keeping people off the smack or blow.

I note this purely as a curious inconsistency and if you have any suggestions that might explain it, do add them in the comments.

The BBC programme is excellent, by the way, and is also available as a podcast.

Link to Sugaring the Pill info and streamed version.
Link to page with podcast (for four weeks).

Khat among the pigeons

All in the Mind kicks off a new three-part series on ‘Cultural Chemistry’ with a programme about the effects and politics of the stimulant khat which has an important place in several East African cultures.

The plant is used widely in Somalia, Ethiopia and Yemen and when chewed it causes a mild buzz owing to low levels of a naturally occurring amphetamine-like compound called cathinone.

Although originally rooted in Africa, the plant is available across the world although its legal status varies – from banned in the USA to completely legal in Britain.

It is used traditionally like coffee to perk people up and make them more chatty although it is often the subject of controversy because it has been linked with triggering psychosis and aggression in some people – although the scientific evidence is far from clear.

I managed to try khat once after I discovered it on sale at a grocery in Leicester. Although it did cause a slight buzz I was most struck by the taste as it is incredibly tannin-like, making the experience a little like chewing on a tea bag.

But as All in the Mind notes, as the plant is strongly linked to specific social settings, it’s difficult to understand its effects without considering the environment in which it’s taken and the programme does a fantastic job of exploring the complex mix.

Coffee is next up in the ‘Cultural Chemistry’ series which should be worth keeping an eye on as there might be something a little special later on. Also, there’s more on the All in the Mind blog and a call for you to contribute your own recordings.

Link to All in the Mind Cultural Chemistry series on khat.
Link to more details and additional audio on the AITM blog.

It only exists if I can see colours on a brain scan

Bad Science has an excellent piece on the recent hot air from a researcher who claimed that brain activity differences between people with high and low sex drive proved that ‘hypoactive sexual desire disorder’ was ‘a genuine physiological disorder and not made up.’

This strikes me as an unusual world view. All mental states have physical correlates, if you believe that the physical activity of the brain is what underlies our sensations, beliefs and experiences: so while different mental states will be associated with different physical states, that doesn’t tell you which caused which. If I do not have the horn, you may well fail to see any increased activity in the part of my brain that lights up when I do have the horn. That doesn’t tell you why I don’t have the horn: maybe I’ve got a lot on my plate, maybe I have a physical problem in my brain, maybe I was raped last year. There could be any number of reasons.

But far stranger is the idea that a subjective experience must be shown to have a measurable physical correlate in the brain before we can agree that the subjective experience is real, even for matters that are plainly experiential. If someone is complaining of persistent low sex drive, then they have persistent low sex drive, and even if you could find no physical correlate in the brain whatsoever, that wouldn’t matter, they do still have low sex drive.

One of the reasons why attempts to make problems of behaviour or experience seem ‘biological’ is that the concept is strongly linked to the idea that if something is a ‘biological disorder’ we are less to blame because we have less control over the symptoms.

This is daft, of course, because although biology uses less talk of free will and agency, it is really just another level of explanation.

The beauty of a captivating picture doesn’t somehow disappear if we discuss the molecules of the paint and, in a similar way, discussing the interactions of neurons won’t mean that the problem of free will no longer applies.

But the drive to try and eliminate free will is, in part, because of the stigma still attached to many types of problems. Instead of trying to tackle stigma we often try to misguidedly reclassify the object of the stigma.

It’s like trying to fight racism by classifying a wider range of skin colours as white – it really misses the point and actually maintains the prejudice. In the same way, we should be working towards accepting all human difficulties, however they are most appropriately described by scientific theories, as valid and worthy of concern.

This does not mean all necessarily need to be classified and treated as medical disorders, but it does mean that we should respect the difficulties people face and think about constructive ways of helping ourselves and other people to tackle them.

Link to Bad Science on ‘Neuro-realism’.