Road kill for hot lady drivers

In 1960, the American Journal of Psychiatry reported on “an unusual perversion”, in a case of a man with “the desire to be injured by an automobile operated by a woman.”

The patient, a man in his late twenties, reported a periodic desire to be injured by a woman operating an automobile. This wish, present since adolescence, he had by dint of great ingenuity and effort, gratified hundreds of times without serious injury or detection. Satisfaction could be obtained by inhaling exhaust fumes, having a limb run over on a yielding surface to avoid appreciable damage or by being pressed against a wall by the vehicle.

Gratification was enhanced if the woman were attractive by conventional standards. Injuries inflicted by men operating automobiles or other types of injury inflicted by women had no meaning. He experienced pleasure from the experience, thus establishing the symptom as a perversion rather than a compulsion.

Although psychiatry no longer uses the word perversion (problematic sexual compulsions are now called ‘paraphilias‘) the introduction to the case study says, in a rather understated way, that “some perversions, while representing formidable psychopathology, are also tributes to the complexity of the human mind.”

The article additionally notes that the patient “was ashamed of his symptom but somewhat proud of its unusual nature.”

Link to PubMed entry for case study.

Poetic sensitivities

Perceptual psychologists have long been interested in limen – the threshold at which a stimulus becomes detectable. The following limen for the different senses, expressed in everyday terms rather than in terms of physical quantities, have a certain poetry to them. I got this information via email as a scan of an (unknown to me) textbook. I reproduce them here for your enjoyment:

Approximate absolute sensitivities, expressed in everyday terms:

Vision – A candle flame seen at 30 miles on a dark, clear night
Hearing – The tick of a watch under quiet conditions at 20 feet
Taste – One teaspoon of sugar in two gallons of water
Smell – One drop of perfume diffused into the entire volume of a three-room apartment
Touch – The wing of a bee falling on your cheek from a distance of one centimeter

Exact values vary between individuals and even from moment to moment with the same individual. Source: Galanter, E. (1962). Contemporary psychophysics. Holt, Rinehart, Winston.

The dynamic embrace

I’ve just found an enjoyable BBC World Service radio documentary on the relationship between tango and psychoanalysis in the Argentinian city of Buenos Aires.

Buenos Aires is the birthplace of tango and, as we’ve discussed before, has the highest ratio of psychologists to population of any place on earth.

The city has traditionally been one of the world centres for psychoanalysis and it remains a hub for theory and treatment drawn from the work of Sigmund Freud.

The BBC documentary looks at the relationship between the city’s love of therapy and one of the most psychological of dances, talking to both enthusiasts and conscientious objectors.

Link to documentary with mp3 and streaming.

The psychology of shoulder-to-shoulder

The consistently sublime RadioLab has a wonderful programme on the psychology of altruism which manages to capture the psychology of supporting others in gripping stories of human interaction.

The standard view of evolution is that living things are shaped by cold-hearted competition. And there is no doubt that today’s plants and animals carry the genetic legacy of ancestors who fought fiercely to survive and reproduce. But in this hour, we wonder whether there might also be a logic behind sharing, niceness, kindness … or even, self-sacrifice.

Is altruism an aberration, or just an elaborate guise for sneaky self-interest? Do we really live in a selfish, dog-eat-dog world? Or has evolution carved out a hidden code that rewards genuine cooperation?

The programme touches on everything from the mathematics of nuclear war to the motivation for heroism and, as always, is really better experienced than described.

But even given the usual exceptional quality of RadioLab, this episode is definitely not one to miss. Fantastic stuff.

Link to RadioLab on altruism.

2010-12-24 Spike activity

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

Brain scans as art. The Neurocritic covers a charming paper where a bunch of Serbian radiologists review the history of neuroradiology in famous artworks and then contribute some of their own creative efforts!

Scientific American looks at the evolutionary pressures on religious belief in light of the fact that religious people vastly out-reproduce secular folks.

The first recorded human snog is uncovered by The Intersection. No mention of ancient bike sheds being involved.

The RSA Journal has a thoroughly fascinating interview with behavioural economist Dan Ariely on many curious biases in how we reason about money and finances.

Don’t miss Neuroskeptic on the subtleties of the new studies that seemed to have all but dismissed the link between the XMRV virus and chronic fatigue syndrome. The devil being in the detail.

New Scientist has a positive review of Oliver Sacks’ new book ‘The Mind’s Eye’.

Meet the Denisovans, a potentially new branch on the human tree of life, over at The Loom.

The British Medical Journal has a seasonal paper on phantom vibration syndrome – on the hallucination of an incoming call.

Brain-damaged patients who are paralysed but are unaware of it show unconscious recognition of their difficulties, according to a fascinating new study covered by the BPS Research Digest.

Cerebrum from the Dana Brain Alliance has an excellent piece on ‘the promise and the reality of stem-cell therapies for neurodegenerative diseases.’

20 simple steps to the perfect persuasive message. PsyBlog rounds up its recent series on persuasion and influence.

Discover Magazine asks whether music is for wooing, mothering, bonding, or is it just “auditory cheesecake”? Mmmmm…. cheesecake.

The Man with the Electronic Brain. Great comics find from Boing Boing.

Scientific American has put the stand-out chapter from Carl Zimmer’s Brain Cuttings book online – taking a critical look at the ‘singularity’ and the neuro-immortalists.

Some great coverage of the new study finding that placebos seems to work even when we know they’re placebos from Neurotribes and Not Exactly Rocket Science. Also a more critical take from Respectful Insolence.

Time Magazine asks what methamphetamine has to do with addiction and autism treatments? Turns out, they’re all interesting new findings on the hormone oxytocin.

There’s a lovely look at self-organising principles in the nervous system over at Wiring the Brain.

The Washington Post has a case of very applied ethics. A philosopher calls a vote on whether he should donate a kidney.

Great coverage of a study that used brain activation to try and predict the improvement of teenagers with dyslexia over at BishopBlog.

The Wellcome Collection has the audio of its ‘Describing the Drug Experience’ event online.

The battleground of remembering

I’ve just discovered a engrossing two-part BBC World Service documentary on ‘oral history’ and how the process of getting everyday folk to relay their memories of important event often challenges the authorised memories of official history.

The programme makes an interesting distinction between public memory, the authorised version of events; individual memory, that we each hold inside us; and collective memory, the process by which we collectively negotiate what we believed happened.

Oral history gets individuals to recount their memories of events, but focuses much more on lived experiences and opinions than names and dates, although can be unsettling to official histories when they contradict politically convenient narratives.

Link to two-part Memory Wars documentary.

Treating the madness of the hippies

In 1972, Colombian psychiatrist Miguel Echeverry published a book arguing that hippies were not a youth subculture but the expression of a distinct mental illness that should be treated aggressively lest it spread through the population like a contagion.

I found the book, called Psicopatologia y Existencia del Hippie (Psychopathology and Existence of the Hippy), in my local library and it turns out to be one of the most surprising psychiatry books I have ever read.

At some point, I suspect the good Dr Echeverry must have been driven to breaking point by a bunch of long-haired youths strumming poorly tuned guitars outside his window, because he is clearly furious.

This is his definition of a hippy, translated from p83, where he is so angry he forgets to use a full stop.

The true hippy is an individual with a frank disposition to hereditary psychopathology, who has abandoned himself, has totally neglected his hygiene and self-presentation, has let his hair and beard grow, is dressed bizarrely, eccentrically and ridiculously, wears a multitude of rings, necklaces, beads and other extravagances, is opposed to all defined and purposeful social and family structures now and in the future, rejects productive and redeeming work, irresponsibly and cynically promotes the cult of free love, aggressively promotes contempt for moral, social and religious conventions, preaches paradoxically about the abolition of private property, harmfully drugs them self with marijuana, LSD, amphetamines, hypnotics, mescaline, psylocybin, sedatives and heroin etc to rebelliously and insanely avoid the sad realities of life.

The author notes with disdain that the ‘hippy threat’ seems to be a particular problem in Bogotá, probably reflecting more than a little regional distrust of the free-wheeling capital.

The book contains not a single reference to any scientific or clinical study, although is happy to wax lyrical about the subgroups of the hippy mental illness. Apparently, there are five: hippies with defective personal relationships and autistic-like problems, aggressive hippies, hippies with defective behaviour and poor family adjustment, emotionally impaired hippies, and those with abnormal, perverted or inverted instincts.

For those worried that he may be getting a little too psychoanalytic, Dr Echeverry makes it clear that there is both a strong environmental and genetic component to hippy psychopathology. Yes, apparently, you can inherit hippidom.

The image on the right is from one of the adverts in the book, all of which advertise the drug Lucidril as a ‘treatment’ for hippies, and it’s no surprise that the book was sponsored by the makers of the medication.

Considering the tone of the book, and the fact that the author concludes that being a hippy as akin to having schizophrenia, it’s interesting that Lucidril is not an antipsychotic, but the trade name for a little known compound called meclofenoxate.

There is weak evidence that the drug boosts memory and is notable largely for its enthusiastic uptake by some sections of the ‘nootropics’ brain hacking crowd.

I suspect the enthusiastic adverts for this oddball drug are largely because the book happened to be sponsored by pharmaceutical company Instituto Bio-Quimico Ltd who were clearly trying to sell the drug as a ‘mental detoxification’ compound for the great unwashed.

But not every bearded girl or guy is a real hippy, says Dr Echeverry, who notes that there are also cases of pseudo-hippies, who are really just weak-minded youths who get swept along with the genuine ‘clinical cases’.

How can you tell the difference you ask? Well, pseudo-hippies are the ones who revert to normality once a psychiatrist pumps them full of approved medication. Simple.

Mind and brain science: an instant overview

A new online tool called brainSCANr visually summarises the psychology and neuroscience literature to give you a network overview of which are the terms most connected to the target concept in scientific publications.

You can see the example for ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’, otherwise known as PTSD, below. Click here to see it full size on the actual website.

The target concept is in the bottom right, marked with a star, and you can immediately see the brain areas, psychological concepts and other disorders most associated with the diagnosis.

The maps are created by looking at how often different words co-occur in the scientific literature, which, as the creators note, is not the same is looking at how concepts are thought of, but it should give a rough approximation.

You can’t just tap any word into it at the moment, as it’s based on a database of concepts, although the searchable list of terms is still quite comprehensive.

However, it’s an inventive new tool which is a fantastic way of getting a quick overview of a field.

Link to brainSCANr.

Post-coma nail trauma

Being in coma could play havoc with your nail care routine.

A 1997 report from the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry notes how discoloured fingernails may be a secondary effect of coma owing to the side-effects of a common medical assessment for consciousness.

The test is nothing more high-tech than giving the finger a hard prod with a pencil to see if there is any reaction to pain, which is a common test on unconscious patients.

In fact, it forms part of the universally used Glasgow Coma Scale. You’ll often hear doctors saying “the patient was admitted with a GCS of…” followed by a number up to 15 which rates how conscious and alert the patient is, depending on their reaction to various prods, pokes and verbal requests.

The brief article reported an unintended side-effect of repeated Glasgow Coma Scale assessments after a patient woke up from coma to find her nails all black and blue.

A 30 year old woman was admitted to hospital with a rapidly progressive decline in level of consciousness and seizures. Neuroimaging studies disclosed thrombus in the superior sagittal sinus, bilateral cerebral venous infarctions, and oedema. She was treated with intravenous heparin and propofol for control of agitation and increased intracranial pressure. She made an excellent recovery.

Three weeks after admission she alerted us to a painless brownish discolouration of many of her fingernails. Bilateral subungual haematomas in different stages of resolution were noted. These lesions had been created by frequent nail bed compression with a pencil to monitor motor response, a common practice of applying noxious pain stimuli in comatose patients admitted to neurological intensive care units.

Obviously, if you’re a Goth, Glasgow Coma Scale evaluations are likely to have much less of an impact on your post-coma nail care routine.

Link to brief JNNP piece on ‘Coma Nails’.

An informal chat about hard data

Scientific American has an excellent article on the sociology of communicating new discoveries and how the relationship between science and journalism has changed over the years.

It’s a remarkably comprehensive analysis that looks not only at science publication but how it relates to our regular patterns of social communication.

This informal style of communication has been deliberately excluded from science in recent decades through the adoption of peer-review and a uniform impersonal writing style, as a way of imbuing the process with a form of institutional trust.

According to the author, online science pioneer Bora Zivkovic, this model is now being challenged by internet science writing where trust is gained through transparency – showing your working and background through links to original source – rather than having an institutional stamp of approval.

I think he’s a little hard on traditional science journalists, but as an analysis of how trust works in science communication, and how that is being affected by the online science community, it’s an incredibly thought-provoking piece.

Link to ‘The line between science and journalism is getting blurry…again’

The plant of human puppets

I’ve made a radio programme with ABC Radio National’s All in the Mind about burundanga, a mysterious street drug used in South America which is widely believed to remove free will.

The name ‘burundanga’ is a popular term and doesn’t refer to a single thing, but its most commonly associated with the brugmansia plants.

They can incapacitate people in high enough doses owing to them being rich in a psychoactive chemical called scopolomine. Criminals spike unsuspecting members of the public and then rob or attack them.

Since living in Colombia, I’ve constantly heard people tell me that the plant removes free will – the affected people just do whatever they’re told. They become, in effect, human puppets.

To me, this always sounded unlikely, and it struck me that, if this was genuinely the case, this might be a hugely important discovery in neuroscience, because free will and agency are two of the most complex and difficult to grasp areas.

But the plant also has hundreds, and probably thousands, of years of history as a psychoactive component of the religious rituals of the indigenous people of the continent, to the point where it holds a central place in some of their founding myths.

Needless to say, the chance to wander round Colombia making a documentary about a psychoactive plant at the intersection of neuroscience, myth and criminal science was too good to miss, so I hope you enjoy the journey.

It sounds wonderful, by the way, but almost entirely due to presenter and producer Natasha Mitchell’s magic at the mixing desk when making sense of my raw materal.

I’ve also written an article about the substance, including the first attempt to use it as a ‘truth drug’ after a gruesome murder, and there’s an image gallery available too.

Link to AITM on the plant that steals your free will with mp3 download.
Link to my article on the AITM blog.
Link to image gallery.

Mind and brain bloggers: wanted for your data

If you are a mind and brain blogger, Dr Alice Bell wants to research you. Alice is at the Science Communication Group at Imperial College, London, and is asking us to complete a survey as part of an investigation into the psychology and neuroscience blogosphere.

Are you wondering whether this is you? Here’s who the research project is trying to recruit:

By ‘brain bloggers’ I mean bloggers who write about the stuff that goes in people’s heads, whatever we think this stuff is. Such bloggers might focus on neurology or psychology, or another field entirely. It might be the history, anthropology or commercial applications of these fields. It might come under ‘research blogging’, journalism, ‘public engagement’ or some form of political activism (or several of these at once, or something else entirely). This focus might be exclusively brain-y, or brain-ish issues might be topics they occasionally blog about in the course of other work.

There are more details at the link below, including all the questions.

Link to Alice Bell’s mind and brain blogger survey.

The brain scanner’s prayer

The brilliant Neuroskeptic has created a version of The Lord’s Prayer for the fMRI generation. It is at once spiritually uplifting, scientifically edifying and very, very funny.

Our scanner, which art from Siemens,
Hallowed be thy coils.
Thy data come;
Thy scans be done;
In grey matter as it is in white matter.
Give us this day our daily blobs.
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive them that trespass onto our scan slots.
And lead us not into the magnet room carrying a pair of scissors,
But deliver us from volunteers who can’t keep their heads still.
For thine is the magnet,
The gradients,
And the headcoil,
For ever and ever (at least until we can afford a 7T).

If you don’t read the Neuroskeptic blog, you’re missing out, as it has some of the best mind and brain coverage on the net and, it seems, the occasional request for divine neurointervention.

Link to The Scanner’s Prayer over at Neuroskeptic.
Link to Neuroskeptic blog front page.

2010-12-17 Spike activity

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

The Guardian asks whether the internet encourages insidious and bullying behaviour? Well, does it, punk?

We typically don’t remember our early years but it turns out this amnesia develops over time, as a brilliant piece on ‘The shifting boundary of childhood amnesia‘ at Psychology Today recounts.

BBC Radio 4 had a good documentary on the influence of Freud on British culture. Only three more days to listen – annoying, I know.

There’s a brilliant post on consciousness, mental time travel and the brain over at the consistently excellent Neuroskeptic.

BBC News report on the switch to short-acting barbiturate pentobarbital for the death penalty in the US. “a sedative typically used to put down animals” says the BBC, although they don’t mention it’s also used in the acute treatment of epileptic seizures.

Science News covers a new study on the intriguing but not very pleasant hallucinogen salvia divinorum.

Dan Ariely’s blog Irrationally Yours looks at how perception of value relates to worker effort not results.

The woman with no fear (and no amygdalae). Coverage from Not Exactly Rocket Science and Neurophilosophy outdid all the mainstreams.

The New York Times has a Bayesian take on Julian Assange: “…from the standpoint of Bayesian reasoning, to think we can separate out the merits of the charges from their political motivations.”

Footage of Freud and psychoanalysis – from the 1940s. Advances in the History of Psychology finds two archive gems.

The Guardian science blog covers an interesting study that tested whether sleep deprivation can prevent post-traumatic stress disorder.

For the first time, marijuana use is more common in American kids than cigarette smoking. The excellent Addiction Inbox has a great write-up.

Macleans has a great piece on fashionable paranoias. Nothing to fear but wifi and fluoride.

There’s an excellent analysis of how top flight science journals handle studies on language over at Child’s Play. In brief, they don’t.

The New York Times has a long but rewarding piece on ‘embodied cognition‘ by philosopher of mind Andy Clark.

The top 10 psychology studies of 2011 have been selected with excellent taste by Neuronarrative.

You all know the excellent Brain Ethics blog has just been relaunched right? New pieces on how to teach neuromarketing and whether genes make up your mind.

The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law has a thoughtful piece by a psychiatrist reflecting on Foucault, forensic psychiatry, and committing patients to hospital against their will.

We believe we have more free will than other people. Neurotic Physiology feels compelled to cover this fascinating new study.

The Guardian science blog has an eye-opening piece about the discrepancy between which childhood neurological disorders get the funding and which are most common.

The way in which data is collected for a psychology study affects the sort of people who volunteer. The BPS Research Digest covers the subtle effects of research design.

New Scientist has the best books of 2010 as chosen by neuroscience Steven Rose.

Psychologically inclined filmmaker Adam Curtis finds a social history gem on his BBC blog The Medium and the Message: a 1969 British documentary on the office Christmas party.

Seed Magazine looks at the science of interconnectedness and understanding risk in a connected world.

Contrary to lay wisdom, high trusters were significantly better than low trusters were at detecting lies. Barking up the Wrong Tree covers a counter-intuitive study.

Cannibal cuisine

Cannibalism is a lot more common in human history than you’d guess and an intriguing article in Slate looks at the how a change in living situation might have made the temptations of the flesh all the more appealing.

The piece is by psychologist Jesse Berring who gets his teeth into the scientific debate about whether chowing down on another human may be a genuine biological adaptation, owing to the frequency with with famine-like conditions have appeared in human history.

The bottom line, says Petrinovich, is that when you’re hungry enough, ravenous really, and when all other food sources—including “inedible” things you’d rather not stomach such as shoes, shoelaces, pets, steering wheels, rawhide saddlebags, or frozen donkey brains—have been exhausted and expectations are sufficiently low, even the most recalcitrant moralist among us would shrug off the cannibalism taboo and savor the sweet meat of man … or woman, boy or girl, for that matter. It’s either that or die, and among the two choices, only one is biologically adaptive.

A behavior can be adaptive without being an inherited biological adaptation, of course. But because starvation occurred with such regularity in our ancestral past, and because the starving mind predictably relaxes its cannibalistic proscriptions, and because eating other people restores energy and sustains lives, and because the behavior is universal and proceeds algorithmically (we eat dead strangers first, then dead relatives, then live slaves, then foreigners, and so on down the ladder to kith and kin), there is reason to believe—for Petrinovich, at least—that anthropophagy is an evolved behavior.

The piece isn’t for the feint-hearted, but is certainly a fascinating take on one of the strongest of human taboos.

There is also a link at the bottom to a video discussion between “Robert Wright of and psychologist Paul Bloom of Yale on what motivates cannibals.”

From the appearance of the screen shot, I think they’ve been practising the look if nothing else.

Link to Slate piece ‘Bite Me: An evolutionary case for cannibalism’.

Ecstasy may bring the love by filtering the fear

Ecstasy users often describe the high as feeling ‘loved up’ and MDMA is frequently described as an ’empathogen’ but until now, little was known about how it genuinely affects the recognition of emotions in other people.

A new study just published in Biological Psychiatry has tested the supposed ’empathy boosting’ effects of MDMA and found that it actually makes people worse at picking up on emotions in the face – but only for threatening expressions.

The researchers, led by psychologist Gillinder Bedi, met the volunteers on three occasions, and on each one they were given either MDMA (‘ecstasy’), placebo, or methamphetamine – the latter to be able to distinguish the effect of feeling ‘wired’ from any ecstasy-specific ’empathic’ effects.

Although everyone had agreed to which drugs would be given, the study was done using ‘double-blind’ conditions, meaning neither the researchers nor the participants knew which they were getting on any particular occasion.

An hour after swallowing the pill, the volunteers were asked to rate their mood and emotional state with standardised questionnaires and to take part in experiments to assess their ability to pick up on others’ emotions.

Two tests involved picking up emotion from the face, one from just the eyes, one from whole facial expressions, and another required participants to do the same for voices.

The volunteers reported that they felt significantly more ‘loving’, ‘friendly’ and ‘playful’ on MDMA, although paradoxically on a higher dose of the drug, it also increased feelings of loneliness.

Methamphetamine also boosted some of these feelings, although to a lesser extent, suggesting that part of the ‘loved up’ feeling is probably down to similar amphetamine-like effects in both drugs (MDMA is often described as a ‘substituted amphetamine’ because of its similar molecular structure).

Strikingly, the emotion tests showed no improvement in the ability to pick up on emotion after taking MDMA, and in fact, people were worse – but only at picking up on fearful, threatening emotions in facial expressions.

This suggests that ecstasy might be causing some of the famous feeling of ‘social connectedness’ by tuning out negative signals from other people faces, rather than boosting our ability to pick up on positive emotions.

Although only a first study, it indicates that the ’empathogen’ label is probably misleading because the drug actually makes us worse at reading others’ emotions.

But because we tend to associate ’empathy’ with positive social interactions, the effects of the drug have been linked to being empathic in popular culture.

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