How meow meow got its name

New stimulant street drug mephedrone has been nicknamed ‘meow meow’ to the point where the name is appearing in scientific articles on the compound. What is less known, is that the ‘street name’ was largely an invention of journalists.

The drug was originally legal in the UK before it was quickly outlawed after it hit the headlines. Although first known by its chemical name 4-methylmethcathinone, it seems the media needed something more catchy.

The British satirical investigative magazine Private Eye tracked how the M-CAT got its name back in April 2010.

WAY BACK in January 2009 , not long after mephedrone first began to be sold online, members of the web forum attached to the now-defunct “headshop” Champagne Legals discussed what brand name they might attach to the new product, which has the chemical identity dimethylmethcathinone, or MM-CAT.

“What shall we call this drug? It’s called MM-CAT, so why not Miaow?” suggested one. The name did not catch on – unimaginative users tended to call it Meph, or Drone, instead. But on 1st November 2009, someone did add the name “meow” to the wikipedia entry for mephedrone at the head of a list of “street names.”

Three weeks later a 14-year-old girl died after taking the drug (although the cause of her death was later determined to be broncho-pneumonia following a bacterial infection), and The Sun declared the arrival of “a new party favourite called ‘meow meow'” and the world went cat-call crazy.

Among a host of recent headlines the Sunday Times has reported on “the rise of Meow” The Times has heralded “Meow Meow Arrests”, The Sun shrieked about a “Harman Snub for Meow Meow Ban” and The Telegraph took a long hard look at the “Meow Meow Menace in Europe”.

“No one ever called it Meow seriously till the papers picked up on the Wikipedia entry,” one drugs expert tells the Eye. Had hacks checked the site on 17 November, when the entry claimed for the drug claimed it was commonly referred to as as “Mugabe”, or 31 October, when a user claimed “on the street is sometimes referred to as ‘The Chinese'”, we could be seeing some very different headlines indeed.

Putting Psychology To Work

And Lo! Unto the always excellent BPS Research Digest, a child is born! The BPS Occupational Digest. is new blog which will cover news, reviews and reports on how psychology matters in the workplace. It will be curated by friend of (and contributor to the Mind Hacks book) Alex Fradera.

Blogging hasn’t started yet at the BPS Occupational Digest, but we’re looking forward to what Alex serves up. Watch this space!

Link to BPS Occupational Digest.

Clouding over the moon

The mythical connection between phases of the moon, madness and epilepsy are discussed in an engrossing but sadly locked article from the Journal of the History of the Neurosciences.

However, it does have this wonderful section where some of the more whimsical portrayals of ‘lunacy’ are discussed:

In the epic poem by Ludovico Ariosto, “Orlando Furioso” (1532/1992), when the paladin Orlando learns that his lover Angelica is married, he becomes mad and goes through Europe and Africa destroying everything in his path. The English knight Astolfo flies up to moon where all human intellects lost on Earth are collected and finds Orlando’s in a bottle, thus restoring him to sanity (Ariosto, 1532/1992).

In the seventeenth century, the term “lunatic,” especially in its more specific acceptation of “insane” as a result of some mental obsession, began to be substituted by the term “moonstruck.” Reflecting the popular association between the moon and the irrational, primitive, and dark side of the human mind, the adjective “moonstruck” makes its first appearance in John Milton’s Paradise Lost.


Link to summary and DOI entry for ‘lunacy’ article.

2011-01-21 Spike activity

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

Music, expectancy and pleasure in the brain. The Frontal Cortex has an excellent piece on the neuroscience of error prediction and the music appreciating brain.

Science News reports on how a substantial minority of third to sixth graders think they’re best friends with a classmate who actually dislikes them.

Straight Outta Compton, a dainty mother hugger named Nice Cube. Prosocial song lyrics make kids less aggressive, according to a study covered by the BPS Research Digest.

Scientific American explains why you’re probably less popular than your friends. Although in my case, it’s largely because the majority of my friends are cooler than me. Even the imaginary ones.

The widely misreported ‘genetics of friends’ study gets an excellent write-up from Genetic Future.

Wired Science looks at at a secret service study on the psychology of assassins in the US.

A leading journal is under pressure to retract a notorious study on children, depression and antidepressant paroxetine. Neuroskeptic weighs the evidence in this heated case and gives its verdict.

New Scientist covers an intriguing concert for three harmonium players and a synaesthete that recently hit the stage in London.

There’s a fantastic piece on Addiction Inbox on the challenges of personalising addiction medicine when gene variants make anti-craving drugs a hit-or-miss affair.

The Guardian has a piece on the continuing stigmatisation of mental illness in the media.

A psychiatrist and addiction specialist is interviewed about why she finds Twitter useful over at Frontier Psychiatrist.

The Economist charts the rise of the cognitive elite. Sadly, not about a neurally implanted version of the 80’s space trading computer game, as I had first hoped.

Another one of Eric Schwitzgebel and colleagues’ wonderful studies on testing the practical implication of philosophy hits the wires over at The Splintered Mind: do ethics professors respond as well as other philosophers to student email requests?

Medscape covers a new study finding that older surgeons have 1.5 – 3 times the rate of suicidal thinking than the average man in the street.

The over-interpretation of dreams. PsyBlog covers an interesting study on biases that makes us think certain types of dreams are more meaningful than others.

BBC News covers a case of alien hand syndrome and has a video of a patient being attacked by her out of control hand.

Are extraverts better leaders? asks Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Yahoo! News reports how burglars broke into a home, found white powder, thought it was cocaine, and ended up snorting a deceased man’s ashes. A mistake I think we can all relate to.

A culture shock in brain ethics

Dana has an eye-opening article on the challenges of doing brain research in cultures that don’t share the same assumptions about science and human nature.

There are several sections of the article which turn our research assumptions on their head, owing to the fact that some common principles of ethical research turn out to be based on quite a narrow view of human values.

The idea that donating tissue is simply a matter of individual choice is not a belief held by many communities who believe that all people are interconnected – making individual donations a group decision.

The article touches on an example from the Havasupai people and a similar situation was discussed in an All in the Mind interview with a Maori neuroscientist.

However, I was particularly struck by this part on confidentiality which is often assumed to be the bedrock of human research.

Confidentiality poses another ethical challenge to researchers working with indigenous peoples. Participants in academic studies are invariably anonymous, but in many Native cultures, not identifying oneself, one’s family, and one’s homeland is unacceptable. Anonymity, they believe, undermines the cultural fabric of the community, and is akin to stripping its members of their traditions and beliefs.


Link to ‘Cross-Cultural Neuroethics: Look Both Ways’.

Painful relief for a guilty act

The idea that physical pain can alleviate guilt has a long heritage but a new study just published in Psychological Science has produced evidence that helps confirm this long-held belief.

The experiment, led by psychologist Brock Bastian, asked people to recall a time when they had behaved unacceptably and then rate their current level of guilt as they thought back.

The participants were then asked to do a dexterity task with one hand while either keeping their other hand either in a painful bucket of cold water or in a bucket of lukewarm water.

Participants who wrote about an unethical behavior not only held their hands in ice water longer but also rated the experience as more painful than did participants who wrote about an everyday interaction. Critically, experiencing pain reduced people’s feelings of guilt, and the effect of the painful task on ratings of guilt was greater than the effect of a similar but nonpainful task.

Pain has traditionally been understood as purely physical in nature, but it is more accurate to describe it as the intersection of body, mind, and culture. People give meaning to pain, and we argue that people interpret pain within a judicial model of pain as punishment. Our results suggest that the experience of pain has psychological currency in rebalancing the scales of justice—an interpretation of pain that is analogous to notions of retributive justice. Interpreted in this way, pain has the capacity to resolve guilt.


Link to DOI entry for study.

A wave of neuroscience

The Royal Society has just released a fantastic collection of articles aimed to introduce both the cutting edge of neuroscience and the sometimes fierce debates sparked by its implications.

The collection covers everything from neural interfaces to neuroethics and the articles are written by some of the leading lights in brain research.

This publication is a collection of essays that together provide a primer of current developments in neuroscience and highlight interesting issues and questions for society and policy. The essays, authored by leading experts in neuroscience, bioethics, and science and technology policy, review the state of development of neuroscience and neurotechnology – such as neuroimaging, neuropsychopharmacology, and neural interfaces – and discuss the translation of this knowledge into useful applications. The authors discuss their own views on how developments might impact on society, examining some of the opportunities and risks, as well as the ethical questions and governance issues.

The collection has been dubbed ‘Brain Waves Module 1: Neuroscience, society and policy’ and apparently three other ‘modules’ are on their way.

You can see previews of the other modules from the links at the bottom of the collection’s web page and if they’re as good as this first one, they should make for a fantastic scientific introduction to our current understanding of the brain.

Link to Royal Society first Brain Waves collection.

The urban formula

I’ve just caught up with a wonderful New York Times article on the underlying social structure of cities and how seemingly simple mathematical formulas can describe the complexities of urban living.

Geoffrey West is an ex-particle physicist who decided to ‘solve’ cities and set about looking for mathematical laws in the seething mass of statistics generated by city life.

There is something deeply strange about thinking of the metropolis in such abstract terms. We usually describe cities, after all, as local entities defined by geography and history. New Orleans isn’t a generic place of 336,644 people. It’s the bayou and Katrina and Cajun cuisine. New York isn’t just another city. It’s a former Dutch fur-trading settlement, the center of the finance industry and home to the Yankees.

And yet, West insists, those facts are mere details, interesting anecdotes that don’t explain very much. The only way to really understand the city, West says, is to understand its deep structure, its defining patterns, which will show us whether a metropolis will flourish or fall apart. We can’t make our cities work better until we know how they work. And, West says, he knows how they work.

It’s not just about the fundamental of our most complex human societies though – the article reflects on the role of large social groups in human development and their varying forms of durability.

My description doesn’t nearly do the piece justice, however, which remains one of the most intriguing and stimulating articles I’ve ever read on the evolution of urban living.

Link to NYT ‘A Physicist Solves the City’.

A slice of the pusher man

New York Magazine has an in-depth article on a low-level drug dealer in the Big Apple who is trying, somewhat half-heartedly, to get out of the game.

It is neither glamorisation nor condemnation, but is a carefully observed slice of life from a business minded, spreadsheet obsessed, upper middle class cocaine dealer.

Lenny sighs, rubs his temples, orders another beer. Sometimes he can’t help but be disgusted by his customers, people living the heedless life he gave up when he “changed from being a consumer in that environment to being a provider for that lifestyle.” But Lenny is a consummate salesman, and to his customers he plays the role of cordial and crooked shrink, supplying all the hollow justifications that once kept his own fears at bay.

When clients invite him to hang out, Lenny understands their motives: They need to convince themselves that he is merely a friend who happens to have drugs on him, not a dealer supporting an unhealthy habit. So Lenny chills, sips a beer. Sometimes customers insist he do a line with them, at which point Lenny, who no longer uses, “accidentally” blows out through the straw so the coke flies everywhere, and then laughs it off.


Link to ‘The One-Man Drug Company’ (via Metafilter).

See Think Mash

Online scallywags The Daily Mash have a funny piece satirising the way neuroscience studies get reported in the media.

To be honest, I think I might keep the first paragraph and use it to improve any dodgy science stories that come my way from now on.

Scientists at the Institute for Studies have finally established that when human eyes see a thing the brain will often generate a thought that is in some way related to the thing that has just been seen.

Professor Henry Brubaker said: “We applied the seeing-thinking forumula to smoking and found that it followed exactly the same pattern.

“We got a bunch of smokers together and showed them a picture of a cigarette. We asked them if this made them think about cigarettes and they all said ‘yes’.”

Similarities to any recently published studies are, of course, purely co-incidental.

Link to The Daily Mash story (via @david_colquhoun).

And I’m telling you you’re dead

Two delusional patients who believed that friends and relatives had died, despite them being around to prove otherwise, are described in an amazing 2005 journal article from the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

Although the Cotard delusion is well studied in psychiatry, where patients believe themselves to be dead, the report names the novel belief that another living person has died ‘Odysseus Syndrome’ – after the Greek legend where Penelope continued to believe that Odysseus had died, even after returning home from battle.

Both case studies are quite spectacular:

An 81-year-old lady presented to psychiatric services for the first time with sudden onset of ideas that her grandson had developed grossly swollen legs, inflammation of the brain, lethargy and extreme tiredness after infection by a fly which had picked up radioactive waste in the English Channel. Despite speaking to him over the telephone, she believed that he had died.

She believed that he had no stomach or internal organs, that his eyes had been removed and replaced with glass eyes, that his brain had died and been replaced by a clock and that he had expanded to become grossly obese. She described hallucinations of police providing commentary on his actions, but no other first rank symptoms of schizophrenia. Her mood was subjectively depressed but this clearly post-dated the onset of her delusions.

The lady in question had the beliefs for five years by the time of the report, although seemed to be getting on with life despite her mortality-related convictions.

The second case describes a lady with delusions that are reported as being similarly unshakeable.

A 73-year-old lady with a 40 year history of paranoid schizophrenia presented with grossly elated mood, over-activity, over-talkativeness, distractibility and grandiose beliefs. She sought help to prevent ‘experimentation’ on her lover’s health in the flat next door. She maintained he had developed ‘The Pox’ leading to his limbs rotting away, his heart being replaced by a machine and his brain requiring removal.

She believed nonetheless that he could send messages to her via television to which she could respond by arranging candles in a certain fashion. She was observed to be hallucinating to his voice. She maintained that he had died but come back to live in her mattress in a grossly distorted form, being very much larger than he had been in real life.


Link to DOI entry for journal article.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

2011-01-14 Spike activity

A somewhat belated collection of quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

All in the Mind host Natasha Mitchell has an insightful article on the perils of treating psychological distress after disasters in light of the devastation from the Australian floods.

Bullshit Blue Monday came and went – and this year was being used to promote a £40-60 an hour internet counselling service. Ironically, it has become one of my worst days of the year.

The New York Times covers an interesting project on the obsession with ‘stuff‘ and the homes and possessions of people with agoraphobia.

What if the very irrationality of psychoanalysis is its strength? One of many ace posts on Neuroskeptic this week.

Edge asks it’s annual question: What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit? 163 of the great and good give their answers.

Scientific American asks whether makeup is a hack for our evolved perception of skin colour and blushing. Baby, that red lipstick is really altering my perceptual heuristics.

There’s a stiff defence of evolutionary psychology over at The EP Blog sparked by bad tempered criticism of a recent Slate article on rape and evolution.

Newsweek has a piece on hacking intelligence, optimising the brain and boosting smarts. Can you build a better brain?

Our world is in dire need of a new organization, The International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment. In The News finds an inspiring speech from Martin Luther King to psychologists.

Read Write Web covers a new Pew study finding that the web is destroying social life as we kn… no wait, sorry, that web users are more socially involved that non-users.

How often are doctors tempted to prescribe what patients want, rather than what’s in the medical guidelines? Dan Ariely’s Irrationally Yours blog considers the psychology of patient power.

Science has a brief study on how writing about testing worries boosts exam performance in the classroom. ‘I must not wet myself during the test, I must not wet myself during…’

What makes revenge sweet? asks the BPS Research Digest.

Seed Magazine has a powerful piece arguing that for social science to deal with humanity’s most pressing problems, it must be restructured from the ground up.

Teaching style is key to promoting discovery in children finds an eye-opening study covered by the mighty Not Exactly Rocket Science

The Huffington Post has video of a 50s housewife tripping on LSD during an early research project.

Vintage Schneider Brain Wave Synchronizer Model MD-5. For Sale – on EBay. An awesome find from The Neurocritic.

The psychophysics of policy positions

In which I suggest applying the methods of experimental psychology to a longstanding question in political science.

Many people feel that there is no “real difference” between political parties (for example, Labour vs Conservatives in the UK). Politians are all the same, right? At least superficially, mainsteam parties will all echo commitments to values such as “community” and “education” and positions such as “tough on crime” and “for a strong economy”.

In perceptual psychology we have a number of methods of calculating how accurate and sensitive a sense, like sight or hearing, is. Using these ‘psychophysical’ methods you can come up with a number which allows you to compare across different senses, or across different people. So, for example, we could show that vision is more sensitive than hearing, or that your vision is more sensitive than mine (or even that your vision is more sensitive than my hearing). These methods account for things like base-rate biases in people’s responding (so, for example, it could account for the fact that you might be more likely to say you can see something when you are in doubt, while I might be more likely to say that I can’t when I am in doubt). This sensitivity statistic I am thinking of is called d’ (“d prime”) by psychologists.

I’ve been considering whether these methods from perceptual psychology could be used to address the question of how similar the positions of political parties are. My way of testing and tracking the difference in the stated policy positions of the parties would work like this: you take a standard public expression of party positions (election manifestos?) and sample policy statements (size of sample to be decided, somewhere between individual sentences and paragraphs). Then, after coding the statements for their year and origin, you anonymise them and ask voters to say which party they think the statements come from. With a few psychophysical calculations we can then come up with a sensitivity statistics which reveals how easy voters find it to distinguish the policy positions of the two parties, and we can then compare how this changes over time, or in different policy areas.

Friend and political scientist Will Jennings, told me that – of course – political scientists already look at this topic. The British Election Study has been asking voters since 1964 how close the parties are. Projects such as the Comparative Manifestos Project have coded party manifestos from around the world, using techniques such as automated coding of text and expert surveys (i.e. asking academics what they think).

The problem with asking voters how close the parties are, or to code the parties as more “left-wing” or more “right-wing” is that you deal with opinions of voters, not their actual ability to discriminate between the positions of the parties. The problem with coding the manifestos is that it puts a layer of intepretation (as to what counts as left-wing, or converservative, or whatever) before you can judge one manifesto as closer or further away from another.

My psychophysics approach tests directly the ability of voters to discriminate between stated policy positions. We do this by presenting many small fragments of the manifestos and asking a participant to judge which party they are from. By gathering many many judgements we can get a sense of how likely they are to name each particular party (i.e. their bias) and get a sense for how likely they are to be correct (i.e. their sensitivity). We combine these, accounting for any bias towards naming a particular party, to get an estimate of their ability to discriminate between the parties based on their stated policy positions. You can average this index across people, removing random variation in sensitivity between people, to get an estimate of how discriminable two stated positions truly are.

Cross-posted, with some informed comment, at The Monkey Cage

The real real thing

The can on the left is an energy drink that gets its kick from real coca leaves.

It’s called Coca Sek and was created by the indigenous Páez people of Colombia, partly in protest at the association between their traditional plant and the cocaine trade, which makes the illicit drug by processing the leaves.

The indigenous people of South American have used coca for thousands of years for its mild stimulant effects. Coca Cola originally used coca leaf extract for its kick, hence the name, but now apparently only uses ‘denatured’ leaves for flavouring.

It has only been relatively recently that the plant has been of interest to narcotraffickers, leading to the stigmatisation of the plant and its use to fund violence.

In 2005, the Páez people decided they would make a series line of home products based on coca, partly as a form of income and partly as a way of rehabilitating the image of their sacred plant.

They launched the drink to much fanfare, including coverage by the LA Times, only for the Colombian government to pressure the major supermarkets to take it off their shelves in 2007 because of its association with drugs.

However, the product lines, including energy drinks and tea bags, are still available in market stalls and health food shops around the capital.

Link to somewhat sparse Wikipedia page on the drink.

A violent reaction to sad news

I’ve written article for Slate about the Arizona shooting and why many are too quick to use “mental illness” as a catch-all explanation for violence.

I suspect we’re going to hear a great deal more about the issue in the coming weeks, and not all of it positive or well-informed.

This article looks at some of the relevant scientific evidence and some of the misconceptions that invariably arise when such tragic circumstances make headlines.

Shortly after Jared Lee Loughner had been identified as the alleged shooter of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, online sleuths turned up pages of rambling text and videos he had created. A wave of amateur diagnoses soon followed, most of which concluded that Loughner was not so much a political extremist as a man suffering from “paranoid schizophrenia.”

For many, the investigation will stop there. No need to explore personal motives, out-of-control grievances or distorted political anger. The mere mention of mental illness is explanation enough. This presumed link between psychiatric disorders and violence has become so entrenched in the public consciousness that the entire weight of the medical evidence is unable to shift it. Severe mental illness, on its own, is not an explanation for violence, but don’t expect to hear that from the media in the coming weeks.


Link to Slate article ‘Crazy Talk’.

2011-01-07 Spike activity

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

Seed Magazine has a fascinating article on whether fonts affect learning that also tackles the psychology of comic sans.

Antidepressants still don’t work in mild depression. The mighty Neuroskeptic covers a study confirming what the makers of Prozac forgot to remember.

Slate has a fantastic piece on how ranking grad school is like validating mental illness: the mathematics of narcissism.

What causes us to ‘forget’ the first few years of life? The Child in Time blog has a fascinating counter-intuitive piece on brain development and ‘childhood amnesia‘.

The Independent has the most extensive article to date on the UK Government’s behavioural economics-inspired ‘Nudge‘ unit.

Why are the letters “z” and “x” so popular in drug names? The Neurocritic tackles the curious branding decision.

The New York Times has a piece on the quest for the brain’s ‘connectome‘ and the science behind the massive project.

The smell of female tears affects male sexual behaviour. Many mainstream outlets were clearly tripping when they covered this study with all sorts of odd results. In contrast, Not Exactly Rocket causes no weeping with its great coverage.

Some excellent discussion of a brilliant but sadly locked article on slipping into psychosis from Neuroanthropology.

CNN covers the “elaborate fraud” of Wakefield’s original vaccine and autism case series. Also see the key article in this week’s BMJ.

More Friends on Facebook Does NOT Equal a Larger Amygdala. Thank you Neurocritic for some good sense following some more seasonal pop media craziness.

Time covers the latest development in the on-again off-again ‘serotonin transporter gene and risk for depression‘ saga. Science, you fickle mistress.

Does solitary confinement in prison damage mental health? In the News looks at the latest evidence in an ongoing debate.

Scientific American has an excellent piece on slipping the ‘cognitive straitjacket’ of psychiatric diagnosis and the awkward facts of genetics.

The transformational impact of children. Evidence Based Mummy covers the science of how children change our lives.

Time on the science of the awkward           silence.

Young women, hire a practice baby. Wonderland has an amazing article on how prospective mothers were lent real live babies for practice.

A timeline of psychoanalysis. Advances in the History of Psychology discusses a new 7-foot long book and has a video by the authors.

The Philosopher’s Magazine series on the ‘best ideas of the century’ has a justifiably snarky article on taking out the neurotrash.

Why are we less willing to help the victims of man-made disaster? The BPS Research Digest.

The New York Times covers shit hitting the scientific fan in light of the recent positive parapsychology study.