2011-02-25 Spike activity

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

Bad Science looks at how we can fool ourselves and others using security and detection technology.

Cell Phones Are Somehow Related To The Brain. Thank you Neuroskeptic for a decent look at the ‘mobile phones affect the brain’ story that made the headlines this week.

SoundCheck from WYNC radio had an excellent piece on music and the brain recently with musician and neuroscientist Dan Levitin.

How well can we communicate emotions purely through touch? The BPS Research Digest touches on a wonderful study.

Wired has a podcast about the battles of the upcoming revision to American psychiatry’s DSM diagnostic manual.

An excellent piece on Neuroanthropology covers new research challenging the idea of the recently evolved ‘modern‘ human.

The Guardian has a piece on motivations behind ‘designer vagina’ plastic surgery that starts with a sensationalist headline not supported by the article.

There’s a thoughtful but all-too-spiky response by The Last Psychiatrist to an important Jonah Lehrer article on the scientific ‘decline effect’ published recently in The New Yorker.

Time magazine asks whether the concept of sex addiction is a ‘real disease or a convenient excuse’.

A typically excellent piece on Providentia on Andre Bloch – mathematician in the asylum.

The Washington Post heralds another new movie based on the “drug-influenced, paranoid worldview” of Philip K. Dick.

Is romantic love a cultural illusion? A brilliant Neurocritic piece that examines the concept of love from cultural ideas to brain function.

Time magazine asks whether emergency bans on ‘legal highs’ can hinder legitimate drug development.

Does anger convey competence? asks Barking Up the Wrong Tree. Fortunately for lots of self-important bosses, it seems it does.

The Guardian reports that the UK government’s behavioural economics “Nudge Unit” hasn’t convinced anyone to use its ideas yet.

There’s a beautiful scanning electron close-up of the human cerebral cortex over at Neuro Images.

The New York Times discusses peak fertility in women and a curious new twist to the usual ‘most attractive time of the month’ story.

There’s a genuinely interesting consideration of Twitter and the psychology of private speech over at The Child in Time blog.

Emotional fluctuations in the lyrics of Bob Dylan

A 2008 study looked at the fluctuation in the use of emotional words in the lyrics of Bob Dylan in relation to the events in his life.

Emotional fluctuations in Bob Dylan’s lyrics measured by the dictionary of affect accompany events and phases in his life

Psychol Rep. 2008 Apr;102(2):469-83.

Whissell C

Lyrics for Bob Dylan’s songs between 1962 and 2001 (close to 100,000 words) were scored with the help of the Dictionary of Affect in Language (Whissell, 2006). Means for Pleasantness, Activation, and Imagery are reported for 22 Blocks characterizing this time span. Significant but weak differences across Blocks were found for all three measures at the level of individual words.

Emotional fluctuations in words included in Bob Dylan’s lyrics accompanied events and phases in his life, although they were not entirely dictated by these events. Dylan used more highly Imaged and more Active words at times when his work was critically acclaimed. More Passive word choices characterized times of prolonged stress, and more Pleasant choices times of experimentation. Dylan’s three popularity peaks were used to divide the singer’s career into three stages (rhetor, poet, sage) which differed in terms of pronouns used.

It turns out that Suze Rotolo, Dylan’s girlfriend and the girl on the front of his famous album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan has just passed away, which made me think of this curious piece of research.

Link to PubMed entry for study.

Faking tragedy and the pull of online sympathy

The Guardian has a fascinating article about the motivations of people who have faked terminal illnesses as their online companions have offered support and sympathy right until the supposed end.

Several cases have become notorious online where illnesses, and even deaths, have been faked much to the betrayal of community members.

Mandy is one of a growing number of people who pretend to suffer illness and trauma to get sympathy from online support groups. Think of Tyler Durden and Marla Singer in Fight Club, only these support groups are virtual, and the people deceived are real. From cancer forums to anorexia websites, LiveJournal to Mumsnet, trusting communities are falling victim to a new kind of online fraud, one in which people are scammed out of their time and emotion instead of their money. The fakers have nothing to gain from their lies – except attention.

These aren’t just people with a sick sense of humour. Jokers want a quicker payoff than this kind of hoax could ever provide. It requires months of sophisticated research to develop and sustain a convincing story, as well as a team of fictitious personas to back up the web of deceit. Psychiatrists say the lengths to which people like Mandy are prepared to go mean their behaviour is pathological, a disorder rather than simply an act of spite. The irony is these people might actually be classed as ill – just not in the way they claim to be.

This type of behaviour can be diagnosed as facticious disorder in the DSM with the idea that the motivation is to gain the psychological benefits of the ‘sick role’ – i.e. a caring response from other people.

It is considered a mental illness and is sometimes labelled Munchausen syndrome after the German Baron who was famous for his tall tales.

However, faking illness to get material benefits or to avoid responsibilities is classified as malingering is not considered a mental illness, although no justification is usually given for why one is considered an illness and the other just ‘bad behaviour’.

To complicate matters further, it seems some people can experience serious medical problems (e.g. paralysis, blindness) with nothing seeming to be wrong with them – but crucially – they are not doing so consciously.

In other words, they are not ‘faking’ in the normal sense of the word and these conditions are typically diagnosed as conversion disorder.

If they sound exotic, about 10-20% of all neurology examinations turn up no damage that could explain the symptoms.

Considering we have all faked or exaggerated illness to some degree, and the fact that our unconscious mind has a powerful effect on the experience of symptoms – regardless of their physical basis, we can consider terminal illness fakers as one end of a behaviour spectrum on which we all live.

The Guardian article looks at the increasingly recognised online expression of this behaviour (with the inevitable unnecessary suggestion of an online specific diagnosis) and some fascinating individual cases.

Link to article ‘Faking illness online’.

A victim of metaphor

A gripping piece from Not Exactly Rocket Science describes how simply changing the metaphors used to describe crime can alter what we think is the best way of tackling it.

The article covers a new study on the power of metaphors and how they can influence our beliefs and understanding of what’s being discussed.

In a series of five experiments, Paul Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky from Stanford University have shown how influential metaphors can be. They can change the way we try to solve big problems like crime. They can shift the sources that we turn to for information. They can polarise our opinions to a far greater extent than, say, our political leanings. And most of all, they do it under our noses. Writers know how powerful metaphors can be, but it seems that most of us fail to realise their influence in our everyday lives.

First, Thibodeau and Boroditsky asked 1,482 students to read one of two reports about crime in the City of Addison. Later, they had to suggest solutions for the problem. In the first report, crime was described as a “wild beast preying on the city” and “lurking in neighbourhoods”. After reading these words, 75% of the students put forward solutions that involved enforcement or punishment, such as calling in the National Guard or building more jails. Only 25% suggested social reforms such as fixing the economy, improving education or providing better health care.

The second report was exactly the same, except it described crime as a “virus infecting the city” and “plaguing” neighbourhoods. After reading this version, only 56% opted for more enforcement, while 44% suggested social reforms. The metaphors affected how the students saw the problem, and how they proposed to fix it.

The study is interesting because it touches on a central claim of the linguist George Lakoff who has argued that metaphors are central to how we reason and make sense of the world.

Lakoff’s arguments have had a massive influence in linguistics, where they have started more than one scientific skirmish, and were adopted by the US Democratic party in an attempt to reframe the debates over key issues.

Despite the fact that Lakoff was one of the pioneers of the idea that metaphor is central to reasoning, his political associations have made him somewhat unfashionable and it’s interesting that this new study makes only passing reference to his work.

Link to Not Exactly Rocket Science on new metaphor study.
Link to full text of scientific study.

Existential internet states

Thought Catalog has an amusing and unsettlingly accurate piece on ‘Five Emotions Invented by the Internet’ which has a series of existential feelings uniquely evoked by our favourite worldwide communication network.

The state of being ‘installed’ at a computer or laptop for an extended period of time without purpose, characterized by a blurry, formless anxiety undercut with something hard like desperation.

During this time the individual will have several windows open, generally several browser ‘tabs,’ a Microsoft Word document in some state of incompletion, the individual’s own Facebook page as well as that of another randomly-selected individual who may or may not be on the ‘friends’ list, 2-5 Gchat conversations that are no longer immediately active, possibly iTunes and a ‘client’ for Twitter. The individual will switch between the open applications/tabs in a fashion that appears organized but is functionally aimless, will return to reading some kind of ‘blog post’ in one browser tab and become distracted at the third paragraph for the third time before switching to the Gmail inbox and refreshing it again.

More new emotional experiences triggered by the interweb at the link below.

Link to ‘Five Emotions Invented by the Internet’.

Funky shit

In the debate about the ability of language to adequately describe conscious experience, jazzed-out rappers The Jungle Brothers came out firmly behind the skeptical position of philosopher of mind Eric Schwitzgebel with their 1997 track ‘Brain’.

In the 2007 book Describing Inner Experience? Proponent Meets Skeptic psychologist Russell Hurlburt argued that modern research methods make accurate accounts of inner experience possible whereas Schwitzgebel, a philosopher, disagreed saying that language simply cannot match our rich subjective experience and is prone to error.

However, a decade earlier The Jungle Brothers had strongly supported the idea that language is simply not up to the job of capturing our conscious experience.

I got so much funky shit inside my brain
I couldn’t explain, couldn’t explain
You wouldn’t understand, I couldn’t explain

Explanation of the funk essential trapped in my brain
Couldn’t do it, make me wonder how a world maintain
Got emcees frontin’ total masquerade
Screamin’ toast had to touch them up with my blade

Although their general theory now has a number of proponents, as far as I know, they are unique in proposing that “Screamin’ toast had to touch them up with my blade”.

Link to video of The Jungle Brothers’ ‘Brain’.

Sniffing out the unconscious

The illusion that a horse could do maths may be behind sniffer dogs falsely ‘detecting’ illicit substances according to an intriguing study covered by The Economist.

The horse in question was called Clever Hans and he was rumoured to be able to do complicated maths, work out the date, spell German words – all from questions called out by the audience.

The trainer would run his hand across possible responses on, for example, a piece of paper, and Hans would tap with his hoof to signal when the correct answer was being pointed to.

Psychologist Oskar Pfungst became suspicious and eventually worked out than the horse was doing no more than waiting until his trainer changed his body posture when he hit on the right answer.

His trainer was completely unaware that his expectancies were shaping the horse’s behaviour but this form of unintentional behavioural influence over animal behaviour has become known as the ‘Clever Hans effect‘.

The Economist reports on a new study of sniffer dogs that seems to show a similar effect in action.

Sniffer dogs and their handlers were told to search an area that that might have up to three target scents and that on two occasions the scents would be clearly marked with bits of red paper.

In reality, there were no target scents, so anything the dogs detected was a false alert.

When handlers could see a red piece of paper, allegedly marking a location of interest, they were much more likely to say that their dogs signalled an alert. Indeed, in the two rooms where red paper was present and sausages were not, 32 of a possible 36 alerts were raised. In the two where both red paper and sausages were present that figure was 30–not significantly different. In contrast, in search areas where a sausage was hidden but no red piece of paper was there for handlers to see, it was only 17.

The dogs, in other words, were distracted only about half the time by the stimulus aimed at them. The human handlers were not only distracted on almost every occasion by the stimulus aimed at them, but also transmitted that distraction to their animals–who responded accordingly. To mix metaphors, the dogs were crying “wolf” at the unconscious behest of their handlers.

In other words, when the human handlers become suspicious the dogs are more likely to seem to detect suspicious scents, making the process a lot more subjective than the search teams like to believe.

Link to The Economist article ‘Clever hounds’.

Want to come up and see my sketchings?

The Royal Society of Arts has an awesome video that animates one of Steven Pinker’s lectures on ‘Language as a Window into Human Nature’.

It covers how we use certain implicit properties of language to negotiate social relationships – discussing everything from the cult film Fargo to why we try and seduce people with indirect speech rather than coming out and saying “fancy a shag”.

Delightful to watch and definitely 10 minutes well spent.

Link to animated ”Language as a Window into Human Nature’.

2011-02-18 Spike activity

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

The Atlantic asks is it time to welcome our new computer overlords? – In light of the recent IBM Watson powered Jeopardy-pocalypse. Time? I’ve already slammed the bunker door.

The ‘boy without a cerebellum baffles doctors’ story is tackled by the not very baffled Neurological blog and the boy’s mother joins the discussion in the comments.

Law News Now reports on a news study finding that juries are less likely to convict defendants wearing glasses – nicknamed “the nerd defense”.

When a psychotherapist’s patient confesses to murder in the consulting room. The BPS Research Digest covers a fascinating study on this curious situation.

The Guardian reports on a second study finding that regular use of a second language during adulthood is associated with the later development of Alzheimer’s disease.

Prehistoric Brits made first pint glasses out of human skulls. Not Exactly Rocket Science calls time on the recently found craneo-vessels.

Wired Science reports on a study finding that the algorithms that describe the spread of an earthquake also describe how words spread through the political blogosphere.

Posterior Hippocampus and Sexual Frequency. The Neurocritic presents us with a great name for an Indie band and finds an interesting correlation. “The two outliers who had sex every day could be driving the correlation” – and if that isn’t a great lyric, I don’t know what is.

American Scientist has an engrossing piece arguing against the common idea that early humans were psychologically primitive.

The Curse of Mental Accounting. The Frontal Cortex has an excellent piece on hotel overcharging and the temptations of economics context.

Puzzle video games shown to treat anxiety and depression in a randomised controlled trial. The Rogue Neuron takes us one step further towards the day when patents are send to the Dungeon Master.

New Scientist asks whether Botox can really cure chronic migraine. Next week, can fake tits cure long-sightedness?

So, you say you’re pregnant sir? Wonderland on phantom pregnancy syndrome – in men.

The Guardian has a brief articles where a bunch of hype-weary neuroscientists give the brain stimulating ‘insight boosting’ thinking cap a scientific roughing up.

A concise summary of sexual psychology from Ionian Enchantment.

The California Report looks at brain surgery, while awake.

Is the ability to influence others by showing emotion a new aspect of emotional intelligence? The BPS Occupational Digest covers a fascinating new study.

Cerebrum has an interesting piece on the science of predicting aggression – although starts with an odd disclaimer about how “biological causes are difficult to identify and may be impossible to overcome” – which seems to miss the point that risk factors are additive not determinative.

History of psychology fans won’t want to miss the evolving list of key bibliographies over at Advances in the History of Psychology.

Psychiatric Times now has a monthly column by the history of psychiatry guys from the excellent h-madness blog.

A place downtown where the freaks all come around

Kellogg Insight has a fantastic article on how nightclub bouncers make instant status judgements to decide whether to let people into exclusive clubs.

It’s a curious insight into perception of social status that both relies on some social stereotypes and turns others completely on their head.

The article is based on the work of sociologist Lauren Rivera who got a job as a “coat-check girl” in a high class club to observe the selection process in action before revealing her true intentions and interviewing the doormen to work out how they made status judgements of hopeful clubbers.

Through conversations and observations, she found that bouncers ran through a hierarchical list of qualities to determine in seconds who would enhance the image of the club and encourage high spending. Social networks mattered more than social class, or anything else for that matter. Celebrities and other recognized elites slipped through the door. And people related to or befriended by this “in crowd” often made the cut, too.

Wealth is considered to be one of the strongest indicators of status, yet bouncers frowned upon bribes even though bribes are obvious displays of money. “New Faces,” as the bouncers called unrecognized club-goers, were selected on the basis of gender, dress, race, and nationality. Sometimes the final call boiled down to details as minor as the type of watch that adorned a man’s wrist.

As we’ve discussed before, Rivera is not the first sociologist to immerse herself in the swing of urban night life for her work.

Sociologist Simon Winlow actually got a job as a bouncer to get, er, hands on experience of the role of violence in the night time economy.

Link to Kellog Insight on status judgements in night clubs.
Link to previous Mind Hacks post on work of Simon Winlow.

A note on human behaviour

Enjoying the Natural History Museum yesterday, I came across this exhibit somewhere in the geology section:

The exhibit is a serious of columns, which you pass from right to left. The penultimate column is to illustrate the idea of ice, and you’re invited by a palm shape to put your palm to the column (which is indeed cold). The interesting thing is the final column, which is meant to illustrate gravity somehow (it was broken yesterday, so I don’t know how it is supposed to do this). Notice how the metal around the IVY of gravity is worn away. None of the other columns had this. Obviously hundreds of visitors a day are drawn to this exhibit, press their palms to the ICE column and then go on to touch, in exactly the same way, the GRAVITY column even though this isn’t part of the way they are supposed to interact with the exhibit.

Psychologists know that what people have done before is the best predictor of what they will do in the future. Whole industries are devoted to helping us establish, or break, habits. This exhibit on geological forces illustrates how easily some behavioural precedents can be set. We love touching things, and although we aren’t meant to, permission to do it once is all that is required to set off an immediate repetition of the behaviour.

The (cut price) Narrative Escape

My ebook The Narrative Escape is available at a reduced price for a limited time. Publishers 40kbooks have got a February special offer, meaning that you can read my 6000 or so words about dreams, stories and morality for less than a dollar. UK readers : that’s seventy-one pence!

As if the price wasn’t enough to convince you, you can read an interview with me by Livia Blackburne here, or you can consult the five star reviews on amazon (three of ’em, which gives me a higher average than The Communist Manifesto, the only book that amazon.co.uk has under “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought”. Sorry Karl!).

Amazon.co.uk link
Amazon.com link
Original mindhacks.com blog post

Brain area for empty news stories discovered

Satirical website Newsbiscuit has a cutting article making fun of the regular ‘brain scans show…’ news items that are a staple of the popular science pages.

Scientists are heralding a breakthrough in brain scan technology after a team at Oxford University produced full colour images of a human brain that shows nothing of any significance.

‘This is an amazing discovery’, said leading neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield, ‘the pictures tell us nothing about how the brain works, provide us with no insights into the nature of human consciousness, and all with such lovely colours.’…

The development, which has been widely reported around the world, is also significant because it allows journalists to publish big fancy pictures of the brain that look really impressive while having little or no explanatory value.

‘These scans are fantastic,’ said Lawrence McGinty, Science Editor for ITV News, ‘not only are they bright and colourful but the graphics department have even converted them into 3D and can make them spin around the screen while I stand in front waving my hands about. None of this helps to explain anything, but it does it so much better the old black and white pictures. They were rubbish.’


Link to ‘New brain scan reveals nothing at all’ (via @michaelmeadon).

A strangely effective video

Australian science reporter Professor Funk has made a fantastic animated video about the science of the placebo effect that’s three minutes of sheer joy even without an active ingredient.

It takes you through the remarkable ways in which the placebo effect differs between different types of pills, perceptions and places and is highly recommended.

Link to ‘The Strange Powers of the Placebo Effect’ on YouTube.

A long view of the nervous system

BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time has a wonderful programme on the history of our knowledge about the nervous system which you can listen to streamed from the webpage or download as an mp3.

It’s a satisfyingly in-depth discussion that tracks first beliefs about the nervous system from ancient times through the renaissance into the modern age.

Scholars first described the nerves of the human body over two thousand years ago. For 1400 years it was believed that they were animated by ‘animal spirits’, mysterious powers which caused sensation and movement. In the eighteenth century scientists discovered that nerve fibres transmitted electrical impulses; it was not until the twentieth century that chemical agents – neurotransmitters – were first identified.

Link to episode page with streaming.
mp3 of programme.

Five minutes past trauma

A new series of ABC Radio National’s All in the Mind has just kicked off with a thoughtful programme about treating traumatised people just after a tragic event.

If you’re not familiar with the contentious area of disaster response, you may be surprised to hear that there is no firm evidence that psychological treatment of just-traumatised people is any more helpful in the long-term than doing absolutely nothing.

This is in contrast to the widely held belief that all disaster victims ‘need’ to see mental health professionals. In fact, studies on psychological treatment in disaster victims have suggested the worrying result that some treatments may actually make matters worse in the long-term for some people.

This was famously found in studies on single session ‘debriefing’ but also less well known is that there is a similar conclusion with regard to multi-session psychological treatment that is aimed to prevent trauma in disaster victims.

To complicate matters, in the studies where the effects are shown to be harmful in the long-term, patients reported feeling better immediately after the sessions.

If you are a psychologist responding to a disaster, grateful and apparently relieved patients are extremely strong personal evidence that you are being helpful, even if in the long-term you might be causing problems.

This makes it very hard for some to accept that they need to question what they are doing.

But there is one over-arching and important point that trauma psychologist Richard Bryant makes in the programme – that, despite some good hints, the evidence is still not firm enough to say for sure whether we are helping, harming or being irrelevant when working with just-traumatised victims.

It must be stressed that this is in contrast to treating people who are still traumatised a long while after an incident and haven’t recovered on their own, where we know psychological treatment is helpful and important.

This issue of All in the Mind is a fantastic discussion of the potential benefits and drawbacks of ‘trauma debriefing’ and immediate psychological treatment and don’t miss some great additional material on the blog.

Link to AITM on ‘The mind in crisis’.
Link to additional material and audio on the AITM Blog.