It came from the Amazon

The Guardian has a curious report about “the latest drug to emerge from South America” which is supposedly “twice as powerful as crack cocaine at just a fraction of the price”. What the journalist doesn’t know, I suspect, is that this is a common form of cocaine paste that is widely known around the region.

The article and video report tackle what is described as “a highly addictive mix of cocaine paste, gasoline, kerosene and quicklime called Oxi” that is supposedly highly hallucinogenic.

However, everything in the description of the drug and its appearance in the video seems to suggest it is just a new name for a widely used form of cheap cocaine paste known by the Spanish names basuco or paco.

For those not aware of how cocaine is produced from the coca leaf, a 1993 Forensic Science Review article (full-text mirrored here) outlined the usual stages of illegal manufacture.

Although ‘Oxi’ is described as including “gasoline, kerosene and quicklime” all of these are standard ingredients in the creation of cocaine paste itself, which itself is an intermediate stage in the production of powder or crack cocaine.

In fact, in the most common production process the subsequent stages just remove the unpleasant solvents, like gasoline and kerosene, from the cocaine paste to produce the purified product.

However, unrefined cocaine paste that still contains these chemicals is widely sold in South America as a cheap but nasty high. Refined cocaine is largely created for export but the paste mainly appears on the local market and is most prevalent in economically deprived areas.

It usually comes as a powder or as crack cocaine-like rocks that can be smoked for a short intense euphoria – which encourages frequent use – and a mid-brain dopamine boosting neurochemical profile that often induces paranoia and paranoid psychosis of exactly the sort described by users in the video.

My guess would be that ‘Oxi’ is just a new name being used to locally market this form of cocaine paste in the Brazilian area of the Amazon region whereas it is sold as basuco in the rest of the Spanish speaking areas.

Link to Guardian report about ‘Oxi’.
Link to mirror for paper on illegal cocaine production.
Link to search of scientific article on basuco (mainly in Spanish).

A reflection of the greatest

A surprising study has just appeared in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology about whether narcissists realise what others think about their egotistical self-image.

Narcissism is a trait where people are more concerned about themselves than others and tend to think they are better and more important than their peers.

This has often been considered to be a form of self-delusion or self-serving cognitive bias, while this new study deliberately tested whether highly narcissistic realised what others thought about them.

The study came to the surprising conclusion that narcissism is usually accompanied by a crystal clear insight into how others don’t share the shining view that narcissists have of themselves.

You probably think this paper’s about you: Narcissists’ perceptions of their personality and reputation

J Pers Soc Psychol. 2011 May 23. [Epub ahead of print]

Carlson EN, Vazire S, Oltmanns TF.

Do narcissists have insight into the negative aspects of their personality and reputation? Using both clinical and subclinical measures of narcissism, the authors examined others’ perceptions, self-perceptions, and meta-perceptions of narcissists across a wide range of traits for a new acquaintance and close other (Study 1), longitudinally with a group of new acquaintances (Study 2), and among coworkers (Study 3).

Results bring 3 surprising conclusions about narcissists: (a) they understand that others see them less positively than they see themselves (i.e., their meta-perceptions are less biased than are their self-perceptions), (b) they have some insight into the fact that they make positive first impressions that deteriorate over time, and (c) they have insight into their narcissistic personality (e.g., they describe themselves as arrogant). These findings shed light on some of the psychological mechanisms underlying narcissism.


Link to PubMed entry for study.

Human nature is a moving target

I just caught up with a fascinating discussion on ABC Radio’s Future Tense on what artificial intelligence showdowns like the Turing Test tell us about the evolution of human nature.

It sounds like a bit of clichéd subject but the interview with author Brian Christian is full of novel, thoughtful insights into how human nature is evolving in response to technological innovations.

This is one of many fascinating bits, about the effect of mobile phone technology on the dynamics of conversation.

One of the comments that we’ve heard several times on our program in the past is that people are now starting to interact with each other like computers. That computers aren’t just learning from us, we’re learning from computers…

…I would also say that the shift in telephone technology from landlines to cellphones has had a kind of unforeseen trade-off, which is that we’re now much more accessible geographically, but the cost is that the lag on the connection is six times greater. So it’s about half of a second instead of a little bit less than a tenth of a second.

And it may not seem like much, but in fact it is enough to disrupt a lot of the subtle dynamics of timing and pauses, and yielding to other people, and it’s turning communication much more into a kind of peer data exchange, you know, pure content.


Link to ABC Future Tense on technology and human nature.

A mind of our own

The New York Times has an amazing article on conjoined twins Tatiana and Krista Hogan who share part of their brains and seem to be aware of each others’ minds at work.

It’s a long read but worth it both for how the piece captures both the scientific interest in the possibility of shared consciousness and the personalities of the twins.

Twins joined at the head — the medical term is craniopagus — are one in 2.5 million, of which only a fraction survive. The way the girls’ brains formed beneath the surface of their fused skulls, however, makes them beyond rare: their neural anatomy is unique, at least in the annals of recorded scientific literature. Their brain images reveal what looks like an attenuated line stretching between the two organs, a piece of anatomy their neurosurgeon, Douglas Cochrane of British Columbia Children’s Hospital, has called a thalamic bridge, because he believes it links the thalamus of one girl to the thalamus of her sister.

The thalamus is a kind of switchboard, a two-lobed organ that filters most sensory input and has long been thought to be essential in the neural loops that create consciousness. Because the thalamus functions as a relay station, the girls’ doctors believe it is entirely possible that the sensory input that one girl receives could somehow cross that bridge into the brain of the other. One girl drinks, another girl feels it.

We covered an earlier article that touched on whether the two young children had access to each others’ experiences but the NYT piece explores the issue in far more depth.

Link to excellent NYT piece on the Hogan twins (via @mocost).

Empathy in shades of grey

Scientific American has an insightful and beautifully written article asking whether it is possible to make sense of empathy using brain scans.

Neuroscience studies are increasingly focusing on what science calls ‘high level’ concepts and what those outside the field might just call ‘vague’.

Empathy is probably not in the ‘vague’ category although it is true to say that there are several competing definitions and no standard way of measuring it.

It does have huge intuitive appeal, however, leading to a boom in brain scanning studies that are trying to pin down how we understand other people’s emotions.

The SciAm piece takes a trip to the Saxelab Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at MIT to take a look at how at how a study is attempting to understand the neuroscience of empathy, as well as asking some searching questions about whether we are over-simplifying the problem

A short but excellent piece of writing.

Link to SciAm article ‘Looking for Empathy’ (via @edyong209).

Face to face with psychopathy

The Guardian has a curious article where journalist Jon Ronson investigates what it means to be a psychopath and meets a patient diagnosed with psychopathy at one of Britain’s highest security psychiatric hospitals.

In popular culture, ‘psychopath’ refers to a crazed killer but in psychiatry it refers to someone with anti-social personality traits along with low empathy and manipulative behaviour. Although psychopathy is more common amongst violent criminals it is not restricted to this group and the many other people can have ‘psychopathic traits’.

Ronson explores the concept and his experiences of meeting someone with the condition, but also recounts some surprising anecdotes from the history of the condition.

In the late 1960s, a young Canadian psychiatrist believed he had the answer. His name was Elliott Barker and he had visited radical therapeutic communities around the world, including nude psychotherapy sessions occurring under the tutelage of an American psychotherapist named Paul Bindrim [see previously on Mind Hacks]. Clients, mostly California free-thinkers and movie stars, would sit naked in a circle and dive headlong into a 24-hour emotional and mystical rollercoaster during which participants would scream and yell and sob and confess their innermost fears…

And so he successfully sought permission from the Canadian government to obtain a large batch of LSD, hand-picked a group of psychopaths, led them into what he named the “total encounter capsule”, a small room painted bright green, and asked them to remove their clothes. This was truly to be a radical milestone: the world’s first ever marathon nude LSD-fuelled psychotherapy session for criminal psychopaths.


Link to Guardian article on psychopathy (via @tomstafford)

The psychology of the end of the world

I’ve written an article for Slate on tomorrow’s predicted doomsday and how believers cope with the non-arrival of the apocalypse.

Although many people are familiar with When Prophecy Fails, a book by psychologist Leon Festinger that charted how a flying saucer cult dealt with the non-arrival of the Armageddon, it’s less widely know that it is only one among many studies that investigated how believers coped with failed prophecies.

When Prophecy Fails has become a landmark in the history of psychology, but few realize that many other studies have looked at the same question: What happens to a small but dedicated group of people who wait in vain for the end of the world? Ironically, Festinger’s own prediction—that a failed apocalypse leads to a redoubling of recruitment efforts—turned out to be false: Not one of these follow-ups found evidence to support his claim. The real story turns out to be far more complex.

Psychologists and sociologists have eagerly accompanied those waiting for the second coming of Christ, alien visitation and nuclear apocalypse to see how the followers would react.

While none of the apocalyptic groups reacted as Festinger predicted, they have given us a fascinating insight into how we make sense of stark contradictions and have helped us understand why our beliefs are more resilient that many would assume.

Link to Slate article on the psychology of failed prophecy.