The neurology of the undead

Wired has an excellent neurological guide to surviving the zombie holocaust that will keep you one shamble ahead when the undead attack.

The article and the wonderful accompanying infographics were inspired by the work of neuroscientist Bradley Voyek who, when he is not poking around in the decaying brains of zombies, looks at communication networks in the human brain.

Link to Wired piece on the neuroscience of the zombie apocalypse.

Internet dating and the science of fire starting

The New Yorker has a fantastic article about the psychology of online dating.

The piece explores how the big names of internet matchmaking attempt to strike up sparks between you and millions of other people and how they play off what attracts people in face-to-face encounters.

Psychology, maths and the economics of truth are used to bring people together, with each dating site having a different theory about how attraction works

It is tempting to think of online dating as a sophisticated way to address the ancient and fundamental problem of sorting humans into pairs, except that the problem isn’t very old. Civilization, in its various guises, had it pretty much worked out. Society—family, tribe, caste, church, village, probate court—established and enforced its connubial protocols for the presumed good of everyone, except maybe for the couples themselves. The criteria for compatibility had little to do with mutual affection or a shared enthusiasm for spicy food and Fleetwood Mac. Happiness, self-fulfillment, “me time,” a woman’s needs: these didn’t rate. As for romantic love, it was an almost mutually exclusive category of human experience. As much as it may have evolved, in the human animal, as a motivation system for mate-finding, it was rarely given great consideration in the final reckoning of conjugal choice.

The twentieth century reduced it all to smithereens. The Pill, women in the workforce, widespread deferment of marriage, rising divorce rates, gay rights—these set off a prolonged but erratic improvisation on a replacement. In a fractured and bewildered landscape of fern bars, ladies’ nights, Plato’s Retreat, “The Bachelor,” sexting, and the concept of the “cougar,” the Internet promised reconnection, profusion, and processing power.

Unsurprisingly, many dating sites now employ psychologists to optimise their hook up algorithms and the article explores the thinking and the practice behind the process.

A great read.

Link to excellent New Yorker article on internet dating.

The Ginger Jake poisonings

A mysterious epidemic of paralysis was sweeping through 1920s America that had the medical community baffled. The cause was first identified not by physicians, but by blues singers.

During the prohibition, alcohol was banned but people got buzzed the best way they could. One way was through a highly alcoholic liquid called Jamaica Ginger or ‘Jake’ that got round the ban by being sold as a medicine.

Eventually the feds caught on and even such poorly disguised medicines were blacklisted but Jamaica Ginger stayed popular, and alcoholic, due to the producers including an organophosphate additive called tricresyl phosphate that helped fool the government’s tests.

What they didn’t know was that tricresyl phosphate is a slow-acting neurotoxin that affected the neurons that control movement.

The toxin starts by causing lower leg muscular pain and tingling, followed by muscle weakness in the arms and legs. The effect on the legs caused a distinctive form of muscle paralysis that required affected people to lift the leg high during walking to allow the foot to clear the ground.

This epidemic of paralysis first made the pages of the New England Journal of Medicine in June 1930, but the cause remained a mystery.

What the puzzled doctors didn’t know was that the cause had been identified by two blues musicians earlier that year, in songs released on 78rpm records.

Ishman Bracey’s song Jake Liquor Blues and Tommy Johnson’s track Alcohol and Jake Blues had hit on the key epidemiological factor, the consumption of Jamaica Ginger, likely due to their being part of the poor southern communities where jake was most commonly drunk.

Slowly, the medical community caught on, noting that the additive damaged the spinal cord and peripheral nerves, and the adulterated jake was slowly tracked down and outlawed.

The story, however, has an interesting neurological twist. In 1978, two neurologists decided to track down some of the survivors of jake poisoning 47 years after the booze fuelled epidemic hit.

They found that the original neurological explanation for the ‘jake walk’ effect was wrong. The paralysis was actually due to damage to the movement control neurons in the brain (upper motor neurons) and not the peripheral nervous system.

Jake was much more dangerous than thought and the false lead was probably due to inadequate assessments when the epidemic hit, possibly because the stigma associated with the condition prevented a thorough investigation.

The study has a poignant description of the social effect of the condition:

The shame experienced by those with jake leg possibly led some with a minimal functional disorder to deny that they ever had the disease, and patient 4 stated that he knew some such people. We heard of other men with obvious impairment who claimed to have had a stroke.

If you want to read more on this curious piece of neurological there’s a great article on Providentia you can check out for free and a renowned 2003 article from The New Yorker which is locked behind a paywall due to digital prohibition.

Link to Providentia post on Ginger Jake.

Epilepsy, inside and out

The New York Times has an inspiring piece about neurologist and epilepsy specialist Brien Smith who has just become chairman of the Epilepsy Foundation. Unusually, his interest is more than just professional as he has epilepsy himself.

I was really struck by this part, as it shows how even trained medical professionals can unnecessarily freak out when they see someone having a seizure:

One day during medical school, my classmates and I learned that one of the most well-liked doctors-in-training in the hospital had had a seizure while leading morning work rounds.

The sight of him writhing had caused the other doctors and nurses on the ward to panic. Some stood mute, frozen with fear. An intern, believing that the seizure arose from low blood sugar levels, took his half-eaten jelly doughnut and held it against the mouth of his seizing colleague. Others yelled to the ward secretary to “call a code,” and continued to do so even after another dozen doctors and nurses had already arrived on the floor.

The young doctor eventually recovered. But for many of the medical students and doctors who heard about the episode or were on the wards that day, the dread of that morning would linger long beyond our years of training. Epilepsy was, and remains, a frightening and mysterious malady.

Time and again, I have seen this happen. People call ambulances unnecessarily. People risk the life of the person having a seizure by trying to put something in their mouth (to stop them ‘biting their tongue’). People risk injury to the person by trying to hold them down.

If you want to be one of the few people who don’t freak out when someone has a seizure and if you want to be genuinely helpful, read this brief page on first aid for epilepsy.

And if you have a couple more minutes, check out The New York Times piece on neurologist Brien Smith and his unique insight into the condition. Highly recommended.

Link to NYT piece on Brien Smith (via @mocost).

The malware of medical science

Just when you thought the pharmaceutical industry had used up every dirty trick in the book, it has been revealed that a ‘study’ of the epilepsy drug gabapentin (aka Neurontin) was never really intended to investigate the medication, but was primarily intended to get doctors to prescribe it more often.

A report published in the Archives of Internal Medicine examined documents uncovered in legal cases that show that a drug trial called ‘Study of Neurontin: Titrate to Effect, Profile of Safety’ (STEPS) was largely designed to involve doctors in a marketing programme that would appear like a scientific trial.

Actually, it was a scientific trial of a sort, but rather than studying the effect of the drug on patients, they were studying the effect of marketing on the doctors.

Parke-Davis sales representatives collected and recorded individual subject data. In a clear example of data tampering, they not only attended epilepsy patients’ office visits (under the guise of “shadowing” the clinician), but also actively promoted the use of Neurontin and blocked the use of competing medications, particularly lamotrigine (Lamictal), at those visits. They also rewarded participating investigators with free lunches and dinners.

Without informing either patients or physicians, the drug company’s marketing department monitored each investigator’s prescribing practices. It documented a 38% increase in prescriptions of Neurontin after investigators attended an introductory briefing, as well as a 10% increase in the average prescribed dose. It also compared prescribing patterns between study investigators and a control group of nonparticipating neurologists, and documented increased prescribing of Neurontin only among the study participants.

Big Pharma: the malware of medical science.

Link to good write-up in Internal Medicine News.
Link to locked study in the Archives of Internal Medicine.
Link to locked related editorial in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

From character analysis to orgasm batteries

Slate has a brilliant article on one of the most troubled and yet fascinating people in the history of psychology – William Reich – inventor of the orgasmotron.

Reich was one of Freud’s inner circle but decided to propose his own ideas rather than follow the Freudian orthodoxy, something which got him promptly kicked out of the chosen few.

The point of contention was that Reich favoured analysing the personality as a whole, rather than individual symptoms, using a system he developed call ‘character analysis’.

His system had a massive impact on psychoanalysis but as time went on he became more and more radical to the point of seeming to have lost his marbles.

Merging abandoned versions of Freudianism and Marxism, Reich saw repression and neurosis as causes and results of bourgeois property ownership and patriarchy. He established free sex clinics and roved the city in a van from which he proselytized for Communism and orgasm. The open expression of libido, beginning with free love between adolescents, would raise the proletarian political consciousness. Soon, Reich was drummed out of the analytic movement and the Communist Party.

This, you may be surprised to hear, was not Reich at his most left-field.

He also began to believe that the power of orgasm, called orgone, could be stored in batteries and could be absorbed from the sky by the use of a special machine called a cloudbuster.

If the name of the machine seems familiar, it’s probably because it ‘Cloudbusting’ was the title of a song and video by Kate Bush which told the story of Reich’s machine and his downfall.

He eventually died in prison after being arrested by the FBI for illegally distributing his ‘orgone energy accumulator’ leaving a chaotic legacy that stretches from the profound to the ridiculous.

Link to Slate article on Willhelm Reich.

A 30 second piece of our minds

A new book has been published called 30 Second Psychology. It’s been written by some familiar folks and aims to capture fifty of the most important theories of psychology in one punchy package.

It’s been edited by Christian Jarret of the BPS Research Digest and includes contributions from me, Mo Costandi, Dave Munger and Tom Stafford.

The book covers everything from psychotherapy to cognitive neuroscience and, as normal, the others have done a much better job than me. Thankfully, though, I have been edited into sense.

Here’s part of my entry on Abraham Maslow’s humanistic psychology and how it inspired client-centred counselling, nude psychotherapy and love-ins.

Abraham Maslow trained as a hard-nosed experimental psychologist who became disillusioned with defining human nature through lab experiments and was dissatisfied with the Freudian alternative. Instead of seeing humans as the passive recipients of experience or slaves to unconscious drives, Maslow saw us as motivated by an ultimate need to become fulfilled and ‘self-actualized’ where we are at peace with ourselves and others and have the psychological freedom “to become everything that one is capable of becoming.” Humanistic psychology grew from this inspiration and placed subjective lived experience, rather than the unconscious mind, at the centre of human nature.

These ideas were taken up by psychotherapists, most notably by Carl Rogers, who based ‘client-centred therapy’ on the principles of genuineness and acceptance of a person’s basic worth. Although Maslow was sometimes uncomfortable with how his approach was adopted by the 1960s counter-culture, leading to everything from love-ins to nude psychotherapy, his central themes of respect for individual autonomy and the encouragement of personal development are now at the core of all most modern psychological treatments and his ‘hierarchy of needs’ is still considered a important theory of human motivation.


Link to more details from the publishers.
Link to book on Amazon.