An unusual form of the Babinski reflex

A curious anecdote about legendary neurologist Joseph Babinski accidentally hitting on the butler of famous physician Henry Head:

Babinski [1857–1932] stayed with Henry Head in London. He spoke no English but on retiring wanted to use a bidet and summoned the butler who spoke no French; he therefore used sign language to indicate what he wanted and the butler construed the gestures as Babinski propositioning him and resigned from the household.

I’m sure we’ve all made that mistake at some point.

As re-told in an article in this month’s neuroscience journal Brain on the late William McDonald.

A dose of female intelligence

Harvard Business Review interviews a research team who have found that increasing the number of women in a team raises group intelligence.

Of course, the findings could also be as accurately described as showing that men make groups more stupid, although the researchers are far too tactful to mention this particular interpretation.

Woolley: We’ve replicated the findings twice now. Many of the factors you might think would be predictive of group performance were not. Things like group satisfaction, group cohesion, group motivation—none were correlated with collective intelligence. And, of course, individual intelligence wasn’t highly correlated, either.

Malone: Before we did the research, we were afraid that collective intelligence would be just the average of all the individual IQs in a group. So we were surprised but intrigued to find that group intelligence had relatively little to do with individual intelligence.

HBR: But gender does play a role?

Malone: It’s a preliminary finding—and not a conventional one. The standard argument is that diversity is good and you should have both men and women in a group. But so far, the data show, the more women, the better.

As a male clinical psychologist, I am now completely accustomed to being intellectually out-gunned by my female colleagues, but it’s important to realise that there’s more to group work than intelligence.

Do we really want a world of better decisions but with fewer dick jokes? Just the thought of it keeps me up at night.


Link to article in Harvard Business Review (and don’t miss the podcast).

In search of invisible violence

NPR Radio covers an amazing inattentional blindness experiment that investigated how easy it is to miss a vicious beating in the street – after a policemen was convicted of ignoring an attack during a pursuit.

Inattentional blindness is the phenomenon where we don’t notice something seemingly obvious because we are paying attention to some other details.

It was most famously demonstrated by the ‘gorillas in our midst’ experiment where observers asked to count the number of passes between basketball players fail to notice a man in a monkey suit walking though the action.

Following a policeman’s conviction for supposedly ‘keeping quiet’ about a beating that he ran past while in pursuit of someone else, the same researchers wanted to know whether people asked to follow a jogger and monitor their behaviour would miss a simulated attack in the street.

Then about a minute in the run, slightly off to the side, [researchers] Chabris and Simons had three students stage a fight.

“We had two students beating up a third, punching him and kicking him and throwing him to the ground,” Chabris says.

The question was whether the students would see the fight, and under the conditions — nighttime — that most closely resembled [policemen] Conley’s experience. The numbers were shockingly low.

“Only about a third of the subjects reported seeing the fight that we had staged,” says Chabris.

It’s a brilliant piece of applied research, a great report with an amazing backstory, and the full text of the study is available online if you want more details.

Link to NPR report.
Link to full text of study.

The trouble with psychiatry

If you want an incisive critique of modern psychiatry, look no further than an excellent article in The New York Review of Books.

It brilliantly captures the fights over diagnosis and the DSM, the problem of drug companies buying influence by paying physicians, and why the promises of drug treatments are often propped up with marketing hype.

The article is well-informed, doesn’t mince words, and the author is no anti-psychiatry flak. She’s Marcia Angell, ex-editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, one of the world’s leading medical journals.

One of the leaders of modern psychiatry, Leon Eisenberg, a professor at Johns Hopkins and then Harvard Medical School, who was among the first to study the effects of stimulants on attention deficit disorder in children, wrote that American psychiatry in the late twentieth century moved from a state of “brainlessness” to one of “mindlessness.” By that he meant that before psychoactive drugs (drugs that affect the mental state) were introduced, the profession had little interest in neurotransmitters or any other aspect of the physical brain. Instead, it subscribed to the Freudian view that mental illness had its roots in unconscious conflicts, usually originating in childhood, that affected the mind as though it were separate from the brain.

But with the introduction of psychoactive drugs in the 1950s, and sharply accelerating in the 1980s, the focus shifted to the brain. Psychiatrists began to refer to themselves as psychopharmacologists, and they had less and less interest in exploring the life stories of their patients. Their main concern was to eliminate or reduce symptoms by treating sufferers with drugs that would alter brain function. An early advocate of this biological model of mental illness, Eisenberg in his later years became an outspoken critic of what he saw as the indiscriminate use of psychoactive drugs, driven largely by the machinations of the pharmaceutical industry.

If you want a great insight into the difficulties of psychiatry and how they’ve emerged, this article is one of the best introductions you could hope for.

Link to article in the NYRB (via 3QD).

A curious hysterical blindness

The New York Times has an extended book review that explores female hysteria in 19th Century Paris while demonstrating a curious hysterical blindness of its own.

The piece reviews a new and supposedly excellent book by Asti Hustvedt called ‘Medical Muses: Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century Paris’.

Hysteria is the presentation of seemingly neurological symptoms without any damage to the nervous system that could explain it. Although we can’t explain why many neurological disorders appear, neurological symptoms – almost by definition – are linked to clear and detectable damage.

Those that appear without the presence of such damage were traditionally labelled ‘hysteria’ although are now subsumed under various diagnoses such as conversion disorder or somatoform disorder.

Charcot was a highly influential 19th Century neurologist who essentially defined the shape of modern neurology and he was fascinated by hysteria. This is the subject of Asti Hustvedt’s new book.

I’ve not read the book but the review, and many pieces like it, focus on neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot’s interest in female hysteria as a demonstration of how the female body and sexuality were uniquely pathologised in 19th century medicine.

This would be interesting were it not for the fact that solely focusing on ‘female hysteria’ misrepresents what happened.

Not least because after more than two thousand years of hysteria being portrayed as being a uniquely feminine disorder, Charcot identified and campaigned for the existence of male hysteria.

This is from medical historian Mark Micale:

During the 1880s, Charcot published the case histories of more than 60 male “hysterics” and treated countless others in his daily hospital practice. Between a third and a quarter of the overall number of hysterical patients he presented in his printed works were men or children. In these writings, Charcot formulated an elaborate set of medical ideas about the disease in males, including a theory of aetiology, a model of symptomatology, and a programme of therapeutics.

Throughout this period, Charcot campaigned energetically for his theory of masculine hysteria, and by the time of his death, in 1893, the idea was widely accepted within mainstream European medical communities. Many of Charcot’s medical contemporaries judged his work on the topic to be among the most scientifically significant parts of his oeuvre, and the School of the Salpetriere, as it was called, was associated internationally with the theme of male hysteria.

It’s true to say that the female ‘hysterical patients’ gained much more attention (due to a combination of public fascination, Charcot’s love of showmanship and the recent invention of photography) but it’s interesting to note that this pattern has continued into the modern day.

This is despite the fact that’s the famous neurologist’s own interests were far more balanced. A curious historical parallel.

Link to review in the NYT.
Link details of ‘Medical Muses: Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century Paris’.

The psychology of expert predictions

This week’s edition of BBC Radio 4 All in the Mind has a fantastic section on the psychology of knowledgeable predictions that bursts lots of bubbles about the power of experts but also discusses how to make more accurate predictions.

You can listen to the whole programme online but it seems the crucial section has accidentally found it’s way onto YouTube which you can catch here.

The discussion is with author Dan Gardner and by psychologist Dylan Evans who tackle the links between risk, prediction and knowledge.

It has lots of fascinating insights, including the fact that the fame of experts is inversely related to their accuracy, that US weather forecasters are better than UK forecasters (and not because UK weather is more difficult), and that more confident predictions are more likely to be wrong.

If you want to catch the whole of All in the Mind the section of grief myths is also wonderful.

Link to All in the Mind.
Link to section on expert predictions.