Twenty years of fMRI

Functional magnetic resonance imaging, better known as fMRI, is 20 years old this week. October’s NeuroPod marks the celebrations by looking back at the brain scanning technology, it’s successes, and its troublesome teenage years.

The imaging technique was first announced in a 1991 study published in Science that announced how a standard MRI scanner could be used to used to track where oxygenated and deoxygenated blood flowed in the brain.

The technique takes advantage of the fact that haemoglobin, the iron containing protein that carries oxygen to essential tissues in the body, is differently magnetic when it is carrying oxygen, in comparison to when it is oxygen depleted.

The scanner is essentially a large electromagnet that aligns the proton spin of hydrogen atoms in the body, plus a radio frequency pulse that knocks them out of alignment.

Like shaking a compass, the protons move back into alignment again. The speed of return depends on the density of the body tissue, just like the speed of a compass needle returning to north depends on the density of the liquid in which it rests.

fMRI tunes in to the different magnetic echoes, or more technically, the magnetic resonance, of the protons realigning in oxygenated and deoxygenated blood.

As more active brain areas need more oxygenated blood, it’s possible to infer which tasks or mental activities are most associated with activity in certain brain areas by statistically comparing maps of magnetic resonance differences when people undertake different mental tasks in the scanner.

Although the technique can pinpoint where these changes take place in the brain, down to about the nearest millimetre, blood flow is not the same as actual brain activity, so it is not a precise measure.

Furthermore, changes can only be tracked in time slices of a second or more, clearly missing some of the changes in the fast moving brain, and statistical choices during analysis can affect the outcome sometimes as much as the task itself.

But despite the disadvantages, and with data from other types of study and imaging techniques, fMRI has become an essential scientific tool in the quest to understand the link between the mind and brain.

The piece has interviews with neuroscientists Karl Friston and Russ Poldrack, both involved in fMRI since its early days, who talk about the genuine progress and unfortunate hype that surrounds the technique.

A fantastic look back of the first two decades of fMRI and the other sections of the NeuroPod podcast are equally as interesting.

Link to October’s NeuroPod.

Invasion of the disembody snatchers

The latest edition of The Psychologist has a fantastic article on the psychology of horror, taking in everything from the popularity of cultural themes like zombies and vampires to research into the enjoyment of slasher films.

It’s a really comprehensive look at the both the psychological concept, the feeling of horror, and where its origins may lie in our evolutionary and cultural past, as well as numerous studies on how we react to fear and horror, both in real life and in entertainment.

This bit particularly caught my eye.

Related to this is the ‘snuggle theory’ – the idea that viewing horror films may be a rite of passage for young people, providing them with an opportunity to fulfil their traditional gender roles. A paper from the late 1980s by Dolf Zillmann, Norbert Mundorf and others found that male undergrads paired with a female partner (unbeknown to them, a research assistant), enjoyed a 14-minute clip from Friday the 13th Part III almost twice as much if she showed distress during the film. Female undergrads, by contrast, said they enjoyed the film more if their male companion appeared calm and unmoved. Moreover, men who were initially considered unattractive were later judged more appealing if they displayed courage during the film viewing.

Surely asking people to watch horror films with a companion who is secretly working with psychologists to study your reactions to fear is a fantastic plot for a horror film.

Yours for only $1 million Wes Craven.

Link to ‘The Lure of Horror’ in The Psychologist.

Declaration of interest: I’m an unpaid associate editor and occasional columnist for The Psychologist. I avoid exploring abandoned houses on the edge of town.

Nasal mummy exit

A new study just published in the Journal of Comparative Human Biology takes an enthusiastic look at exactly how the Ancient Egyptians removed the brain from cadavers before they were mummified.

You’ll be pleased to know that a variety of techniques were used over the millennia but unfortunately none make for particularly good dinner time conversation owing to them being slightly gory.

But for those not gathered round the table, the article is joyously over-detailed. In this part, the authors consider the history of scientific attempts to understand how you get a brain out of a dead person working only through the nose.

Speculation surrounding the steps following perforation has inspired experimental attempts at excerebration in sheep and human cadavers. The general consensus is that either the brain was macerated by means of the vigorous insertion and rotation of the perforation tool or other similar instrument, or that the brain was simply allowed to liquefy in the hot Egyptian environment. The first method, consistent with the account of Herodotus, is withdrawal of residues on the perforation tool or its like and Macalister (1894) refers to a three-toothed hook pictured in Chabas’ Études sur l’Antiquité Historique (p. 79) that may have been used to this effect.

Similarly, Pirsig and Parsche (1991) suggest that a bamboo rod tied with linen may have sufficed for this piecemeal extraction of semi-liquid brain. Both of these techniques are time intensive, with the rod drawing out little of the brain on each retraction. Alternative to, or in conjunction with, the previous method it has been suggested that the liquefied or semi-liquid brain might be allowed to drain from the cranium by placing the body prone. This process might also be expedited by flushing the cranium with water or other fluids, such as the cedar oil used to dissolve organs in Herodotus’ account of the “second process” of mummification.

The ‘experimental attempt’ at trying this out on a human cadaver is referenced to a 1911 German book by Karl Sudoff which has a title that translates to ‘Egyptian mummification instruments’.

I can’t imagine exactly how the experiment came about but presumably the chap got so enamoured with the tools he was collecting he just wanted to ‘have a bit of a go himself’.

Link to locked article. Or rather, entombed.

Bad celebrity tie-ins

No celebrity disaster is too tragic to remind us of an interesting fact about cognitive science. Some lowlights from the genre.

Lindsay Lohan is likely to be jailed for violating her probation says The Christian Science Monitor – clearly an example illustrating recent findings from research on how behavior is influenced by like-minded cohorts rather than essential values.

Charlie Sheen? say CBS. I suspect you want to hear about a new study on the cognitive science of self-deception. Guest appearance by Colonel Qaddafi.

An anti-semitic tirade by Mel Gibson reported by The LA Times. Quick, look over there! Wha..? Oh nothing. The neural basis of the alcohol related disinhibition.

The New York Times don’t know how Amy Winehouse tragically died but if you’re thinking what I’m thinking (wink, wink) then why wouldn’t you want to hear about the role of genes, environment and psychology in overdose and addiction.

But this, from The Globe and Mail, surely takes the biscuit. It contains a paragraph that will probably be stolen by The Onion.

But neuroscientists, despite 15 years of brain-imaging studies, are unable to define the circuitry involved in creative thinking. They don’t know what is different about the brains of creative geniuses like Steve Jobs, the visionary co-founder of Apple Inc. who died on Wednesday.

Elvis, of course, was a neuroscientist.

Ten years of the language gene that wasn’t

It’s now ten years since mutations in the FOXP2 gene were linked to language problems, which led to lots of overblown headlines about a ‘language gene’, which it isn’t.

The actual science is no less interesting, however, and Discover Magazine has a fantastic article that looks back on the last decade since the gene’s discovery and what it tells us about the complex genetics that support lingustic development and expression.

There’s also a fascinating bit about the history of attempts to explain how humans developed language, which apparently got so ridiculous that speculation was banned by learned societies in the 19th century:

Lacking hard evidence, scholars of the past speculated broadly about the origin of language. Some claimed that it started out as cries of pain, which gradually crystallized into distinct words. Others traced it back to music, to the imitation of animal grunts, or to birdsong. In 1866 the Linguistic Society of Paris got so exasperated by these unmoored musings that it banned all communication on the origin of language. Its English counterpart felt the same way. In 1873 the president of the Philological Society of London declared that linguists “shall do more by tracing the historical growth of one single work-a-day tongue, than by filling wastepaper baskets with reams of paper covered with speculations on the origin of all tongues.”

Like a 19th century reverse scientific X-Factor where people voted to ban people from speculating further. I think I may have found a gap in the market.

Link to Discover article on ‘The Language Fossils’.

Make study more effective, the easy way

Decades old research into how memory works should have revolutionised University teaching. It didn’t.

If you’re a student, what I’m about to tell you will let you change how you study so that it is more effective, more enjoyable and easier. If you work at a University, you – like me – should hang your head in shame that we’ve known this for decades but still teach the way we do.

There’s a dangerous idea in education that students are receptacles, and teachers are responsible for providing content that fills them up. This model encourages us to test students by the amount of content they can regurgitate, to focus overly on statements rather than skills in assessment and on syllabuses rather than values in teaching. It also encourages us to believe that we should try and learn things by trying to remember them. Sounds plausible, perhaps, but there’s a problem. Research into the psychology of memory shows that intention to remember is a very minor factor in whether you remember something or not. Far more important than whether you want to remember something is how you think about the material when you encounter it.

A classic experiment by Hyde and Jenkins (1973) illustrates this. These researchers gave participants lists of words, which they later tested recall of, as their memory items. To affect their thinking about the words, half the participants were told to rate the pleasantness of each word, and half were told to check if the word contained the letters ‘e’ or ‘g’. This manipulation was designed to affect ‘depth of processing’. The participants in the rating-pleasantness condition had to think about what the word meant, and relate it to themselves (how they felt about it) – “deep processing”. Participants in the letter-checking condition just had to look at the shape of the letters, they didn’t even have to read the word if they didn’t want to – “shallow processing”. The second, independent, manipulation concerned whether participants knew that they would be tested later on the words. Half of each group were told this – the “intentional learning” condition – and half weren’t told, the test would come as a surprise – the “incidental learning” condition.

I’ve made a graph so you can see the effects of these two manipulations

As you can see, there isn’t much difference between the intentional and incidental learning conditions. Whether or not a participant wanted to remember the words didn’t affect how many words they remembered. Instead, the major effect is due to how participants thought about the words when they encountered them. Participants who thought deeply about the words remembered nearly twice as many as participants who only thought shallowly about the words, regardless of whether they intended to remember them or not.

The implications for how we teach and learn should be clear. Wanting to remember, or telling people to remember, isn’t effective. If you want to remember something you need to think about it deeply. This means you need to think about what you are trying to remember means, both in relationship to other material you are trying to learn, and to yourself. Other research in memory has shown the importance of schema – memory patterns and structures – for recall. As teachers, we try and organise our course material for the convenience of students, to best help them understand it. Unfortunately, this organisation – the schema – for the material then becomes part of the assessment and something which students try to remember. What this research suggests is that, merely in terms of remembering, it would be more effective for students to come up with their own organisation for course material.

If you are a student the implication of this study and those like it is clear : don’t stress yourself with revision where you read and re-read textbooks and course notes. You’ll remember better (and understand much better) if you try and re-organise the material you’ve been given in your own way.

If you are a teacher, like me, then this research raises some disturbing questions. At a University the main form of teaching we do is the lecture, which puts the student in a passive role and, essentially, asks them to “remember this” – an instruction we know to be ineffective. Instead, we should be thinking hard, always, about how to create teaching experiences in which students are more active, and about creating courses in which students are permitted and encouraged to come up with their own organisation of material, rather than just forced to regurgitate ours.

Reference: Hyde, T. S., & Jenkins, J. J. (1973). Recall for words as a function of semantic, graphic, and syntactic orienting tasks. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 12(5), 471–480.

Now available in Italian Insegnare ed apprendere in modo efficace (thanks Giuliana!)

Steven Pinker: a life in brawls

There’s an excellent interview with Steven Pinker on the BBC Radio 4 programme The Life Scientific that takes a look back at his work and his involvement with a long list of enjoyable controversies.

For those over-saturated with discussion about his new book on the decline of violence, The Life Scientific interview is actually a refreshing retrospective that reviews his career as a whole.

It tackles everything from the cognitive science of word learning to brawls over the influence of genetics on human behaviour (bonus segment: Oliver James making a tit of himself in a live radio debate).

A thoroughly engrossing discussion although if you want the podcast you’ll have to download it from a separate page (linked below) because linking to the podcast is a bit too advanced for the BBC.

Link to BBC Pinker interview and streaming audio.
Link to podcasts of The Life Scientific interviews.

The secret life of the inner voice

Don’t miss the latest RadioLab short, a programme about a guy whose world has been unevenly slowed down.

Psychological fascinating but also a beautiful piece of storytelling.

When Andy first met Kohn, he saw a college freshman in a wheelchair who moved slow and talked slow. But it only took one conversation for Andy to realize that Kohn was also witty and observant. They clicked so effortlessly over lunch one day that Andy went ahead and asked an audacious question: why was Kohn so slow? Kohn told him that when he was 8-years-old, he was hit by a car. He was in a coma for five months, and when he finally woke up, he everything about him was slowed down … except for his mind.

Do not miss.

Link to RadioLab short ‘Slow’.

The hot hand smacks back

The idea of the ‘hot hand’, where a player who makes several successful shots has a higher chance of making some more, is popular with sports fans and team coaches, but has long been considered a classic example of a cognitive fallacy – an illusion of a ‘streak’ caused by our misinterpretation of naturally varying scoring patterns.

But a new study has hard data to show the hot hand really exists and may turn one of the most widely cited ‘cognitive illusions’ on its head.

A famous 1985 study by psychologist Thomas Gilovich and his colleagues looked at the ‘hot hand’ belief in basketball, finding that there was no evidence of any ‘scoring streak’ in thousands of basketball games beyond what you would expect from natural variation in play.

Think of it like tossing a weighted coin. Although the weighting, equivalent to the players skill, makes landing a ‘head’ more likely overall, every toss of the coin is independent. The last result doesn’t effect the next one.

Despite this, sometimes heads or tails will bunch together and this is what people erroneously interpret as the ‘hot hand’ or being on a roll, at least according to the theory. Due to the basketball research, that seemed to show the same effect, the ‘hot hand fallacy’ was born and the idea of ‘scoring streaks’ thought to be sports myth.

Some have suggested that while the ‘hot hand’ may be an illusion, in practical terms, in might be useful on the field.

Better players are more likely to have a higher overall scoring rate and so are more likely to have what seem like streaks. Passing to that guy works out, because the better players have the ball for longer.

But a new study led by Markus Raab suggests that the hot hand does indeed exist. Each shot is not independent and players that hit the mark may raise their chances of scoring the next time. They seem to draw inspiration from their successes.

Crucially, the researchers chose their sport carefully because one of the difficulties with basketball – from a numbers point of view – is that players on the opposing team react to success.

If someone scores, they may find themselves the subject of more defensive attention on the court, damping down any ‘hot hand’ effect if it did exist.

Because of this, the new study looked at volleyball where the players are separated by a net and play from different sides of the court. Additionally, players rotate position after every rally, meaning its more difficult to ‘clamp down’ on players from the opposing team if they seem to be doing well.

The research first established the belief in the ‘hot hand’ was common in volleyball players, coaches and fans, and then looked to see if scoring patterns support it – to see if scoring a point made a player more likely to score another.

It turns out that over half the players in Germany’s first-division volleyball league show the ‘hot hand’ effect – streaks of inspiration were common and points were not scored in an independent ‘coin toss’ manner.

What’s more, players were sensitive to who was on a roll and used the effect to the team’s advantage – more commonly passing to those on a scoring streak.

So it seems the ‘hot hand’ effect exists. But this opens up another, perhaps more interesting, question.

How does it work? Because if teams can understand the essence of on court inspiration, they’ve got a recipe for success.

Link to blocked study. Clearing a losing strategy.
Link to full text which has mysteriously appeared online.

The personality of sperm donors

The biggest ever study on the personality of sperm donors has just been published.

Each was asked to fill out the Temperament and Character Inventory personality scale, also known as the TCI, and the results were compared to a similar group of men who hadn’t whacked off into a plastic tube for the benefit of society.

So who donates sperm?

With regard to personality, we found significant differences on the temperament dimension of harm avoidance between the sperm donors and the comparison group, with lower means for sperm donors. This indicates that the sperm donors described themselves as being less worried, uncertain, shy and less subject to fatigue

Furthermore, we also found significant differences on the character dimensions, where the sperm donors showed higher means on self-directedness. This indicates that they perceived themselves as more autonomous individuals, with a capacity for responsibility, as behaving in a more goal-directed manner, and to be more resourceful and self-acceptant than the comparison group.

The sperm donors also showed significantly higher means on cooperativeness. This means that they described themselves as being more integrated with society and having a greater capacity for identification with and acceptance of other people than the comparison group.

The personality dimensions from the Temperament and Character Inventory have been found to be among the most heavily influenced by genetics, so knowing that your average sperm donor is a generally nice chap is very useful information.

I suspect, however, that ‘not easily fatigued’ may be a selection bias due to the demands of the job.

Link to paywalled study. No chance of a donation then?

The psychiatry of vegetarianism

A fascinating but unfortunately locked review article on the psychology of vegetarianism has this paragraph on how avoiding the pleasures of cooked flesh has been seen as a mental illness in times past.

How vegetarians are seen has shifted radically over time. During the Inquisition, the Roman Catholic Church declared vegetarians to be heretics, and a similar line of persecutions occurred in 12th century China (Kellman, 2000). In the earlier half of the twentieth century, the sentiment toward vegetarians remained distinctly negative, with the decision not to eat meat being framed as deviant and worthy of suspicion.

Major Hyman S. Barahal (1946), then head of the Psychiatry Section of Mason General Hospital, Brentwood, wrote openly that he considered vegetarians to be domineering and secretly sadistic, and that they “display little regard for the suffering of their fellow human beings” (p. 12). In this same era, it was proposed that vegetarianism was an underlying cause of stammering, the cure for which was a steady diet of beefsteak.

In contrast, research shows the general attitude to vegetarianism has generally shifted to be, shall we say, somewhat more positive.

Link to locked article. Forbidden fruit and all that.

A review of Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature

I’ve written an in-depth review of Steven Pinker’s new book on the decline of violence for the latest Wilson Quarterly

I thought getting a free copy and working on a review would be great fun but was rather taken aback when the 848 page book landed on my doorstep. I shouldn’t have been because there isn’t a wasted page.

I go into the details of some of Pinker’s key arguments in the book, which you can read in more detail in the review, but as you can see from this part, the book is definitely worth reading.

Despite my concerns about how Pinker portrays individual psychology and neuroscience, The Better Angels of Our Nature is so comprehensive that these faults represent only a fraction of the book. Taken as a whole, it is powerful, mind changing, and important. Pinker does not shy away from the gritty detail and is not to be taken lightly—quite literally in fact, as at more than 800 pages his book could easily be used as a weapon if you remained unpersuaded by its arguments. But this avalanche of information serves to demonstrate convincingly and counterintuitively that violence is on the decline.

In many ways, violence is a disease of the emotions. While we should never ignore the victims, it can be managed and curbed so it affects as few people as possible and remains minimally contagious. Many illnesses that once felled multitudes are now largely vanquished through greater knowledge and simple preventive measures; a similar process has made us all less likely to be targets, and perpetrators, of brutality. As Pinker argues, this is an achievement we should take pride in.

You can read the full text of the review by clicking on the link below. Thanks to The Wilson Quarterly for making it available online.

Link to review of Pinker’s new book in The Wilson Quarterly.

Glitches in The Technology of Orgasm

We’ve covered The Technology of Orgasm before, a hugely influential book arguing that 19th century doctors were using Victorian vibrators to cure ‘female hysteria’ through the induction of [serious look] ‘hysterical paroxysms’, but it seems that the main argument may not be as breathtaking as it first appears.

Cory Silverberg discusses how historians of sex have been less than impressed with the idea and the issue has now become a hot topic because the book, written by author Rachel Maines, has been made into a film starring Maggie Gyllenhaal.

The Technology of Orgasm is a somewhat controversial book. Controversial in that the thesis of the book has been almost universally accepted and embraced by the mainstream press and the sex toy industry, while at the same time being quite seriously critiqued by historians of sexuality. In her book Maines contends that the vibrator was regularly used by doctors to treat “hysteria” which they had previously been treating by manually stimulating women to orgasm. Included in this argument is the idea that the women didn’t know they were having orgasms and the doctors didn’t seem to worry about the professional boundaries involved in essentially masturbating their patients.

Silverberg also notes a comprehensive page by historian Lesley Hall who has detailed difficulties with the ‘Victorian vibrator cure’ idea.

The page also has loads of other fascinating information about 19th century sex.

Don’t be put off by the page’s dreadful green background – as the title suggests, it is full of wonderful ‘Victorian sex factoids’, including why it is unlikely that Queen Victoria ever used cannabis to help alleviate period pains.

Link to Cory Silverberg’s coverage of the new film (via @DrPetra).
Link to Lesley Hall’s page on ‘Victorian Sex Factoids’.

A case of simulated fragmentation

The New York Times has an excerpt of a book that claims to expose one of the most famous psychiatric cases in popular culture as a fraud.

Based on an analysis of previously locked archives the book suggests that the patient at the centre of the ‘Sybil’ case of ‘multiple personality disorder’ was, in fact, faking and admitted so to her psychiatrist.

The diagnosis, now named dissociative identity disorder, is controversial because the idea that someone can genuinely have several ‘personalities’ inside a single body has not been well verified and diagnoses seemed to boom after the concept became well-known.

This particular case became well known because it was written up as a best-selling 1973 book and was later turned into successful film of the same name.

The book and the film are though to have been key in the shaping the concept of the diagnosis and making it popular during the late 70s and 80s.

However, detective work by author Debbie Nathan has seemed to uncover medical notes that suggest the psychiatrist at the centre of the case, Cornelia Wilbur, may have known that his patient had admitted to faking for some time.

One may afternoon in 1958, Mason walked into Wilbur’s office carrying a typed letter that ran to four pages. It began with Mason admitting that she was “none of the things I have pretended to be.

“I am not going to tell you there isn’t anything wrong,” the letter continued. “But it is not what I have led you to believe. . . . I do not have any multiple personalities. . . . I do not even have a ‘double.’ . . . I am all of them. I have been essentially lying.”

Before coming to New York, she wrote, she never pretended to have multiple personalities. As for her tales about “fugue” trips to Philadelphia, they were lies, too. Mason knew she had a problem. She “very, very, very much” wanted Wilbur’s help. To identify her real trouble and deal with it honestly, Mason wrote, she and Wilbur needed to stop demonizing her mother. It was true that she had been anxious and overly protective. But the “extreme things” — the rapes with the flashlights and bottles — were as fictional as the soap operas that she and her mother listened to on the radio. Her descriptions of gothic tortures “just sort of rolled out from somewhere, and once I had started and found you were interested, I continued. . . . Under pentothal,” Mason added, “I am much more original.”


Link to excerpt of book in the New York Times.

Games of Invention

I’ve been collecting card decks. First I got the Oblique Strategies, Brian Eno’s deck of worthwhile dilemmas. When I’m stuck with something I’m working on I sit completely still for a few moments, holding the problem in mind. Then I take a breath, draw a card and apply what’s written to my problem.

Trying this now I get:
“Make something implied more definite (reinforce, duplicate)”

Other cards say things such as “Remove elements in decreasing order of importance”, “Honour thy error as a hidden intention” or simply “Water”

Often as not this process frees me from the rut I’m in. I don’t always get the answer in a flash, but mentally I get moving again.

The Oblique Strategies work because they use our talent for justification to stimulate invention. Justification is the mental skill of tracing causes to understand a situation. It is closely related to deductive reasoning. Most of us get a lot of practice at justification and deduction. We’re used to tracing causation and necessity down the loops and chicanes of “if-then” rules, used to figuring out what is allowed, forbidden and required. These are useful skills for understanding laws, code and the bureaucracies of advanced industrial society, but it is a mental set for reducing possibility, not for increasing it.

Edward de Bono, the guy who invented the term “lateral thinking”, talks about how this talent we all cultivate for deduction and justification can be hijacked in the service of creativity and invention. Rather than ask of ourselves, with our highly cultivated deduction machinery, “what is the next best move?”, we instead make a blind move in the space of possibilities. We force ourselves, for example, to remove the most important element in our design, or to apply the idea of water. This blind move whatever it is shifts us to asking “how could the world get this way?” We can then use our deduction machinery to build a bridge back from the move we’ve forced ourselves to make, finding reasons why or how this could be the next best move. The results can be so inventive they feel like they come from outside ourselves, but they are really just our ordinary logical machinery thrown into reverse by the need to justify a blind move.

The next deck of cards I bought were Stephen Anderson’s Mental Notes, a set of 50 insights from psychology designed as prompts for web designers. The insights are grouped under categories such as “Persuasion” or “Attention” and each card gives has a short description of a psychological phenomenon and notes on how to create or encourage it.

What I love about the cards is that they capture a huge amount of information from the field of Psychology, but in a completely different way from the ways psychologist usually try and present the information. Experts write textbooks laboriously cataloguing phenomena, enumerating arguments for and against their nuances. The Mental Notes don’t do this – brevity is the soul of their wit. The other thing academic psychologists do, is try and reduce phenomena to their essences, sifting the real and eternal from the incidental, the ephemeral and secondary. The Mental Notes could have done this, but they don’t. To ask why there are separate cards “Scarcity”, “Limited Choice”, “Limited Duration” and “Limited Access” when these are describing essentially the same thing would be to miss the point. The way the cards are they present the information in a form which means it can immediately be taken and thought about in a concrete way and applied to the design problem you are dealing with. Reduction to essences would be counter-productive here.

The third set of cards I’ve bought are Dan Lockton‘s “Design with Intent” toolkit. These cards are an attempt to catalogue patterns in design which influence behaviour, things like “prominence”, “decoys” or “threat of injury”. What’s nice about these cards is that they recognise explicitly that the cards are prompts. The main text of each card is a question: “Can you direct users’ attention to what you want, by making it more prominent, obvious or exaggerated?”, “Can you add ‘decoy’ choices, making the others (which you want people to pick) look better in comparison?”

Collecting information like this in cards recognises that the creative process needs an element of randomness, that making thoughts physical makes it easier for us to play games of invention with ourselves, and that too much organisation can sometimes restrict what we know – the information might be all there in a textbook, but the ends are all tied off, stopping our current state of mind latching onto what is needed. Invention comes naturally from inside ourselves, but sometimes we need a spark to set it off. We need external prompts which ask us questions we didn’t think to ask of ourselves alone, which lift us into seeing more of ourselves than we would on our own.


Oblique Strategies
Anderson’s Mental Notes
Dan Lockton’s website

This is the text of an article I originally wrote for the boys at Rattle, and their newspaper the Rattle Review. It is republished here with their permission

The cutting edge of the easy high

Perhaps the most complete scientific review of what we know about synthetic cannabis or ‘spice’ products has just appeared in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.

These ‘legal highs’ are typically sold as nudge-nudge wink-wink ‘incense’ but contain synthetic cannabinoids which have a similar effect to smoking dope but are legal in many countries.

We covered the history of these compounds recently and we also discussed the market approach of the neuroscientist-packing ‘legal high industry’ back in 2009.

Essentially, the industry is based on the fact that their psychopharmacologists can churn out new substances faster than governments can regulate against them, with the web providing a distributed marketplace that opens up the customer base.

This new article takes a scientific look at what compounds are actually appearing in ‘synthetic marijuana’ (of which there are many and various) as well as examining the known effects, good and bad.

If you’re not into phrases like “well-characterized aminoalkylindole class of ligands” you may want to skip the neurochemistry and just focus on the availability and effects.

It’s probably the most complete review of these compounds available to date, so definitely worth a look if you’re tracking the ‘synthetic blow’ story.

Link to ‘Beyond THC’ on cannabinoid designer drugs (via @sarcastic_f)