Two crucial minutes

If you’ve got just two minutes to spare you could learn first aid to help someone having a seizure thanks to a video from Epilepsy Action.

The acting is a little stiff, if you’ll excuse the pun, but it’s two minutes of your time very well spent.

You’ll notice in the video that the bystanders make a range of common but daft suggestions (‘hold them down’, ‘put something in the mouth to stop them biting their tongue’) that should be avoided as they could endanger the person having the seizure.

It has to be said that well-intentioned bystanders can sometimes be more of a danger than the seizure itself. Unless the person is likely to fall into a fire, fall off a bridge or get eaten by lions, the appropriate steps are just to protect the person, cushion their head, check their breathing and stay calm.

You only need to call an ambulance if the seizure continues for more than five minutes or you know this is the first seizure they’ve ever had.

The video just focuses on generalised seizures (‘having a fit’) but there’s info on other seizure types further down the page.

The organisation who’ve made the video, Epilepsy Action are fantastic, by the way, and they have a service where you can phone, email or tweet them any epilepsy question from anywhere in the world and they’ll answer it.

See the details on the top right of the page linked below.

Apparently though, no, they can’t get me a date with Lauren Pritchard.


Link to first aid for seizures video and info.

Reaction formation in New York City

My latest Beyond Boundaries column is about psychodynamic revolutionaries in New York and is in the December edition of The Psychologist.

Jonathan Shedler is recounting an anecdote. ‘So when the patient says “I’m frustrated”, you say “Tell me more about that” and then you shut up!’ We’ve just bustled in from a crisp Manhattan evening and the story gets an appreciative laugh. City University of New York is home to one of the most psychodynamically oriented clinical psychology courses in the US, and Shedler is here to fire up the audience. He’s presenting his research on the effectiveness of psychodynamic therapy, but the underlying message heralds a fight back. His data is mixed with tales of naive cognitive therapy trainees and disdain for ‘manualised CBT’ (there is, it seems, no other sort) and the audience are firmly behind him.

New York City was famous for its Freudian émigrés and became a leading centre for psychoanalysis during the 20th century, but the rising influence of drug treatment began to erode both the popularity of the couch and the therapeutic eminence of the Big Apple. Shorter therapies, validated using the techniques of academic research, have pressured both psychodynamic therapy, the younger relation of psychoanalysis, and its community of practice, who traditionally eschewed the systematic collection of data for the introspective gaze.

Psychoanalysis never gripped the UK’s psychology and psychiatry departments as it did in the US, and so the division between clinicians and researchers has traditionally been much less acute. In the New York lecture hall, this divide is reflected in the post-presentation discussion, driven by the split rhetoric of ‘practitioners’ and ‘researchers’ and how the latter don’t understand the former, despite the fact that we’re here to discuss research evidence. But most striking is the sense of revolt against the perceived oppression towards the psychodynamic approach, which, in the US, is additionally fuelled by the insurance companies desire for the most evidence-based bang for their buck.

The audience speak out. Person after person stands up, vociferously thanking the speaker, decrying the lack of respect afforded to psychodynamic treatment and promising to spread the word about this new evidence to colleagues, managers and patients. But beyond the fight back, there is a distinct culture change in the air. In an area famously divided by internecine feuding and bitter theoretical differences there is unity. And perhaps more significantly, the tools of clinical trials, systematic data collection and evidence-based practice are now being taken up as essential allies. New York City may yet be home to psychodynamic revolutionaries once more.

Many thanks to @Zleeoga for inviting me along to see the New York psychoanalytic scene in action. Greatly appreciated!

And many thanks to Jon Sutton, editor of The Psychologist, who has kindly agreed for me to publish my column on Mind Hacks as long as I include the following text:

The Psychologist is sent free to all members of the British Psychological Society (you can join here), or you can subscribe as a non-member by going here.

Link to December’s Beyond Boundaries column.

Endless brain gears

A visual tour of the clichéd ‘cogs in the brain’ image that seems to get attached to virtually every psychology article that isn’t published in a women’s magazine.

I’d be genuinely fascinated to know when this visual analogy first arose as you’d guess it’s a result of the computational model of the mind that arose with 50’s cognitive science.

But you never know (at least, not without a stiff dose of machine oil).

Link to never ending brain cogs.

On the perimeter of the synthetic cannabinoids

The synthetic weed story has just taken an interesting turn. Until now, all synthetic cannabinoids found in ‘herbal incense’ products have been taken from the scientific literature but a new previously unknown compound has just been discovered suggesting the underground labs are starting to innovate.

Cannabinoids are a type of compound related to the active chemicals in the cannabis plant. It turns out that a massive range of diverse compounds are cannabinoids and have a similar effect in the brain.

Synthetic cannabinoids have been researched for years. Both universities and pharmaceutical companies have churned out hundreds of variations both aiming to further our knowledge of the molecules and to look for potentially useful commercial compounds.

Since the mid-2000s, clandestine labs, thought to be based in China, have been synthesising cannabinoids that get you high, adding them to inert plant matter, and selling it as ‘herbal incense’ or ‘spice’ products for stoners.

Until now, almost all have been taken from scientific journals. The labs have been rifling through published research, picking out synthetic cannabinoids that look smokeable (and that haven’t been banned yet) and synthesising them.

Most are from the JWH series, named after John W Huffman, the chemist who first synthesised them in the 80s.

However, a new study in Forensic Science International reports on an analysis of a ‘herbal smoking mixture’ seized in Germany that contained both a banned known cannabinoid called JWH-073 alongside a completely new compound.

The chemical name is 1-butyl-3-(1-(4-methyl)naphthoyl)indole but it’s just called “compound 2” in the study.

Now it’s possible that this is just a by-product unknowing included in the mix, but I suspect this is unlikely.

In a new (excellent but locked) article on the chemistry of ‘designer street drugs’ the authors note that new molecule is a previously unknown hybrid of two existing high-potency synthetic cannabinoids. They also say the existence of this new molecule supports the idea that the clandestine labs are working on new compounds for street products.

What this means is that the labs are likely branching out from simply grabbing existing compounds from the literature to innovating new cannabis-like drugs, showing a surprising level of sophistication.

On a side note, it’s also interesting that this compound turned up in Germany, the same place that the original ‘herbal smoking mixtures’ appeared, perhaps suggesting that the country has the most direct links with the clandestine labs.

Link to locked report of novel cannabinoid.

Elvis in potato chip neuroscience

A new study just published in Cerebral Cortex on the neuroscience on how we see meaningful information in unpatterned visual scenes, seems a little fixated on Elvis.

The study concludes:

Future studies of the neural processing relevant to pareidolia and to meaning more generally may provide novel insights into how the organization of conceptual processing differs across individuals (see also Pizzagalli et al. 2001), thereby addressing the question of what neurocognitive architecture is necessary to see a potato chip not just as a tasty snack but as the embodiment of Elvis.

They even include a photo of the potato chip (proper spelling: crisp) that supposedly contains the image of The King which you can see above.

Unfortunately, I can’t see it, which I suspect means my brain has been ruined by the overuse of Fidonet as a child.

Link to Elvis obsessed neuroscience study.

The dreams and hallucinations of cloistered monks

French sleep scientists have studied a group of monks who have virtually no contact with the outside world and have taken a vow of silence.

The monks are of scientific interest owing to the tradition of having two sleep periods per night interrupted by a 2-3 hour prayer and psalm reading session.

The research group were interested in how the sleep-regulating circadian rhythm adjusts to this two sleep system.

It turns out that the automatic rising and falling of body temperature seemed to sync with the two-period sleep patterns but that the monks still had sleep problems (difficulty sleeping, waking, daytime sleepiness).

This suggests that they were not fully adjusted, even after decades of practice (the researchers report that “They all used several (two to six) alarm clocks”!)

Delightfully, the monks were also asked about their tendency to hallucinate and about the content of their dreams.

Although only ten individuals were studied, the answers are oddly appropriate for members of a silent, closed order.

Six monks had experienced mild (n = 4, ringing of the cell door at sleep offset or of the alarm clock, feeling that someone hit them briefly in the back, waking-up during the second sleep while mentally singing psalms) and moderate (n = 2, nightmarish, prolonged feeling of a demoniac presence at sleep onset after Matins) sleep-related hallucinations vs. one control (p = .06). Occasional nightmares were more frequent in monks than in controls.

All monks reported dreaming more often after than before the Matins [midnight prayers in between the two sleep periods], and to have conversations in their dreams. These conversations were rare (n = 3), hard to understand (n = 2), or frequent (n = 5). As for prayers, six monks were able to pray while dreaming, although it was rare, whereas two others dreamt of acts of piety, or imagined a disrupted liturgy, and finally two of them dreamt they were never monks.


Link to locked study. Not very charitable really.

The Crux of PTSD under threat of terrorism

I’ve got a piece over at Discover Magazine’s new group blog, The Crux, which looks at whether post-traumatic stress disorder makes sense if it’s applied to people who remain at high risk of terrorist attack.

The Crux is a blog written by a crowd of science folks that aims to taker a deeper look at some of the ‘big ideas in science’ that are currently being thrown around and I’ll be writing some occasional pieces as mind and brain issues surface.

Researchers have noted that “PTSD is classified as an anxiety disorder. Within cognitive models, anxiety is a result of appraisals relating to impending threat. However, PTSD is a disorder in which the problem is a memory for an event that has already happened.” After all, if you feel threatened with good reason, almost by definition, this isn’t a mental illness.

So if someone remains in danger after a life-threatening incident, does the concept of “post-traumatic stress disorder” even make sense?

As the diagnosis relies largely on totalling up symptoms in a checklist-like fashion, it is possible to diagnose someone with the condition in almost any circumstance. But no one knew whether treating it in people who are still in grave danger would be any use.

Until now that is.

You can check out the full article at the link below and pieces by the other fine folks of The Crux here.

Link to ‘Life During Wartime: Can Mental Illness Be a Rational Response?’