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?’

Against the high cult of retreat

Depending on who you ask Naomi Weisstein is a perceptual neuroscientist, a rock n roll musician, a social critic, a comedian, or a fuck the patriarchy radical feminist.

You stick Weisstein’s name into Google Scholar and her most cited paper is ‘Psychology Constructs the Female’ – a searing critique of how 60s psychology pictured the female psyche – while her second most cited is a study published in Science on visual detection of line segments.

Although the topics are different, the papers are more alike than you’d first imagine.

Her article ‘Psychology Constructs the Female’ was originally published in 1968 and became an instant classic.

She looked at the then current theories of female psychology, and at the evidence that supported them, and shows that the theories are pitiful – largely based on personal opinion and idiosyncratic interpretations of weak or non-existent evidence.

Moreover, she shows that all known differences at the time could be accounted for by social context and what was expected of the participants, rather than their sex.

It’s a masterpiece of evidence-based scientific thinking when feminist psychology was, and to a large extent, still is, heavily influenced by postmodernism and poststructuralism – theories that suggest that there is no objective reality and science is just another social narrative that has female oppression built into its knowledge base.

Weisstein, who also had a huge impact on perceptual science, had little time for what she considered to be ‘fog’ and ‘paralysis’:

I’m still wearing my beanie hat, aren’t I? I don’t think I can take it off… Science (as opposed to the scientific establishment) will entertain hypothesis generated in any way: mystical, intuitive, experiential. It only asks us to make sure that our observations and replicable and our theories have some reasonable relation to other things we know to be true about the subject under study, that is to objective reality…

Whether or not there is objective reality is a 4000-year-old philosophical stalemate. The last I heard was that, like God, you cannot prove there is one and you cannot prove there is not one. It comes down to a religious and / or political choice. I believe that the current feminist rejection of universal truth is a political choice. Radical and confrontational as the feminist challenge to science may appear, it is in fact, a deeply conservative retreat…

Poststructuralist feminism is a high cult of retreat. Sometimes I think that, when the fashion passes, we will find many bodies, drowned in their own wordy words, like the Druids in the bogs.

A recent academic article looked back at Weisstein’s legacy and noted that she has been a powerful force in a feminist movement that typically rejects science as a useful approach.

But she was also a pioneer in simply being a high-flying female scientist when they were actively discouraged from getting involved.

Link to full text of ‘Psychology Constructs the Female’.

The free will rebellion

A popular mantra of modern neuroscience tells us that free will is an illusion. An article in the New York Times makes a lucid challenge to the ‘death of free will’ idea and a prominent neuroscientist has come out to fight the same corner.

Neuroscientists began making preparations for the funeral of free will shortly after Benjamin Libet began publishing his experiments in the 1980s showing a consistent build-up of electrical activity from the brain’s motor cortex before participants were consciously aware of their desire to move.

Since then, many more neuroscience studies have shown that brain activity can precede conscious awareness of specific choices or actions – with the implication that our conscious experience of decision-making is nothing but a secondary effect that plays little role in our actions and reactions.

The idea that ‘free will is an illusion’ is now consistently touted by neuroscientists as an example of how brain science is revealing ‘what really drives us’ and how it explains ‘how we really work’. But philosophers, the conceptual engineers of new ideas, have started to find holes in this popular meme.

Probably the most lucid mainstream analysis of why neuroscience isn’t killing free will has just been published at The New York Times where philosopher of mind Eddy Nahmias takes the mourners to task using a narrow and largely irrelevant definition of free will.

So, does neuroscience mean the death of free will? Well, it could if it somehow demonstrated that conscious deliberation and rational self-control did not really exist or that they worked in a sheltered corner of the brain that has no influence on our actions. But neither of these possibilities is likely. True, the mind sciences will continue to show that consciousness does not work in just the ways we thought, and they already suggest significant limitations on the extent of our rationality, self-knowledge, and self-control. Such discoveries suggest that most of us possess less free will than we tend to think, and they may inform debates about our degrees of responsibility. But they do not show that free will is an illusion.

Nahmais makes the point that the ‘death of free will’ idea makes a fallacy he calls ‘bypassing’ that reduces our decisions to chemical reactions, implying that our conscious thinking is bypassed, and so we must lack free will.

He notes that this is like saying life doesn’t exist because every living thing is made up of non-living molecules, when, in reality, its impossible to understand life or free will without considering the system at the macro level – that is, the actions and interactions of the whole organism.

Interestingly, a similar point is made by legendary neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga in an interview for Salon where he discusses his new book on free will. He also suggests it’s not possible to understand free will at the level of neurons without making the concept nonsensical.

These contrasting concepts about free will may yet be solved, however, as Nature recently reported on a new $4 million ‘Big Questions in Free Will’ project which brings together philosophers and cognitive scientists to work together to understand how we act in the world.

Link to NYT piece ‘Is Neuroscience the Death of Free Will?’
Link to Salon interview with Michael Gazzaniga.
Link to Nature piece ‘Taking Aim at Free Will’.

Radio 4’s brilliant brain season now being scattered

BBC Radio 4’s Brain Season is in full swing, which, in typical BBC fashion, is both brilliantly conceived and chaotically scattered over their webpages like a drunken farmer chasing birds off his field with a seed planter.

A good place to start is the brain season blog post which lists all the programmes in the season and links to their programme page and separate podcast page (if one exists). It may or may not be being updated as new material comes online.

Probably the best of the season is the History of the Brain series of which five of the ten programmes have been broadcast at the time of writing and which are all available on a single permanent temporary podcast page.

You could go to the separate and unlinked programme information page that has a few more details and the streamed audio but I’d advise against it as it’ll only encourage them.

The one-off Mind Myths and Life Scientific programmes, the latter featuring neuroscientist Colin Blakemore, have to be downloaded from their respective podcast pages (here and here) but if you read try the page months after the broadcast date you’ll have to click ‘Show all episodes’ and scroll down to find the episode from the entire list.

The awesome looking programme The Lobotomists apparently won’t be released as a podcast at all, so unless you live in the UK and can catch it on the streaming service within the next two weeks, you’ll have to stick it up your arse.

We have no idea where the similarly awesome looking series Brain Culture: Neuroscience and Society will turn up after its first broadcast on November 15th. Probably the B-side of a rare 1973 James Brown recording that has only recently become available after copies were found in the basement of the original recording studio.

Radio 4 also has a page with interviews and profiles of some of the scientists featured in the series but you can’t find out which are specifically linked to the brain season so you’ll have to…


Link to brain season blog post page.

A theory of the bipolar economy

If you’re convinced that the current cycle of the boom and bust economy is due to the collapse of collateralised debt obligations secured on oversold mortgages that destablised the European market due to its reliance on cheap loans from an artificially inflated US market – think again!

A 1935 Psychological Review article proposed a ‘manic-depressive psychoses’ theory of economic highs and lows based on the idea that the market has a form of monetary bipolar disorder.

Manic-depressive psychoses of business

Psychological Review, Vol 42(1), Jan 1935, 91-107.

Morgan, J. J. B.

An analysis of the various theories offered to explain the business cycle of alternate booms and depressions shows that all these theories are based on a superficial study of symptoms, rather than on an analysis of the real causes, which the author believes are psychological in nature.

Business is compared to a patient suffering from a manic-depressive psychosis, in which the boom period parallels the manic phase and the subsequent slump parallels the depressive phase. It is argued that, in business as in the individual psychosis, the manic period is not a period of real optimism or even over-confidence, but is really a period of fear, for which the excessive speculative activity is a compensatory mechanism.

This fear is induced by a lack of confidence in the credit system and a desire to beat it. Two alternative solutions are offered: one is to strengthen the credit system by building up a group of heroic leaders; but this is utopian at present. The other is to discover a better defense mechanism and adopt it.

I suspect when Dr Morgan thought of a ‘better defense mechanism’ he wasn’t thinking of a bunch of unemployed people and students camping out in the local financial centre.

The article was apparently mentioned by economist Robert Shiller at a talk at the ongoing Society for Neuroscience conference.

Link to article summary (via @carlzimmer)

The rise and fall of ‘space madness’

‘Space madness’ was a serious concern for psychiatrists involved in the early space programme. A new article in history of science journal Endeavour tracks the interest in this ‘dreaded disease that never was.’

Much to the surprise of NASA mental health professionals, those who volunteered to be astronauts were neither “suicidal deviants” nor troubled by their separation from the earth, but the media ran with the ‘space travel as psychic trauma’ idea anyway.

‘In answer to the question, “‘What kind of people volunteer to be fired into orbit?” one might expect strong intimations of psychopathology’. Or so thought two Air Force psychiatrists selected to examine America’s first would-be astronauts. Researchers of the 1950s who considered the problem of human spaceflight often speculated that such work would attract only suicidal deviants, and that merely participating in such a voyage would overwhelm the human psyche of otherwise healthy people. The popular culture record of the time seemed to confirm their suspicions, with science fiction films frequently offering up megalomaniacs, egotists, and religious fanatics terrorizing planets in their cinematic space cruisers.

It is not surprising, then, that the psychiatrists working with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 1959 feared the worst of the men selected to be America’s first astronauts: that they would be impulsive, suicidal, sexually aberrant thrill-seekers. The examiners, though, were surprised – and a little disappointed – when tests revealed the would-be spacemen to be sane, poised professionals able to absorb extraordinary stresses. Flying jet airplanes in Cold War America had conditioned the men to control their fear, and even the most spirited among them were effective in orbit.

The idea that humans could travel into space and not be traumatized by their experiences, though, was unpalatable to large numbers of journalists and screenwriters, who expected that such journeys would produce some form of psychic transformation. By the early-1970s, popular culture depicting unhinged astronauts became commonplace, even as NASA’s astronauts demonstrated a remarkable ability to absorb the stresses of long-duration spaceflight. A Space Age malady with no incidence among human populations, ‘space madness’ is the stuff of Hollywood: a cultural manifestation of popular fears of a lonely, dehumanizing, and claustrophobic future among the stars.

Unfortunately, the article is locked, because the likes of you and me would just make the place look scruffy, but we covered some of the early discussion on what might cause ‘space madness’ previously on Mind Hacks.

And if you’re interested in the modern astronaut psychology don’t miss a 2008 article from The Psychologist on how NASA select their space travelling colleagues.

I would also like to mention that if someone from NASA is reading that I am free at *any time* to start astronaut duties. I also already own a space pen and am fully competent in its use.

Link to locked article. Not very space age, is it?
Link to previous Mind Hacks piece on space madness.

The appliance of psychological science

The BPS Research Digest is celebrating its 200th issue with a series of articles from well-known psychologists that describe how psychology has helped them out in everyday life.

There’s a whole stack of people involved who have written on everything from love to scientific thinking to child rearing.

Both myself and Tom have contributed pieces but my favourite is from Ellen Langer who has spent many years studying the effect of stereotypes about old age on older people:

At age 89 my father’s memory was fragile – he was showing his years. One day we were playing cards and I began to think that I should let him win. I soon realized that, if I saw someone else behaving that way, I’d tell her to stop being so condescending. I might even explain how negative prophecies come to be fulfilled, and I’d go on to explain that much of what we take to be memory loss has other explanations.

For instance, as our values change with age, we often don’t care about certain things to the degree we used to, and we therefore don’t pay much attention to them anymore. The “memory problems” of the elderly are often simply due to the fact that they haven’t noted something that they find rather uninteresting. And then, while I was weighing whether to treat him as a child because part of me still felt that he would enjoy winning, he put his cards down and declared that he had gin.

There are many more great pieces at the link below.

Link to BPSRD ‘Psychology to the Rescue’ series.

Chasing the dragon across the world

A summary of a fascinating 1997 article on how the practice of consuming heroin by ‘chasing the dragon‘ – inhaling vapours after heating the drug on tin foil – spread across the world.

Heroin smoking by ‘chasing the dragon’: origins and history

Addiction. 1997 Jun;92(6):673-83;

Strang J, Griffiths P, Gossop M.

The history of heroin smoking and the subsequent development and spread of ‘chasing the dragon’ are examined. The first heroin smoking originated in Shanghai in the 1920s and involved use of porcelain bowls and bamboo tubes, thereafter spreading across much of Eastern Asia and to the United States over the next decade.

‘Chasing the dragon’ was a later refinement of this form of heroin smoking, originating in or near Hong Kong in the 1950s, and refers to the ingestion of heroin by inhaling the vapours which result when the drug is heated-typically on tin-foil above a flame. Subsequent spread of ‘chasing the dragon’ included spread to other parts of South East Asia during the 1960s and 1970s, to some parts of Europe during the late 1970s and early 1980s, and to much of the Indian sub-continent during the 1980s.

At the time of writing, ‘chasing the dragon’ has now been reliably reported from many parts of the world but not from others with an established heroin problem-such as the United States and Australia. The significance of this new form of heroin use is examined, including consideration of the role of the different effect with this new form of use, the different types of heroin, and changing public attitudes to injecting.

The article also notes that the popularity of particular drugs tends to rely equally on the methods of consumption as the effects of the substances themselves.

For example, the popularity of morphine in the late 19th century was equally dependent on the development of the needle and hypodermic syringe and the development of cigarettes massively increased the number of tobacco smokers.

Link to locked article on the history of ‘chasing the dragon’.

I am yours for 2 coppers

I’ve just found a wonderful 1973 study on the psychoanalysis of graffiti that discusses how unconscious desires might be expressed through public scrawlings.

It has a completely charming table that compares graffiti from A.D. 79 Pompeii with 1960’s Los Angeles to demonstrate the similarity of themes across the centuries.


The author concludes that “aggressive-destructive and incorporative wishes are similarly satisfied by the wall writer at the expense of the wall owner” although overtly sexual images should be considered as definitely expressing sexual themes.

Link to locked 1973 study the psychoanalysis of graffiti.