Control your dreams (ebook)

Anyone can learn to have lucid dreams, and this ebook tells you how. Lucid dreams are those dreams where you become aware you are dreaming, and can even begin to control the reality of the dream. Adventure, problem-solving and consequence-free indulgence await! And for those interested in the mind, lucid dreams are a great place to explore the nature of their own consciousness. The ebook is written as a sort of travel guide, telling you what you need to take on your journey and what to expect when you start to lucid dream. It finishes off with a quick review of the scientific literature on lucid dreaming and links and references for further reading if you want to continue your exploration of lucid dreaming.

I wrote this with friend, and lucid dreamer, Cat Bardsley. My wife Harriet Cameron provided some beautiful illustrations which you can find throughout the book (and on the cover you can see here). The book is Creative Commons licensed so you can copy it and share it as you will, and even modify and improve (as long as you keep the CC licensing). It’s available on smashwords on a pay-what-you-want-basis (and that includes nothing, so it is yours for free if you’d like).

“Control your dreams” is my second self-published ebook. You can also get “Explore your blindspot” from smashwords (which is completely free, and also CC licensed). The wonderful folk at 40k books published my essay The Narrative Escape last year (and after doing all the formatting and admin associated with these two new ebooks I am more and more in awe of what they did).

Sweet Dreams!

Clinical test copyright bullying legally dubious

James Grimmelmann, Associate Professor at New York Law School, has written on the takedown of an open-access cognitive screening test by the copyright holders of the Mini Mental State test.

He says “any copyright claim here is legally weak and morally indefensible”.

His piece is worth reading in full not only because he sets out clearly why the legal challenge to the open-access Sweet 16 test is highly dubious but why, at least in the US jurisdiction, copyrighting any test form is simply not possible.

What about the forms? You might object that PAR isn’t trying to stop doctors from using the MMSE, only to stop others from selling the forms that go with it. Well, it turns out the Supreme Court rejected that argument, too. In Baker v. Selden, the defendant was selling a book of blank forms to be used with the plaintiff’s accounting system. The Court held that this, too, was permissible. Yes, the Court said, the plaintiff could copyright his book explaining the system of accounting, but that copyright would not extend to the forms themselves…

The same goes for blank MMSE forms. Those are “necessary incidents” to administering the MMSE, at least if you want to write down the answers in a standardized way. Indeed, to the extent that the forms are designed to total up a patient’s score, a Copyright Office regulation says flatly that they’re uncopyrightable…

In other words, not only is the copyright bullying of other tests likely to be way out of bounds, but this also extends to any copyright claim on the original test form itself.

Link to Grimmelmann on MMSE copyright bullying (via @deevybee)

Diagnostic test takedown by copyright bullies

The New England Journal of Medicine report on how the authors of key screening test, the Mini–mental state examination, have initiated a take-down of an open, validated and freely-available equivalent due to it also asking test-takers to recall three words, a string of numbers and some basic questions about the date and location.

The Mini–mental state examination, commonly known as the MMSE, is most widely used to screen for cognitive impairment and requires little specialist knowledge in neuropsychology, so it has become the evaluation of choice for most general doctors.

As most people with dementia are managed by general practitioners, the majority of people with dementia are likely to rely on the MMSE for their diagnosis.

The copyright is genuinely owned by the creators but after more than 30 years of it being freely copied without complaint the authors have initiated a copyright clampdown, now charging $1.23 per copy through a company called PAR Inc.

Disappointed by the cash-in, Harvard neurologist Tamara Fong created and validated an open-access 16-item test to do the same job which she named the Sweet 16 (word to the wise: don’t name your test something which could get you in trouble for Googling).

Among other things, the Sweet 16 contains a part where you are asked to remember three words, a part where you are asked to remember a string of numbers and a part where you are asked to say the time, date and location.

As with many cognitive tests, these short tasks are also part of the MMSE.

The Sweet 16 is now no longer available online due to a presumed copyright action by the MMSE authors and publishing company.

The New England Journal of Medicine notes:

For clinicians, the risk of infringement is real. Photocopying or downloading the MMSE probably constitutes infringement; those who publish the MMSE on a Web site or pocket card could incur more severe penalties for distribution.

Even more chilling is the “takedown” of the Sweet 16, apparently under threat of legal action from PAR (although PAR has not commented publicly). Are the creators of any new cognitive test that includes orientation questions or requires a patient to recall three items subject to action by PAR? However disputable the legal niceties, few physicians or institutions would want to have to argue their case in court.

Cashing-in on a simple and now, clinically essential, bedside test that you’ve ignored for three decades makes you seem, at best, greedy.

Taking down open-access equivalents because they also ask people the location and date and to remember a handful of words and numbers makes you a seem like a cock and a danger to clinical progress.

The NEJM again:

…there is a clear clinical benefit to using well-tested, well-validated, continually improved clinical tools in complex patient care — as demonstrated by the MMSE’s use before 2000.

In a sense, copyleft is how academic medicine has always been assumed to work. Restrictive licensing of such basic tools wastes resources, prevents standardization, and detracts from efforts to improve patient care.

This is really disgraceful behaviour and the MMSE authors and PAR Inc. should reconsider their attempts at stopping independently developed diagnostic evaluations because they include simple memory tests, but hopefully the event will lead to wider understanding for the need to have open tests for clinical assessment.

Link to NEJM on takedown of essential clinical tests (via @deevybee)

The mysterious nodding syndrome

New Scientist reports that Uganda has been hit by a new outbreak of the mysterious ‘nodding syndrome’ or ‘nodding disease’ that seems to be an unknown neurological condition that only affects children.

There is not much known about it but it seems to be a genuine neurological condition (and not an outbreak of ‘mass hysteria‘) that has devastated the lives of children in the region.

Affected children show a distinctive head nodding (although I would describe it more as lolling than nodding) and show delayed development neurologically and stunted growth physically. This apparently leads to malnutrition, injuries and reportedly, death.

The ‘head nodding’ is also reported to be prompted by food and eating, and by feeling cold, although these triggers are not as well verified.

If you want to see video of the symptoms the best is a seven minute piece from Global Health Frontline News although there’s also a good shorter report from Al Jazeera TV.

This brief Nature News article summarises what we know about it although from the neurological perspective there is good evidence from a preliminary studies that epilepsy and brain abnormalities are common in those with the condition.

There is some suspicion that it might be linked to infection with Onchocerca volvulus, the nematode parasite that causes river blindness, but early studies don’t show consistent results and ‘nodding syndrome’ isn’t prevalent in some other areas where the parasite is common.

One of the most mysterious aspects is why it only seems to affect children and currently there are no theories as to why.

Link to Nature News article on ‘nodding syndrome’.
Link to Global Health News TV report.
Link to open-access neurological study.

Unlikely causes of dementia

An article on the history of dementia lists the somewhat odd causes for the degenerative brain condition as given by the pioneering French psychiatrist Jean Etienne Esquirol in 1838:

Menstrual disorders, Sequelae [consequences] of delivery, Head injuries, Progression of age, Ataxic fever, Hemorrhoids surgery, Mania and monomania, Paralysis, Apoplexy, Syphilis, Mercury abuse, Dietary excesses, Wine abuse, Masturbation, Unhappy love, Fears, Political upheavals, Unfulfilled ambitions, Poverty, Domestic problems

Although there are clearly some rather bizarre causes in the list, it’s worth noting that 19th century physicians didn’t always make a clear distinction between different forms of perceived ‘madness’ and had little grasp of what contributed to mental instability.

However, the list was clearly a big advance from the causes put forward by the Ancient Greek writer Solon who said dementia was caused by “physical pain, violence, drugs, old age or the persuasion of a woman”!

Dementia is actually a decline in mental function that happens more quickly than would be expected from normal ageing and is usually accompanied by clearly detectable neurological degeneration – such as in Alzheimer’s disease or vascular dementia.

Link to locked academic article on the history of dementia.

Diagnosing Tolstoy with non-existent madness

A new article on the founder of criminology, Cesare Lombroso, recounts the curious tale of how he met War and Peace author Leo Tolstoy to confirm his theory on how genius and madness were linked.

Among other things, Lombroso was convinced that mental ‘degeneration’ was reflected in the face and so could be seen externally.

The meeting, it seems, didn’t go well.

…he intended to meet Tolstoy, whom he regarded as the greatest living writer, in order to test his theory on the relationship between genius and madness… Indeed, Lombroso imagined Tolstoy as being of “aspetto cretinoso o degenerato” [“cretinous or degenerate appearance”] (like Socrates, Ibsen, Darwin and Dostoyevsky among others), as illustrated by one of his portraits published in the 6th edition of The Man of Genius…

…Once there, the Italian criminologist began his naturalistic observation with a view to verifying his theory first-hand. Indeed, he managed fully to confirm his hypothesis of the relationship between genius and degeneration, in that, in his view, Tolstoy proved to be affected by an “epileptoid psychosis”, a sign of a hereditary mental illness that was detectable both in his forebears and in some of his children. It was not a happy meeting.

On his part, Tolstoy reacted to Lombroso’s visit by confiding to his diary his contempt for Lombrosian theories (August 27, 1897: “…Lombroso came. He is an ingenuous and limited old man”: cf. Mazzarello, 2001: 983). Mazzarello (2005), who chronicles the visit extraordinarily well, makes an important connection when he notes that, in the days following Lombroso’s visit, Tolstoy would write the pages of his novel Resurrection, in which he depicts a public prosecutor’s harangue that is imbued with Lombrosian ideas; the President of the Court rebukes the official for “going too far”, while another colleague concludes that he is “a very stupid fellow”.

The great writer described his struggles with depression later in life but despite Lombroso’s instant diagnosis of “epileptoid psychosis” he was never known to have experienced psychotic episodes.

Link to locked academic article on Lombroso.

Ethics of the drone war

The Atlantic has a long but engrossing piece on the impact of military and intelligence robotics on the ethics of combat.

To be fair, it goes way beyond just robots and also discusses implants, digital enhancements and cybernetics. And if it sounds a bit science-fiction, it’s looking at already available or just-over-the-horizon technology and sticks with hard-nosed implications.

One more human weak-link is that robots may likely have better situational awareness, if they’re outfitted with sensors that can let them see in the dark, through walls, networked with other computers, and so on. This raises the following problem: Could a robot ever refuse a human order, if it knows better?

For instance, if a human orders a robot to shoot a target or destroy a safehouse, but it turns out that the robot identifies the target as a child or a safehouse full of noncombatants, could it refuse that order?

Does having the technical ability to collect better intelligence before we conduct a strike obligate us to do everything we can to collect that data? That is, would we be liable for not knowing things that we might have known by deploying intelligence-gathering robots?

It’s a long-read but well worth it as the piece looks at the impact of cutting-edge war technology on everything from humanitarian law to winning the hearts and minds of the local population.

Link to The Atlantic ‘Drone-Ethics Briefing’.

The crowd dynamics of the city safari

The Economist has a fascinating article about the weird way that pedestrians behave as they walk through cities and how this knowledge is being applied to make city-living easier and safer.

IMAGINE that you are French. You are walking along a busy pavement in Paris and another pedestrian is approaching from the opposite direction. A collision will occur unless you each move out of the other’s way. Which way do you step?

The answer is almost certainly to the right. Replay the same scene in many parts of Asia, however, and you would probably move to the left. It is not obvious why. There is no instruction to head in a specific direction (South Korea, where there is a campaign to get people to walk on the right, is an exception). There is no simple correlation with the side of the road on which people drive: Londoners funnel to the right on pavements, for example.

Although seemingly a trivial difference, the impact could be quite significant when, for example, trying to design emergency exit routes for international sporting events when people from many cultures mix.

The article is full of curious culture observations about how people move in crowds and the science of how and why people select their peoplescape navigating strategies.

Fascinating stuff.

Link to Economist article ‘The wisdom of crowds’ (via @mocost).

Transplanted corneas are a window to the soul

A fascinating note on the social meaning of eyes and why people are much more reluctant to donate the cornea after death than other bodily organs.

From a recent article in the journal Transplanatation:

At the time that a patient is diagnosed as brain dead, a substantial proportion of families who give consent to heart and kidney donation specifically refuse eye donation. This in part may relate to the failure of those involved in transplantation medicine and public education to fully appreciate the different meanings attached to the body of a recently deceased person.

Medicine and science have long understood the body as a “machine.” This view has fitted with medical notions of transplantation, with donors being a source of biologic “goods.” However, even a cursory glance at the rituals surrounding death makes it apparent that there is more to a dead body than simply its biologic parts; in death, bodies continue as the physical substrate of relationships. Of all the organs, it is the eyes that are identified as the site of sentience, and there is a long tradition of visual primacy and visual symbolism in virtually all aspects of culture.

It therefore seems likely that of all the body parts, it is the eyes that are most central to social relationships. A request to donate the eyes therefore is unlikely to be heard simply in medical terms as a request to donate a “superfluous” body part for the benefit of another. That the eyes are not simply biologic provides one explanation for both the lower rates of corneal donation, compared with that of other organs, and the lack of adequate corneal donation to meet demand.

What’s interesting is that the operation to remove the cornea does no visible damage to the donor. It’s just the idea of the thing that puts people off.

Link to locked article on eyes, meaning and cornea transplants.

An unborn brain flowering connections

We’ve mentioned some amazing advances in brain scanning unborn babies before on Mind Hacks and this image is another step in that remarkable science.

The coloured fibres in the image are still-developing white matter circuits in the brain of an unborn baby at 36 weeks, picked out by a diffusion MRI scan.

The scan is from a paper just published in Topics in Magnetic Resonance Imaging.

Diffusion-tensor imaging or DTI can identify white matter connections, the brain’s ‘cabling’, by picking out which water molecules in the brain only move along restricted paths.

It’s a bit like having a tube in a beehive. Even if you had no idea where the tube was, you could work out its location if you had information on the bee’s movements, because bees inside the tube can only move in one direction.

The same principal applies and DWI looks for the white matter ‘tubes’ by looking for where the brain’s water molecules can only move in certain directions.

This relies on the brain being relatively still so these scans are difficult to do in unborn babies because of their tendency to move around in the womb.

Nevertheless, when they work, the results are spectacular, and we can see the unborn brain flowering into a neurally connected marvel.

Link to locked study on Fetal Diffusion Imaging.

Explore your blind spot (free ebook)

I’ve written an ebook called ‘Explore your blind spot’. It’s about, er, exploring your blind spot! In the best tradition of Mind Hacks I take you from the raw experience to the cutting edge of scientific theory. The blind spot is a simple phenomenon of our visual processing, but one we don’t notice day to day. In the ebook I talk about how it provides a great example of the way consciousness is constructed despite ‘missing’ information. Like the ebook subtitle says, the blind spot gives us an insight into the mind hides its own tracks.

The ebook is available in all major formats here and is creative commons licensed. That means it is free, not just to download but also to share. You can even edit it and pass on modified versions, as long as you keep it CC licensed.

I’ve written this book as an experiment in ebook publishing, and as a test-bed for what I think could be a good format for presenting open-source guides to the myriad interesting phenomena of psychology. If you’ve got feedback let me know.

Link to Explore your blind spot, a free ebook by Tom Stafford

Mixing up a decade of All in the Mind

The amazing ABC Radio National programme All in the Mind is ten years old and is celebrating by mixing up some specially themed editions from its extensive archives.

First up is the psychology and neuroscience of sex that tackles everything from gender myths to the neuroscience of female orgasm.

The following edition, to hit the wires next week, is a special on consciousness and there’s plenty more gold on its way.

All in the Mind is one of the few programmes that is as interesting to professionals as it is to enthusiasts and if you’ve never had a listen, now’s a good chance to check out some of the audio.

Link to All in the Mind site.
Link to 10th Anniversary Special 1: Getting Sexy.

An untranslatable mind

We tend to think of translation as a problem of grammar but a brilliant post on Notes from Two Scientific Psychologists demonstrates how even concepts about what the mind is can vary across languages.

In Korean, the concept “maum” replaces the concept “mind”. “Maum” has no English counterpart, but is sometimes translated as “heart”. Apparently, “maum” is the “seat of emotions, motivation, and “goodness” in a human being” (Wierzbicka, 2005; p. 271). Intellect and cognitive functions are captured by the Korean “meli” (head). But, “maum” is clearly the counterpart to “mind” in terms of the psychological part of the person. For example, there are tons of Korean books about “maum” and body in the same way that there are English texts on “mind” and body…

Interestingly, Russia, which kind of sits between East and West uses “dusa” as the counterpart to the psychological part of the person. “Dusa” is often translated as “soul”, but also sometimes as “heart” or “mind.” “Dusa” is associated with feelings, morality, and spirituality. The “dusa” is responsible for the ability to connect with other people. This meaning seems to lie somewhat more with the Eastern conception than with the highly cognitive concept of “mind.”

The Notes from Two Scientific Psychologists blog is generally excellent by the way.

I also recommend this great post on female attractiveness, wait-to-hip ratio and why evolutionary psychology needs spend more time working with other cultures before it can really talk about likely evolutionary explanations.

Link to ‘How Universal Is The Mind?’

Counting every phantom found

I’ve just found a sublime track by singer songwriter William Fitzsimmons riffing on the antiquated diagnosis of psychasthenia and its treatment with brain surgery. Unexpectedly, it’s quite beautiful.

The song is called Psychasthenia, a reference to old-fashioned diagnosis of the same name that was the first description of what we would now call OCD.

I suspect, however, that the song is actually a laconic commentary on a modern case of OCD as it mentions psychosurgery, recently a current treatment option once more, alongside an oblique reference to treatment with SSRI drugs.

These medications alter the serotonin system and are usually the first treatment option for the condition.

The song seems to put the listener in the place of someone looking for relief from severe OCD while referencing psychasthenia as a way of underlining how our treatments still reflect the early days of psychiatry.

With an alter robe
I have stumbled knife to lobe
In compulsion drown
Counting every phantom found

Cut me open please
Cut me open please

With a bridge I’ve killed
I will serotonin fill
To a fear resigned
Quiet room I hope I find

If this sounds like reading a great deal into what are actually quite abstract lyrics it’s worth noting that Fitzsimmons left his original career as a psychotherapist in an acute psychiatric ward to pursue music full time.

Link to audio of Psychasthenia on YouTube

‘Legal marijuana’ and a ban on brain function

The United States Congress has just passed a bill to ban ‘legal marijuana’ incense products and ‘bath salts’ stimulants – a legal move which, possibly for the first time, prohibits substances based on their action in the brain and not solely their chemical structure.

The bill is an amendment to the Controlled Substances Act which currently contains a list of prohibited drugs, defined entirely by their name.

Due to the varied nature of cannabinoids, and the fact that semi-legit labs seem to be producing new variations at a remarkable rate, the bill uses quite a wide definition.

The bill (pdf here) specifically prohibits “cannabimimetic agents”, defined as:

…any substance that is a cannabinoid receptor type 1 (CB1 receptor) agonist as demonstrated by binding studies and functional assays within any of the following structural classes…

and any preparation

…which contains any quantity of cannabimimetic agents, or which contains their salts, isomers, and salts of isomers…

In other words, the definition includes a general class of compounds and possible chemical variations that have a specific action in the brain – namely binding to the CB1 receptor.

This is, as far as I know, the first attempt to ban a specific brain function.

The safety is these drugs is still largely unknown, however. Although most were developed many years ago they’ve never been scientifically tested in humans and current research is limited to a few case reports or small studies.

There have certainly been deaths and bad reactions but as we have almost no information on how widespread the use of these drug is we really have no idea about the relative risks.

Link to news from the DrugMonkey blog.
pdf of passed bill.

Body rock

Nature has a fantastic article about how our sense of being located in our bodies is being temporarily warped and distorted in the lab of neuroscientist Henrik Ehrsson.

We’ve covered some of Ehrsson’s striking studies before as he has managed, with surprisingly simple equipment, to induce out-of-body experiences, the sense of having a third arm and the illusion of having a tiny doll-like body – among many other distortions.

But Ehrsson’s unorthodox apparatus amount to more than cheap trickery. They are part of his quest to understand how people come to experience a sense of self, located within their own bodies. The feeling of body ownership is so ingrained that few people ever think about it — and those scientists and philosophers who do have assumed that it was unassailable.

“Descartes said that if there’s something you can be certain of in this world, it’s that your hand is your hand,” says Ehrsson. Yet Ehrsson’s illusions have shown that such certainties, built on a lifetime of experience, can be disrupted with just ten seconds of visual and tactile deception. This surprising malleability suggests that the brain continuously constructs its feeling of body ownership using information from the senses — a finding that has earned Ehrsson publications in Science and other top journals, along with the attention of other neuroscientists.

The article looks at what this body distorting illusions are telling us about how the brain makes sense of our bodies and how these discoveries could be applied to ‘locating’ us in false limbs or even remote control robots.

Also don’t miss the podcast where author Ed Yong talks about his trip to the lab to try out the illusions.

Link to Nature article ‘Out-of-body experience: Master of illusion’.