Christmas brain lectures available worldwide

This year’s Royal Institution Christmas Lectures were a fantastic trip through neuroscience and the brain – and you can now watch them online from anywhere in the world.

The Christmas Lectures are a traditional event where a leading scientist is chosen to present the latest developments in a fun and engaging way to a lecture theatre full of slightly posh kids.

They’re televised in the UK but they’ve now been made available online and you can watch all three streamed over the net.

And I really recommend you do as they’re fantastic.

They’re presented by psychologist Bruce Hood and they’re packed with excellent demonstrations that use everything from cutting edge neuroscience technology to stuff you could find in your house.

Enormously enjoyable whether your a fan or a profesional (or both).

Link to excellent online Christmas lectures.

The manual that must not be named

The American Psychiatric Association have used legal threats to force a critical blog to change its title because they didn’t like it being called ‘DSM Watch’.

The ‘DSM Watch’ website, now called ‘Dx Revision Watch‘, is one of the better websites keeping track and critiquing the upcoming changes to psychiatry’s diagnostic manual, the DSM-5.

On January 3rd the website owner reported receiving two cease and desist letters from the APA ordering the removal of all reference to the ‘DSM5 trademark’ from the site’s domain

You might be wandering why the APA registered DSM-5 as trademark – which is a legal device to protect against other people making profit from your good name – and why they are using it to bully critics.

Firstly, DSM Watch was a non-commercial site and so was in no danger of profiting from referencing DSM-5 in its domain name, and secondly no-one for a moment would look at the site and think it was an official APA site – in part, because despite the great content, it does not have, shall we say, the most corporate of looks.

If the APA still didn’t think the distinction was clear enough a simple request to add a message saying ‘not an official DSM5 website’ (or maybe they’d prefer ‘product’, who knows?) would suffice.

Apparently though, we can now distinguish between official and non-official DSM websites because the non-official ones are those engaged in healthy and appropriate criticism of the manual that must not be named.

However, I do hope they’re going to clamp down on the punk band DSM-5 so no-one mistakenly buys a copy of the diagnostic manual when they actually wanted a ticket to a sweaty hardcore gig.

Imagine the disappointment.

Link to post on APA legal threats.

Anesthesia as a consciousness scalpel

I’ve just written a piece for the Discover Magazine blog The Crux about a new study that used anaesthetics to “put people under” and test the limits of their conscious mind even after they’d stopped responding to the outside world.

Doing psychology experiments on people undergoing anaesthesia is not a new idea but it has always been done on people who volunteered due to undergoing genuine surgery. But this was the first study to put volunteers under anaesthesia solely as part of an experiment.

In this case, the experiment tested whether people had conscious experiences despite being unable to respond to outside stimuli – the medical definition of being unconscious.

It turns out the conscious mind keeps working way past the point where people are medically defined as unconscious.

In addition to the standard surgical way of checking unconsciousness, participants were also regularly asked to open their eyes to check when they stopped and started responding. Afterwards, each participant was questioned about their memories of the anesthesia session to see if they had conscious experiences even when seeming to be comatose. These included simple thoughts or perceptual experiences like flashes of light, to more complex experiences such as seeing or hearing the researchers, or having dream-like, out-of-body hallucinations.

It turns out that despite being rated as unresponsive and, therefore, by the current medical definition, unconscious, participants reported conscious experiences in about 60% of the sessions. This does not mean that everyone was “awake” as we normally understand it, as the extent to which the experiences reflected the reality of what was going on around the person varied, but the volunteers were clearly having conscious experiences.

Excitingly, the researchers suggest that experimental anaesthesia could be used as a ‘dimmer switch’ for the mind to find the point where no further conscious experience takes place.

Doing these studies while studying brain activity could help us understand which brain circuits are needed for the cross-over into consciousness.

More at the link below.

Link to ‘Anesthesia May Leave Patients Conscious—and Finally Show Consciousness in the Brain’.

Advertising through avatar-manipulation

The Psychologist has an article on the surprising effect of seeing a digital avatar of yourself – as if looking at your body from the outside.

The piece covers a range of effects found in psychology studies, from increasing healthy behaviour to encouraging false memories, but the bit on deliberate avatar-manipulation for advertising caught my attention.

One such consequence is depicted in Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the Philip K. Dick short story Minority Report. Specifically, there was a scene in which Tom Cruise’s character looked up at a billboard and encountered an advertisement using his own name. That marketing feat can certainly be recreated in virtual reality. We’ve demonstrated that if a participant sees his avatar wearing a certain brand of clothing, he is more likely to recall and prefer that brand.

In other words, if one observes his avatar as a product endorser (the ultimate form of targeted advertising), he is more likely to embrace the product. There is a fairly large literature in psychology on the ‘self-referencing’ effect, which demonstrates that messages that connect with the receiver’s identity tend to be more effective than generic messages (e.g. Rogers et al., 1977)

To explore the consequences of viewing one’s virtual doppelgänger, we ran a simple experiment using digitally manipulated photographs (Ahn & Bailenson, 2011). We used imaging software to place participants’ heads on people depicted in billboards using fictitious brands, for example holding up a soft drink with a brand label on it.

After the study, participants expressed better memory as well as a preference for the brand, even though it was obvious their faces had been placed in the advertisement. In other words, even though it was clearly a gimmick, using the digital self to promote a product is effective.

The article also notes that “Based on the findings from this study, the Silicon Valley company LinkedIn is featuring job advertisements that pull the photograph of the job applicant and place it in the job advertisement.”

Needless to say, I can’t wait for the next wave of ‘penis enlargement pill’ adverts.

Link to Psychologist article on doppelgänger psychology.

Declaration of interest: I’m an unpaid associate editor and occasional columnist for The Psychologist. My new year’s resolution is to stop buying promising-looking capsules from the internet.

A very brief guide to the DSM

The British Journal of Psychiatry’s ‘100 words’ series continues with a very brief guide to the DSM psychiatric manual and its ongoing revision.

DSM is an American classification system that has dominated since 1980. It is disliked by many for reducing diagnostic skills to a cold list of operational criteria, yet embraced by researchers believing that it represents the first whiff of sense in an area of primitive dogma. It has almost foundered by confusing reliability with validity but the authors seem to recognise its errors and are hoping for rebirth in its 5th revision due in May 2013. The initials do not stand for Diagnosis as a Source of Money or Diagnosis for Simple Minds but the possibility of confusion is present.

I was very pleased to see that the British Journal of Psychiatry made quite clear that the DSM is an American invention.

The original British plans, of course, were to have psychiatric diagnoses based on measuring the stiffness of one’s upper lip – an objective and reliable approach that was sadly neglected.

Link to British Journal of Psychiatry’s DSM in 100 words.

The cowboy cure

The APA Monitor has an article on how ‘nervousness’ in 1800s America was treated by sending male intellectuals ‘out West’ for prolonged periods of cattle roping, hunting, roughriding and male bonding.

This, I suspect, sounded a great deal more innocent in the 1800s.

But nevertheless, this sort of intense deliberately masculine physical exercise was thought to be a genuine antidote to brain-exhausting intellectual life.

Among the men treated with the so-called “West Cure” were poet Walt Whitman, painter Thomas Eakins, novelist Owen Wister and future U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt.

Although the Rest and West cures involved wildly different therapeutic strategies, both were designed to treat the same medical condition: neurasthenia. First described by American neurologist George Beard in 1869, neurasthenia’s symptoms included depression, insomnia, anxiety and migraines, among other complaints. The malady was not just an illness, he said, but also a mark of American cultural superiority.

According to Beard, excessive nervousness was a byproduct of a highly evolved brain and nervous system. A “brain-worker” who excelled in business or the professions might experience nervous breakdowns if he overtaxed his intellect. His highly evolved wife and children could easily succumb to the same malady, particularly if they engaged in excessive study or “brain work.”

The famous neurologist Silas Weir Mitchell wrote of neuroaesthenia that, under great nervous stress, “The strong man becomes like the average woman.”

As a male psychologist who is regularly outclassed by his female colleagues I have learnt this, sadly, to be true, but not, I suspect, in the way Weir Mitchell meant.

Link to APA Monitor article on the cowboy cure.