At least it’s not Twitter

Susan Greenfield, the neuroscientist who seems to have given up on science but constantly appears in the media telling people that ‘the internet can damage your brain,’ now has a website and a YouTube channel.

A sense of irony, however, seems still to be on pre-order from Amazon.

Link to but DON’T RISK IT (via @vinwalsh)

Dinner table neuropsychology

Common sense or ‘folk psychology‘ is what your average person in the street uses to make sense of human behaviour. It says people have affairs because their relationship is unsatisfying, that people steal because they want money and that people give to charity because they want to help people.

Scientists tend to say ‘well, it’s a bit more complicated than that’ but talk of conditional risk factors for behaviour won’t get you very far in a dinner table discussion so ‘folk psychology’ is a culturally agreed form of psychology that is acceptable to use in everyday explanation.

I’ve just been alerted to a fascinating study in the journal Public Understanding of Science looks at how the enthusiasm for pop neuroscience has encroached on ‘folk psychology’ to create a form of ‘folk neuropsychology’ where brain-based explanations are now becoming acceptable in everyday explanation.

Talking brains: a cognitive semantic analysis of an emerging folk neuropsychology

Paul Rodriguez

Public Understanding of Science July 2006 vol. 15 no. 3 301-330

What is the influence of neuroscience on the common sense way we talk about behavior and mental experience? This article examines this influence and the diffusion of neuroscience terms as it appears in everyday language that reflects shared cultural knowledge. In an unsolicited collection of speech acts and metaphors I show that the word “brain” often substitutes for “mind” and brain states are often asserted as the cause of mental states. I also present several examples of visual depictions of the brain, including modern brain scans, which have become the basis for new cultural symbols that are identified with mental experience. Taken together, the linguistic and visual brain metaphors highlight the concrete nature of the brain in contrast to the abstract nature of the mind. This, in turn, provides a physical dimension to the way we conceptualize mental phenomena in ordinary language. Thus, a modern folk neuropsychology is emerging which provides an alternative, reductionist, and sometimes competing network of concepts for explaining the mind in comparison to conventional folk psychology.

The full study is available online as a pdf if you want the details.

Link to DOI entry for study (via @cfernyhough)
pdf of full text.

Neurohacks column at BBC Future

The quite lovely BBC Future has launched (‘the home of new trends in the worlds of Science, Technology, Environment and Health’) and yours truly has a column there: Neurohacks (‘Neuroscience and the psychology of the everyday’). You can find it in the ‘Brain‘ section.

At this point any UK-based surfers who have followed the above links will be staring in frustration at a corporate holding page. BBC Future is only visible outside of the UK, due to it being funded by advertisements rather than our licence fee. Non-UK readers – hello! UK readers – despair not, there are workarounds.

At BBC Future I’ll be recruiting neuroscience and experimental psychology to help us understand conundrums and curiosities of everyday life. Things such as Why recalling names is so vexing (UK readers, try here) and questions like Do we all see the same colours?’ (UK readers).

Those are the topics of my first two columns, at least. I do take requests, incidentally, so if there is some phenomenon that has always bugged, or that you think neuroscience or psychology should be able to help with, get in touch (by email or twitter – see the right bar for details). I may be able to provide you with an entertaining and evidence-based answer.

Link: Neurohacks column at BBC Future

Check out the rest of BBC Future while you’re there. It’s a great clear site with a stellar cast of columnists.

Filming the rabbit hole

I’ve just managed to watch a few editions of Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia, an online documentary series about mind altering drugs, and was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the programmes.

If you think hearing about other people’s drug experiences is about as interesting as watching someone staring at the wallpaper, you’ll be pleased to hear that the series also delves deeply into the cultural and scientific background of each psychoactive substance.

The presenter, Hamilton Morris, investigates a range of drug related topics – from a piece on the legendary ‘zombie powder’ of Haiti to an investigation into psychedelic truffles, to the story of an ex-Goth stripper who got involved with the biggest underground LSD laboratory ever built.

In fact, the series is so good it even attracted the attention of The New York Times who wrote an article on the offbeat investigations.

Well worth watching.

Link to series (autostarts video, scroll for other editions).
Link to NYT story on the series.

Ulric Neisser, psychology’s repentant revolutionary

The New York Times has an obituary for the founder of cognitive psychology, Ulric Neisser. As with most of his obituaries it glosses over the fact that Neisser later rejected cognitive psychology as a means to fully understand the human mind.

Ulric Neisser is widely regarded as having founded the field with his 1967 book Cognitive Psychology. Although the principles of the science existed before – experimental methods, information processing theories, artificial intelligence modelling – Neisser was the first to combine them into a coherent whole.

The book was hugely influential to the point where cognitive psychology has become the de facto scientific psychology and the has at least partially integrated into virtually every theory of the mind.

But less known is that Neisser wrote a 1976 book called Cognition and Reality that criticised cognitive science for being unable to capture the richness of human psychology through lab-based methods and reducing lived experience to what were essentially computer models of the mind.

The New York Times describes it like this:

His contrariness extended to his own work. In 1976, he wrote “Cognition and Reality,” a book that challenged much of the field of cognitive psychology, arguing that it ignored the real world in favor of the laboratory.

This was certainly no ‘contrariness’. The book is a cutting critique and insightfully captures many of the problems with cognitive psychology, most of which were only ‘rediscovered’ in the 90s and 2000s as embodied cognition and network analysis started to look beyond the ‘disembodied mind is made of computer modules’ idea.

Later Neisser began to believe that while cognitive psychology had developed some useful tools, we have to apply them to the real world to understand ourselves, and he began to argue for the necessity of ecological psychology that stresses the importance of understanding what our environment demands of us in terms of behaviour and perception.

Link to NYT obituary for Ulric Neisser.

The mind is a guess

My recent Beyond Boundaries column for the latest issue of The Psychologist explores how the idea of the ‘mind’ as a single distinct concept is an assumption that many cultures don’t share.

I’d like to talk about people who don’t have minds. This isn’t going to be one of those ingenious philosophy arguments where I claim that we’re all zombies, nor a smug assertion that we’re just a bunch of neurons, but a brief visit to people who genuinely don’t have minds – at least not as we understand them.

The idea that the self can be split into body and mind is at the root of psychology, but there is no laboratory test, questionnaire or brain scan that tells us this – it is a product of our culture. In fact, we inherited the notion from the Ancient Greeks and it has stuck with us because we find it convenient (presumably, a bit like stuffed vine leaves). If you’re not sure how we can possibly think about ourselves without thinking about the mind, it will be easier, perhaps, to briefly touch upon other forms of psychology where the mind does not exist in the form we understand it.

In traditional Haitian culture, there is no direct equivalent of the mind. The self is made up of a three components. The corps cadavre is the physical body; the ti-bon anj or ‘little good angel’ loosely represents what we would consider as agency, awareness and memory; while the gwo bon anj or the ‘big good angel’ is the animating principle that manages motivation and movement. Incidentally, a traditional Haitian zombie is created when a sorcerer steals the ‘little good angel’ leaving a coordinated body capable of understanding and following instructions but without reflective thought, clearly demonstrating a split where we see a single mental realm.

The traditional Javanese concept of the self, a synthesis of many Eastern influences, is even more complex. Humans consist of the selira or body which is the source of physical desires. The organic structure is kept active and alive by the atma (energy), the kama (sensory desire), and the prana (vital principle). Unlike other beings, humans also have manas (deliberate thinking), manasa (intellect) and jiwa (immortal essence).

We often assume that understanding other cultures is about comprehending how other people ‘think’ about the world, when many other cultures do not even have an equivalent concept of the mind. Consequently, Western psychology is about as culturally neutral as Coca Cola.

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 column in The Psychologist.

Moments of the self

A study just published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences gives a wonderful example of the little recognised complexity of epileptic seizures.

The article describes three cases of people who take their clothes off during seizures and discusses the potential legal consequences of engaging in such behaviour when it was caused by epilepsy.

However ‘Case 1’ has so many other aspects to it, it really highlights the diversity of epilepsy. It can cause, for example, the sensation of “needing to look for something”.

Case #1 involves a women in her mid-30s with seizures that begin with an aura of “needing to look for something” followed by prominent sensations of heat. The patient often fans herself during seizures. During a clinic visit, she was observed to have a complex partial seizure during which she reached into her blouse and pulled out her bra. In the epilepsy monitoring unit (EMU), she had two complex partial seizures, one of which involved disrobing behavior. The seizure began with her sitting in bed talking to her husband in a normal fashion. She then became unusually restless.

Ten seconds after the onset of 4-Hz right temporal activity, chewing movements began. Thirty-two seconds after the onset, she began fanning herself with her right hand. Two minutes ten seconds after the onset, the electrical activity stopped for 8 sec. It then resumed at 8 Hz in the right temporal electrodes; after another 5 sec, she unbuttoned her pajama top with both hands. Bilateral rhythm ictal electrode activity continued to gradually increase in amplitude. Fifty-five seconds after the unbuttoning, she picked up a newspaper in her right hand and fanned herself for 10 sec. The seizure then evolved into a secondary generalized tonic/clonic seizure.


Link to locked study.