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.

A journey through schizophrenia science

BBC Radio 4’s The Life Scientific recently profiled psychiatrist, schizophrenia researcher and stand-up chap, Robin Murray, who talks about how his understanding of the condition has drastically changed over the years.

It’s a fascinating journey through how our theories about the mental illness, most associated with having delusions and hallucinations, has evolved through time – taking in everything from the anti-psychiatry of R.D. Laing to modern neurogenetic studies.

As a young man, Murray lived in an Asylum in Glasgow for two years, mainly because it offered free accommodation to medical students. Struck by how people’s minds could play tricks on them and the lack of proper research into the condition, he resolved to put the study of schizophrenia on a more scientific footing. Fifteen years ago he believed schizophrenia was a brain disease. Now, he’s not so sure.

Despite decades of research, the biological basis of this often distressing condition remains elusive. Just living in a city significantly increases your risk (the bigger the city the greater the risk); and, as Murray discovered, migrants are six times more likely to develop the condition than long term residents. He’s also outspoken about the mental health risks of smoking cannabis, based both on his scientific research and direct experience working at the Maudsley Hospital in South London.

You can listen to the streamed version on the programme page but to download the podcast you have to go to a completely different page and search through the list. Why? No-one knows.

Link to page with streaming audio.
Link to podcast page.

Of both lovers and epilepsy

Saint Valentine is the patron saint of both lovers and epilepsy – sadly, a little known fact.

There is one wonderful example of this divine coupling, however, where the passionate saint appears alongside EEG traces on 1998 postage stamp from Italy.

This description is from a brief 2003 article from the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry on the stamp.

EEG has been illustrated on a number of stamps. An Italian stamp of 1988 shows a pictorial representation of an EEG and St Valentine (Stanley Gibbons no. 1989, Scott no. 1743). St Valentine was the first bishop of Temi in Umbria. Some of the mythology is not entirely clear, but St Valentine was probably a physician who was martyred by the Romans on February 14, 273. He is patron saint of both lovers and epilepsy. There are also other patron saints of epilepsy.

Legend has it that St Valentine miraculously cured a young fiancee, Serapia, afflicted with a mysterious illness, thought now to be epilepsy. Sites where St Valentine was thought to have lived or visited became pilgrimage destinations for cure of the disorder. These destinations included Rome and Temi in Italy, Ruffach in France (where a hospital for epilepsy was later built), Poppel in Belgium, and Passau in Germany. Soon after Valentine’s death young lovers started making pilgrimages to Temi to be blessed by the Bishop on the 14th hour of every month for eternal love.

It’s worth noting that this recounts the traditional story of Saint Valentine although the actual history seems a little fuzzy and there were likely many historical people who have been blended into the image of the love-promoting holy man.

However, this also makes Valentine’s Day the day of both love and epilepsy, or as I like to think of it, lovers with epilepsy.

Link to JNNP article on epilepsy and Valentine stamp.

Violence and delusional pets

I’ve just read a striking article recounting cases of violence associated with delusions about household pets. Although the academic paper is locked, a copy is available online as a pdf.

The curious study was published in a 1987 edition of Behavioral Sciences and the Law and includes three extended case studies of defendants charged with aggressive crimes who had “psychotic perceptions and delusions involving their pet animals”.

Several weeks before the alleged killing, Mr. A’s cat appeared to be pregnant, so he made a nesting box for it. He said his wife disliked his cat because of its grey color. One day Mr. A dropped a jar of molasses, thereby spilling the contents. He lamented to himself that he no longer had control over picking up and holding objects. Upon seeing the cat’s strange green eyes, he concluded that voodoo was being perpetrated against him through the cat as a medium, and the cat was therefore responsible for his loss of control. It occurred to him that Cleopatra and the ancient Egyptians were surrounded by cats. He associated cats with the ancient past and evil spirits. He decided to shoot the cat in order to “break the spell” against him. However, killing his cat failed to dispel his sense of being fragmented and persecuted.

From the time he shot his cat until his wife was mortally shot several days later, Mr. A’s psychosis worsened; his thinking became more disorganized and lacking in reality adherence. Time seemed to have stopped. He perceived a striking deterioration in his wife’s appearance. “She looked so grey (her criticism of the cat), like a craven image… she looked sick.”

The author notes that the first description of this phenomenon was actually in the Edgar Allen Poe short story The Black Cat where the narrator develops delusions about his cat and eventually kills his wife.

Many thanks to Keith Laws for finding this unusual footnote in the forensic psychiatry literature.

pdf of article on violence and pet delusions (via @Keith_Laws)
Link to locked academic paper in journal.

Individual ecstasies: the revelatory experience conference

On March 23rd London will host a unique conference on the neuroscience, psychiatry and interpretation of revelatory visionary experiences.

It’s been put together by Quinton Deeley from our research group at the Institute of Psychiatry and brings together cognitive neuroscientists, anthropologists, religious studies scholars, psychologists and psychiatrists to discuss different ways of understanding ‘revelatory experiences’.

Mental health professionals frequently encounter people who report experiences of God or supernatural beings speaking or acting through them to reveal important truths. In some cases it is difficult to know to what extent such experiences are best explained as ‘illness’, or represent experiences which are accepted and valued within a person’s religious or cultural context. Indeed, revelatory experiences form a key part of the formation and development of major world religions through figures such as prophets, visionaries, and yogins, as well as in the religious practice of shamans and others in traditional smaller scale societies.

Why are revelatory experiences and related altered states of consciousness so common across cultures and history? What neural and other processes cause them? When should they be thought of as due to mental illness, as opposed to culturally accepted religious experience? And what value should or can be placed upon them? In this one day conference leading scholars from neuroscience, psychiatry, theology and religious studies, history and anthropology gather to present recent findings, and debate with each other and the audience about these fundamental aspects of human experience.

Rarely do we get the chance to look at visionary experiences from so many diverse angles so it should be a fascinating day.

Full details at the link below. See you there.

Link to details of Revelatory Experiences conference.

A culture shock for universal emotion

The Boston Globe looks at the increasing evidence against the idea that there are some universally expressed facial emotions.

The idea that some basic emotions are expressed universally and have an evolutionary basis was suggested by Darwin in his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.

The concept was further explored by psychologist Paul Ekman who conducted cross-cultural research and reported that the expression of anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise were universal human characteristics.

However, these ideas have recently been challenged and a debate recently kicked off in an issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science and the Globe article does a great job of covering the fight and its fall out.

…psychologists Azim Shariff and Jessica Tracy detail accumulated evidence that they argue makes the case for an evolutionary view of emotional expressions [pdf]. Some, they say, may have evolved for a physiological purpose — widening the eyes with fright, for instance, to expand our peripheral vision. Others may have evolved as social signals. Meanwhile, in a commentary, Barrett lays out a point-by-point counterargument [pdf]. While humans evolved to express and interpret emotions, she contends, specific facial expressions are culturally learned.

Barrett believes that the universality of recognizing facial expressions is “an effect that can be easily deconstructed,” if, for instance, subjects are asked to give their own label to faces instead of choosing from a set of words. In another recent paper [pdf] in the same journal, she argues that a growing body of research shows our perception of facial expressions is highly dependent on context: People interpret facial expressions differently depending on situation, body language, familiarity with a person, and surrounding visual cues. Barrett’s own research has shown that language and vocabulary influence people’s perception of emotions. Others have found cultural differences in how people interpret the facial expressions of others — a study found that Japanese people, for instance, rely more than North Americans on the expressions of surrounding people to interpret a person’s emotional state.

A fascinating discussion that tackles a taken-for-granted psychological assumption that is now being challenged.

Link to Globe piece on culture and facial expression.

Group sync

The New Yorker has a fantastic article on how creativity and innovation spring from group structure and social interaction.

The piece is framed as tackling the ‘brainstorming myth’ – as the well-known idea generation method has been comprehensively but unknowingly debunked many times – but the article is really much wider and explores what sort of social interactions lead to creativity and progress.

As well as looking at lab studies it also weaves in some wonderful historical examples of how diverse environments and relationships have led to everything from Broadway success to scientific advance.

A few years ago, Isaac Kohane, a researcher at Harvard Medical School, published a study that looked at scientific research conducted by groups in an attempt to determine the effect that physical proximity had on the quality of the research. He analyzed more than thirty-five thousand peer-reviewed papers, mapping the precise location of co-authors. Then he assessed the quality of the research by counting the number of subsequent citations.

The task, Kohane says, took a “small army of undergraduates” eighteen months to complete. Once the data was amassed, the correlation became clear: when coauthors were closer together, their papers tended to be of significantly higher quality. The best research was consistently produced when scientists were working within ten metres of each other; the least cited papers tended to emerge from collaborators who were a kilometre or more apart. “If you want people to work together effectively, these findings reinforce the need to create architectures that support frequent, physical, spontaneous interactions,” Kohane says. “Even in the era of big science, when researchers spend so much time on the Internet, it’s still so important to create intimate spaces.”

A compelling, comprehensive read.

Link to The New Yorker piece ‘Groupthink’.

Before you hit the ground there’s a moment of bliss

I’ve just found this amazing bluesy hip hop track by George Watsky and the GetBand about having an epileptic seizure in front of a girl you’re trying to impress.

As well as being an astute observation of the experience of seizure it’s defiant, fast and funny and Watsky just rolls through the rhymes.

You don’t remember how the hell you ended up indoors
You don’t remember whether you were wetting your gym shorts
in front of Amanda, the girl you’re after
who already thought you were a fucking disaster
It’s not like a last will, it’s making me laugh
unless you get your next one while you’re taking a bath
I’m seizing the mic fast at middle school dances
I’m done being seized and I’m seizing my chances

Watsky notes on the video page that the track recounts the experience that led to him being diagnosed with juvenile epilepsy in 7th grade.

By the way, I found the video on the fantastic Art of Epilepsy blog that keeps track of epilepsy in music videos, film art and literature.

Link to video for Seizure Boy on YouTube.
Link to The Art of Epilepsy blog.

Online teen drama

The New Yorker nicely summarises a recent study on how teenage girls make sense of online bullying and harassment in a way that is more acceptable to their peer group.

The article is on the tragic story of a gay teen who committed suicide after being surreptitiously filmed with a lover, captured through a webcam by his room mate.

It’s well worth reading in full and during the piece it makes the point, based on a recent study by two sociologists, that many teens do not see online harassment in the same way as adults, because it doesn’t help them manage the situation within their social circle.

A recent paper by two scholars of new media—Alice Marwick, of Harvard, and Danah Boyd, of N.Y.U.—describes the tendency of teen-age girls to categorize even quite aggressive behavior as mere “drama,” in the same category as online gossip and jokes. Policy-makers and television anchors talk of “bullies” and the “bullied,” but teen-agers tend not to, in part because “teens gain little by identifying as either,” the scholars explain. “Social stigmas prevent teens from recognizing that they are weak, and few people are willing to admit that they purposefully hurt others. . . . ‘Drama’ also implies something not to be taken seriously, to be risen above, while the adult-defined ‘bullying’ connotes childishness or immaturity to teenagers.”

In the academic article the researchers note that “Understanding how “drama” operates is necessary to recognize teens’ own defenses against the realities of aggression, gossip, and bullying in networked publics. Most teens do not recognize themselves in the “bullying” rhetoric used by parents, teen advocates, and mental health professionals.”

An important point when we’re trying to communicate with teens on how to stay safe and sane online.

Link to New Yorker piece ‘The Story of a Suicide’.
Link to study on online teen ‘drama’.