Feed your head

LiveScience has a spectacularly bad article that covers the toxicology results of Rudy Eugene, the ‘Miami cannibal’ who was immediately labelled as being high on ‘bath salts‘ and was predictably, not high on bath salts.

But don’t let the Parp! Parp! Clown Taxi notion of drugs causing cannibalism put you off from suggesting that drugs cause cannibalism because the article makes a point of carefully considering which substances were responsible for the face eating.

Eugene tested positive for marijuana. Could that have been the cause? Definitely not says the article.

“Some people have said, ‘Well, it must have been the marijuana that triggered Eugene’s behavior.’ That, in my opinion, is outrageous, and out of the question. Marijuana will not cause this type of behavior,” said Dr. Bruce Goldberger, professor and director of toxicology at the University of Florida.

Goldberger said that although a significant amount of research has found a link between marijuana use and the onset of schizophrenia or psychosis in at-risk individuals, this isn’t what happened to Eugene. “This behavior exhibited by Eugene is well beyond the scope of someone suffering from acute psychosis,” he told Life’s Little Mysteries. [Could Cannibalism Solve a Future Food Shortage?]

The ‘Could Cannibalism Solve a Future Food Shortage?’ link is genuinely in the original article by the way, presumably inserted by an automatic algorithm with an unintentional genius for badly timed inappropriate humour.

But one of the major points of the article is to report the toxicology results which found no evidence for ‘bath salts’ drugs in Eugene’s body.

Conclusion: the cannibalism was caused by bath salts. Secret bath salts. That no-one can detect yet.

There’s probably a cognitive bias that leads people to believe in impossible causal mechanisms in the face of evidence that all but rules out the presence of the supposed trigger – but I’m damned if I can find it.

Hang on. I think it’s called the Living Elvis Makes Me Girlfriends Out of Gatorade bias.

Link to article (via @stevesilberman)

Ghost image in my mind

Offbeat indie singer Charlotte Gainsbourg released a 2009 song about being fMRI brain scanned that even incoporated sounds from an actual scanner.

The track is called IRM, presumably because Gainsbourg is a French speaker and ‘magnetic resonance imaging’ in French is imagerie par résonance magnétique – which, by the way, is also the sound of a mysterious Parisian stranger whispering sweet nothings in your ear.

If you’re not familiar with what an MRI machine sounds like, listen out for the ‘buzz plus alien tractor beam’ sound in the song.

There is also what looks like an interesting error in the song. At one point she sings “Analyse EKG, Can you see a memory?”

As EKG usually refers to an electrocardigram – a measure of heart function – it’s unlikely she’ll see many memories there.

An EEG, on the other hand, measures electrical activity from the brain, and was probably what was intended.

Here’s the wonderfully poetic neuroscience lyrics in full:

Take a picture what’s inside
Ghost watching my mind
Neural pattern like a spider
Capillary to the centre

Hold still and press a button
Looking through a glass onion
Following the X-Ray eye
From the cortex to medulla

Analyse E K G
Can you see a memory
Register all my fears
On a flowchart disappear

Leave my head demagnetised
Tell me where the trauma lies
In the scan of pathogen
Or the shadow of my sin

The track is great by the way. MRI never sounded so hip.

Link to Charlotte Gainsbourg track IRM.

An animated neuroscience of headache pills

TED have a fantastic animation that explains how pain works and how it is relieved by two common analgesics – aspirin and ibuprofen.

Of course, pain relievers work in many different ways – the opioids, for example, are vastly different – but the four-minute video is a wonderful guide to the neuroscience of two common household pills.

Excellent stuff.

Link to ‘How Do Pain Relievers Work?’ (via @brainpicker)

BBC Future column: why are we so curious?

My column for BBC Future from last week. The original is here.


Evolution made us the ultimate learning machines, and the ultimate learning machines need to be oiled by curiosity.

I hate to disappoint you, but whatever your ambitions, whatever your long-term goals, I’m pretty sure that reading this column isn’t going to further them. It won’t stop you feeling hungry. It won’t provide any information that might save your life. It’s unlikely to make you attractive to the opposite sex.

And yet if I were to say that I will teach you a valuable lesson about your inner child, I hope you will want to carry on reading, driven by nothing more than your curiosity to find out a little more. What could be going on in your brain to make you so inquisitive?

We humans have a deeply curious nature, and more often than not it is about the minor tittle-tattle in our lives. Our curiosity has us doing utterly unproductive things like reading news about people we will never meet, learning topics we will never have use for, or exploring places we will never come back to. We just love to know the answers to things, even if there’s no obvious benefit.

From the perspective of evolution this appears to be something of a mystery. We associate evolution with ‘survival-of-the-fittest’ traits that support the essentials of day-to-day survival and reproduction. So why did we evolve to waste so much time? Shouldn’t evolution have selected for a species which was – you know – a bit more focussed?


Child’s play

The roots of our peculiar curiosity can be linked to a trait of the human species call neoteny. This is a term from evolutionary theory that means the “retention of juvenile characteristics”. It means that as a species we are more child-like than other mammals. Being relatively hairless is one physical example. A large brain relative to body size is another. Our lifelong curiosity and playfulness is a behavioural characteristic of neoteny.

Neoteny is a short-cut taken by evolution – a route that brings about a whole bundle of changes in one go, rather than selecting for them one by one. Evolution, by making us a more juvenile species, has made us weaker than our primate cousins, but it has also given us our child’s curiosity, our capacity to learn and our deep sense of attachment to each other.

And of course the lifelong capacity to learn is the reason why neoteny has worked so well for our species. Our extended childhood means we can absorb so much more from our environment, including our shared culture. Even in adulthood we can pick up new ways of doing things and new ways of thinking, allowing us to adapt to new circumstances.


Exploration bonus
In the world of artificial intelligence, computer scientists have explored how behaviour evolves when guided by different learning algorithms. An important result is that even the best learning algorithms fall down if they are not encouraged to explore a little. Without a little something to distract them from what they should be doing, these algorithms get stuck in a rut, relying on the same responses time and time again.

Computer scientists have learnt to adjust how these algorithms rate different possible actions with an ‘exploration bonus’ – that is, a reward just for trying something new. Weighted like this, the algorithms then occasionally leave the beaten track to explore. These exploratory actions cost them some opportunities, but leave them better off in the long run because they’ve gain knowledge about what they might do, even if it didn’t benefit them immediately.

The implication for the evolution of our own brain is clear. Curiosity is nature’s built-in exploration bonus. We’re evolved to leave the beaten track, to try things out, to get distracted and generally look like we’re wasting time. Maybe we are wasting time today, but the learning algorithms in our brain know that something we learnt by chance today will come in useful tomorrow.

Obviously it would be best if we knew what we needed to know, and just concentrated on that. Fortunately, in a complex world it is impossible to know what might be useful in the future. And thank goodness – otherwise we would have evolved to be a deadly-boring species which never wanted to get lost, never tried things to just see what happened or did things for the hell of it.

Evolution made us the ultimate learning machines, and the ultimate learning machines need a healthy dash of curiosity to help us take full advantage of this learning capacity.

Or, as Kurt Vonnegut said, “We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different.”

One hundred years of gratitude

Tomorrow is the 100th birthday of Alan Turing – brilliant mathematician, philosopher, proto-cognitive scientist, secret war hero and unjustly persecuted gay man.

If you want some excellent coverage of his life, work and influence, Wired UK has a new collection of articles stemming from their Turing Week project.

Highly recommended.

Link to Turing Week on Wired UK.

A procession of dementia

The June issue of the neuroscience journal Brain has an amazing cover showing “increasingly bizarre and menacing caricatures by an artist with frontotemporal lobar degeneration during the course of his illness”.

The caption reads:

From left, the first picture drawn many years before his illness; the middle pair in the first 2 years of dementia; and that on the right at least 3 years into the illness. Background: Gouache entitled ‘Unravelling Boléro’, showing de novo transmodal creativity comprising auditory to visual transformation, by a patient with primary progressive aphasia…


Link to Brain cover (via @tiempoasm)

The making of ‘War Neuroses’

The history of one of the most important and disturbing films in the history of psychiatry is covered by an excellent article in the latest edition of the Journal of the History of Medicine.

The piece concerns the 1917 film of soldiers affected by ‘shell shock’ during World War One. It was called ‘War Neuroses’ and was filmed at Netley and Seale Hayne hospitals. You can now watch the entire footage online

The full text of the article is locked behind a paywall but the pdf has found its way online.

The history of the film turns out to be very interesting. Although it has become iconic for images of ‘shell shocked’ soldiers it was also made with the promotion of producer and medic Arthur Hurst’s career in mind.

Hurst turns out to be a curious figure and not necessarily a good representative of what was happening with regard to the home treatment of traumatised soldiers – as he isolated himself physically and professionally from the wider community of professionals working on treatments.

Despite working at Netley, Hurst made no attempt to integrate himself within the wider community of shell shock doctors. By the end of 1916, Maghull and the Maudsley had become the main centers for experiment into treatment, run respectively by R. G. Rows and Frederick Mott, but Hurst worked independently of them and their staff. In part, this was because he saw himself as a general physician, rather than a medically qualified psychologist, bringing a knowledge derived from neurology and infectious disease to the question of neurasthenia, hysteria, and shell shock.

As a charismatic leader, Hurst was more comfortable running his own hospital than becoming part of a network of shell shock doctors—many of whom explored hypotheses borrowed from psychoanalysis, anthropology, and psychology. Significantly, no motion pictures were shot at either Maghull or the Maudsley, though both were recorded in still photographs.

Another curious detail is that Hurst made the film to demonstrate the effectiveness of his treatment, showing before and after treatment footage of the soldiers.

However, some of the ‘before treatment’ footage has clearly been re-enacted as the surroundings and personnel don’t change position. This was apparently common in documentaries of the time and was probably justified by Hurst as being an accurate depiction.

Nevertheless, apparently this was not only an attempt to make his treatments look more effective but the footage itself was also used to demonstrate to patients the extent of the change they’d experienced.

Anyway, the whole article is full of fascinating background, so well-worth checking out.

Also, if you’re interested in reading more about ‘shell shock’ and its effect on mental health treatment the June edition of APA Monitor has an article by the same historian, Edgar Jones, on how it was first taken seriously.

Link to article in journal site.
pdf of the same.
Link to film on YouTube.
Link to APA Monitor article on ‘shell shock’.

BBC Column: What makes us laugh?

This is my BBC Future column from a couple of weeks ago. You can find the original here


A simple question with a surprisingly complex answer – understanding laughter means understanding fundamental issues of human nature.

Why do we laugh? Well it’s funny you should ask, but this question was suggested by reader Andrew Martin, and it is a very interesting one to investigate. For what at first seems like a simple question turns out to require a surprisingly complex answer – one that takes us on a journey into the very heart of trying to understand human nature.

Most people would guess that we laugh because something is funny. But if you watch when people actually laugh, you’ll find this isn’t the case. Laughter expert Robert Provine spent hours recording real conversations at shopping malls, classrooms, offices and cocktail parties, and he found that most laughter did not follow what looked like jokes. People laughed at the end of normal sentences, in response to unfunny comments or questions such as “Look, it’s Andre,” or “Are you sure?”. Even attempts at humour that provoked laughter didn’t sound that funny. Provine reports that the lines that got the biggest laughs were ones such as “You don’t have to drink, just buy us drinks,” and “Do you date within your species?”. I guess you had to be there.

Brain triggers
So if we want to understand laughter, perhaps we need to go deeper, and look at what is going on in the brain. The areas that control laughing lie deep in the subcortex, and in terms of evolutionary development these parts of the brain are ancient, responsible for primal behaviours such as breathing and controlling basic reflexes. This means laughter control mechanisms are located a long way away from brain regions that developed later and control higher functions such as language or even memory.

Perhaps this explains why it is so hard to suppress a laugh, even if we know it is inappropriate. Once a laugh is kindled deep within our brains these ‘higher function’ brain regions have trouble intervening. And the reverse is true, of course, it is difficult to laugh on demand. If you consciously make yourself laugh it will not sound like the real thing – at least initially.


There is another fundamental aspect to laughing. All humans laugh, and laughter always involves a similar pattern of whooping noises. Deaf people who have never heard a sound still make laughing noises. The laughing noises produced by humans share many of the acoustic properties of speech, further evidence laughter is hijacking the brain and body apparatus that we use for breathing and talking.

But this does not fully answer the original question. Even if we identified the precise brain areas associated with laughing, even if we were able to make someone laugh by stimulating part of their brain (which can be done), we still don’t know what makes people laugh. Yes, we know about the effect, but what about the cause, that is, the reason why we laugh in the first place?

Shared joke
To answer this, perhaps we need to look outwards, to look at the social factors at play when people laugh. I’ve already mentioned Provine’s study of laughter in its natural context. Provine showed that laughter is used to punctuate speech, it doesn’t just interrupt at random. This suggests that it plays a communicative role – it isn’t just some independent process that happens to us while we are talking to someone. He also found that the speaker typically laughs more than the audience, and that laughter was most common in situations of emotional warmth and so-called ‘in-groupness’. Again, all strongly suggesting that laughter has an important social role. And it is not always used for positive reasons. For all the good feeling that goes with laughing with someone, there is also a dark side, when someone is laughed at to belittle or show disdain.

Perhaps the most important social feature of laughter is how contagious it is. Just listening to someone laugh is funny. To test this, try keeping a straight face while watching this video of a man tickling a gorilla. You can even catch laughter from yourself. Start with a forced laugh and if you keep it up you will soon find yourself laughing for real.

What these observations show is that laughter is both fundamentally social, and rooted deep within our brains, part and parcel of ancient brain structures. We laugh because we feel like it, because our brains make us, and because we want to fit in socially. All these things are true. But biologists distinguish at least four fundamental types of answer you can give to explain behaviour: “why did it evolve?”; “how did it evolve?”; “How does it develop across the lifespan?” and  “how does it work?”.

This column has given some answers to the first question (laughter evolved for social interaction) and the last question (laughter is controlled by evolutionary ancient brain centres that control breathing and speech), but even with the beginnings of answers to these two questions, the other two are far from being answered. Each time we get closer to an answer for a fundamental question, it deepens our appreciation of the challenge remaining to answer the others.

Thank you to Andrew Martin for suggesting the topic. If you have your own suggestions please send them to tom@mindhacks.com

Berlin plan #3: Instant social knowledge through unconscious perception

So I think I’ve figured out the third and final intervention I want to run for the cognitive science safari I’ll be leading in Berlin on the 11th of July. Regular readers will recall that I first wanted to try a field test of the change blindness phenomenon, and to follow that up with an exercise in contaigous attention. For my final trick, I’m going to try something which demonstrates how rapidly, and successfully, we can make unconscious judgements about people.

There’s a powerful demonstration of this that I experienced thanks to Professor Jon May during my undergraduate degree. Jon showed the class black and white photos of middle aged men and women and asked us to judge if they were American or British. There were no obviously clues, no cowboy hats, no uniforms or flags. Just boring pictures. If you had of asked any of us in the class we would all have said that we had no idea who was American and who was British. It just wasn’t possible to be sure, but we all guessed and – of course – at the end of the demonstration we found out that we’d mostly been right. It’s an important demonstration that we often have access to information that we aren’t fully aware of or certain about. We couldn’t make judgements on explicit criteria, but instead relied on a perceptual intuition. Without realising it, we’d been trained by experience to associate certain things – styles of haircut? certain facial features? clothing? who knows – with the different nationalities.

So it seems that throughout our lives we’re building up tacit knowledge of how we expect different kinds of people to look. This effect isn’t just for nationalities. Famously, it also seems to work for things like sexual orientation. This is a remarkable paper :Brief exposures: Male sexual orientation is accurately perceived at 50 ms. As the title suggests, it shows that people were able to judge at above chance rates if someone was straight or gay merely from a photo of their face shown for a twentieth of a second. It’s not quite instant, but it shows that even the briefest of flashes can contain a surprising amount of information. You can try a version of this experiment yourself, thanks to the wonders of the internet, with the “Gay? or Eurotrash?” game (via this neurocritic post).

What I’d like to try in Berlin is a demonstration of this phenomenon, but for geography. Using the group of people on the tour, I will find willing volunteers from around Berlin and ask them where they come from. Then we’ll ask the tour to try and guess, through a series of Yes/No answers like “Is this person a European?”, “From Germany?”, “From Berlin?” and so on. Through what has been called the wisdom of crowds we should be able to take the average guess of those on the tour to come up with a more accurate judgement than any one of us will individually produce. The fun will be in seeing how often we are able to judge someone’s hometown from no more than how they look.

A Bigger Apple

The Open University’s blog has a fascinating piece on why New York City has seen an astonishing drop in crime, against the predictions of most social theories.

Twenty years ago most criminologists and sociologists would have doubted that a metropolis could reduce this kind of crime by so much. Although the scale of New York Citys success is now well known and documented, most people may not realize that the city’s experience showed many of modern America’s dominant assumptions concerning crime to be flat wrong, including that lowering crime requires first tackling poverty, unemployment and drug use and that it requires throwing many people in jail or moving minorities out of city centers.

Instead New York made giant strides toward solving its crime problem without major changes in its racial and ethnic profile; it did so without lowering poverty and unemployment more than other cities; and it did so without either winning its war on drugs or participating in the mass incarceration that has taken place throughout the rest of the nation.


Link to ‘How New York Beat Crime’ (via @mrianleslie)

Dramatically titled neuroscience story

Question about your life. Introduction to a thematically related tragedy. Promise of hope.

Over-simplified premise. Mention of a brain part and an inadequately explained technology in the same sentence.

Dramatic claim of a breakthrough.

Researcher and affiliation. Description of motivation related to a minor personal detail.

Overly-technical account of experiment.

Contrived analogy.

Rhetorical question?

Allusion to a controversy.

Quote from the researcher. Quote from another researcher.

Caution about over-interpretation. Over-interpretation. Mention of future work.

Genuinely insightful point.

Unintentional irony.

Earnest but misleading conclusion. Optimistic ending.

With apologies to an old kuro5hin post.

A geography of stigma

The picture below is of the main building to Princess Park Manor, a luxury housing development in North London, that used to be Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum.

A recent newspaper article about the apartments notes how they have become an attraction for pop singers and reality TV stars.

The Princess Park Manor website lauds the historic buildings but has a history section that completely avoids the fact that the building was an asylum – Europe’s biggest no less.

But this attempt to distance the local area from associations with mental illness is not a new phenomenon. In fact, this area of London has been uniquely affected by trying to dissociate itself from the hospital.

The asylum was so named because it was located in a historic area called Colney Hatch.

As the hospital became infamous in London (it housed almost 3,500 patients at one stage so became well-known), the Colney Hatch name became irreversibly associated with madness. Being called a ‘Colney Hatch case’ was a standard insult.

As a result, simply being associated with the area was stigmatising and house prices began to be affected.

The solution was to rename the whole area to New Southgate. The train station was similarly renamed – originally called ‘Colney Hatch and Southgate’ and then ‘Southgate and Colney Hatch’ but finally the mention of the feared name was omitted entirely, settling with just ‘New Southgate’.

Eventually, the hospital itself was renamed to ‘Friern Hospital’

In fact, the only reference to Colney Hatch that remains in the area is the road Colney Hatch Lane which can also be called the B550 if you prefer.

Curiously though, the hospital had its own cemetery on site although I could find no trace of it on my explorations. Presumably it has been built over as the rest of the estate was sold off.

Link to piece on the history of the area.

Gene environment interaction of your neighbourhood

The amount genes and the environment contribute to our behaviour varies across the country and a new study has mapped exactly where the differences lie.

As well as an interesting finding in itself, the study also highlights an important but often misunderstood point about heritability.

The map on the right is from the study, and generated by the freely available software the research team have created. It shows the results of a large twin study that has been carried out with the help of families across the country.

Twin studies allow us to work out the amount of influence the environment and genetics has on particular trait by comparing the outcomes in identical twins, who are as close as you’ll get to being genetically identical, and non-identical twins, who share only 50% of their genes.

The map shows how much genetic contribution there is to the difference in ADHD symptoms across the UK. You’ll note that genetics makes much more of a contribution to the difference in ADHD symptoms in London than in other parts of the country.

In other words, it’s daft to give a definitive answer about ‘how genetic’ ADHD is, because the expression of genetic tendencies depends on the environment.

That’s not to say that ADHD or any other mental disorder are completely flexible with regard to their environmental and genetics bases, as there are limits and these are likely to be specific to the problem.

But it is also the case that with complex outcomes like mental illness it’s impossible to say that a particular one is solely a ‘genetic disorder’.

There’s a good write-up of the study on the King’s College London website and both the scientific paper and the software are freely available.

The software lets you map the genetic and environmental contributions to a wide number of outcomes that were measured by the study – everything from height to school performance to ADHD.

Link to write-up of study.

Behavioural profiling in casinos

Online culture magazine limn has an amazing article on the use of high-tech behavioural profiling in casinos that lets the house target its gaming to where it cashes in most.

Due to the fact that most games are now networked and most punters have been persuaded to play by a swipe card that can be tied to their personal details every last action can be recorded and analysed.

There is now dedicated behavioural analysis software that allows casinos owners to see how they can best target specific demographics.

The casino’s data cloud, when animated and queried, had rendered visible the fleeting, real-time contours of a behavioral group whose constituents, seated at individual play terminals and immersed in the solitary activity of play, were likely unaware of their kinship. Casino managers attempted to profit from the proclivities of this touch-point collective by carving out a physical space for its members and formally inviting them to gather there—not to socialize, but to continue to interact with their own game screens. Although the players were affiliated by age, gender, game preference, and ultimately a common gathering site, the collective they formed was “virtual” in the sense that it took shape and subsequently became meaningful through casino data analysis and visualization software rather than through self-selection, voluntary participation, or shared experience.

The article is a little jargon heavy but it gives an candid insight into how you appear to the data-hungry casino.

By the way, the whole issue of limn is on ‘Crowds and Clouds’ so there’s plenty of other great stuff for people interested in social psychology.

Link to article on ‘Crowd Contouring’ (via @somatosphere)
Link to latest issue of limn on ‘Crowds and Clouds’

Berlin plan #2: Contagious attention

As I’ve mentioned, I’ll be leading a ‘cognitive science safari’ in Berlin on 11th of July. We’ll be generating some experiences based on classic psychology experiments, experiments which tell us important things about how cities organise our perceptions.

Previously I described how I’ll be trying to revive a classic change blindness experiment. For my next trick, I plan to re-mix another classic experiment. This is one by famed social psychologist Stanley Milgram on the drawing power of crowds (Milgram et al, 1969).

We’ve all hear that nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd, but Milgram set out to systematically test this idea. Filming from a sixth floor window, Milgram arranged for collaborators to stop on a busy street and stare up at him. With the video evidence he could then record data on what proportion of passers-by would stop and join the crowd. In agreement with his classic work on obedience to authority, he found that the drawing power of crowds increased rapidly as the first few members joined.

Recently, research led by Princton’s Iain Couzin has provided an improved analysis on how this kind of shared attention spreads through a crowd (Gallup et al, 2012). Using automated tracking tools, the new research showed that people only follow the gaze of people near them, and – like traffic jams – attention tends to spread backwards in the crowd, rather than between people next to each other, or facing each other. There’s a great write-up of this research over at Ed Yong’s Discover blog: What are you looking at? People follow each other’s gazes, but without a tipping point.

One of the conclusion of Couzin’s recent study was that there wasn’t a tipping point for crowd gathering – no magic threshold where a crowd would just get bigger and bigger under its own `attentional gravity’.

Well, this sounds like a challenge to me, and I think I’ve thought of a way we can try and hack these experiments for added interest. Milgram and Couzin’s experiments both had a single crowd looking at a relatively uninteresting phenenon (Milgram filming from his window, a pair of experimenters filming surreptitiously). In Berlin, I’d like to try to plug two crowds into each other, so to speak. We’ll start off as in Milgram’s experiment, with one person looking up at the experimenter (Perhaps on the bridge overlooking Alexanderplatz – although suggestions welcome). The rest of us can watch the behaviour of passers-by: will they join the person staring up at the bridge? What kind of person will stop to have a look? How long will they stay? We’ll add more people to this crowd and should be able to see the patterns Milgram and Couzin observed: what is the effect of a bigger crowd? How far does the influence of the crowd extend?

Next, we’ll see if we can generate a self-sustained crowd by having more and more people join the experimenter on the bridge – creating two crowds watching each other, both attracting the attention of their nearby passers-by. If my reading of Iain Couzin’s research is right then there should be a stable equilibrium where the crowds reach a certain size and stop growing. If his theory is wrong, we could generate an endlessly growing crowd, driven by the power of positive feedback until it encompasses the whole population of the world – a Psychology equivalent to grey goo or one of those particle physics experiments which risks creating a black hole in the centre of Planet Earth.

Okay, so that second possibility is unlikely, but we are sure to generate a rich field in which to observe the interply of shared attention among the city-crowd. So please join me in Berlin as we travel the spectrum from science to speculation to experience in an attempt to unravel the mysteries of psychology in the city. As ever, I’m eagar to meet any mindhacks.com readers who live in Berlin and would like to come along (or even help out). Get in touch!

Original announcement: Meet me in Berlin
Plan #1: The Change Blindness Experiment
Make sure you check out the video of the analysis technique on Iain Couzin’s page here (it’s the one where everyone in the crowd looks like they’ve got a yellow arrow protruding from their foreheads).
HT to Vaughan Bell for the phrase ‘cognitive science safari’


Gallup, A.C., Hale, J.J., Garnier, S., Sumpter, D.J.T., Kacelnik, A., Krebs, J. & Couzin, I.D. (2012) Visual attention and the acquisition of information in human crowds. PNAS, published online April 23rd, open access.

Milgram, S., Bickman, L. & Berkowitz, L. (1969) Note on the drawing power of crowds of different size. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 13, 79–82.

The labels change, the game remains the same

Today’s New York Times has a huge feature on the illicit use of stimulant drugs like Ritalin and pharmaceutical amphetamines in colleges and schools by kids ‘seeking an academic edge’.

The piece is written like an exposé but if you know a little about the history of amphetamines, it is also incredibly ironic.

The ‘illicit stimulants for study’ situation is a complete replay of what happened with the branded amphetamine benzedrine in the 1930s, as recounted in Nicolas Rasmussen’s brilliant book On Speed: The Many Lives of Amphetamine.

Benzedrine had a legitimate medical use. It acts as a bronchodilater, opening up the airways to the lungs, so it was prescribed for people with asthma.

In the mid-1930s, it was also being tested as a way of increasing intelligence test scores with promising results, both in British adults and in American children.

But, unsurprisingly (it is speed after all) it became popular for party people wanting a recreational high, and students wanting increased focus and energy, who concluded through their own informal tests that it could help with study.

In 1937, none other than the The New York Times ran a story about benzedrine calling it a ‘high octane brain fuel’ and noting that without it the brain ‘does not run on all cylinders’. It was clearly pitched as a cognitive enhancer.

Shortly after Time magazine ran a story specifically on how it was being used by college students to cram for final exams.

Suddenly, there was a boom in students using benzedrine, leading the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Asociation to condemn the press coverage for promoting the widespread use of drug, as previously its use was a niche activity.

The warnings did little good, however, and speed has remained a massively popular study drug ever since.

Here’s an article from the 1948 Harvard Crimson, a full decade later, warning of ‘Benzedrine-Soaked Crammers’. And here’s another from a 1965 edition of same publication, almost two decades later warning of studying with benzedrine ‘pep pills’. Here’s the 2004 version: ‘Students Turn To Drugs To Study’.

So the story isn’t really new but it’s ironic that the New York Times has inadvertently promoted the activity. Again.

Link to NYT article Risky Rise of the Good-Grade Pill’