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’.