Your future self already exists in the cloud

The Economist has a short but fascinating piece on the work of physicist Chaoming Song who creates mathematical models to predict your future location based on your mobile phone and online activity. His accuracy rarely drops below 80%.

Song Chaoming, for instance, is a researcher at Northeastern University in Boston. He is a physicist, but he moonlights as a social scientist. With that hat on he has devised an algorithm which can look at someone’s mobile-phone records and predict with an average of 93% accuracy where that person is at any moment of any day. Given most people’s regular habits (sleep, commute, work, commute, sleep), this might not seem too hard. What is impressive is that his accuracy was never lower than 80% for any of the 50,000 people he looked at.

If you think this sounds a little far-fetched the findings have already been published – one paper in Nature Physics and the other in Science.

Yes folks, we’re all unique. Just like everyone else.

Link to The Economist on Chaoming’s network echo location work.

The Perfect Woman

The heaving busts and melodrama of a Latin American soap opera, a television industry desperate for a ratings hit, and the writer makes a woman with Asperger’s syndrome the love interest for the dashing plastic surgeon in the latest telenovela. It sounds like a recipe for disaster but it turned out to be a triumph.

The Venezuelan telenovela was called La Mujer Perfecta – The Perfect Woman. The name was a play on its plastic surgery theme, a subtle nod to the country’s obsession with surgical tweaks and a knowing satire on the fact that the heroine was unconventionally, well, perfect.

If you’ve never seen a Latin American telenovela most are like a crap version of Knots Landing that exist as the semi-official residence of ex-beauty queens. Occasionally, however, they soar into brilliance.

La Mujer Perfecta was one of those examples and it’s discussed in an English-language article by media researcher Carolina Acosta-Alzuru. Wonderfully, she writes the piece as a letter to the lead character Micaela.

Of these six women, you would be the most peculiar, Micaela. You, who had never gone under the plastic surgery knife and who had never fallen in love, would discover the symptoms of love on meeting Santiago Reverón, a famous plastic surgeon married to a diva with a body and face operated on to the point of perfection. And Santiago would fall in love with you, the strangest woman he had ever met. Among your peculiarities is that you process what you hear literally. You do not understand the nuances of spoken language, nor of body language. As such, you cannot parse metaphors, sarcasm, and jokes.

In addition, you lack social filters when speaking; hence, you never lie or sugar coat your expressions. Brilliant, with an intelligence that is above average and a photographic memory, you can speak extensively about some subjects in which you are particularly learned. At the same time, you have difficulty deciphering emotions — your own and those of others. You are methodical and attached to your routines. They are your safety net. Hence, you suffer if anything alters your habits or environment.

Your body language can confuse people: you have difficulty making eye contact and, in general, you do not like to be touched. At the beginning of La Mujer Perfecta, no one (not even you), knew the reason behind your characteristics: Asperger’s Syndrome, a condition that lies in the spectrum of autism. But Asperger’s would not impede the occurrence of your love story with Santiago. And, as you know, a central love story is the defining characteristic of telenovelas.

Imagine if you had the production values of Dallas but still managed to create a brilliantly subversive, interesting and entertaining TV show that the autism community were really proud of.

Imagine if it topped the ratings without resorting to a librarian moment where the lead character takes off her dorky clothes, flicks her hair and is suddenly ‘cured’.

Most of the series is on YouTube but even if you don’t speak Spanish, it’s worth checking out the scene where Micaela and Santiago have their first kiss. It’s incredibly touching.

Micaela says she doesn’t understand why he says ‘he feels butterflies in his stomach’. Santiago comes out with a passionate but poetic declaration of love that Micaela doesn’t get. He touches her. She asks him not to because it feels uncomfortable. He withdraws his hands.

He says he has been trying to distract himself but he constantly thinks about her and feels completely consumed by her. She asks, concerned, “is this bad?” “No”, he replies, “it’s spectacular”.

She smiles and their lips edge closer. The music surges …you seem the perfect woman for me…. They kiss, a gentle tender kiss. Butterflies are flying around them.

And the adverts come and ruin the moment.

Even the most subversive telenovela of its generation is still, after all, a telenovela.

Link to article in academic journal (via @autismcrisis)
Link to pdf of same.

What will the billion dollar brain projects do?

Two neuroscience projects have been earmarked for billion dollar funding by Europe and the US government but little has been said about what the projects will achieve. Here’s what we know.

The European Commision has just awarded half a billion euros to the Human Brain Project – a development of Henry Markram’s Blue Brain project which has made impressive biologically detailed computational models of cortical columns from the rat brain.

The Human Brain Project sells itself as aiming to “simulate a complete human brain in a supercomputer” but this is clearly bollocks.

It’s interesting that this claim makes the press kit and the flashy video but the actual report (pdf) has much more sober claims about ‘simulating brain dynamics’ and the like.

But it’s important to realise that while their big sell is nonsense, the project is likely to genuinely revolutionise neuroscience in a way that could push the field light years ahead.

What Markram has realised is that the single biggest barrier to progress in neuroscience is the co-ordination, sharing and integration of data.

Essentially, it’s a problem of information architecture but quite frankly, you can’t sell that to politicians and they can’t sell it to the public. Hence the ‘simulating a complete human brain’ fluff.

What the project aims to do is co-ordinate neuroscience teams looking at neurobiology, cognitive neuroscience and computational modelling and give them the tools to easily share data with each other.

One of the big pay-offs will genuinely be the creation of biologically feasible computer simulations of neural networks with the hope that these can be used for practical applications like virtual drug testing and computer-based experiments.

Markram has gained valuable experience of meshing heavy-duty computing with working lab teams and has recruited some of the world’s leading neuroscientists to the project.

Although the spin seems over-the-top scientifically this is an important project that, if successful, could be a scientific landmark.

In terms of the big bucks American counterpart here’s what we know – which, as it turns out, is not very much.

Obama has hinted at spending up to $3 billion on a neuroscience project. He made a vague reference to ‘brain mapping’ and the director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke eventually confirmed he was referring to the Brain Activity Map project – something outlined in a scientific article published in last June’s Neuron.

You can read the piece as a pdf but io9 has some good coverage if you want a summary.

But here’s the thing. The scientific article really just says the project would aim to ‘reconstruct a full record of activity across complete neural circuits’ and turn them into computer models and suggests some technologies that may be useful.

It’s along the same lines as the Human Brain Project but without committing to any details and admits we don’t currently have to the tools to achieve the aims. Even the NINDS director admitted that a ‘concrete plan’ has yet to be finalised.

In fact, considering the vagueness of both the science and the political response I suspect the sudden discussion of the Brain Activity Map project is as much a response to the European cash splash than a well-planned project that has been waiting to be funded.

Although the announcement is probably as much a political as a scientific move the implications are likely to be important.

If we assume that the US has committed to not being left behind by their European colleagues we are likely to see a decade of massive innovation in neuroscience.

We live in exciting times.

2013-02-22 Spike activity

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

The Lancet asks how we can help children cope with trauma? The unfortunate answer is we don’t really know.

“If you don’t share my beliefs, it’s because your brain isn’t working properly”. Excellent piece on the ‘defective brain’ fallacy from the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale.

WA Today has an interesting piece on the Australian swim team that gives an insight into how pro-athletes misuse prescription drugs to get high.

What happens to your brain when you get black-out drunk? asks Gizmodo while dropping it’s kebab over your shirt and mumbling about how your mum is really hot for an older woman.

The Guardian has an interesting piece on how psychologists work with weight-loss surgeons to ensure patients can maintain their progress.

What will it be like to live in a robot society? asks iTechPost while jammed against the door, pump-action shotgun in hand, screaming “To The Bunkers!”

Time covers a fascinating neurosurgery study that ‘watched’ how the brain generates speech.

You’re surprisingly good at absorbing caffeine through your skin. Neurotic Physiology heralds a new age of caffeine body patches.

The Institute for Art and Ideas has an interesting discussion on consciousness and a secular interpretation of the soul between Galen Strawson, David Malone and Nicholas Humphrey.

On the Possible Shapes of the Brain. The Loom looks at how brain folding relates to complexity.

Esquire Magazine have a spectacularly shit article on Obama’s billion dollar brain project that they think might “provide the first viable means of remotely controlling the human mind”.

Five examples of how the languages we speak can affect the way we think are discussed on the TED Blog. Mind control! Calm yourselves Esquire.

The Guardian discusses the first UK clinic to treat stalkers.

Cassie Rodenberg’s blog White Noise tracking the lives of addicts on New York’s streets and is both disturbing and compelling.

The Master and His Emissary

I’ve been struggling to understand Iain McGilchrist’s argument about the two hemispheres of the brain, as presented in his book “The Master and His Emissary” [1]. It’s an argument that takes you from neuroanatomy, through behavioural science to cultural studies [2]. The book is crammed with fascinating evidential trees, but I left it without a clear understanding of the overall wood. Watching this RSA Animate helped.

Basically, I think McGilchrist is attempting a neuroscientific rehabilitation of an essentially mystical idea: the map is not the territory, of the important of ends rather than just means [3]. Here’s a tabulation of functions and areas of focus that McGilchrist claims for the two hemispheres:

Left Right
Representation Perception
The Abstract The Concrete
Narrow focus Broad focus
Language Embodiment
Manipulation Experience (?)
Parts Wholes
Machines Life
The Static The Changing
Focus on the known Alertness for the novel
Consistency, familiarity, prediction Contradiction, novelty, surprise
A closed knowledge system An open knowledge system
(Urge after) Consistency (Urge after) Completeness
The Known The Unknown, The ineffable
The explicit The implicit
Generalisation Individuality/uniqueness
Particulars Context

A key idea – which is in the RSA Animate – is the idea of a ‘necessary distance’ from the world. By experiencing yourself as separate (but not totally detached) you are able to empathise with people, manipulate tools, reason on symbols etc. But, of course, there’s always the risk that you end up valuing the tools for their own sake, or believing in the symbol system you have created to understand the world.

From a cognitive neuroscience point of view, this is fair enough, by which I mean that if you are going to look into the (vast) literature on hemispheric specialisation and make some summary claims, as McGilchrist does, then these sort of claims are reasonable. You can enjoy one of the grand-daddies of split brain studies, Michael Gazzaniga, summarise his perspective, which isn’t that discordant, here [4].

From this foundation, McGilchrist goes on to diagnose a historical movement in our culture away from a balanced way of thinking and towards a ‘left brain’ dominated way of thinking. This, to me, also seems fair enough. Modernity does seem characterised by the ascendance of both instrumentalism and bureaucracy, both ‘leftish’ values in the McGilchristian framework.

It is worth noting that dual-systems theories, of which this is one, are perennially popular. McGilchrist is careful and explicit in rejecting the popular Reason vs Emotion distinction that has come to be associated with the two hemispheres. In this RSA report Divided Brain, Divided World, he briefly discusses how his theory relates to the automatic-deliberative distinction, as (for example) set out by Daniel Kahneman in his Thinking Fast and Slow. He says, briefly, that that distinction is orthogonal to the one he’s making; i.e. both hemispheres do automatic and controlled processing.

I was turned on to the book by Helen Mort, who writes a great blog about neuroscience and poetry which you can check out here: If you’re interested in reading more about psychology, divided selves and cultural shifts I recommend Timothy Wilson’s “Strangers to Ourselves” and Walter Ong’s “Orality and Literacy”.


[1] If you buy the paperback they’ve slimmed it down, at least in some editions, by leaving out the reference list at the end. Very frustrating.

[2] Fans of grand theories of hemispheric functioning and the relation to cultural evolution, make sure you check out Julian Jaynes’ The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind . Weirdly McGilchrist hardly references this book (noting merely that he is saying something completely different).

[3] And when I use the term ‘mystical’, that is a good thing, not a denigration.

[4] Gazzaniga, M. (2002). The split brain revisited. Scientific American, Special Editions: The Hidden Mind.

The blossoms are beautiful on their own

Listen. I totally respect your new neuroscience discovery. Really, my balls are jazzed. But quit with the ‘may lead to a cure for epilepsy, autism and schizophrenia’ thing you always put in your press releases.

Your new neuroscience discovery is genuinely cool, but, let’s face it, no more likely to lead to a cure for schizophrenia than my new garden equipment is likely to end world hunger.

My new garden equipment, by the way, is an equally ball-tingling innovation, but you can see how you’d never get away with the world hunger thing when announcing it to the press.

A lot of neuroscience discoveries are similar in a way. They’re the scientific equivalent of inventing a solar powered bird-scarer.

You read that right. A solar-powered bird scarer.

Kinda clicks into place, doesn’t it? You think to yourself ‘that’s cool’ and you silently nod your head to whoever came up with that agricultural gem.

But the UN aren’t busting their onions to integrate it into their agricultural policy. Monsanto aren’t scratching their nuts over how to cash in.

This doesn’t make it less cool. It still makes a genuine contribution and may even make things easier for the bird-troubled farmer. But it’s unlikely to herald the end of famine.

So, neuroscience press release writers of the world – no need to promise me the world.

The blossoms are really quite beautiful on their own.

Point me to a brain area

I’ve just found an incredibly use brain anatomy atlas that when you point at any part of an MRI scan it tells you which part of the brain you’re looking at in all three planes.

It seems to be part of a very useful website called HeadNeckBrainSpine that is full of handy neuroanatomy tools, tutorials and toys.

If nothing else, do check out the MRI atlas as it will give you a feel for how clearly different brain structures appear on a common type of medical scan.

As some folks on the Twitter arguing service have noted, its only slight drawback is the brain’s biggest structure (the frontal lobes) are not perfectly outlined, but they’re marked adequately and it’s still a massively useful tool that I’ve been referring to ever since I found it.

Link to MRI neuroanatomy atlas.
Link to HeadNeckBrainSpine.

BBC Column: Why cyclists enrage car drivers

Here is my latest BBC Future column. The original is here. This one proved to be more than usually controversial, not least because of some poorly chosen phrasing from yours truly. This is an updated version which makes what I’m trying to say clearer. If you think that I hate cyclists, or my argument relies on the facts of actual law breaking (by cyclists or drivers), or that I am making a claim about the way the world ought to be (rather than how people see it), then please check out this clarification I published on my personal blog after a few days of feedback from the column. One thing the experience has convinced me of is that cycling is a very emotional issue, and one people often interpret in very moral terms.

It’s not simply because they are annoying, argues Tom Stafford, it’s because they trigger a deep-seated rage within us by breaking the moral order of the road.


Something about cyclists seems to provoke fury in other road users. If you doubt this, try a search for the word “cyclist” on Twitter. As I write this one of the latest tweets is this: “Had enough of cyclists today! Just wanna ram them with my car.” This kind of sentiment would get people locked up if directed against an ethnic minority or religion, but it seems to be fair game, in many people’s minds, when directed against cyclists. Why all the rage?

I’ve got a theory, of course. It’s not because cyclists are annoying. It isn’t even because we have a selective memory for that one stand-out annoying cyclist over the hundreds of boring, non-annoying ones (although that probably is a factor). No, my theory is that motorists hate cyclists because they offend the moral order.

Driving is a very moral activity – there are rules of the road, both legal and informal, and there are good and bad drivers. The whole intricate dance of the rush-hour junction only works because everybody knows the rules and follows them: keeping in lane; indicating properly; first her turn, now mine, now yours. Then along come cyclists, innocently following what they see as the rules of the road, but doing things that drivers aren’t allowed to: overtaking queues of cars, moving at well below the speed limit or undertaking on the inside.

You could argue that driving is like so much of social life, it’s a game of coordination where we have to rely on each other to do the right thing. And like all games, there’s an incentive to cheat. If everyone else is taking their turn, you can jump the queue. If everyone else is paying their taxes you can dodge them, and you’ll still get all the benefits of roads and police.

In economics and evolution this is known as the “free rider problem”; if you create a common benefit  – like taxes or orderly roads – what’s to stop some people reaping the benefit without paying their dues? The free rider problem creates a paradox for those who study evolution, because in a world of selfish genes it appears to make cooperation unlikely. Even if a bunch of selfish individuals (or genes) recognise the benefit of coming together to co-operate with each other, once the collective good has been created it is rational, in a sense, for everyone to start trying to freeload off the collective. This makes any cooperation prone to collapse. In small societies you can rely on cooperating with your friends, or kin, but as a society grows the problem of free-riding looms larger and larger.

Social collapse

Humans seem to have evolved one way of enforcing order onto potentially chaotic social arrangements. This is known as “altruistic punishment”, a term used by Ernst Fehr and Simon Gachter in a landmark paper published in 2002 [4]. An altruistic punishment is a punishment that costs you as an individual, but doesn’t bring any direct benefit. As an example, imagine I’m at a football match and I see someone climb in without buying a ticket. I could sit and enjoy the game (at no cost to myself), or I could try to find security to have the guy thrown out (at the cost of missing some of the game). That would be altruistic punishment.

Altruistic punishment, Fehr and Gachter reasoned, might just be the spark that makes groups of unrelated strangers co-operate. To test this they created a co-operation game played by constantly shifting groups of volunteers, who never meet – they played the game from a computer in a private booth. The volunteers played for real money, which they knew they would take away at the end of the experiment. On each round of the game each player received 20 credits, and could choose to contribute up to this amount to a group project. After everyone had chipped in (or not), everybody (regardless of investment) got 40% of the collective pot.

Under the rules of the game, the best collective outcome would be if everyone put in all their credits, and then each player would get back more than they put in. But the best outcome for each individual was to free ride – to keep their original 20 credits, and also get the 40% of what everybody else put in. Of course, if everybody did this then that would be 40% of nothing.

In this scenario what happened looked like a textbook case of the kind of social collapse the free rider problem warns of. On each successive turn of the game, the average amount contributed by players went down and down. Everybody realised that they could get the benefit of the collective pot without the cost of contributing. Even those who started out contributing a large proportion of their credits soon found out that not everybody else was doing the same. And once you see this it’s easy to stop chipping in yourself – nobody wants to be the sucker.

Rage against the machine

A simple addition to the rules reversed this collapse of co-operation, and that was the introduction of altruistic punishment. Fehr and Gachter allowed players to fine other players credits, at a cost to themselves. This is true altruistic punishment because the groups change after each round, and the players are anonymous. There may have been no direct benefit to fining other players, but players fined often and they fined hard – and, as you’d expect, they chose to fine other players who hadn’t chipped in on that round. The effect on cooperation was electric. With altruistic punishment, the average amount each player contributed rose and rose, instead of declining. The fine system allowed cooperation between groups of strangers who wouldn’t meet again, overcoming the challenge of the free rider problem.

How does this relate to why motorists hate cyclists? The key is in a detail from that classic 2002 paper. Did the players in this game sit there calmly calculating the odds, running game theory scenarios in their heads and reasoning about cost/benefit ratios? No, that wasn’t the immediate reason people fined players. They dished out fines because they were mad as hell. Fehr and Gachter, like the good behavioural experimenters they are, made sure to measure exactly how mad that was, by asking players to rate their anger on a scale of one to seven in reaction to various scenarios. When players were confronted with a free-rider, almost everyone put themselves at the upper end of the anger scale. Fehr and Gachter describe these emotions as a “proximate mechanism”. This means that evolution has built into the human mind a hatred of free-riders and cheaters, which activates anger when we confront people acting like this – and it is this anger which prompts altruistic punishment. In this way, the emotion is evolution’s way of getting us to overcome our short-term self-interest and encourage collective social life.

So now we can see why there is an evolutionary pressure pushing motorists towards hatred of cyclists. Deep within the human psyche, fostered there because it helps us co-ordinate with strangers and so build the global society that is a hallmark of our species, is an anger at people who break the rules, who take the benefits without contributing to the cost. And cyclists trigger this anger when they use the roads but don’t follow the same rules as cars.

Now cyclists reading this might think “but the rules aren’t made for us – we’re more vulnerable, discriminated against, we shouldn’t have to follow the rules.” Perhaps true, but irrelevant when other road-users see you breaking rules they have to keep. Maybe the solution is to educate drivers that cyclists are playing an important role in a wider game of reducing traffic and pollution. Or maybe we should just all take it out on a more important class of free-riders, the tax-dodgers.

Khat out of the bag

Finding myself at a loose end yesterday I decided I’d try and track down one of London’s mafrishes – a type of cafe where people from the capital’s Ethiopian, Somali and Yemeni community chew the psychoactive plant khat.

I’d heard about a Somali cafe on Lewisham Way and thought that was as good a place as any to try. The cafe owner first looked a bit baffled when I walked in and asked about khat but he sat me down, gave me tea, and went out back to ask his associates.

“Sorry, there’s no khat in Lewishman. We have internet?” he suggested while gesturing towards the empty computers at the back. I kindly declined but in reply he suggested I go to Streatham. “There are lots of restaurants there”, he assured me.

Streatham is huge, so I arrived at one of the rail stations and just decided to walk south. Slowly I became aware that there were more Somali-looking faces around but there were no cafes to be seen.

Just through chance I noticed some Somali cafes off a side street and walked into the first one I saw. “There’s none here, but next door”, I was told. The people in the next cafe said the same, as did the next, and the next, until I came to an unmarked door.

“Just go in” a cafe owner called to me from across the street, so I walked in.

The place was little dark but quite spacious. My fantasies of an East African cafe translocated to London quickly faded as my eyes adjusted to the trucker’s cafe decor. Inside, there were four guys watching the news on a wall-mounted TV.

The cafe owner greeted me as I entered. I asked my usual question about khat and he looked at me, a little puzzled.

“You know, khat, to chew?” I ventured. A furrowed brow. Thinking. “Oh, chat. Yes, we have bundles for three pounds and bundles for seven. Which do you want?”

“Give me one for seven” I said. “No problem” he replied cheerily. “Have a seat”.

This wasn’t the first time I had tried khat. Many years ago, when I was an undergraduate in the Midlands, I discovered khat in an alternative shop. It was sold as a natural curative soul lifting wonder plant from the fields of Africa.

I bought some, didn’t really know what to do with it, and just began to ‘gently chew’, as the leaflet advised, while walking through the streets of Nottingham.

So when my bundle of khat arrived, I just picked out some stems and began chomping on one end. “Wait, wait, stop!” they shouted in unison. “We’ll help you” said one and I was joined by the cafe owner and a friend. “Anyway, he said”, “you’re not allowed chew alone, it’s a social thing.”

I was given a bin to put beside my table, was shown how to strip off the stems and pick out the soft parts, and how to chew slowly. I was provided tea and water on the house and told to keep drinking fluids. Apparently, it can be a little strong on the stomach and the plant makes you go to the toilet a lot as, I was told, ‘it speeds up the body’.

I had the company of the cafe owner, a Somali Muslim, and his friend, an Ethiopian Christian.

Over the next two hours we chewed and talked. Ethiopian politics, football, living in another country, khat in Somalia, Haile Selassie, religion, languages, Mo Farah, stereotypes of Africa and family life in London.

People strolled in an out of the cafe. Some in jeans and t-shirt, others looking like they’d just walked in from the Somali desert. Everyone shook my hand. Some bought khat and left, others joined us, all the while chewing gently and drinking sweet tea. At one point I asked the Christian guy why he wore an Islamic cap. He whipped off his hat. “I’m bald” he said “and it’s the only cap you can wear inside” which sent me into fits of laughter.

Khat itself has a very tannin taste and it is exactly like you’d imagine how chewing on an indigestible bush would be. It’s bitty and it fills your mouth with green gunk. The sweet tea is there for a reason.

The effect of the khat came on gently but slowly intensified. It’s stimulating like coffee but is slightly more pleasurable. There’s no jitteriness.

It reminded me of the coca plant from South America both in its ‘mouth full of tree’ chewing experience and its persistent background stimulation. But while coca gave me caffeine-like focus that always turned into a feeling of anxiety, khat was gently euphoric.

My companions told me that it lifts the spirits and makes you talkative. They had a word, which for the life of me I can’t remember, which describes the point at which it ‘opens your mind’ to new ideas and debate.

The active ingredient in khat is cathinone which has become infamous as the basis of ‘bath salts’ legal highs which chemists have learnt to create synthetically and modify. But like coca, from which cocaine is made, the plant is not mental nitroglycerine. It has noticeable effects but they don’t dominate the psyche. It’s a lift rather than a launch.

The guys in the cafe were not unaware of its downsides though. “Don’t chew too often” they told me “it can become a habit for some”. I was also told it can have idiosyncratic effects on sexual performance. Some find it helps, others not so much.

Not everyone was there for khat. Some guys chewed regularly, some not at all, some had given up, some only on special occasions. Some just came to hang out, drink tea and watch the box.

Towards the end when I felt we had got to know each other a bit better I asked why the cafe was unmarked. The owner told me that while khat is legal they were aware of the scare stories and were worried about the backlash from less enlightened members of the community. ‘Immigrants sell foreign drug’ shifts more papers, it seems, than ‘guys chew leaves and watch football’.

Eventually, I said my goodbyes and decided I could use my buzz to go for a walk. I made London Bridge in a couple of hours. But I think my newfound energy came as much from the welcome as it did from the khat.

Link to Wikipedia entry on khat.

2013-02-14 Spike activity

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

“Ever since I learnt about confirmation bias I’ve started seeing it everywhere”. Genius line from a Jon Ronson blog post.

The Dana Foundation research showing the genetic risk for psychiatric conditions can be seen early in development.

The fantastic Neuroskeptic blog has moved to Discover Magazine. Update your bookmarks!

Kurzweil AI reports on the latest generation of AI robots with intelligence developed by genetics algorithms. Check the creepy video. To the bunkers!

The Independent has a piece on why our memories are not always our own.

Micro hallucinations in the film Black Swan discovered by Cinematic Corner. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.

The New York Times has an obituary for a little known industrial psychologist who has had a massive impact on our lives – he designed the telephone dialler.

New study finds that violence on YouTube is less common and less glamorised than on TV. Kittens also cuter, bases belong more to us.

The Atlantic covers the possibility of deep brain stimulation for Alzheimer’s disease.

“Embodied cognition is not what you think it is” An article in Frontiers in Cognitive Science on radical embodied cognition.

The Atlantic argues that economists need a council of psychological advisers to help with the ‘human being’ thing.

Will We Ever… Simulate the Brain? Not Exactly Rocket Science covers the billion euro attempt to not quite simulate the brain.

The Times Literary Supplement has a review of Oliver Sacks’ new book ‘Hallucinations’ by street-fighting Ray Tallis.

An online sickness

The first academic review article on ‘Munchausen by Internet‘ – where people fake the identity of an ill person online – has just been published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

Munchausen syndrome is a common name for facticious disorder where people consciously fake illnesses for their own gain.

This is distinguished from malingering – where the gain would be something obvious like money, drugs or missing military service – and instead the gain from factitious illness typically includes the indirect benefits of faking – like being cared for, avoiding family conflict and so on.

The person is deliberately faking but they may not be fully conscious of all the emotional benefits – they might just say ‘it feels right’ or ‘it helps me’.

Obviously, this has been a problem for millennia but there has been an increasing recognition that the phenomenon happens online. People take up the identity of someone with an illness that gives them a special place in an online community.

This could be a standard online community where their ‘illness’ becomes a point of social concern, or their pretence could allow them to participate in an online community for people with certain disorders or conditions.

The article gives lots of example and some ways of spotting Munchausen fakers that also gives an insight into their thinking:

  • Posts consistently duplicating material in other posts, books, or health-related websites.
  • Characteristics of the supposed illness emerging as caricatures.
  • Near-fatal bouts of illness alternating with miraculous recoveries.
  • Fantastical claims, contradicted by subsequent posts, or flatly disproved.
  • Continual dramatic events in the person’s life, especially when other group members have become the focus of attention.
  • Feigned blitheness about crises that will predictably attract immediate attention.
  • Others apparently posting on behalf of the individual having identical patterns of writing.

  • The piece gets quite wordy at times (well, it is an academic article) but it’s an interesting insight into a motivations of people who ‘fake sick’ on the internet.

    Link to full text of article.

    Synthetic highs are mutating

    A new study on the chemicals in the latest batch of legally sold ‘synthetic highs’ has found what looks like an unintended hybrid drug.

    As regular Mind Hacks readers will know, I’m a keen watcher of the murky ‘legal high’ market.

    We seem to be in the unprecedented position where sophisticated grey-market pharmacologists are rapidly inventing completely new-to-science drugs in underground labs for thrill-seeking punters.

    These synthetic drugs have typically come in two types: ‘fake pot’ – made from synthetic cannabinoids and stimulants, usually derived from cathinone.

    A study just published in Forensic Science International looked at the chemicals in a new wave of ‘fake pot’ herbal highs sold over the internet.

    Firstly, the research identified 12 new synthetic cannabinoids. That’s twelve completely new untested cannabis-like drugs. The turnover in the market is both stunning and scary.

    Curiously though, one ‘legal pot’ sample contained both a new synthetic cannabinoid (identified as URB-754) and a cathinone (4-Me-MABP) in it.

    What was most surprising though, was that these substances had chemically reacted with one another to create a completely new combination drug. It has the chemical name (N,5-dimethyl-N-(1-oxo-1-(p-tolyl)butan-2-yl)-2-(N′-(p-tolyl)ureido)benzamide) if you want to sound sexy.

    In other words, while the makers intended to put both a cannabinoid and a stimulant in the same product, they probably never knew that the substances had chemically combined to produce a hybrid compound with completely unknown properties.

    The legal high market is becoming an informal opt-in drug-testing experiment with paying subjects.

    Link to locked study.

    Hallucinations of the inner body

    One of the least understood symptoms in psychosis are hallucinations called cenesthesias. These are ‘inner body’ feelings that often don’t correspond to any known or even possible bodily experiences.

    A team from Japan has just published a study of patients who experience cenesthesias in the mouth. Here are a selection of the hallucinations:

    “Feels like gas is blowing up in his mouth”, “feels like something is struggling, as if there is an animal in his mouth”

    “Feels the presence of wires in the mandibular incisors [front teeth in the jaw] when removing dentures”

    “Feels something sticky coming up rapidly in her mouth”, “feels like a membrane is covering and squeezing her incisors”

    “Feels like trash is coming up behind her dentures”, “feels sliminess in her mouth”

    “Feels slimy saliva”, “feels like her teeth are made of iron and is sore from chewing”

    The study used a type of brain scanning called SPECT (essentially, injecting your brain with radioactive glucose, seeing where it ends up with a gamma camera) to look at the balance of activity over the two hemispheres when the patients were just resting.

    They found that activity was relatively greater in the right hemisphere, which is a common, but not very reliable finding in psychosis research.

    Link to locked study.

    2013-02-08 Spike activity

    Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

    The New York Times covers the recent upsurge of robots-taking-over-the-world anxiety. To the bunkers!

    The dodgy practice of psychologists trying to patent therapeutic techniques is covered by Neuroskeptic.

    The Humanist discusses the explosion of the unhelpful concept of sex addition.

    Forensic psychology nerds: In The News covers the latest in the debate on the accuracy of violence risk assessments.

    The Bangkok Post on the bizarre Thai government announcement that calculators, phones “and even karaoke machines” could damage memory, lead to Alzheimer’s disease. Bryan Adams covers, screaming fits. 80s hair metal, unfortunately lycra incidents.

    People without an amygdala can experience fear. Neurophilosophy covers an intriguing new study.

    Wired Danger Room on the cost of war to the US: currently, at least 253,330 brain injuries, 129,731 cases of PTSD – and counting.

    Missouri Public Radio on how ex- Abu Ghraib chief psychologist Larry James wants to launch a national gun violence prevention center. Presumably, by waterboarding assault rifle owners.

    Short-term exercise boosts body image without making any physical difference. The BPS Research Digest on the short-term psychological effects of exercise.

    Scientific American has an important piece on the science of what life events can trigger depression.

    After a nonsense article on ‘girls and the science gap’ two neuroscientists write a stirling reply on why pseudoscience and stereotyping won’t solve the problem in Notes and Queries.

    A memory of shifting sands

    The New York Review of Books has a reflective piece by Oliver Sacks on the swirling mists of memory and how false recall has affected authors and artists throughout history.

    [Science] is startling to realize that some of our most cherished memories may never have happened—or may have happened to someone else. I suspect that many of my enthusiasms and impulses, which seem entirely my own, have arisen from others’ suggestions, which have powerfully influenced me, consciously or unconsciously, and then been forgotten.

    Similarly, while I often give lectures on similar topics, I can never remember, for better or worse, exactly what I said on previous occasions; nor can I bear to look through my earlier notes. Losing conscious memory of what I have said before, and having no text, I discover my themes afresh each time, and they often seem to me brand-new. This type of forgetting may be necessary for a creative or healthy cryptomnesia, one that allows old thoughts to be reassembled, retranscribed, recategorized, given new and fresh implications.

    Sacks reflects on some of his own shift sans of memory and the thin line between ‘literary borrowing’ and unrecognised remembering.

    Link to ‘Speak, Memory’ in The NYRB (via @mocost)