Hallucinema Paradiso

The Barbican Centre in London has a Cinema and Psychosis event on the 17th March where we’ll discuss how the silver screen can represent the altered states of psychosis.

Rather than focus on ‘how films depict mad people’, which usually just involves appalling stereotypes, we’re interested in how cinema can depict delusions and hallucinations.

The event will include presentations by film folks, psychologists and people who have experienced psychosis – including the brilliant artist Dolly Sen.

I’ll be talking with psychologist and novelist Charles Fernyhough on how the psychology of psychosis is reflected on screen.

The full programme is here where you can also book a ticket. Otherwise, £5 on the door or free for the unwaged.

It’s part of The Barbican’s Wonder neuroscience season so if you don’t catch us there’s plenty of other great events in March and April.


Link to Cinema and Psychosis at The Barbican.
Link to more details of the Wonder neuroscience season.

The dark patch of death

We’ve covered some dodgy neuroscience journalism in our time but The Daily Mail has such as amazing piece of tosh, I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be serious or the result of huffing bathroom cleaner.

Now I try and avoid writing about The Daily Mail because it’s so science impaired it’s a bit like complaining that your pantomime horse won’t gallop properly.

But this is just amazing.

Where evil lurks: Neurologist discovers ‘dark patch’ inside the brains of killers and rapists

Hmmm, this sounds like it’s going to be a sensational piece of nonsense. I wonder what the ‘dark patch’ refers to?

A German neurologist claims to have found the area of the brain where evil lurks in killers, rapists and robbers.

It’s not looking good. Evil doesn’t ‘lurk’ in any part of the brain.

Bremen scientist Dr Gerhard Roth says the ‘evil patch’ lies in the brain’s central lobe and shows up as a dark mass on X-rays.

Evil patch? X-rays? Dark mass? But sweet Jesus in heaven. WHERE THE FUCK IS THE CENTRAL LOBE?

Screw the ‘dark patch’ these evil-doers have grown another lobe. The man has discovered mutant three-lobe killer rapists.

Believe it or not, it actually gets worse.

I could explain where the article has gone wrong but I’m too busy pushing furniture up against the windows. You won’t take me alive creatures of darkness!

Link to it’s not satire if written while high on cleaning products.

BBC Column: The psychology of the to-do list

My latest column for BBC Future. The original is here.

Your mind loves it when a plan comes together – the mere act of planning how to do something frees us from the burden of unfinished tasks.

If your daily schedule and email inbox are anything like mine, you’re often left a state of paralysis by the sheer bulk of outstanding tasks weighing on your mind. In this respect, David Allen’s book Getting Things Done is a phenomenon. An international best-seller and a personal productivity system known merely as GTD, it’s been hailed as being a “new cult for the info age”. The heart of the system is a way of organising the things you have to do, based on Allen’s experience of working with busy people and helping them to make time for the stuff they really want to do.

Ten years after the book was first published in 2001, scientific research caught up with the productivity guru, and it revealed exactly why his system is so popular – and so effective.

The key principle behind GTD is writing down everything that you need to remember, and filing it effectively. This seemingly simple point is based around far more than a simple filing cabinet and a to-do list. Allen’s system is like a to-do list in the same way a kitten is like a Bengal Tiger.

“Filing effectively”, in Allen’s sense, means a system with three parts: an archive, where you store stuff you might need one day (and can forget until then), a current task list in which everything is stored as an action, and a “tickler file” of 43 folders in which you organise reminders of things to do (43 folders because that’s one for the next thirty-one days plus the next 12 months).

The current task list is a special kind of to-do list because all the tasks are defined by the next action you need to take to progress them. This simple idea is remarkably effective in helping resolving the kind of inertia that stops us resolving items on our lists. As an example, try picking a stubborn item from your own to-do list and redefining it until it becomes something that actually involves moving one of your limbs. Something necessary but unexciting like “Organise a new fence for the garden” becomes “ring Marcus and ask who fixed his fence”. Or, even better with further specifics on how to move your fingers, “dial 2 626 81 19 and ask Marcus who fixed his fence”.

Breaking each task down into its individual actions allows you to convert your work into things you can either physically do, or forget about, happy in the knowledge that it is in the system. Each day you pick up the folder for that day and either action the item, or defer it to another folder for a future day or month. Allen is fanatical on this – he wants people to make a complete system for self-management, something that will do the remembering and monitoring for you, so your mind is freed up.

So what’s the psychology that backs this up? Roy Baumeister and EJ Masicampo at Florida State University were interested in an old phenomenon called the Zeigarnik Effect, which is what psychologists call our mind’s tendency to get fixated on unfinished tasks and forget those we’ve completed. You can see the effect in action in a restaurant or bar – you can easily remember a drinks order, but then instantly forget it as soon as you’ve put the drinks down. I’ve mentioned this effect before when it comes to explaining the psychology behind Tetris.

A typical way to test for the Zeigarnik Effect is to measure if an unfulfilled goal interferes with the ability to carry out a subsequent task. Baumeister and Masicampo discovered that people did worse on a brainstorming task when they were prevented from finishing a simple warm-up task – because the warm-up task was stuck in their active memory. What Baumeister and Masicampo did next is the interesting thing; they allowed some people to make plans to finish the warm-up task. They weren’t allowed to finish it, just to make plans on how they’d finish it. Sure enough, those people allowed to make plans were freed from the distracting effect of leaving the warm-up task unfinished.

Back to the GTD system, its key insight is that your attention has a limited capacity – you can only fit so much in your mind at any one time. The GTD archive and reminder system acts as a plan for how you’ll do things, releasing the part of your attention that it struggling to hold each item on your to-do list in mind. Rather than remove things from our sight by doing them, Allen, and the research, suggest we merely need to have a good plan of when and how to do them. The mere act of planning how to finish something satisfies the itch that keeps uncompleted tasks in our memory.

Death of a booty chemical

I’ve got a piece in The Observer about why dopamine isn’t a ‘pleasure chemical’ but how this idea is likely to stay because it’s too useful for the media.

It provides a simplified explanation for a whole range of behaviours and sexes-up science stories, regardless of whether it makes sense or not.

If there were a celebrity among brain chemicals, it would be dopamine. Supposedly released whenever we experience something pleasurable, it’s forever linked to salacious stories of sex, drugs and wild partying in the popular press. The Kim Kardashian of neurotransmitters, it gives instant appeal to listless reporting and gives editors an excuse to drop some booty on the science pages.

There are too many bad examples to mention in detail, but I have some favourites. The Sun declared that “cupcakes could be as addictive as cocaine” because they apparently cause “a surge of the reward chemical dopamine to hit the decision-making area of the brain”. The article was topped off with a picture of Katy Perry, apparently a “cupcake fan” and, presumably, dangerously close to spiralling into a life of frosted-sponge addiction.

The piece goes on to mention another particularly bad example of dopamine reporting among many and explains why the ‘pleasure chemical’ cliché just doesn’t fit the science.

Unfortunately, one of my best lines (definition: I laughed at my own joke) got edited out.

The original line was “It was clearly just a smokescreen for the views of gun and, er, cupcake hating liberals” which has just been edited down to “gun hating liberals”.

It’ll make sense when you read it.

Link to ‘The unsexy truth about dopamine’ in The Observer.

Emotions are included

New Republic has an interesting piece on how corporations enforce ’emotional labour’ in their workforce – checking that they are being sufficiently passionate about their work and caring to their customers.

It focuses on the UK sandwich chain Pret who send a mystery shopper to each outlet weekly and “If the employee who rings up the sale is appropriately ebullient, then everyone in the shop gets a bonus. If not, nobody does.”

The concept of ‘emotional labour‘ was invented by sociologist Arlie Hochschild who used it to describe how some professions require people to present as expressing certain emotions regardless of how they feel.

The idea is that the waiter who smiles and tells you to ‘have a nice day’ doesn’t really feel happy to see you and doesn’t particularly care how your day will go, but he’s asked to present as if he does anyway.

The idea has now moved on and this particular example is considered ‘surface acting’ or ‘surface emotional labour’ while ‘deep acting’ or ‘deep emotional labour’ is where the person genuinely feels the emotions. A nurse, for example, is required to be genuinely caring during his or her job.

‘Surface emotional labour’ is known to be particularly difficult when it conflicts too much with what you really feel. This ’emotional dissonance’ leads to burnout, low mood and poor job satisfaction. In contrast, ‘deep emotional labour’ is linked to higher job satisfaction.

The New Republic article links to a deleted but still archived list of ‘Pret behaviours’ written by the company to state what is expected of the employees.

Apart from some classic corporate doublethink (‘Don’t want to see: Uses jargon inappropriately; Pret perfect: Communicates upwards honestly’) you can see how the company is trying to shift their employees from doing ‘surface emotional labour’ to ‘deep emotional labour’.

For example:

  • Don’t want to see: Does things only for show
  • Want to see: Is enthusiastic
  • Pret perfect! Loves food

  • Cynics would suggest this is a form of corporate indoctrination but you could also see it as part of drive for employee well-being. You say tomato, I say “smell that Sir – wonderful isn’t it? Fresh tomatoes from the hills of Italy”.

    Those of a political bent might notice an echo of Marx’s theory of alienation which suggests that capitalism necessarily turns workers into mechanistic processes that alienate them from their own humanity.

    However, the concept of ‘deep emotional labour’ is really where the approach can start becoming unhelpful as it has the capacity to denigrate genuine compassion as ‘required labour’. I doubt many nurses go into their profession intending to ‘monetize their emotions’ or feel they have been ‘alienated’ from their compassion.

    And as armies are loathe to admit, soldiers serve for their country but fight for their platoon mates. Is this really a form of ‘deep emotional labour’ or it is just another job where emotions are central?

    Link to New Republic piece ‘Labor of Love’.

    2013-02-01 Spike activity

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

    Do amusing titles affect the perception of research? Some initial findings from Rolf Zwaan.

    The New York Times celebrates fifty years of The Feminine Mystique. Feminist classic or Britney album? You decide.

    Humans are flocking everywhere notes Wired Science. With a particular flocking tendency to get in the way on the London underground.

    Providentia starts a three-part series on the Kinsey revolution in sex research.

    Boredom explained in under 300 words by PsyBlog. Hey. Is that an aeroplane?

    Aeon magazine discusses mourning and ritual. “The dead are no longer welcome at their own funerals”. Not sure why. At least they don’t get drunk and start a fight with Uncle Peter.

    Dame Uta Frith. In the house.

    The New York Post has an in-depth piece on the lucrative world of ecstasy smuggling. Refined, sublime, he makes you do time.

    Historian Professor Barbara Taylor discusses her time as an inpatient at Friern Psychiatric Hospital. A location we’ve discussed previously on Mind Hacks.

    Neuroskeptic takes a critical look at people who are mental health advocates putting descriptions after people.

    A new study in Social Influence has found that flirting works better on sunny days. British history, in a nutshell.

    If you’re following the replication carnage in social psychology: grants of up to $2000 available for replication attempts.

    Neurocritic finds that the winner of one of the Association for Psychological Science’s top awards has a dark past in unpleasant gay aversion therapy.