2013-05-31 Spike activity

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

A video of a brain surgery patient playing guitar during the procedure. Theatre nurse on drums.

The Guardian has an excellent piece on ‘appreciating the politics of psychiatry’. Hints of Viennese wood and iodine with a curiously bitter aftertaste.

“Yesterday, I read a paper that, to my mind, embodies what’s wrong with cognitive neuroscience” says Neuroskeptic. Personally, I just look at the pictures.

People into bondage are better psychologically adjusted according to a new study covered by Pacific Standard. Double-blind intervention already planned.

Time magazine warns not to read too much into brain scans. Although you can see castles if you stare long enough.

Neuroscience: Method man. Nature not fooling anyone by trying to pass off Karl Deisseroth as one of the Wu-Tang Clan.

Smoking weed doesn’t reduce loneliness says The Neurocritic, somewhat wistfully.

Does brain stimulation make you better at maths?


The Headlines

Brain stimulation promises “long-lasting” maths boost

Mild electric shocks to brain may help students solve maths problems

Electrical brain boost can make you better at maths

What they actually did

Researchers led by Roi Cohen Kadosh at the University of Oxford trained people on two kinds of maths skills, rote learning simple arithmetic problems and practicing more varied calculations.

During this learning process they applied small and continually varying electrical currents to the scalp, above the temples. A control group wore the electrodes but didn’t receive any current. Compared to the controls, the people who practiced with the current turned on performed faster on the maths problems.

Even more amazing, when a subset of the participants were brought back six months later, those who had received the electrical treatment were still significantly faster, albeit only for the harder, more varied, calculations.

How plausible is it?

The particular technique these researchers used, called Transcranial Random Noise Stimulation (TRNS) is a recent invention, but the use of electrical stimulation to affect brain activity has a long history.

The brain is an electrochemical machine, so there’s every reason to think that electrical stimulation should affect its function. The part of the brain the researchers stimulated – the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex – is known to be involved in complex tasks like learning, decision making and calculation.

What’s amazing is that such a gross intervention as applying a current via electrodes, to such a large part of the brain, could have a specific (and beneficial) effect on mathematical ability.

Tom’s take

This is technically impressive work, done by highly capable researchers at well respected institutions and published in a prestigious journal. Still, there are a few warning signs that make me nervous about how reliable the result is.

  1. The key result showing the long-lasting nature of the effect is based on just six people who received the treatment (out of the 12 originally treated and the 12 controls). Even worse, the statistical test they rely on would have come up as “no effect” if they had done it the conventional way. While the result is based on such small numbers it has to remain as “promising” at best, rather than confirmed.

  2. The researchers recorded percentage correctly on the maths problems, as well as speed of responding, but they only discuss the speed of responding. The graphs of errors make it look like the people who got faster also make more mistakes, which doesn’t count as an improvement in my book. Why no combined analysis of speed and accuracy?

  3. We don’t know which part of the brain this effect is due to. Although they did record brain activity and show that it changes in the area they were interested in, the basic comparison is still “doing something to the brain” vs “doing nothing to the brain” (thanks to Vince Walsh for pointing this out). It is hard to make any solid conclusions on how this technique might be having an effect.

  4. There was no systematic check that participants were truly ignorant of which group they were in, although the researchers believe this to be the case. If participants knew when their brain was being stimulated then the change in performance could have been due to motivation or a desire to please rather than any specific manipulation of brain function.

Putting these worries aside, we’re not going to see this technique used in the classroom any time soon, even if it holds up. Suppose this technique is reliable, and we really can improve people’s basic maths skills with a bit of electrical stimulation we’d still hesitate to deploy it. Does it affect any other skills, perhaps taking resources away from them?

Competition is a basic principle of brain development, it isn’t implausible that there would be a cost to overclocking the brain like this. There might be all sort of minor side effects such as increased fatigue or poorer attention, which would mean that stimulation wasn’t just pure benefit. Or – also plausible – perhaps the more rapid learning of the basics would mean that skills which build on those basics would be harder to learn (sort of like screenburn for memories).

I’m not worried for the participants in this research, but I’d still want a lot more questions answered before I started setting electrical stimulation along with homework.

Read more

The original paper: Snowball, A., Tachtsidis, I., Popescu, T., Thompson, J., Delazer, M., Zamarian, L., Zhu, T., Cohen Kadosh, R. (2013). Long-Term Enhancement of Brain Function and Cognition Using Cognitive Training and Brain Stimulation. Current Biology. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2013.04.045Ed

Ed Yong on the dangers of neuroscience with small data sets.

Dorothy Bishop has collected some reactions to misleading headlines about ‘shocks’).

Tom Stafford does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Photographing hallucinations

BMJ Case Reports has a paper that describes two patients with Parkinson’s disease who experienced hallucinations that transferred onto photos they took to try and prove they were real.

This is ‘Patient 1’ from the case report:

Patient 1 was first evaluated at age 66, having been diagnosed with PD [Parkinson’s Disease] at age 58… She complained of daytime and night-time visual hallucinations for the past one year. Most of the time she did not have insight about them. She described seeing three children playing in her neighbour’s yard and a brunette woman sleeping under the covers in one of the beds in her house. She also saw images of different people sitting quietly in her living room. Most of her visual hallucinations subsided in open and brightly lit spaces but were, nevertheless, troublesome. In one instance, she saw a man covered in blood, holding a child and called 911.

Her husband, in an attempt to prove to her that these were hallucinations, took pictures of the neighbour’s yard and the bed in their house. Surprisingly, when shown these photos, the patient continued to identify the same children playing in the yard and the same brunette woman sleeping under the covers. This perception was present every time the patient looked at these photos. Within 6 months of stopping ropinirole and titrating quetiapine to 75 mg every night at bedtime the hallucinations were less severe and shorter in duration, but the patient continued to see them in the photos.


Link to locked article in BMJ Case Reports.

Why you might prefer more pain

When is the best treatment for pain more pain? When you’re taking part in an experiment published by a Nobel prize winner and one of the leading lights in behavioural psychology, that is.

The psychologist in question is Daniel Kahneman; the experiment described by the self-explanatory title of: When More Pain Is Preferred to Less: Adding a Better End. In the study, Kahneman and colleagues looked at the pain participants felt by asking them to put their hands in ice-cold water twice (one trial for each hand). In one trial, the water was at 14C (59F) for 60 seconds. In the other trial the water was 14C for 60 seconds, but then rose slightly and gradually to about 15C by the end of an additional 30-second period.

Both trials were equally painful for the first sixty seconds, as indicated by a dial participants had to adjust to show how they were feeling. On average, participants’ discomfort started out at the low end of the pain scale and steadily increased. When people experienced an additional thirty seconds of slightly less cold water, discomfort ratings tended to level off or drop.

Next, the experimenters asked participants which kind of trial they would choose to repeat if they had to. You’ve guessed the answer: nearly 70% of participants chose to repeat the 90-second trial, even though it involved 30 extra seconds of pain. Participants also said that the longer trial was less painful overall, less cold, and easier to cope with. Some even reported that it took less time.

In case you think this is a freakish outcome of some artificial lab scenario, Kahneman saw a similar result when he interviewed patients who had undergone a colonoscopy examination – a procedure universally described as being decidedly unpleasant. Patients in Kahneman’s study group had colonoscopies that lasted from four to 69 minutes, but the duration of the procedure did not predict how they felt about it afterwards. Instead, it was the strength of their discomfort at its most intense, and the level of discomfort they felt towards the end of the procedure.

These studies support what Kahneman called the Peak-End rule – that our perceptions about an experience are determined by how it feels at its most intense, and how it feels at the end. The actual duration is irrelevant. It appears we don’t rationally calculate each moment of pleasure or pain using some kind of mental ledger. Instead, our memories filter how we feel about the things we’ve done and experienced, and our memories are defined more by the moments that seem most characteristic – the peaks and the finish – than by how we actually felt most of the time during the experience.

Kahneman wondered whether this finding meant that surgeons should extend painful operations needlessly to leave patients with happier memories, even though it would mean inflicting more pain overall. Others have asked whether this means that the most important thing about a holiday is that it includes some great times, rather than the length of time you are away for. (It certainly makes you think it would be worth doing if you could avoid the typical end to a holiday – queues, lumping heavy luggage around and jetlag.)

But I think the most important lesson of the Peak-End experiments is something else. Rather than saying that the duration isn’t important, the rule tells me that it is just as important to control how we mentally package our time. What defines an “experience” is somewhat arbitrary. If a weekend break where you forget everything can be as refreshing as a two-week holiday then maybe a secret to a happy life is to organise your time so it is broken up into as many distinct (and enjoyable) experiences as possible, rather than being just an unbroken succession of events which bleed into one another in memory.

All I need to do now is find the time to take a holiday and test my theory.

This is my BBC Future column, originally published last week. The original is here.

Science behind the billion dollar brain hype

Image by Flickr user Ars Electronica. Click for source.If you want to hear me talk about what the US and Europe’s billion dollar brain projects are trying to achieve, I’m on the latest BBC All in the Mind discussing the science behind the quite considerable hype.

I discuss these latest brain initiatives alongside presenter Claudia Hammond and distinguished neuroscientist Donald Stein – who appeared despite my suggestion of inviting distinguished neuroscientist Shakira.

Either way, a good discussion on an important topic.

Link to programme information and streamed audio.
mp3 of podcast.

Did the eyes really stare down bicycle crime in Newcastle?

This is the first fortnightly column I’ll be writing for The Conversation, a creative commons news and opinion website that launched today. The site has been set up by a number of UK universities and bodies such as the Wellcome Trust, Nuffield Foundation and HEFCE, following the successful model of the Australian version of the site. Their plan is to unlock the massive amount of expertise held by UK academics and inject it into the public discourse. My plan is to give some critical commentary on headlines from the week's news which focus on neuroscience and psychology. If you've any headlines like you'd critiquing, let me know!


The headlines

Staring eyes ‘deter’ Newcastle University bike thieves

The poster that’s deterring bike thieves

The sign that cuts bike theft by 60%

The story

A picture of a large pair of eyes triggers feelings of surveillance in potential thieves, making them less likely to break the rules.

What they actually did

Researchers put signs with a large pair of eyes and the message “Cycle thieves: we are watching you” by the bike racks at Newcastle University.

They then monitored bike thefts for two years and found a 62% drop in thefts at locations with the signs. There was a 65% rise in the thefts from locations on campus without signs.

How plausible is it?

A bunch of studies have previously shown that subtle clues which suggest surveillance can alter moral behaviour. The classic example is the amount church-goers might contribute to the collection dish.

This research fits within the broad category of findings which show our decisions can be influenced by aspects of our environment, even those which shouldn’t logically affect them.

The signs are being trialled by Transport for London, and are a good example of the behavioural “nudges” promoted by the Cabinet Office’s (newly privatised) Behavioural Insight Unit. Policy makers love these kind of interventions because they are cheap. They aren’t necessarily the most effective way to change behaviour, but they have a neatness and “light touch” which means we’re going to keep hearing about this kind of policy.

Tom’s take

The problem with this study is that the control condition was not having any sign above bike racks – so we don’t know what it was about the anti-theft sign that had an effect. It could have been the eyes, or it could be message “we are watching you”. Previous research, cited in the study, suggests both elements have an effect.

The effect is obviously very strong for location, but it isn’t very strong in time. Thieves moved their thefts to nearby locations without signs – suggesting that any feelings of being watched didn’t linger. We should be careful about assuming that anything was working via the unconscious or irrational part of the mind.

If I were a bike thief and someone was kind enough to warn me that some bikes were being watched, and (by implication) others weren’t, I would rationally choose to do my thieving from an unwatched location.

Another plausible interpretation is that bike owners who were more conscious about security left their bikes at the signed locations. Such owners might have better locks and other security measures. Careless bike owners would ignore the signs, and so be more likely to park at unsigned locations and subsequently have their bikes nicked.

Read more

Nettle, D., Nott, K., & Bateson, M. (2012) “Cycle Thieves, We Are Watching You”: Impact of a Simple Signage Intervention against Bicycle Theft. PloS one, 7(12), e51738.

Tom Stafford does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

A world of swearing

The Boston Globe has a short but fascinating interview on the history of swearing where author Melissa Mohr describes how the meaning of the act of swearing has changed over time.

IDEAS: Are there other old curses that 21st-century people would be surprised to hear about?

MOHR: Because [bad words] were mostly religious in the Middle Ages, any part of God’s body you could curse with. God’s bones, nails, wounds, precious heart, passion, God’s death—that was supposedly one of Queen Elizabeth I’s favorite oaths.

IDEAS: Have religious curses like that lost their power as the culture becomes increasingly secular?

MOHR: We still use them a lot, but we just don’t think of them as bad words. They’re very mild. If you look at lists of the top 25 swear words, I think “Jesus Christ” often makes it in at number 23 or something….The top bad words slots are all occupied by the racial slurs or obscene—sexually or excrementally—words…

IDEAS: Are blasphemy, sexuality, and excrement the main themes all over the world?

MOHR: As far as I know, they’re mostly the same with a little bit of regional variation. In Arab and Spanish-speaking Catholic countries, there’s a lot of stuff about mothers and sisters. But it’s pretty much the same.

Interesting, there is good evidence that swear words are handled differently by the brain than non-swear words.

In global aphasia, a form of almost total language impairment normally caused by brain damage to the left hemisphere, affected people can still usually swear despite being unable to say any other words.

Author Melissa Mohr has just written a book called Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing which presumably has plenty more for swearing fans.

Link to Boston Globe interview (via @leraboroditsky)
Link to details of Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing.

The ‘unnamed feeling’ named ASMR

Here’s my BBC Future column from last week. It’s about the so-called Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, which didn’t have a name until 2010 and I’d never heard of until 2012. Now, I’m finding out that it is surprisingly common. The original is here.

It’s a tightening at the back of the throat, or a tingling around your scalp, a chill that comes over you when you pay close attention to something, such as a person whispering instructions. It’s called the autonomous sensory meridian response, and until 2010 it didn’t exist.

I first heard about the autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) from British journalist Rhodri Marsden. He had become mesmerised by intentionally boring videos he found on YouTube, things like people explaining how to fold towels, running hair dryers or role-playing interactions with dentists. Millions of people were watching the videos, reportedly for the pleasurable sensations they generated.

Rhodri asked my opinion as a psychologist. Could this be a real thing? “Sure,” I said. If people say they feel it, it has to be real – in some form or another. The question is what kind of real is it? Are all these people experiencing the same thing? Is it learnt, or something we are born with? How common is it? Those are the kind of questions we’d ask as psychologists. But perhaps the most interesting thing about the ASMR is what happened to it before psychologists put their minds to it.

Presumably the feeling has existed for all of human history. Each person discovered the experience, treasured it or ignored it, and kept the feeling to themselves. That there wasn’t a name for it until 2010 suggests that most people who had this feeling hadn’t talked about it. It’s amazing that it got this far without getting a name. In scientific terms, it didn’t exist.

But then, of course, along came the 21st Century and, like they say, even if you’re one in a million there’s thousands of you on the internet. Now there’s websites, discussion forums, even a Wikipedia page. And a name. In fact, many names – “Attention Induced Euphoria”, “braingasm”, or “the unnamed feeling” are all competing labels that haven’t caught on in the same way as ASMR.


This points to something curious about the way we create knowledge, illustrated by a wonderful story about the scientific history of meteorites. Rocks falling from the sky were considered myths in Europe for centuries, even though stories of their fiery trails across the sky, and actual rocks, were widely, if irregularly reported. The problem was that the kind of people who saw meteorites and subsequently collected them tended to be the kind of people who worked outdoors – that is, farmers and other country folk. You can imagine the scholarly minds of the Renaissance didn’t weigh too heavily on their testimonies. Then in 1794 a meteorite shower fell on the town of Siena in Italy. Not only was Siena a town, it was a town with a university. The testimony of the townsfolk, including well-to-do church ministers and tourists, was impossible to deny and the reports written up in scholarly publications. Siena played a crucial part in the process of myth becoming fact.

Where early science required authorities and written evidence to turn myth into fact, ASRM shows that something more democratic can achieve the same result. Discussion among ordinary people on the internet provided validation that the unnamed feeling was a shared one. Suddenly many individuals who might have thought of themselves as unusual were able to recognise that they were a single group, with a common experience.

There is a blind spot in psychology for individual differences. ASMR has some similarities with synaesthesia (the merging of the senses where colours can have tastes, for example, or sounds produce visual effects). Both are extremes of normal sensation, which exist for some individuals but not others. For many years synaesthesia was a scientific backwater, a condition viewed as unproductive to research, perhaps just the product of people’s imagination rather than a real sensory phenomenon. This changed when techniques were developed that precisely measured the effects of synaesthesia, demonstrating that it was far more than people’s imagination. Now it has its own research community, with conferences and papers in scientific journals.

Perhaps ASMR will go the same way. Some people are certainly pushing for research into it. As far as I know there are no systematic scientific studies on ASMR. Since I was quoted in that newspaper article, I’ve been contacted regularly by people interested in the condition and wanting to know about research into it. When people hear that their unnamed feeling has a name they are drawn to find out more, they want to know the reality of the feeling, and to connect with others who have it. Something common to all of us wants to validate our inner experience by having it recognised by other people, and in particular by the authority of science. I can’t help – almost all I know about ASMR is in this column you are reading now. For now all we have is a name, but that’s progress.

Disaster response psychology needs to change

Photo by Flickr user flyingjournals. Click for source.I’ve got an article in today’s Observer about how disaster response mental health services are often based on the erroneous assumption that everyone needs ‘treatment’ and often rely on single-session counselling sessions which may do more harm than good.

Unfortunately, the article has been given a rather misleading headline (‘Minds traumatised by disaster heal themselves without therapy’) which suggests that mental health services are not needed. This is not the case and this is not what the article says.

What it does say is that the common idea of disaster response is that everyone affected by the tragedy will need help from mental health professionals when only a minority will.

It also says that aid agencies often use single-session counselling sessions which have been found to raise the risk of long-term mental health problems. This stems from a understandable desire to ‘do something’ but this motivation is not enough to actually help.

Disaster, war, violence and conflict, raise the number of mental health problems in the affected population. The appropriate response is to build or enhance high-quality, long-term, culturally relevant mental health services – not parachuting in counsellors to do single counselling sessions.

Link to article on disaster response psychology in The Observer.

2013-05-03 Spike activity

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

I can’t recognise my own face! In my case, it’s because the Botox has worn off but for person described in the New Scientist article it’s because of prosopagnosia.

The Guardian reports that the UK Government’s ‘Nudge Unit’ is set to become a commercial service. Nudge mercenaries!

A greater use of “I” and “me” as a mark of interpersonal distress. An interesting study covered by the BPS Research Digest.

Pacific Standard has an interesting piece about gun registers, felons and interrupting the contagion of gun violence.

Brain Voodoo Goes Electric. The mighty Neuroskeptic on how a previously common flaw in fMRI brain imaging research may also apply to EEG and MEG ‘brain wave’ studies.

A Médecins Sans Frontières psychologist writes about her work with in the Syrian armed conflict.

The latest social priming evidence and replication story at Nature causes all sorts of academic acrimony. The fun’s in the comments section.

Slate asks Is Psychiatry Dishonest? And if so, is it a noble lie?

With all the ‘everyone will be traumatised and needs to see a psychologist’ nonsense to hit the media after the Boston bombing, this interview with Boston psychiatry prof Terence Keane gets it perfectly. Recommended.

Mind and brain podcast radio rush

Several new mind and brain radio series have just started in the last few weeks and all can be listened to online.

The two ‘All in the Minds’ have just started a new series.

BBC Radio 4’s All in the Mind has just started a new series with the first programme including end-of-the-world hopefuls and psychologist and journalist Christian Jarrett.

ABC Radio National’s All in the Mind new series has also just begun – kicking off with a programme on the social brain.

BBC Radio 4’s brilliant online sociology series The Digital Human started a new series a few weeks ago.

The latest Nature NeuroPod just hit the wires a few days ago.

The Neuroscientists Talk Shop podcast is technical but ace and has a big back catalogue.

Any mind and brain podcasts you’re into at the moment? Add them in the comments.

National Institute of Mental Health abandoning the DSM

In a potentially seismic move, the National Institute of Mental Health – the world’s biggest mental health research funder, has announced only two weeks before the launch of the DSM-5 diagnostic manual that it will be “re-orienting its research away from DSM categories”.

In the announcement, NIMH Director Thomas Insel says the DSM lacks validity and that “patients with mental disorders deserve better”.

This is something that will make very uncomfortable reading for the American Psychiatric Association as they trumpet what they claim is the ‘future of psychiatric diagnosis’ only two weeks before it hits the shelves.

As a result the NIMH will now be preferentially funding research that does not stick to DSM categories:

Going forward, we will be supporting research projects that look across current categories – or sub-divide current categories – to begin to develop a better system. What does this mean for applicants? Clinical trials might study all patients in a mood clinic rather than those meeting strict major depressive disorder criteria. Studies of biomarkers for “depression” might begin by looking across many disorders with anhedonia or emotional appraisal bias or psychomotor retardation to understand the circuitry underlying these symptoms. What does this mean for patients? We are committed to new and better treatments, but we feel this will only happen by developing a more precise diagnostic system.

As an alternative approach, Insel suggests the Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) project, which aims to uncover what it sees as the ‘component parts’ of psychological dysregulation by understanding difficulties in terms of cognitive, neural and genetic differences.

For example, difficulties with regulating the arousal system might be equally as involved in generating anxiety in PTSD as generating manic states in bipolar disorder.

Of course, this ‘component part’ approach is already a large part of mental health research but the RDoC project aims to combine this into a system that allows these to be mapped out and integrated.

It’s worth saying that this won’t be changing how psychiatrists treat their patients any time soon. DSM-style disorders will still be the order of the day, not least because a great deal of the evidence for the effectiveness of medication is based on giving people standard diagnoses.

It is also true to say that RDoC is currently little more than a plan at the moment – a bit like the Mars mission: you can see how it would be feasible but actually getting there seems a long way off. In fact, until now, the RDoC project has largely been considered to be an experimental project in thinking up alternative approaches.

The project was partly thought to be radical because it has many similarities to the approach taken by scientific critics of mainstream psychiatry who have argued for a symptom-based approach to understanding mental health difficulties that has often been rejected by the ‘diagnoses represent distinct diseases’ camp.

The NIMH has often been one of the most staunch supporters of the latter view, so the fact that it has put the RDoC front and centre is not only a slap in the face for the American Psychiatric Association and the DSM, it also heralds a massive change in how we might think of mental disorders in decades to come.

Link to NIMH announcement ‘Transforming Diagnosis’.