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.