Love is a cognitive enhancer

Aeon magazine has an excellent article about how a study on the adoption of Romanian orphans has helped us understand the importance of early-life affection for brain development.

It tracks the story of the Bucharest Early Intervention Project (BEIP), a US-based study that was inspired by seeing the appalling living conditions of orphans from the Ceausescu regime era.

Many were left with virtually no human interaction, were often poorly fed, in poor health and sometimes seemed to be cognitively impaired.

The Bucharest Early Intervention Project completed a randomised controlled trial to show that adoption not only improved physical health but also improved brain function – demonstrating the importance of human contact for healthy brain development.

It’s a moving article that really gets into the importance of early development but it gives an curious impression of what inspired the studies.

It suggests that in 1999, when the study was first launched, previous studies on the negative neurodevelopmental effects of depriving young animals of maternal affection provided the basis for thinking that this is what might be happening in the Romanian orphans.

This is certainly one line of thinking. The experiments of serial monkey abuser Harry Harlow often pop up in these discussions, despite the fact that the effect of early care and affection on healthy emotional development has been known since antiquity and was demonstrated by John Bowlby’s studies on World War II evacuee children years before.

But in the case of Romanian orphans, one of the most important sources of information was not animal studies, but studies already done on the effects of adoption on brain development in Romanian Orphans – of which the first study was published a year earlier, in 1998.

These studies were led by child psychiatrist Michael Rutter who had revisited Bowlby’s ideas and thought that while broadly accurate they were probably too strong in their predictions and that development could be improved for many.

When the Ceausescu regime fell and the plight of the orphanages became clear, many families from across Europe adopted orphans. Rutter compared children who had been taken up by UK families and compared them on what age they were adopted.

The studies found that the length of emotional deprivation was associated with smaller head size (reflecting brain development), lowered IQ, and increased mental heath problems, even when the effects of poor nutrition were controlled for.

One of the difficulties is that the results may not have been comparable to the effects of adoption by Romanian families – which, for example, remains a country with a more limited healthcare system.

The Bucharest Early Intervention Project were the first to run a randomised controlled trial of adoption – literally, an experiment to compare adopting children versus institutional care – to conclusively demonstrate the benefits.

Needless to say, it was an ethically charged project, and the Aeon article discusses the challenges that it raised.

Link to Aeon article ‘Detachment’.

A literary review of the DSM-5

Philosopher Ian Hacking, famous for analysing the effects of psychological and neuroscientific knowledge on how we understand ourselves, has reviewed the DSM-5 for the London Review of Books.

It’s both an excellent look at what the whole DSM project has been designed to do and a cutting take on the checklist approach to diagnosis.

It’s not often that a review gives you a feeling of both a wholesome read and a guilty pleasure, but Hacking does both with this piece.

The DSM is not a representation of the nature or reality of the varieties of mental illness, and this is a far more radical criticism of it than [NIMH Director Thomas] Insel’s claim that the book lacks ‘validity’.

I am saying it is founded on a wrong appreciation of the nature of things. It remains a very useful book for other purposes. It is essential to have something like this for the bureaucratic needs of paying for treatment and assessing prevalence.

But for those purposes the changes effected from DSM-IV to DSM-5 were not worth the prodigious labour, committee meetings, fierce and sometimes acrimonious debate involved. I have no idea how much the revision cost, but it is not that much help to clinicians, and the changes do not matter much to the bureaucracies.

And trying to get it right, in revision after revision, perpetuates the long-standing idea that, in our present state of knowledge, the recognised varieties of mental illness should neatly sort themselves into tidy blocks, in the way that plants and animals do.

The old joke about a dictionary review goes “the plot wasn’t up to much but at least it explained everything as it went along”.

For the DSM it might well be “the plot wasn’t up to much and neither did it explain everything as it went along”.

Link to ‘Lost in the Forest’ in The LRB (via @HuwTube)

What makes an extravert?

Why do some people prefer adventure and the company of others, while others favour being alone? It’s all to do with how the brain processes rewards.

Will you spend Saturday night in a crowded bar, or curled up with a good book? Is your ideal holiday adventure sports with a large group of mates and, or anywhere more sedate destination with a few good friends? Maybe your answers to these questions are clear – you’d love one option and hate another – or maybe you find yourself somewhere between the two extremes. Whatever your answers, the origin of your feelings may lie in how your brain responds to rewards.

We all exist somewhere on the spectrum between extroverts and introverts, and different circumstances can make us feel more one way or the other. Extraverts, a term popularised by psychologist Carl Jung at the beginning of the 20th Century, seem to dominate our world, either because they really are more common, or because they just make most of the noise. (The original spelling of “extravert” is now rarely used generally, but is still used in psychology.) This is so much the case that some have even written guides on how to care for introverts, and nurture their special talents.

A fundamental question remains – what makes an extrovert? Why are we all different in this respect, and what do extraverts have in common that makes them like they are? Now, with brain scans that can record activity from deep within the brain, and with genetic profiling that reveals the code behind the constructions of the chemical signalling system used by the brain, we can put some answers to these decades-old questions.

In the 1960s, psychologist Hans Eysenck made the influential proposal that extroverts were defined by having a chronically lower level of arousal. Arousal, in the physiological sense, is the extent to which our bodies and minds are alert and ready to respond to stimulation. This varies for us all throughout the day (for example, as I move from asleep to awake, usually via few cups of coffee) and in different circumstances (for example, cycling through the rush-hour keeps you on your toes, heightening arousal, whereas a particularly warm lecture theatre tends to lower your arousal). Eysenck’s theory was that extroverts have just a slightly lower basic rate of arousal. The effect is that they need to work a little harder to get themselves up to the level others find normal and pleasant without doing anything. Hence the need for company, seeking out novel experiences and risks. Conversely, highly introverted individuals find themselves overstimulated by things others might find merely pleasantly exciting or engaging. Hence they seek out quiet conversations about important topics, solitary pursuits and predictable environments.

Betting brains

More recently, this theory has been refined, linking extroversion to the function of dopamine, a chemical that plays an intimate role in the brain circuits which control reward, learning and responses to novelty. Could extroverts differ in how active their dopamine systems are? This would provide a neat explanation for the kinds of behaviours extroverts display, while connecting it to an aspect of brain function that we know quite a lot about for other reasons.

Researchers lead by Michael Cohen, now of the University of Amsterdam, were able to test these ideas in a paper published in 2005. They asked participants to perform a gambling task while in the brain scanner. Before they went in the scanner each participant filled out a personality profile and contributed a mouth swab for genetic analysis. Analysis of the imaging data showed how the brain activity differed between extroverted volunteers and introverted ones. When the gambles they took paid off, the more extroverted group showed a stronger response in two crucial brain regions: the amygdala and the nucleus accumbens. The amygdala is known for processing emotional stimuli, and the nucleus accumbens is a key part of the brain’s reward circuitry and part of the dopamine system. The results confirm the theory – extroverts process surprising rewards differently.

When Cohen’s group looked at the genetic profiles of the participants, they found another difference in reward-related brain activity. Those volunteers who had a gene known to increase the responsiveness of the dopamine system also showed increased activity when they won a gamble.

So here we see part of the puzzle of why we’re all different in this way. Extrovert’s brains respond more strongly when gambles pay off. Obviously they are going to enjoy adventure sports more, or social adventures like meeting new people more. Part of this difference is genetic, resulting from the way our genes shape and develop our brains. Other results confirm that dopamine function is key to this – so, for example, genes that control dopamine function predict personality differences in how much people enjoy the unfamiliar and actively seek out novelty. Other results show how extroverts learn differently, in keeping with a heighted sensitivity to rewards due to their reactive dopamine systems.

Our preferences are shaped by the way our brains respond to the world. Maybe this little bit of biological psychology can help us all, whether introverts or extroverts, by allowing us to appreciate how and why others might like different things from us.

This is my BBC Future column from last week. The original is here

The Mystery of The Cuckoo’s Calling

One of the computational linguists who applied forensic text analysis to JK Rowling’s books to uncover her as the author of The Cuckoo’s Calling describes the science behind his investigation in a post for Language Log.

It seems Rowling’s authorship was originally leaked by her law firm and a UK newspaper turned to two academics who specialise forensic text analysis to back up their suspicions.

On of those academics, computer scientist Patrick Juola, wrote a piece for Language Log to describe how this sort of text analysis works.

Of the 11 sections of Cuckoo, six were closest (in distribution of word lengths) to Rowling, five to James. No one else got a mention.

Another feature I used were the 100 most common words. What percentage of the document were “the,” what were “of,” and so on. Again, a rich data set that is easy to extract by computer. Using an otherwise similar analysis (including cosine distance again), four of the sections were Rowling-like, four were McDermid-like, and the other three split between James and Rendell.

I ran two tests based on authorial vocabulary. The first was on the distribution of character 4-grams, groups of four adjacent characters. These could be words, parts of words (like four letters “nsid” that would be inside the word “inside”) or even parts of two words (like the four letters “n th” as part of the phrase “in the”)… I also ran on word bigrams, pairs of adjacent words, again a feature with a good track record.

The character 4-grams showed a preference for McDermid, with 8 sections close to her. Three were Rowling-like, and no one else was mentioned. The word pairs, on the other hand, were clearly Rowling-like (9 sections, against 2 by McDermid, no one else mentioned).

If you want to play around with some of the technology behind both Juola’s authorship attribution work, or that of Peter Millican – the other academic contacted by the press to do an analysis – you can actually download them both from the net.

Juola’s JGAAP programme is available here while you can get Millican’s at this page.

Rumours that Mind Hacks is actually written by Natalie Portman will be strictly denied.

Link to Juola’s post on Language Log.

A proto-anthropology of the rock n’ roll groupie scene

The Groupies is a remarkable record. The 1969 LP features nothing but interviews with ‘super groupies’ who discuss the culture of sleeping around the 60’s rock n’ roll scene.

It was made by, and featured, an 18 year-old version of the future Dr Cleo Odzer who shows her early interest in both sex and culture – both of which she’d study in her career as an anthropologist.

The girls talk about taking drugs, hanging out with bands, getting the clap and ‘making piggies’ – which is quite possibly both the cutest and oddest euphemism I’ve ever heard for having sex.

By the time she made The Groupies she had already been featured in Time magazine and broken off an engagement to Keith Emerson – of Emerson, Lake & Palmer fame. That’s them together on the left, by the way.

Odzer went on to become a journalist, then a drug runner, then an addict, then an ex-addict, and then, an anthropologist – eventually completing her PhD in the subject at the New School for Social Research in New York by studying prostitution in Thailand.

This was the first of Odzer’s areas of interest as an anthropologist. The second was the hippy scene in Goa, India, and the third was on sexual activity on the internet – then rather boldly called ‘cybersex’.

It’s worth saying that Odzer was never the most objective of investigators, tending to get overly involved in most things she researched. Or at least, that’s how it seemed. It’s just as possible she decided to research the things that she was already overly-involved with.

You can see this in her work. While her academic work included a more cutting analysis, her published books tended to be as much about her as the culture.

Her 1997 ‘cybersex’ book Virtual Spaces: Sex and the Cyber Citizen was largely thought a curiosity but, looking back, it was quite revolutionary.

While the academic world had just discovered this weird new phenomenon, and mostly viewed it with eyes-over-spectacles disproving glances, Odzer wrote what amounted to a cross between a Lonely Planet travel guide and the Joy of Sex – but for the newly connected internet user.

Odzer died at the age of 50, in Goa, after returning there from New York. Accounts vary. Possibly she died peacefully in her adopted home, possibly she finally succumbed to a lonely death with AIDS.

But when you listen to The Groupies LP, and the full audio is online, you can see the beginnings of a common thread that ran through her work.

It touches on a genuinely interesting social area which most people would have dismissed as seedy but which has a clear culture emerging from it. The analysis is slightly chaotic but genuinely insightful in places. It captures the excitement but in retrospect, it took something from her.

Link to page with audio of The Groupies.
Link to Wikipedia page on Cleo Odzer.

Candidate neurotech for the billion dollar brain projects

NatureBrainNature has an article that discusses candidate neuro-mapping technologies that may form the basis of the billion dollar brain projects that are just kicking off on either side of the Atlantic.

Both Europe’s and Obama’s brain projects have set themselves the (possibly over-) ambitious goal of mapping the working brain on the neuron-by-neuron level.

This is off the back of new technologies that promise multiple-neuron fine-grained recording and systems to make sense of the date – but can only currently do it on a very small scale.

The Nature article looks at the most promising options and how they might scale to whole brain, or at least, ‘big chunk of brain’ level.

Attempting to take another leap farther, Jeff Lichtman at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Winfried Denk of the Max Plank Institute for Neurobiology in Munich, Germany, are working with the German optics company Carl Zeiss on a new electron microscope that would image even thinner slices — 25 nanometres, or one-thousandth the thickness of an average cell. “Then you get to see every little damn thing in the brain, from every neuron to every subcellular organelle, from every synapse to every spine neck — everything,” says Lichtman.

It’s probably worth saying that the ‘mapping the whole brain as it’s working’ thing is spin. Considering there are about 100 billion or so neurons in the human brain that’s a lot of microchips you’d need mixing in with your brain.

Link to Nature article ‘Neuroscience: Solving the brain’

Like a kid in a brain candy store

Photo by Flickr user Max. Click for source.Slate has got a great article that takes on the newly fashionable field of ‘neuromarketing’ and calls it out as an empty promise.

The piece is written by neuroscientist Matt Wall who notes the upsurge in consumer EEG ‘brain wave’ technology has fuelled a boom in neuromarketing companies who claim that measuring the brain is the shining path to selling your product.

Because neuromarketing companies don’t provide the key details of the analysis techniques they use, it’s hard to evaluate them objectively. However, they seem to take a highly automated approach, essentially plugging the raw data into a black box of algorithms that spits out a neatly processed answer at the other end. Such an approach must involve making a large number of assumptions and some fancy-analysis footwork to make something coherent out of the poor-quality data.

In general the same applies to getting information out of a data set as to getting information out of a human: If you torture it long enough, it’ll tell you everything you want to know, but information extracted under torture is highly unreliable.

In addition, marketing-related studies are not well-suited to the kind of repetition that’s required to boost the useful signal and reduce noise; the same product or TV commercial can be presented only a few times before the participant becomes very bored indeed and therefore ceases to have any kind of meaningful reaction.

The article discusses why the current fad of EEG-based neuromarketing is scientifically unsound but despite the technical difficulties and theoretical incoherence of the field, it would all become irrelevant with one simple demonstration: a measure of the brain that could predict buyer preference better than behavioural or psychological measures.

Until now, no-one has shown this. In other words, no-one, nowhere, has shown that a ‘neuromarketing’ approach adds anything to what can be done by a standard marketing approach.

I’m all for neuromarketing research but until you can come up with the goods as a commercial product, you’re selling hot air.

There is one area that neuromarketing companies excel at though – marketing themselves. Considering a complete lack of data for their benefits, they pull in millions of dollars a year from advertising contracts.

Now that is effective marketing.

Link to Slate article ‘What Are Neuromarketers Really Selling?’

Why you think your phone is vibrating when it is not

Most of us experience false alarms with phones, and as Tom Stafford explains this happens because it is a common and unavoidable part of healthy brain function.

Sensing phantom phone vibrations is a strangely common experience. Around 80% of us have imagined a phone vibrating in our pockets when it’s actually completely still. Almost 30% of us have also heard non-existent ringing. Are these hallucinations ominous signs of impending madness caused by digital culture?

Not at all. In fact, phantom vibrations and ringing illustrate a fundamental principle in psychology.

You are an example of a perceptual system, just like a fire alarm, an automatic door, or a daffodil bulb that must decide when spring has truly started. Your brain has to make a perceptual judgment about whether the phone in your pocket is really vibrating. And, analogous to a daffodil bulb on a warm February morning, it has to decide whether the incoming signals from the skin near your pocket indicate a true change in the world.

Psychologists use a concept called Signal Detection Theory to guide their thinking about the problem of perceptual judgments. Working though the example of phone vibrations, we can see how this theory explains why they are a common and unavoidable part of healthy mental function.

When your phone is in your pocket, the world is in one of two possible states: the phone is either ringing or not. You also have two possible states of mind: the judgment that the phone is ringing, or the judgment that it isn’t. Obviously you’d like to match these states in the correct way. True vibrations should go with “it’s ringing”, and no vibrations should go with “it’s not ringing”. Signal detection theory calls these faithful matches a “hit” and a “correct rejection”, respectively.

But there are two other possible combinations: you could mismatch true vibrations with “it’s not ringing” (a “miss”); or mismatch the absence of vibrations with “it’s ringing” (a “false alarm”). This second kind of mismatch is what’s going on when you imagine a phantom phone vibration.

For situations where easy judgments can be made, such as deciding if someone says your name in a quiet room, you will probably make perfect matches every time. But when judgments are more difficult – if you have to decide whether someone says your name in a noisy room, or have to evaluate something you’re not skilled at – mismatches will occasionally happen. And these mistakes will be either misses or false alarms.

Alarm ring

Signal detection theory tells us that there are two ways of changing the rate of mismatches. The best way is to alter your sensitivity to the thing you are trying to detect. This would mean setting your phone to a stronger vibration, or maybe placing your phone next to a more sensitive part of your body. (Don’t do both or people will look at you funny.) The second option is to shift your bias so that you are more or less likely to conclude “it’s ringing”, regardless of whether it really is.

Of course, there’s a trade-off to be made. If you don’t mind making more false alarms, you can avoid making so many misses. In other words, you can make sure that you always notice when your phone is ringing, but only at the cost of experiencing more phantom vibrations.

These two features of a perceiving system – sensitivity and bias – are always present and independent of each other. The more sensitive a system is the better, because it is more able to discriminate between true states of the world. But bias doesn’t have an obvious optimum. The appropriate level of bias depends on the relative costs and benefits of different matches and mismatches.

What does that mean in terms of your phone? We can assume that people like to notice when their phone is ringing, and that most people hate missing a call. This means their perceptual systems have adjusted their bias to a level that makes misses unlikely. The unavoidable cost is a raised likelihood of false alarms – of phantom phone vibrations. Sure enough, the same study that reported phantom phone vibrations among nearly 80% of the population also found that these types of mismatches were particularly common among people who scored highest on a novelty-seeking personality test. These people place the highest cost on missing an exciting call.

The trade-off between false alarms and misses also explains why we all have to put up with fire alarms going off when there isn’t a fire. It isn’t that the alarms are badly designed, but rather that they are very sensitive to smoke and heat – and biased to avoid missing a real fire at all costs. The outcome is a rise in the number of false alarms. These are inconvenient, but nowhere near as inconvenient as burning to death in your bed or office. The alarms are designed to err on the side of caution.

All perception is made up of information from the world and biases we have adjusted from experience. Feeling a phantom phone vibration isn’t some kind of pathological hallucination. It simply reflects our near-perfect perceptual systems trying their best in an uncertain and noisy world.

This article was originally published on BBC Future. The original is here.

Double matrix

This is quite possibly the least comprehensible abstract of a psychology article I have ever read. It starts off dense and wordy and ends up feeling like you’re huffing butane.

The psychologization of humanitarian aid: skimming the battlefield and the disaster zone

Hist Human Sci. 2011;24(3):103-22.

De Vos J.

Humanitarian aid’s psycho-therapeutic turn in the 1990s was mirrored by the increasing emotionalization and subjectivation of fund-raising campaigns. In order to grasp the depth of this interconnectedness, this article argues that in both cases what we see is the post-Fordist production paradigm at work; namely, as Hardt and Negri put it, the direct production of subjectivity and social relations. To explore this, the therapeutic and mental health approach in humanitarian aid is juxtaposed with the more general phenomenon of psychologization.

This allows us to see that the psychologized production of subjectivity has a problematic waste-product as it reduces the human to ‘Homo sacer’, to use Giorgi Agamben’s term. Drawing out a double matrix of a de-psychologizing psychologization connected to a politicizing de-politicization, it will further become possible to understand psycho-therapeutic humanitarianism as a case of how, in these times of globalization, psychology, subjectivity and money are all interrelated.

Hey. I think the walls are melting.

Link to PubMed abstract.

I’m experiencing a lot of automaticity right now

Funny or Die is supposedly a comedy site but they seem to have a brief video tutorial on how to undertake neurally informed domestic negotiations.

The credits of the video give special thanks to Dr Dan Siegel – founder of ‘the exciting field of interpersonal neurobiology’.

I think that might be a joke though as the video seemed relatively free of flowery neurojargon.

Life of a Neuro Pope

The late Pope John Paul II is to be made a saint by the Catholic church after having two miracles confirmed – both of which allegedly involved curing neurological disorders.

As Popes go, John Paul was particularly interested in neuroscience and seems to have continued his interest in the, er, afterlife.

His post-mortem miracles have allegedly involved, on one occasion, curing a woman of a ‘brain aneurysm’, and on another, curing a nun of Parkinson’s disease.

The neurosurgeon involved in the latter cases was recently interviewed about the case to explain why he thinks it was a miracle – rather than, for example, a misdiagnosis.

However, this was not the first time it was claimed that the late Pope miraculously aided a neuroscientist. He beatified 17th Century neuroscientist Nicolas Steno who became the first brain specialist to start his journey toward sainthood.

Pope John Paul II also commented on neuroscientific issues. He defended dualism – the belief that the mind and brain are separate entities in a 1996 address, saying:

Consequently, theories of evolution which, in accordance with the philosophies inspiring them, consider the mind as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a mere epiphenomenon of this matter, are incompatible with the truth about man. Nor are they able to ground the dignity of the person.

But perhaps paradoxically he also supported the medical consensus on death being ‘brain death’ rather than respiratory failure – noting in the year 2000 that the “complete and irreversible cessation of all brain activity” was an acceptable definition.

However, this issue clearly troubled him for some time after, because in 2006 he convened a conference of medics and neuroscientists to debate exactly this issue, producing the famous ‘Signs of Death’ publication from the Vatican.

He also commented on cases of people in coma-like persistent vegetative states, saying that even without their ‘higher functions’ that may have been affected by brain damage, they should be always be treated to keep them alive.

John Paul’s interest in the brain may have had a personal aspect. He developed Parkinson’s disease himself which was not made public for many years.

Nevertheless, he was not the first Pope to have a neurological disorder. Pope Pius IX had epilepsy – something else which was barely mentioned by the Vatican during his time as the head of the Catholic Church.

In fact, even now they only describe his condition as “a disease not well diagnosed, which some called epilepsy” – possibly because it is still associated with possession by cultures across the world.

‘digital dementia’ lowdown – from The Conversation

The Headlines

The Telegraph: Surge in ‘digital dementia’

The Daily Mail: ‘Digital dementia’ on the rise as young people increasingly rely on technology instead of their brain

Fox News: Is ‘digital dementia’ plaguing teenagers?

The Story

South Korea has the highest proportion of people with smartphones, 67%. Nearly 1 in 5 use their phone for more than 7 hours in a day, it is reported. Now a doctor in Seoul reports that teenagers are reporting with symptoms more normally found in those with head injury or psychiatric illness. He claims excessive smartphone use is leading to asymmetrical brain development, emotional stunting and could “in as many as 15 per cent of cases lead to the early onset of dementia”.

What they actually did

Details from the news stories are sketchy. Dr Byun Gi-won, in Seoul, provided the quotes, but it doesn’t seem as if he has published any systematic research. Perhaps the comments are based on personal observation?

The Daily Mail quotes an article which reported that 14% of young people felt that their memory was poor. The Mail also contains the choice quote that “[Doctors] say that teenagers have become so reliant on digital technology they are no longer able to remember everyday details such as their phone numbers.”

How plausible is this?

It is extremely plausible that people should worry about their memories, or that doctors should find teenagers uncooperative, forgetful and inattentive. The key question is whether our memories, or teenagers’ cognitive skills, are worse than they ever have been – and if smart phones are to blame for this. The context for this story is a recurring moral panic about young people, new forms of technology and social organisation.

For a long time it was TV, before that it was compulsory schooling (“taking kids out of their natural environment”). When the newspaper became common people complained about the death of conversation. Plato even complained that writing augured the death of memory and understanding). The story also draws on the old left brain-right brain myth, which – despite being demonstrably wrong – will probably never die.

Tom’s take

Of course, it is possible that smartphones (or the internet, or TV, or newspapers, or writing) could damage our thinking abilities. But all the evidence suggest the opposite, with year by year and generation-by-generation rises found in IQ scores. One of the few revealing pieces of research in this area showed that people really are more forgetful of information they know can be easily retrieved, but actually better able to remember where to find that information again.

This isn’t dementia, but a completely normally process of relying on our environment to store information for us. You can see the moral panic driving these stories reflected in the use of that quote about teenagers not being able to remember phone numbers. So what! I can’t remember phone numbers any more – because I don’t need to. The only evidence for dementia in these stories is the lack of critical thought from the journalists reporting them.

Read more

Vaughan Bell on a media history of information scares.

Christian Jarret on Why the Left-Brain Right-Brain Myth Will Probably Never Die

The Conversation

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

The Connected Brain: Edinburgh

From Flickr, click for link

I’m giving at talk at the Edinburgh festival on August 9th, called The Connected Brain. It will be at Summerhall (Fringe Venue 26 during the festival), cost £3, and here is the blurb:

Headlines often ask if facebook is making us shallow, or google eroding our memories. In this talk we will look “under the hood” of research on how digital technology is affecting us. We will try and chart a course between moral panic and techno-utopianism to reveal the real risks of technology and show how we can cement the great opportunities that it presents for the human mind.

The talk will be similar to the one I did in London recently at the School of Life. Ben Martynoga wrote up some details of that talk, which you can find here. The ideas in the talk involve using some examples from the Mind Hacks book to illustrate some principles of how the mind works, looking at the extended mind hypothesis and reminding ourselves of some of the history of moral panics around information technologies, which Vaughan has written so engagingly and often about (thanks Vaughan!). The place I get to, which is where I’m at with my thinking and where I hope to start a discussion with the audience, is that, rather than panic about technology making us dumb, distracted and alone, we need to identify the principles which will help us design technology which makes use smart, able to concentrate and empathetic.

So that’s, me + Edinburgh + August the 9th. Link for tickets : The Connected Brain