A buried artefact

Sometimes there is an accidental beauty in the most macabre of events. Having a bullet lodged in your brain can produce beautiful CT scans due to the scanner’s difficulty with imaging metal objects.

The scan is from an 8-year-old girl who was hit by a bullet that was fired into the air in celebration. She was reportedly fine but this scan is from her hospital admission.

This pattern is an unintended consequence. It’s called a ‘streak’ or ‘star’ artefact and is caused by a combination of the CT scanner beam being over-absorbed by the dense metal object and the image construction software not being able to make sense of the incoming information correctly.

There’s various other images online if you want more unintended brain glitter.

Does studying economics make you more selfish?

When economics students learn about what makes fellow humans tick it affects the way they treat others. Not necessarily in a good way, as Tom Stafford explains.

Studying human behaviour can be like a dog trying to catch its own tail. As we learn more about ourselves, our new beliefs change how we behave. Research on economics students showed this in action: textbooks describing facts and theories about human behaviour can affect the people studying them.

Economic models are often based on an imaginary character called the rational actor, who, with no messy and complex inner world, relentlessly pursues a set of desires ranked according to the costs and benefits. Rational actors help create simple models of economies and societies. According to rational choice theory, some of the predictions governing these hypothetical worlds are common sense: people should prefer more to less, firms should only do things that make a profit and, if the price is right, you should be prepared to give up anything you own.

Another tool used to help us understand our motivations and actions is game theory, which examines how you make choices when their outcomes are affected by the choices of others. To determine which of a number of options to go for, you need a theory about what the other person will do (and your theory needs to encompass the other person’s theory about what you will do, and so on). Rational actor theory says other players in the game all want the best outcome for themselves, and that they will assume the same about you.

The most famous game in game theory is the “prisoner’s dilemma”, in which you are one of a pair of criminals arrested and held in separate cells. The police make you this offer: you can inform on your partner, in which case you either get off scot free (if your partner keeps quiet), or you both get a few years in prison (if he informs on you too). Alternatively you can keep quiet, in which case you either get a few years (if your partner also keeps quiet), or you get a long sentence (if he informs on you, leading to him getting off scot free). Your partner, of course, faces exactly the same choice.

If you’re a rational actor, it’s an easy decision. You should inform on your partner in crime because if he keeps quiet, you go free, and if he informs on you, both of you go to prison, but the sentence will be either the same length or shorter than if you keep quiet.

Weirdly, and thankfully, this isn’t what happens if you ask real people to play the prisoner’s dilemma. Around the world, in most societies, most people maintain the criminals’ pact of silence. The exceptions who opt to act solely in their own interests are known in economics as “free riders” – individuals who take benefits without paying costs.

Self(ish)-selecting group

The prisoner’s dilemma is a theoretical tool, but there are plenty of parallel choices – and free riders – in the real world. People who are always late for appointments with others don’t have to hurry or wait for others. Some use roads and hospitals without paying their taxes. There are lots of interesting reasons why most of us turn up on time and don’t avoid paying taxes, even though these might be the selfish “rational” choices according to most economic models.

Crucially, rational actor theory appears more useful for predicting the actions of certain groups of people. One group who have been found to free ride more than others in repeated studies is people who have studied economics. In a study published in 1993, Robert Frank and colleagues from Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York State, tested this idea with a version of the prisoner’s dilemma game. Economics students “informed on” other players 60% of the time, while those studying other subjects did so 39% of the time. Men have previously been found to be more self-interested in such tests, and more men study economics than women. However even after controlling for this sex difference, Frank found economics students were 17% more likely to take the selfish route when playing the prisoner’s dilemma.

In good news for educators everywhere, the team found that the longer students had been at university, the higher their rates of cooperation. In other words, higher education (or simple growing up), seemed to make people more likely to put their faith in human co-operation. The economists again proved to be the exception. For them extra years of study did nothing to undermine their selfish rationality.

Frank’s group then went on to carry out surveys on whether students would return money they had found or report being undercharged, both at the start and end of their courses. Economics students were more likely to see themselves and others as more self-interested following their studies than a control group studying astronomy. This was especially true among those studying under a tutor who taught game theory and focused on notions of survival imperatives militating against co-operation.

Subsequent work has questioned these findings, suggesting that selfish people are just more likely to study economics, and that Frank’s surveys and games tell us little about real-world moral behaviour. It is true that what individuals do in the highly artificial situation of being presented with the prisoner’s dilemma doesn’t necessarily tell us how they will behave in more complex real-world situations.

In related work, Eric Schwitzgebel has shown that students and teachers of ethical philosophy don’t seem to behave more ethically when their behaviour is assessed using a range of real-world variables. Perhaps, says Schwitzgebel, we shouldn’t be surprised that economics students who have been taught about the prisoner’s dilemma, act in line with what they’ve been taught when tested in a classroom. Again, this is a long way from showing any influence on real world behaviour, some argue.

The lessons of what people do in tests and games are limited because of the additional complexities involved in real-world moral choices with real and important consequences. Yet I hesitate to dismiss the results of these experiments. We shouldn’t leap to conclusions based on the few simple experiments that have been done, but if we tell students that it makes sense to see the world through the eyes of the selfish rational actor, my suspicion is that they are more likely to do so.

Multiple factors influence our behaviour, of which formal education is just one. Economics and economic opinions are also prominent throughout the news media, for instance. But what the experiments above demonstrate, in one small way at least, is that what we are taught about human behaviour can alter it.

This is my column from BBC Future last week. You can see the original here. Thanks to Eric for some references and comments on this topic.

A universal difference

The author of Crazy Like Us, Ethan Watters, has written an excellent article on whether there’s such a thing as ‘human nature’ for the latest edition of Adbusters.

The piece tackles how scientific assumptions about the ‘universals’ of the human mind are having to be revised and discusses research which has shown how people from across the world behave markedly differently in supposedly culturally neutral tasks.

The last generation or two of undergraduates have largely been taught by a cohort of social scientists busily doing penance for the racism and Eurocentrism of their predecessors, albeit in different ways. Many anthropologists took to the navel gazing of postmodernism and swore off attempts at rationality and science, which were disparaged as weapons of cultural imperialism.

Economists and psychologists skirted the issue with the convenient assumption that their job was to study the human mind stripped of culture. The human brain is genetically comparable around the globe, it was agreed, so human hardwiring for much behavior, perception, and cognition should be similarly universal. No need, in that case, to look beyond the convenient population of undergraduates for test subjects…

Henrich’s work with the ultimatum game emerged from a small but growing counter trend in the social sciences, one in which researchers look straight at the question of how deeply culture shapes human cognition.

The article is an engaging look at this new wave of research.

Link to Is There Such a Thing as “Human Nature”?

Lou Reed has left the building

Chronicler of the wild side, Lou Reed, has died. Reed was particularly notable for students of human nature for his descriptions of drugs, madness and his own experience of psychiatry.

We’ve touched on his outrageous performance to the New York Society for Clinical Psychiatry before and his songs about or featuring drug use are legendary.

But there was one song that was particularly notable – not least for describing from his own experience of being ‘treated’ for homosexuality with electroshock therapy when he was a teenager.

Kill Your Sons, released in 1974 (audio), is just a straight-out attack on the psychiatrists that treated him:

All your two-bit psychiatrists
are giving you electroshock
They said, they’d let you live at home with mom and dad
instead of mental hospitals
But every time you tried to read a book
you couldn’t get to page 17
‘Cause you forgot where you were
so you couldn’t even read

Here Reed describes the effects on memory that are common just after electroconvulsive therapy. In this case, forgetting what you’ve just read.

The last verse also describes some of his other contacts with psychiatry, mentioning specific psychiatric clinics and medications:

Creedmore treated me very good
but Paine Whitney was even better
And when I flipped out on PHC
I was so sad, I didn’t even get a letter
All of the drugs, that we took
it really was lots of fun
But when they shoot you up with Thorazine on crystal smoke
you choke like a son of a gun

The last line seems to refer to the effect of being given a dopamine-inhibiting antipsychotic when you’re on a dopamine boosting amphetamine – presumably after being taken to a psychiatric clinic while still high. Not a pleasant comedown I would imagine.

I have no idea what ‘PHC’ refers to, though. I’m guessing it’s a psychiatric treatment from the 60s.

It’s interesting that the song was released the year after homosexuality was removed from the DSM in 1973, although it’s never been clear whether this was intentional on Reed’s part or not.

Link to YouTube audio of Kill Your Sons.

The grass is always greener

Photo by Flickr user massimo ankor. Click for source.If you’re a neuroscience fan, Marketing magazine has a somewhat depressing report of a Susan Greenfield speech to the travel industry at the ABTA conference in Croatia.

It’s sad for two reasons. Firstly The Baroness is still pursuing the same bizarre and evidence-free line that the internet causes all sorts of brain curdling problems and even doubles down on her odd claim that there’s a link with autism:

“People who are not good at interpersonal skills anyway are on the autistic spectrum disorder, they spend a lot of time in the cyber world. Sadly there are a lot of links between this disorder and compulsive video game use.”

She also says some very strange things about the effects of video games and what gamers are like:

They will have a higher IQ because we know that video game rehearsal repeats all the mental agility that is required of IQ tests. However, being good at mental processing without being able to make connections or understand context doesn’t mean to say that you understand about Syria or the economic problems of the world.

Playing video games means you don’t understand the complex situation in the Middle East? An outrageous claim. Has she never played Call of Duty 4?

However, it’s also a little sad because she’s now doing presumably paid talks to travel conferences to say that while technology damages the brain, travel is good for it.

Greenfield was genuinely one of my scientific heroes and motivated me to get into neuroscience through her talks. And now, it’s all gone a bit Donkey Kong.

Link to The Baroness on the cyberapocalypse / holiday cure.

2013-10-25 Spike activity

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

Excellent Nature article on the real impressive science behind the ‘fMRI mind reading’ studies that hit the headlines in unhelpful ways.

The I Have a Therapist campaign aims to destigmatise seeing a therapist.

IEEE Spectrum magazine has a piece on the next world’s strongest fMRI scanner – 11.8 Teslas.

The New York Times has a piece on how the US Military’s DARPA research agency are funding deep brain stimulation research to the tune of $70 million dollars.

A DIY low-cost, open-source kit from BITalino for measuring physiological signals – ECG, EMG, GSR and so on.

Interesting neuromarketing twist in Advertising Age: the same ‘brain truth is the real truth’ illusion but turned round to market the product as having a specific effect on the consumer.

Nautilus has an interesting article on how the mathematics behind codebreaking is being applied to neuroscience.

One family’s search to explain a fatal neurological disorder. American Scientist on the fight against hereditary ataxia.

Discover Magazine’s Crux blog has a piece on five sex research pioneers you’ve probable never heard of.

Scans pinpoint the moment anaesthetic puts the brain under. Report by New Scientist.

The excellent and long-running SciCurious neuroscience blog has moved to a new location.

A man called Dad

An eye-opening 2005 paper estimated the number of children who are not the biological offspring of their presumed father.

Looking at studies from around the world, it concluded that the median number of kids who are not the children of the person they call ‘dad’ is 3.7% with studies typically finding a rate of between two and ten percent.

This is presumably due to children being conceived during clandestine affairs. Whether you think that 3.7% is a low or high figure depends on your view of how human relationships work in real life.

If you want more details there’s an excellent post on Gene Expression which discusses the evidence based and the ethical implications for these findings.

For example, if a child needs genetic testing for medical reasons what should the presenting parents get told about incidental discoveries of ‘paternity discrepancy’?

Link to 2005 study on ‘paternity discrepancy’.
Link to excellent Gene Expression post on the same.

The death of the chaotic positivity ratio

A new online publication called Narratively has an excellent story about how a part-time student blew apart a long-standing theory in positive psychology.

The article is the geeky yet compelling tale of how weekend student Nick Brown found something fishy about the ‘critical positivity ratio’ theory that says people flourish when they have between 2.9013 and 11.6346 positive emotions for every negative one.

It’s been a big theory in positive psychology but Brown noticed that it was based on the dodgy application of mathematician Lorenz’s equations from fluid dynamics to human emotions.

He recruited psychology professor Harris Friedman and renowned bunk buster Alan Sokal into the analysis and their critique eventually got the paper partially retracted for being based on very shaky foundations.

It’s a great fun read and also serves as a good backgrounder to positive psychology.

I’ve also noticed that the latest edition of Narratively has loads of great articles on psychology.

Link to Narratively on Nick Brown the death of the positivity ratio.
Link to latest edition of Narratively entitled ‘Pieces of Mind’.

Seeing synaesthetic stars during sex

A study in Frontiers in Psychology asked people who have emotional synaesthesia – they see colours when they have certain emotions – about what they experience during sex.

There is a particularly lovely table that illustrates these experiences through the different stages of the sexual response cycle:

Appentance phase
“This phase has an orange character”

Excitement phase
“it’s getting more intensive, starting with a few colours at the beginning and getting more and more intense”

Plateau phase
“The greater the excitement becomes the more thoughts are canalized” “The initial fog transforms into a wall”

Orgasmic phase
“In the moment of orgasm the wall bursts… ringlike structures… in bluish-violet tones”

Resolution phase
“The resolution phase varies between pink and yellow”

It’s worth bearing in mind that emotional synaesthesia isn’t the only thing that can turn sex into a slightly unreal experience.

Some people with epilepsy have seizures triggered by orgasm which can affect both males and females.

All cases reported in the medical literature are people who lose consciousness or have observable movements during the seizure, but this is probably because they are the ones most likely to go to the doctor.

People who have simple partial seizures during orgasm – where they just have unusual experiences but don’t lose consciousness – are probably more common than we think but are less likely to be aware they’re having seizures and so just assume it’s normal for them.

Link to study on synaesthesia and sexual experience (via @Neuro_Skeptic)

2013-10-18 Spike activity

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

Is America Less Mentally Healthy Than A Chilean Jail? asks Neuroskeptic.

BPS Research Digest had a special series of articles on people with exceptional abilities such as super calculators, super recognisers and super agers.

Social psychologists say war is not inevitable – according to e! Science News. Tell that to the social priming folks.

CNET has an in-depth article on how IBM is making computers more like your brain both with neuromorphic chips and a liquid power supply.

What your cinema seat says about your personality, according to psychologist Hiromi Mizuki and some crappy PR story from Australia’s Daily Telegraph

CBS Seattle: Psychologist loses license after prostitute steals laptop. Probably after reading that shit PR story on cinemas.

Sleep ‘cleans’ the brain of toxins reports BBC News. I knew it couldn’t be trusted.

New Scientist reports that the “belief that I’m dead” Cotard delusion has been weakly linked to an anti-viral medication although it’s baffling as to why.

The neuroscientists behind Obama’s billion-dollar BRAIN Initiative published a paper in Neuron outlining ideas for the project. Summary: ‘Shit. What do we do now?’

The Guardian publishes an in-depth profile of the head of Europe’s billion dollar brain project, Henry Markram. Summary: ‘Brains? I thought this was an IT project?’

Scraping the bottom of the biscuit barrel

As a wonderful demonstration how media outlets will report the ridiculous as long as ‘neuroscience’ is mentioned, I present the ‘Oreos May Be As Addictive As Cocaine’ nonsense.

According to Google News, it has so far been reported by 209 media outlets, including some of the world’s biggest publications.

That’s not bad for some non-peer reviewed, non-published research described entirely in a single press release from a Connecticut college and done in rats.

The experiment, described in five lines of the press release, is this:

On one side of a maze, they would give hungry rats Oreos and on the other, they would give them a control – in this case, rice cakes. (“Just like humans, rats don’t seem to get much pleasure out of eating them,” Schroeder said.) Then, they would give the rats the option of spending time on either side of the maze and measure how long they would spend on the side where they were typically fed Oreos…

They compared the results of the Oreo and rice cake test with results from rats that were given an injection of cocaine or morphine, known addictive substances, on one side of the maze and a shot of saline on the other. Professor Schroeder is licensed by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to purchase and use controlled substances for research.

The research showed the rats conditioned with Oreos spent as much time on the “drug” side of the maze as the rats conditioned with cocaine or morphine.

Needless to say, South American drug lords are probably not shutting up shop just yet.

But this is how you make headlines around the world and get your press release reported as a ‘health story’ in the international media.

As we’ve noted before, the ‘as addictive as cocaine’ cliché gets wheeled out on a regular basis even for the most unlikely of activities but this really takes the biscuit (“Bad jokes addictive as cocaine” say British scientist’s readers).

However, the alternative conclusion that ‘Cocaine is no more addictive than Oreos’ seems not to have been as popular. Only Reason magazine opted for this one.

The reason that this sort of press release makes headlines is simply because it agrees with the already established tropes that obesity is a form of ‘addiction’ and is ‘explained’ by some vague mention of the brain and dopamine.

The more easily we agree with something, the less critical thinking we apply.

Link to a more sensible take from Reason magazine.

US Military PsyOps video appears online

A US Military PsyOps video has found its way onto the YouTubes and gives a interesting but clunky guide to ’90s psychological operations.

It’s called The Invisible Sword and it’s a bit like watching a cable TV infomercial for psychological warfare complete with cheesy easy listening background music and stilted dialogue.

“It all gets put together when the chips are down somewhere in the world and it gets put together from the top down”. Thanks General.

The video is also a curious bit of history as it discusses operations that bridge over the time when the US military was transitioning from intervention in the Balkans and proxy wars in Latin America to large scale campaigns in the middle east.

It’s a pre-Human Terrain System view of social intervention that was less focused on managing the relatively small-scale social networks that mediated allegiances between the complex militias intertwined in the ‘war on terror’ and more on larger-scale propaganda.

Link to The Invisible Sword on YouTubes (via @psywarorg)

A radiant light and an aura of activity

Nature Medicine has a fascinating article about attempts to research the neuroscience of migraine and its aura – the perceptual changes that precede the onset of the splitting headache.

It turns out to be trickier than it seems. The idea is to trigger a migraine in people who seem to have clear conditions that start one off and then get them in a scanner as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t always work very reliably.

However, one notable success was someone who had migraines triggered by basketball:

Michael Moskowitz and his colleagues at the Massachusetts General Hospital Neuroscience Center in the Boston area described the most famous report of a controlled study involving a person experiencing aura in a lab in 2001. They identified a patient, named Patrick, who could reliably induce his aura by playing basketball. The researchers arranged for Patrick and his wife to shoot hoops next door to their research center at a YMCA gym. After about an hour of exercise, Patrick then jumped into a functional MRI machine at the clinic and waited for his aura to begin. In this way, Moskowitz and his team tracked changes in Patrick’s brain before, during and after self-described aura attacks on two separate occasions.

The article noted that it’s a mystery why basketball was a trigger for migraine but these very specific triggers are often also present in epilepsy.

Called ‘reflex epilepsy‘ it involves seizures that can be triggered by specific situations such as reading, eating, urination, being startled, hearing certain songs and pretty much anything else you can think of (including, believe it or not, thinking itself).

This is probably due to the activities setting up specific patterns of brain activity that interact with pre-existing weakness in neural networks leading to instability that triggers seizures.

Think of it as being like living in a city where the public transport only grinds to a halt when there’s a football match between two very specific teams – due to the influx of fans from specific directions affecting a key road junction which happens to be an important traffic hub.

These very specific triggers are rare, but interestingly, when they do occur tend to more commonly occur in epilepsy and migraine, probably telling us something about how both conditions are related to spreading patterns of activity across the brain.

Anyway, much more in the Nature Medicine piece which discusses the fascinating topic of migraine aura in more detail.

Link to ‘Aura of mystery’ from Nature Medicine.

2013-10-11 Spike activity

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

New series of BBC Radio 4’s excellent internet and society programme The Digital Human started this week.

Scientific American cover surprising sex differences in migraine which seem to be almost ‘different diseases’ in men and women.

Post-traumatic stress reactions in survivors of the 2011 massacre on Utøya Island, Norway. Forthcoming study for British Journal of Psychiatry hits the wires.

ESPN have a fascinating piece on boxer Timothy Bradley whose the first fighter to admit to lasting neurocognitive problems after a fight.

Reading fiction can make you a better mind-reader said a widely hyped study. Not so fast says Language Log.

USA Today reports that the US Army has deployed software to predict suicides as way of preventing them.

Despite promising results in controlling neuronal activity, leaders in brain research still struggle turning their work into treatments reports MIT Technology Review.

Breaking – psychologist has opinion: “Men quote from films to bond with each other without having to ask any intimate questions” reports The Telegraph. No, you can’t have those two minutes of your life back.

Drugs for the circuit-based human

Image from Wikipedia. Click for source.In a recent article for The Observer I noted that almost all the major drug companies had closed down their neuroscience divisions as evidence for a move away from a ‘chemical-based’ to a ‘circuit-based’ approach to treatments.

So to my surprise, a new Nature News article has just appeared discussing the re-launch of pharmaceutical giant Novartis’s neuroscience section.

However, as I read the beginning of the article, it seems they are just banking on the fact that they can design drugs good enough to hit individual brain circuits.

In a sign that psychiatric-disease research is entering a new era, the pharmaceutical giant Novartis has hired an expert in neural circuitry, rather than pharmacology, to head its relaunched neuroscience division.

The appointment of 42-year-old Ricardo Dolmetsch, who has spent his entire career in academic research, signifies a radical policy shift for the company, as it moves away from conventional neurotransmitter research to concentrate on analysing the neural circuitry that causes brain diseases.

Well. Best of luck with that.

I may be wrong, but I suspect dousing the brain in a chemical which is supposed to affect only selected circuits may be folly.

Then again, maybe we need to think outside the pill box. Perhaps microinjections of drugs directly into the brain is the future.

Either way, it seems the big money is being increasingly invested in the idea that useful treatments will be tweaking brain circuits.

Link to ‘Novartis reboots brain division’ from Nature News.

A tour through isolation

Photo from Wikipedia. Click for source.The BBC World Service just broadcast an amazing radio documentary on the experience of isolation – talking to people who have experienced intense remoteness from other humans including polar base residents, astronauts, prisoners and people who completed the Mars-500 simulated mission.

Firstly, it’s just beautiful. If there’s such a thing as an ambient documentary, this comes sublimely close to achieving it at times.

But the programme is also a fascinating look at the subjective psychology of separation.

A doctor explains how it feels to see the last plane leaving an Antarctic research base for nine months of separation from the rest of the world.

A British drug smuggler explains what it was like to be sent to an Argentine prison when he spoke no Spanish – unable to communicate with anyone.

Astronaut Al Worden has been the most isolated human in history, during his time on a Apollo mission, and explains the experience of ultimate remoteness.

The programme reminded me of another form of modern isolation the 21st century hermits who hide themselves away due to fear of the effects of modern technology – like the mythical ‘health damaging effects of WiFi’.

An article in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine made the comparison between these modern day hermits with their ancient brethren.

The World Service documentary is wonderful, however. As is normal with the internet-impaired BBC Radio pages, you have to get the podcast from a completely different page but you’re probably better off downloading the mp3 directly.

Link to BBC World Service documentary Isolation.
mp3 of the same.