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.