Neuroscience and its place in the social world

This is the first of three posts that will cover three important books about how the science of mind, brain and mental health, interfaces with society at large.

First off, I want to discuss an excellent book called Neuro: The New Brain Sciences and the Management of the Mind published this year by sociologists of neuroscience Nikolas Rose and Joelle M. Abi-Rached.

You may be wondering why we need a social study of neuroscience but it becomes clear when we think of how neuroscience has become important.

It is not just due to what has been discovered. Neuroscience research itself, is only driven in part by scientific discovery.

In the main part, it is driven by a complex mix of politics, business, health care needs and public popularity. That’s what provides the funds and makes the scientific discovery possible and this only moderately, some would say weakly, relates to how far we ‘advance’ in terms of learning.

There is also a common idea that discoveries from psychology and neuroscience form the basis of interventions or changes to society, but much of the time, discoveries from psychology and neuroscience are co-opted to justify changes based on social values.

Here’s a really good example from p196 from the chapter on ‘The Antisocial Brain’ that discusses how the neuroscience of plasticity, the adolescent brain and child psychopathology has been used to justify family interventions.

By way of the brain, then, we reach a conclusion that does not differ greatly from arguments reaching back to the late nineteenth century about the effects of the early years on later propensities to problematic conduct.

From Mary Carpenter’s campaigns for colonies for dangerous and perishing children, through the social problem group and “the submerged ten percent” in the early twentieth century, via the mental hygiene movement in the 1930s, and arguments for setting up child welfare services in the years after the Second World War, to the contentious concept of the “cycle of deprivation” in the 1970s, and the interventions of the Head Start program to the Sure Start program – we find repeated arguments that one should minimize a host of social ills, including criminal and antisocial conduct, by governing the child through the family.

In each generation, unsurprisingly, these arguments are made on the basis of whatever happens to be the current mode of objectivity about the development of children – habits, the will, instinct theory, psychoanalysis, and today the brain.

Each time, the scientific programme is received as if it is a new approach to the problem of child deprivation and delinquency, when the success of these programmes lies precisely in the fact that they are largely the same. In this case, based on the idea that the family is the primary point of responsibility and intervention for poor adolescent behaviour.

Similarly, the success of neuroscientific approaches to problems often depends on how acceptable the implications would seem to potential funders because the money has usually to be agreed before significant lines of inquiry can be started.

This is why non-medical behavioural genetics research gets such a hard time. It’s not that it’s necessarily worse science in terms of its empirical methods but it reminds people of unsavoury practices like eugenics that run counter to prevailing values.

Neuro tracks exactly these sorts of interactions through history and between prevailing current interests. It is also brilliant technically, however, and you will actually learn a great deal about neuroscience methods from the book.

From the history and development of brain scanning techniques, to psychiatric drugs, to the rhetorical role of animal models in understanding mental illness, to how our notion of ourselves is changing in light of advances in brain sciences – it’s remarkably wide in scope.

Sociology is famous for its gobbledebook jargon, and this book has none of this, but its only drawback is that it is, in the end, an academic book and is sometimes written without much thought for the general reader.

But if you can tolerate the academic language, it is essential reading. If you want to understand neuroscience – rather than just facts about neuroscience – Neuro is probably one of the most important books you could read.

And the same goes if you are a neuroscientist or just interested in how we, as a society, are integrating the study of the brain into how we live.

Next in this three-part Mind Hacks series on science and society – Ben Goldacre’s Bad Pharma.

Link to more details about Neuro.

2013-11-29 Spike activity

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

Science News reports on a ‘brain training’ app that actually seems to be a data gathering tool for big data neuropsychology research. Interesting if not a bit ethically dubious.

The US Military’s science wing DARPA wants to fix broken brains and restore lost memories. Interview with deputy director in Science.

Wired Science launches a new neuroscience blog called Brain Watch written by Mind Hacks alumnus Christian Jarrett.

Important piece in Nature about the Many Labs Project which did a mass replication of psychology studies find 10 out of 13 held up.

Slate has an excellent, explicit discussion of the results from the UK’s National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles.

Neurobonkers has an excellent piece reviewing the psychological biases that affect forensic science analyses.

Robots, the ‘uncanny valley’ and identity. Interesting piece in The Telegraph.

The Las Vegas Sun reports on a couple being released from prison after 21 years as evidence for ‘ritual satanic abuse’ based on ‘recovered memories’ and un-validated physical examinations is deemed to be flawed.

A new NeuroPod podcast has hit the wires – this one being a special from the 2013 Society for Neuroscience conference.

Discover magazine reports on a study finding that surprisingly, the more two negotiators match each other’s language styles, the worse things are likely to go.

Extending new senses through implanted magnets

In 2006, journalist Quinn Norton had a magnet implanted in her finger so she could ‘sense’ magnetic fields.

An article on the ABC Radio National website shows how this simple concept has been taken to its next level by the body modification community to find new ways of integrating magnetic fields into our senses.

Before I was prepped to have a magnet inserted in my fingertip, I had a conversation with my piercer, Kyla Fae, about placement…

I had thought that the only possibility was the finger, but apparently there are many fleshy parts of the body that are viable placement options.

‘I haven’t performed any in genitals, but I’m well aware of people with them,’ said Ms Fae.

‘If you’ve got a magnet in your lady garden or whatever, it will vibrate away near big speakers.’..

Some enthusiasts are also starting to get magnets that act as mini speakers implanted next to their ear. All it takes is a magnetic coil disguised as a necklace, an amplifier and MP3 player to have music piped straight to your brain.

Now imagine that in an MRI scanner. Fast Spin Echo sequence for the win.

Link to ‘Taking body modification to the extreme’.

Do violent video games make teens ‘eat and cheat’ more?

By Tom Stafford, University of Sheffield

The Headlines

Business Standard: Violent video games make teens eat more, cheat more Teens ‘Eat more, cheat more’ after playing violent video games

The Times of India: Violent video games make teens cheat more

The story

Playing the violent video game Grand Theft Auto made teenagers more aggressive, more dishonest and lowered their self control.

What they actually did

172 Italian high school students (age 13-19 years old), about half male and half female, took part in an experiment in which they first played a video game for 35 minutes. Half played a non-violent pinball or golf game, and half played one of the ultra-violent Grand Theft Auto games.

During the game they had the opportunity to eat M&M’s freely from a bowl (the amount they scoffed provided a measure of self-control), and after the game they had the opportunity take a quiz to earn raffle tickets (and the opportunity to cheat on the quiz, which provided a measure of dishonesty). They also played a game during which they could deliver unpleasant noises to a fellow player as punishments (which was used to measure of aggression).

Analysis of the results showed that those who played the violent video game had lower scores when it came to the self-control measure, cheated more and were more aggressive. What’s more, these effects were most pronounced for those who had high scores on a scale of “moral disengagement” – which measures how loose your moral thinking is. In other words, if you don’t think too hard about right and wrong, you score highly.

How plausible is this?

This is a well designed study, which uses random allocation to the two groups to try to properly assess causation (does the violent video game cause immoral behaviour?).

The choice of control condition was reasonable (the other video games were tested and found to be just as enjoyed by the participants), and the measures are all reasonable proxies for the things we are interested in. Obviously you can’t tell if weakened self-control for eating chocolate will mean weakened self-control for more important behaviour, but it’s a nice specific measure which is practical in an experiment and which just might connect to the wider concept.

The number of participants is also large enough that we can give the researchers credit for putting in the effort. Getting about 85 people in each group should give a minimum of statistical power, which means any effects might be reliable.

As an experimental psychologist, there’s lots for me to like about this study. The only obvious potential problem that I can see is that of demand effects, subtle cues that can make participants aware of what the experimenter expects to find or how they should behave. The participants were told they were in a study which looked at the effects of video games, so it isn’t impossible that some element of their behaviour was playing up to what they reasonably guessed the researchers were looking for and it doesn’t look like the researchers checked if this might be the case.

Tom’s take

You can’t leap to conclusions from a single study, of course – even a well designed one. We should bear in mind the history of moral panics around new technology and media. Today we’re concerned with violent video games, 50 years ago it was comic books and jazz. At least jazz is no longer corrupting young people.

Is our worry about violent video games just another page in the history of adults worrying about what young people are up to? That’s certainly a factor, but unlike jazz, it does seem psychologically plausible that a game where you enjoy reckless killing and larceny might encourage players to be self-indulgent and nasty.

Reviews suggest violent media may be a risk factor for violent behaviour, just like cigarette smoke is a risk factor for cancer. Most people who play video games won’t commit violent acts, just like most people who passive smoke won’t get cancer.

The problem is other research reviews into impact of violent entertainment on our behaviour suggest the evidence for a negative effect is weak and contradictory.

Video games are a specific example of the general topic of if and how media affect our behaviour. Obviously, we are more than complete zombies, helpless to resist every suggestion or example, but we’re also less than completely independent creatures, immune to the influence of other people and all forms of entertainment. Where the balance lies between these extremes is controversial.

For now, I’m going to keep an open mind, but as a personal choice I’m probably not going to get the kids GTA for Christmas.

Read more

The original paper: Interactive Effect of Moral Disengagement and Violent Video Games on Self-Control, Cheating, and Aggression

@PeteEtchells provides a good summary of the scientific (lack of) consensus: What is the link between violent video games and aggression?

Commentary by one researcher on the problems in the field of video game research: The Challenges of Accurate Reporting on Video Game Research

And a contrary research report: A decade long study of over 11,000 children finds no negative impact of video games

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, or other columns in the series

You are a data series in a profit-making algorithm

If you only read one psychology article in the next few months, make it the startling and unsettling Atlantic piece on how ‘people analytics’ is being applied to managing, selecting, and promoting employees.

The idea behind people analytics is that job performance can be measured and predicted by analysing the huge amount of behavioural data generated by the digital tools we use or from specifically designed online tests.

The prediction part comes from analysing data across employees to find out, for example, what characteristics best predict a good team leader, or a poor performer, or someone who needs a specific sort of support or intervention to develop.

The potential power of this data-rich approach is obvious. What begins with an online screening test for entry-level workers ends with the transformation of nearly every aspect of hiring, performance assessment, and management. In theory, this approach enables companies to fast-track workers for promotion based on their statistical profiles; to assess managers more scientifically; even to match workers and supervisors who are likely to perform well together, based on the mix of their competencies and personalities. Transcom plans to do all these things, as its data set grows ever richer. This is the real promise—or perhaps the hubris—of the new people analytics. Making better hires turns out to be not an end but just a beginning. Once all the data are in place, new vistas open up.

In other words, the idea is to develop software that can identify predictors of specific behaviours and use them as the basis of management decisions.

Essentially, you have become a data series in a profit-making algorithm.

It is an important and fascinating article that is worth reading in full as it heralds a future of human resources that will be driven by ultra-personal data.

Link to Atlantic article ‘They’re Watching You at Work’.

2013-11-23 Spike activity

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

Prosthetics to replace amputated hands can fall into the uncanny valley reports Science News.

The New York Times covers the nascent science of female aggression.

Can gambling machines prevent addiction? asks Scientific American Mind. Answer: of course. Will they? No.

NPR has an excellent piece by neuroscientist Tania Lombroso on whether pictures of brain scans have persuasive power. Only sometimes, it turns out.

The Dream Catcher. Matter has an in-depth piece about sadly over-hippied but genuinely fascinating subject of lucid dreaming.

io9 covers the psychology experiment that led to the phrase “thinking outside the box”.

Brain scans teach us nothing of morality says philosopher of mind Thomas Nagel in a street-fighting review of Joshua Greene’ new book.

NPR reports that your chance is being murdered is heavily to who you have in your social network.

Neuroscientist Kate Mills sets out a programme for understanding the interaction between networked culture and the adolescent brain in a talk from the Serpentine Gallery.

A ray directly from “Delhi University”

A series of ‘bizarre delusions’ from patients diagnosed with schizophrenia described in a new paper just published in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine:

“Some rays are there in me, which create magnetic field and I have the power to affect TV signals. Body is producing charge; whenever I touch anything I get electric current. Some heavenly body comes and makes me powerful and communicates with me.”

“My hands are changed into cat’s paws.”

“I have some special power, if I call the Sun then it will come to me, whenever I look at the Sun, it smiles back at me.”

“My rib-cage is left behind in the bathroom; while I was bathing it got washed away.”

“The heart is moving round the clock in different areas of the trunk.”

“A ray directly from “Delhi University (DU)” used to teach me the engineering course.”

Delusions are one of the central symptoms of psychosis and despite the fact that they can be both distressing and disabling, are often quite amazing in their complexity and content.

Link to article from Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine.