A torrent of accidental poems

CC Licensed photo by Flickr user Jonathan Reyes. Click for source.Neurology journal Neurocase has an interesting study of a women who started compulsively writing poetry after having brief epileptic amnesia treated with the anti-seizure drug lamotrigine.

A 76-year-old woman reported having a poor memory and short periods of disorientation and was eventually diagnosed with transient epileptic amnesia – brief recurrent seizures that lead to short periods where affected people can’t lay down new memories.

Several months after starting lamotrigine [a common and widely used anti-seizure drug], the patient suddenly began to write original verse. Whereas poetry had never previously been among her pastimes, she now produced copious short poems (around 10–15 each day) on quotidian topics such as housework or about the act of versifying itself and sometimes expressing her opinions or regret about past events. These poems often had a wistful or pessimistic nature but did not have a moral or religious focus. Her husband characterized them as “doggerel” because they were generally rhyming and often featured puns and other wordplay.

My poems roams,
They has no homes
Yours’, also, tours,
And never moors.

Why tie them up to pier or quay?
Better far, share them with me.

Prose – now, that’s a different matter.
Rather more than just a natter.
Prose is earnest, prose is serious
Prose is lordly and imperious
Prose tells you, loud, clear, that
Life – life is dear.

This versifying had a compulsive quality: she spent several hours per day writing poetry and became irritated if attempts were made to disengage her. However, she appeared to derive pleasure from the activity and there was no evidence of associated distress. She did not produce prose passages, diaries, or other examples of hypergraphia, nor did she develop new interests in other “creative media,” such as visual arts or music.

When reassessed 6 months after the onset of versifying this apparent compulsion had diminished, but she continued to produce occasional poems. She had also developed a more general fondness for wordplay, frequently using puns in speech, making humorous word associations, and identifying word patterns in everyday objects such as car license plates. Throughout this period there were no associated mood symptoms, features of a thought disorder, or other changes in her behavior or cognition to suggest hypomania or another generalized neuropsychiatric disturbance.

The article mentions the exclusion of hypomania and thought disorder because these are two other phenomena that appear as compulsive rhyming or punning in speech.

The article also mentions some similarities between the compulsive poem writing and hypergraphia – compulsive and copious writing that is a well-known although not particularly common symptom of epilepsy.

The difference in this case, however, is that hypergraphia often appears as meaningless, rambling or disorganised, and this particular patient produced competent, if not particularly high quality poems.

One of the most interesting implications of these cases is that rhyming, punning and poetic speech, which we normally think of as something that needs specific conscious effort and attention, can appear spontaneously to the point of overwhelming our normal forms of communication.

Link to open-access scientific article.
Link to DOI of same.

Round trip ticket to the science of psychedelics

The latest edition of The Psychologist is a special open-access issue on the science and social impact of hallucinogenic drugs.

There’s an article by me on culture and hallucinogens that discusses the role of hallucinogenic drugs in diverse cultures and which also covers how cultural expectations shape the hallucinogenic experience – from traditional Kitanemuk society to YouTube trip videos.

The other articles cover some fascinating topics.

Neuroscientists Robin Carhart-Harris, Mendel Kaelen and David Nutt have a great article on the neuroscience of hallucinogens, Henry David Abraham discusses hallucinogen persisting perception disorder or post-trip flashbacks, and there’s also piece that talks to a researcher, participant and clinician on the use of psilocybin to alleviate cancer anxiety, while Keith Laws discusses an intense painting and its psychedelic aspects.

There’s also an excellent piece on the influence of psychedelic drugs on literature from Dirk Hanson – long-time writer of the essential drug blog Addiction Inbox, and Mo Costandi (who you may know from the Neurophilosophy blog) has written a fantastic retrospective of the use of psychedelics in psychiatry.

Overall, a fascinating read and well worth checking out.

Link to special issue of The Psychologist on hallucinogens.

How to speak the language of thought

We are now beginning to crack the brain’s code, which allows us to answer such bizarre questions as “what is the speed of thought?”

When he was asked, as a joke, to explain how the mind works in five words, cognitive scientist Steven Pinker didn’t hesitate. “Brain cells fire in patterns”, he replied. It’s a good effort, but all it really does is replace one enigma with another mystery.

It’s long been known that brain cells communicate by firing electrical signals to each other, and we now have myriad technologies for recording their patterns of activity – from electrodes in the brain or on the scalp, to functional magnetic resonance scanners that can detect changes in blood oxygenation. But, having gathered these data, the meaning of these patterns is still an enduring mystery. They seem to dance to a tune we can’t hear, led by rules we don’t know.

Neuroscientists speak of the neural code, and have made some progress in cracking that code. They are figuring out some basic rules, such as when cells in specific parts of the brain are likely to light up depending on the task at hand. Progress has been slow, but in the last decade various research teams around the world have been pursuing a far more ambitious project. We may never be able to see the complete code book, they realised, but by trying to write our own entries, we can begin to pick apart the ways that different patterns correspond to different actions.

Albert Lee and Matthew Wilson, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) first helped to set out the principles in 2002. It progresses like this. First, we record from the brain of a rat – one of our closer relatives, in the grand tree of life – as it runs a maze. Studying the whole brain would be too ambitious, so we can focus our recording on an area known as the hippocampus, known to be important for navigation and memory. If you’ve heard of this area before it is probably because of a famous result which showed that London taxi drivers developed larger hippocampi the longer they had spent navigating the streets of England’s sprawling capital.

While the rat runs the maze we record where it is, and simultaneously how the cells in the hippocampus are firing. The cell firing patterns are thrown into a mathematical algorithm which finds the pattern that best matches each bit of the maze. The language of the cells is no less complex, but now we have a Rosetta Stone against which we can decode it. We then test the algorithm by feeding it freshly recorded patterns, to see if it correctly predicts where the rat was at the point that pattern was recorded.

It doesn’t allow us to completely crack the code, because we still don’t know all the rules, and it can’t help us read the patterns which aren’t from this bit of the brain or which aren’t about maze running, but it is still a powerful tool.  For instance, using this technique, the team was able to show that the specific sequence of cell firing repeated in the brain of the rat when it slept after running the maze (and, as a crucial comparison, not in the sleep it had enjoyed before it had run the maze).

Fascinatingly, the sequence repeated faster during sleep around 20 times faster. This meant that the rat could run the maze in their sleeping minds in a fraction of the time it took them in real life. This could be related to the mnemonic function of sleep; by replaying the memory, it might have helped the rat to consolidate its learning. And the fact that the replay was accelerated might give us a glimpse of the activity that lies behind sudden insights, or experiences where our life “flashes before our eyes”; when not restrained, our thoughts really can retrace familiar paths in “fast forward”. Subsequent work has shown that these maze patterns can run backwards as well as forwards  – suggesting that the rats can imagine a goal, like the end of the maze, and work their way back from that to the point where they are.

One application of techniques like these, which are equal parts highly specialised measurement systems and fiercely complicated algorithms, has been to decode the brain activity in patients who are locked in or in a vegetative state. These patients can’t move any of their muscles, and yet they may still be mentally aware and able to hear people talking to them in the same room. First, the doctors ask the patients to imagine activities which are known to active specific brain regions – such as the hippocampus. The data is then decoded so that you know which brain activity corresponds to certain ideas. During future brain scans, the patients can then re-imagine the same activities to answer basic questions. For instance, they might be told to imagine playing tennis to answer yes and walking around their house to answer no – the first form of communication since their injury.

There are other applications, both theoretical science, to probe the inner workings of our minds, and practical domains such as brain-computer interfaces. If, in the future, a paraplegic wants to control a robot arm, or even another person, via a brain interface, then it will rely on the same techniques to decode information and translate it into action. Now the principles have been shown to work, the potential is staggering.

If you have an everyday psychological phenomenon you’d like to see written about in these columns please get in touch @tomstafford or ideas@idiolect.org.uk

This is my BBC Future column from monday. The original is here

Brain scanning the deceased

I’ve got an article in The Observer about how, a little surprisingly, the dead are becoming an increasing focus for brain scanning studies.

I first discussed this curious corner of neuroscience back in 2007 but a recent Neuroskeptic post reminded me of the area and I decided to check in on how it’s progressing.

It turns out that brain scanning the dead is becoming increasingly common in research and medicine and the article looks at how the science is progressing. Crucially, it’s helping us better understand ourselves in both life and death.

For thousands of years, direct studies of the human brain required the dead. The main method of study was dissection, which needed, rather inconveniently for the owner, physical access to their brain. Despite occasional unfortunate cases where the living brain was exposed on the battlefield or the surgeon’s table, corpses and preserved brains were the source of most of our knowledge.

When brain scanning technologies were invented in the 20th century they allowed the structure and function of the brain to be shown in living humans for the first time. This was as important for neuroscientists as the invention of the telescope and the cadaver slowly faded into the background of brain research. But recently, scrutiny of the post-mortem brain has seen something of a revival, a resurrection you might say, as modern researchers have become increasingly interested in applying their new scanning technologies to the brains of the deceased.

It’s a fascinating area and you can read the full article at the link below.

UPDATE: I’ve just noticed two of the links to studies have gone AWOL from the online article. The study that looked for the source of a mysterious signal by scanning people, cadavers and dummies and found it was a scanner problem was this one and the study that used corpses to test in-scanner motion correction was this one.


Link to Observer article on brain scanning the dead.

Spike activity 15-08-2014

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

An important editorial in Nature describes the pressing problem of how research is not being turned into practice for treating children with mental health problems caused by armed conflict.

Not Exactly Rocket Science covers a swarm of self-organising autonomous robots that have the potential to rise up, rise up and threaten humanity with their evil buzzing. To the bunkers!

A Malaysian language names odors as precisely as English does colors. Interesting finding covered by Discover Magazine.

New York Magazine has a piece on the social psychology of how the presence of militarised police can increase aggression.

The Demographics of Genocide: Who Commits Mass Murder? Interesting piece in The Atlantic.

The Neurocritic has a fascinating interview with Jan Kalbitzer, the man behind the ‘Twitter psychosis’ case study, who discusses the media reverberations of the article.

Excellent Wired profile of Yann LeCun, AI guru begind Facebook’s, tweaked deep learning revolution.

Science News has an interesting piece on how the explosion of baby monitoring technology feeds ‘paranoia parenting’.

The new president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists gives his first interview in The Guardian and lays down some hard truths about mental health treatment.

One death too many

One of the first things I do in the morning is check the front pages of the daily papers and on the day following Robin Williams’ death, rarely have I been so disappointed in the British press.

Over the years, we have gathered a lot of evidence from reliable studies that show that how suicide is reported in the mass media affects the chances of suicide in the population – likely due to its effect on vulnerable people.

In other words, sensationalist and simplistic coverage of suicides, particularly celebrity suicides, regularly leads to more deaths.

It seems counter-intuitive to many, that a media description of suicide could actually increase the risk for suicide, but it is a genuine risk and people die through what is sometimes called suicide contagion or copycat suicide.

For this reason, organisations from the Samaritans, to the Centre for Disease Control, to an international panel of media organisations, have created explicit suicide reporting guidelines to ensure that no one dies or is harmed unnecessarily because of how suicide is reported.

The guidelines include sensible advice like not focusing on the methods people use to harm themselves, not oversimplifying the causes, not overly focusing on celebrity suicide, avoiding sensationalist coverage and not presenting suicide as a tool for accomplishing certain ends.

This advice keeps people safe. Today’s coverage does exactly the opposite, and many of the worst examples of dangerous reporting have been put directly on the front pages.

It is entirely possible to report on suicide and self-harm in a way that informs us, communicates the tragedy of the situation, and leaves us better off as a result of making these events more comprehensible.

This is not about freedom of the press. The press can report on what they want, how they want. There are no laws against bad reporting and neither would I want there to be but you do have a personal and professional responsibility to ensure that you are not putting people at risk by your need to sell copy.

You also have to look yourself in the mirror every morning, and by the front pages of many of today’s daily papers, I’m sure there are more than a few editors who had to divert their gaze while standing, momentarily shamed, in front of their own reflections.