Spike activity 31-10-2014

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

Nautilus has an interesting piece on how artificial intelligence systems are getting better at strategy.

Two neuroscientists explain why zombies have so much trouble walking in Slate

Vice magazine talks to a psychologist working in the Ebola outbreak in Liberia.

Neuroscientists manage to get past the blood-brain barrier for the first time potentially opening the way for getting new sorts of drugs to the brain. Covered in New Scientist.

The Neurocritic has an excellent piece on neuropsychological disorders involving mirrors.

The British are born to be miserable, according to a dreadful science story published in The Indepedent. Please note: The fact the conclusion happens to be true doesn’t mean it’s automatically good science.

Social psychology has lost its balance

Images by DeviantArt user bakablue08. Click for source.The New Yorker has an interesting article about a lack of political diversity in social psychology and how that may be leading to a climate of bias against conservative researchers, ideas and the evidence that might support them.

Some of the evidence for a bias against conservative thinking in social psychology goes back some years, and the article gives a good account of the empirical work as well as the debate.

However, the issue was recently raised again by morality researcher Jonathan Haidt leading to a renewed reflection on the extent of the problem.

There is a case to be made that, despite the imbalance, no formal changes need to be made, and that, on the whole, despite its problems, social psychology continues to function remarkably well and regularly produces high-quality research. Controversial work gets done. Even studies that directly challenge the field—like Haidt’s—are publicized and inspire healthy debate…

And yet the evidence for more substantial bias, against both individuals and research topics and directions, is hard to dismiss—and the hostility that some social psychologists have expressed toward the data suggests that self-correction may not be an adequate remedy.

A timely reminder of the eternal truth that bias is entirely non-partisan, and if you’ve not heard it before, a pointer to a great BBC Radio documentary that outlines how it works equally across people of every political stripe.

 
Link to ‘Is Social Psychology Biased Against Republicans?’

Quasi-stability

Yesterday, before I got here, my dad was trying to fix an invisible machine. By all accounts, he began working on the phantom device quite intently, but as his repairs began to involve the hospice bed and the tubes attached to his body, he was gently sedated, and he had to leave it, unresolved.

This was out-of-character for my father, who I presumed had never encountered a machine he couldn’t fix. He built model aeroplanes in rural New Zealand, won a scholarship to go to university, and ended up as an aeronautical engineer for Air New Zealand, fixing engines twice his size. More scholarships followed and I first remember him completing his PhD in thermodynamics, or ‘what heat does’, as he used to describe it, to his six-year-old son.

When he was first admitted to the hospice, more than a week go, he was quite lucid – chatting, talking, bemoaning the slow pace of dying. “Takes too long,” he said, “who designed this?” But now he is mostly unconscious.

Occasionally though, moments of lucidity dodge between the sleep and the confusion. “When did you arrive?” he asked me in the early hours of this morning, having woken up wanting water. Once the water was resolved he was preoccupied about illusory teaspoons lost among the bedclothes, but then chatted in feint short sentences to me and my step-mum before drifting off once more.

Drifting is a recent tendency, but in the lucidity he has remained a proud engineer. It’s more of a vocation, he always told his students, than a career.

Last week, when the doctors asked if he would speak to medical trainees, he was only too happy to have a final opportunity to teach. Even the consultants find his pragmatic approach to death somewhat out of the ordinary and they funnelled eager learners his way where he engaged with answering their questions and demonstrating any malfunctioning components.

“When I got here”, he explained to them, “I was thermodynamically unstable but now I think I’m in a state of quasi-stability. It looks like I have achieved thermal equilibrium but actually I’m steadily losing energy.”

“I’m not sure”, I said afterwards, “that explaining your health in terms of thermodynamics is exactly what they’re after.”

“They’ll have to learn,” he said, “you can’t beat entropy.”


Postscript

My dad finally returned to entropy on the afternoon of Friday 31st October, with his family and a half-read book on nanoscience by his side.

Dr Murray Alan Bell, 30th January 1945 – 31st October 2014, Engineer (by vocation as much as by career)

Spike activity 24-10-2014

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

A Victorian lunatic asylum begins to reveal its secrets. The Wellcome Library now has the first of many digitised asylum records online.

Narratively has an excellent piece on legendary San Francisco eccentric Emperor Norton.

The marketers latest fad – make it seem it’s a feminist social campaign – has been taken on as an attempt to sell a rejected antidepressant as a treatment for the invented ‘female sexual dysfunction’. In-depth and important article in the BMJ.

Time magazine has a special features that looks inside the quasi-legal science-free world of medical marijuana for children.

Russian artist cuts off earlobe to protest use of forced psychiatry on dissidents reports The Guardian.

BBC Radio 3 has an interesting doco called Como Songs about families’ experience of having a loved-one in a coma or coma-like state.

Decades of lie detection research has been unrealistic. Interesting piece from the BPS Research Digest.

IEEE Spectrum magazine has an interview with machine learning ninja Michael Jordan who grit blasts the hype off big data and deep learning.

The latest RadioLab is on the wonderful vagaries of translation / traducción / tradução.

A Rush of Blood to the Brain

An article from Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry that discusses the concept of ‘moral disability’ and brain trauma in Victorian times includes a fascinating section on what was presumably thought to be the science of ‘knocking some sense into the brain’.

The piece is by medical historian Brandy Shillace who researches Victorian scientific ideas and how they affected society.

Sadly, the article is locked (quite rightly, humanities can kill if not used correctly) but this is the key section:

While eighteenth-century French philosopher François Bichat had suggested that a blow suffered to one side of the head might restore the good senses of the disordered side, Wigan’s work suggested that “where such mental derangement depends on inflammation, fever, impoverished or diseased blood, or other manifestly bodily disease,” it could be cured by actively seeking and rooting out the source, by trephining the brain or otherwise subduing the offending hemisphere… The Lancet was replete with unusual cases of brain trauma and its curious results, many that seemed to support Wigan in his assumptions about physical trauma, variously applied.

I performed a survey from 1839 to 1858 and discovered a case of brain trauma in numerous issues, eight of which were particularly revelatory of the unusual nature of the brain and its hemispheres. The 1843 account of Dr. Peter S. Evans, “Derangement of the Brain by a Sudden Shock and Its Recovery,” claims that a boy was beaten into idiocy, and then beaten out of it again (regaining his full senses after being whipped by a cart driver). One of Wigan’s cases describes a young gentleman in a “paroxysm of maniacal delirium” who shot himself sane.

Not recommended.
 

Link to locked article in Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry

Hallucinating astronauts

I’ve got a piece in The Observer about the stresses, strains and mind-bending effects of space flight.

NASA considers behavioural and psychiatric conditions to be one of the most significant risks to the integrity of astronaut functioning and there is a surprisingly long history of these difficulties adversely affecting missions.

Perhaps more seriously, hallucinations have been associated with the breakdown of crew coherence and space mission stress. In 1976, crew from the Russian Soyuz-21 mission were brought back to Earth early after they reported an acrid smell aboard the Salyut-5 space station. Concerns about a possible fluid leak meant the replacement crew boarded with breathing equipment, but no odour or technical problems were found. Subsequent reports of “interpersonal issues” and “psychological problems” in the crew led Nasa to conclude the odour was probably a hallucination. Other Russian missions were thought to be have been halted by psychological problems, but the US space programme has not been without difficulties. During the Skylab 4 mission, long hours, exhaustion and disagreements with mission control resulted in the crew switching off their radio and spending a day ignoring Nasa while watching the Earth’s surface pass by.

The piece also tackles a curious form of hallucination caused by cosmic rays and the detrimental effects of zero-gravity of brain function, as well as some curious Freudian theories from pre-space flight 1950s about the potential psychological consequences of leaving ‘Mother Earth’.

Enjoy!
 

Link to Observer article on psychological challenges of astronauts.

Spike activity 05-10-2014

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

Dropping science: neuroscientists throw down epic / excruciating rap battle on Twitter. Bring the line noise.

The New Yorker has an interesting piece on the neuroscientific legacy of the Vietnam War. In neuroscience terms, it was America’s World War One.

The latest edition of Nature NeuroPod is particularly good: psychosis, detecting animacy, network theory for brains.

Livescience covers an interesting study finding that the uncanny valley effect is affected by loneliness.

The US Government spend $300 million on BRAIN initiative projects and the news coverage is remarkably poor. Here’s the best of a bad bunch: reporting from MIT Tech Review.

Nautilus has some postcards from the edge of consciousness. On the science of sensory deprivation.

Guy breaks captcha on Silk Road 2.0 and scrapes the site for trends in the dark net drug trade.

Slate covers ‘Sluggish cognitive tempo’ – another in a long-line of vague and unhelpful psychiatric disorder-hopefuls to sell medication for.

A peculiar prevalence of p-values below p=.05 in Psych Science? Not so fast. Great piece from Daniel Lakens blog.

Most People With Addiction Simply Grow Out of It: Why Is This Widely Denied? Excellent piece in Substance.

This week in bad neuroscience reporting: beer and curry ‘heal the brain’. Next week: wanking and funfairs cure Parkinson’s disease.