Vogue magazine continues neglect of cognitive science

Mind Hacks has been awarded the 2014 British Psychological Society’s Public Engagement and Media Award for its services to obsessive coverage of psychology and neuroscience.

I think I can speak for both Tom and I when I say we were actually aiming for recognition by Vogue magazine but it’s better than a poke in the eye so we’ll take it.

However, this is a chance to say if you’ve ever written anything for us, built or run the tech, sent us stuff, commented, linked to us, read something you liked, or marvelled with us at our growing knowledge of human nature, thank you.

Cushing’s abandoned brains

I’ve just found a great short documentary about the abandoned brain collection of pioneering neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing.

The video describes how Cushing’s archives, which genuinely involved hundreds of brains in jars, as well as rare slides and photos of the early days of brain surgery, were rediscovered in the basement of Yale University and restored to public view.

Cushing is often called the ‘father of modern neurosurgery’ and spent a lot of time studying brain pathology by archiving and classifying tumours, bleeds and post-mortem brains in jars for others to learn from, as well as creating amazing medical illustrations – including the one below.

This archive became less necessary as technology moved on and the brain collection was moved into the basement below the medical school dormitories at Yale University and forgotten about.

The archives were eventually found again and restored as the Cushing Center which is now open to the public.

While the video focuses on the brains, Morbid Anatomy put some of the photos of patients from the archive online which are quite striking in themselves.

Link to Cushing’s Brains documentary on YouTube.
Link to Morbid Anatomy gallery of Cushing’s photos.

Evidence based debunking

Fed up with futile internet arguments, a bunch of psychologists investigated how best to correct false ideas. Tom Stafford discovers how to debunk properly.

We all resist changing our beliefs about the world, but what happens when some of those beliefs are based on misinformation? Is there a right way to correct someone when they believe something that’s wrong?

Stephen Lewandowsky and John Cook set out to review the science on this topic, and even carried out a few experiments of their own. This effort led to their “Debunker’s Handbook“, which gives practical, evidence-based techniques for correcting misinformation about, say, climate change or evolution. Yet the findings apply to any situation where you find the facts are falling on deaf ears.

The first thing their review turned up is the importance of “backfire effects” – when telling people that they are wrong only strengthens their belief. In one experiment, for example, researchers gave people newspaper corrections that contradicted their views and politics, on topics ranging from tax reform to the existence of weapons of mass destruction. The corrections were not only ignored – they entrenched people’s pre-existing positions.

Backfire effects pick up strength when you have no particular reason to trust the person you are talking to. This perhaps explains why climate sceptics with more scientific education tend to be the most sceptical that humans are causing global warming.

The irony is that understanding backfire effects requires that we debunk a false understanding of our own. Too often, argue Lewandowsky and Cook, communicators assume a ‘deficit model’ in their interactions with the misinformed. This is the idea that we have the right information, and all we need to do to make people believe is to somehow “fill in” the deficit in other people’s understanding. Just telling people the evidence for the truth will be enough to replace their false beliefs. Beliefs don’t work like that.

Psychological factors affect how we process information – such as what we already believe, who we trust and how we remember. Debunkers need to work with this, rather than against if they want the best chance of being believed.

The most important thing is to provide an alternative explanation. An experiment by Hollryn Johnson and Colleen Seifert, shows how to persuade people better. These two psychologists recruited participants to listen to news reports about a fictional warehouse fire, and then answer some comprehension questions.

Some of the participants were told that the fire was started by a short circuit in a closet near some cylinders containing potentially explosive gas. Yet when this information was corrected – by saying the closet was empty – they still clung to the belief.

A follow-up experiment showed the best way to effectively correct such misinformation. The follow-up was similar to the first experiment, except that it involved participants who were given a plausible alternative explanation: that evidence was found that arson caused the fire. It was only those who were given a plausible alternative that were able to let go of the misinformation about the gas cylinders.

Lewandowsky and Cook argue that experiments like these show the dangers of arguing against a misinformed position. If you try and debunk a myth, you may end up reinforcing that belief, strengthening the misinformation in people’s mind without making the correct information take hold.

What you must do, they argue, is to start with the plausible alternative (that obviously you believe is correct). If you must mention a myth, you should mention this second, and only after clearly warning people that you’re about to discuss something that isn’t true.

This debunking advice is also worth bearing in mind if you find yourself clinging to your own beliefs in the face of contradictory facts. You can’t be right all of the time, after all.

Read more about the best way to win an argument.

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. Thanks to Ullrich Ecker for advice on this topic.

This is my BBC Future column from last week, original here

An earlier illusory death

For such an obscure corner of the medical literature, Cotard’s delusion is remarkably well known as the delusion that you’re dead. This was supposedly first described by Jules Cotard in 1880 but I seem to have found a description from 1576.

It’s worth noting that although Cotard’s delusion has come to represent ‘the delusion that you’re dead’, Jules Cotard’s original description was not actually that – it was a delusion of negation where the patient believed, as noted by Berrios and Luque, that she had “no brain, nerves, chest, or entrails, and was just skin and bone”, that “neither God or the devil existed”, and that she did not need food for “she was eternal and would live forever”.

In its modern use, Cotard’s delusion typically refer to the belief that you’re dead, you don’t exist, or that your body is rotting or absent. It is rare but can occur in severe psychosis.

While spending my weekend reading Basil Clarke’s book Mental Disorder in Earlier Britain (yes kids, I’m like Snoop Dogg but for out of print history of psychiatry books), I found a mention of not one but possibly two cases of Cotard delusion.

They were apparently described Levinus Lemnius’s 1576 book The Touchstone of Complexions, as Clarke recounts:

A ‘Hypochondriake person’ was unshakeably convinced that frogs and toads were eating his entrails. This was accepted, and he was given purges and enemas, the doctor slipping ‘crawlynge vermyne’ into the pot to satisfy him. A case of a man who thought his buttocks were made of glass was incomplete. Another patient had fallen into ‘such an agonie, & fooles paradise’ that he thought he was dead and gave up eating. After a week, friends came into the dark parlour in shrouds and settled down for a meal. The ‘Passioned Party’, on asking, was told that they were dead and that dead men ate and drank. ‘Straightwayes skipped this Pacient out of his Bedde and joined them.’ After supper he was given a sleeping draught.

The mention of the man who believed he had glass buttocks is also interesting as this is the glass delusion, the belief that you are made of glass and might shatter.

This was apparently common in cases of madness during the Late Middle Ages but is now virtually non-existent. Famously, it affected Charles VI of France.

More on the enigma of blindness and psychosis

A long-standing enigma in psychiatry has been why no-one has been able to find someone who has both congenital blindness and a diagnosis of schizophrenia. The newest and most comprehensive archive study to date has just been published on exactly this issue although it raises more questions than it answers.

Evelina Leivada and Cedric Boeckx from the University of Barcelona in Spain conducted an extensive medical literature search and did come up with some cases of congenital blindness and schizophrenia – 13 in total, although only two case studies (outlining a total of four cases) were found which were convincing enough to be unaffected by other serious problems, like severe genetic disorders.

And these remaining four were hardly straightforward and as one report was from 1943 and the other from 1967 where standards of both vision and psychiatric assessment were significantly short of modern standards.

Notably, all cases of co-occurrence were from blindness due to eye problems or where blindness happened relatively late (after 6 years of age). No cases were found were people had a diagnosis of schizophrenia and were congenitally cortically blind – where blindness was caused by problems with the brain’s visual system.

What this new study provides is weak evidence for the possibility of certain sorts of blindness coexisting with a diagnosis of schizophrenia and more comprehensive support for the curious finding that blindness seems to reduce the risk of developing psychosis.

It’s worth noting that what is really needed is a prospective epidemiological study of psychosis in blind people. However, researchers have been searching for congenitally blind people with psychosis since the issue of non-co-occurrence was first seriously raised in the 1980s and none have been found. Based on the rates of occurrence for each condition, the combination should be fairly common. This suggests that hypothesis of protective effects of congenital blindness needs to taken seriously.

The Leivada and Boeckx paper goes on to speculate about neuropsychological reasons why congenital blindness might protect against schizophrenia (essentially, changes in the interaction between key visual system components and the language system) and, somewhat less convincingly, genetic reasons – as just extrapolating likely genes from case studies is very speculative and both the eye and brain develop from the same cells during embryo development so it’s not clear shared genes won’t just reflect generally impaired neurodevelopment.

I have to say, I find the concept of schizophrenia to be a fairly useless, but if the increasingly plausible hypothesis that congenital blindness protects against psychosis is confirmed, it has interesting implications for those that argue that psychosis is nothing but the result of marginalisation, stigma or difficult life circumstances where biological explanations are irrelevant.

Blindness, clearly would increase your chances of all of these, and so on this theory, we would expect an increased rate of psychosis, but this doesn’t seem to be the case.

It’s not that marginalisation, stigma or difficult life circumstances aren’t causal factors in developing psychosis, they clearly are, but ignoring neuro-level explanations outside these effects is equally as narrow as suggesting that they are the only relevant influences.

Link to ‘Schizophrenia and cortical blindness’ in Frontiers.

Spike activity 14-11-2014

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

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an excellent piece arguing for more focus on developing good theories of the brain amid the cascade of cash for neuroscience methods.

Moving Beyond Left Brain, Right Brain, Neuroskeptic goes in-depth with Michael Corballis. More neuronerd goodness from PLOS Neuro.

Nature magazine has a special open-access special on depression.

The Air Loom is short film based on the madness of James Tilly Matthews.

Neuroskeptic has some more wonderful etymological maps of the brain.

When we lie to children, are we teaching them to be dishonest? Interesting piece from the BPS Research Digest.

BBC News reports on a colour blind artist who had a camera implanted in his skull to allow him to hear colours.

There’s a good post on Providentia on Barnum statements and the psychology of vague complements.

Trifles make the sum of life

I’ve just found a curious scientific paper that looks at whether computational models of neural function are of relevance to clinical psychiatry. Oddly, it is written as a debate between two Charles Dickens characters.

The paper was published in the journal Neural Networks and is entitled “Are computational models of any use to psychiatry?”.

It starts entirely normally and then suddenly introduces two characters from the novel David Copperfield who begin to discuss the cognitive science of computational psychiatry.

Wise old Dr. Strong (Dickens, 1850) will now put the case against CMs [computational models] from the point of view of a psychiatrist. Our optimistic – or maybe unrealistic – friend Mr. Micawber will try to enthuse him about their cause. He is also a fan of reinforcement learning models.

It’s worth noting that in the original version of David Copperfield, Mr. Micawber barely mentions his admiration of computational reinforcement learning models (reading between the lines, he always seemed more of learning mechanism agnostic autoassociative memory man to me – but hey, I’m no English literature scholar).

Dr. Strong: First and foremost, CMs have failed to influence clinical practice.

Mr. Micawber: I would agree, Dr. Strong, that CMs have not influenced clinical practice to date; but neither have most advances in neurosciences. In fact, we believe that CMs will be instrumental in helping to bridge the gap between neurobiology and psychiatry because CMs are able to link levels of descriptions and make well-founded predictions at one level based on information at another level.

Dr. Strong: I disagree. The question is: are they clinically relevant, not will they be at some point in the future. All the models omit the very centre of psychiatry: subjective experiences. No one I have met believes that computers feel duty, personal bonds, or sexual titillation.

Weirdly, this is not the first cognitive science paper to be presented as a debate between two rather unexpected people.

Jerry Fodor’s paper “Fodor’s Guide to Mental Representation: The Intelligent Auntie’s Vade-Mecum” involves a discussion between him and his aunty about the finer points of mental representation.

Sadly, the paper is behind a pay-wall because Elsevier know that the cognitive science / Dickens combination can be deadly in the wrong hands.

Link to locked article “Are computational models of any use to psychiatry?”