Spike activity 30-01-2015

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

PLOS Neuroscience has an excellent interview on the strengths and limitations of fMRI.

There’s an excellent profile of clinical psychologist Andrea Letamendi and her interest in comics and mental health in The Atlantic.

The Wall Street Journal has an excellent piece on hikikomori – a syndrome of ultra withdrawal by Japanese youth.

The Hearing Voices Network as an alternative approach to supporting voice hearers is covered by a good article in The Independent.

Backchannel looks at the largest ‘virtual psychology lab’ in the world.

Does subliminal advertising actually work? asks BBC News.

BPS Research Digest covers a study finding that psychologists and psychiatrists rate patients less positively when their problems are explained biologically. Along the lines of several similar studies.

In the 21st Century, project management for parents

I’ve just read an excellent book on the surprising anomaly of modern parenting called All Joy and No Fun.

It’s by the writer Jennifer Senior who we’ve featured a few times on Mind Hacks for her insightful pieces on the social mind.

In All Joy and No Fun she looks at how the modern model of childhood born after the Second World War – “long and sheltered, devoted almost entirely to education and emotional growth” – has begun to mutate in some quarters into an all consuming occupation of over-parenting that has meant childcare has been consistently rated as one of the least enjoyable family activities in a wide range of studies.

The book combines field trips with parenting in middle American (YMMV) and a look at the surprising data about how parenting has become almost a competitive sport which requires forever more money, time, restrictions and plans, lest you be accused be being a ‘bad parent’.

New parents in the United States, Mead observes, are willing to try almost any new fad or craze for their baby’s sake. “We find new schools of education, new schools of diet, new schools of human relations… And we find serious, educated people following their dictates.” Which is why attachment parenting is consdiered de rigeur one year and overbearing three years later. And why cry-it-out is all the rage one moment and then, after a couple of seasons, considered cruel. And why organic home-milled purees suddenly supplant jars of Gerber’s, though an entire generation has done just fine on Gerber’s and even gone on to write books, run companies and do Nobel-winning science. Uncertainty is why parents buy Baby Einstein products, though there’s no evidence that they do anything to alter the cognitive trajectory of a child’s life, and explains why a friend – an extremely bright and reasonable man – asked me, with the straightest of faces and finest of intentions, why I wasn’t teaching my son sign language when he was small.

Because he was writing in the 1950s, psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott talked about the ‘good enough mother’, but taking its more modern version, we could say that ‘good enough parenting’ is all that parents need to aspire to.

All Joy and No Fun is a thought-provoking exploration of how childrearing become so unenjoyable in the 21st Century, and how fads, fashions and commerce, seek to undermine ‘good enough parenting’.

Link to more details on All Joy and No Fun.

Hard Problem defeats legendary playwright

I’ve written a review of legendary playwright Tom Stoppard’s new play The Hard Problem at the National Theatre, where he tackles neuroscience and consciousness – or at least thinks he does.

The review is in The Psychologist and covers the themes running through Stoppard’s new work and how they combine with the subtly misfiring conceptualisation of cognitive science:

This is a typical and often pedantic criticism of plays about technical subjects but in Stoppard’s case, the work is primarily about what defines us as human, in light of the science of human nature, and because of this, the material often comes off as clunky. It’s not that the descriptions are inaccurate – allusions to optogenetics, Gödel and the computability of consciousness, game theory, and cortisol studies of risk in poker players, are all in context – but Stoppard doesn’t really understand what implications these concept have for either each other or for his main contention. Questions about mind and body, consciousness and morality, are confused at times, and it’s not clear that Stoppard really understands the true implications of the Hard Problem of consciousness.

It’s worth saying, I actually enjoyed the play, but it was Stoppard’s philosophy and unwieldy use of neuroscience that didn’t quite hang together for me.

The full piece is the link below.

Link to review of The Hard Problem in The Psychologist

A misdiagnosis of trauma in Ancient Babylon

Despite the news reports, researchers probably haven’t discovered a mention of ‘PTSD’ from 1300BC Mesopotamia. The claim is likely due to a rather rough interpretation of Ancient Babylonian texts but it also reflects a curious interest in trying to find modern psychiatric diagnoses in the past, which tells us more about our own clinical insecurities than the psychology of the ancient world.

The claim comes from a new article published in Early Science and Medicine and it turns out there’s a pdf of the article available online if you want to read it in full.

The authors cite some passages from Babylonian medical texts in support of the fact that ‘symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder’ were recorded in soldiers. Here are the key translated passages from the article:

14.34 “If his words are unintelligible for three days […] his mouth [F…] and he experiences wandering about for three days in a row F…1.”

14.35 “He experiences wandering about (for three) consecutive (days)”; this means: “he experiences alteration of mentation (for three) consecutive (days).”

14.36 “If his words are unintelligible and depression keeps falling on him at regular intervals (and he has been sick) for three days F…]”

19.32 “If in the evening, he sees either a living person or a dead person or someone known to him or someone not known to him or anybody or anything and becomes afraid; he turns around but, like one who has [been hexed with?] rancid oil, his mouth is seized so that he is unable to cry out to one who sleeps next to him, ‘hand’ of ghost (var. hand of […]).”

19.33 “[If] his mentation is altered so that he is not in full possession of his faculties, ‘hand’ of a roving ghost; he will die.”

19.34 “If his mentation is altered, […] (and) forgetfulness(?) (and) his words hinder each other in his mouth, a roaming ghost afflicts him. (If) […], he will get well.”

Firstly, it’s clearly a huge stretch to suggest these are symptoms of PTSD which is defined as groupings of intrusive memories of the traumatising event, heightened arousal or emotional numbing, avoidance of reminders and, since the DSM-5, depression-like symptoms.

The authors suggest that the strongest evidence for the fact that the ancient descriptions are PTSD is that the ‘ghost’ mentioned in the text is often considered to be the ghosts of enemies whom the patient killed during military operations, and these could be PTSD-like flashbacks.

The trouble is that ‘ghosts’ are given as causes of many disorders in Babylonian medicine. Furthermore, all of the symptoms the authors describe could clearly also describe epilepsy and, in fact, are described in Babylonian texts on epilepsy.

For example, these are all symptoms described in BM 47753 a Babylonian tablet on epilepsy, discussed a 1990 article, that also describes wandering, confusion and unintelligible speech.

If he keeps going into and out of (his house) or getting into and out of his clothes .. or talks unintelligibly a great deal, does not any more eat his bread and beer rations and does not go to bed…

If, in a state of fear, he keeps getting up and sitting down, (or) if he mutters unintelligibly a great deal and becomes more and more restless…

Most symptoms are diagnosed as a form of being touched by the hand of a supernatural being. Below are some ‘ghost’ afflictions that are clearly epilepsy related, including ‘ghosts’ who have died violently in various ways, including a ‘mass killing’.

If at the end of his fit his limbs become paralysed, he is dazed (or, dizzy), his abdomen is “wasted” (sc., as of one in need of food) and he returns everything which is put into his mouth …….-hand of a ghost who has died in a mass killing.

If when his limbs become at rest again like those of a healthy person his mouth is seized so that he cannot speak,-hand of the ghost of a murderer. R: hand of the ghost of a person burned to death in a fire.

If when his limbs become at rest again like those of a healthy person he remains silent and does not eat anything,-hand of the ghost of a murderer; alternatively, hand of the ghost of a person burned to death in a fire

Oddly, the authors of the ‘ancient PTSD’ article suggest that references to slurring of speech and cognitive difficulties might reflect co-morbid drug abuse. They also admit that all their cited symptoms could be caused by head injury but as prognosis is given as non-fatal, they were probably PTSD-related. But again, epilepsy seems a much better fit here both from a contemporary and Babylonian perspective.

In fact, historians Kinnier Wilson and Reynolds, who wrote the 1990 article on Babylonian epilepsy texts, were quite convinced that references to ‘ghosts’ were ancient terms for nocturnal epilepsy, not ‘flashbacks’.

But it’s also worth mentioning that the ‘ancient PTSD’ argument is in a long-line of studies that attempt to match contemporary psychiatric diagnoses to vague historical references as a way of legitimising the modern concepts.

However, the ways in which psychological distress, particularly trauma, is expressed are massively affected by culture. PTSD is unlikely to be a concept that transcends time, place and social structure.

In fact, historians have not been able to convincingly find any PTSD-like descriptions in history and there seems a virtually complete absence of any records of flashbacks in the medical records of First and Second World War veterans, let alone in Ancient Babylon.

War, violence and tragedy has left its psychological mark on individuals from the beginning of time.

PTSD is a useful diagnosis we’ve created to help us deal with some of the consequences of these awful events in the limited but important contexts in which it occurs – but it’s not a universal feature of human nature.

Who knows whether anything like PTSD existed for the Babylonians but the fact that we can use it to help people is all we need to legitimise it.

From the machine

A new film, Ex Machina, is released in the UK tomorrow and it is quite possibly one of the best sci-fi films of recent times and probably the best film about consciousness and artificial intelligence ever made.

The movie revolves around startup geek turned tech corp billionaire Nathan who has created the artificially conscious android Ava. Nathan invites one of his corporate coders, Caleb, to help test whether Ava feels conscious.

The film is near-future but in the tradition of sci-fi as a theatre in which to test ideas, it focuses on the stark and unexpected issues raised by self-conscious robots designed for the human market.

Writer and debut director Alex Garland clearly put a lot of effort into getting the scientific concepts right, enlisting biologist Adam Rutherford and cognitive roboticist Murray Shanahan to finesse the philosophy of mind.

In addition, it’s brilliantly acted, paranoid, subtly disturbing and thought-provoking – long after the credits roll.

It’s also sparked some great reviews of the movie and the cognitive science behind it. The Independent has an excellent piece on the science behind the plot and there’s a great interview with the scientific advisors in Dazed.

But probably the best so far is consciousness researcher Anil Seth’s extended review in New Scientist which tackles the core of the film’s philosophical kick:

While the Turing test has provided a trope for many AI-inspired movies… Ex Machina takes things much further. In a sparkling exchange between Caleb and Nathan, Garland nails the weakness of Turing’s version of the test, a focus on the disembodied exchange of messages, and proposes something far more interesting. “The challenge is to show you that she’s a robot. And see if you still feel she has consciousness,” Nathan says to Caleb.

This shifts the goalposts in a vital way. What matters is not whether Ava is a machine. It is not even whether Ava, even though a machine, can be conscious. What matters is whether Ava makes a conscious person feel that Ava is conscious. The brilliance of Ex Machina is that it reveals the Turing test for what it really is: a test of the human, not of the machine. And Garland is not necessarily on our side.

In fact, the film constantly flips viewers between thinking of Ava as a machine, and as a conscious being, and forces us to continually check the shifting plot reality to see if it still holds together.

At the end of the film you come to realise that it’s not Ava who’s being tested, it’s you.

Link to Ex Machina page on Wikipedia.
Link to UK trailer on YouTube.
Link to international trailer on YouTube.

pwned by a self-learning AI

Backchannel has a fascinating profile of DeepMind founder Demis Hassabis which although an interesting read in itself, has a link to a brief, barely mentioned study which may herald a quiet revolution in artificial intelligence.

The paper (available online as a pdf) is entitled “Playing Atari with Deep Reinforcement Learning” and describes an AI system which, without any prior training, learned to play a series of Atari 2600 games to the point of out-performing humans.

The key here is ‘without any prior training’ as the system was not ‘told’ anything about the games. It worked out how to play them, and how to win them, entirely on its own.

The system was created with a combination of a reinforcement learning system and a deep learning network.

Reinforcement learning is based on the psychological theory of operant conditioning where we learning through reward and punishment what behaviours help us achieve certain goals.

One difficulty is that in video games, the reward (points) may only be distantly related to individual actions because strategy is not something that can be boiled down to ‘do this action again to win’. Mathematically there is lots of noise in the link between an action and eventual outcome.

Traditionally this has been solved by programming the structure of the game into the AI agent. Non-player characters in video games act as effective opponents because they include lots of hard-coded rules about what different aspects of the game symbolise, and what good strategy involves.

But this is a hack that doesn’t generalise. Genuine AI would work out what to do, in any given environment, by itself.

To help achieve this, the DeepMind Atari AI uses deep learning, a hierarchical neural network that is good at generating its own structure from unstructured data. In this case, the data was just what was on the screen.

To combine ‘learning effective action’ and ‘understanding the environment’ the research team plumbed together deep learning and reinforcement learning with an algorithm called Q-learning that is specialised for ‘model-free’ or unstructured learning.

So far, we have performed experiments on seven popular ATARI games – Beam Rider, Breakout, Enduro, Pong, Q*bert, Seaquest, Space Invaders. We use the same network architecture, learning algorithm and hyperparameters settings across all seven games, showing that our approach is robust enough to work on a variety of games without incorporating game-specific information…

Finally, we show that our method achieves better performance than an expert human player on Breakout, Enduro and Pong and it achieves close to human performance on Beam Rider.

The team note that the system wasn’t so good at Q*bert, Seaquest and Space Invaders, and it wasn’t asked to battle the real Ko-Dan Empire after playing Starfighter, but it’s still incredibly impressive.

It’s an AI that worked out its environment, its actions, and what it needs to do to ‘survive’, without any prior information.

Given, the environment is an Atari 2600, but the AI is a surprisingly simple system that ends up, in some instances, outperforming humans from a standing start.

Essentially, the future of humanity now rests on whether the next system is given a gun or a dildo to play with.

Link to Backchannel profile of Demis Hassabis.
pdf of paper “Playing Atari with Deep Reinforcement Learning”

A love beyond illusions

Articles on people’s experience of the altered states of madness often fall into similar types: tragedy, revelation or redemption. Very few do what a wonderful article in Pacific Standard manage: give an account of how a young couple learn to live with psychosis.

It’s an interesting piece because it’s not an account of how someone finds the answer to loving someone who has episodes of psychosis, it’s how a couple find an answer.

It discusses psychiatry, antipsychotics and R.D. Laing but not in terms of what we should or could think of psychosis and society, but what one couple takes from them – finding value where it helps.

Touching, genuine, unpretentious and uncensored.

It is romantic in the truest sense.

Link to ‘My Lovely Wife in the Psych Ward’.