Spike activity 29-05-2015

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

The Psychologist has a great piece by leading neurosurgeon Henry Marsh on mistakes, mystery and the mind.

When Does Consciousness Begin and End? Interesting piece from PBS.

The Lancet Psychiatry has a great piece on a unique suicide crisis resolution house in London.

Who Are You Now? Brilliant site from Headway East London on life stories of brain injury survivors.

The Dana Foundation discusses research on how ‘cognitive peaks‘ happen at different ages for different abilities.

Cavemen didn’t live in caves. Why we see early humans through modern humans’ eyes. Good article in Nautilus.

BBC Radio 4 has the first part of a two-part documentary on psychology and the origins of the Satanic ritual abuse panic.

Hacking the nervous system through the vagus nerve. Excellent piece in Mosaic Science.

An alternative history of the human mind

Nautilus has an excellent article on a theory of consciousness that is very likely wrong but so startlingly original it is widely admired: Julian Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind.

Based on the fact that there is virtually no description of mental states in the Ancient Greek classic The Iliad, where the protagonists are largely spoken to by Gods, Jaynes speculates that consciousness as we know it didn’t exist at this point in time and people experienced their thoughts as instructions from external voices which they interpreted as gods.

His book is a 1976 is a tour de force of interdisciplinary scholarship and although the idea that humans became conscious only 3,000 years ago is extremely unlikely, the book has been hugely influential even among people who think Jaynes was wrong, largely because he is a massively creative thinker.

Consciousness, Jaynes tells readers, in a passage that can be seen as a challenge to future students of philosophy and cognitive science, “is a much smaller part of our mental life than we are conscious of, because we cannot be conscious of what we are not conscious of.” His illustration of his point is quite wonderful. “It is like asking a flashlight in a dark room to search around for something that does not have any light shining upon it. The flashlight, since there is light in whatever direction it turns, would have to conclude that there is light everywhere. And so consciousness can seem to pervade all mentality when actually it does not.”

The Nautilus article is a brilliant retrospective on both Jaynes as a person and the theory, talking to some leading cognitive scientists who are admirers.

A wonderful piece on a delightful chapter in the history of psychology.

Link to Nautilus article on Julian Jaynes.

John Nash has left the building

CC Licensed photo from Wikipedia. Click for source.So goodbye John Nash, brilliant mathematician and beautiful mind, who has sadly just passed away after being involved in a taxi crash with his wife.

Nash was famous for many things, but was probably most well-known for being the subject of the biopic A Beautiful Mind – an Oscar-winning production that sugar-coated the details although mainly stayed true to spirit of Nash’s remarkable story.

Outside of the mainstream media Nash is best known for his work on partial differential equations and game theory – and it is this latter development which has had the biggest impact on society.

Nash won the Nobel prize for developing the Nash equilibrium which is the point in an ongoing interaction (the ‘game’ in ‘game theory’) where everyone has nothing to gain by changing their current strategy.

In Adam Curtis’s documentary series The Trap, Curtis famously argues that Nash’s ideas on game theory were taken up by the radical Sixties psychiatrist R.D. Laing who modelled the family as a self-interested struggle in game theory terms.

It’s a neat idea – Laing’s conflict-ridden model of the family was driven by the paranoid ideas of a man who became psychotic – but there’s not much weight behind it.

Laing certainly did describe the family as conflict-ridden and used game theoretic ideas to describe these interactions, in his book Sanity, Madness and the Family, but Curtis seems to have been wrong about the influence of Nash.

Laing drew on Gregory Bateson’s idea of a ‘double bind’ where two conflicting forms of communicated demand are placed on a family member which, according to Bateson, could lead to psychosis as people are forced to come up with an ‘alternative reality’ that satisfies the incompatible requests.

We now know this is wrong but it was influential at the time and set the scene for wider investigations into family life and how it affects people with psychosis which proved genuinely useful.

But reading these theories, what is most surprising is how Nash’s work isn’t mentioned.

Bateson was in regular contact with game theory pioneers like Norbert Weiner and John von Neumann who would have clearly known about Nash’s discoveries, but Nash is not referenced in either Bateson’s or R.D. Laing’s key works.

I find it unlikely that neither knew about John Nash, not least because he had published papers in very well known journals.

It is possible, however, that neither knew about Nash’s mental health, as Nash had begun to become unwell in 1959 and Sanity, Madness and the Family was published five years later, so perhaps the news about Nash’s psychosis had not filtered through.

But it is also possible that they were aware of what had happened to Nash, and opted to avoid his ideas precisely because he was thought to have become unwell.

Either way, it was a missed opportunity, because the idea of a Nash equilibrium makes perfect sense in terms of arriving at an unhelpful stalemate where no individual can seem to make a positive change – exactly what Laing was describing in families.

Fast forward 50 years, and Nash’s ideas finally have begun to have an impact on the science of psychopathology. After A Beautiful Mind was released, based on Sylvia Nasar’s earlier biography, studies emerged applying game theory and the Nash equilibrium to understanding the psychology and neuroscience of schizophrenia.

After revolutionising economics, social science and mathematics, Nash’s ideas are starting to have an influence on the science of psychosis. A form of intellectual closure, perhaps, that Nash appreciated more than most.

Link to excellent obituary in The New York Times.

Spike activity 12-05-2015

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

No, there is no evidence for a link between video games and Alzheimer’s disease, reports HeadQuarters after recent media bungles. We’re still waiting to hear on SimCity and Parkinson’s disease though.

The American Psychiatric Association has a new corporate video that looks like a Viagra advert.

BPS Research Digest reports on a fascinating study that gives a preliminary taxonomy of the voices inside your head.

What does fMRI measure? Essential piece from the Brain Box blog that gives an excellent guide to fMRI.

New Republic has an excellent piece on the proliferation of ‘trigger warnings’ and puts them in context of the history of PTSD, war and society.

Someone freeze-framed the movie Ex Machina and ran the code displayed on one of the monitors. Here’s what it does.

Atlas Obscura has a series of photos originally taken by pioneering neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing to document the early days of brain surgery.

What Can “Lived Experience” Teach Neuroscientists? asks Neuroskeptic. On why so many of these debates assume scientists are not people with mental health problems.

Reuters reports that a clinical psychologist has been put in charge of one of American’s largest prisons. “When a third of your population is mentally ill, you sure as heck better have someone who understands that at the top”.

Brain implants in the parietal lobe let paralyzed man move robotic arm reports Science News

Irregularities in Science

Olympus_CH2_microscope_1A paper in the high-profile journal Science has been alleged to be based on fraudulent data, with the PI calling for it to be retracted. The original paper purported to use survey data to show that people being asked about gay marriage changed their attitudes if they were asked the survey questions by someone who was gay themselves. That may still be true, but the work of a team that set out to replicate the original study seems to show that the data reported in that paper was never collected in the way reported, and at least partly fabricated.

The document containing these accusations is interesting for a number of reasons. It contains a detailed timeline showing how the authors were originally impressed with study and set out to replicate it, gradually uncovering more and more elements that concerned them and let them to investigate how the original data was generated. The document also reports the exemplary way in which they shared their concerns with the authors of the original paper, and the way the senior author responded. The speed of all this is notable – the investigators only started work on this paper in January, and did most of the analysis substantiating their concerns this month.

As we examined the study’s data in planning our own studies, two features surprised us: voters’ survey responses exhibit much higher test-retest reliabilities than we have observed in any other panel survey data, and the response and reinterview rates of the panel survey were significantly higher than we expected. We set aside our doubts about the study and awaited the launch of our pilot extension to see if we could manage the same parameters. LaCour and Green were both responsive to requests for advice about design details when queried.

So on the one hand this is a triumph for open science, and self-correction in scholarship. The irony being that any dishonesty that led to publication in a high-impact journal, also attracted people with the desire and smarts to check if what was reported holds up. But the tragedy is the circumstances that led the junior author of the original study, himself a graduate student at the time, to do what he did. No statement from him is available at this point, as far as I’m aware.

The original: When contact changes minds: An experiment on transmission of support for gay equality

The accusations and retraction request: Irregularities in LaCour (2014)

In the mind of a drone

CC Licensed Image from Wikimedia Commons. Click for source.Longreads has an excellent article on the psychology of drone warfare that looks at this particularly modern form of air-to-ground combat from many, thought-provoking angles.

These include the effect of humanless warfare, how suicide bombers are being dronified, how reducing the risk to soldiers might make civilians a more inviting target, whether remote-drone-pilot PTSD is convenient myth, and most interesting, the reliance of ‘Pattern-of-Life Analysis’ on which to base strikes.

Apart from these “personal strikes,” there are also “signature strikes,” here meaning strikes authorized on the basis of traces, indications, or defining characteristics. Such strikes target individuals whose identity remains unknown but whose behavior suggests, signals, or signs membership in a “terrorist organization.”

In such cases, the strike is made “without knowing the precise identity of the individuals targeted.” It depends solely on their behavior, which, seen from the sky, appears to “correspond to a ‘signature’ of pre-identified behavior that the United States links to militant activity.” Today, strikes of this type, against unknown suspects, appear to constitute the majority of cases…

An analysis of the pattern of a person’s life may be defined more precisely as “the fusion of link analysis and a geospatial analysis.” For some idea of what is involved here, imagine a superimposition, on a single map, of Facebook, Google Maps, and an Outlook calendar. This would be a fusion of social, spatial, and temporal particulars, a mixed mapping of the socius, locus, and tempus spheres—in other words, a combination of the three dimensions that, not only in their regularities but also in their discordances, constitute a human life.

This anonymous death by heuristics is also the type of problem that yields well to statistical approaches and, with enough data, machine learning algorithms such as deep learning.

It’s the sort of problem that cloud-based on-tap-AI systems like IBM’s Watson are designed to help with and you can bet your bottom dollar that there’s research going on to use machine learning to identify terrorists from their Pattern-of-Life. The Skynet of fiction will probably become the Skyapp of reality.

The article is remarkably wide-ranging and genuinely thought-provoking for a subject where much has already been written. Recommended.

Link to ‘Theorizing the Drone’.