Spike activity 15-05-2015

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

What does fMRI measure? Excellent fMRI primer on the Brain Box blog.

The Wall Street Journal has an excellent profile of neuroscientist Sophie Scott and her research understanding laughter.

Time has a piece on how rappers are de-stigmatising mental illness.

A brilliant review of neurosurgeon Henry Marsh’s book ‘Do No Harm’ from The New Yorker also works as a wonderful stand-alone article.

APA Monitor has a great interview with cognitive psychology pioneer Jerome Bruner as he approaches his 100th birthday.

The Brighter Side of Rabies. The New Yorker on how one of the world’s most deadly pathogens is revolutionising brain science.

The Verge has a piece on the ‘engineers of addiction’. Slot machine designers perfected compulsive play now tech wants their tricks.

The first scientific studies have attempted to understand the blue and black / white and gold dress phenomenon and are covered in The New York Times.

The New Yorker has a great non-hagiographic review of Oliver Sacks’ new biography.

Oddly, I’ve been quoted in a trailer for Ex Machina although my name has been spelt wrong which proves that machines aren’t invincible and humans will triumph in the coming robot war.

A less hysterical reaction

CC Licensed photo by Flickr user Les Black. Click for source.There’s a fascinating article in The Guardian about one of the least understood aspects of human nature: experiences like blindness, paralysis and seizures that seem to mimic gross damage to the nervous system but aren’t explained by it. People can experience profound blindness, for example, but have no detectable damage to their visual system.

These difficulties have various names: conversion disorder, hysteria, dissociative disorder, medically unexplained symptoms, functional neurological symptoms, somatoform disorder, or are denoted by adding the word ‘functional’ or ‘psychogenic’ to the disability.

The original concept, usually falsely attributed to Freud but actually first suggested by French psychologist Pierre Janet, was that emotional disturbance was being expressed as a physical problem, potentially as a form of psychological defence mechanism.

This is the origin of one of the modern names – ‘conversion disorder’ – but it’s not clear that ’emotion being converted into a physical symptom’ is a good explanation. We do know, however, that these experiences are more likely in people with a history of trauma, stress or emotional difficulties.

Crucially, people affected by these conditions feel no voluntary control over their symptoms – they’re not faking – but if you understand the nervous system you can often see how the symptoms aren’t consistent with the disabilities they appear to mimic.

For example, in the article, the neurologist tests a patient’s blindness like so:

He took from his bag a small rotating drum painted in black and white stripes. He held it in front of Yvonne and spun it quickly. Her eyes flickered from side to side in response to it, involuntarily drawn to the spinning stripes.

If the patient was blind due to damage to the eye, retina or optic nerve, visual material wouldn’t cause an involuntary eye tracking response, because the visual information would never make it to the brain.

So strikingly, the visual information is clearly being perceived at one level but is not accessible to the conscious mind – and it is this dramatic dissociation between the conscious and unconscious which is at the core of the problem, and is so poorly understood.

Unfortunately, these problems have also been traditionally stigmatised within medicine with people affected by them sometimes treated as fakers or time-wasters.

Similarly, to patients, the problems often feel as if “something has gone wrong with their bodies” meaning it can be difficult to hear that the origin may be psychological – partly of course, due to the common misconception that ‘psychological’ means ‘under your control’.

So this is why The Guardian article is so interesting because it is a little discussed area that needs a wider understanding both clinically and scientifically.

It describes several people with exactly these difficulties and how they are experienced.

Apparently, it’s taken from a new book by the same neurologist which is entirely about ‘functional neurological symptoms’ which could be equally as interesting.
 

Link to ‘You think I’m mad?’ – the truth about psychosomatic illness.

The most unaccountable of machinery

The latest edition of intriguing podcast Love and Radio is on a lesbian who passed as a man to report on masculinity, writing a amphetamine-fuelled stream-of-consciousness biography of Virginia Woolf, and finding hope in suicide.

It’s an interview with writer Norah Vincent and it makes for compelling listening.

Love and Radio is an interesting project that attempts to capture diverse people’s take on relationships. It veers between the rambling and the sublime, but this is definitely towards the sublime end of the spectrum.
 

Link to episode ‘Eternity Through Skirts and Waistcoats’.

Philip Zimbardo has a theory

“Boys risk becoming addicted to porn, video games and Ritalin” says psychologist Philip Zimbardo, which simply isn’t true, because some weekends I read.

Yes, Zimbardo has a theory which says that masculinity is being damaged by computer games, the internet, and pornography without an adequate plot line. A key solution: dancing. He’s done a cracking interview in The Guardian which I thoroughly recommend if you are still waiting for your Ritalin to kick in.

“Boys have never been self-reflective. Boys are focused on doing and acting, girls are more focused on being and feeling. The new video-game world encourages doing and acting and not really thinking. Video games are not so attractive to girls.”

Not really thinking? There’s a man who’s never played Bubble Bobble. And finally some sense in the video game debate. Hang up your coat Anita Sarkeesian.

And pornography? “The relative proportions are hard to come by. But for girls, it’s just boring. In general, sex has always been linked with romance for girls – much more than for boys. For boys it’s always been much more visual and physical…”

“With the old pornography there were typically stories. There was a movie, like Deep Throat, and in the course of some interesting theme people were having sex. Now it’s only about physical sexual contact.”

Oh my God! The washing machine has broken in the cheerleaders’ apartment. Now they’ll never get to the game. [Ding Dong] Wait, who could this be?

“It’s always been difficult for boys to talk to girls because you are never sure what they want or what their agenda is. And now without trying or practice it becomes more and more difficult. So it’s a reason to retreat into this virtual world.”

Phil, I know their agenda. They want quality plumbing without having to pay in cash.

“In online porn, the men are incredibly well-endowed – they are paid precisely because they have those attributes. In addition, some of the men take penile injections so they can perform for half an hour non-stop. When you’re a 10 or 15-year-old kid, you say to yourself, ‘I will never, ever look like that or perform like that’.”

I never thought that when I was 15. It’s been adult life that has made the 30 minute mark seem like an impossible dream.

Indeed, he argues that schools are increasingly ill-suited to boys’ needs – another reason for their retreat into cyberspace. In the US, he says, 90% of elementary school teachers are women, while in the UK one in five teachers is a man. “Female teachers can be wonderful but they model skills that girls are good at – fine motor tuning rather than big physical activity. They don’t like boys running around. And, with funding shortages, they’re eliminating gym classes so boys don’t have the time to do physical activity.” He cites schoolchildren being assigned to write diaries as a compositional task. “Boys don’t write diaries! The worst thing I can imagine giving a boy as a present is a diary.”

Fair point, just look at what happened to Adrian Mole.

What can be done to reconnect boys with the real world? Zimbardo has lots of suggestions: more male teachers, more incentives for men to establish boys’ and men’s groups so that the former can get the masculine mentoring they otherwise lack, welfare reform to encourage fathers to remain in the family loop, crowdsourcing initiatives to fund video games that are less violent and require more co-operation, parents to talk to their sons about sex and relationships so they don’t take porn to represent real life.

All genuinely helpful suggestions and then..

My favourite suggestion is that boys learn to dance. “It’s the easiest thing in the world,”

We’re British Phil. WE ARE BRITISH MALES. We look like two legged donkeys drunk on alcopops when we dance. And that’s *after* the dance lessons.

If you actually want to see someone take on Zimbardo’s claims with evidence, I could do no better than Andrew Przybylski from the The Oxford Internet Institute debating him on the BBC.
 

And amazingly, the full Guardian interview is full of even more clangers. Can’t wait for the book.
 

Link to Guardian interview with Philip Zimbardo.

Spike activity 08-05-2015

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

An autonomous truck has been cleared to drive on US roads for the first time according to New Scientist. Robot mudflap girl still being designed.

Backchannel covers the recent Facebook filter bubble study. Rare helpful write-up.

Surge in US ‘brain-reading‘ patents reports BBC News. Most of which are junk, concludes article.

Science magazine has an article by NIMH head saying ‘mental disorders’ are really ‘brain disorders’ and fails to understand that different levels of explanation are not mutually exclusive.

A Better Way to Build Brain-Inspired Chips. MIT Tech Review on the memrister.

The Lab Lunch has a piece arguing against the computational view of mind and brain function.

An audio interview with a researcher who spent four years with the internet’s worst trolls is up on Motherboard. Lots of preamble but interview starts eventually.

Science News reports on a fascinating study about the genetics of emotional vividness.

Human trials for bionic eye with ‘wireless brain chip’ to start next year, reports the Sydney Morning Herald. I’ll have two.

The Economist has an extended article on excessive AI fear and the state of the technology.

The ‘immature teen brain’ defense and the Boston Bomber trial. The Washington Post tackles the neuroscience behind the courtroom claims.

BBC Radio 4 had a streaming only documentary on the language of pain.

Sampling error’s more dangerous friend

CROSSAs the UK election results roll in, one of the big shocks is the discrepancy between the pre-election polls and the results. All the pollsters agreed that it would be incredibly close, and they were all wrong. What gives?

Some essential psych 101 concepts come in useful here. Polls rely on sampling – the basic idea being that you don’t have to ask everyone to get a rough idea of how things are going to go. How rough that idea is depends on how many you ask. This is the issue of sampling error. We understand sampling error – you can estimate it, so as well as reducing this error by taking larger samples there are also principled ways of working out when you’ve asked enough people to get a reliable estimate (which is why polls of a country with a population of 70 million can still be accurate with samples in the thousands).

But, as Tim Harford points out in in this excellent article on sampling problems big data, with every sample there are two sources of unreliability. Sampling error, as I’ve mentioned, but also sampling bias.

sampling error has a far more dangerous friend: sampling bias. Sampling error is when a randomly chosen sample doesn’t reflect the underlying population purely by chance; sampling bias is when the sample isn’t randomly chosen at all.

The problem with sample bias is that, when you don’t know the ground truth, there is no principled way of knowing if your sample is biased. If your sample has some systematic bias in it, you can make a reliable estimate (minimising sample error), but you are still left with the sample bias – a bias you don’t know how big it is until you find out the truth. That’s my guess at what happened with the UK election. The polls converged, minimising the error, but the bias remained – a ‘shy tory‘ effect where many voters were not admitting (or not aware) that they would end up voting for the Conservative party.

The exit polls predicted the real result with surprising accuracy not because they minimised sampling error, but because they avoided the sample bias. By asking the people who actually turned up to vote how they actually voted, their sample lacked the bias of the pre-election polls.

A brief and unlikely scenario

The Independent have been running a series called ‘If I were Prime Minister’ where they’ve asked a diverse range of people what they would do if they were PM. I written a brief piece for them where I talk about why we need to make hospital care for people with psychosis much less distressing.

It’s worth saying that I’d make a rubbish Prime Minister (“Exchange rate, yep, are there any snacks in here?”) but before I’d get the Queen to let me off the hook, I’d certainly make transition to psychiatric hospital care a much more positive experience,

Being treated in hospital under section is one of the most serious psychiatric interventions but you may be surprised to hear that it is one of the most poorly researched. We have so little evidence about what works and how to help people in a way that is safest for both their physical and their mental health. So if I were prime minister, I would ensure that the transition to inpatient care, for the most seriously unwell, was also a priority for research, funding and improvement.

It’s not fashionable to talk about gentleness in healthcare but it is exactly what is needed for people in crisis. Through neglect and under-funding, we have created a system that makes the time, consistency and environment needed for gentleness almost impossible to achieve – both for the staff who want to provide it and for the people who need it most. We are using our sanctuaries as warehouses and they need reclaiming.

Link to piece on crisis care in mental health.