“Psychological harm is not a disease of the mind”

When the law and the mind come together…

The former Tory leader Iain Duncan-Smith appeared on the Today programme this morning, promoting his call for a new law to be introduced to punish people who drive their partners to suicide. He says the current 1861 Offence Against the Person Act is inadequate because it requires a retrospective diagnosis of psychiatric illness in the person who killed themselves.

Enter criminal barrister John Cooper who believes the current Act works perfectly well. He says the law already states that psychiatric harm is assault. He explains:

“It’s very difficult to prove psychological harm. Psychological harm is not a disease of the mind. A psychiatric condition is a disease of the mind. But the law has to have clarity in this respect. We can section people under a mental health order. We can say a person is unfit to plead if they are psychiatrically troubled. That’s because we can prove it by a disease of the mind. It all gets very woolly when we bring in psychology”.

Well that’s cleared that up then.

Link to audio file of the discussion.

Amazing brain writing prize

Do you fancy winning ¬£250 for writing a short article about brain science? If so, this could be for you – the website ‘Your Amazing Brain’, hosted by the science exhibition centre @Bristol, together with the European Dana Alliance for the Brain, and The British Neuroscience Association, are looking for a newspaper style science article of around 650 words on the subject of brain science. There are two categories – the first anyone can enter (except professional writers), whereas the second is for researchers writing about their own area of research. Both have a winning prize of ¬£250 and your article will be published all over the place. But get cracking, the deadline is the end of this month.

Link to full details.

Dawkins’ new book on religion

god delusion.jpg‘The God Delusion’, Richard Dawkins’ forthcoming book on religion, is “incurious, dogmatic, rambling and self-contradictory” according to Andrew Brown (author of the Darwin Wars), writing in Prospect magazine.

To a psychologist (or anyone taking a scientific approach to religion), what’s particularly of interest, is not so much whether or not God exists, but why so many people are believers, even today, when evolutionary theory means there’s no longer any need to invoke a designer to explain life’s complexity. But according to Brown’s scathing review, Dawkins utterly fails to offer any fresh insight into this question. “Thinking a bit was once what Dawkins was famous for. It’s a shame to see him reduced to one long argument from professorial incredulity”.

Dawkins is developing a somewhat legendary reputation for being anti-religion, a trend he has encouraged – he titled a collection of his essays published a few years ago ‘The Devil’s Chaplain’. Perhaps his most notable and controversial exposition on the subject was an article he wrote for the Guardian newspaper, just days after 9/11, in which he lamented the devaluing effect of religion on human life, and characterised the terrorists responsible as “testosterone-sodden young men too unattractive to get a woman in this world” but “desperate enough to go for 72 private virgins in the next”.

UPDATE: Andrew Brown debates his review and Dawkins’ book with science writer Dan Jones and others, at Jones’ blog – the proper study of mankind.

Link to review in Prospect magazine.
Link to The God Delusion, on Amazon.
Link to Guardian article.

An ‘autism mum’


“You’re an autism mum. I see them all the time. I saw you that first day we met, how you agonised over your boy, mute in his pushchair while all the other pre-schoolers made their clever observations about the world; I see how you worry now over his odd way of walking, the animal noises he will sometimes make instead of words. And I see how no amount of pain in the experience of caring for your son will put to death the fire of love you have for him.”

Teacher Andy O’Connor speaking to the mother of an autistic boy in the novel Daniel Isn’t Talking, by Marti Leimbach. This book and four other fiction and non-fiction books on autism were intelligently reviewed by Adam Feinstein in the Guardian a few weeks ago.

Link to Daniel isn’t talking.
Link to Guardian review of five books on autism.

Dodgy science at the BA festival?

Continuing on from Vaughan’s discussion of Psi research at the BA Festival – I wonder if the likes of Prof. Lord Robert Winston ought to have been more concerned about some of the content in one of the mainstream BA Psychology Section seminars.

Prof. Geoffrey Beattie of Big Brother fame was this year’s Psychology Section President so it was perhaps no surprise that he organised a seminar on body language and invited along his fellow Big Brother psychologist Dr. Peter Collett.

However, Collett’s talk was really just a collection of highlights from his channel 4 show, in which he identifies ‘tells’ that give away what a politician is really thinking. For example he said that compared with his cabinet colleagues, Gordon Brown exhibited about 5 times as many discomfort gestures (e.g. looking down, chewing his lip) when Tony Blair was giving a conference speech. This prompted a journalist next to me to ask – “wouldn’t it have been more logical to have compared how many discomfort gestures Brown made during Blair’s speech with how many he made during a speech by someone else?”.

“Yes, you’re right” Collett admitted, “but you’re talking about an actual experiment, this is just something I put together for a TV programme”.

Hmm. Well at least he was honest about that – but wasn’t this supposed to be the BA Science Festival?

Another audience member suggested that Brown might have been displaying these discomfort gestures because of other events in his life – the conference may have been near in time to when he lost his new-born baby, for example.

“Yes, the interpretation of these gestures is up for grabs” Collett answered. “It’s all about taking into account the context…but with individuals this IS NOT A SCIENCE“.

At least a lot of parapsychology research uses sound scientific methodology whereas this was, as Collett pretty much admitted, just a load of speculation put together for a TV programme.

More Coldplay than Radiohead

The runaway success of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, the book written from the perspective of a young autistic boy, has not entirely pleased its author Mark Haddon:

“I’m just suspicious that too many people liked it. All the books I really like are loathed by some people…It’s like you want to be Radiohead and then you think, shit, I’ve accidentally turned into Coldplay”.

Source: The Week.

New source of online psychology news

April cover.JPGThe latest news reports of The Psychologist magazine now appear online first, freely available for anyone to read.

Recent entries include a report on the Royal Institution debate: “What’s the worst ever idea on the mind?”; a discussion of whether increased rates of autism are all down to changes in diagnosis; and – is it the lack of psychologists that makes the Pacific island of Vanuatu the happiest place on earth?

Combined with all its full-length articles older than 6 months also being freely available to view, The Psychologist website now offers a veritable feast of material for anyone interested in psychology (BPS members have full access to all articles).

Link to The Psychologist magazine.

Disclaimer: I work for The Psychologist magazine.

Biological psychiatry pioneer dies

american journal of psychiatry2.GIFOne of the pioneers of biological psychiatry, Professor Joseph Schildkraut, died recently, aged 72.

“Thanks to Schildkraut, it was generally accepted that depression is a medical illness and that many mental disorders are related to imbalances in chemicals in the brain”, says his obituary that appeared in the Times.

Schildkraut laid out his ideas in the 1965 paper “The Catecholamine Hypothesis of Affective Disorders”, which became the most highly cited paper ever to appear in the American Journal of Psychiatry, and one of the most cited papers in all of psychiatry.

“He saw patients who had been unresponsive to talk therapy suddenly come alive when drugs were introduced, and he got very excited about that,” his wife, Betsy Schildkraut, told the Boston Globe.

Dr. Alan I. Green, chairman of Dartmouth Medical School’s psychiatry department told the Globe: ‚ÄúI think he was a giant in the field. I think that initial paper, perhaps more than any other, defined the psychopharmacological era.‚Äù

However, Professor Schildkraut’s death comes at a time of increasing scepticism towards the chemical imbalance model of mental illness. At a recent debate hosted by the Royal Institution, psychiatrist Joanna Moncrieff of UCL recently named the model as the worst ever idea on the mind.

In the last 15 years of his career, Professor Schildkraut studied the link between depression, spirituality and artistic creativity. He had also been committed to bringing the best medical care to people who ordinarily could not afford it.

Link to Times Obituary.
Link to abstract of The Catecholamine Hypothesis.

Mind-reading competition

brain image interpretation.jpgDon’t worry, this isn’t about telepathy and doesn’t involve Uri Gellar.

No, it’s about a team of three Italian researchers who won $10000 in a brain-activity interpretation competition organised by the University of Pittsburgh earlier this year.

Entrants were provided with the fMRI data and behavioural reports recorded when four people watched two movies. The competitors’ task was to create an algorithm that could use the viewers ongoing brain activity to predict what they were thinking and feeling as the film unfolded. The crunch test came from a third film. This time the competing researchers were shown the viewers’ brain activity only, and they had to predict the behavioural data – what the viewers had reported seeing and feeling during the film on a moment-by-moment basis. The full rules are here.

The Italians – Emanuele Olivetti, Diego Sona, and Sriharsha Veeramachaneni were the most accurate, achieving a correlation of .86 for basic features, such as whether an instant of the film contained music. The full results are here.

I heard about this from the latest Nature Neuroscience editorial. They discuss the competition in the context of the increasing trend for researchers to see if they can predict what people are thinking based on their overall brain activity (this often gets discussed in relation to lie detection), rather than the more traditional correlational/localisation approach of seeing what brain activity occurs where, when people are thinking certain things.

The Nature Neurosci. editors welcome the shift:

Neuroimaging’s obsession with localization has often led to accusations that it is little more than phrenology. By using population responses across the whole brain to ask how rather than where information is processed, neuroimaging may be starting to come of age.

Link to the competition website.

Born to be bad?

criminal personality.jpgThe latest issue of Prospect magazine features a fresh in-depth analysis of whether there is such a thing as a criminal personality. The author David Rose of the Observer notes that contemporary politicans have tended to focus on the social causes of criminality – think of Blair’s ‘tough on the causes of crime’ speech. But he points to new research showing that genetic factors are also key, in particular he highlights research by Terrie Moffitt and colleagues at the Institute of Psychiatry, including a study showing that whether childhood maltreatment leads to later increased risk of criminality depends in part on the variant of the MAOA gene that a person has. The gene codes for the enzyme monoamine oxidase A, and is involved in the regulation of neurotransmitter levels. A person with a low activity variant of this gene who is maltreated is far more likely to develop antisocial behaviour.

Link to Prospect article (open access).
Link to the Dunedin Study.

Neurologism spotting

I just read the recent New Sci article on mind reading with fMRI that Vaughan flagged up recently, and couldn’t help noticing two more neurologisms coined by the writer of the article, Douglas Fox.

Neuronaut: Fox describes getting ready to enter the brain scanner – “As they prepared the experiment this morning, I felt like an astronaut – a neuronaut you might say – getting ready for launch”. So a neuronaut is a virgin neurosi experimental subject.

Neuro-legible: The researchers had managed to read Fox’s brain with 90 per cent accuracy. “As I hang up, I’m strangely glad to know my brain is neuro-legible…”. So neuro-legibility describes how easily your brain can be read by brain scanning technologies.

Link to Vaughan on the New Sci article.
Link 1, 2, and 3 for Mind Hacks posts on the search for neurologisms.

New infant language lab at Liverpool Uni

liverpool infant language lab.JPG

Liverpool University’s new Child Language Study Centre hopes to become the first UK-based lab to replicate and expand upon American findings published in the 90’s that led to the ‘syntactic bootstrapping’ hypothesis – the idea that children as young as two use their innate understanding of syntax to help them learn new words.

With a team of six researchers led by Professor Julian Pine, the Centre is one of the largest of its kind in the UK. And after launching last Summer, the centre is now ready to start experimenting.

“In essence the syntactic bootstrapping hypothesis assumes the child has an innate predisposition to understand the syntactic properties of language. We want to know if this is true or not”, Dr. Javier Aguado-Orea, a researcher in the lab, told Mind Hacks.

In one study, the researchers will present young children with sentences containing an unfamiliar verb (e.g. ‘the boy strokes the girl’). Either side of the speaker playing the pre-recorded sentences will be two video screens showing a boy and girl, with one of them matching the action described in the spoken sentence. In this example, the structure of the sentence reveals the boy as the active player and the researchers want to know if the children can use that information to guide them to look at the correct video screen, thus facilitating their learning of the meaning of the verb ‘to stroke’.

“It can be tricky, for six months we’ve been piloting our stimuli – for example, you have to make sure that the child is looking at the correct screen based on the structure of the sentence, not because one of the characters or objects is more attractive to them”, Aguado-Orea explained.

“But if we are able to replicate this finding it would be quite powerful because it would be an indication of a very early stage in the development of language, and it would illustrate learning mechanisms that there is no other way, in our knowledge, to detect” he said.

The Centre have tested 11 children on this particular experiment so far, but they need at least 12 more. Parents willing to volunteer their child should email childlanguage[@]liv.ac.uk for further information.

Link to lab.

An influential psychologist

time mag.jpgPsychologist Richard Davidson (pictured below) of the W.M. Keck lab for Functional Brain Imaging and Behaviour at the University of Wisconsin has been named one of the world’s Top 100 most influential people by Time magazine. He’s most famous for researching the neural correlates of meditation and for collaborating with the Dalai Lama:


“East and West not only meet in Richard Davidson’s laboratory; they are also starting to exchange a great deal of useful information about human experience and human potential”.Read more

Freakonomist Steven Levitt also features in the list, with a brief eulogy by Malcolm Gladwell.

Hey Mind Hacks readersWhich psychologists or neuroscientists do you think should have made the list, and why? Comments are open.

Link to Richard Davidson’s website.
Link to article in Time magazine.

What got you going where

biomapping.JPGBy combining a hand-held global positioning system with a galvanic skin response sensor (that measures the sweatiness of your fingers), London-based artist Christian Nold has created a gadget that measures your arousal as you walk around. Superimposing the data onto your route, using something like Google Earth, allows you to see a kind of ’emotion map‘ for where you’ve been.

Nold has tested the device on over 300 people so far (his data is publicly available), and is looking for academic and commercial research partners to explore the project’s potential.

Link to Bio-mapping website.
Link to Bio-mapping documentary download.