A concise, solid grounding in neuroscience

50IdeasHumanBrainI often get asked ‘how can I avoid common misunderstandings in neuroscience’ which I always think is a bit of an odd question because the answer is ‘learn a lot about neuroscience’.

This is easier than it sounds, of course, but if you want a solid introduction, a book by Mo Costandi called 50 Human Brain Ideas You Really Need to Know is an excellent starting point.

If you recognise the name Mo Costandi its because he has been writing the brilliant Neurophilosophy blog for the best part of the last decade as he’s moved from being a neurobiologist to a science journalist.

The book consists of 50 four page chapters each of which condenses a key area of neuroscience in a remarkably lucid way.

There is no pandering to the feint of heart in the selected topics (from free will to neural stem cells) but neither is there a glossing over of conflicting evidence or controversy.

You won’t get poorly researched hype here about ‘mirror neurons’ being ‘responsible for empathy’ or brain scans showing how the brain ‘lights up’ but you will get a concise, balanced and entertaining introduction to key concepts in neuroscience.

It’s worth noting that the book does not hand-hold you. It’s not a complete beginners guide. It’s aimed at a ‘smart high-school kid and up’ level but if that’s you, and you want to get to grips with the brain, this book is ideal.
 

Link to more details on 50 Human Brain Ideas You Really Need to Know.

A literary review of the DSM-5

Philosopher Ian Hacking, famous for analysing the effects of psychological and neuroscientific knowledge on how we understand ourselves, has reviewed the DSM-5 for the London Review of Books.

It’s both an excellent look at what the whole DSM project has been designed to do and a cutting take on the checklist approach to diagnosis.

It’s not often that a review gives you a feeling of both a wholesome read and a guilty pleasure, but Hacking does both with this piece.

The DSM is not a representation of the nature or reality of the varieties of mental illness, and this is a far more radical criticism of it than [NIMH Director Thomas] Insel’s claim that the book lacks ‘validity’.

I am saying it is founded on a wrong appreciation of the nature of things. It remains a very useful book for other purposes. It is essential to have something like this for the bureaucratic needs of paying for treatment and assessing prevalence.

But for those purposes the changes effected from DSM-IV to DSM-5 were not worth the prodigious labour, committee meetings, fierce and sometimes acrimonious debate involved. I have no idea how much the revision cost, but it is not that much help to clinicians, and the changes do not matter much to the bureaucracies.

And trying to get it right, in revision after revision, perpetuates the long-standing idea that, in our present state of knowledge, the recognised varieties of mental illness should neatly sort themselves into tidy blocks, in the way that plants and animals do.

The old joke about a dictionary review goes “the plot wasn’t up to much but at least it explained everything as it went along”.

For the DSM it might well be “the plot wasn’t up to much and neither did it explain everything as it went along”.
 

Link to ‘Lost in the Forest’ in The LRB (via @HuwTube)

Gotham psychologist

Andrea Letamendi is a clinical psychologist who specialises in the treatment and research of traumatic stress disorders but also has a passionate interest in how psychological issues are depicted in comics.

She puts her thoughts online in her blog Under the Mask which also discuss social issues in fandom and geek culture.

Recently, she was paid a wonderful compliment when she appeared in Batgirl #16 as Barbara Gordon’s psychologist.
 

I’ve always been of the opinion that comics are far more psychologically complex than they’re given credit for. In fact, one of my first non-academic articles was about the depiction of madness in Batman.

It’s also interesting that comics are now starting to explicitly address psychological issues. It’s not always done entirely successfully it has to be said.

Darwyn’s Cooke’s Ego storyline looked at Batman’s motivations through his traumatic past but shifts between subtle brilliance and clichés about mental illness in a slightly unsettling way.

Andrea Letamendi has a distinctly more nuanced take, however, and if you would like to know more about her work with superheroes do check the interview on Nerd Span.
 

Link to Letamendi’s Under the Mask (on Twitter as @ArkhamAsylumDoc)
Link to Nerd Span interview.

A treasure hunt for the mysteries of mind and brain

I’ve published a couple of free ebooks recently: Explore your blind spot shows you how to reveal the gap we all have in our visual experience of the world, and discusses what it means about consciousness that this gap is kept hidden from us most of the time. Control Your Dreams, co-written with Cathryn Bardsley and illustrated beautifully by Harriet Cameron, tells you how to have lucid dreams, those dreams where you realise you are dreaming and can take control over reality.

Both books are written as treasure hunts – travel guides, but for exploring inner space. When you start reading you will be told about the journey ahead, what you’ll need and how long it will take. Next we tell you about the treasure – some surprising or interesting feature of the mind and brain which is the core experience of the book. We tell you how to generate this experience for yourself, and the things to look out for, and what that experience might mean for our understanding of ourselves. We finish with “travellers’ tales”, which are reports from others who’ve experimented with the phenomenon and links to the scientific literature on the topic.

The core of psychology is experiences. Psychologists think about those experiences, turn them into theories, and try to settle arguments between themselves by generating new experiences – in the form of experiments. But the joy of psychological science is that everybody has access to the raw material. The books are a way of sharing that, an attempt to give away the raw material of psychological science, packaged as experiences for the reader.

The books are creative commons licensed, which means you download them, copy them, even modify them if you want to produced an improved version, and both are fully referenced so you can check up on any claims made in them. Science is naturally an open-source phenomenon, so it feels good to be doing some open source science writing.

Link: Explore Your Blindspot by Tom Stafford
Link: Control Your Dreams by Tom Stafford & Cathryn Bardsley, Illustrated by Harriet Cameron

Update 22 Jan: It looks like people are having problems downloading Control Your Dreams. This is something to do with the Smashwords site. Hopefully the issue will be fixed soon

Update 24 Jan: Fixed

Control your dreams (ebook)

Anyone can learn to have lucid dreams, and this ebook tells you how. Lucid dreams are those dreams where you become aware you are dreaming, and can even begin to control the reality of the dream. Adventure, problem-solving and consequence-free indulgence await! And for those interested in the mind, lucid dreams are a great place to explore the nature of their own consciousness. The ebook is written as a sort of travel guide, telling you what you need to take on your journey and what to expect when you start to lucid dream. It finishes off with a quick review of the scientific literature on lucid dreaming and links and references for further reading if you want to continue your exploration of lucid dreaming.

I wrote this with friend, and lucid dreamer, Cat Bardsley. My wife Harriet Cameron provided some beautiful illustrations which you can find throughout the book (and on the cover you can see here). The book is Creative Commons licensed so you can copy it and share it as you will, and even modify and improve (as long as you keep the CC licensing). It’s available on smashwords on a pay-what-you-want-basis (and that includes nothing, so it is yours for free if you’d like).

“Control your dreams” is my second self-published ebook. You can also get “Explore your blindspot” from smashwords (which is completely free, and also CC licensed). The wonderful folk at 40k books published my essay The Narrative Escape last year (and after doing all the formatting and admin associated with these two new ebooks I am more and more in awe of what they did).

Sweet Dreams!

Explore your blind spot (free ebook)

I’ve written an ebook called ‘Explore your blind spot’. It’s about, er, exploring your blind spot! In the best tradition of Mind Hacks I take you from the raw experience to the cutting edge of scientific theory. The blind spot is a simple phenomenon of our visual processing, but one we don’t notice day to day. In the ebook I talk about how it provides a great example of the way consciousness is constructed despite ‘missing’ information. Like the ebook subtitle says, the blind spot gives us an insight into the mind hides its own tracks.

The ebook is available in all major formats here and is creative commons licensed. That means it is free, not just to download but also to share. You can even edit it and pass on modified versions, as long as you keep it CC licensed.

I’ve written this book as an experiment in ebook publishing, and as a test-bed for what I think could be a good format for presenting open-source guides to the myriad interesting phenomena of psychology. If you’ve got feedback let me know.

Link to Explore your blind spot, a free ebook by Tom Stafford

A review of Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature

I’ve written an in-depth review of Steven Pinker’s new book on the decline of violence for the latest Wilson Quarterly

I thought getting a free copy and working on a review would be great fun but was rather taken aback when the 848 page book landed on my doorstep. I shouldn’t have been because there isn’t a wasted page.

I go into the details of some of Pinker’s key arguments in the book, which you can read in more detail in the review, but as you can see from this part, the book is definitely worth reading.

Despite my concerns about how Pinker portrays individual psychology and neuroscience, The Better Angels of Our Nature is so comprehensive that these faults represent only a fraction of the book. Taken as a whole, it is powerful, mind changing, and important. Pinker does not shy away from the gritty detail and is not to be taken lightly—quite literally in fact, as at more than 800 pages his book could easily be used as a weapon if you remained unpersuaded by its arguments. But this avalanche of information serves to demonstrate convincingly and counterintuitively that violence is on the decline.

In many ways, violence is a disease of the emotions. While we should never ignore the victims, it can be managed and curbed so it affects as few people as possible and remains minimally contagious. Many illnesses that once felled multitudes are now largely vanquished through greater knowledge and simple preventive measures; a similar process has made us all less likely to be targets, and perpetrators, of brutality. As Pinker argues, this is an achievement we should take pride in.

You can read the full text of the review by clicking on the link below. Thanks to The Wilson Quarterly for making it available online.
 

Link to review of Pinker’s new book in The Wilson Quarterly.