A torrent of accidental poems

CC Licensed photo by Flickr user Jonathan Reyes. Click for source.Neurology journal Neurocase has an interesting study of a women who started compulsively writing poetry after having brief epileptic amnesia treated with the anti-seizure drug lamotrigine.

A 76-year-old woman reported having a poor memory and short periods of disorientation and was eventually diagnosed with transient epileptic amnesia – brief recurrent seizures that lead to short periods where affected people can’t lay down new memories.

Several months after starting lamotrigine [a common and widely used anti-seizure drug], the patient suddenly began to write original verse. Whereas poetry had never previously been among her pastimes, she now produced copious short poems (around 10–15 each day) on quotidian topics such as housework or about the act of versifying itself and sometimes expressing her opinions or regret about past events. These poems often had a wistful or pessimistic nature but did not have a moral or religious focus. Her husband characterized them as “doggerel” because they were generally rhyming and often featured puns and other wordplay.

My poems roams,
They has no homes
Yours’, also, tours,
And never moors.

Why tie them up to pier or quay?
Better far, share them with me.

Prose – now, that’s a different matter.
Rather more than just a natter.
Prose is earnest, prose is serious
Prose is lordly and imperious
Prose tells you, loud, clear, that
Life – life is dear.

This versifying had a compulsive quality: she spent several hours per day writing poetry and became irritated if attempts were made to disengage her. However, she appeared to derive pleasure from the activity and there was no evidence of associated distress. She did not produce prose passages, diaries, or other examples of hypergraphia, nor did she develop new interests in other “creative media,” such as visual arts or music.

When reassessed 6 months after the onset of versifying this apparent compulsion had diminished, but she continued to produce occasional poems. She had also developed a more general fondness for wordplay, frequently using puns in speech, making humorous word associations, and identifying word patterns in everyday objects such as car license plates. Throughout this period there were no associated mood symptoms, features of a thought disorder, or other changes in her behavior or cognition to suggest hypomania or another generalized neuropsychiatric disturbance.

The article mentions the exclusion of hypomania and thought disorder because these are two other phenomena that appear as compulsive rhyming or punning in speech.

The article also mentions some similarities between the compulsive poem writing and hypergraphia – compulsive and copious writing that is a well-known although not particularly common symptom of epilepsy.

The difference in this case, however, is that hypergraphia often appears as meaningless, rambling or disorganised, and this particular patient produced competent, if not particularly high quality poems.

One of the most interesting implications of these cases is that rhyming, punning and poetic speech, which we normally think of as something that needs specific conscious effort and attention, can appear spontaneously to the point of overwhelming our normal forms of communication.

Link to open-access scientific article.
Link to DOI of same.

How to speak the language of thought

We are now beginning to crack the brain’s code, which allows us to answer such bizarre questions as “what is the speed of thought?”

When he was asked, as a joke, to explain how the mind works in five words, cognitive scientist Steven Pinker didn’t hesitate. “Brain cells fire in patterns”, he replied. It’s a good effort, but all it really does is replace one enigma with another mystery.

It’s long been known that brain cells communicate by firing electrical signals to each other, and we now have myriad technologies for recording their patterns of activity – from electrodes in the brain or on the scalp, to functional magnetic resonance scanners that can detect changes in blood oxygenation. But, having gathered these data, the meaning of these patterns is still an enduring mystery. They seem to dance to a tune we can’t hear, led by rules we don’t know.

Neuroscientists speak of the neural code, and have made some progress in cracking that code. They are figuring out some basic rules, such as when cells in specific parts of the brain are likely to light up depending on the task at hand. Progress has been slow, but in the last decade various research teams around the world have been pursuing a far more ambitious project. We may never be able to see the complete code book, they realised, but by trying to write our own entries, we can begin to pick apart the ways that different patterns correspond to different actions.

Albert Lee and Matthew Wilson, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) first helped to set out the principles in 2002. It progresses like this. First, we record from the brain of a rat – one of our closer relatives, in the grand tree of life – as it runs a maze. Studying the whole brain would be too ambitious, so we can focus our recording on an area known as the hippocampus, known to be important for navigation and memory. If you’ve heard of this area before it is probably because of a famous result which showed that London taxi drivers developed larger hippocampi the longer they had spent navigating the streets of England’s sprawling capital.

While the rat runs the maze we record where it is, and simultaneously how the cells in the hippocampus are firing. The cell firing patterns are thrown into a mathematical algorithm which finds the pattern that best matches each bit of the maze. The language of the cells is no less complex, but now we have a Rosetta Stone against which we can decode it. We then test the algorithm by feeding it freshly recorded patterns, to see if it correctly predicts where the rat was at the point that pattern was recorded.

It doesn’t allow us to completely crack the code, because we still don’t know all the rules, and it can’t help us read the patterns which aren’t from this bit of the brain or which aren’t about maze running, but it is still a powerful tool.  For instance, using this technique, the team was able to show that the specific sequence of cell firing repeated in the brain of the rat when it slept after running the maze (and, as a crucial comparison, not in the sleep it had enjoyed before it had run the maze).

Fascinatingly, the sequence repeated faster during sleep around 20 times faster. This meant that the rat could run the maze in their sleeping minds in a fraction of the time it took them in real life. This could be related to the mnemonic function of sleep; by replaying the memory, it might have helped the rat to consolidate its learning. And the fact that the replay was accelerated might give us a glimpse of the activity that lies behind sudden insights, or experiences where our life “flashes before our eyes”; when not restrained, our thoughts really can retrace familiar paths in “fast forward”. Subsequent work has shown that these maze patterns can run backwards as well as forwards  – suggesting that the rats can imagine a goal, like the end of the maze, and work their way back from that to the point where they are.

One application of techniques like these, which are equal parts highly specialised measurement systems and fiercely complicated algorithms, has been to decode the brain activity in patients who are locked in or in a vegetative state. These patients can’t move any of their muscles, and yet they may still be mentally aware and able to hear people talking to them in the same room. First, the doctors ask the patients to imagine activities which are known to active specific brain regions – such as the hippocampus. The data is then decoded so that you know which brain activity corresponds to certain ideas. During future brain scans, the patients can then re-imagine the same activities to answer basic questions. For instance, they might be told to imagine playing tennis to answer yes and walking around their house to answer no – the first form of communication since their injury.

There are other applications, both theoretical science, to probe the inner workings of our minds, and practical domains such as brain-computer interfaces. If, in the future, a paraplegic wants to control a robot arm, or even another person, via a brain interface, then it will rely on the same techniques to decode information and translate it into action. Now the principles have been shown to work, the potential is staggering.

If you have an everyday psychological phenomenon you’d like to see written about in these columns please get in touch @tomstafford or ideas@idiolect.org.uk

This is my BBC Future column from monday. The original is here

Brain scanning the deceased

I’ve got an article in The Observer about how, a little surprisingly, the dead are becoming an increasing focus for brain scanning studies.

I first discussed this curious corner of neuroscience back in 2007 but a recent Neuroskeptic post reminded me of the area and I decided to check in on how it’s progressing.

It turns out that brain scanning the dead is becoming increasingly common in research and medicine and the article looks at how the science is progressing. Crucially, it’s helping us better understand ourselves in both life and death.

For thousands of years, direct studies of the human brain required the dead. The main method of study was dissection, which needed, rather inconveniently for the owner, physical access to their brain. Despite occasional unfortunate cases where the living brain was exposed on the battlefield or the surgeon’s table, corpses and preserved brains were the source of most of our knowledge.

When brain scanning technologies were invented in the 20th century they allowed the structure and function of the brain to be shown in living humans for the first time. This was as important for neuroscientists as the invention of the telescope and the cadaver slowly faded into the background of brain research. But recently, scrutiny of the post-mortem brain has seen something of a revival, a resurrection you might say, as modern researchers have become increasingly interested in applying their new scanning technologies to the brains of the deceased.

It’s a fascinating area and you can read the full article at the link below.

UPDATE: I’ve just noticed two of the links to studies have gone AWOL from the online article. The study that looked for the source of a mysterious signal by scanning people, cadavers and dummies and found it was a scanner problem was this one and the study that used corpses to test in-scanner motion correction was this one.


Link to Observer article on brain scanning the dead.

Seeing ourselves through the eyes of the machine

I’ve got an article in The Observer about how our inventions have profoundly shaped how we view ourselves because we’ve traditionally looked to technology for metaphors of human nature.

We tend to think that we understand ourselves and then create technologies to take advantage of that new knowledge but it usually happens the other way round – we invent something new and then use that as a metaphor to explain the mind and brain.

As history has moved on, the mind has been variously explained in terms of a wax tablets, a house with many rooms, pressures and fluids, phonograph recordings, telegraph signalling, and computing.

The idea that these are metaphors sometimes gets lost which, in some ways, is quite worrying.

It could be that we’ve reached “the end of history” as far as neuroscience goes and that everything we’ll ever say about the brain will be based on our current “brain as calculation” metaphors. But if this is not the case, there is a danger that we’ll sideline aspects of human nature that don’t easily fit the concept. Our subjective experience, emotions and the constantly varying awareness of our own minds have traditionally been much harder to understand as forms of “information processing”. Importantly, these aspects of mental life are exactly where things tend to go awry in mental illness, and it may be that our main approach for understanding the mind and brain is insufficient for tackling problems such as depression and psychosis. It could be we simply need more time with our current concepts, but history might show us that our destiny lies in another metaphor, perhaps from a future technology.

I mention Douwe Draaisma’s book Metaphors of Memory in the article but I also really recommend Alison Winter’s book Memory: Fragments of a Modern History which also covers the fascinating interaction between technological developments and how we understand ourselves.

You can read my full article at the link below.

Link to article in The Observer.

Awaiting a theory of neural weather

In a recent New York Times editorial, psychologist Gary Marcus noted that neuroscience is still awaiting a ‘bridging’ theory that elegantly connects neuroscience with psychology.

This reflects a common belief in cognitive science that there is a ‘missing law’ to be discovered that will tell us how mind and brain are linked – but it is quite possible there just isn’t one to be discovered.

Marcus, not arguing for the theory himself, describes it when he writes:

What we are really looking for is a bridge, some way of connecting two separate scientific languages — those of neuroscience and psychology.

Such bridges don’t come easily or often, maybe once in a generation, but when they do arrive, they can change everything. An example is the discovery of DNA, which allowed us to understand how genetic information could be represented and replicated in a physical structure. In one stroke, this bridge transformed biology from a mystery — in which the physical basis of life was almost entirely unknown — into a tractable if challenging set of problems, such as sequencing genes, working out the proteins that they encode and discerning the circumstances that govern their distribution in the body.

Neuroscience awaits a similar breakthrough. We know that there must be some lawful relation between assemblies of neurons and the elements of thought, but we are currently at a loss to describe those laws.

The idea of a DNA-like missing component that will allow us to connect theories of psychology and neuroscience is an attractive one, but it is equally as likely that the connection between mind and brain is more like the relationship between molecular interactions and the weather.

In this case, there is no ‘special theory’ that connects weather to molecules because different atmospheric phenomena are understood in multiple ways and across multiple models, each of which has a differing relationship to the scale at which the physical data is understood – fluid flows, as statistical models, atomic interactions and so on.

In explanatory terms, ‘psychology’ is probably a lot like the weather. The idea of their being a ‘psychological level’ is a human concept and its conceptual components won’t neatly relate to neural function in a uniform way.

Some functions will have much more direct relationships – like basic sensory information and its representation in the brain’s ‘sensotopic maps’. A good example might be how visual information in space is represented in an equivalent retinotopic map in the brain.

Other functions will have more more indirect relationships but in great part because of how we define ‘functions’. Some have very empirical definitions – take iconic memory – whereas others will be cultural or folk concepts – think vicarious embarrassment or nostalgia.

So it’s unlikely we’re going to find an all-purpose theoretical bridge to connect psychology and neuroscience. Instead, we’ll probably end up with what Kenneth Kendler calls ‘patchy reductionism’ – making pragmatic links between mind and brain where possible using a variety of theories and descriptions.

A search for a general ‘bridging theory’ may be a fruitless one.

Link to NYT piece ‘The Trouble With Brain Science’.

Out on a limb too many

Two neuropsychologists have written a fascinating review article about the desire to amputate a perfectly healthy limb known variously as apotemnophilia, xenomelia or body integrity identity disorder

The article is published in the Journal of Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment although some who have these desires would probably disagree that it is a disease or disorder and are more likely to compare it to something akin to being transgender.

The article also discusses the two main themes in the research literature: an association with sexual fetish for limb aputation (most associated with the use of the name apotemnophilia) and an alteration in body image linked to differences in the function of the parietal lobe in the brain (most associated with the use of the name xenomelia).

It’s a fascinating review of what we know about this under-recognised form of human experience but it also has an interesting snippet about how this desire first came to light not in the scientific literature, but in the letters page of Penthouse magazine:

A first description of this condition traces back to a series of letters published in 1972 in the magazine Penthouse. These letters were from erotically-obsessed persons who wanted to become amputees themselves. However, the first scientific report of this desire only appeared in 1977: Money et al described two cases who had intense desire toward amputation of a healthy limb. Another milestone was a 2005 study by Michael First, an American psychiatrist, who published the first systematic attempt to describe individuals who desire amputation of a healthy limb. Thanks to this survey, which included 52 volunteers, a number of key features of the condition are identified: gender prevalence (most individuals are men), side preference (left-sided amputations are most frequently desired), and finally, a preference toward amputation of the leg versus the arm.

The review also discusses a potentially related experience which has recently been reported – the desire to be paralysed.

If you want a more journalistic account, Matter published an extensive piece on the condition last year.

Link to scientific review article on apotemnophilia / xenomelia.
Link to Matter article.

A reality rabbit-hole from the dream world

I’ve got an article in The Observer about how the science of lucid dreaming is being pushed forward by the development of ‘in-dream’ experiments.

A lucid dream is where you become aware you are dreaming and where you can potentially change elements of the dream as it happens.

The piece discusses how eye movements allow communication from within dreams to researchers in the sleep lab and how this has led to studies involving people doing experimental tasks in the dream world.

One of our most mysterious and intriguing states of consciousness is the dream. We lose consciousness when we enter the deep waters of sleep, only to regain it as we emerge into a series of uncanny private realities. These air pockets of inner experience have been difficult for psychologists to study scientifically and, as a result, researchers have mostly resorted to measuring brain activity as the sleeper lies passive. But interest has recently returned to a technique that allows real-time communication from within the dream world.

The article also touches on the ‘dream hacking’ community who borrow from the scientific literature to try an increase their chances of having a lucid dream, sometimes using psychiatric medication for which vivid dreams are considered a side-effect.

The full piece is at the link below.

Link to article in The Observer.