The neuroscience of hyper-reading

book.jpgWeekly research digest Science News has put this week’s cover article online – a story on the neuroscience of reading and children with hyper-advanced reading skills.

The condition is called hyperlexia and involves an ability to read words far in advance of children of the same age, usually accompanied with problems with spoken language and social interaction.

Because of the mixed picture, researchers have debated whether it is a superability or disability, as it almost always occurs in children with developmental problems.

The article also examines research on Chinese readers, who seem to use more parts of the brain to read the information-rich Chinese characters.

Link to article Read All About It from

Virtual Reality test for brain trauma

LaPlaca_VR.jpgA group of neuroengineers led by Michelle LaPlaca have developed a virtual-reality test for psychological impairments caused by head injury.

The system called DETECT (‘display enhanced testing for concussions and mild traumatic brain injury’) is designed to pick-up subtle cognitive problems that can accompany blows to the head.

Such problems are often difficult to detect at first, but can be important medical pointers to more significant or longer lasting impairments.

The VR system presents a number of neuropsychological tests that seem like simplified video games, but record accuracy and reaction time scores, that allow memory and visual perception to be assessed.

Crucially, it only takes 7 minutes, whereas traditional testing could take several hours, and because of the immersive nature of VR, it might be possible to use it in noisy environments, such as emergency rooms, sports fields or even battlefields.

Link to New Scientist story on DETECT.
Link to details from Georgia Tech University website.
PDF of research summary.

Simulating change blindness

Open access science journal PLoS Biology describes a computer model of brain function that incorporates biological accuracy while giving important insights into consciousness.

Researchers Stanislas Dehaene and Jean-Pierre Changeux modelled the neurons that connect the thalamus and the cortex to simulate how they responded when stimulated, when compared to a ‘resting’ state.

The researchers found that spontaneous activity occurred when the model was in the ‘resting’ state, blocking the processing of external perceptual information.

They suggest this may be an explanation for innattentional or change blindness, the phenomenon where we fail to notice obvious changes because we have our attention focused elsewhere.

Most computer models of ‘high-level’ psychological processes tend to be abstracted, so the model bears only a general resemblance to the underlying biology.

Dehaene and Changeux’s model is interesting, because it attempts to simulate the biology of brain cells, while producing effects relevant to conscious experience.

Link to jargon-free summary.
Link to full text of paper.
Example 1 and example 2 of change blindness in action.

Mescaline and the Member of Parliament

mayhew.jpgA comedy fansite has published the transcript of an unbroadcast television experiment that took place in 1955. Psychiatrist Humphry Osmond gave Labour MP Christopher Mayhew the hallucinogenic drug mescaline and the results were filmed.

…but now I’m conscious also of remembering that the waves are going to come back, which, er, were originally physical and… mental, but are waves of consciousness, and now I’m conscious of that time disappearing, so I’m watching the camera, I’m watching Tubby [the camera man]… Tubby is disappearing in time… (PAUSE) Now I’m back with you, and I see I’ve said something rather strange to you, probably.

Link to transcript of Panorama’s mescaline experiment (Thanks Arp!)

Uncovering hidden motives

saf_frame.jpgTV programme Scientific American Frontiers has made online video available from a programme on the psychology and neuroscience of hidden motives.

The first segment explores the brain’s reaction to ‘cool’ and ‘uncool’ products, a new field, christened neuromarketing.

Other segments explore the Implicit Association Test, a relatively new technique for measuring unconconsious associations and biases, and an exploration of the neural basis of moral reasoning.

Link to Frontiers webpage with video feeds (via PsyBlog)
Try the Implicit Association Test for yourself.

Neuroprosthetics on BBC Frontiers

Yesterday’s BBC Radio 4 science programme Frontiers discusses the developing science of neuroprosthetics, the science of controlling electronic devices by cortical implants or taking readings from the brain.

The programme discusses the research involved in developing this technology, and has some interesting speculations from the scientists involved. This is from Miguel Nicolelis:

Our hypothesis is that the brain fine-tunes its cells, or a group of cells, to find the optimal solution on how to control a device, and I don’t think that happens only for prosthetic limbs. I think it happens to any tool that we learn to use; a pen, a football, a car… We can readily incorporate them as extensions of our own body.

Link to Frontiers Neuroprosthetics edition web page.
Link to realaudio archive of programme.

Edge debate on sex, autism and engineering

baron-cohen.jpgThe latest issue of online science and technnology magazine Edge interviews Simon Baron-Cohen, author of the book The Essential Difference, on autism, engineering and sex differences.

The debate continues with contributions from eminent psychologists such as Stephen Pinker and Elizabeth Spelke.

Baron-Cohen is proposing his ‘Assortive Mating Theory’. He argues that ‘systemizing’, a tendancy to think in terms of rules, laws and systems, is more prevalent in some, particularly males, and is expressed as autism or Asperger’s syndrome in its extreme form.

The child of two systemizers is more likely to have this trait, both due to genetic and parental influences, and is therefore more likely to be on the autistic spectrum.

‘Systemizing’ is, unsurprisingly, associated with professions such as science and engineering. It is argued that this is more prevalent in males due to the biology of inheritance and fetal development.

An alternative trait is ’empathizing’, supposedly more prevalent in females, which is a tendency to empathise with people’s feeling and intentions, and enjoy and understand the nuances of social situations.

Link to debate with Simon Baron-Cohen from
Link to article on Baron-Cohen’s work from
Link to online test to measure empathizing and systematizing.

Sony patents direct brain input

electrodes.jpgIn what could be more marketing ploy than innovation, Sony has patented a method for directly manipulating parts of the brain to allow computers to simulate sensory experiences.

Sony’s idea is to use beams of ultrasound to penetrate the skull and stimulate specific brain areas involved in receiving or processing sensory information.

If appropriate parts of the brain could be targeted, and if the way in which the neurons process and code conscious experience could be understood, the technology is, in principle, feasible.

These are two very big ‘ifs’ however, and each describe two of the biggest problems in contemporary neuroscience. Indeed, some doubt whether the latter is possible at all.

So, this is probably not something you might find attached to your games console in the near future.

Link to story from
Link to story from

More cartoon fun

comich.jpgFurther to the dinosaurs Vaughan speaks of below, there is a Flash-based dynamic comic* at Neuroscience for Kids which is a nice intro to the entire nervous system, with Sam and his friendly neurons. In addition, there are also suggestions for a number of neuroscience-based fun lesson plans, like synaptic tag.

Sam’s brainy adventure: link

*No, a cartoon this does not make. Although action within panels, rather than dynamic transitions such as Scott McCloud’s The Right Number (click where it says to preview the work, unfortunately the full deal does cost an imposing 50c to view), does start to push the boundaries somewhat. But speech bubbles and panels maketh the medium – at least, McCloud would argue that.

Turn on, tune in, spin out

lcd_monitor.jpgPsychiatrist Edward Hallowell studies attention deficit disorder (ADD) and is becoming increasingly concerned that using information technology is causing an acquired form of the condition.

He argues that the constant task-switching required when using the likes of mobile phones, email and instant messaging can lead to an effect he has called ‘Attention Deficit Trait’ or ADT.

This shares some of the same features of ADD, such as impaired concentration, restlessness and increased distraction, but seems to improve when individuals are away from the workplace.

In contrast, ADD is usually thought to be a relatively fixed condition, presumably present from birth, although not diagnosable until about 6 years of age.

As outlined in a recent Scientific American article (PDF), it is known that simple television viewing can have both short and long term effects on the mind, including impairments in basic cognitive functioning.

Cynics might suggest that the same parallels might not apply to other technology and this might be Hallowell’s attempt to make a name for himself in the lucrative world of business psychology.

It is unlikely however, that information technology is entirely neutral with regards to psychological function, although there is relatively little hard evidence to judge how positive or negative these effects might be.

Link to interview with Dr Halliwell on ADT.
Link to summary from
PDF of Scientific American article on the psychological effects of television.

Are psychiatric drugs stifling art ?

An article just published on discusses whether psychiatric drug treatment is robbing society of artistic talent.

Many authors have argued that mental illness and creativity are linked. Perhaps most notably, psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison discussed the associations between mood disorder and creativity in her book Touched with Fire.

Although Jamison largely deals with literary figures, other researchers have noted high levels of mental disorder in jazz musicians, with one researcher even suggesting that Buddy Bolden, the founder of modern jazz, may have developed jazz improvisation in response to his cognitive impairments.

The kuro5hin article isn’t the most clearly structured piece you’ll ever read, but is brimming with ideas, and asks important questions about whether the suppresion of mental illness necessarily involves the suppresion of creative thought.

Link to the kuro5hin article Pharmaceuticals and the Death of Art.

Brain injury: how much do you know ?


Today marks the start of Brain and Brain Injury Awareness week, an event to alert people to the exciting developments in the world of neuroscience and pass on some potentially life saving information.

Brain Awareness Week is an international event, so there may be events near you.

A great deal of our knowledge of how the brain works has been worked out from studying people who have suffered brain damage. This field of research is known as cognitive neuropsychology, and is greatly indebted to people who generously give their time, often after suffering disabling injuries.

In the UK, an estimated 1 million people in Britain attend hospital each year as a result of a head injury, and the figures for other parts of the world can be equally as high.

People or their families who suffer the effects often rely on charities for ongoing support and rehabilitation. So if you feel like making a difference, this week would be perfect to choose a favourite brain charity to donate to.

Although you could also help out by printing out leaflets or information, or perhaps passing on a link to a brain injury website to someone you know.

It’s a great way of saying thankyou to people who have volunteered their time after brain injury, and the information may even save someone’s life.

Link to brain injury information from the BBC.
Link to Brain Awareness Week information from the Dana Foundation.

The science of brainwashing

In the 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the fictional company Lacuna Inc. offers to alter the mind by erasing painful memories.


A new book on ‘brainwashing’ by neurobiologist Kathleen Taylor questions whether such technology is likely to exist by looking at the history of such claims and the science of ‘thought control’.

Taylor recently appeared on ABC Radio National’s In Conversation to discuss her book and issues including the origins of brainwashing in the Korean War, cults, advertising, neuroscience and free will.

Link to realaudio archive of radio show.
Link to review of the book from The Times.

Through the k-hole

What do squat parties in Brixton, vetinarians in Buckinghamshire, and cereals in Budgens have in common?* The answer, of course, is Special K.**

Ketamine is a tranquillising agent that was widely used until patients began to complain of its hallucinogenic effects, which they experienced when coming out of sedation. Not too fun. Except, of course, for those who take it for pleasure – of whom, according to ongoing research by Mixmag magazine and the Institute of Psychiatry, there have been more than a fourfold increase between 1999 and 2003. Apart from this population, the drug is still administered as a tranquilliser for animals, and also young children for whom the trippy effects don’t seem to occur. Notably, after Putin banned the drug in Russia in 2003, Bridget Bardot campaigned for a reversal, on the basis that it would result in more suffering for animals; whether the implications for children were weighed is not on record, but in any case Russia reversed the ban in ’04. Notably, the drug is not illegal in the EU, and whilst a controlled substance is low down in priority, at least in the eyes of the law. But if you’re an ocassional taker, or curious about it, I suggest you read further, to get the skinny on the cognitive neuropsychopharmacology of ketamine.

Continue reading “Through the k-hole”

Simulating seizures

Engineers from UC Berkley have created a mathematical model of the brain as it undergoes an epileptic seizure, and matched it with recordings taken from electrodes implanted into the brain of a person with epilepsy.


Epilepsy is often described as a ‘storm’ of electrical signals, suggesting lots of random and chaotic brain activity, but in fact, quite the opposite occurs – groups of neurons suddenly become inappropriately synchonised.

This can be seen from the image on the right – a graph of brain recordings taken from a person having a seizure. These were recorded from electrodes safely implanted into the brain by the UC Berkley team.

Instead of supporting their normal functions these neurons work in time with nearby neurons, that usually have a completely different role in the brain.

This can lead to loss of consciousness and limb shaking commonly associated with epilepsy. The rhythm of the muscle jerks are often dictated by the rhythm of the synchronised neurons.

Sometimes people just have absences, where they can lose consciousness for a few seconds with no other noticable effects. The person who has the seizure may not even know this is happening.

With some types of seizure, people may remain conscious, but have unusual sensations, feelings of deja vu, or perhaps just peculiar thoughts and mental images.

The effects of epilepsy vary greatly with the parts of the brain involved and from person to person.

The newly created mathematical model will allow researchers to create computer simulations of epilepsy, allowing theories to be tested out and ‘virtual experiments’ to take place.

Learn how to deal with epileptic seizures.

Link to item from UC Berkley News.
Link to story from

Fodor vs Pinker scrap continues

Philosopher Jerry Fodor and cognitive scientist Stephen Pinker are continuing their tussle over the structure of the mind in a recently published exchange.

Pinker wrote a book in 1999 entitled ‘How the Mind Works‘ which argues that the mind can be understood as a computational or information processing device. This, he says, consists mostly of independent but co-operating mental modules that can be inherited and selected for by evolution. An approach strongly linked to the new discipline of evolutionary psychology.

Fodor dismissed most of these ideas in 2000 with a book entitled ‘The Mind Doesn’t Work that Way‘ and the two have carried on their dispute in a recent edition of the journal Mind and Language.

Pinker argues his latest case in an article entitled ‘So How Does the Mind Work?’.

The subsequent commentaries get quite lively with Fodor starting with “If you really must have a defense mechanism, I recommend denial. It’s special charm is that it applies to itself, so if it doesn‚Äôt work, you can deny that too.”

Earning the comeback from Pinker “This kind of language can be paraphrased as, ‘I really don’t have an argument here, but if I dismiss the opposition with enough confidence, perhaps readers will assume that I’m right'”.


Link to PDF of Pinker’s article ‘So How Does the Mind Work?’.
Wikipedia entries for Jerry Fodor and Stephen Pinker.