On believing that you are dead…

tv_face.jpgThis week’s edition of Radio National’s All in the Mind examines the curious phenomena of delusions – the unusual beliefs that sometimes arise during mental illness or after brain injury.

Some of these beliefs can be quite striking, such as believing you are dead or don’t exist – known as Cotard’s delusion, or believing that a close relative, usually a spouse, has been replaced by an identical looking impostor – known as the Capgras delusion.

These forms are relatively uncommon though, with the more prevalent types including (for example) the belief that you are being persecuted, or that people on the television or radio are talking about you.

Although the diagnostic criteria that define delusions describe them as false, fixed and culturally out-of-place beliefs, it is becoming increasingly clear that this is not an adequate definition.

For example, you can be pretty sure that ‘being dead’ is a false belief, but it’s much more difficult for a clinician to judge whether someone is or isn’t the subject of a conspiracy.

Furthermore, psychiatrist and philosopher Bill Fulford has pointed out that some cases of delusion may turn out to be true beliefs, noting that about 10% of cases of delusional jealousy involve actual infidelity.

Some beliefs diagnosed as delusional may not even be falsiable. For example, someone who has the distressing and unshakeable belief that “The devil is listening to my thoughts” cannot be proved wrong on the basis of any objective evidence.

All in the Mind tackles these and other fascinating aspects of the topic by visiting the Macquarie Centre for Cognitive Science who are focusing on delusions with their belief formation project.

The programme visits the researchers and discusses some of the pressing scientific issues and unusual beliefs they encounter.

mp3 or realaudio of programme audio.
Link to further information and transcript (to appear later in the week).
PDF of article ‘Beliefs about delusions’.

Is the internet making us more intelligent?

cyber_girl.jpgCNET has put the first in a series of articles online about whether new technology is making us more intelligent.

There are several ways of asking the question:

Is the use of new technology shaping our minds and brains so they are better able to process information in all situations ? Essentially this is the ‘technology as a mental gym’ idea.

Alternatively, perhaps technology doesn’t change our basic mental performance at all, but gives us practice solving problems that provides techniques that can be applied more widely. For example, selecting the most appropriate keywords for a web search might involve quickly summarising a topic into some key concepts – something that is useful in everything from day-to-day conversation to public speaking to writing essays.

Another approach is asking whether technology simply makes us pragmatically more intelligent. For example, we can ‘remember’ more because we can offload a lot of the work to personal organisers or we ‘know’ more because we have instant access to the web and Wikipedia.

The CNET article has quotes from technology leaders who, perhaps understandably, plug the benefits of technology. Psychologists also chime in, and conclude that technology itself does nothing except give us useful tools, rather than boost our brains specifically.

The article does raise some interesting questions, however, particularly in light of evidence suggesting that mental ‘exercise’ can prevent cognitive decline in the elderly.

Link to CNET article ‘Intelligence in the Internet age’

Hypnotism documentary online

hypnosis_cartoon.jpgAustralian TV science programme Catalyst has a documentary available online on the science and uses of hypnosis.

In my opinion, it’s a little sensationalised and uncritical in places, but does have some interesting comments from scientists studying the effects of hypnotic suggestion on the brain.

Link to website and programme, available as streamed video.

On hair and leadership

For at least half a century Americans have shown a marked aversion to electing bald men to their nation’s highest office. Excluding Gerald Ford (1974-77) who was bald but not elected, the last bald president was Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-61). Europeans have been more sympathetic to the bare-headed politico (Churchill, Papandreou, Simitis, Giscard d’Estaing, Mitterand, Chirac, Craxi, Mussolini), but even they have lagged behind the Soviets, who inexplicably installed, if not exactly elected, bald and hirsute leaders in strict alternation: Lenin (bald), Stalin (hairy), Khrushchev (bald), Brezhnev (hairy), Andropov (bald), Chernenko (hairy), Gorbachev (bald) – a tradition that has been maintained in the Russian Republic with Yeltsin (hairy) and Putin (comb-over).

From p281 of Mutants: On the Form, Varieties and Errors of the Human Body by Armand Marie Leroi.

PTSD and combat stress


The BBC have created an in-depth website dedicated to understanding war-related PTSD and combat stress.

In retrospect, there are accounts of combat stress from as far back as ancient times, although the long-term effects of combat-related trauma were first taken seriously as ‘shell shock’ during World War One.

The psychiatrist W. H. R. Rivers was one of the pioneers in understanding and treating these extreme combat reactions. His real-life treatment of the war poet Seigfried Sassoon was the subject of Pat Barker’s the Booker prize winning novel Regeneration.

The BBC website charts the history of the conditon, and includes audio, images and stories from those affected by PTSD, including soldiers and their doctors and relatives.

Treatments for the combat trauma are also discussed, and several people have added their own experiences of combat stress to the website, illustrating the journalists angle with real-life accounts.

Link to BBC World Combat Stress website.
Link to information on PTSD.

Pulp symptoms

psychoanalysis_comic.jpgDuring a tide of public concern about the effect of comics on children, in 1955 EC Comics created a series of new ‘more wholesome’ titles. One of which, was a four part comic series about psychoanalysis.

The public concern was largely in response to the views of psychiatrist Fredric Wertham. He argued, in his book Seduction of the Innocent, that the gaudy comics of the time were a major cause of juvenile delinquency.

Themes of sex, drugs and violence were supposedly represented subliminally in the stories and artwork of popular titles.

This sparked a Congressional inquiry which eventually led to comic book companies toning down their material, despite the unlikely nature of Wertham’s claims.

One result was that EC Comics produced comics about more ‘respectable’ topics, such as hospital medicine, or in this case, psychoanalysis.

The Psychoanalysis series depicts the therapy sessions of three people: a troubled young boy whose father thinks he’s a “sissy”, an anxiety ridden woman with a recurring dream, and a television writer who has panic attacks and is frustrated in his job.

Interestingly, another EC Comics series, M.D., also touches on mental distress. In M.D. #3 a suicidal man is diagnosed with manic depression, taken to hospital, sedated and given electroshock therapy. Supposedly, this makes him ‘forget’ his depression which is blamed on his argumentative parents.

Critics have noted that psychiatry is poorly represented in these stories, although they do give a fascinating insight into 1950s attitudes towards people with mental illness and their treatment.

Despite the fact mental illness is a recurring theme in many contemporary comics, few modern titles have attempted to seriously educate their readers about mental health issues.

brainchip_pic.jpgOne exception is The Secret of the Brain Chip, which is aimed at people who have experienced, or are experiencing, a psychotic episode.

It describes the experiences of Paul, a young man who comes to believe that there is a chip in his brain, implanted by scientists to control his thoughts.

He begins hearing voices and becomes paranoid, and is eventually admitted to hospital and is prescribed antipsychotic medication, which helps him recover and even, in the last frame, get the girl.

The story is interspersed with facts about psychosis, and notes several famous people who have also become psychotic.

The comic largely explains psychosis in biological terms (a ‘chemical imbalance’) and warns patients not to stop taking their medication.

Those of a slightly cynical nature might note, however, that it is partly funded by pharmaceutical company and producer of antipsychotics Janssen-Cilage.

Link 1 and Link 2 to info on Psychoanalysis comic series.
Link to info on M.D. #3.
Link to article on representation of madness in Batman.

Dennet on AI, intelligence and artificial paranoia

Daniel_Dennet.jpgA classic Daniel Dennett article considers a curious chapter in AI history, where researcher Kenneth Colby used the Turing Test to see whether psychiatrists could distinguish between delusional patients and his natural language paranoia simulator ‘PARRY‘.

PARRY was designed by Colby, who was both a psychiatrist and computer scientist, in an attempt to simulate the psychology of paranoia. In particular, the programme was designed to replicate paranoid delusions about being persecuted by the Mafia.

Dennett’s 1990 article, entitled “Can machines think?”, discusses whether the Turing Test is an adequate test of machine intelligence.

Dennett notes that PARRY is the only programme known to have passed the Turing Test – psychiatrists were unable to distinguish between real patients and simulated ones.

Ironically, PARRY was based on the ELIZA programme, which was designed as a text-only parody of a therapist.

Colby’s programme was the first attempt to produce a computer simulation of psychosis, a project which now typically involves artificial neural network simulations of information processing models of the mind, rather than conversational interaction.

Link to article “Can Machines Think?” (seems to have a few scanning errors).
PDF of same article.
Link to article “Simulating Psychosis”.

Online guide to fault-finding the nervous system

blumenfeld.jpgNeuroExam.com explains the standard examination conducted by neurologists to check the functioning of the nervous system, complete with video.

The website is intended to accompany a book called Neuroanatomy through Clinical Cases, written by Professor Hal Blumenfeld.

It works pretty well on its own however, and gives a fascinating insight into exactly what neurologists are doing as they push, tweak, tap and prod their way through an assessment.

It also shows that surprisingly simple tests can tell us a great deal about the nervous system.

For example, asking someone to stand still with their eyes closed and giving them a slight push (something known as the Romberg Test) can help determine whether there is damage to the proprioceptive or vestibular system.

Link to neuroexam.com

Cannabis and psychosis: The evidence

cannabis_leaf.jpgThe BBC recently aired an edition of current affairs programme Panorama on cannabis and psychosis. If you missed it, they’ve summarised current research on possible links between cannabis and severe mental illness on their website.

Although most people who smoke cannabis will not develop psychosis, the evidence for a link is now growing. The risk seems greater if users start younger and use in greater amounts.

It has recently been reported that those with forms of the COMT genes, known as a val-val combination, are particularly at risk.

The BBC website also has a page for those wanting more information or support concerning cannabis use and / or mental health.

Links to BBC webpages:
* Cannabis and psychosis: the key research.
* Interview with Dr Philip Robson on cannabis and psychosis.
* Interview with Dr Robin Murray on cannabis and our genes.

Maths ability without language skills


Scientific American reports on three individuals who retained remarkable mathematical skills after brain damage that left them unable to use language to communicate.

Varley and her colleagues found that although the subjects could no longer grasp grammatical distinctions between, say, “The dog bit the boy” and “The boy bit the dog,” they could interpret mathematical formulas incorporating equivalent structures, such as “59 – 13” and “13 – 59.”

Although subjects easily answered simple problems expressed in mathematical symbols, words continued to stump them. Even the written sentence “seven minus two” was beyond their comprehension. The results show quite clearly that no matter how helpful language may be to mathematicians–perhaps as a mnemonic device–it is not necessary to calculation, and it is processed in different parts of the brain.

This suggests that maths ability does not necessarily rely on written or spoken language to give calculations logical order and coherence.

Link to Scientific American story ‘Math without Words’.


brainmeta.pngI’m not quite sure what BrainMeta is exactly, but it sure is interesting.

It bills itself as

a community site that was established for the purpose of accelerating the development of neuroscience through web-based initiatives, which include the development, implementation and support of a wide range of neuroinformatics tools, services, and databases. BrainMeta also functions as an internet hub for fostering communication between individuals involved with the neurosciences.

It certainly has a mass of useful links and resources online that would pique the interest of the most hardened of academic neuroscientists.

But then has essays about “The Consciousness Singularity” when “history as we know it, will cease” and “our consciousness will be expanded beyond the confines of an egocentric sense of self”.

If anything, it’s great fun to explore, even if some of the the blue sky thinking (blue universe thinking maybe ?) is a little puzzling at times.

Link to BrainMeta.com

Mixed gender pornography boosts sperm production

Science journal Nature is reporting on a study which has found that sperm production is boosted when men view pornography including images of both men and women, rather than pornographic images of women only.

Although this seems to go against common perceptions about male sexual preferences, it is consistent with the theory of sperm competition, says study leader Leigh Simmons of the University of Western Australia, Perth. This states that males (of many species, including humans) should produce better sperm when faced with a female who has other mates, because this stimulates them to boost their chance of procreation.

It seems all this week’s science news is about sex. I guess summer is officially here, even in the world of science.

Link to story from nature.com

No function for the female orgasm ?

lloyd_picture.jpgElisabeth Lloyd caused a stir with a recent book that suggests the female orgasm has no evolutionary function, and she discusses her controversial views on ABC Radio’s All in the Mind.

Professor Lloyd has examined the current evolutionary theories and argues none adequately explain why females orgasm, as sexual climax is not needed for succesful conception in women, nor is it related to levels of fertility.

In contrast, males need to orgasm for successful reproduction. Lloyd argues that the female orgasm is only present due to the similar structure of early-stage embryos.

Male and female embryos share the nerve pathways necessary for orgasm, like they share the tissue structure for nipples, despite them being reproductively useful in only one half of adults.

Other theories, she claims, have been unduly influenced by ideas about what is sexually ‘normal’ or ‘appropriate’.

On a bit of a tangent, All in the Mind now produces its programmes as podcasts as well as Realaudio streams, allowing them to be downloaded for later listening.

Realaudio or mp3 of The Perplexing Case of the Female Orgasm.
Link to transcript.

The Magnetic Sense

To add to Vaughan’s post about cyborg senses the other day, here’s another group experimenting with new ways of perceiving the world. Steve Haworth and Jesse Jarrell are body modification artists, and one of their clients was Todd Huffman, who has had a small magnet implanted in the tip of his finger.

In an interview with Todd, The Gift of Magnetic Vision (some pictures on this site are not for the squeamish), he describes how this magnet isn’t just a trick and what “seeing” magnetic fields feels like:

There are two distinct feelings I get from fields. For a static field, like a bar magnet, it feels like a smooth pressure. Imagine running your hand slowly through lukewarm water, and brushing your finger across the top of a large invisible marshmallow. That is the closest description I can give. Oscillating fields, such as electric motors, security devices, transformers, et cetera, vibrate the magnet. This sensation is much more sensitive and noticeable.

Having the magnet implant makes his understanding of the world more visceral:

Another time I opened a can of cat food for my girlfriend’s pets, and I sensed the electric motor running. My hand was about six inches away from the electric can opener, and I was able to sense where the motor was inside of the assembly. Again it brought my attention to a magnetic source that I understood intellectually, but would have otherwise been unaware of.

The interview also covers other supersenses Todd is thinking about, and the relation of this kind of experimentation to new computer interfaces–which is subject I find fascinating.

Interfaces of all kinds, whether it’s burglar alarms, televisions or computer screens, present information in a very factual way and in a way that’s intended for intellectual understanding. But compare that to the ambient understanding we have of the rest of the world around us: reading somebody’s scribbled note also carries a hurried sense; a car getting a flat or needing an oil change will drive differently; a glance along the spice rack will influence your shopping list. Our regular senses work on both attentive and preperceptive channels… so why do our technological systems so often stick to the former? And is it possible to transform the previously invisible – like magnetic fields – into senses we can use? This is what academic subjects like ubiquitous computing and ubicomp computer-human interaction are attacking, on technological and design fronts. But it seems that the folks really breaking new ground are the body-mod crowd.

Link to The Gift of Magnetic Vision.

Using technology to add cyborg senses

circuit_board.jpgA team of researchers will use technology to extend the human senses, allowing people to sense magnetic fields, experience sight via tactile vibrations and see behind them.

The experiment is being conducted by Centre for Computational Neuroscience and Robotics, and artist and researcher Sarah Angliss – who has spent several years experimenting with the sensory and psychological properties of sound.

The volunteers augmented with the new technology will be asked to keep video diaries which will appear online, and members of the public can try the technology themselves at the Cheltenham Science Festival.

The experiment is intended in part as a demonstration of neural plasticity, the process by which the brain reorganises through experience to allow for new functionality.

Link to write-up from we-make-money-not-art.com

Avoiding ‘stereotype threat’ for better performance

books.jpgAn article in Scientific American describes ‘stereotype threat‘ – an effect where, if a person is challenged in an area they are concerned about, such as intellectual ability, the fear of confirming a negative stereotype can impair performance.

The findings have largely been uncovered by psychologist Claude Steele, who found that the way a test is framed can significantly affect performance.

He was particularly motivated by the fact that black students did much worse at college, despite having achieved equal grades at school, and wondered if some black students were suffering impaired performance because of worries about their own abilities.

Steele wondered if the [black] Michigan students suffered from a kind of self-image threat, so with colleagues Joshua Aronson and Steven Spencer, he designed a series of studies. They gave sophomores matched by SAT scores a frustrating section of the Graduate Record Examination. When first told that the test evaluated verbal ability, the black students scored a full standard deviation lower on average. But when the researchers described it as a study of problem-solving techniques unimportant to academic achievement, the scores for blacks leaped to the same level as those for whites.

Similar findings have been found for female students taking maths tests and even with white golfers taking tests of “natural athletic ability”.

Link to Performance without Anxiety from Scientific American.
Link to Claude Steele discussing stereotype threat.