A journey through schizophrenia science

BBC Radio 4’s The Life Scientific recently profiled psychiatrist, schizophrenia researcher and stand-up chap, Robin Murray, who talks about how his understanding of the condition has drastically changed over the years.

It’s a fascinating journey through how our theories about the mental illness, most associated with having delusions and hallucinations, has evolved through time – taking in everything from the anti-psychiatry of R.D. Laing to modern neurogenetic studies.

As a young man, Murray lived in an Asylum in Glasgow for two years, mainly because it offered free accommodation to medical students. Struck by how people’s minds could play tricks on them and the lack of proper research into the condition, he resolved to put the study of schizophrenia on a more scientific footing. Fifteen years ago he believed schizophrenia was a brain disease. Now, he’s not so sure.

Despite decades of research, the biological basis of this often distressing condition remains elusive. Just living in a city significantly increases your risk (the bigger the city the greater the risk); and, as Murray discovered, migrants are six times more likely to develop the condition than long term residents. He’s also outspoken about the mental health risks of smoking cannabis, based both on his scientific research and direct experience working at the Maudsley Hospital in South London.

You can listen to the streamed version on the programme page but to download the podcast you have to go to a completely different page and search through the list. Why? No-one knows.
 

Link to page with streaming audio.
Link to podcast page.

Advertising through avatar-manipulation

The Psychologist has an article on the surprising effect of seeing a digital avatar of yourself – as if looking at your body from the outside.

The piece covers a range of effects found in psychology studies, from increasing healthy behaviour to encouraging false memories, but the bit on deliberate avatar-manipulation for advertising caught my attention.

One such consequence is depicted in Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the Philip K. Dick short story Minority Report. Specifically, there was a scene in which Tom Cruise’s character looked up at a billboard and encountered an advertisement using his own name. That marketing feat can certainly be recreated in virtual reality. We’ve demonstrated that if a participant sees his avatar wearing a certain brand of clothing, he is more likely to recall and prefer that brand.

In other words, if one observes his avatar as a product endorser (the ultimate form of targeted advertising), he is more likely to embrace the product. There is a fairly large literature in psychology on the ‘self-referencing’ effect, which demonstrates that messages that connect with the receiver’s identity tend to be more effective than generic messages (e.g. Rogers et al., 1977)

To explore the consequences of viewing one’s virtual doppelgänger, we ran a simple experiment using digitally manipulated photographs (Ahn & Bailenson, 2011). We used imaging software to place participants’ heads on people depicted in billboards using fictitious brands, for example holding up a soft drink with a brand label on it.

After the study, participants expressed better memory as well as a preference for the brand, even though it was obvious their faces had been placed in the advertisement. In other words, even though it was clearly a gimmick, using the digital self to promote a product is effective.

The article also notes that “Based on the findings from this study, the Silicon Valley company LinkedIn is featuring job advertisements that pull the photograph of the job applicant and place it in the job advertisement.”

Needless to say, I can’t wait for the next wave of ‘penis enlargement pill’ adverts.
 

Link to Psychologist article on doppelgänger psychology.
 

Declaration of interest: I’m an unpaid associate editor and occasional columnist for The Psychologist. My new year’s resolution is to stop buying promising-looking capsules from the internet.

Body rock

Nature has a fantastic article about how our sense of being located in our bodies is being temporarily warped and distorted in the lab of neuroscientist Henrik Ehrsson.

We’ve covered some of Ehrsson’s striking studies before as he has managed, with surprisingly simple equipment, to induce out-of-body experiences, the sense of having a third arm and the illusion of having a tiny doll-like body – among many other distortions.

But Ehrsson’s unorthodox apparatus amount to more than cheap trickery. They are part of his quest to understand how people come to experience a sense of self, located within their own bodies. The feeling of body ownership is so ingrained that few people ever think about it — and those scientists and philosophers who do have assumed that it was unassailable.

“Descartes said that if there’s something you can be certain of in this world, it’s that your hand is your hand,” says Ehrsson. Yet Ehrsson’s illusions have shown that such certainties, built on a lifetime of experience, can be disrupted with just ten seconds of visual and tactile deception. This surprising malleability suggests that the brain continuously constructs its feeling of body ownership using information from the senses — a finding that has earned Ehrsson publications in Science and other top journals, along with the attention of other neuroscientists.

The article looks at what this body distorting illusions are telling us about how the brain makes sense of our bodies and how these discoveries could be applied to ‘locating’ us in false limbs or even remote control robots.

Also don’t miss the podcast where author Ed Yong talks about his trip to the lab to try out the illusions.
 

Link to Nature article ‘Out-of-body experience: Master of illusion’.

The dreams and hallucinations of cloistered monks

French sleep scientists have studied a group of monks who have virtually no contact with the outside world and have taken a vow of silence.

The monks are of scientific interest owing to the tradition of having two sleep periods per night interrupted by a 2-3 hour prayer and psalm reading session.

The research group were interested in how the sleep-regulating circadian rhythm adjusts to this two sleep system.

It turns out that the automatic rising and falling of body temperature seemed to sync with the two-period sleep patterns but that the monks still had sleep problems (difficulty sleeping, waking, daytime sleepiness).

This suggests that they were not fully adjusted, even after decades of practice (the researchers report that “They all used several (two to six) alarm clocks”!)

Delightfully, the monks were also asked about their tendency to hallucinate and about the content of their dreams.

Although only ten individuals were studied, the answers are oddly appropriate for members of a silent, closed order.

Six monks had experienced mild (n = 4, ringing of the cell door at sleep offset or of the alarm clock, feeling that someone hit them briefly in the back, waking-up during the second sleep while mentally singing psalms) and moderate (n = 2, nightmarish, prolonged feeling of a demoniac presence at sleep onset after Matins) sleep-related hallucinations vs. one control (p = .06). Occasional nightmares were more frequent in monks than in controls.

All monks reported dreaming more often after than before the Matins [midnight prayers in between the two sleep periods], and to have conversations in their dreams. These conversations were rare (n = 3), hard to understand (n = 2), or frequent (n = 5). As for prayers, six monks were able to pray while dreaming, although it was rare, whereas two others dreamt of acts of piety, or imagined a disrupted liturgy, and finally two of them dreamt they were never monks.

 

Link to locked study. Not very charitable really.

The Crux of PTSD under threat of terrorism

I’ve got a piece over at Discover Magazine’s new group blog, The Crux, which looks at whether post-traumatic stress disorder makes sense if it’s applied to people who remain at high risk of terrorist attack.

The Crux is a blog written by a crowd of science folks that aims to taker a deeper look at some of the ‘big ideas in science’ that are currently being thrown around and I’ll be writing some occasional pieces as mind and brain issues surface.

Researchers have noted that “PTSD is classified as an anxiety disorder. Within cognitive models, anxiety is a result of appraisals relating to impending threat. However, PTSD is a disorder in which the problem is a memory for an event that has already happened.” After all, if you feel threatened with good reason, almost by definition, this isn’t a mental illness.

So if someone remains in danger after a life-threatening incident, does the concept of “post-traumatic stress disorder” even make sense?

As the diagnosis relies largely on totalling up symptoms in a checklist-like fashion, it is possible to diagnose someone with the condition in almost any circumstance. But no one knew whether treating it in people who are still in grave danger would be any use.

Until now that is.

You can check out the full article at the link below and pieces by the other fine folks of The Crux here.
 

Link to ‘Life During Wartime: Can Mental Illness Be a Rational Response?’

The free will rebellion

A popular mantra of modern neuroscience tells us that free will is an illusion. An article in the New York Times makes a lucid challenge to the ‘death of free will’ idea and a prominent neuroscientist has come out to fight the same corner.

Neuroscientists began making preparations for the funeral of free will shortly after Benjamin Libet began publishing his experiments in the 1980s showing a consistent build-up of electrical activity from the brain’s motor cortex before participants were consciously aware of their desire to move.

Since then, many more neuroscience studies have shown that brain activity can precede conscious awareness of specific choices or actions – with the implication that our conscious experience of decision-making is nothing but a secondary effect that plays little role in our actions and reactions.

The idea that ‘free will is an illusion’ is now consistently touted by neuroscientists as an example of how brain science is revealing ‘what really drives us’ and how it explains ‘how we really work’. But philosophers, the conceptual engineers of new ideas, have started to find holes in this popular meme.

Probably the most lucid mainstream analysis of why neuroscience isn’t killing free will has just been published at The New York Times where philosopher of mind Eddy Nahmias takes the mourners to task using a narrow and largely irrelevant definition of free will.

So, does neuroscience mean the death of free will? Well, it could if it somehow demonstrated that conscious deliberation and rational self-control did not really exist or that they worked in a sheltered corner of the brain that has no influence on our actions. But neither of these possibilities is likely. True, the mind sciences will continue to show that consciousness does not work in just the ways we thought, and they already suggest significant limitations on the extent of our rationality, self-knowledge, and self-control. Such discoveries suggest that most of us possess less free will than we tend to think, and they may inform debates about our degrees of responsibility. But they do not show that free will is an illusion.

Nahmais makes the point that the ‘death of free will’ idea makes a fallacy he calls ‘bypassing’ that reduces our decisions to chemical reactions, implying that our conscious thinking is bypassed, and so we must lack free will.

He notes that this is like saying life doesn’t exist because every living thing is made up of non-living molecules, when, in reality, its impossible to understand life or free will without considering the system at the macro level – that is, the actions and interactions of the whole organism.

Interestingly, a similar point is made by legendary neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga in an interview for Salon where he discusses his new book on free will. He also suggests it’s not possible to understand free will at the level of neurons without making the concept nonsensical.

These contrasting concepts about free will may yet be solved, however, as Nature recently reported on a new $4 million ‘Big Questions in Free Will’ project which brings together philosophers and cognitive scientists to work together to understand how we act in the world.
 

Link to NYT piece ‘Is Neuroscience the Death of Free Will?’
Link to Salon interview with Michael Gazzaniga.
Link to Nature piece ‘Taking Aim at Free Will’.

The appliance of psychological science

The BPS Research Digest is celebrating its 200th issue with a series of articles from well-known psychologists that describe how psychology has helped them out in everyday life.

There’s a whole stack of people involved who have written on everything from love to scientific thinking to child rearing.

Both myself and Tom have contributed pieces but my favourite is from Ellen Langer who has spent many years studying the effect of stereotypes about old age on older people:

At age 89 my father’s memory was fragile – he was showing his years. One day we were playing cards and I began to think that I should let him win. I soon realized that, if I saw someone else behaving that way, I’d tell her to stop being so condescending. I might even explain how negative prophecies come to be fulfilled, and I’d go on to explain that much of what we take to be memory loss has other explanations.

For instance, as our values change with age, we often don’t care about certain things to the degree we used to, and we therefore don’t pay much attention to them anymore. The “memory problems” of the elderly are often simply due to the fact that they haven’t noted something that they find rather uninteresting. And then, while I was weighing whether to treat him as a child because part of me still felt that he would enjoy winning, he put his cards down and declared that he had gin.

There are many more great pieces at the link below.
 

Link to BPSRD ‘Psychology to the Rescue’ series.