Parting – art through psychosis – at King’s Place

If you’re in London on Sunday 16th March, there’s an amazing stage show at King’s Place about psychosis called Parting.

The performance has been created by talented twin sister composers Effy and Litha Efthymiou and, along with folks with first-person experience of psychosis, I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with them during the development of the piece.

I met Effy and Litha when they asked me to give some input into the 2008 play Reminiscence about life through memory and temporal lobe epilepsy, and it’s been brilliant working with them again

This work is quite different, spread across five stages, and includes dance, video, two sopranos, theatre, a string quartet and a range of other musicians and is inspired by everything from personal experience to clinical case studies of people experiencing the world through altered beliefs and perceptions.

New contemporary art music, dance, theatre and film come together to create five ‘living-through’ experiences of psychosis. Developed alongside a clinical psychologist and focused on the very essence of the psychotic experience (i.e. the hearing of the voice, the seeing of the object, having the false belief), Parting is a multi-sensory, abstract stage show that is a poetic look at what it feels like to live with psychosis.

As you can imagine, it’s a massive synchronised piece from a range of fantastic artists and should be quite an experience.

There’ll also be an after-show discussion where I’ll be discussing the themes of the piece with the directors, producers and the artists involved in the show.

You can get more details and tickets at the link below.
 

Link to Parting at King’s Place.

Mind Mosaic

Biomedical charity The Wellcome Trust have launched a new online science magazine called Mosaic which is rammed full of mind and brain stories for its launch.

As part of their role is medical education, the idea is that they get writers to produce in-depth articles about science and then give them away for free (welcome to the barricades, do help yourself to a gas mask).

The launch issue has an interview with dandelion-haired cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, an excellent piece on whether it will ever be possible to understand Alzheimer’s disease, a 30-minute documentary about the science of normality (entirely focused on average white people as far as I could work out) and a brief article on the surprisingly complex science of keeping your brain off the pavement with cycle helmets.

There’s also some articles about other areas of science but I have blanked them from my memory.

Importantly, they’re publishing all their material under a specific creative commons license which means you can republish and re-edit the stories for your own blog or multinational media organisation for free if you wish.

They also asked a few people, including me, about some ‘Big Questions’ facing science and have put them up for a vote on their Facebook page (it’s like Twitter but with more baby photos apparently). If the question gets enough votes, they might commission an article on the topic.

My question was “Can we replace damaged brain parts with computational devices?’ (i.e. computers)” so if you’d like to see a Mosaic article on this and you use the Facebook, you can vote here by liking or leaving a comment.
 

Link to Mosaic.

What’s the evidence for the power of reason to change minds?

Last month I proposed an article for Contributoria, titled What’s the evidence on using rational argument to change people’s minds?. Unfortunately, I had such fun reading about the topic that I missed the end-of-month deadline and now need to get backers for my proposal again.

So, here’s something from my proposal, please consider backing it so I can put my research to good use:

Is it true that “you can’t tell anybody anything”? From pub arguments to ideology-driven party political disputes it can sometimes seem like people have their minds all made up, that there’s no point trying to persuade anybody of anything. Popular psychology books reinforce the idea that we’re emotional, irrational creatures (Dan Ariely “Predictably irrational”, David McRaney “You Are Not So Smart”). This piece will be 3000 words on the evidence from psychological science about persuasion by rational argument.

All you need to do to back proposals, currently, is sign up for the site. You can see all current proposals here. Written articles are Creative Commons licensed.

Back the proposal: What’s the evidence on using rational argument to change people’s minds?

Full disclosure: I’ll be paid by Contributoria if the proposal is backed

Update:: Backed! Thanks all! Watch this space for the finished article. I promise I’ll make the deadline this time

Interviews at the Frontier

The BBC Radio 4 Exchanges at the Frontier series has just concluded and it includes interviews with the likes of Kay Redfield Jamison and Human Brain Project leader Henry Markram. They’re all online as podcasts.

All the interviews are done by philosopher A.C. Grayling and for a BBC talking shop are remarkably good fun.

Even the non-cognitive scientists interviewed in the series may be of interest to mind and brain aficionados as one tackles how swarming behaviour emerges and another discusses the link between the economy and happiness.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is even in there, being his usual grouchy self, and it all makes for a fascinating series.
 

Link to BBC Exchanges at the Frontier podcast page.

Building the greatest artificial intelligence lab on Earth

The Guardian has an article on technologist Ray Kurzeil’s move to Google that also serves to review how the search company is building an artificial intelligence super lab.

Google has gone on an unprecedented shopping spree and is in the throes of assembling what looks like the greatest artificial intelligence laboratory on Earth; a laboratory designed to feast upon a resource of a kind that the world has never seen before: truly massive data. Our data. From the minutiae of our lives.

Google has bought almost every machine-learning and robotics company it can find, or at least, rates. It made headlines two months ago, when it bought Boston Dynamics, the firm that produces spectacular, terrifyingly life-like military robots, for an “undisclosed” but undoubtedly massive sum. It spent $3.2bn (£1.9bn) on smart thermostat maker Nest Labs. And this month, it bought the secretive and cutting-edge British artificial intelligence startup DeepMind for £242m.

And those are just the big deals…

Google has also hired some of the world’s leading artificial intelligence researchers: Geoff Hinton, Demis Hassabis, Andrew Ng and Ray Kurzweil just for starters.

They are all experts in machine learning – which some would say is quite a limited form of AI that doesn’t specifically aim to model itself on human thinking.

But it is clearly the most useful in allowing machines to make conceptual connections from fuzzy data. In particular, a technique called deep learning has proved to be a huge leap forward.

It works best when it has large data sets to work on. Essentially, large data sets make deep learning useful and this is why Google sees its future in AI.
 

Link to Guardian article on Kurzweil and Google engineering.

The hallucinated demons of intensive care

I’ve got an article in The Observer about the psychological impact of being a patient in intensive care that can include trauma, fear and intense hallucinations.

This has only been recently recognised as an issue and with mental disorders being detected in over half of post-ICU patients it has sparked a serious re-think of how ICU should be organised to minimise stress.

Some of the most spectacular experiences are intense hallucinations and delusions that can lead to intrusive and surreal flashbacks that can have effects long after the person has become medically stable.

Wade interviewed patients about the hallucinations and delusions they experienced while in intensive care. One patient reported seeing puffins jumping out of the curtains firing blood from guns, another began to believe that the nurses were being paid to kill patients and zombify them. The descriptions seem faintly amusing at a distance, but both were terrifying at the time and led to distressing intrusive memories long after the patients had realised their experiences were illusory.

Many patients don’t mention these experiences while in hospital, either through fear of sounding mad, or through an inability to speak – often because of medical breathing aids, or because of fears generated by the delusions themselves. After all, who would you talk to in a zombie factory?

One of the interesting aspects is how standard ICU care is incredibly stressful and uncomfortable experience. I quote Hugh Montgomery, a professor of intensive care medicine, who says “If you think about the sort of things used for torture you will experience most of them in intensive care”!

Anyway, more at the link below.
 

Link to ‘When intensive care is just too intense’ in The Observer.

What’s the evidence on using rational argument to change people’s minds?

Contributoria is an experiment in community funded, collaborative journalism. What that means is that you can propose an article you’d like to write, and back proposals by others that you’d like to see written. There’s an article I’d like to write: What’s the evidence on using rational argument to change people’s minds?. Here’s something from the proposal:

Is it true that “you can’t tell anybody anything”? From pub arguments to ideology-driven party political disputes it can sometimes seem like people have their minds all made up, that there’s no point trying to persuade anybody of anything. Popular psychology books reinforce the idea that we’re emotional, irrational creatures (Dan Ariely “Predictably irrational”, David McRaney “You Are Not So Smart”). This piece will be 2000 words on the evidence from psychological science about persuasion by rational argument.

If the proposal is backed it will give me a chance to look at the evidence on things like the , on whether political extremism is supported by an illusion of explanatory depth (and how that can be corrected), and on how we treat all those social psychology priming experiments which suggest that our opinions on things can be pushed about by irrelevant factors such as the weight of a clipboard we’re holding.

All you need to do to back proposals, currently, is sign up for the site. You can see all current proposals here. Written articles are Creative Commons licensed.

Back the proposal: What’s the evidence on using rational argument to change people’s minds?

Full disclosure: I’ll be paid by Contributoria if the proposal is backed

Update: Backed! That was quick! Much thanks mindhacks.com readers! I’d better get reading and writing now…

noob 2 l33t: now with graphs

Myself and Mike Dewar have just had a paper published in the journal Psychological Science. In it we present an analysis of what affects how fast people learn, using data from over 850,000 people who played an online game called Axon (designed by our friends Preloaded. This is from the abstract:

In the present study, we analyzed data from a very large sample (N = 854,064) of players of an online game involving rapid perception, decision making, and motor responding. Use of game data allowed us to connect, for the first time, rich details of training history with measures of performance from participants engaged for a sustained amount of time in effortful practice. We showed that lawful relations exist between practice amount and subsequent performance, and between practice spacing and subsequent performance. Our methodology allowed an in situ confirmation of results long established in the experimental literature on skill acquisition. Additionally, we showed that greater initial variation in performance is linked to higher subsequent performance, a result we link to the exploration/exploitation trade-off from the computational framework of reinforcement learning.

The paper is behind a paywall for the next year, unfortunately, but you can find a pre-print, as well as all the raw data and analysis code (written in Python) in the github repo. I wrote something on my academic blog about the methods and why we wanted to make this an example of open science.

Links: The paper: Tracing the Trajectory of Skill Learning With a Very Large Sample of Online Game Players
And the data & code.

Thanks to @phooky for suggesting an alternative title for the paper, which I’ve used to title this post

The mysterious nodding syndrome – a crack of light

Two years ago we discussed a puzzling, sometimes fatal, ‘nodding syndrome‘ that has been affecting children in Uganda and South Sudan. We now know a little more, with epilepsy being confirmed as part of the disorder, although the cause still remains a mystery.

The condition affects children between 5 and 15 years old, who have episodes where they begin nodding or lolling their heads, often in response to cold. A typical but not exclusive pattern is that over time they become cognitively impaired to the point of needing help with simple tasks like feeding. Stunted growth is common.

Global Health News have a video on the condition if you want to see how it affects people.

In terms of our medical understanding, a review article just published in Emerging Infectious Diseases collates what we now know about the condition.

Firstly, it is now clear that epilepsy is part of the picture and the nodding is caused by recurrent seizures in the brain. This is a bit curious because this type of very specific ‘nodding’ behaviour has not been seen as a common effect of epilepsy before.

Also, knowing that it is caused by a seizure just pushes the need for explanation further down the causal chain. Seizures can occur through many different forms of brain disruption, so the question becomes – what is causing this epidemic form of seizure that seems to have a very selective effect?

With this in mind, a lot of the most obvious candidates have been ruled out. The following is from the review article, but if you’re not up on your medical terms, essentially, tests for a lot of poisons or infections have come up negative:

Testing has failed to demonstrate associations with trypanosomiasis, cysticercosis, loiasis, lymphatic filariasis, cerebral malaria, measles, prion disease, or novel pathogens; or deficiencies of folate, cobalamin, pyridoxine, retinol, or zinc; or toxicity from mercury, copper, or homocysteine.

Brain scans have been inconclusive with some showing minor abnormalities while others seem to show no detectable damage.

There have been some curious but not conclusive associations, however. Children with the nodding syndrome are more likely to have signs of infection by the river blindness parasite. But huge swathes of Africa have endemic river blindness and no nodding syndrome, and some children with nodding syndrome have no signs of infection.

Furthermore, the parasite is not thought to invade the nervous system and no trace of it has been found in the cerebrospinal fluid from any of the people with the syndrome. The authors of the review speculate that a new or similar parasite could be involved but hard data is still lacking and the typical signs of infection are missing.

A form of vitamin B6 deficiency is known to cause neural problems and has been found in affected people but it has also been found in just as many people untouched by the mystery illness. One possibility is this could be a risk factor, making people more vulnerable to the condition, rather than a sole cause.

One idea as to why it is so specific relates to the increasing recognition that some neurological conditions are caused by the body’s immune system erroneously attacking very specific parts of the brain.

For example, in Sydenham’s chorea antibodies for the common sore throat bacteria end up attacking the basal ganglia, while in limbic encephalitis the immune system attacks the limbic system.

This sort of autoimmune problem is a reasonable suggestion given the symptoms, but in the end, it is another hypothesis that is awaiting hard data.

Perhaps most mysterious, however, is its most marked feature – the fact that it only seems to affect children. At the current time, we seem no closer to understanding why. Similarly, the fact that it is epidemic and seems to spread also remains unexplained.

If you’re used to scientific articles, do check out the Emerging Infectious Diseases paper because it reads like a as-yet-unsolved detective story.

Either way, keep tabs on the story as it is something that needs to be cracked, not least because the number of cases seems to be slowly increasing.
 

Link to update paper in Emerging Infectious Diseases.

Year Four of the Blue Brain documentary

Film-maker Noah Hutton has just released the ‘Year Four’ film of the decade-long series of films about Henry Markram’s massive Blue Brain neuroscience project.

It’s been an interesting year for Markram’s project with additional billion euro funding won to extend and expand on earlier efforts and the USA’s BRAIN Initiative having also made it’s well-funded but currently direction-less debut.

Hutton also tackles Markram on the ‘we’re going to simulate the brain in 10 years’ nonsense he relied on earlier in the project’s PR push although, his answer, it must be said, is somewhat evasive.

Although more of an update on the politics of Big Neuroscience than a piece about new developments in the science of the brain, the latest installation of the Blue Brain documentary series captures how 2013 will define how we make sense of the brain for years to come.
 

Link to ‘Bluebrain: Year Four’ on Vimeo.
Link to the Bluebrain Film website.

The best graphic and gratuitious displays

Forget your end of year run-downs and best of 2013 photo specials, it doesn’t get much better than this: ‘The 15 Best Behavioural Science Graphs of 2010-13’ from the Stirling Behavioural Science Blog.

As to be expected, some are a little better than others (well, Rolling Stone chose a Miley Cyrus video as one of their best of 2013, so, you know, no-one’s perfect) but there are still plenty of classics.

This one, from a study on parole rulings by judges based on the order of cases and when food breaks occur is particularly eye-opening.

This paper examined 1,112 judicial rulings over a 10 month period by eight judges in Israel. These judges presided over 2 parole boards for four major prisons, processing around 40% of all parole requests in the country. They considered 14-35 cases per day for an average of six minutes and they took two daily food breaks (a late morning snack and lunch), dividing the day into three sessions.

The graph looks at the proportion of rulings in favor of parole by ordinal position (so 1st case of the day, then 2nd, then 3rd, etc). The circled points are the first decision in each of the three decision sessions, the tick marks on the x-axis denote every third case and the dotted line denotes a food break. The probability of the judges granting parole falls steadily from around 65% to nearly zero just before the break, before jumping back up again after they return to work.

Moral of the story: don’t get banged up, make sure your judge has been recently fed, or bring snacks to court.

Anyway, plenty more fascinating behavioural science graphs to check out and no Miley Cyrus. At least, until she jumps on that bandwagon.
 

Link to ‘The 15 Best Behavioural Science Graphs of 2010-13’

A disorder of marketing

Photo by Flickr user lance robotson.  Click for source.The New York Times has an important article on how Attention Deficit Disorder, often known as ADHD, has been ‘marketed’ alongside sales of stimulant medication to the point where leading ADHD researchers are becoming alarmed at the scale of diagnosis and drug treatment.

It’s worth noting that although the article focuses on ADHD, it is really a case study in how psychiatric drug marketing often works.

This is the typical pattern: a disorder is defined and a reliable diagnosis is created. A medication is tested and found to be effective – although studies which show negative effects might never be published.

It is worth highlighting that the ‘gold standard’ diagnosis usually describes a set of symptoms that are genuinely linked to significant distress or disability.

Then, marketing money aims to ‘raise awareness’ of the condition to both doctors and the public. This may be through explicit drug company adverts, by sponsoring medical training that promotes a particular drug, or by heavily funding select patient advocacy groups that campaign for wider diagnosis and drug treatment.

This implicitly encourages diagnosis to be made away from the ‘gold standard’ assessment – which often involves an expensive and time-consuming structured assessment by specialists.

This means that much of the diagnosis and prescribing happens by local doctors and is often prompted by patients turning up with newspaper articles, adverts, or the results of supposedly non-diagnostic diagnostic quizzes in their hands. There are many more marketing tricks of the trade which the article goes through in detail.

As the initial market begins to become saturated, drug companies will often aim to ‘expand’ into other areas by sponsoring studies into the same condition in another age group and treating the condition as an ‘add on’ to another disorder – each of which allows them to officially market the drug for these conditions.

However, fines for illegally marketing drugs for non-approved conditions are now commonplace are many think that these are just considered as calculated financial risks by pharmaceutical companies.

The New York Times is particularly important because it tracks the entire web of marketing activity – that aside from the traditional medical slant – also includes pop stars, material for kids, TV presenters, websites and bloggers.

It is a eye-opening guide to the burgeoning world of ADHD promotion but is really just a case study of how psychiatric drug marketing works. By the way, don’t miss the video that analyses the marketing material.

Essential stuff.
 

Link to NYT article ‘The Selling of Attention Deficit Disorder’

London’s Shuffle Festival is back

London’s film, food and science festival in an abandoned psychiatric hospital is back as the Shuffle Festival kicks off its Winter run.

Hosted in the old buildings of St Clement’s Hospital the festival has an impressive programme including everything from Jarvis Cocker to Brian Cox.

There are also regular talks from working scientists including a couple of standout-looking ones on the neuroscience of religious experience and circadian rhythms.
 


 

There’s also a full film programme, DJs, a restaurant, music, theatre and an art gallery with a commissioned show.

As with the summer Shuffle Festival, the profits go to the East London Community Land Trust that will ensure that when the hospital gets redeveloped, affordable housing will be available to the local community. A welcome change from the usual practice of converting London’s old asylums into exorbitant luxury flats.

If it’s anything like last time, it should be awesome. And if you didn’t go in August, this may be your last chance to say you’ve experienced a festival in an abandoned Victorian-era asylum.

The full programme is at the link below. See you there!
 

Link to the Shuffle Festival.

A quarter century of All in the Mind

A new series of BBC Radio 4’s All in the Mind has just kicked off and to celebrate 25 years of broadcasting they’ve just had three great episodes looking back on the last quarter century of psychology, neuroscience and mental health.

Each make for a interesting discussion of how science and attitudes have changed.

As per BBC usual, you can access the streamed versions at the links above, but you have to go to an entirely separate page for the podcasts.

And because there are no separate podcast pages for specific episodes, I’ve linked them directly below. Here’s hoping that in the next 25 years, the BBC can fix their website.
 

mp3 of ’25 years of understanding the brain’
mp3 of ‘What has psychology research taught us in the last 25 years?’
mp3 of ‘How have attitudes to mental health changed in the last 25 years?’

The grass is always greener

Photo by Flickr user massimo ankor. Click for source.If you’re a neuroscience fan, Marketing magazine has a somewhat depressing report of a Susan Greenfield speech to the travel industry at the ABTA conference in Croatia.

It’s sad for two reasons. Firstly The Baroness is still pursuing the same bizarre and evidence-free line that the internet causes all sorts of brain curdling problems and even doubles down on her odd claim that there’s a link with autism:

“People who are not good at interpersonal skills anyway are on the autistic spectrum disorder, they spend a lot of time in the cyber world. Sadly there are a lot of links between this disorder and compulsive video game use.”

She also says some very strange things about the effects of video games and what gamers are like:

They will have a higher IQ because we know that video game rehearsal repeats all the mental agility that is required of IQ tests. However, being good at mental processing without being able to make connections or understand context doesn’t mean to say that you understand about Syria or the economic problems of the world.

Playing video games means you don’t understand the complex situation in the Middle East? An outrageous claim. Has she never played Call of Duty 4?

However, it’s also a little sad because she’s now doing presumably paid talks to travel conferences to say that while technology damages the brain, travel is good for it.

Greenfield was genuinely one of my scientific heroes and motivated me to get into neuroscience through her talks. And now, it’s all gone a bit Donkey Kong.
 

Link to The Baroness on the cyberapocalypse / holiday cure.

Scraping the bottom of the biscuit barrel

As a wonderful demonstration how media outlets will report the ridiculous as long as ‘neuroscience’ is mentioned, I present the ‘Oreos May Be As Addictive As Cocaine’ nonsense.

According to Google News, it has so far been reported by 209 media outlets, including some of the world’s biggest publications.

That’s not bad for some non-peer reviewed, non-published research described entirely in a single press release from a Connecticut college and done in rats.

The experiment, described in five lines of the press release, is this:

On one side of a maze, they would give hungry rats Oreos and on the other, they would give them a control – in this case, rice cakes. (“Just like humans, rats don’t seem to get much pleasure out of eating them,” Schroeder said.) Then, they would give the rats the option of spending time on either side of the maze and measure how long they would spend on the side where they were typically fed Oreos…

They compared the results of the Oreo and rice cake test with results from rats that were given an injection of cocaine or morphine, known addictive substances, on one side of the maze and a shot of saline on the other. Professor Schroeder is licensed by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to purchase and use controlled substances for research.

The research showed the rats conditioned with Oreos spent as much time on the “drug” side of the maze as the rats conditioned with cocaine or morphine.

Needless to say, South American drug lords are probably not shutting up shop just yet.

But this is how you make headlines around the world and get your press release reported as a ‘health story’ in the international media.

As we’ve noted before, the ‘as addictive as cocaine’ cliché gets wheeled out on a regular basis even for the most unlikely of activities but this really takes the biscuit (“Bad jokes addictive as cocaine” say British scientist’s readers).

However, the alternative conclusion that ‘Cocaine is no more addictive than Oreos’ seems not to have been as popular. Only Reason magazine opted for this one.

The reason that this sort of press release makes headlines is simply because it agrees with the already established tropes that obesity is a form of ‘addiction’ and is ‘explained’ by some vague mention of the brain and dopamine.

The more easily we agree with something, the less critical thinking we apply.
 

Link to a more sensible take from Reason magazine.