Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time

This week, the BBC Radio 4 programme In Our Time (“Melvyn Bragg and three guests explore the history of ideas”) is on ‘Perception and the Senses’ (it must be neuroscience week at the BBC!).

Listening to it now, it’s a fantastic romp through the low-level neuroanatomy, visual perception, how senses are integrated and so on, and higher-level topics like illusions, what does the brain do (make and test hypotheses, says one guest). Great fun, and really good to hear super-smart guests talk about concrete examples (the McGurk effect, say), then the nitty gritty, and next bump up a few abstraction layers to talk about their personal models of the brain. I’m learning a lot. Near the end they discuss one of my favourite topics: intuitive physics.

The whole show is available as an MP3 download, and this episode will be up till next Wednesday (4 May), so grab it while you can.

See the In Our Time ‘Perception and the Senses’ archive page (where you can listen to the show in Real format even when the MP3 has gone), and download the MP3 here.

Scientific American on neuromorphics, laterality, apophenia

Sciam_May2005.gifThe May edition of Scientific American has just hit the shelves, containing articles on neuromorphics – the science of building electronics inspired by brain cells, gender differences in brain function and sex-specific psychiatric treatments, and how the brain makes unlikely connections between events.

The cover article discusses ‘neuromorphics’, a new term describing the application of knowledge from neuroscience to designing and implementing microchips. Sadly, the article is not freely accessible, but two articles of interest are.

The article on sex differences and the brain is available online and covers the latest research on how male and female brains differ, from the cellular level – to differences in overall structure and psychological style.

Consequently, scientists are beginning to disregard the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to medical treatment, and have begun to take advantage of brain diversity when developing treatments for psychiatric and neurological illness.

Another article, also available online, takes a skeptical neuroscientific approach to the formation of unlikely theories and detection of meaningful information in noise.

This is sometimes called apophenia and has been linked to electronic voice phenomena, where people claim to hear the voice of spirits amid the static of tape recordings.

Link to article His Brain, Her Brain.
Link to article Skeptic: Turn Me On, Dead Man.

Girl swirl neuro shirt

whoiam_shirt.jpgDesign-by-anarchy t-shirt shop Threadless have a fantastic new shirt available by designer Guilherme Marconi, combining a beautiful girl, decorative swirls and the underlying structure of the brain.

The picture of the brain seems to have dots in the orbitofrontal cortex, genu of the corpus callosum and the medial surface of the postcentral gyrus, plus a flower in the cerebellum.

What more could you ask for ?

Link to shirt from

Rate my shrink

A new website has been launched that allows patients to rate their psychiatrists. Think of it as an ‘Am I Hot or Not’ for mental health, but without the stomach churning pictures.

The comments are priceless, and range from adulation:

Awesome, lovely person. I could tell she really cared about me, and she didnt act weird, no matter what problem I had.

to insult:

She is a BITCH, plain and simple.

Like any sort of online review system, I would take the comments with a large pinch of salt, although it makes for an interesting window onto how psychiatrists are sometimes perceived by the patients they work with.

Link to

New Scientist on the changing fortunes of AI

This week’s New Scientist has a lead article on the ‘artificial intelligence winter’ of the 1990s and the recent renaissance in AI research.

newscientist_210505.jpgIn recent years, AI techniques have largely been applied to modelling specific psychological processes, rather than creating seemingly intelligent software that can interact with humans, as tested by the Turing test.

Computer vision has been a particularly successful area, and has focused on understanding and interpreting visual informaton, for example, to recognise and identify faces.

More recently, companies like Cyc have been attempting to resurrect ‘classical AI’, and create systems which allow for natural language interaction.

Link to full article from

Free events: State of Mind at LSE

lse_image.jpgLondon’s LSE is running an exhibition and a series of free debates, where both artists and scientists will tackle some of the hot-topics in contemporary psychology.

The exhibition runs from 28th April to 29th May 2005 and involves a number of artists, including Rod Dickinson who has re-enacted a number of historical events, including Milgram’s conformity experiments.

The first debate in the series is on April 28th, where neuropsychologist Chris Frith and artist Abigail Reynolds will discuss Mapping the mind: a new phrenology.

Artist in residence Ruth Maclennan is organising the series and the rest of the events look equally compelling, so make sure you get there early.

Link to State of Mind website.

Science of the psychic

Zener CardsA surprisingly level-headed article from the Sunday Herald discusses the history of Edinburgh University’s Koestler Parapsychology Unit, and its research into the unknown depths of the mind.

The article gives a concise overview of research into ‘psi phenomenon’, such as precognition, clarevoyance and thought transference and considers many of the controversies in the field, with opinions from both ‘believers’ and ‘skeptics’.

The Koestler Unit is unique, as it is the only parapsychology unit in a UK university, having been established by a large sum of money left after the death of the controversial novelist Arthur Koestler.

If you want to help out with their research, you can even take part in some psi experiments online. Just visit the the Koestler Unit’s website and click ‘Research’, then ‘Online’ for a list of experiments.

The site also has summaries of the various theories of psi abilities and the results of past scientific experiments.

Link to article Parapsychology: Fact of séance fiction? from the Sunday Herald.
Link to Koestler Parapsychology Unit website.

Banishing depression with exercise

This week is Mental Health Action Week, and a major attempt is being made to highlight the beneficial effects of exercise in treating depression.

Depression is commonly treated with antidepressant drugs, and for some people, these may be the most effective treatment.

For mild or moderate depression however, regular excercise is known to work as well as medication in some people.

Exercise is also known to complement the use of antidepressant drugs, may prevent further relapses, and could help counter the slightly increased risk of heart problems recently linked to depression.

Although doing exercise may seem daunting during a period of depression, a gentle start is a good way to ease yourself into the habit.

If you live in the UK, you may be able to get referred to a tailored exercise programme, prescribed by your GP.

Link to more information from

What motivates cognitive science ?

Online editions of The Times and Guardian have a review of neurobiologist Steven Rose’s new book The 21st Century Brain, that discusses the motivations behind the funding and support for neuroscience research.


Rose is a controversial critic of many aspects of mainstream science, and his new book argues that the recent explosion in psychology and neuroscience has been driven by funders only wanting directly marketable results, rather than knowledge about the brain for the good of all. This, he argues, goes hand-in-hand with profit-driven drug development, neuromarketing and other explicity commercial projects.

What Rose seems particularly concerned about, is not commercial projects per se, but the effect that such funding is having on neuroscience itself. For example, the promotion of purely biological theories of mental illness by drug companies has worried many scientists who want a more wide-ranging approach.

Link to book review from The Guardian.
Link to book review from The Sunday Times.
Link to book review from Times Online.

Fighting for mental space

Adbusters activist Kalle Lasn is interviewed on another fascinating editon of ABC Radio National’s All in the Mind, arguing that we should try and reclaim the ‘mental space’ increasingly occupied by brands, advertisements and slogans.

Lasn argues that our increasingly information rich society is causing psychological interference and inhibiting creative thought, while media manipulation is crushing diversity and eroding our ability to distinguish fantasy from reality.

Furthermore, he links this tendency with the level of mental illness and distress that is so prevalent in the Western world, and argues that we could be witnessing ‘the mental breakdown of nations’.

Even if you don’t agree with his views, Lasn has identified a neglected area that will undoubtedly become more important as media becomes all pervasive, and is well worth listening to.

Link to realudio archive of programme.
Link to transcript.

National Geographic on the Mind

The latest issue of the National Geographic magazine is a special issue on the mind.


It contains a compelling account of open brain surgery, where, as is usual, the patient is conscious and given tests during the operation to make sure removed sections are not crucial for language.

The other articles cover a variety of important developments in mind and brain science, including the neuropsychology of spiritual experience, emotion and navigation, plus some remarkable photographs.

Two of my particular favourites are articles on an exceptional autistic boy (mentioned in an earlier post by Tom) and a neurologist with hypergraphia – the incessant need to write.

There’s some excerpts and video footage freely available online, but the best content seems to be in the magazine only.

Mind Hacks at Foyles, March 23rd

When I was a kid, I remember making a trip to London and visiting Foyles bookshop for the first time. In the days before book superstores, Foyles was unimaginably vast, and dense, and amazing. That was a special day. Years later, there aren’t books piled everywhere, the maze of shelves and rooms has been untangled, and it’s been updated: you no longer have to get a little green ticket from an attendant before paying. It’s still got its charm, one of the best (and biggest) book selections in London, and my favourite cafe in the centre–one of the few cafes to have free wifi, good coffee, heavy wooden tables, and jazz.

What I’m coming round to is that Tom and I will be speaking about Mind Hacks at Foyles on Wednesday, March 23rd, and it’s enormously exciting to be talking in a place with such history. If you’re in London, you should come along (it’s at 6.30pm, after work, in the Gallery on the 2nd floor). It’ll be great fun–we’re going to show off some of our favourite hacks, talk about what we learn from them, and try some [gulp] audience participation in the experiments too.

More info on the Foyles site (you’ll need to get a ticket), and the publicity blurb’s below. Do come, and spread the word!

Let’s try something else too: If you use Outlook, click to add Mind Hacks at Foyles to your calendar. If you use Apple iCal, click here to add the event.

Release follows…

Continue reading “Mind Hacks at Foyles, March 23rd”

Quirks and Quarks

This saturday, Mind Hacks goes audio – you can hear an interview I did yesterday with a Canadian radio show, CBC’s Quirks and Quarks (“the show that defi[n]es science”!). It’s broadcast on Saturdays on CBC Radio One from 12:06 – 1pm.

You can hear me discussing the book and going through a few of the hacks. For those of you who have read the book I can’t promise a lot of added value – but hopefully I was pretty coherant, and definitely excited, and it might be a good introduction to anyone thinking of getting the book. (it was also loads of fun to do, thanks guys!)

I think you’ll be able to hear the interview over the internet as it happens, but they will also certainly put it up as an MP3 afterwards. While you’re at the site, you can browse the show’s eight year backlog of audio files, which is a pretty impressive corpus of science broadcasting.

The blurb from the Q&Q site:

Mind Hacks: Tips and Tricks for Using your Brain.

Did you know that you go blind every time you move your eyes? And that what you’re seeing affects what you’re hearing? And that you can get stronger just by thinking about it? Well, it’s all strange but true, according to a neuroscientist who’s just written a new book containing 100 Tips and Tricks for using your brain. It’s a catalogue of illusions and experiments that show just how powerful, and how peculiar, the human brain really is – and you can try them all at home.

New series of BBC ‘All in the Mind’ online

‘All in the Mind’, BBC Radio 4’s programme on the mind, brain and mental health starts a new season this week.

Each week’s edition is archived on the programme’s website, so you can listen in to the latest. The website also has a comprehensive archive of previous shows, so you can revisit any programme from the last few years.

Link to BBC ‘All in the Mind’ website