Brain’s nothingness centre found

Collectively Unconscious has a satirical post entitled “Brain region found that does absolutely nothing”.

Neuroscientists at the University of Ingberg have found a brain region that does absolutely nothing. Their research, presented at the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting, showed that a small region of the cortex located near the posterior section of the cingulate gyrus responded to ‘not one of our 46 experimental manipulations’…

“Over the months that followed we tried everything we knew, with over 20 different participants. IQ tests, memory tasks, flashing lights, talking, listening, imagining juggling, but there was no response. Nothing. We got more desperate, so we tried pictures of faces, TMS, pictures of cats, pictures of sex, pictures of violence and even sexy violence, but nothing happened! Not even a decrease. No connectivity to anywhere else, not even a voodoo correlation. 46 voxels of wasted space. I know dead salmons that are more responsive.”

Clearly the problem here is a lack of imagination.

A recent (genuine) study simply ran the same experimental data from an fMRI scanning session through 6,912 different possible ways of conducting the analysis.

Suddenly, activity popped up all over the brain.

As Einstein said “Imagination is more important than knowledge, because even though science strives to be an objective body of knowledge driven by a systematised method for accurately discovering causal relationships, in reality, it’s a bun fight”.

Pretty sure that was Einstein. Hang on, I’ll just check my stats. Yep, yes it was.

Link to satirical post on Collectively Unconscious.

Feeling sheepish

Quite possibly the strangest news story I have ever come across. It starts out strange, gets stranger and then finishes on a trumpeting pageant of strangeness. From GhanaWeb:

“People who practice bestiality threaten society”-psychologist

A psychologist at the Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital, Rev. Ekow Jackson says people who have sex with animals are potential threats to society.

He says such people have confidence problems and most times fear that their sexual advances towards humans may be turned down; a situation they cannot bear.

Such people may instead use force on the object of their sexual pleasure whether it’s a woman, a baby or an animal.

Rev. Jackson says these people should not just be ostracized or incarcerated but should be given serious psychological or psychiatric attention. He adds that some of the culprits of bestiality may have had troubled childhoods or some unresolved issues from their past.

The psychologist, who is also a minister of the Assemblies of God Church, was speaking in an interview with this reporter after a 35 year-old man, Kofi Agyeman was asked to marry a sheep he allegedly had sexual intercourse with at Wamaso in the Lower Denkyira District of the Central region.

How would we make sense of it all if there weren’t psychologists like Rev. Ekow Jackson to help us out?

Link to sheep news story.

Brain candle

Like most neuroscientists, when you’ve had a hard day at the lab, you get home and just want to scatter a few rose petals into a warm bath, put on your favourite whale song tape, and sink into the tub.

What’s missing? A few candles to shed a gentle ambient glow over your tired body.

Sadly, most candles just don’t cut it.

Tea lights just remind you of those 47 cups of tea you drunk during data analysis and if you wanted something with the scent of soothing reassurance you would have gone to the clinical psychology department.

What you need is a brain-floating-in-formalin-style candle.

Well, don’t worry, because ThinkGeek have started selling one.

It says it’s a “hand-sculpted brain candle suspended in gel wax” and oddly it’s described as unscented.

Clearly wrong. It smells of science.

And relaxxxxxx.

Link to brain candle.

No, internet addiction is not an ‘official mental illness’

The media has been buzzing with the supposed news that ‘internet addiction’ has been added to the list of ‘official mental disorders’. This is nonsense, but it tells us something oddly disappointing about how the media handles tech scare scores.

This recent wave of ‘the internet is making us crazy’ drivel stemmed from an article published in The Sydney Morning Herald and the story soon went global – being picked up by everyone from the Wall Street Journal to Russia Today.

Firstly, for those of you who are not aware why the concept of internet addiction is so untrue it’s a logical impossibility, I’ll direct you to an earlier post.

But talking specifically about the article which sparked the media panic attack, it’s odd in that it quotes two psychologists – one who has never published anything on internet addiction and the other who is a Reiki therapist. This doesn’t make it wrong but it does strike me as slightly strange for a news piece.

The article is trying to talk about the listing of ‘internet use disorder‘ in a non-diagnosable section of the DSM-5 for conditions “recommended for further study”.

This section has speculative and non-official disorders in it. You can find caffeine use disorder there if you’re feeling a bit jittery.

It also has the diagnosis of attenuated psychosis syndrome in it. Here’s how science journal Nature reacted when this diagnosis was listed in the same section: “Psychosis risk syndrome excluded from DSM-5″

In other words, if something appears in the DSM-5 section “recommended for further study” it is excluded from the list of ‘official mental illnesses’ because the diagnosis has been evaluated but found to be unsupported by research evidence.

It’s a mystery why this has suddenly become ‘news’ now because this decision has been discussed for years and it finally happened last May.

But it’s also worth noting that even the proposed definition of internet use disorder isn’t actually about using the internet, it’s about online gaming. This doesn’t make it any less nonsense, however. If someone who is addicted to gambling starts playing online do they suddenly have ‘another mental illness’? Clearly not.

Similarly, the idea that someone can be ‘addicted to gaming’ is just daft as the concept of ‘gaming’ is so wide as to not describe any single behaviour or experience – something quite important if you’re going to say that there is a mental illness based on it.

More interestingly, the The Sydney Morning Herald article has a curious quirk that allows us to see how lazily these stories get picked up and flung around.

The piece says will be included in the ‘revised edition of the DSM-IV’ – which is presumably a very awkward way of saying DSM-5.

Suddenly though, the world’s media is saying that ‘internet addiction’ will be included in the ‘DSM-IV’ which would be quite a feat considering it was published in 1994.

Here’s the clanger presented as original journalism from Forbes, the Daily Mail, the HuffPo, Mashable, the New York Post, Times of India and Russia Today. The Guardian even asked readers to vote on whether it was true!

Essentially, you can currently get anything into the media just by suggesting that technology is ‘bad for our minds’, because we love stories that justify our worries – no matter how untrue.

We used to think schools were ‘bad for the mind’ but try getting ‘education causes mental illness’ into the newspapers.

A stream of unconsciousness

I have just discovered that if you search Pinterest with the keyword psychology you get a wonderfully eclectic stream of psychological images that range from the frosting of pop culture to the depths of profound theory.

In fact, it’s a bit like swimming around in the mind of a psychologist as they slowly drift off to sleep – a kind of whimsical, looping stream of half-verified memories and insights.

Link to ‘psychology’ on Pinterest.

No, the web is not driving us mad

Oh Newsweek, what have you done. The cover story in the latest edition is an embarrasing look at non-research that certainly doesn’t suggest that the internet is causing “extreme forms of mental illness”.

The article is a litany of scientific stereotypes and exaggeration:

The current incarnation of the Internet—portable, social, accelerated, and all-pervasive—may be making us not just dumber or lonelier but more depressed and anxious, prone to obsessive-compulsive and attention-deficit disorders, even outright psychotic.

This is an amazing list of mental illnesses supposedly caused by the internet but really Newsweek? Psychosis? A condition ranked by the World Health Organisation as the third most disabling health condition there is and one that is only beaten in its ability to disable by total limb paralysis and dementia and that comes ahead of leg paralysis and blindness.

We’re talking schizophrenia and severe bipolar disorder here. The mention of psychosis even makes the front page, of one of the most respected news magazines in the world, so this must be pretty striking evidence.

So striking, in fact, that it would probably turn psychiatric research on its head. We have studied the environmental risk factors for psychosis for decades and nothing has suggested that the internet or anything like it would raise the risk of psychosis. This must be amazing new scientific evidence.

So what is the evidence to back up Newsweek’s front page splash: a blog post, a quote and a single case study.

The rest of the article is full of similar howlers.

But the research is now making it clear that the Internet is not “just” another delivery system. It is creating a whole new mental environment, a digital state of nature where the human mind becomes a spinning instrument panel, and few people will survive unscathed.

“This is an issue as important and unprecedented as climate change,” says Susan Greenfield, a pharmacology professor at Oxford Univer…

Oh Christ.

A 1998 Carnegie Mellon study found that Web use over a two-year period was linked to blue moods, loneliness, and the loss of real-world friends. But the subjects all lived in Pittsburgh, critics sneered.

They didn’t sneer. They looked at the follow-up study, done on the same people, by the same research team, that found that “A 3-year follow-up of 208 of these respondents found that negative effects dissipated”.

As I’ve mentioned before, it is only possible to report on the first of these findings without the second if you’ve not read the research or are aiming for a particular angle. Why? Because if you type ‘internet paradox’, the name of the original study, into Google, the name of the follow-up study – The Internet Paradox Revisited – comes up as the second link.

If you’d read any of the actual literature on the topic, you’d know about the follow-up study because they are two of the most important and some of the few longitudinal studies in the field.

The article also manages the usual neuroscience misunderstandings. The internet ‘rewires the brain’ – which I should hope it does, as every experience ‘rewires the brain’ and if your brain ever stops re-wiring you’ll be dead. Dopamine is described as a reward, which is like mistaking your bank statement for the money.

There are some scattered studies mentioned here and there but without any sort of critical appraisal. Methodological problems with internet addiction studies? No mention. The fact that the whole concept of internet addiction is a category error? Not a whisper. The fact that prevalence has been estimated to vary between 1% and 66% of internet users. Nada

Sadly, these sorts of distorted media portrayals have a genuine impact on the public’s attitudes and beliefs about mental illness.

But perhaps the biggest problem with the article is that it doesn’t include any critical voices. It’s mainly people who have a book to sell or an axe to grind.

The internet will apparently make you psychotic if you only listen to the three people who think so. Or Newsweek, that is.

Link to ‘Is the Web Driving Us Mad?’

Made for PR Neuroscience

Times Higher Education has a short but revealing article about a ‘neuromarketing’ company called MindLab that keeps getting ‘accidentally’ associated with the University of Sussex.

The ‘accidental’ association is not what makes the piece interesting, however, as it also gives an insight into a type of marketing that relies on the hype of neuroscience to make the news.

Mindlab International measures psychological reactions to brands or products using a “scientific approach” that “offers PRs an extra way to add a newsworthy element to PR campaigns”, founder David Lewis-Hodgson told PR Week in 2006…

Previous research by Mindlab has found that reading is more relaxing than listening to music or going for a walk, in a study commissioned by the maker of Galaxy chocolate as part of a campaign to give away 1 million books.

It has also been reported that a Mindlab survey, commissioned by the maker of Rocky, a chocolate bar, found that an estimated 25 million adults in the UK have been injured during a tea or coffee break.

In April this year a “neurological study by Dulux [the paint company] and the Mindlab International Laboratory at Sussex University” that measured the “physiological arousal” prompted by the imagining of various activities found that “women find a redecorated room just as pleasurable as sex”, the Huffington Post reported.

Yes, you read that correctly, and if I ever become old, bitter, and want to sabotage someone’s illustrious career in neuroscience I’m just going to write a piece of software that adds ‘the Huffington Post reported’ to the end of all their scientific papers (however, I digress).

What’s interesting is that simply making something appear like a neuroscience study is enough to get it and the associated product in the news – to the point where companies can now base their business model on the practice.

Neuromarketing is the study of the neuroscience of marketing – a genuinely interesting field that, contrary to what neuromarketing companies will have you believe, has absolutely no practical benefit at the moment because no-one has yet demonstrated that a neural response is a better predictor of the key outcomes than a behavioural response.

This, however, is more like neuro-spin-marketing, as it relies on people believing the hype of neuromarketing to get branded pseudo-studies into the media.

Buyer beware.

Link to THE piece on MindLab (via @sarcastic_f)

Ghost image in my mind

Offbeat indie singer Charlotte Gainsbourg released a 2009 song about being fMRI brain scanned that even incoporated sounds from an actual scanner.

The track is called IRM, presumably because Gainsbourg is a French speaker and ‘magnetic resonance imaging’ in French is imagerie par résonance magnétique – which, by the way, is also the sound of a mysterious Parisian stranger whispering sweet nothings in your ear.

If you’re not familiar with what an MRI machine sounds like, listen out for the ‘buzz plus alien tractor beam’ sound in the song.

There is also what looks like an interesting error in the song. At one point she sings “Analyse EKG, Can you see a memory?”

As EKG usually refers to an electrocardigram – a measure of heart function – it’s unlikely she’ll see many memories there.

An EEG, on the other hand, measures electrical activity from the brain, and was probably what was intended.

Here’s the wonderfully poetic neuroscience lyrics in full:

Take a picture what’s inside
Ghost watching my mind
Neural pattern like a spider
Capillary to the centre

Hold still and press a button
Looking through a glass onion
Following the X-Ray eye
From the cortex to medulla

Analyse E K G
Can you see a memory
Register all my fears
On a flowchart disappear

Leave my head demagnetised
Tell me where the trauma lies
In the scan of pathogen
Or the shadow of my sin

The track is great by the way. MRI never sounded so hip.

Link to Charlotte Gainsbourg track IRM.

Dramatically titled neuroscience story

Question about your life. Introduction to a thematically related tragedy. Promise of hope.

Over-simplified premise. Mention of a brain part and an inadequately explained technology in the same sentence.

Dramatic claim of a breakthrough.

Researcher and affiliation. Description of motivation related to a minor personal detail.

Overly-technical account of experiment.

Contrived analogy.

Rhetorical question?

Allusion to a controversy.

Quote from the researcher. Quote from another researcher.

Caution about over-interpretation. Over-interpretation. Mention of future work.

Genuinely insightful point.

Unintentional irony.

Earnest but misleading conclusion. Optimistic ending.

With apologies to an old kuro5hin post.

As addictive as cupcakes

If I read the phrase “as addictive as cocaine” one more time I’m going to hit the bottle.

Anything that is either overused, pleasurable or has become vaguely associated with the dopamine system is compared to cocaine.

In fact, here is a list of things claimed to be as addictive as the illegal nose powder in the popular press:

World of Warcraft
Junk food
High-Fructose Corn Syrup
Ice cream
Fatty foods

And here is a scientifically verified list of things genuinely addictive as cocaine:


In fact, the concept of ‘addictive as cocaine’ really makes very little sense. Even among drugs, cocaine has a unique chemical profile and social context that are the main things that determine its ‘addictiveness’.

Even if you wanted to make the vague analogy that rates of problematic use are similar you’d need to do a decent epidemiological study.

The classic research from the US reports that about 5% of users become cocaine dependent two years after starting the drug.

We are still waiting for a similar epidemiological study on the use of World of Warcraft or the consumption of cupcakes.

Link to cocaine entry on Wikipedia

Neurological knitwear

One of the disappointing things about the upcoming US presidential elections is that none of the potential candidates has promised the people a made-to-order knitted brain hat. Fear not though, as citizens can now order their own.

Etsy user Anabananna hand knits the woolly neuroogical headgear to your specification and ships them to you.

You can even have a green one if your rockin’ that zombie brain knitwear vibe this season (and who isn’t?)

Link to woolly brain hat (thanks @CandiceGordon)

At least it’s not Twitter

Susan Greenfield, the neuroscientist who seems to have given up on science but constantly appears in the media telling people that ‘the internet can damage your brain,’ now has a website and a YouTube channel.

A sense of irony, however, seems still to be on pre-order from Amazon.

Link to but DON’T RISK IT (via @vinwalsh)

A very brief guide to the DSM

The British Journal of Psychiatry’s ‘100 words’ series continues with a very brief guide to the DSM psychiatric manual and its ongoing revision.

DSM is an American classification system that has dominated since 1980. It is disliked by many for reducing diagnostic skills to a cold list of operational criteria, yet embraced by researchers believing that it represents the first whiff of sense in an area of primitive dogma. It has almost foundered by confusing reliability with validity but the authors seem to recognise its errors and are hoping for rebirth in its 5th revision due in May 2013. The initials do not stand for Diagnosis as a Source of Money or Diagnosis for Simple Minds but the possibility of confusion is present.

I was very pleased to see that the British Journal of Psychiatry made quite clear that the DSM is an American invention.

The original British plans, of course, were to have psychiatric diagnoses based on measuring the stiffness of one’s upper lip – an objective and reliable approach that was sadly neglected.

Link to British Journal of Psychiatry’s DSM in 100 words.