Brain in your medieval pants

In Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical drawings, the penis is connected directly to the brain.

A 1986 article “On the sexual intercourse drawings of Leonardo da Vinci” explains why this connection, still commonly proposed today (although mostly as a metaphor it must be said), was thought to be anatomical fact by the great master.

“A brief glance at the male character in Fig. 3 reveals the amazing internal ‘plumbing’ designed by Leonardo to describe Aristotelian physiology. He has drawn two canals in the penis, the lower of which is connected to the urogenital tract via the urethra, while the upper canal passes to the spinal cord by means of three vessels. The close-up of the penis demonstrates these two canals in fine detail. In ancient Greek writing, the ‘essence’ of a baby was provided by the ‘universal seed stuff’ of the male. This procreative ingredient was derived from animal spirit, a physiological material necessary for muscular activity. The animal spirit was manufactured from arterial blood at the base of the brain and was transferred to all parts of the body through the nerves. Hence da Vinci’s spinal connection to the penis.”

And before I hear a “Yeah, right on Leo!” from the ladies, I note a remarkably similar vagina – spinal cord connection also makes an appearance in the diagram.

Link to PubMed entry for article.
pdf of full text.

Teen sex hamsters in health danger shock alert

The Daily Mail is a UK newspaper famous for a moralising obsession with teen sex and a tragic, long-term science impairment.

Most of their science stories are simply face-palm material but occasionally they produce unintentional works of comic genius.

Today, is one of those days.

Teenage sex ‘leads to bad moods’ in later life’

Having sex during teenage years could lead to bad moods, changes in brain development and smaller reproductive tissues, according to scientists.

Researchers from Ohio State University College of Medicine found that these changes can occur because the sexual experience is taking place while the brain is still developing.

Study co-author John Morris said: ‘Having a sexual experience during this time point, early in life, is not without consequence.’

The researchers based their conclusions after studying the behaviour of hamsters after they engaged in sexual activity.


Link to Daily Mail on hamster sex (via @DrPetra).

A theory of the bipolar economy

If you’re convinced that the current cycle of the boom and bust economy is due to the collapse of collateralised debt obligations secured on oversold mortgages that destablised the European market due to its reliance on cheap loans from an artificially inflated US market – think again!

A 1935 Psychological Review article proposed a ‘manic-depressive psychoses’ theory of economic highs and lows based on the idea that the market has a form of monetary bipolar disorder.

Manic-depressive psychoses of business

Psychological Review, Vol 42(1), Jan 1935, 91-107.

Morgan, J. J. B.

An analysis of the various theories offered to explain the business cycle of alternate booms and depressions shows that all these theories are based on a superficial study of symptoms, rather than on an analysis of the real causes, which the author believes are psychological in nature.

Business is compared to a patient suffering from a manic-depressive psychosis, in which the boom period parallels the manic phase and the subsequent slump parallels the depressive phase. It is argued that, in business as in the individual psychosis, the manic period is not a period of real optimism or even over-confidence, but is really a period of fear, for which the excessive speculative activity is a compensatory mechanism.

This fear is induced by a lack of confidence in the credit system and a desire to beat it. Two alternative solutions are offered: one is to strengthen the credit system by building up a group of heroic leaders; but this is utopian at present. The other is to discover a better defense mechanism and adopt it.

I suspect when Dr Morgan thought of a ‘better defense mechanism’ he wasn’t thinking of a bunch of unemployed people and students camping out in the local financial centre.

The article was apparently mentioned by economist Robert Shiller at a talk at the ongoing Society for Neuroscience conference.

Link to article summary (via @carlzimmer)

Bad celebrity tie-ins

No celebrity disaster is too tragic to remind us of an interesting fact about cognitive science. Some lowlights from the genre.

Lindsay Lohan is likely to be jailed for violating her probation says The Christian Science Monitor – clearly an example illustrating recent findings from research on how behavior is influenced by like-minded cohorts rather than essential values.

Charlie Sheen? say CBS. I suspect you want to hear about a new study on the cognitive science of self-deception. Guest appearance by Colonel Qaddafi.

An anti-semitic tirade by Mel Gibson reported by The LA Times. Quick, look over there! Wha..? Oh nothing. The neural basis of the alcohol related disinhibition.

The New York Times don’t know how Amy Winehouse tragically died but if you’re thinking what I’m thinking (wink, wink) then why wouldn’t you want to hear about the role of genes, environment and psychology in overdose and addiction.

But this, from The Globe and Mail, surely takes the biscuit. It contains a paragraph that will probably be stolen by The Onion.

But neuroscientists, despite 15 years of brain-imaging studies, are unable to define the circuitry involved in creative thinking. They don’t know what is different about the brains of creative geniuses like Steve Jobs, the visionary co-founder of Apple Inc. who died on Wednesday.

Elvis, of course, was a neuroscientist.

The New York Times wees itself in public

The New York Times has just pissed its neuroscientific pants in public and is now running round the streets announcing the fact in an op-ed that could as easily been titled ‘Smell my wee!’

The piece is written by Martin Lindström, famous for writing the ‘neuromarketing’ best-seller Buyology, but infamous for not making any of his data or studies public.

In fact, despite constantly mentioning the astounding conclusions from numerous brain imaging studies he was run, not one has appeared in the scientific literature.

But even without knowing about the reliability data or the quality of the analysis, it’s easy to see that he’s talking through his hat because the interpretations are so over-the-top that they are actually beyond what is possible with brain imaging science.

The piece is full of nonsense of various sorts.

I carried out an fMRI experiment to find out whether iPhones were really, truly addictive…

In each instance, the results showed activation in both the audio and visual cortices of the subjects’ brains. In other words, when they were exposed to the video, our subjects’ brains didn’t just see the vibrating iPhone, they “heard” it, too; and when they were exposed to the audio, they also “saw” it. This powerful cross-sensory phenomenon is known as synesthesia.

Actually, this is known as bullshit because synesthesia is where a conscious sensory experience in one sensory domain produces a conscious experience in another.

In other words, synesthesia is defined by the experiences that someone has, not where brain activity shows up.

The fact that brain activity occurs in an area previously linked to a different function does not mean it is being used for that function or that the person is having a related conscious experience.

If this is not entirely clear, think of it like this. Imagine, for the first time in your life, you just heard the sound of a guitar being played as part of a pop song. You’d be a bit daft if every time you heard guitar chords you told people that the music must be a pop song. After all, there’s a guitar in it, right?

Clearly, this is ridiculous because the guitar is an instrument that appears in lots of musical styles but Lindström is doing the neuroscience equivalent of over-interpreting guitar sounds throughout his terrible article.

He starts going on about how activation in the insula, detected in his privately conducted otherwise unknown study, means the person is experiencing love for their iPhone because insula activity has previously been linked to love.

The trouble is, as neuroimaging researcher Russ Poldrack just pointed out, it is one of the most common brain areas that turns up in fMRI studies and appears in about a third of imaging studies no matter what is being studied. In other words, it’s linked to just about every experience and behaviour you can think of.

In fact, it is probably most famous, not for its association with love, but for its association with digust, but Lindstrom apparently decided to avoid this particular interpretation.

This is just one example among many and if you want a breakdown of why the article really is full of crap, I recommend neuroscientist Tal Yarkoni’s point-by-point analysis and facepalm jamboree.

In fact, the op-ed has annoyed so many people there is now a letter to the editor signed by just about every big name in fMRI research on its way to the New York Times in an attempt to open the windows and get rid of that uncomfortable smell.

Link to NYT pissing itself in public.
Link to Tal Yarkoni’s excellent mopping up exercise.

The football cure / addiction

A psychologist from the University of Alabama says American football can absolutely heal the trauma that the deadly April tornados left behind but be careful because there is a risk you could suffer from football addiction.

Clearly true because he says so in a priceless TV interview and the university backed it up in a hard hitting press release.

Media science – saving YOU from deadly sports addictions.

Minding your own business

I’m just reading a review copy of Steven Pinker’s (excellent) new book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.

This section, on how moral motivation is over-rated as a control on violence, just made me laugh out loud.

The human moral sense can excuse any atrocity in the minds of those who commit them, and it furnishes them with motives for acts of violence that bring them no tangible benefit. The torture of heretics and conversos, the burning of witches, the imprisonment of homosexuals, and the honor killing of unchaste sisters and daughters are just a few examples. The incalculable suffering that has been visited on the world by people motivated by a moral cause is enough to make one sympathize with the comedian George Carlin when he said “I think motivation is overrated. You show me some lazy prick who’s lying around all day watching game shows and stroking his penis and I’ll show you someone who’s not causing any fucking trouble!


Link to more information on the book.

The brain melting internet

Susan Greenfield has been wibbling to the media again about how the internet is melting the brains of young children.

Quite frankly, I’ve become fed up with discussing the evidence that refutes such outlandish claims but The Lay Scientist has a brilliant parody that manages to catch the main thrust behind her argument.

I thought I caught my brain melting when reading it but it turns out I had actually wet myself.

That’s why science is so hard you see.

Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter have left a generation of young adults vulnerable to degeneration of the brain, we can exclusively reveal for about the fifth time. Symptoms include self-obsession, short attention spans and a childlike desire for constant feedback, according to a ‘top scientist’ with no record of published research on the issue…

The scientist believes that use of the internet – and computer games – could ‘rewire’ the brain, causing neurons to establish new connections and pathways. “Rewiring itself is something that the brain does naturally all the time,” the professor said, “but the phrase ‘rewiring the brain’ sounds really dramatic and chilling, so I like to use it to make it seem like I’m talking about a profound and unnatural change, even though it isn’t.”…

“I think it’s really important that people aren’t frightened by scare stories about new technology, and I’ve been a big supporter of brain-training software in the past,” the scientist said, “but people’s brains are literally melting inside their heads from all the MyFace waves being absorbed.”

Joking aside, I honestly despair. I genuinely think that Greenfield is motivated by good intentions but it’s difficult to see how her unwillingness to engage with any of the evidence on the issue is anything other than wilful ignorance.

At the very least, the funny Lay Scientist piece will help you feel better about the whole disappointing situation.

Link to ‘Facebook will destroy your children’s brains’.

Couch of desire

‘Sleaze’ books were cheap exploitation paperbacks written in the 1950s and sold to anyone with 50 cents to spare. A popular subgenre was psychiatrist’s couch bodice ripper that revealed the secrets of sexually frustrated patients or the lurid downfall of predatory doctors.

They often turn up on eBay searches or can be tracked down through searching Google Images where titles like ‘Try My Couch’ and ‘Orgy Office’ have found a special place in pulp paperback history.

With the advent of modern neuroscience we now know that these books rewire the brain and turn people into sex addicts.

No wait, they take take advantage of latent oedipal urges and allow the expression of dangerously repressed desires.

It’s definitely one or the other. Either way, don’t click the links below or you’ll go blind.

Link to psychiatrist pulp paperbacks on eBay.
Link to psychiatrist pulp paperbacks on Google Images.

They’re Made Out of Meat!

“They’re Made Out of Meat” is a short story by Terry Bisson. It’s a great riff on the improbability of the human situation, and particularly relevant to psychologists (e.g. “So … what does the thinking?”) The full text is here. The story has its own wikipedia page, and there’s a YouTube film here. Now, for your listening delight Erin Revell and Geraint Edwards, at my request, have recorded the story so I can play parts of it during a lecture. The result was too good not to share, so with Terry Bisson’s permission, here’s a link for the whole thing:

Terry Bisson’s “They’re Made Out of Meat”

(Cross posted at

The neurology of the undead

Wired has an excellent neurological guide to surviving the zombie holocaust that will keep you one shamble ahead when the undead attack.

The article and the wonderful accompanying infographics were inspired by the work of neuroscientist Bradley Voyek who, when he is not poking around in the decaying brains of zombies, looks at communication networks in the human brain.

Link to Wired piece on the neuroscience of the zombie apocalypse.

Pink fluffy cat ears – controlled by brain waves

Wired UK have documented how another barrier in the fashion revolution has come crashing down. A Japanese company called Neurowear have created pink brainwave-controlled cat ears for humans.

The company claim that they stand up when you concentrate and lay flat when you relax.

However, as the ears almost certainly pick up on different EEG frequencies which aren’t directly tied to mental states it probably means that they move around largely of their own free will while you have a vague sense of controlling them.

But never mind, they’re an important fashion advance and that’s all that matters.

The cat ear product, called “necomimi” is a novelty hair band that is worn in the normal way but features sensors that pick up on brain signals and convert them into visible actions — in this case by wiggling the cat ears.

The ears twitch through a range of different positions, which correspond to different brain activity. So when you concentrate, the ears point upwards and when you relax the ears flop down and forwards. The result is a kick-ass pair of ears that will make everyone at the furry convention / fancy dress party jealous.

The video is priceless by the way.

Link to Wired UK on brainwave cat ears for humans (via @AutoDespair).

Parents a risk factor for psychological maladjustment

The Onion has a funny story with the headline ‘Man Raised By Parents Struggling To Adjust To Human Society’.

MINNEAPOLIS—Two years after his discovery by a team of developmental psychologists, David Sullivan, a man raised by a pair of mated parents, is still struggling to adapt to normal human society, sources confirmed Friday.

According to researchers at the University of Minnesota, Sullivan, 25, has made significant progress since moving into his own apartment in 2009, but the decades he spent being reared by parents has made joining civilization a desperately difficult task.

“The chances of David ever becoming socialized to the point where he can function normally among humans is very slim,” said Dr. Lisa Reynolds, a psychologist who has observed Sullivan since he was first introduced into the real world. “The sheltered, isolated environment in which he spent his adolescence has left him completely unequipped to deal with modern life. Tasks that may seem simple to us, such as doing laundry or grocery shopping, completely baffle David.”


Link to ‘Man Raised By Parents Struggling To Adjust To Human Society’.