Awaiting a theory of neural weather

In a recent New York Times editorial, psychologist Gary Marcus noted that neuroscience is still awaiting a ‘bridging’ theory that elegantly connects neuroscience with psychology.

This reflects a common belief in cognitive science that there is a ‘missing law’ to be discovered that will tell us how mind and brain are linked – but it is quite possible there just isn’t one to be discovered.

Marcus, not arguing for the theory himself, describes it when he writes:

What we are really looking for is a bridge, some way of connecting two separate scientific languages — those of neuroscience and psychology.

Such bridges don’t come easily or often, maybe once in a generation, but when they do arrive, they can change everything. An example is the discovery of DNA, which allowed us to understand how genetic information could be represented and replicated in a physical structure. In one stroke, this bridge transformed biology from a mystery — in which the physical basis of life was almost entirely unknown — into a tractable if challenging set of problems, such as sequencing genes, working out the proteins that they encode and discerning the circumstances that govern their distribution in the body.

Neuroscience awaits a similar breakthrough. We know that there must be some lawful relation between assemblies of neurons and the elements of thought, but we are currently at a loss to describe those laws.

The idea of a DNA-like missing component that will allow us to connect theories of psychology and neuroscience is an attractive one, but it is equally as likely that the connection between mind and brain is more like the relationship between molecular interactions and the weather.

In this case, there is no ‘special theory’ that connects weather to molecules because different atmospheric phenomena are understood in multiple ways and across multiple models, each of which has a differing relationship to the scale at which the physical data is understood – fluid flows, as statistical models, atomic interactions and so on.

In explanatory terms, ‘psychology’ is probably a lot like the weather. The idea of their being a ‘psychological level’ is a human concept and its conceptual components won’t neatly relate to neural function in a uniform way.

Some functions will have much more direct relationships – like basic sensory information and its representation in the brain’s ‘sensotopic maps’. A good example might be how visual information in space is represented in an equivalent retinotopic map in the brain.

Other functions will have more more indirect relationships but in great part because of how we define ‘functions’. Some have very empirical definitions – take iconic memory – whereas others will be cultural or folk concepts – think vicarious embarrassment or nostalgia.

So it’s unlikely we’re going to find an all-purpose theoretical bridge to connect psychology and neuroscience. Instead, we’ll probably end up with what Kenneth Kendler calls ‘patchy reductionism’ – making pragmatic links between mind and brain where possible using a variety of theories and descriptions.

A search for a general ‘bridging theory’ may be a fruitless one.
 

Link to NYT piece ‘The Trouble With Brain Science’.

Towards a scientifically unified therapy

nature_scienceToday’s edition of Nature has an excellent article on the need to apply cognitive science to understanding how psychological therapies work.

Psychological therapies are often called ‘talking treatments’ but this is often a misleading name. Talking is essential, but it’s not where most of the change happens.

Like seeing a personal trainer in the gym, communication is key, but it’s the exercise which accounts for the changes.

In the same way, psychological therapy is only as effective as the experience of putting changes into practice, but we still know relatively little about the cognitive science behind this process.

Unfortunately, there is a traditional but unhelpful divide in psychology where some don’t see any sort of emotional problem as biological in any way, and the contrasting divide in psychiatry where biology is considered the only explanation in town.

The article in Nature argues that this is pointless and counter-productive:

It is time to use science to advance the psychological, not just the pharmaceutical, treatment of those with mental-health problems. Great strides can and must be made by focusing on concerns that are common to fields from psychology, psychiatry and pharmacology to genetics and molecular biology, neurology, neuroscience, cognitive and social sciences, computer science, and mathematics. Molecular and theoretical scientists need to engage with the challenges that face the clinical scientists who develop and deliver psychological treatments, and who evaluate their outcomes. And clinicians need to get involved in experimental science. Patients, mental-health-care providers and researchers of all stripes stand to benefit.

The piece tackles many good examples of why this is the case and sets out three steps for bridging the divide.

Essential reading.
 

Link to ‘Psychological treatments: A call for mental-health science’.

The concept of stress, sponsored by Big Tobacco

NPR has an excellent piece on how the scientific concept of stress was massively promoted by tobacco companies who wanted an angle to market ‘relaxing’ cigarettes and a way for them to argue that it was stress, not cigarettes, that was to blame for heart disease and cancer.

They did this by funding, guiding and editing the work of renowned physiologist Hans Selye who essentially founded the modern concept of stress and whose links with Big Tobacco have been largely unknown.

For the past decade or so, [Public Health Professor Mark] Petticrew and a group of colleagues in London have been searching through millions of documents from the tobacco industry that were archived online in the late ’90s as part of a legal settlement with tobacco companies.

What they’ve discovered is that both Selye’s work and much of the work around Type A personality were profoundly influenced by cigarette manufacturers. They were interested in promoting the concept of stress because it allowed them to argue that it was stress — not cigarettes — that was to blame for heart disease and cancer.

“In the case of Selye they vetted … the content of the paper, they agreed the wording of papers,” says Petticrew, “tobacco industry lawyers actually influenced the content of his writings, they suggested to him things that he should comment on.”

They also, Petticrew says, spent a huge amount of money funding his research. All of this is significant, Petticrew says, because Selye’s influence over our ideas about stress are hard to overstate. It wasn’t just that Selye came up with the concept, but in his time he was a tremendously respected figure.

Despite the success of the campaign to associate smoking with stress relief, the idea that smoking alleviates anxiety is almost certainly wrong. It tends to just relieve anxiety-provoking withdrawal and quitting smoking reduces overall anxiety levels.

Although the NPR article focuses on Selye and his work on stress, another big name was recruited by Big Tobacco to promote their theories.

It’s still little known that psychologist Hans Eysenck took significant sums of cash from tobacco companies.

They paid for a lot of Eysenck’s research that tried to show that the relationship between lung cancer and smoking was not direct but was mediated by personality differences. There was also lots of other research arguing that a range of smoking related health problems were only present in certain personality types.

Tobacco companies wanted to fund this research to cite it in court cases where they were defending themselves against lung cancer sufferers. It was their personalities, rather than their 20-a-day habit, that was a key cause behind their imminent demise, they wanted to argue in court, and they needed ‘hard science’ to back it up. So they bought some.

However, the link between ‘father of stress’ Hans Seyle and psychologist Hans Eysenck was not just that they were funded by the same people.

A study by Petticrew uncovered documents showing that both Seyle and Eysenck appeared in a 1977 tobacco industry promotional film together where “the film’s message is quite clear without being obvious about it — a controversy exists concerning the etiologic role of cigarette smoking in cancer.”

The ‘false controversy’ PR tactic has now became solidified as a science-denier standard.
 

Link to The Secret History Behind The Science Of Stress from NPR.
Link to paper ‘Hans Selye and the Tobacco Industry’.

Motherhood, apple pie and replication

Who could possibly be against replication of research results? Jason Mitchell of Harvard University is, under some conditions, for reasons described in his essay On the emptiness of failed replications.

I wrote something for the Centre for Open Science which tries to draw out the sensible points in Mitchell’s essay – something I thought worth doing since for many people being against replication in science is like being against motherhood and apple pie. It’s worth noting that I was invited to do this by Brian Nosek, who is co-founder of the Center for Open Science and instrumental in the Many Labs projects. As such, Brian is implicitly one of the targets of Mitchell’s criticisms, so kudos to him for encouraging this discussion.

Here’s my commentary: What Jason Mitchell’s ‘On the emptiness of failed replications’ gets right

A spook’s guide to the psychology of deception

Last February, a file from the Edward Snowden leaks was released from a 2012 GCHQ presentation called ‘The Art of Deception: Training for Online Covert Operations’. It describes the ‘Online Covert Action Accreditation’ course which draws heavily on the psychology of influence and persuasion. This post will look at how they’re piecing together the science that forms the basis for these online operations.

The work seems to have been put together by GCHQ’s Human Science Operations Cell which presumably exists as an internal consultancy to allow the relevant cognitive and social sciences to be applied to practical covert operations.

One of the early slides lists the subjects the HSOC draws on which stretch from psychology to political science to neuroscience. At the current time, neuroscience has nothing practical to contribute, so they’re clearly blowing their neurological trumpets to sound a bit more high-tech but it’s worth noting the breadth of disciplines they draw on meaning they’ve got a wide and comprehensive vision of human behaviour from the micro to the macro.

However, one of the key slides has a road map of how everything fits together. It’s shown below and it’s quite dense so you can click the image below if you want a larger version.

One of the first thing that stands out is the ad-hoc-ness of their approach. They’ve appropriated a patchwork of relevant theories as a guide to practice with nothing being drawn from their own data.

You can see the main areas they’re drawing from – which includes profiling cultures and personality, research on persuasion, cognitive biases and scams, research on the psychology of stage magic, and organisational psychology or management science more generally.
 

Perhaps the weakest elements here are the cultural and personality profiling using Hofstede’s cultural dimensions and a Big Five personality traits. The trouble is that while these are statistically reliable on the group level they predict very little on the individual level because the effects are swamped by individual variation.

This means it may be more useful in the domain of PSYOPS, which attempts to influence groups, rather than targeting individuals.

The slide below details the general psychological framework for deception. As far as I can tell, this is the only original piece of psychological theory in the presentation.
 

It’s more a useful way of organising different approaches to deception rather than a theory in itself. It’s what clinical psychologists would call a ‘formulation’. It’s a way of organising evidence-based effects that may not be thoroughly tested itself but works well enough to aid understanding.

Perhaps the key thing to note is the sensemaking component. Sensemaking is a key concept in management science that just describes the different ways in which people come to conclusions about the meaning and significance of things.

It should be a well-known concept in intelligence circles because it is used both in military people management and military intelligence analysis. Interestingly, they treat individuals as like naive intelligence analysts who are trying to piece together their own understanding of the world and aim to exploit some of the weaknesses in this process. The big messy ‘concept map’ slides mentions ‘destructive organisational psychology’ which presumably refers to using the understanding of what keeps organisation together to break them apart.

However, in terms of the psychological science which underlies their approach, the next slide is key.
 

You can see several influences here. The techniques listed under ‘attention’ are all taken from research on the psychology of magic tricks, particularly from Susana Martinez-Conde’s work on how sleight-of-hand artists manipulate attention. Most of it is reviewed in a paper she wrote with a series of co-authors including pickpocket Apollo Robbins.

The HSOC spooks clearly love the idea of the psychology of magic and they refer to it a lot in their presentation. One slide just says ‘We want to build Cyber Magicians’, but it’s really not clear how it applies online. The whole point of sleight-of-hand is that it is dynamic and takes advantage of how you pay attention. When online, however, users’ attention doesn’t necessary flow in a predictable pattern because you can wander off from the screen, pause, grab screenshots and so on. In other words, individuals have better control over the flow of information because online interaction is designed for information control and therefore partial staggered attention.

The ‘perception’ techniques listed on the slide are largely taken from Stefano Grazioli and Sirkka Jarvenpaa’s classic paper [pdf] on online deception entitled ‘Deceived: Under Target Online’. The paper looks at how internet scammers rip people off and assuming that successful online con artists have found useful techniques by natural selection, HSOC just borrow them.

The techniques to exploit sensemaking are largely based on theories of sensemaking itself although the story fragments components seems to be drawn from research on relational agents that are designed ‘to form long-term, social-emotional relationships with their users’. Rather than actually deploying autonomous relational agents, I suspect it’s simply a case of using research insights from the area that suggests, for example, that presenting fragments of the agent’s backstory and letting the other person piece them together makes the person seem more believable.

The techniques in the ‘affect’ section are some general points taken from a vast experimental literature on the psychology of marketing and persuasion that describes how emotion modulates the heuristics (judgement processes) involved in persuasion.

The ‘behaviour’ section is the only part I don’t recognise as coming from the psychological literature. This makes me suspect it comes from PSYOPS or IO practice, but if you recognise it, leave a comment below.
 

The ’10 Principles of Influence’ is perhaps one of the most interesting slides in terms of illustrating the empirical basis for their approach as they use research both on the strategies of honest persuasion and dishonest scammers.

‘Principles are influence’ are largely associated with the work of consumer psychologist Robert Cialdini but the list actually consists of three of his six principles (Reciprocity, Social Compliance / Authority, Consistency).

Another six are taken from Stajano and Wilson’s classic study ‘Understanding scam victims: seven principles for systems security’ which describes six methods used by con artists. One item overlaps with the Cialdini principles and additionally they’ve included flattery (known to be an effective persuasive tool) and time – although it’s not clear whether they’re referring to giving people time and putting people under time pressure.
 

This section seems to be about gaining people’s trust to encourage disclosure and the slide you see above refers to social penetration theory which describes how relationships progress to increased levels of intimate connection through self-disclosure. The slide that follows this gives some basic advice about encouraging this: mirroring communication cues, adjust speech patters and so on – the sort of things you get taught in the first week of a psychotherapy course.

So here’s what the Online Covert Action Accreditation’ course looks like: like a PhD psychologist was given the task to come up with a plausible psychological framework for practical deception and influence online. It draws on a mix of persuasion psychology from marketing, studies on scammers and con-men, the social psychology of trust and disclosure, studies of how stage magic works psychologically, and work on what makes organisations work effectively and what degrades their performance.

This is a comprehensive approach to the problem, but the trouble is, this probably only translates approximately and probably rather poorly into practical effects.

In place of this, HSOC would be better of doing research and lots of it. They could do lots of informal RCTs online and gather a large amount of data quite quickly to test out which techniques actually increase influence or lead to successful deception. What behaviours on the part of the actor lead to increased self-disclosure the quickest? Does a laggy internet connection mean people’s increased frustration affects their evaluation of honest? and so on.

I suspect, however, that the Human Science Operations Cell were, and maybe still are, quite a small outfit and so they’re restricted to a consultancy role which will ultimately limit their effectiveness.

We tend to think that the secret services are super efficient experts with an infinite budget, but they probably just work like any other organisation. HSOC were probably told to deliver an Online Covert Action Accreditation course with few resources and not enough time and came up with the most sensible thing in the time allowed.

Oh, and by the way, hello spooks, and welcome to Mind Hacks.
 

Link to copy of slides.
Link to coverage from The Intercept.

The biases of pop psychology

I just found this great piece at Scientific American that makes a fascinating point about how pop psychology books that inform us about our biases tend not to inform us about our most important bias – the effect of making things into stories – despite the fact that they rely on it to get their message across

The piece starts by quoting economist Tyler Cowen:

“There’s the Nudge book, the Sway book, the Blink book… [they are] all about the ways in which we screw up. And there are so many ways, but what I find interesting is that none of these books identify what, to me, is the single, central, most important way we screw up, and that is, we tell ourselves too many stories, or we are too easily seduced by stories. And why don’t these books tell us that? It’s because the books themselves are all about stories. The more of these books you read, you’re learning about some of your biases, but you’re making some of your other biases essentially worse. So the books themselves are part of your cognitive bias.”

The crux of the problem, as Cowen points out, is that it’s nearly impossible to understand irrationalities without taking advantage of them. And, paradoxically, we rely on stories to understand why they can be harmful.

‘Great story!’ you might say, instantly causing a cognitive bias loop from which you might never emerge.
 

Link to ‘The Paradox of Popular Psychology’ (via @JNNP_BMJ)

A modern psychiatry

If you want to know how your average reasonable mainstream medical psychiatrist thinks about mental illness, Aeon magazine has a good piece that captures where many are coming from.

Now before you (yes you) Dr average reasonable mainstream medical psychiatrist, says that you don’t agree with all of it, I’m not suggesting it’s a manifesto, but it does cover a great deal of the mainstream.

We could argue a few points over some of the empirical claims, but it’s a surprisingly good snapshot in the round.

Probably the most important thing it underlines is that most psychiatrists are less obsessed with diagnosis than people who are are obsessed about the fact that psychiatrists make diagnoses.

Most psychiatrists typically don’t think that ‘every diagnosis is a disease’ and recognise the fuzziness of the boundaries – as indeed, do most medical professionals.

The article also highlights the fact that the medicalisation of emotional distress is driven as much by public demand as it is by drug company profiteering. People like pill-shaped convenience and drug companies make it their business to take advantage of this.

I would also say that the piece reflects mainstream psychiatric thinking by what it leaves out: a sufficient discussion of the psychiatric deprivation of liberty and autonomy – and its emotional impact on individuals.

Considering that this is the thing most likely to be experienced as traumatic, it is still greatly under-emphasised in internal debates and it remains conspicuous by its absence.
 

Link to ‘A Mad World’ on Aeon magazine.

How to win wars by influencing people

I’ve got an article in The Observer about how behavioural science is being put at the centre of military operations and how an ‘influence-led’ view of warfare is causing a rethink in how armed conflict is managed.

Techniques such as deception and propaganda have been the mainstay of warfare for thousands of years, but there is a growing belief that the modern world has changed so fundamentally that war itself needs to be refigured. Confrontations between standing armies of large nation states are becoming rare while conflicts with guerrilla or terrorist groups, barely distinguishable from the local population, are increasingly common. In other words, overwhelming firepower no longer guarantees victory…

Mackay and Tatham argue that researching what motivates people within specific groups and deploying informed, testable interventions on the ground will be central to managing modern conflict.

It also discusses how ‘information operations’ thinking has spread into the military’s work in the civilian realm.
 

Link to ‘How to win wars by influencing people’s behaviour’.

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.

Snow-fuelled neurophilosophy

Pete Mandik is a professor of philosophy and was due to give a class on neurophilosophy before his class got snowed out. Instead of ditching the class he made a fantastic and funny video lecture for his students.

The pipe-chewing Mandik gives a great introduction to this particular philosophical approach to integrating neuroscience and concepts of mind – most associated with the work of Patricia and Paul Churchland.

The lecture is called ‘Two Flavors of Neurophilosophy’ and comes in three parts.

If this is what happens when it snows in New Jersey, let it snow.
 

Link to part one.
Link to part two.
Link to part three.

The most accurate psychopaths in cinema

The most accurately depicted psychopaths in cinema have been identified by a study that has just been published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences.

The study specifically excluded films that weren’t intended to be realistic (involving magical powers, fantasy settings and so on) but still examined 126 characters from 20th and 21st century movies.

It’s worth noting that the clinical definition of psychopathy is not what most people think – it’s not necessarily someone who is a knife wielding maniac – but suggests someone who has poor empathy, little remorse, and is impulsive and manipulative.

Needless to say, psychopathy is more common in people who are persistently violent, but you don’t need to be violent to be a psychopath.

After conducting the analysis the authors note which films they feel have most accurately captured the characteristics of the psychopath.

Among the most interesting recent and most realistic idiopathic psychopathic characters is Anton Chigurh in the 2007 Coen brothers’ film, No Country for Old Men. Anton Chigurh is a well-designed prototypical idiopathic / primary psychopath. We lack information concerning his childhood, but there are sufficient arguments and detailed information about his behavior in the film to obtain a diagnosis of active, primary, idiopathic psychopathy, incapacity for love, absence of shame or remorse, lack of psychological insight, inability to learn from past experience, cold-blooded attitude, ruthlessness, total determination, and lack of empathy. He seems to be affectively invulnerable and resistant to any form of emotion or humanity. Having read and studied [serial killer] Richard Kuklinski’s case, Chigurh and Kuklinski have several traits in common. In the case of Chigurh, the description is extreme, but we could realistically almost talk about “an anti-human personality disorder”.

Another realistic interesting example is Henry (inspired from [real life serial killer] Henry Lee Lucas) (Henry-Portrait of a Serial Killer, 1991). In this film, the main, interesting theme is the chaos and instability in the life of the psychopath, Henry’s lack of insight, a powerful lack of empathy, emotional poverty, and a well-illustrated failure to plan ahead. George Harvey is another different and interesting character found in The Lovely Bones, 2009. Harvey is more ‘adapted’ than Chigurh and Henry. He has a house, is socially competent and seems like ‘the average man on the street’. Through the film, we learn that he is in fact an organized paraphilic SVP [sexually violent predator]. Here, the false self is well illustrated.

In terms of a ‘successful psychopath’, Gordon Gekko from Wall Street (1987) is probably one of the most interesting, manipulative, psychopathic fictional characters to date. Manipulative psychopathic characters are increasingly appearing in films and series. Again, we observe the same process, as observed and explained before, with antisocial psychopaths. For the past few years, with the world economic crises and some high-profile trials (such as the Bernard Madoff trial), the attention of the clinicians is more focused on ‘successful psychopaths’, also called corporate psychopaths by Babiak et al. Films and series presenting characters such as brokers, dishonest traders, vicious lawyers, and those engaged in corporate espionage are emerging (e.g., Mad Men, The Wire) and are generally related to the global economy and international business. Again, we see a strong parallelism between what happens in our society and what happens in film.

The paper also has a short section on the how the movies portray psychopathatic mental health professionals, which were apparently more common in cinema from the 1980s.

It describes how psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter is an ‘extraordinarily astute clinician’ who can diagnose Agent Starling’s psychological conflicts by identifying her perfume and assessing her shoes and clothing, while also being invulnerable.

They authors dryly note that these seem to be abilities “that are not generally found in everyday clinical practice”.
 

Link to locked study in Journal of Forensic Sciences.

Is school performance less heritable in the USA?

CC licensed photo by flickr user Pollbarba. Click for source.A recent twin study looked at educational achievement in the UK and found that genetic factors contribute more than half to the difference in how students perform in their age 16 exams. But this may not apply to other countries.

Twin studies look at the balance between environmental and genetic factors for a given population and a given environment.

They are based on comparing identical and non-identical twins. Identical twins share 100% of their DNA, non-identical twins 50%. They also share a common environment (for example, the family home) and some unique experiences.

By knowing that differences in what you’re measuring in identical twins is likely to be ‘twice as genetic’ or ‘twice as heritable’ in non-identical twins you can work out the likely effect of environment using something called the ACE model.

This relies on various assumptions, for example, that identical twins and non-identical twins will not systematically attract different sorts of experiences, which are not watertight. But as a broad estimate, twin studies work out.

Here’s what the latest study concluded:

In a national twin sample of 11,117 16-year-olds, heritability was substantial for overall GCSE performance for compulsory core subjects (58%) as well as for each of them individually: English (52%), mathematics (55%) and science (58%). In contrast, the overall effects of shared environment, which includes all family and school influences shared by members of twin pairs growing up in the same family and attending the same school, accounts for about 36% of the variance of mean GCSE scores. The significance of these findings is that individual differences in educational achievement at the end of compulsory education are not primarily an index of the quality of teachers or schools: much more of the variance of GCSE scores can be attributed to genetics than to school or family environment.

In other words, the study concluded that over half of the difference in exam results was down to genetic factors.

The most important thing to consider, however, is how well the conclusions apply outside the population and environment being tested.

Because the results give an estimate of the balance between environment and genetic heritability that contribute to the final outcome, the more fixed the environment, the more any differences will be due to genetics and vice versa.

If that’s a bit difficult to get your head round try this example: ask yourself – is difference in height mostly due to genetics or the environment? Most people say genetics – tall parents tend to have tall offspring – but that only applies where everybody has adequate nutrition (i.e. the environmental contribution is fixed to maximum benefit).

In situations where malnutrition is a problem, difference in height is mostly explained by the environment. People who have adequate nutrition during childhood are taller than people who suffered malnutrition. In this situation, genetic factors are a minor player in terms of explaining height differences.

So let’s go back to our education example and think about how genetic and environmental factors balance out.

One of the interesting things about the UK is that it has a National Curriculum where schools have to teach set subjects in a set way.

In other words, the government has fixed part of the environment meaning that differences in exam performance in the UK are that bit more likely to be due to genetic heritability than places where there is no set education programme.

In fact, the same research group speculated in 2007 in a research monograph (pdf, p116) in a similar analysis, that school performance would be less genetically heritable in the USA, because the school environment is more variable.

The U.K. National Curriculum provides similar curricula to all students, thus diminishing a potentially important source of environmental variation across schools, to the extent that the curriculum actually provides a potent source of environmental variation.

In contrast, the educational system in the United States is one of the most decentralized national systems in the world. To the extent that these differences in educational policy affect children’s academic performance, we would expect greater heritability and lower shared environment in the United Kingdom than in the United States.

In other words, all other things being equal, greater equality in educational opportunity should lead to greater heritability.

School performance may be less influenced by genetic heritability in the USA because the educational environment is more variable and therefore accounts for more difference.

Whereas in the UK, the educational environment is more fixed so a greater proportion of the difference in performance is down to genetic heritability.

It’s worth noting that this hasn’t, to my knowledge, been confirmed yet, but it’s a reasonable assumption and demonstrates exactly the question we need to bear in mind when considering studies that estimate heritability – for whom and in what environment?
 

Link to twin study on school performance in PLOS One.
pdf of research monograph on learning and genetics.

Where data meets the people

Ben Goldacre might be quite surprised to hear he’s written a sociology book, but for the second in our series on books about how the science of mind, brain and mental health meet society, Bad Pharma is an exemplary example.

The book could essentially be read as a compelling textbook on clinical trial methodology with better jokes, but the crux of the book is not really the methods of testing medical interventions, but how these methods are used and abused for financial ends and what impact this has on professional medicine and, ultimately, our health.

In other words, the book looks at how clinical science is used socially and how social influences affect clinical science.

For example, this is question I often give students: If a trial is badly designed, are the results more likely to suggest the treatment is effective or more likely to suggest the treatment is ineffective?

Most students, naive to the ways of the scientific world, tend to say that badly designed trials would be less likely to show the treatment works but in the real world, badly designed trials are much more likely to give positive results.

There is nothing in the science that makes this happen. This is an entirely social effect. It’s worth saying that that this is rarely due to outright fraud but it’s those little decisions that add up over time, each of which seems completely justifiable to the researcher, that sway the results.

It’s like if your dad was school football coach. You’d probably get picked for the team more often not because your father was making a conscious decision to include you no matter what, but because he would genuinely believe he had recognised talent where others probably wouldn’t.

For scientists, the treatment they are testing is often their ‘baby’, and the same sort of soft biases creep in between the cracks. And the more cracks there are, the more creep occurs.

On the other hand, pharmaceutical companies are often deliberately trying to promote their product by distorting the evidence for its effectiveness. This often happens within the accepted regulations – the unethical but legal realm – but happens surprisingly often outside the law.

Bad Pharma is not specifically about psychiatry but as one of the medical specialities which is most corrupted by the influence of large pharmaceutical companies, it turns up a lot.

It is both an essential guide to understanding how treatments for mental health conditions are tested and has plenty of examples of how psychiatric drugs have been the subject of spin, over-selling and fraud.

Perhaps the only part where I think Goldacre is being too strong is in his criticism of ‘me too drugs’ which are new drugs which are often molecularly similar but no more effective for the target symptoms than the old ones.

At least in psychiatry, one of the big problems is not so much the effectiveness of the drugs, but their side-effects. Having other compounds which although no more effective may be more agreeable or less risky is a genuine benefit.

Goldacre is clear about this being a benefit, but I think he under-values it at times, especially since a lot of mind and brain medicine involves iterating through medications until the patient is happy with the balance between effectiveness and side-effects.

But this is a small point in an excellent book. It is essential if you want to know how medicine works and doubly essential if you have an interest in the mind, brain and mental health where these issues are both a significant battle ground and often under-appreciated.

I suspect Goldacre would prefer to call the book political rather than sociological, but if you are studying psychology, neuroscience or mental health it is a must read to understand how clinical science meets society.

Next and finally in this three-part Mind Hacks series on science and society – Didier Fassin and Richard Rechtman’s The Empire of Trauma.
 

Link to more details of Bad Pharma.

Hallucinated voices and the community inside us

I’ve long been fascinated by the experience of ‘hearing voices’ and long been baffled by the typical scientific approach to the experience.

As a result, I’ve just had a paper published in PLOS Biology that focus on one of the most striking but ignored aspects of hallucinated voices.

Here’s how I describe the central paradox in the paper:

Auditory verbal hallucinations, the experience of “hearing voices”, present us with an interesting paradox: the experiences are generated from within a single individual but are typically experienced as a social phenomenon—that is, a form of communication from another speaker.

Current theories attempt to explain auditory verbal hallucinations as alterations to individualistic information processing—namely, misattributions of internal thoughts as external phenomena due to biases in cognitive monitoring.

The fact that voices stem from an internal source is, of course, clear, but the typical experience of “hearing voices” is not that thoughts seem to be “spoken aloud” but that hallucinated voices have a social identity with clear interpersonal relevance. In other words, voices are as much hallucinated social identities as they are hallucinated words or sounds.

The article discusses the psychology and neuroscience of social processing in the experience of hearing voices and suggests how we can begin to consider this as a central component of the experience in terms of scientific research.

It’s an academic article but should hopefully be fairly accessible to most people with an interest in the science of hallucinations.

Enjoy!
 

Link to article ‘A Community of One’ on social cognition and hearing voices.

A multitude of PTSDs

A new paper in Perspectives in Psychological Science looked at all the possible combinations of symptoms that could achieve a DSM-5 diagnosis of posttraumatic stress disorder and found there are now 636,120 ways to have PTSD.

This shows one of the many drawbacks of having a ‘check-list’ approach to classifying mental disorder.

636,120 Ways to Have Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

Perspectives in Psychological Science
November 2013 vol. 8 no. 6 651-662

Isaac R. Galatzer-Levy
Richard A. Bryant

In an attempt to capture the variety of symptoms that emerge following traumatic stress, the revision of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) criteria in the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5) has expanded to include additional symptom presentations. One consequence of this expansion is that it increases the amorphous nature of the classification. Using a binomial equation to elucidate possible symptom combinations, we demonstrate that the DSM–IV criteria listed for PTSD have a high level of symptom profile heterogeneity (79,794 combinations); the changes result in an eightfold expansion in the DSM–5, to 636,120 combinations. In this article, we use the example of PTSD to discuss the limitations of DSM-based diagnostic entities for classification in research by elucidating inherent flaws that are either specific artifacts from the history of the DSM or intrinsic to the underlying logic of the DSM’s method of classification. We discuss new directions in research that can provide better information regarding both clinical and nonclinical behavioral heterogeneity in response to potentially traumatic and common stressful life events. These empirical alternatives to an a priori classification system hold promise for answering questions about why diversity occurs in response to stressors.

Many argue that psychiatric diagnoses are mostly just descriptions of syndromes: groups of signs and symptoms that tend to group together rather than the result of a single underlying disorder.

Sometimes they are better thought of a convenient classifications for testing treatments against.

When diagnoses are developed, however, there is always the temptation to continually tweak the definition to allow the inclusion or exclusion of different experiences as valid targets for treatment.

These changes are usually well-intentioned but can lead to unintended consequences – as this study shows.
 

Link to locked paper from Perspectives in Psychological Science.