- Did the eyes really stare down bicycle crime in Newcastle?
- A world of swearing
- The ‘unnamed feeling’ named ASMR
- Disaster response psychology needs to change
- 2013-05-03 Spike activity
- Mind and brain podcast radio rush
- National Institute of Mental Health abandoning the DSM
- Race perception isn’t automatic
- Prescribe it again, Sam
- 2013-04-27 Spike activity
_This is the first fortnightly column I'll be writing for The Conversation, a creative commons news and opinion website that launched today. The site has been set up by a number of UK universities and bodies such as the Wellcome Trust, Nuffield Foundation and HEFCE, following the successful model of the Australian version of the site. Their plan is to unlock the massive amount of expertise held by UK academics and inject it into the public discourse. My plan is to give some critical commentary on headlines from the week's news which focus on neuroscience and psychology. If you've any headlines like you'd critiquing, let me know!_ ------------------------- THE HEADLINES Staring eyes ‘deter’ Newcastle University bike thieves The poster that’s deterring bike thieves The sign that cuts bike theft by 60% THE STORY A picture of a large pair of eyes triggers feelings of surveillance in potential thieves, making them less likely to break the rules. WHAT THEY ACTUALLY DID Researchers put signs with a large pair of eyes and the message “Cycle thieves: we are watching you” by the bike racks at Newcastle University. They then monitored bike thefts for two years and found a 62% drop in thefts at locations with the signs. There was a 65% rise in the thefts from locations on campus without signs. HOW PLAUSIBLE IS IT? A bunch of studies have previously shown that subtle clues which suggest surveillance can alter moral behaviour. The classic example is the amount church-goers might contribute to the collection dish. This research fits within the broad category of findings which show our decisions can be influenced by aspects of our environment, even those which shouldn’t logically affect them. The signs are being trialled by Transport for London, and are a good example of the behavioural “nudges” promoted by the Cabinet Office’s (newly privatised) Behavioural Insight Unit. Policy makers love these kind of interventions because they are cheap. They aren’t necessarily the most effective way to change behaviour, but they have a neatness and “light touch” which means we’re going to keep hearing about this kind of policy. TOM’S TAKE The problem with this study is that the control condition was not having any sign above bike racks – so we don’t know what it was about the anti-theft sign that had an effect. It could have been the eyes, or it could be message “we are watching you”. Previous research, cited in the study, suggests both elements have an effect. The effect is obviously very strong for location, but it isn’t very strong in time. Thieves moved their thefts to nearby locations without signs – suggesting that any feelings of being watched didn’t linger. We should be careful about assuming that anything was working via the unconscious or irrational part of the mind. If I were a bike thief and someone was kind enough to warn me that some bikes were being watched, and (by implication) others weren’t, I would rationally choose to do my thieving from an unwatched location. Another plausible interpretation is that bike owners who were more conscious about security left their bikes at the signed locations. Such owners might have better locks and other security measures. Careless bike owners would ignore the signs, and so be more likely to park at unsigned locations and subsequently have their bikes nicked. READ MORE Nettle, D., Nott, K., & Bateson, M. (2012) “Cycle Thieves, We Are Watching You”: Impact of a Simple Signage Intervention against Bicycle Theft. PloS one, 7(12), e51738. _Tom Stafford does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations._ This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.
_The Boston Globe_ has a short but fascinating interview on the history of swearing where author Melissa Mohr describes how the meaning of the act of swearing has changed over time.
IDEAS: Are there other old curses that 21st-century people would be surprised to hear about? MOHR: Because [bad words] were mostly religious in the Middle Ages, any part of God’s body you could curse with. God’s bones, nails, wounds, precious heart, passion, God’s death—that was supposedly one of Queen Elizabeth I’s favorite oaths. IDEAS: Have religious curses like that lost their power as the culture becomes increasingly secular? MOHR: We still use them a lot, but we just don’t think of them as bad words. They’re very mild. If you look at lists of the top 25 swear words, I think “Jesus Christ” often makes it in at number 23 or something….The top bad words slots are all occupied by the racial slurs or obscene—sexually or excrementally—words… IDEAS: Are blasphemy, sexuality, and excrement the main themes all over the world? MOHR: As far as I know, they’re mostly the same with a little bit of regional variation. In Arab and Spanish-speaking Catholic countries, there’s a lot of stuff about mothers and sisters. But it’s pretty much the same.Interesting, there is good evidence that swear words are handled differently by the brain than non-swear words. In global aphasia, a form of almost total language impairment normally caused by brain damage to the left hemisphere, affected people can still usually swear despite being unable to say any other words. Author Melissa Mohr has just written a book called _Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing_ which presumably has plenty more for swearing fans. Link to _Boston Globe_ interview (via @leraboroditsky) Link to details of _Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing_.
_Here's my BBC Future column from last week. It's about the so-called Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, which didn't have a name until 2010 and I'd never heard of until 2012. Now, I'm finding out that it is surprisingly common. The original is here_. It's a tightening at the back of the throat, or a tingling around your scalp, a chill that comes over you when you pay close attention to something, such as a person whispering instructions. It's called the autonomous sensory meridian response, and until 2010 it didn't exist. I first heard about the autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) from British journalist Rhodri Marsden. He had become mesmerised by intentionally boring videos he found on YouTube, things like people explaining how to fold towels, running hair dryers or role-playing interactions with dentists. Millions of people were watching the videos, reportedly for the pleasurable sensations they generated. Rhodri asked my opinion as a psychologist. Could this be a real thing? "Sure," I said. If people say they feel it, it has to be real – in some form or another. The question is what kind of real is it? Are all these people experiencing the same thing? Is it learnt, or something we are born with? How common is it? Those are the kind of questions we'd ask as psychologists. But perhaps the most interesting thing about the ASMR is what happened to it before psychologists put their minds to it. Presumably the feeling has existed for all of human history. Each person discovered the experience, treasured it or ignored it, and kept the feeling to themselves. That there wasn't a name for it until 2010 suggests that most people who had this feeling hadn't talked about it. It's amazing that it got this far without getting a name. In scientific terms, it didn't exist. But then, of course, along came the 21st Century and, like they say, even if you're one in a million there's thousands of you on the internet. Now there's websites, discussion forums, even a Wikipedia page. And a name. In fact, many names – “Attention Induced Euphoria”, “braingasm”, or “the unnamed feeling” are all competing labels that haven't caught on in the same way as ASMR. This points to something curious about the way we create knowledge, illustrated by a wonderful story about the scientific history of meteorites. Rocks falling from the sky were considered myths in Europe for centuries, even though stories of their fiery trails across the sky, and actual rocks, were widely, if irregularly reported. The problem was that the kind of people who saw meteorites and subsequently collected them tended to be the kind of people who worked outdoors – that is, farmers and other country folk. You can imagine the scholarly minds of the Renaissance didn't weigh too heavily on their testimonies. Then in 1794 a meteorite shower fell on the town of Siena in Italy. Not only was Siena a town, it was a town with a university. The testimony of the townsfolk, including well-to-do church ministers and tourists, was impossible to deny and the reports written up in scholarly publications. Siena played a crucial part in the process of myth becoming fact. Where early science required authorities and written evidence to turn myth into fact, ASRM shows that something more democratic can achieve the same result. Discussion among ordinary people on the internet provided validation that the unnamed feeling was a shared one. Suddenly many individuals who might have thought of themselves as unusual were able to recognise that they were a single group, with a common experience. There is a blind spot in psychology for individual differences. ASMR has some similarities with synaesthesia (the merging of the senses where colours can have tastes, for example, or sounds produce visual effects). Both are extremes of normal sensation, which exist for some individuals but not others. For many years synaesthesia was a scientific backwater, a condition viewed as unproductive to research, perhaps just the product of people's imagination rather than a real sensory phenomenon. This changed when techniques were developed that precisely measured the effects of synaesthesia, demonstrating that it was far more than people’s imagination. Now it has its own research community, with conferences and papers in scientific journals. Perhaps ASMR will go the same way. Some people are certainly pushing for research into it. As far as I know there are no systematic scientific studies on ASMR. Since I was quoted in that newspaper article, I've been contacted regularly by people interested in the condition and wanting to know about research into it. When people hear that their unnamed feeling has a name they are drawn to find out more, they want to know the reality of the feeling, and to connect with others who have it. Something common to all of us wants to validate our inner experience by having it recognised by other people, and in particular by the authority of science. I can't help – almost all I know about ASMR is in this column you are reading now. For now all we have is a name, but that's progress.
_I've got an article in today's Observer_ about how disaster response mental health services are often based on the erroneous assumption that everyone needs 'treatment' and often rely on single-session counselling sessions which may do more harm than good. Unfortunately, the article has been given a rather misleading headline ('Minds traumatised by disaster heal themselves without therapy') which suggests that mental health services are not needed. This is not the case and this is not what the article says. What it does say is that the common idea of disaster response is that everyone affected by the tragedy will need help from mental health professionals when only a minority will. It also says that aid agencies often use single-session counselling sessions which have been found to raise the risk of long-term mental health problems. This stems from a understandable desire to 'do something' but this motivation is not enough to actually help. Disaster, war, violence and conflict, raise the number of mental health problems in the affected population. The appropriate response is to build or enhance high-quality, long-term, culturally relevant mental health services - not parachuting in counsellors to do single counselling sessions. Link to article on disaster response psychology in _The Observer_.
Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news: I can't recognise my own face! In my case, it's because the Botox has worn off but for person described in the _New Scientist_ article it's because of prosopagnosia. _The Guardian_ reports that the UK Government's 'Nudge Unit' is set to become a commercial service. Nudge mercenaries! A greater use of "I" and "me" as a mark of interpersonal distress. An interesting study covered by the _BPS Research Digest_. _Pacific Standard_ has an interesting piece about gun registers, felons and interrupting the contagion of gun violence. Brain Voodoo Goes Electric. The mighty _Neuroskeptic_ on how a previously common flaw in fMRI brain imaging research may also apply to EEG and MEG 'brain wave' studies. A _Médecins Sans Frontières_ psychologist writes about her work with in the Syrian armed conflict. The latest social priming evidence and replication story at _Nature_ causes all sorts of academic acrimony. The fun's in the comments section. _Slate_ asks Is Psychiatry Dishonest? And if so, is it a noble lie? With all the 'everyone will be traumatised and needs to see a psychologist' nonsense to hit the media after the Boston bombing, this interview with Boston psychiatry prof Terence Keane gets it perfectly. Recommended.
Several new mind and brain radio series have just started in the last few weeks and all can be listened to online. The two 'All in the Minds' have just started a new series. _BBC Radio 4′s All in the Mind_ has just started a new series with the first programme including end-of-the-world hopefuls and psychologist and journalist Christian Jarrett. _ABC Radio National's All in the Mind_ new series has also just begun - kicking off with a programme on the social brain. BBC Radio 4′s brilliant online sociology series _The Digital Human_ started a new series a few weeks ago. The latest Nature _NeuroPod_ just hit the wires a few days ago. The _Neuroscientists Talk Shop_ podcast is technical but ace and has a big back catalogue. Any mind and brain podcasts you're into at the moment? Add them in the comments.
In a potentially seismic move, the National Institute of Mental Health - the world's biggest mental health research funder, has announced only two weeks before the launch of the DSM-5 diagnostic manual that it will be "re-orienting its research away from DSM categories". In the announcement, NIMH Director Thomas Insel says the DSM lacks validity and that "patients with mental disorders deserve better". This is something that will make very uncomfortable reading for the American Psychiatric Association as they trumpet what they claim is the 'future of psychiatric diagnosis' only two weeks before it hits the shelves. As a result the NIMH will now be preferentially funding research that does not stick to DSM categories:
Going forward, we will be supporting research projects that look across current categories – or sub-divide current categories – to begin to develop a better system. What does this mean for applicants? Clinical trials might study all patients in a mood clinic rather than those meeting strict major depressive disorder criteria. Studies of biomarkers for “depression” might begin by looking across many disorders with anhedonia or emotional appraisal bias or psychomotor retardation to understand the circuitry underlying these symptoms. What does this mean for patients? We are committed to new and better treatments, but we feel this will only happen by developing a more precise diagnostic system.As an alternative approach, Insel suggests the Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) project, which aims to uncover what it sees as the 'component parts' of psychological dysregulation by understanding difficulties in terms of cognitive, neural and genetic differences. For example, difficulties with regulating the arousal system might be equally as involved in generating anxiety in PTSD as generating manic states in bipolar disorder. Of course, this 'component part' approach is already a large part of mental health research but the RDoC project aims to combine this into a system that allows these to be mapped out and integrated. It's worth saying that this won't be changing how psychiatrists treat their patients any time soon. DSM-style disorders will still be the order of the day, not least because a great deal of the evidence for the effectiveness of medication is based on giving people standard diagnoses. It is also true to say that RDoC is currently little more than a plan at the moment - a bit like the Mars mission: you can see how it would be feasible but actually getting there seems a long way off. In fact, until now, the RDoC project has largely been considered to be an experimental project in thinking up alternative approaches. The project was partly thought to be radical because it has many similarities to the approach taken by scientific critics of mainstream psychiatry who have argued for a symptom-based approach to understanding mental health difficulties that has often been rejected by the 'diagnoses represent distinct diseases' camp. The NIMH has often been one of the most staunch supporters of the latter view, so the fact that it has put the RDoC front and centre is not only a slap in the face for the American Psychiatric Association and the DSM, it also heralds a massive change in how we might think of mental disorders in decades to come. Link to NIMH announcement 'Transforming Diagnosis'.
_Last week's column for BBC Future describes a neat social psychology experiment from an unlikely source. Three evolutionary psychologists reasoned that that claims that we automatically categorise people by the ethnicity must be wrong. Here's how they set out to prove it. The original column is here._ FOR YEARS, PSYCHOLOGISTS THOUGHT WE INSTANTLY LABEL EACH OTHER BY ETHNICITY. BUT ONE INTRIGUING STUDY PROPOSES THIS IS FAR FROM INEVITABLE, WITH OBVIOUS IMPLICATIONS FOR TACKLING RACISM. When we meet someone we tend to label them in certain ways. "Tall guy" you might think, or "Ugly kid". Lots of work in social psychology suggests that there are some categorisations that spring faster to mind. So fast, in fact, that they can be automatic. Sex is an example: we tend to notice if someone is a man or a woman, and remember that fact, without any deliberate effort. Age is another example. You can see this in the way people talk about others. If you said you went to a party and met someone, most people wouldn't let you continue with your story until you said if it was a man or a woman, and there's a good chance they'd also want to know how old they were too. Unfortunately, a swathe of evidence from the 1980s and 1990s also seemed to suggest that race is an automatic categorisation, in that people effortlessly and rapidly identified and remembered which ethnic group an individual appeared to belong to. “Unfortunate”, because if perceiving race is automatic then it lays a foundation for racism, and appears to put a limit on efforts to educate people to be “colourblind”, or put aside prejudices in other ways. Over a decade of research failed to uncover experimental conditions that could prevent people instinctively categorising by race, until a trio of evolutionary psychologists came along with a very different take on the subject. Now, it seems only fair to say that evolutionary psychologists have a mixed reputation among psychologists. As a flavour of psychology it has been associated with political opinions that tend towards the conservative. Often, scientific racists claim to base their views on some jumbled version of evolutionary psychology (scientific racism is racism dressed up as science, not racisms based on science, in case you wondered). So it was a delightful surprise when researchers from one of the world centres for evolutionary psychology intervened in the debate on social categorisation, by conducting an experiment they claimed showed that labelling people by race was far less automatic and inevitable than all previous research seemed to show. POWERFUL FORCE The research used something called a “memory confusion protocol”. This works by asking experiment participants to remember a series of pictures of individuals, who vary along various dimensions – for example, some have black hair and some blond, some are men, some women, etc. When participants’ memories are tested, the errors they make reveal something about how they judged the pictures of individuals – what sticks in their mind most and least. If a participant more often confuses a black-haired man with a blond-haired man, it suggests that the category of hair colour is less important than the category of gender (and similarly, if people rarely confuse a man for a woman, that also shows that gender is the stronger category). Using this protocol, the researchers tested the strength of categorisation by race, something all previous efforts had shown was automatic. The twist they added was to throw in another powerful psychological force – group membership. People had to remember individuals who wore either yellow or grey basketball shirts, and whose pictures were presented alongside statements indicating which team they were in. Without the shirts, the pattern of errors were clear: participants automatically categorised the individuals by their race (in this case: African American or Euro American). But with the coloured shirts, this automatic categorisation didn't happen: people's errors revealed that team membership had become the dominant category, not the race of the players. It's important to understand that the memory test was both a surprise – participants didn't know it was coming up – and an unobtrusive measure of racial categorising. Participants couldn’t guess that the researchers were going to make inferences about how they categorised people in the pictures – so if they didn't want to appear to perceive people on the basis of race, it wouldn't be clear how they should change their behaviour to do this. Because of this we can assume we have a fairly direct measure of their real categorisation, unbiased by any desire to monitor how they appear. So despite what dozens of experiments had appeared to show, this experiment created a situation where categorisation by race faded into the background. The explanation, according to the researchers, is that race is only important when it might indicate coalitional information – that is, whose team you are on. In situations where race isn't correlated with coalition, it ceases to be important. This, they claim, makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. For most of ancestors age and gender would be important predictors of another person's behaviour, but race wouldn't – since most people lived in areas with no differences as large as the ones we associate with “race” today (a concept, incidentally, which has little currency among human biologists). Since the experiment was published, the response from social psychologists has been muted. But supporting evidence is beginning to be reported, suggesting that the finding will hold. It's an unfortunate fact of human psychology that we are quick to lump people into groups, even on the slimmest evidence. And once we've identified a group, it's also seems automatic to jump to conclusions about what they are like. But this experiment suggests that although perceiving groups on the basis of race might be easy, it is far from inevitable.
We tend to think of Prozac as the first 'fashionable' psychiatric drug but it turns out popular memory is short because a tranquilizer called Miltown hit the big time thirty years before. This is from a wonderful book called _The Age of Anxiety: A History of America’s Turbulent Affair with Tranquilizers_ by Andrea Tone and it describes how the drug became a Hollywood favourite and even inspired its own cocktails.
Miltown was frequently handed out at parties and premieres, a kind of pharmaceutical appetizer for jittery celebrities. Frances Kaye, a publicity agent, described a movie party she attended at a Palm Springs resort. A live orchestra entertained a thousand-odd guests while a fountain spouted champagne against the backdrop of a desert sky. As partiers circulated, a doctor made rounds like a waiter, dispensing drugs to guests from a bulging sack. On offer were amphetamines and barbituates, standard Hollywood party fare, but guests wanted Miltown. The little white pills "were passed around like peanuts," Kaye remembered. What she observed about party pill popping was not unique. "They all used to go for 'up pills' or 'down pills,'" one Hollywood regular noted. "But now it's the 'don't-give-a-darn-pills.'" The Hollywood entertainment culture transformed a pharmaceutical concoction into a celebrity fetish, a coveted commodity of the fad-prone glamour set. Female entertainers toted theirs in chic pill boxes designed especially for tranquilizers, which became, according to one celebrity, as ubiquitous at Hollywood parties as the climatically unnecessary mink coat… Miltown even inspired a barrage of new alcoholic temptations, in which the pill was the new defining ingredient. The Miltown Cocktail was a Bloody Mary (vodka and tomato juice) spiked with a single pill, and a Guided Missile, popular among the late night crowd on the Sunset Strip, consisted of a double shot of vodka and two Miltowns. More popular still was the Miltini, a dry martini in which Miltown replaced the customary olive.Andrea Tone's book is full of surprising snippets about how tranquilisers and anti-anxiety drugs have affected our understanding of ourselves and our culture. It's very well researched and manages to hit that niche of being gripping for the non-specialist while being extensive enough that professionals will learn a lot. Link to details for _The Age of Anxiety_ book.
Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news: Psychiatry needs its Higgs boson moment says and article in _New Scientist_ which describes some interesting but disconnected findings suggesting it 'aint going to get it soon. _Wall Street Journal_ has an overenthusiastic article on how advances in genetics and neuroscience are 'revolutionizing' our understanding of violent behavior. Not quite but not a bad read in parts. The new series of BBC Radio 4 wonderful series of key studies in psychology, _Mind Changers_, has just started. Streamed only because the BBC think radio simulations are cute. _Reuters_ reports that fire kills dozens in Russian psychiatric hospital tragedy. Author and psychologist Charles Fernyhough discusses how neuroscience is dealt with in literary fiction in a piece for _The Guardian_. _Nature_ profiles one of the few people doing gun violence research in the US - the wonderfully named emergency room doctor Garen Wintemute. The Man With Uncrossed Eyes. Fascinating case study covered by _Neuroskeptic_. _Wired_ reports that scientists have built a baseball-playing robot with 100,000-neuron fake brain. To the bunkers! "Let’s study Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s brain" - The now seemingly compulsory article that argues for some sort of pointless scientific investigation after some horrible tragedy appears in the _Boston Globe_. See also: Let's study the Newtown shooter's DNA. _Wired_ report from a recent conference on the medical potential of psychedelic drugs. Adam Phillips, one of the most thoughtful and interesting of the new psychoanalyst writers, is profiled by _Newsweek_.