The woman who can’t forget

February 18, 2018

Becky Sharrock

What’s your earliest memory? One thing I’m sure of is that it does not go back to when you were 12 days old. For Brisbane resident Becky Sharrock it is all too real. This young Australian can remember every one of her 28 birthdays. I have long been fascinated by how we male memories. In a post I wrote nine years ago, Memories are made of this, I referred to the case of HM, who after a botched lobotomy, was unable to make any new memories. I then looked at declarative memory for records names, faces, and new experiences, and motor memory for such things as riding a bike, driving a car or using a toothbrush. After this I explored I how memories can go wrong. Memory does not work like a videotape recorder. Every time we remember something we are prone to subtle biases. Finally I talked about how some people are able to train themselves to perform prodigious memory feats.

Becky Sharrock’s case is different. She suffers from an exceptionally rare condition which is known as Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory or HSAM. I heard about her life on ABC Radio National’s All in the Mind podcast. HSAM, which is also known as hyperthymesia, was first diagnosed just 12 years ago, and there are said to be some 60 people in the world who have it. This is surely an underestimate, but it is vanishingly rare. It was in 2006 that the American neurobiologists from the University of California-Irvine made an important discovery. A team led by James McGaugh reported the first known first diagnosis of HSAM for Jill Price, a woman, from Southern California, who would inspire more research into the condition.

People with HSAM have a fantastic memory for dates. But this aspect should not be confused with the people  like Dominic O’Brien who was able to memorise a random sequence of 2808 playing cards (54 packs) after looking at each card only once. O’Brien employs mnemonic techniques, whereas Sharrock’s memories come naturally. They also have an incredible recall for mundane details. Curiously, they do not show exceptional memory in other domains apart from autobiographical memory. Thus they don’t tend to be good at rote learning.

Here is an example of the way Sharrock’s memory works:

4 September 2006 was a Monday, and on that particular day I was going to my therapist who I was seeing for my autism. I was on my way to see him when my stepdad called my mum and said, ‘Did you hear Steve Irwin died from a stingray?’ And I couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘No, I didn’t hear of that,’ because Steve Irwin, I looked at him as invincible to any animal attack. He’d done so many daring things with crocodiles, I thought there’s no way on earth Steve Owen could have died. But then I saw the news afterwards and it was true, and it was sad, and especially since he had two young children and the time and it was sad for…it was sad for Terri, and it was sad that little Robert who was only two years old at the time, that he didn’t get a chance to spend a lot of time with his dad, yeah.

Her facility for remembering everything can be unnerving for Sharrock’s mother as her daughter has a word-for-word recollection of what her mother said. She can pick her mother up on what she said five years ago.

Her memories also trigger associated powerful emotions, which can be a real problem.  This is the real curse of HSAM. You end up reliving negative memories. Here is an example of how her emotions come to the fore:

I was walking down a path and I saw a leaf on the ground which was at a similar angle to how it was at a time when I was walking home from school, and when I re-lived that time, on that particular day after I walked home from school I had been bullied that day. So the emotions when that memory was formed, I was depressed because a bully said something to me. Then years later when I saw a leaf that was similar to one that I saw on the path walking home, I again re-lived just the depression and the feeling of hopelessness that I experienced back at that time.

Obviously, this makes life very hard. She gets a lot of headaches. Sleep is also a big challenge; she is often kept awake by her intense memories. She has to have her brain stimulated to help her to fall asleep.

Sharrock also re-feels physical pain and re-tastes food. This is great if the memory is associated with Black Forest gateaux, her favourite. She can actually re-taste the cream, the chocolate and the cherries. It’s worse when it comers to re–experiencing pain.  Sharrock has synaesthesia when she thinks about certain objects or things she gets unusual associations. She has a heightened perception of stimuli. She has been diagnosed with both OCD and autism. How these interact and what links there might be between them is a controversial area.

From reading about Becky Sharrock, I found that a lot of the science is rather tentative. After all, the condition was only diagnosed just over a decade ago. The physiological basis has not been clearly established. We do not really know how their memories work. Sharrock describes what she remembers of when she was twelve days old. I’m not sure how we can know if they are real. However, if they are genuine, HSAM could also shed light on how babies and children view the world. I suppose we also learn the value of forgetting. They may have superior memories, but they are also capable of forming false memories. Indeed, up until now, no group has been found that were immune to these flawed memories.

There is no doubt that Rebecca Sharrock has had a challenging life. Nevertheless, the fact that scientists are researching the condition and that she does not feel alone has helped her establish an identity and even a career path. Self-employed, she blogs for a company called SpecialKids.Company, which makes and sell purpose-made clothes for children with disabilities. Her contribution is to write posts giving her insights. She has a YouTube channel and gives public talks. What an uplifting story!

I’ll finish a video of Sharrock reciting Harry Potter from memory:

Is Hypnosis real?

January 29, 2017

We all have an image of what a hypnotist does. He says, “look into my eyes” while holding a gold pocket watch, pushing his subject into a semi-sleep, almost zombie-like state. Now the subject will obey everything the hypnotist tells him to do, however evil this may be. This has little basis in reality, but the question of what is going on when we are being hypnotised is, nevertheless, a fascinating one.

The Merriam Webster defines hypnosis as “a trancelike state that resembles sleep but is induced by a person whose suggestions are readily accepted by the subject”. Hypnos is the Greek God of sleep and there are many words which have this suffix hypnobate (sleepwalker), hypnagogic (bringing on sleep) and hypnotherapy (treatment of disease by hypnosis).

Can everyone be hypnotised? What the scientific consensus seems to be is that everyone is on a spectrum. Roughly 15% of the population are said to be highly hypnotizable. On the other hand, around 25% are thought to be not hypnotizable at all. As well as entertainers there are many applications. New Age therapists, Past Life therapists and Repressed Memory therapists all make use of hypnosis for their dubious ends.

Hypnosis has been the subject of debate for more than 200 years. Here we have to mention Dr. Franz Mesmer, the father of modern hypnotism, who believed that hypnosis was a mystical force flowing from the hypnotist into the subject; he called it “animal magnetism”. Hypnosis was originally known as mesmerism, after Mesmer, and we still use its derivative, mesmerize, today. As Mesmer turned out to be a fraud, the term hypnotism became the one which was most used.

We see what a person does under hypnosis, but it isn’t clear why he or she does it. This uncertainty is a result of the fact that consciousness and how the human mind works is still in many ways a mystery.  And as I don’t see scientists arriving at a definitive explanation of the mind in the foreseeable future, hypnosis will probably not give all its secrets.

The person being hypnotised is generally very absorbed, relaxed, suggestible and in a state of expectation. The subconscious mind comes to the fore. Your inhibitions are reduced. Some studies say that changes do take place in the brain. However, that’s pretty unremarkable as brain functioning also changes when we relaxed, exhausted or highly attentive. Sceptics tend to argue that hypnotic subjects aren’t really in an altered state of consciousness. Social pressure and the influence of the hypnotist are often enough to convince people that they should act a certain way. When they find themselves obeying they erroneously conclude that they must be in a hypnotic trance. The power of belief is enough to cause remarkable changes in a person. If you think someone is compelling you to act a certain way, then that is how you will act. It may well be what is going in hypnotherapy.  By thinking that hypnosis will ease your pain your mind will bring about this feeling. , It is very much like the placebo effect. Hypnosis and the placebo effect have a lot in common; both rely on the effects of suggestion and belief. Consequently it is really difficult to have an effective placebo control in a study of the effects of hypnosis. I should point out that not everyone agrees with the fakery hypothesis. I just haven’t seen alternative evidence that convinces me yet. It may be forthcoming in the future

The popular stereotypes of what hypnosis is that I referred to in my introduction bear little resemblance to actual hypnotism. In fact, our modern understanding of hypnosis clearly debunks these ideas. Subjects in a hypnotic state are not slaves to their “masters” – they have absolute free will. And they’re not actually in a semi-sleep state -they’re hyperattentive. In no way can hypnotized people be described mindless automatons. People are more suggestible and some inhibitions are reduced. But our safety and morality do not fly out of the window. People won’t do things during or after hypnosis that are out of character. Only in Hollywood can hypnosis turn a mild-mannered person into a cold-blooded murderer.


Michael Lewis and The Undoing Project

January 22, 2017
Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky

Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky

I have to admit I wasn’t sure whether to read Michael Lewis’s latest offering, The Undoing Project. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a devotee of Lewis. He has had three films nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards for The Blind Side (2009), Moneyball (2011) and The Big Short (2015). He has knack for finding hidden treasure that other writers have missed. He often features mavericks or people who are not normally in the spotlight. His book Liar’s Poker (1989) described bond trader Lewis Ranieri, who revolutionised Wall Street in the 1980s with securitisation. This product was to play a massive role in the Global Financial Crisis of 2007 and onwards. Moneyball (2003) featured baseball manager Billy Beane, a pioneer in the use of sports analytics. But the book goes beyond sports; Lewis was foreshadowing the rise of the quants, the experts at analyzing and managing quantitative data, who would also be involved in the GFC. Another sporting book, The Blind Side, set in the NFL, featured not a glamorous quarterback, but an offensive left tackle. This may be an unsung position, but it is vital for the protection of the quarterback. The player Lewis chose was Michael Oher, who has won one Superbowl and appeared in another one in his eight seasons as a professional. The Big Short dealt with main players behind the creation of the credit default swap market that was a massive bet against the collateralized debt obligation (CDO) bubble. They would end up profiting from the crisis, but I would definitely not blame them for what went down – they had spotted flaws in the system. This is a common theme in Lewis’s work.

The Undoing Project looks at the work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who are also interested in human failings. The reason I had doubts about reading this book was that I was already familiar with their work. Indeed, I did a post about Kahneman and his book Thinking Fast and Slow: The irrational world of Daniel Kahneman. I should have had more faith in Lewis. The Undoing Project is a fascinating read. I thought I knew most of their story, but Lewis has found a way to produce an absorbing book about an arcane subject. Lewis has a real gift for explaining complex ideas, but what I liked about the book was the human element. The author provides the human story to the two men who revolutionised the way we think about how people think.

Born in Tel Aviv, British Palestine in 1934, where his mother was visiting relatives, Daniel Kahneman grew up in Paris, where his parents had emigrated from Lithuania in the early 1920s. He was a child of the Holocaust. Between the ages of seven and eleven he and his family were hiding out from the Nazis in southern France. He watched his father die because he couldn’t seek medical treatment for fear of being captured by the Germans. Lewis recounts how at the age of seven Kahneman had been playing with a Christian boy and was caught on the streets after curfew by an SS soldier. He had turned his brown sweater inside out so the man didn’t notice the yellow star. Instead he hugged little Danny and, full of emotion, showed him a photograph of another young boy. Then he gave the boy some money and sent him on his way. Kahneman recalled being fascinated by the complexity of humans.

Amos Tversky was born in Haifa, British Palestine in 1937 to parents who had emigrated from Poland and Russia. He had a happier childhood than Kahneman. His father, Yosef, was a veterinarian and his mother, Genia, was a member of the Knesset from its establishment in 1948 until her death in 1964. What is most striking from his life was his distinguished service in the Israel Defence Forces. Tversky was an officer in the paratroopers, an elite unit. He eventually rose to captain and served in three wars – 1956, 1967 and 1973. It was in 1956, in a border skirmish, that he was awarded Israel’s highest honour after saving the life of a young soldier who had frozen after having lit the fuse of an explosive charge. Tversky, who was a few metres behind him, rushed forward, dragged the young man a few yards away, and then dived to cover him, taking the shrapnel into his own body. The other soldier emerged without a scratch while Tversky had metal in him the rest of his life.

According to Lewis, the relationship between Kahneman and Tversky was as intense as any marriage. And like a marriage, their relationship could be fraught at times. They have been called the Lennon and McCartney of the academic world. Kahneman was the ideas guy, whereas Tversky was the analytic one, able to provide the academic rigour for Kahneman’s ideas. Tversky was once asked if their work had any bearing on artificial intelligence. His reply: “I’m much more interested in natural stupidity than I am in artificial intelligence.” The psychologist Richard Nisbett had a simple one-line intelligence test: “The longer it takes you to figure it out that Amos Tversky is smarter than you, the stupider you are.”

These days Kahneman and Tversky’s views of human psychology have found widespread acceptance. But when they began in the 1970s in the backwater of Israeli academia their theories were new and controversial. The academics would eventually find posts on American campuses. And it was the charismatic Tversky rather than the introspective Kahneman who got much of the fame. Their ideas about human biases are both illuminating and eminently practical. I explore them in detail in The irrational world of Daniel Kahneman.

There is no doubt that Lewis admires the two men and believes they are right about everything important. Someone who has written books like Liar’s Poker, Panic: The Story of Modern Financial Insanity., The Big Short and Flash Boys is not likely to be a cheerleader for rational economic man. But this is no hagiography.

The younger Kahneman is portrayed as a depressive. He is unsure of himself and rather needy. We also see him as envious of all the attention his partner was getting. Tversky, on the other hand is more of an intellectual bully contemptuous of many academics and not one to shy away from an academic spat. Despite their different personalities, they had a fruitful relationship. They would sit together in an intellectual back-and-forth, switching between English and Hebrew.

Like many marriages or Lennon and McCartney, they would endure a painful break-up. They did, however, make up after Tversky was diagnosed with a malignant melanoma. In the end, after many years spent complaining that Tversky was getting all the plaudits, it was Kahneman who won the Nobel Prize for Economics. The award cannot be given posthumously.

I too am a fan of their work. I am fascinated by human decision-making and how we can all go wrong. Perfection in choices is impossible, and uneconomical, just as, in a world of scarcity, developing a perfectly safe automobile is impossible—and uneconomical. We need to take short cuts. If we look at the world, we can see the fingerprints of irrationality everywhere. If I am sceptical, it is about psychology experiments. How accurate are laboratory settings at recreating the information and incentives of real market situation. The story of Kahneman and Tversky’s intellectual love affair is beautifully and vividly told by Lewis. However, I would be surprised if this were made into another film.

No, your ex is not a psycho and why we shouldn’t diagnose Donald Trump

November 6, 2016

My ex is a psycho.

I’m so OCD about this project!

I Can’t Focus; It’s My ADHD.

You may well have heard similar expressions. And it’s not just in popular discourse. The extract below comes from a 2010 article, Politicians’ wives are not the story in the prestigious British newspaper, the Guardian:

Twentieth-century legislation giving women the vote, and much later the right to equal pay for work of equal value, has not prevented a schizophrenic attitude – at least in Britain – if you are the wife of a “celebrity”.

This article was subsequently amended. The use of schizophrenic contravenes the Guardian’s style guide, which states that this term should only be used in a medical context. It was replaced by two-minded. I think contradictory or ambivalent would have been better. Later in the same year the Guardian’s sister paper, the Observer, described TV presenter Gok Wan’s dress sense as “schizophrenic”. Pierre Lellouche, the French Minister for Europe described the UK Tory party’s approach to the EU as autistic. In an article for the Sunday Times, the writer Robert Harris described Gordon Brown and Richard Nixon as displaying “political Asperger’s syndrome“. The International Monetary Fund’s September 2011 World Economic Outlook characterised a volatile global economy as “bipolar”. There are many more examples. We say to commit suicide even though killing yourself is no longer a crime. Somebody who is angry is not ‘psychotic’. And finally I’m not wild about the use of phobia in xenophobia, homophobia and Islamophobia, suggesting some kind of medical condition.

In a sense psychiatry has become a victim of its own success. These terms have become part of the public discourse, like all that awful psychobabble, such as closure, in denial, co-dependency and issues.  The problem with using casual metaphors about mental conditions is that these words have real meaning, and you are trivialising and stigmatising them at the same time.  Just because someone likes to put their books in alphabetical order does not mean that they have OCD. The case of schizophrenic is particularly egregious. To put my pedant’s hat on, it is also being used incorrectly. Schizophrenic does not mean in two minds. It has absolutely nothing to do with multiple personalities. Schizophrenia does indeed mean split mind but the mind is split with reality, not itself. A 2007 study of the terms “schizophrenia” and “schizophrenic” in the UK national press found that 11% of references were metaphorical, with the broadsheets, see above, more likely to use the term in this way than the tabloids. In the US the figure was said to be 28%. By contrast, cancer was only used in this manner in 0.02% of cases. Likewise if someone puts four sugars in their tea we do not say, “Don’t be so diabetic!”

Here is a lovely video which explains all this:

It is, however, very difficult to stop humans from employing metaphors. It’s what we do. In a previous post, Living in a metaphor, I argued that metaphors are a fundamental part of how we communicate. Words change their meaning with usage and it is very hard to stop this. There is no Czar in charge of word meanings. I have been guilty of a number of the sins I have listed above. Nevertheless, it is a good thing to be aware of what we are saying. The Time to Change website has this section, where they critique the language of the media and provide some alternative suggestions:

Avoid using:

  1. ‘a psycho’ or ‘a schizo’
  2. ‘a schizophrenic’ or ‘a depressive’
  3. ‘lunatic’ ‘nutter’ ‘unhinged’ ‘maniac’ ‘mad’
  4. ‘the mentally ill’, ‘a person suffering from’ ‘a sufferer’, a ‘victim’ or ‘the afflicted’
  5. ‘prisoners’ or ‘inmates’ (in a psychiatric hospital)
  6. ‘released’ (from a hospital)
  7. ‘happy pills’

Instead try:

  1. ‘a person who has experienced psychosis’ or ‘a person who has schizophrenia’
  2. someone who ‘has a diagnosis of’ is ‘currently experiencing’ or ‘is being treated for…
  3. ‘a person with a mental health problem’
  4. ‘mental health patients’ or ‘people with mental health problems’
  5. ‘patients’, ‘service users’ or clients
  6. ‘discharged’
  7. ‘antidepressants’, ‘medication’ or ‘prescription drugs’

And we have the recent controversy about the mental health of Donald J. Trump. There is a lot of armchair psychologising going on. Whenever I hear Trump I think of what is known in psychology as the dark triad of psychopathy, narcissism and Machiavellianism. Recently there has been a petition at #DiagnoseTrump calling for mental health professionals “to come forward and urge the Republican party to insist that their nominee has an evaluation to determine his mental fitness for the job.”  According to the petition, Trump appears to exhibit all the symptoms of the mental disorder Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).

The US magazine the Atlantic published a psychological evaluation of Trump, written by Dan P. McAdams, a psychology professor, who provides a firm diagnosis, despite the fact that Trump declined to be interviewed and did not give his authorisation for publication. This is grossly unfair and unethical; it goes against the Goldwater rule, AKA Section 7.3 of the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) code of ethics, which states that professionals should not offer public opinions on people they have not personally examined:

On occasion psychiatrists are asked for an opinion about an individual who is in the light of public attention or who has disclosed information about himself/herself through public media. In such circumstances, a psychiatrist may share with the public his or her expertise about psychiatric issues in general. However, it is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement.

We need a bit of background here Barry Goldwater was the Republican Party’s nominee for president in the 1964 election. He was a controversial figure, who voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He thought the parts that outlawed discrimination in hotels, restaurants, cinemas etc. were a violation of individual liberty. What is germane to this post is that in 1964 Fact magazine published the article The Unconscious of a Conservative: A Special Issue on the Mind of Barry Goldwater. The title was a bit of wordplay on Goldwater’s own book title, The Conscience of a Conservative. They polled psychiatrists about American Senator Barry Goldwater and whether he was fit to be president. He filed a libel suit in response to the article; he won $75,000 in damages. He was less successful in the election, suffering a landslide defeat to Lyndon Johnson, getting 38.5% of the popular vote and gaining only 52 votes in the Electoral College.

In another recent All in The Mind Podcast Dr Margaret McCartney criticised this way of diagnosing Trump. Like the casual metaphors above, it both trivialises and stigmatises mental health issues. I’ll leave you with McCartney’s own conclusion about Trump:

It s obvious that Trump is sexist and racist. He’s vile in his nastiness, undiplomatic, and offensive: a true dog’s dinner of a presidential candidate, if you really hated your dog. But none of this means that he has a psychiatric condition. It just means that he’s a horrible man.


Embodied cognition: how fart spray can affect your moral reasoning

March 13, 2016

Scientists have long been grappling with mind-body problem. And in recent years a new theory has emerged. A recent podcast on Radio National Australia looked at embodied cognition. One of the participants, Guy Claxton, gave a nice summary:

Your body is your brain. The brain isn’t just the lump of rather unimpressive-looking porridge that sits between your two ears. The intelligent organ is all the information that is streaming around your body, up to your brain and down from your brain and from your heart to your liver and from your muscles to your skin. When we look at the true way in which intelligence functions, we have to look at ourselves as being this vast conglomerate of almost like a maelstrom of information currents, all of which need to talk to each other and somehow or other have to be resolved in real time into a concerted course of action.

Last year I read a book about this subject, Sensation by Thalma Lobel. She describes how an experience on a holiday in Guatemala set her on a new research path. She awoke in a jungle cottage to absolute silence and pitch-black darkness. It was this disconcerting experience of sensory deprivation that made her want to look at the association between body and mind and the theory of embodied cognition. She summarises her perspective like this:

Our thoughts, our behaviours, our decisions and our emotions are influenced by our physical sensations, by the things we touch, the texture of the things we touch, the temperature of the things we touch, the colours, the smells. All these, without our awareness, influence our behaviours and thoughts and emotions.”

The book is in the style of many popular psychology books written today, such as Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely and Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, both of which have been featured in this blog. Lobel argues that the mind can’t work separately from the physical world; that the senses provide a link to both our unconscious and our conscious thought processes. She wants to show the influence that physical sensations exert over our mental states and behaviour. What I most enjoyed were the fascinating experiments. We learn that people prefer a job applicant when their CV is attached to a heavy clipboard; they seemed to perceive the candidate as having a more serious interest in the job. And sitting in a soft chair makes you a softer negotiator. Here are four of the experiments featured in the book:

  1. In 2008 Yale University students were asked to attend a fourth floor laboratory. The experiment really began in the lift, where a research assistant would ask subjects if they could hold her cup of coffee while she took their names. Half of them were handed a hot coffee, while the other half were given an iced coffee. Once she had written down their names, the research assistant took back the coffee and they all went on to the lab, where the participants were asked to judge an unknown person according to a description of their character. The expression a warm person is a typical metaphor we use. But is there something more to it? What we can say is that the subjects who had held the hot cup of coffee in the lift judged the unknown person as being kinder and friendlier. They would have denied this if they had been asked, but that is what the results show.
  2. Researchers prepared two nearly identical videos of football plays (gridiron, I presume) with the only difference being that in one version the players wore white strips and in the other, black. The videos were then played to two groups: students who were college football fans and professional football referees. Both groups were asked how likely they would be to penalise the teams and how aggressively each team was playing. Both the college students and the professional referees said that they would penalize the team in black more often than the one wearing white. The game sequences were more or less identical; the only thing that changed was the colours the teams were playing in. The black kit influenced the referees, leading them to perceive those teams as more aggressive.
  3. In a 2011 study experimenters gave subjects a bit of chocolate, a cracker, or no food. They were then asked to fill out an unrelated questionnaire, after which the participants were told that another professor from the psychology department had just popped in and was looking for volunteers for another, unrelated study Who was more likely to volunteer? The chocolate eaters.
  4. Disgust evoked by physical factors can influence the severity with which we judge moral transgressions, such as stealing library books, offering a bribe, and shoplifting, or moral dilemmas including marriage between first cousins or a scenario in which a man eats his own dead dog. In one study the experimenters sprayed a disgusting smell, a fart spray not far from the participants, while they were answering a questionnaire. In another study participants were given. The results clearly demonstrated that those who were physically disgusted were harsher in their moral judgments compared with those who hadn’t experienced the bad odours or who had drunk sweet or neutral drinks. In other words, the same behaviour was judged as more morally wrong if the person who made the judgment was subjected to unpleasant odours or a disgusting drink. Physical disgust influenced moral disgust. This ties in with studies that show that disgust, which began as a way of protecting us from evolutionary dangers, has become co-opted into other areas. If you are interested in this area check out my post, Ice cream cones, frozen chickens and the meaning of disgust.

I loved all these quirky studies, but I do want to add a word of caution. In a post in January of this year, Brian Nosek and his shades of grey, I looked at the problem of replicability in scientific studies. Indeed the experiments which Nosek studied were in the field of psychology. In his Reproducibility Project he and his colleagues repeated 100 published psychological experiments. Just 36% of the replications reached statistical significance. So you do have to wonder whether the experiments presented by Lobel have been replicated elsewhere. Nevertheless I think I will be following the research in embodied cognition. It has the potential to provide us with some fascinating insights into the relationship between mind and body. I am particularly interested in the area of language. Metaphors are not just figures of speech – they reflect physical realities. But that will have to be a subject for another day.

The Brain: The Story of You: a review

December 19, 2015

In 1980 PBS broadcast the great Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, a landmark series, which did a masterful job of popularising science. Now, 35 years later, neuroscientist David Eagleman transports us to another mysterious place. This time the destination is the inner cosmos – the brain. Sagan is tough act to follow, but Eagleman will also make you see yourself in a new way. The Brain: The Story of You, a new six-part series, also made by PBS, is crammed with fascinating insights and unusual perspectives.

One typical example is how our senses work. We think that we have direct access to the world through our senses. But this is an illusion. In the outside world there is no colour, no sound, no smell; everything is taking place in our brain. The brain has no access to the external world. Our sensory organs – eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and skin –collect information from a whole range of disparate sources such as electromagnetic radiation, air compression waves, and aromatic molecules. Our senses then translate this data into the language the brain understands: electrochemical signals. The idea that seeing isn’t happening in your eyes, hearing isn’t taking place in your ears and smell isn’t happening in your nose takes some getting used to. The electrochemical rendition may not be 100% faithful, but it is sufficient for us to navigate successfully through the world.

All this is brought to life by some wonderful visual effects. Here are some of the fascinating cases and experiments that Eagleman shows in the series. They are accompanied by short videos that you can find on YouTube.

Ian Waterman

The shows have a number of case studies. In 1971 Ian Waterman was a butcher on Jersey. Then the 19-year old came down with a severe case of gastric flu, which destroyed half his nervous system. He had no sense of touch below the neck and he lost the sense of proprioception, which tells the brain about the position of our limbs. Waterman was told he would be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. But with sheer determination he has made himself get up and walk. But it is a struggle as he has to think consciously about every movement his body makes.

The Trolley problem

In a post from 2009, Some philosophical thought experiments #1, I looked at the Trolley problem:

 A trolley is running out of control down a track. In its path are 5 people who have been tied to the track. Fortunately, you can flip a switch, which will lead the trolley down a different track to safety. Unfortunately, there is a single person tied to that track. Should you flip the switch? Consider another, similar dilemma. You’re walking along the track again, you notice the trolley is out of control, although this time there is no auxiliary track. But there is a man within arm’s reach, between you and the track. He’s large enough to stop the runaway trolley. You can save the five people on the trolley by pushing him onto the tracks, stopping the out-of-control vehicle, but you’ll kill the man by using him to stop the trolley. Again, what do you do?

This is a staple of ethics debates, but neuroimaging provides an interesting perspective. In the first scenario, which involves pulling a lever, activates the regions involved in solving logical problems; it is like solving a mathematical problem. In the second scenario, in which you have to push the man onto the track, activates additional networks into the decision: brain regions involved in emotion. This doesn’t necessarily help us resolve the ethical dilemma, but it does help why people often say yes to pulling the lever, but reject pushing the man onto the track, even though the calculation of lives lost is exactly the same.

Mirroring Others

The effects of Botox on facial muscles are well known. What is surprising is that people who have used are Botox worse at identifying the emotions shown in pictures correctly. The reason is apparently that we will often subconsciously mirror other people’s emotions when we are with them. Botox impedes this imitation, making users proved worse at interpreting emotions.

Discerning Babies

Eagleman recreated an experiment by Paul Bloom et al. which tested the ability of 100 babies to judge social behaviour of a puppet that had previously helped or harmed another puppet in a short show without dialogue. When asked after the show to choose a bear to play with almost all the babies choose the bear that had been kind. Even though they can’t walk or talk, they already have the tools to make judgments about others.

What is Empathy?

Eagleman shows how watching someone else in pain activates one’s own pain matrix, the pain processing areas of the brain. This is the foundation of empathy. But not all empathy is created equal. With collaborator Don Vaughn, he wanted to carry out a study using brain scans to determine how empathetic we are to people who are different from us. The 135 participants saw videos of a hand, which was labelled “Christian,” “Jewish,” “Hindu,” “Muslim,” “Scientologist” or “Atheist”, being touched by a cotton swab or stabbed by a syringe. While this was happening, the blood flow to their brain was being measured. The idea was to look at the regions of the brain that respond when viewing another person in pain. The results were sobering. Some people were equally empathetic to all hands, but many did care more about “their team”, including the atheists.  We really are influenced by the in-group / out-group dynamic. And remember the only difference was a label.

There are many themes in the book – how the brain can distort time, its plasticity, the fallibility of memory, the feeling of free will, the unconscious, the power of now, the mechanisms of decision making and the quest for immortality. It’s a series I can highly recommend.


You can find more videos here.




To diet for: the art of wishful shrinking

November 22, 2015

My doctor told me to stop having intimate dinners for four. Unless there are three other people. Orson Welles

A waist is a terrible thing to mind. Tom Wilson

If I had been around when Rubens was painting, I would have been revered as a fabulous model. Kate Moss? Well, she would have been the paintbrush. Dawn French

Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow ye diet. Lewis C. Henry


Dieting is a massive business, worth over $20bn in the US alone, where there are said to be more 100 million people on a diet. There are low-fat, low-carbohydrate, low-calorie and detox diets. Some, such as the Atkins diet, have become famous around the world but there are diets in all shapes and sizes. Wikipedia has a list of them. Here is just a small sample of the more bizarre ones:

Beverly Hills diet: An extreme diet which has only fruits in the first days, gradually increasing the selection of foods up to the sixth week.

Breatharian diet: A diet in which no food is consumed, based on the belief that food is not necessary for human subsistence.

Grapefruit diet: A fad diet, intended to facilitate weight loss, in which grapefruit is consumed in large quantities at meal times.

Israeli Army diet: An eight-day diet. Only apples are consumed in the first two days, cheese in the following two days, chicken on days five and six, and salad for the final two days. Despite what the name suggests, the diet is not followed by Israeli Defence Forces. It is considered a fad diet.

KE diet: A diet in which an individual feeds through a feeding tube and does not eat anything.

Subway diet: A crash diet in which a person consumes Subway sandwiches in place of higher calorie fast foods. Made famous by former obese student Jared Fogle, who lost 245 pounds after replacing his meals with Subway sandwiches as part of an effort to lose weight.

Tongue Patch diet: Stitching a Marlex patch to the tongue to make eating painful.

Why has dieting become so popular? One factor is modernity: we are living in such anomalous abundance. In the past it was the rich who were fat; it was a sign of status. Now it is often the poor who are overweight. There is undoubtedly an evolutionary mismatch – food with sugar and fat was essential for survival and those who stored it passed on their genes. This helped us survive in less abundant times, but it is now creating a health epidemic. There is research which suggests that high sugar foods are addictive. They cause dopamine to be released in our brains, and they actually impair cognitive function.

In the end we have to deal with the world we actually live in. I know what I should do, despite some contradictory advice and some fads, Michael Pollan’s advice is a good place to start:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

But the psychology is complicated. We face an internal struggle between systems 1 and 2 of our brain. The reflective part knows what to do, but the emotional parts often override these noble intentions. Willpower is necessary in the face of instant gratification. We face what is an immediate pleasure and an indeterminate harm some time in the future.  Perhaps we need to look at how we frame advice. Fear is usually the mechanism chosen; you will have a miserable and a premature death. Maybe we need to focus on the benefits of a healthy diet, all the energy and vitality you will gain,

One interesting idea from economics is the commitment contract. The idea is that you make a pledge to achieve a goal. There is a website, founded by two Harvard economists,, where you can make these pledges. If you do not reach this target then you have to pay donate a specified amount of money to the person or organisation you specified. On the website the recipients are charities, but to really spice things up, it should be to organisations whose aims you despise. This gives an even stronger incentive to keep you word. The 2005 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences winner, Tom Schelling, a key figure in game-theory analysis, suggested the American Nazi Party. As a sceptic I might plump for an organisation promoting homeopathy.

Temptation bundling involves together two activities together. One must be one you should do, but keep putting off, whereas the other one is you love to do but isn’t necessarily productive. The term was coined by Katherine Milkman an operations and information management professor at Wharton Business School. Interviewed on the Freakonomics podcast Milkman suggested some of these consumption complementarities:

“So what if you only let yourself get a pedicure while catching up on overdue emails for work? Or what if you only let yourself listen to your favourite CDs while catching up on household chores. Or only let yourself go to your very favourite restaurant whose hamburgers you crave while spending time with a difficult relative who you should see more of.”

This type of strategy could be applied to losing weight. In my own case I could do with losing around ten kilos. Maybe I should do a bit more exercise. It’s funny but I don’t drink coca cola. I’m not a fan of junk food. My problem is quantity, and I do eat too fast. I wish I could get nearer to Pollan’s advice. My intellectual brain understands that less is more, but my emotional brain has other ideas.

The strange world of imaginary illness

October 25, 2015

I am always interested in reading about the brain. In previous posts I have looked at neuroscientists V.S. Ramachandran and the late Oliver Sacks and some of the amazing things that can happen to our brains. There is Alien Hand Syndrome in which the subject feels that their hand is possessed by an uncontrollable outside force resulting in its actual movement. Then we have Blindsight, a condition in which patients who are effectively blind because of damage to the visual cortex are able to carry out tasks which would ordinarily appear to be impossible unless they can see the objects. And there is Cotard Syndrome, a disorder in which a patient asserts that he or she is dead, even describing symptoms such as smelling rotting flesh or worms crawling over the skin.

The human mind is indeed a great mystery. So recently I was interested to hear about a new book It’s All in Your Head, a look at the world of imaginary illness, the anxiety induced by hypochondria and the psychosomatic illness. They are different phenomena and the author Suzanne O’Sullivan provides a clear explanation. In hypochondria, which is also known as illness anxiety disorder, a small symptom may be magnified by the anxiety of the patient causing psychological distress. A psychosomatic illness is very different. The patient has a significant amount of physiological suffering, but medical tests or physical examination fail to turn up any physical cause. What is important is not any anxiety, but the actual symptoms.

These conditions are surprisingly common. O’Sullivan claims that as many as a “third of people seen in an average general neurology clinic have symptoms that cannot be explained. In those people, an emotional cause is often suspected.

There is no doubt that there is a great deal of stigma attached to these conditions. The title of the book alludes to this negative perception. But because something is psychological does not diminish its relevance. The situation has improved but we still live in a world that takes a dim view of those who are psychologically unwell.

Psychosomatic symptoms can be extremely varied. At the milder end you have tiredness or pains. At the extreme end you can see seizures or even blindness, although these are rarer. It is the latter which affected Yvonne. After an accident in which she had been sprayed in the face with window-cleaning fluid, she convinced herself and her family that she was blind. Unable even to get around her house, she was put on disability benefits with a full-time carer. After six months of tests doctors were unable to find anything thing wrong with her eyes. This might sound like a case of Andy Pipkin from Little Britain. But Yvonne does not appear to have been malingering. In one session with O’Sullivan, she gave her doctor a present:

“I have something for you,” she said, and handed me a card. On the front was a flower-filled field overlooked by a single tree. It was drawn in coloured pencil. The words inside said thank you, it was nice to have somebody to chat to every day.

“I made the card,” Yvonne said.

 “You made it!” I could not hide my surprise.

 “Yes, I borrowed pencils and paper from the woman in the bed next to me,” Yvonne replied.

 “But if you can’t see, how could you draw?”

 “I can feel the pencil marks on the paper,” she answered. She did not seem in the least affronted.

I looked at the picture again. All the colours were correct – the tree green, the bark brown. Not a single outline was broken, not a single leaf or flower out of place.

One doctor joked that she wouldn’t be winning any Oscars for her performance. O’Sullivan, though, does not think that Yvonne was faking it. She may have had patients who feign disability, but she argues that this is very rare. Sophisticated tests on the brain can now determine that with most sufferers of psychosomatic disorders there is no deliberate intent. Drawing a picture does not seem like the action of someone trying to play the system. Yvonne had subconsciously persuaded herself that was blind. After six months of psychiatric help and family counselling, Yvonne’s vision was “restored.”

Camilla was a highly successful lawyer with a beautiful home and two children:

… one day, while on a work trip to Cumbria, she started feeling strange. Her right hand began to tremble, then her left one. She tried to ask for help but could not speak. Soon her limbs were flailing. She slumped from her seat, her head banging on the floor despite the best efforts of a colleague to assist. She was still shaking when paramedics came to cart her off to hospital.

It later emerged that they were caused by the buried trauma of her first child’s death years earlier when his buggy had rolled into the path of a car.

Not all her cases produced successful outcomes. Shahina came to see the doctor with a paralysed and contorted hand that left her seriously disabled. She underwent every kind of investigation before it was revealed that there was a high chance that her problem was psychosomatic. But when she and her family received the diagnosis they were outraged. They refused to accept it. They left the hospital and never came back. This shows how unnerving such diagnoses can be for patients. We tend to want to cling to real physical diagnoses

It would be remiss of me not to mention that O’Sullivan’s work has been the subject of some controversy. In particular, her characterisation of he case of myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) as psychomatic raised a lot of hackles with the ME Association and its Medical Adviser, Dr Charles Shepherd:

Whilst accepting that physical symptoms can be caused by a psychological illness, far too many patients with these unexplained symptoms are now being conveniently lumped together with a dustbin diagnosis known as a somatic syndrome – leaving no incentive to carry out research aimed at finding an underlying cause, or an effective drug treatment. This is bad and lazy medicine.”

O’Sullivan states that around 70% of patients who have these inexplicable conditions are female. She speculates that as women are more likely to suffer traumatic sexual abuse, the physical illness might be a response to that. This speculation is interesting, but it is just that, speculation. Perhaps, one day, with the advance of neuroscience, we will understand what is really going on. But for the moment we just don’t know. Whatever the reality, many of the people that O’Sullivan describes are clearly suffering. We owe them compassion.


I haven’t read It’s All in Your Head yet, but I have heard O’Sullivan interviewed on a ABC Radio National Australia’s All in the Mind podcast about imaginary illness.

This I believe

November 23, 2014

In the spring of 1951 distinguished American broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow, who was portrayed by George Clooney in Good Night, and Good Luck,  launched the radio series This I Believe. Each episode featured someone, be it a Supreme Court Justice or a secretary — reading an essay expressing the core principles guiding their lives. This programme, in which anyone, from a Supreme Court judge to a judge to a butcher could enunciate their world view, would go on for five years. Here is Murrow presenting the idea. I just love that voice:

The show was later revived by Radio Luxembourg from 1956-58 and by NPR from 2005-2009, which is where I first came across it. I have often thought about doing my own version and today I am taking the plunge. I have done it my way. I wasn’t sure if to call it This I Don’t Believe, as this is a part of my weltanschauung. Anyway, here is my contribution:


This I believe  by Martin Oliva

I am a sceptic. That does not make me a knee-jerk naysayer, but I want to be shown evidence before I believe something. In fact, I am even a bit sceptical about scepticism itself. There are too many times when we are preaching to the converted. We need to engage in debates with people we disagree with. Perhaps it’s a losing battle anyway –people seem to want to believe. It’s like that game, Whack-a-mole – as soon as you knock down a dodgy idea, it will pop up somewhere else, in a new form, but sometimes not even that.

I believe in science. I think it is the greatest tool for understanding our world. It is the systematic application of scepticism. I love the lack of absoluteness the provisional nature of its conclusions. I have no desire for absolute knowledge. This scientific scepticism makes me reluctant to believe in creationism, paranormal phenomena, conspiracy theories, the New Age movement, postmodernism and alternative medicine. Science does have its limitations – there is no such thing as scientific morality.

I don’t do religion. I am an agnostic. I don’t need to believe in a creator to find meaning in the world. I believe the world is random. Life is not going in a direction. However, I am not one of those aggressive atheist types. If I could abolish religion tomorrow, I would not put an end to violence.

The lack of certainty and the complex nature of our world should instil humility in us. Beware of those offering easy solutions. They believe that they can solve everything with their masterplans. In this sense intellectuals can be particularly dangerous, as they tend to believe in the powers of their intellect to solve all the world’s problems. I believe that humans are fundamentally flawed, and any attempts to perfect us will end in failure. The millennia of human civilisation should make us aware that utopia is not an option.

I am passionate about history and I think we can learn a great deal from it, although extrapolating the right lessons is not always easy. I believe in the contingent nature of history. Things could very easily have turned out differently. Although it may be uncomfortable, we need to look at our country’s history warts and all. I am also a fan of Big History, whose starting point is the origins of the Universe some 13.5 billion years ago. This gives you a real perspective on the vast time scale of world history and the relative irrelevance of events like the French Revolution, or even the two world wars.

I love language; it is one of the things that makes us human. It is a wonderful example of an emergent phenomenon. Like evolution, it is design without a designer; nobody planned it top-down. I am sceptical of those who want to put language in a cage, as it is constantly evolving. I am a descriptivist; I take language as it is.

I think trade is a positive force. I think economic freedom is good, allowing us to capture innate human creativity. There may be some examples of successful government intervention in the economy, but these are surely outnumbered by the disasters. I think technology, though it may create disruption in the short term, does not destroy jobs in the long run. Inequality is a problem that does worry me. In the wake of the 2008 crisis it has become a hot topic. We will need to find solutions that balance economic freedom and the need to maintain legitimacy in the economic system

I think politics is everywhere, from the corridors of power to family dynamics. I take a sceptical view of democracy, but it is the best system known to us so far. I favour systems which protect freedoms. I am suspicious of people who think they know our interests. Prohibition was indeed a noble experiment, but its unintended consequences far outweighed any possible benefits. Policies should always be judged by their results, not the intentions behind them.

Psychoanalysis and the examined life

March 2, 2014

This book is about change.

We are all storytellers – we make stories to make sense of our lives. But it is not enough to tell tales. There must be someone to listen. From The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves by Stephen Grosz


Regular readers of my blog will know that I take an interest in mental issues. I have been critical of the meaningless psychobabble that clogs up our language – issues, baggage, closure, and low self-esteem. I have pointed out a number of the psychological myths that just refuse to go away. No, we do not use 10% off our brains. Using hypnosis to retrieve memories is not useful. In fact, it can be very dangerous. Low self-esteem is not a major cause of psychological problems. I have been critical of the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM and its apparent mission to convert life itself into a mental illness. I have quoted critic Tana Dineen’s cynical formula of victimhood:


I am sceptical about the powers of psychoanalysis to cure anyone. Indeed, it can sometimes be harmful. In the fifties and sixties it was proclaimed that psychoanalysis could cure even schizophrenia. Cold mothers were blamed for autism in their children. And we should not forget the debacle of repressed memory therapy (RMT).

So you will probably be surprised that I have just finished reading a book about psychoanalysis called The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves. The author, Stephen Grosz is a psychoanalyst who has worked in Britain and the United States. Over the course of a 25-year career as a psychoanalyst Grosz estimates he has spent 50,000 hours listening to the life stories of his patients. He has distilled these hours of conversations into a slim volume of 31 elegantly written case histories which give us a glimpse into our fundamentally flawed psyches. The stories are all short, between 1,000 and 2,000 words.  This is what drew me to the book – I am a sucker for stories.

Storytelling is such a huge part of what it makes us human. Psychoanalysis and storytelling have a rich history. Freud has been described as a great modernist writer. And while I don’t subscribe to Freudian theory there is no doubt that his theory of the unconscious had a profound influence on literature. Indeed, whether Freud was right or wrong, most major 20th century writers believed that his account of the human mind was the correct one. In this volume Grosz is unapologetic about his use of stories. He argues that anything, no matter how complicated and theoretical, that can be done in technical language, can be done better in a very simple story

He wants to strip away all the theory,, paint a picture of the relationship between an analyst and a patient and give us an insight into how analysts think about things. The whole psychoanalytic experience seems a like a throwback to a bygone age. Two people are alone in a room for fifty minutes. There’s no telephone, email, or contact with the outside world. We are so used to being constantly connected. I have to admit I don’t spend that much time in pure contemplation. Shaving in front of the mirror in the morning is one of the few times of the day when this happens. We don’t like silence, so we constantly try to fill every second of the day with noise. If I’m on the bus and I don’t have my e-reader or my MP3 player, I feel bereft. Don’t get me wrong I love these devices. They transform mundane activities into pleasurable ones. But perhaps we should turn off our gadgets more often. In this sense I can see the attraction of the psychoanalytic session. It is a chance to slow down a bit and take stock of our lives.

The book is divided into five parts – Beginnings, Telling Lies, Loving, Changing and Leaving. Here is a selection of the chapters to give you a flavour of the book: How praise can cause a loss of confidence, The gift of pain, Why parents envy their children, On wanting the impossible, Why we lurch from crisis to crisis, On being boring, On closure and On waking from a dream. 

One story that I found especially fascinating was not in fact one of the case studies. Rather, it was the story of Marissa Panigrosso, who was on the ninety-eighth floor of the south tower when the first plane slammed the north tower of the WorldTradeCenter. Marissa Panigrosso didn’t pause to turn off her computer, or even to pick up her purse. She walked to the nearest emergency exit and left the building. We imagine that these situations are dominated by hysterical panic. However, this is not necessarily true. Two women she had been talking to – including the colleague who shared her cubicle – did not leave, preferring to have telephone conversations. Many people in Marissa Panigrosso’s office ignored both the fire alarm and what was happening just forty metres away in the north tower. Some of them actually went back into a meeting. Tamitha Freeman, a friend of Marissa’s, turned back after walking down several flights of stairs in order for some pictures of her baby. She would not make it out of the building. Nor would the two women on the phone, or the people who went into the meeting.

This behaviour may strike us as odd. Research has shown that, when a fire alarm rings, people do not act immediately. They talk to each other, and they try to work out what is going on. They stand around. This happens when there is a fire drill or the fire alarm goes off:

Instead of leaving a building, we wait. We wait for more clues – the smell of smoke, or advice from someone we trust. But there is also evidence that, even with more information, many of us still won’t make a move. In 1985, fifty-six people were killed when fire broke out in the stands of the Valley Parade football stadium in Bradford. Close examination of television footage later showed that fans did not react immediately and continued to watch both the fire and the game, failing to move towards the exits. And research has shown, again and again, that when we do move, we follow old habits. We don’t trust emergency exits. We almost always try to exit a room through the same door we entered. Forensic reconstruction after a famous restaurant fire in the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Kentucky confirmed that many of the victims sought to pay before leaving, and so died in a queue.

Despite my scepticism about psychoanalysis, I was won over by the book. The Examined Life is well worth reading.