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Category Archives: Neuroscience

Mind? Brain? As a psychologist, who cares?

This started out as an overlong comment on Facebook, in response to some posts by Andrew Dunn and Colin Johnson about the brain-mind problem. Thanks, as always, to Andrew and Colin for giving me interesting things to think about. The starting point for the discussion was a video clip ( suggesting that we can see mind as an emergent feature of brain, and/or that we can think of mind as being like software and brain like hardware. Both of those are ideas worth considering, and I find the software/hardware analogy quite alluring, though it doesn’t quite hold up or explain anything if you look at it closely, but then I thought: is this my problem? As a psychologist (and as an everyday walking-around person), the issue is mind (conscious awareness) and only mind. Phenomenologically, the *only* thing that exists for me is my mind/consciousness/awareness/experience, so that is the core reality. OK, from some outside perspective mind might be an epiphenomenon of brain activity, but for me, the brain activity is more of an epiphenomenon of my existence. I know that changes in brain activity affect my experience (vascular dementia, alcohol, whatever it is that makes me left-handed, which does seem to be related to other characteristics), and I will sometimes deliberately mess with my brain to affect my experience (alcohol), and maybe some things about my brain make that more or less dangerous for me than for others (addiction-prone or -resistant brain structures?)– but the only thing that’s actually going on for me is my experience. It would be fascinating to know something about the machinery of that experience, and that knowledge could be used to change my experience – as we now know enough about exercise physiology to bio-engineer athletic performance – but the brain things I might do with that knowledge would be mind-driven and mind-purposed. In the original discussion, Colin pointed out that that the bit we’re aware of is only a tiny fraction of all the things the brain does (absolutely right), and said “..and we are then supposed to induce that that small channel of neural activity is what makes you ‘you’? – nonsense”, and that’s right at one level – but at the level of my lived experience, me being “me” is the only game in town. I have eaten of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of ‘me’ and ‘not-me’, and once I’ve done that I can’t be brain activity: there has to be a mind. All I have is my experience, and all that that is built on is my experience, and where that experience might come from is interesting, entertaining, and possibly useful, but it doesn’t stop my experience being my experience. So, although it might be possible to solve the problem of mind “by the objective and experimental analysis of the brain proper” (quote from Colin again), the only point of doing that, as a human, would be to satisfy our curiosity about how we work, or to use the information to modify our experience – so it remains an experiential, mind-governed enterprise. Actually, there’s also the problem of the inbuilt indeterminacy of the systems involved, which might make the problem insoluble in engineering terms (see but it’s still worth trying). As an ex-physiologist, I’m fascinated by this stuff, just as I remember being mightily impressed by cross-current filtration in the kidney, and how that’s paralleled by cross-current heat exchangers in birds’ legs, but my real involvement in kidney physiology is having to get up to go to the toilet, or discussions and feelings about my friend’s experience of kidney failure. So, this is a claim for psychologists to be interested in mind-type things, and only bother about the brain where it clearly does impose on conscious experience, just as we only bother about society when it impinges from the other direction. Physiology and sociology and politics are fine, but they’re not really the appropriate level of analysis for a lot of what goes on with people (they are the right level of analysis for some other things that go on). This argument seems to me to be very similar to the resolution of Descartian doubt – how can I be sure that what I think I’m experiencing is what’s really going on? Well, if what I’m experiencing is all I can experience, who cares? Unless I’m being offered a choice between blue and red pills, I might as well – actually, I need to – get on with living that (possibly illusory) experience – what else could I do? As with the ‘let psychology be psychology’ argument above, there is some leakage from other realities: study of optical illusions shows a fracture between two versions of available reality, and you could see irrational dissonance reduction or Freudian repression and defence mechanisms as evidence of other fractures – and useful in casting light on what the ‘sum’ of ‘cogito ergo sum’ is, but still, there’s enough existential doubt around, for goodness sake, without actually needing to doubt one’s existence.

As The Man (Lao-Tzu) said: Open yourself to the Tao, then trust your natural responses; and everything will fall into place (Tao Te Ching 23, translation by Stephen Mitchell, 1988)

This was written at the turn of 2013/14, and if you’ve persisted this far, I wish you all a very Happy New Year – but remember that while the occurrence of New Year’s Day is, of course, entirely objectively explainable in terms of the chronology of the Gregorian calendar and the cosmology of the solar system, the irresponsible saturnalia driven by existential despair which goes on on New Year’s Eve (I can hear it going on next door as I write) is entirely mind- and consciousness-driven.

One of the foundation myths of modern psychology: “Brain Scans Show”

I’ve written about this before ( and, but reading through Dorothy Bishop’s excellent BishopBlog (, I came across a post of hers which made the points more clearly than I can:

Bishop also links to from Neuroskeptic, who makes similar points. Neuroskeptic’s argument is not as carefully organised as Bishop’s (and ends up by dismissing the James-Lange theory of emotions as obviously rubbish, which isn’t really justified), but is pleasantly forceful.

Neuroskeptic also discusses the Bennet & al (2009) ‘brain scan of emotion-judging activity in a dead fish’ study (  which Christina mentioned in her lecture. The original poster by Bennet & al (it didn’t make it into a peer-reviewed journal, as far as I know) is at – .

Why do we believe these stories, and believe that brain scans are the royal road to an understanding of the unconscious (or at least a way of answering psychological questions)? I’ll try to explain in my next lecture.

What do you mean: ‘hardwired’?

In a previous post I talked about some research which was (mistakenly, I think, and so do the original researchers) presented as revealing ‘hardwired racism’ in the brain. Whatever that research means about racism, or, however weirdly, what racists think it means, that started me thinking about what ‘hardwired’ might really mean. Here’s an online definition:

hard-wire (härdwr); tr.v. hard-wired, hard-wir•ing, hard-wires
1. To connect (electronic components, for example) by electrical wires or cables.
2. To implement (a capability) through logic circuitry that is permanently connected within a computer and therefore not subject to change by programming.
3. To determine or put into effect by physiological or neurological mechanisms; make automatic or innate: “It may be that certain orders of anxiety are hard-wired in us” (Armand Schwerner).

The first meaning is almost literal, though ‘hard’ metaphorically implies more permanence than just ‘wiring’ as a verb by itself; the second meaning is metaphorical, in that there are unlikely to be any actual wires involved, but still factually follows on from the first. Even here, some of the ‘wiring’ could actually be logic programming, but programming which isn’t accessible to change. So it’s ‘harder’ programming than the ‘firmware’ in your camera, which can be changed, but is left unchanged in normal use, and the software I’m using to write this (though strictly speaking Windows and Word are firmware, from the description I’ve just given).

The third meaning here is completely metaphorical, and it’s always necessary with metaphors to be very careful to work out where the metaphorical meaning stops. Metaphors are innately dodgy and misleading, as Terry Pratchett has Carrot Ironfoundersson point out: “…Going Up in the World is a metaphor, which I have been learning about, it is like Lying but more decorative” (Pratchett, 1989, p183).

Also there are two different meanings under 3): a) to put into effect by physiological mechanisms, and b) to make automatic or innate. I don’t see that b) follows from a) and I’ll argue that through below.

I think there are two kinds of hardwiring that neuroscientists and psychologists talk about. One kind derives from the basic physiology of certain sensory and mental processes, and is likely to be shared with other animals, because that’s just the way these things have evolved to work. Basic visual processes in humans are like this, as is the link between brain activity, the hypothalamus, the adrenal glands, the release of adrenaline/epinephrine into the blood, and at least some of the effects of that release. It is easy to see how some of these basic mechanisms could be evolutionarily modified from a basic plan from species to species. Since Pavlov’s day, we’ve been learning more and more about the physiology and neuroscience of eating and satiety, and probably all mammals share some of the same basic processes, but it would make sense if it were balanced differently for continuous eaters like pandas and shrews, the complex feeding patterns of grass-eaters, or opportunistic omnivores like humans, and we have a hard-wired explanation of obesity built round this*. That roughly corresponds to 3a), and does certainly contain some automatic and innate mechanisms.

The other idea about hardwiring is sociobiological and is evolutionarily vaguer. Certain patterns of behaviour are more likely to lead to the production of reproductively successful offspring, and so are naturally selected. This only works in Darwinian terms if that pattern of behaviour is innate and automatic, such that it can be genetically transmitted and maintained. Other patterns of behaviour which are equally advantageous could be passed on culturally, and might well be selected and maintained, but here we’re talking about memes and behaviour that isn’t innate and automatic, that it can still evolve by a process of cultural selection. So how can you tell which is which? In some cases, like the excellence of traditional music, the evolutionary success of the book, and the story of the rat bone in the restaurant meal, it’s pretty clear that this is memeic (is that the right word?) evolution, but in others, like altruism, reciprocity, and male promiscuity** it seems to me that it could logically go either way. Sometimes the argument seems to me to be circular: how do we know it’s naturally selected? Because it’s a common feature of human behaviour? Why is it a common feature of human behaviour? Because it’s been naturally selected! I think this logic applies almost as well to using books instead of clay tablets as it does to behaviour in prisoner’s dilemma games.

More convincing supporting evidence might come from studies that show similar social/psychological processes in non-human mammals to those in humans, especially those which can be neatly fitted into evolutionary advantage arguments. Patterns of behaviour which can be described as reciprocity, cheating, and grudge-bearing, as discussed by Dawkins (1981) would be an example. What doesn’t count as supporting evidence is fantasies of the lifestyle of pre-human or early human hunter gatherers, where ‘hardwired’ gender differences are held to derive from the habits of cavemen going out hunting mammoths (and having a bit on the side, as shown by the well-known principle that ‘what happens on the hunt stays on the hunt’), while the cavewomen (cavegirls?) stayed home, gathering berries and digging roots – and caveyouths demonstrated their breeding fitness by rites of passage which involved wrestling with dinosaurs, probably.

There is a useful discussion by Thomas Martin of the background to the hardwired metaphor and what it might mean for human nature from an anarchist point of view here: It’s worth reading the first part for a summary of where the idea in sociobiology/psychology comes from and then, as he points out in the intro (below), the implications that might have for our understanding of the nature of human nature:

In these first years of the new century anarchism, as a philosophy and as an ongoing praxis, is faced with a number of disconcerting adjustments. Chief among these is the growing evidence that we, along with most other ideologies on the Left, have based our theory on a mistaken concept of human nature. We have learned over the years to distrust words like sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, cognitive science, and above all that dreaded buzzword, “hard-wired” — yet we can no longer ignore the fact that these sciences are probably right about human nature. It does exist; it has biological roots; and while it does enjoy a large measure of free will, its most basic drives and emotions are indeed hard-wired. The Left has long resisted and denied these facts, on the grounds that they might justify discrimination based on heredity, or that they militate against the possibility of radical social reform, or both. I hope to demonstrate that these fears are groundless.
Martin (2006: intro)

There are some bits of Martin’s account I disagree with strongly, especially the idea that genes might ‘want’ to do anything, which he raises later, and you might not want to get into the anarchist thinking at the end, but it does discuss some of the problems that this idea gives to psychologists – and recognises that we may have to accept some inbuilt, evolutionarily selected, forms of behaviour.

But even if you accept that some aspects of our psychology are, metaphorically, hardwired, that doesn’t mean that they’re rigidly fixed. One of the most clearly hardwired bits of our behaviour is the ability to see yellow. In our retinas, we don’t have receptors for all the different colours of light. All we have are cells which are most responsive to red light, to green light, and blue light. So we can’t detect yellow light as such. Pure yellow light that falls on the retina stimulates both the red sensitive cells and the green sensitive cells to roughly the same degree, and when we get this ‘equal red, equal green’ signal, we see it as yellow. But we get the same signal if equal amounts of red and green light fall on the retina at the same time, which is why the television screen, which only shows red, green or blue light, can show us what appears to be a bright clear yellow. Now, we know about the ‘wiring’ of this. We can identify the colour sensitive cells, and we can even track the signals through to where they are combined in the brain to generate a ‘yellow’ channel. This goes beyond vague metaphorical hardwiring: if nerves be wires, then we know what the wires are. We can also trace the evolutionary background to this ability by comparing our visual system and retina with that of other mammals. But, although hardwired, this isn’t a fixed, rigid system. Old-fashioned incandescent room lighting is much yellower than sunlight, but when we are in an incandescently lit room we don’t see the yellow bias, and we see the range of colours that we might see in sunlight. Our responses to the signals from our retina are substantially shifted to compensate for the changed colour of light – without realising it. You can see how big the shift is by taking a photo with a camera in incandescent light (with ‘auto white balance’ turned off). It looks distinctly yellowish, where to us the scene looks as though it was illuminated by white light. As we get older, the fluid in our eye becomes tinged with yellow – so the whole world becomes yellower as you get older – but we’re not aware of this. The only place it shows up is where older people find difficulty in making out white letters on a yellow background, or vice versa.

OK, that’s unconscious, cognitive overriding of hardwiring – maybe by other systems which we might regard as being hardwired too. But here’s another example of how hardwiring can be modified and overridden by cultural and individual variation.  Our bodies have evolved to cope with ethanol, a naturally occurring poison which has a range of damaging effects. Our livers can remove it from the bloodstream and we have an enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase, to support the breakdown of alcohol to less dangerous substances. I guess if you’re being picky, you could say that this is hard-moleculed rather than hardwired. But since we enjoy some of the toxic effects of alcohol, we found ways of supplying alcohol in sufficient quantity to temporarily overwhelm this system, and cultural patterns to encourage, reward and control this overdosing. And metabolism fights back, as it’s well designed to do, by increasing the amount of alcohol dehydrogenase in the system, but the determined drunk just ramps up the input. We quite quickly develop the technology to move from 5% alcohol to 15% to 80%, and also provided a cultural overlay which makes Bollinger and Laphroaig more expensive and more desirable than straight 13% and 40%. OK, there are genetic (hardwired) differences in people’s ability to metabolise alcohol, but it’s clear that cultural factors are important in the role alcohol plays in our lives.

*I’m not sure that this is quite the same as saying that individual differences in obesity are ‘genetically determined’. My first interpretation of the genetically determined explanation was that it must derive from rapid evolutionary change, so that, sometime, in the twentieth century, there was an environmental/cultural change such that fat people got much more sex than thin people, so fatness was rapidly selected for, rather like the way the colour of the peppered moth changed with pollution levels over the last two hundred years. In retrospect, I think I’d oversimplified things, but I’m still in favour of lots of sex for fat people.

**The gender difference here might be overplayed. Traditional wisdom sometimes has it otherwise: see Willie McTell’s Married Man’s a Fool (If He thinks His Wife loves No-one Else But Him), evolving into the Ry Cooder version: On the other hand, it’s traditionally well-known that All Men Are Bastards, but that probably covers more than just infidelity.

Martin, Thomas (2006) Anarchism and the Question of Human Nature Social Anarchism Issue 37

Pratchett, Terry (1989) Guards! Guards! London: Corgi

Scientists discover hardwired racist centre in our brains!!! Not

Or: are Daily Mail reporters hardwired to misrepresent psychology stories? Probably not.

This started out as a story about the Daily Mail misrepresenting some neuropsych research (why is that news?) but as I looked into it and thought about it, it involved some other issues.

The starting point is a Daily Mail story “Racism is hard-wired into our brains” about some research at New York University recently published in Nature Neuroscience (Kubota, Banaji & Phelps, 2012). I picked it up in The Guardian, initially in a letter to The Guardian from the three authors of the original journal article thanking The Guardian for a piece it had run in criticism of the Mail story, and making it clear that they did not say what the Mail said ‘scientists say’.

As I followed up the story, though, I found an account of how the original research is part of a Jewish conspiracy to destroy the white race,  and (conversely) how lefty’s (sic) and the BBC only object to ‘hardwiring’ when it’s about race [not discussed in this post: I might get back to it later]. It also started me thinking about ‘hardwiring’ (a word which was widely used in reports of the research, though it wasn’t in the original press release) and what it means and implies. So, below is an account of the original misreporting, then stuff about the Jewish plot. A thoughtful (I hope) bit about the concept of hardwiring will make a future post.

OK, start with the research and the Mail story. Here’s the abstract for the original paper, titled The Neuroscience of Race:

Abstract: As the racial composition of the population changes, intergroup interactions are increasingly common. To understand how we perceive and categorize race and the attitudes that flow from it, scientists have used brain imaging techniques to examine how social categories of race and ethnicity are processed, evaluated and incorporated in decision-making. We review these findings, focusing on black and white race categories. A network of interacting brain regions is important in the unintentional, implicit expression of racial attitudes and its control. On the basis of the overlap in the neural circuitry of race, emotion and decision-making, we speculate as to how this emerging research might inform how we recognize and respond to variations in race and its influence on unintended race-based attitudes and decisions.

This paper is at, but you need a subscription (or £22) to view the full paper. There’s a Nature News piece (essentially a press release)  How the brain views race: How do our brains respond when we see someone of a different ethnicity? By Mo Costandi at (Costandi, 2012), with quotes from Liz Phelps, one of the authors, where I think most of the later press stuff came from. The original paper is a review of other research which suggests that the regions of the brain involved in making decisions about the race of a person overlap with the regions of the brain involved in emotion: “there’s a network of brain regions that is consistently activated in neuroimaging studies of race processing. This network overlaps with the circuits involved in decision-making and emotion regulation, and includes the amygdala, fusiform face area (FFA), anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC).” (Constandi, 2012)

Yes, so?

Well, there’s a background in “the implicit association task, which measures initial, evaluative responses. It involves asking people to pair concepts such as black and white with concepts like good and bad. What you find is that most white Americans take longer to make a response that pairs black with good and white with bad than vice versa. This reveals their implicit preferences” (Constandi, 2012). This is a pretty well-known finding in psychology now, and implicit association measures are used quite a lot (including studies I find very unconvincing about whether people present their ‘true selves’ online – but that should be another post). Phelps mentions a 2000 study which showed a link between this kind of implicit preference measure with the brain areas mentioned above. Constandi doesn’t reference it, but it must be a paper in J Cognitive Neuroscience titled Performance on Indirect Measures of Race Evaluation Predicts Amygdala Activation by Elizabeth Phelps & six others (Phelps & al, 2000):

Abstract: We used fMRI to explore the neural substrates involved in the unconscious evaluation of Black and White social groups. Specifically, we focused on the amygdala, a subcortical structure known to play a role in emotional learning and evaluation. In Experiment 1, White American subjects observed faces of unfamiliar Black and White males. The strength of amygdala activation to Black-versus-White faces was correlated with two indirect (unconscious) measures of race evaluation (Implicit Association Test [IAT] and potentiated startle), but not with the direct (conscious) expression of race attitudes. In Experiment 2, these patterns were not obtained when the stimulus faces belonged to familiar and positively regarded Black and White individuals. Together, these results suggest that amygdala and behavioral responses to Black-versus-White faces in White subjects reflect cultural evaluations of social groups modified by individual experience.

As far as I can make out, the 2012 paper is reviewing a number of similar stories, which show that a) Whites may show (not consciously recognised) prejudice against Blacks, and b) emotion-relevant areas of the brain show activity when they’re doing that. Phelps suggests in the Constandi interview that some of this activity might be related to resolving (presumably unconscious) conflicts which arise when ‘right-thinking’ people feel stirrings of racial prejudice. This might fit with those good old 70s social psychology ideas of cognitive dissonance (someone must have done a fMRI study of cognitive dissonance, surely? I’d like to hear of it, if they have). So, overall, this looks like studies which sort-of, more-or-less, probably (remember that fMRI isn’t very precise, and there are a lot of calculations and assumptions that go into those nice coloured brain pictures) relate brain activity to psychological processes which we already have a pretty good knowledge of: interesting, but not very surprising.

But if it’s in the brain, it’s much more significant than if it’s in the behaviour, or so the Mail (and lots of others) think, so evidence about racism in the brain is more convincing than evidence from what we do. In the press release, Phelps points out that we already know that’s there’s lots of evidence of unintentional (or implicit) bias against African-Americans in US society. The way the research should process, she says, is: “We need to investigate how our implicit preferences are linked to the choices and decisions we make. We want to use this knowledge to reduce the unintended consequences of race bias — the things we do that aren’t consistent with our beliefs.” (Constandi, 2012). The title of the Nature News piece is How the Brain Sees Race, which doesn’t seem to reflect the piece well, but it gets worse when translated by the Daily Mail:

Racism is ‘hardwired’ into the human brain – and people can be prejudiced without knowing it

  • Same circuits that allow people to judge ethnic groups also drive emotional decisions
  • Even ‘right thinking’ people can have racist attitudes
  • Racism operates below the conscious level

By Rob Waugh (at–people-racists-knowing-it.html)

If you take the specific points made in the headline and subheads, and number them:

Racism is ‘hardwired’ into the human brain (1) – and people can be prejudiced without knowing it (2)
Same circuits that allow people to judge ethnic groups also drive emotional decisions (3); Even ‘right thinking’ people can have racist attitudes (4); Racism operates below the conscious level (5),
then four out of the five are not unreasonable (well, 3 is a bit dodgy: what do you mean by ‘judge’, here – and who decided that ‘judging’ was the most significant interaction between cultures?) – it’s just the big ‘hardwired’ headline that comes out of nowhere. 2 and 5 say the same thing, and are only slightly different from 4, but that’s just sloppy sub-editing. But ‘hardwired racism’ is what sticks in perceptions of the article: when I was searching for more information for this post, I found lots of repeats of the Mail headline in other newspapers and posts around the world, and it seems to have been preferred to the headline that Nature News used.

A bit further down, the Mail claims: “Brain scans have proved that interactions with people of other ethnic backgrounds set off reactions that may be completely unknown to our conscious selves.” It then goes on with quite a lot of quotes from Phelps which aren’t the same as the ones in the Nature News piece (as I’ve noted previously, newspaper quotes about science stories are often taken straight from PR material, so credit to the Mail for doing that – though you’ll see below that they didn’t research the story completely), but were quotes from the original paper – which seem to fit with the story I’ve given above, and with the Nature News piece (she goes on a bit more about the social importance of research like this in these quotes than in the Nature News piece), and not with the beginning of the article. A couple of years ago, when I got one of my classes to review psychology stories in the press, they often found that the main story was reasonably accurate and informative, but the headline and opening often distorted the story considerably, and they noted that this happened quite a lot with the Mail.

What made this story interesting to me was that Elizabeth Phelps and the other authors took the trouble to repudiate the false message of the Mail story. They wrote to The Guardian in response to a Guardian article also criticising the Mail’s version. Maybe they wrote to the Mail too, but I can’t find any hint of that on the Mail’s page for the article. It’s worth giving their letter  in full:

As the authors of the recent Nature Neuroscience article on the neuroscience of race, we would like to express our gratitude for the Guardian’s critique of an article published in the Daily Mail entitled “Racism is ‘hardwired’ into the human brain”. The Guardian’s response, by Richard Seymour (Comment is free, 27 June), is an accurate and responsible representation of the review article. Although the content of the Mail’s article consisted of quotes from the original piece, the paper did not contact the researchers for comment on the scientific conclusions. The sensational title that the Daily Mail selected not only misrepresents the science, but is also damaging for intergroup relations. By using the word “hardwired” the Mail title implies that racism is innate.
As the Guardian article accurately cites, race attitudes are largely culturally determined and shift over time. It is our opinion that the Daily Mail’s title was irresponsible and we applaud the Guardian’s efforts to stand with the scientists and accurately represent research.
Jennifer Kubota, Mahzarin Banaji, Elizabeth Phelps  New York University

(this is at, and The Guardian article by Richard Seymour is at

Right on, Jeni, Mahzarin and Liz.

The ‘Jewish conspiracy’ part starts here

In looking for material online about this research, I came across stuff which makes the Mail’s version look reasonable and balanced.

Here’s a blog headline and opening:

Jewish Scientist Nears Physical Cure For ‘White Racism.’ A Nanotechnology Lobotomy?

Time is running out for a white race already brainwashed into accepting, even welcoming their own fate.
‘Racism’ will be cured by future proceedures such as nano-tech operations to lobotomise areas of the brain as well as to alter DNA to ‘breed out’ the ability to discriminate within the white brain:
“Racism, says a leading Jewish scientist, “is ‘hardwired’ into the human brain – and people (Ed: in the terms of political correctness this means whites) can be prejudiced without knowing it.” Says Dr Elizabeth Phelps, of New York University. [I can’t find this quote from Phelps elsewhere: I think it’s probably constructed from the Mail headline]

I originally found this in the Our Weapon is Truth blog, posted on June 27, but then I found exactly the same stuff (including the missing double quote the third para) in Pragmatic Witness, posted on June 28, and Endzog, possibly the original source, posted on June 26. I wish my stuff was picked up and recirculated so quickly. The Weapon is Truth URL is – but you don’t have to go there: I read this stuff so you don’t have to.
I think the ‘wiping out the white race’ logic is that if we reduce white racism, then whites will inevitably be overwhelmed by other races (because the other races are innately superior?), or maybe ‘whiteness’ will be bred out of the world through miscegenation. The piece somewhat over-interprets Phelp’s quotes, I think:

In a sentence which betrays the plan to alter the human genome and the brain of individuals Dr Phelps says that “The finding may force researchers to think about racism in entirely new ways, and the findings published in Nature Neuroscience could lead to fresh ways of thinking about unintended race-based attitudes and decisions.”

Sorry, run that by me again? I’m always striving for ‘fresh ways of thinking’ in myself and others – but I hadn’t thought of trying altering genomes or nano-surgery. Nano-surgery? Here’s how it will work:

Here is such an application in development. One day, created to mimic bacteria and attuned to eat away fixed portions of the brain before dissolving, it could be dispensed through a tablet to offending schoolchildren or thought-criminals like Emma West or having been genetically engineered to target Caucasians, perhaps even released into the water supply in short bursts:

(Emma West is the drunk-racist-abuse-on-tram person: I had to look that up)

Don’t worry guys: we haven’t discovered the hardwired centre of racism in the brain, the kind of tumour-attacking nanotechnology described in the video wouldn’t work for ‘eating away’ the racism centre (though if you could find a racism neurotransmitter, I can imagine that it might be possible to nanofocus on that), and I can’t begin to imagine how you could alter the human genome to affect any of this (to move some bits of the brain away from others?) even less what Kotaba & al’s research has got to do with that. The ‘white race’ (whatever that is) is still safe.

OK, these people are fruitcakes, and what they say doesn’t make sense – but the kind of thing the Mail headline writers do (thoughtlessly, maybe, when it comes to science stories) gives them something to lever against. So I wish the Mail would be more thoughtful (and accurate) in how it headlines psychology research.

On the other hand, there’s no guarding against delusion: who’d have thought that the National Cancer Institute’s syrupy cancer-busting nanotechnology promotion would have inspired fantasies of eating away schoolchildren’s brains?

Constandi, Mo (2012) How the brain views race: How do our brains respond when we see someone of a different ethnicity? Nature News, 26 June 2012

Kubota, Jennifer T, Banaji, Mahzarin R & Phelps Elizabeth A (2012) The neuroscience of race Nature Neuroscience 15, 940–948

Phelps, Elizabeth A., O’Connor, Kevin J., Cunningham, William A., Funayama, E. Sumie, Gatenby, J. Christopher, Gore, John C. & Banaji, Mahzarin R. (2000) Performance on Indirect Measures of Race Evaluation Predicts Amygdala Activation Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 12(5), 729–738

Phelps, Elizabeth A. & Thomas, Laura A. (2003) Race, Behavior, and the Brain: The Role of Neuroimaging in Understanding Complex Social Behaviors Political Psychology 24(4), 747-758

You can rewire your brain! Well, maybe

As usual, a psychology story in the press which made me think ‘yes, but…’.

This is in today’s (Weds 13 June) Guardian: How Barbara Arrowsmith-Young rebuilt her own brain:

Barbara Arrowsmith-Young had a phenomenal memory but was ‘living in a fog’. She realised that part of her brain was not functioning properly so she devised a series of cognitive exercises to develop it. The results changed her life – and now she has helped thousands of children with learning disabilities

It looks as though this is a PR-inspired article. The second paragraph has the line: “She has just published a groundbreaking, widely praised and enthralling book called The Woman Who Changed Her Brain”. The online version of the article comes with a link to the book in the Guardian bookshop:
Some quick research turned up various online interviews and articles from various parts of the world in the last month or two, like this Australian book fair video: , and she was on at the Hay Festival on 5 June, so I guess the Guardian article is part of a world tour publicising the book – and her Arrowsmith cognitive program for children with learning disabilities:

So I think it’s important to note that this is a story that promotes a commercial operation from Arrowsmith-Young’s point of view, though that’s presumably not why The Guardian thought it worth publishing. That doesn’t mean it’s not psychologically interesting, or (more important) that there might be something here which really could benefit people with cognitive problems.

This is the story. AY (sorry, I ‘m too lazy to keep on typing Arrowsmith-Young) was a child with multiple cognitive problems: in the Australian video linked to above she describes a wider range of problems than are identified in the Guardian article. The basic point seems to be, though, that although she had a “phenomenal” memory, she “didn’t understand anything. Meaning never crystallised. Everything was fragmented, disconnected.” For example, she couldn’t grasp the relationship between hands of a clock and the time. “I was just not attaching meaning to symbols.” In spite of this, by hard work and memory power, she was able to pass school and university courses.
Then she came across two pieces of psychological research. The first was a case study by Alexander Luria of a Russian soldier who had been shot in the head* and suffered damage to the left occipital-temporal-parietal region:

I recognised somebody describing exactly what I experienced. His expressions were the same: living life in a fog. His difficulties were the same: he couldn’t tell the time from a clock, he couldn’t understand bigger and smaller without drawing pictures, he couldn’t tell the difference between the sentences ‘The boy chases the dog’ and ‘The dog chases the boy.’ I began to see that maybe an area of my brain wasn’t working.” [Luria’s book, The Man With a Shattered World (1972), which describes this case, is still available. There’s a useful, but very basic, summary at]

and then:

She read about the work of Mark Rosenzweig, an American researcher who found that laboratory rats given a rich and stimulating environment, with play wheels and toys, developed larger brains than those kept in a bare cage. Rosenzweig concluded that the brain continues developing, reshaping itself based on life experiences, rather than being fixed at birth: a concept known as neuroplasticity. Arrowsmith-Young decided that if rats could grow bigger and better brains, so could she. [Some details of Rosenzweig’s work further down]
So she started devising brain stimulation exercises for herself that would work the parts of her brain that weren’t functioning. She drew 100 two-handed clockfaces on cards, each one telling a different time, and wrote the time each told on the back of the card. Then she started trying to tell the time from each, checking on the back each time to see if she was right. She did this eight to 10 hours a day. Gradually, she got faster and more accurate. Then she added a third hand, to make the task more difficult. Then a fourth, for tenths of a second, and a fifth, for days of the week.
I was experiencing a mental exhaustion like I had never known,” she says, “so I figured something was happening. And by the time I’d done that for three or four months, it really felt like something had shifted, something had fundamentally changed in my brain, allowing me to process and understand information. I watched an edition of 60 Minutes, with a friend, and I got it. I read a page of Kierkegaard – because philosophy is obviously very conceptual, so had been impossible for me – and I understood it. I read pages from 10 books, and every single one I understood. I was like, hallelujah! It was like stepping from darkness into light.””

After all that (some years ago), AY has moved on to become able to talk “fluently and passionately and with great erudition” about her book and about her program for helping children with cognitive deficits. She has developed a range of mental exercises for helping a range of cognitive functions (The Guardian says 19) to help thousands of children diagnosed with ADD or ADHD over the years in 35 schools in the US and Canada.

OK, that’s the story, and it’s very interesting. But a few things worry me.

The first one was wondering how someone with no clear idea of cause and effect, and not able to understand a television news programme (she gives the ability to understand such a program after her exercises as evidence that they had worked), could understand the ideas and implications of Luria’s and Rosensweig’s work, and then make the conceptual jump from that to the clockface card exercise. I think I need more information to understand how that worked. I guess I should read the book.
The second worrying thing is that I don’t know of any peer-reviewed research to support this. A quick search in Google Scholar shows links to stuff published on her website, but not much else. I do know of research which suggests that ‘muscle-style’ training of cognitive abilities doesn’t seem to do much good. So Melby-Lervåg & Hulme (2012), after a meta-analysis of twenty three studies of working memory training, conclude in their abstract:

Meta-analyses indicated that the programs produced reliable short-term improvements in working memory skills. For verbal working memory, these near-transfer effects were not sustained at follow-up, whereas for visuospatial working memory, limited evidence suggested that such effects might be maintained. More importantly, there was no convincing evidence of the generalization of working memory training to other skills (nonverbal and verbal ability, inhibitory processes in attention, word decoding, and arithmetic). The authors conclude that memory training programs appear to produce short-term, specific training effects that do not generalize.

The third thing is my generalised cynicism about the spurious convincingness of explanations which depend on brain function. Now, I may be being unfair to AW, but there is evidence for this spurious convincingness as a general effect**. Weisberg, Keil, Goodstein, Rawson, and Gray’s (2008) paper The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations (available at tried out good and bad explanations for psychological phenomena, and found that adding a bit of neuroscience flannel enhanced credibility, at least for non-experts. Here’s their abstract:

Explanations of psychological phenomena seem to generate more public interest when they contain neuroscientific information. Even irrelevant neuroscience information in an explanation of a psychological phenomenon may interfere with people’s abilities to critically consider the underlying logic of this explanation. We tested this hypothesis by giving naïve adults, students in a neuroscience course, and neuroscience experts brief descriptions of psychological phenomena followed by one of four types of explanation, according to a 2 (good  explanation vs. bad explanation)  2 (without neuroscience vs. with neuroscience) design. Crucially, the neuroscience information was irrelevant to the logic of the explanation, as confirmed by the expert subjects. Subjects in all three groups judged good explanations as more satisfying than bad ones. But subjects in the two nonexpert groups additionally judged that explanations with logically irrelevant neuroscience information were more satisfying than explanations without. The neuroscience information had a particularly striking effect on non-experts’ judgments of bad explanations, masking otherwise salient problems in these explanations.

For camparison, here’s an accountof the AY approach from AY’s commercial website,

Recent discoveries in neuroscience have conclusively demonstrated that, by engaging in certain mental tasks or activities, we actually change the structure of our brains–from the cells themselves to the connections between cells. The capability of nerve cells to change is known as neuroplasticity, and Arrowsmith-Young has been putting it into practice for decades. With great inventiveness, after combining two lines of research, Barbara developed unusual cognitive calisthenics that radically increased the functioning of her weakened brain areas to normal and, in some areas, even above normal levels. She drew on her intellectual strengths to determine what types of drills were required to target the specific nature of her learning problems, and she managed to conquer her cognitive deficits.

I’d prefer some empirical evidence for determining “what types of drills were required”, rather than drawing on AY’s “intellectual strengths”, but the main point is that I think the opening statement is only really supportable in a fairly trivial sense: “by engaging in certain mental tasks or activities, we actually change the structure of our brains–from the cells themselves to the connections between cells.” Well, yes: to the extent that we’re cognitively changed by what we do, our brains change. What else could be happening? Those changes can affect our experience qualitatively, even in later life. Some years of struggling with singing in a choir, and trying to cope with big books full of notes, have made me almost able to read music directly and recognise intervals in a way which is experientially quite different from my earlier strictly by-ear experience of music, and I encourage anyone to try it – your brain will work better, and you’ll experience things you didn’t before!! – but I don’t see that as a neurological breakthrough. Is the AY statement a neurologically-enhanced not-much-of-an-explanation? Certainly the Rosenzweig*** studies, while important and fascinating, don’t take us into AY territory. You can read an original 1964 Bennet, Diamond, Kreech & Rosenzwieg paper here: (It’s always really valuable to read the originals), and a later 1996 summary (Rosenzweig and Bennett, 1996) here:
R&B were mainly concerned with increase in brain size and connectivity, and later on with improvements in memory and learning (obvious things to look at in rats). I always took that research as being more of a warning about the damaging effects of deprivation more than the enhancing effects of stimulation (though the B&Al paper does distinguish between non-deprivation and extra stimulation). I’m not up-to-date on this stuff, so I’d be interested to hear of more recent evidence which might suggest changes in more advanced cognitive functioning as a result of changed experience (apart from the non-result of M-L&H, cited above).

Am I being too sceptical here?

*People getting shot in the head is a valuable source for psychological/neurological research. If we ever run out of wars (unfortunately, not likely) we’ll have to make do with motorcyclists (note to my friend John: be careful out there).

**I got this reference from one of Ben Goldacre’s blogs about Mind Gym. Goldacre is wonderfully scathing, and funny, about Brain Gym, which also has some neurological explanations which don’t convince me (actually he’s wonderfully funny and scathing about lots of Bad Science – read the book, follow the blog, follow him on Twitter [for an interesting example of one way of using Twitter, including crowdsourcing advice about what to eat in your fridge]). This particular blogpost was
(The link G gives at the end to the Weisberg & al paper doesn’t work, but the ones I give here are OK – in June 2012, anyway)

***I can’t resist pointing out that Rosenzweig’s grandparents were asylum seekers (the people formerly known as refugees) or economic migrants (as with many valuable contributors to their new host society) – and no, not ‘bogus asylum seekers’ – what’s the point of seeking bogus asylum? Or even not really (bogusly) seeking asylum?: ‘Oh, thanks for giving me refugee status, but I don’t really want it: it was just a windup, actually.” Anyone who uses that phrase needs to take a (non-subsidised) course to improve their understanding of English and logic, and then be deported (to whatever planet they came from) if they fail. [Mild trolling here]

Bennet, Diamond, Kreech &, Rosenzwieg (1964) Chemical and Anatomical Plasticity of Brain Science 146, 610-619

Melby-Lervåg, M., & Hulme, C. (2012). Is Working Memory Training Effective? A Meta-Analytic Review. Developmental Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0028228
A short writeup about  this paper: No Evidence That Working Memory Training Programs Improve General Cognitive Performance

Rosenzweig, Mark R. and Edward L. Bennett. (1996) Psychobiology of plasticity: effects of training and experience on brain and behavior Behavioural Brain Research 78 57-65

Weisberg, Deena Skolnick, Frank C. Keil, Joshua Goodstein, Elizabeth Rawson, and Jeremy R. Gray (2008) The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 20:3, pp. 470–477

Scientists can read your thoughts!!!!! Yeah, right

There have been two recent sets of reports on the ‘scientists can read your thoughts’ theme.
The Guardian reports:

Mind-reading program translates brain activity into words

The research paves the way for brain implants that would translate the thoughts of people who have lost power of speech (31 January 2012)

This is about the paper by Pasley & al (2012) in PLoS Biology ‘Reconstructing Speech from Human Auditory Cortex.’
Here’s the original press release (as always, it’s a university press release which produces all the news coverage):– which includes a video showing the original stimuli and the reconstructions.

The Guardian story says:

In a series of new experiments, scientists have been able to use a computer to decipher brain activity. So what, huh? Well, the computer can reconstruct those signals into the actual words the participants are thinking about. It can read your mind.
OK, so sometimes the words were difficult to recognise, but that’s not the point: it means that people unable to speak could generate a voice just by thinking in sentences.
“Potentially, the technique could be used to develop an implantable prosthetic device to aid speaking, and for some patients that would be wonderful,” Robert Knight, a senior member of the team and director of the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, told the Guardian. “Perhaps in 10 years it will be as common as grandmother getting a new hip.”

Well, that would make sense if they were recording brain activity of people who are speaking these words, or even better intending to speak these words – but that’s not what’s happening here. They’re recording the activity of people listening to these words, so if there’s any mind reading going on here, it is reading what people are hearing, not what they’re thinking or intending.

The other similar story concerns the work of Jack Gallant and his team at U. C. Berkeley, published in Current Biology (Nishimoto & al, 2011): for the abstract.

The Economist says:


It is now possible to scan someone’s brain and get a reasonable idea of what is going through his mind. For the second paper of the trio [Gallant & al, 2011], published in Current Biology in September, shows that it is now possible to make a surprisingly accurate reconstruction, in full motion and glorious Technicolor, of exactly what is passing through an awake person’s mind.

Well, not really*.
The Discovery News account is more realistic:

What if scientists could peer inside your brain and then reconstruct what you were thinking, playing the images back like a video?
Science and technology are not even remotely at that point yet, but a new study from the University of California Berkeley marks a significant, if blurry, step in that direction.
Gallant wants to be clear about his lab’s research goal. “We’re trying to understand how the brain works,” he said. “We’re not trying to build a brain-decoding device.”

In the study, activity in the brain while watching the target video was matched with activity while watching a very large number of other random video clips, with ingenious software matching the target activity with whatever appeared in the brain activity while watching the other clips.

Here’s a shorter, but more precise, online press account:  Mind-Reading Tech Reconstructs Videos From Brain Images, by Dan Nosowitz, though as is often the case, the headline is not backed up by the information in the article. It’s a very short article, but is quite clear that what is happening is that Gallant is “attempting to reconstruct a video by reading the brain scans of someone who watched that video–essentially pulling experiences directly from someone’s brain”, and points out that this is really “what the researchers would really prefer we call ‘brain decoding’ rather than “mind-reading.”

That’s the point for of these studies: they’re picking up input signals at some level of decoding, and this isn’t really very different from the kind of event recording in the optic nerve or the visual cortex carried out by people like Hubel and Weisel all those years ago. Certainly, H & W were given the Nobel Prize, quite rightly, for their work, and this work takes the analysis deeper into the brain and at a much higher level of complexity and so is a considerable advance – but it’s not ‘reading our thoughts’. The Gallant paper from U.C. Berkeley puts it nice and clearly: “These results demonstrate that dynamic brain activity measured under naturalistic conditions can be decoded using current fMRI technology.”
The results are really impressive. Here’s a demo video of the video inputs and the computer reconstruction:

That’s a great technical advance, but we already have a ‘reading your thoughts’ example using EEG. This is the ‘readiness potential’ which Libet (1985) used in the well-known study which shows that brain activity showing decision to act seems to anticipate conscious awareness of that decision. Actually, the readiness potential was discovered a long time ago, first reported by Kornhuber and Deecke in 1965. I first heard of it in a talk by W. Grey Walter in 1968, and Grey Walter had been able to use readiness potential to allow people to use ‘mind control’ of the world nearly 50 years ago. He had set up a system to detect the readiness potential, and use that signal to do things like switching a light off and on. All you had to do was to decide to switch the light and the system would pick up your decision and do the action for you. I don’t think there was any differentiation of readiness potentials, so the system could only be set up to do one thing at a time, and probably deciding to do anything would activate it, so that’s not really mind reading, either. I remember Grey Walter saying that the easy way of doing this was to actually reach out for the switch, when the sytem would turn on th elight before you got there, but he did find it possible to activate the system without actually making the movement, just by forming the intention. He said it was a weird sensation. I think Grey Walter is an under-remembered scientist. His EEG work is fascinating, and he also did important early work in robotics. He does have a Wikipedia page:

(You need to be aware that the account I just given is an unsubstantiated memory of a rather informal talk nearly 50 years ago, when I was a young physiologist just beginning to learn about psychology. I’m sure I haven’t made it all up, but the account of what Grey Walter had been able to do may be more complete and coherent than the actual research. From all we know about memory some changes in that direction are likely.)

Actually, while following the press stories on the research above, I came across something which does look a bit more like mind reading, and is maybe more encouraging, or more frightening, depending on your point of view.

Here’s the Discovery News story:

A simple slide show could be the next weapon against terrorists. Using a brain-electrode cap and imagery, scientists at Northwestern University can pick the date, location and means of a future terrorist attack from the minds of America’s enemies.

Well, no it can’t, but if you read on there is some interesting stuff happening:

The electrodes measure the P300 brain wave, an involuntary response to stimuli that starts in the temporoparietal junction and spreads across the rest of the brain. When the wave hits the surface of the brain, the electrodes detect the signal. The stronger the reaction of the subject to a particularly stimuli, the stronger the P300 brain wave.
Rosenfeld and his co-author, graduate student John Meixner, divided 29 Northwestern University students into two groups. One group planned a vacation while the other group planned a terrorist attack. The students then had electrodes placed on their scalp, and were shown a series of images of various cities, such as Boston and Houston, and various means of attack, along with other related, but irrelevant, images as controls.
As the slide show advanced, the electrodes recorded the P300 waves. When, for instance, the mock terrorists saw an image of the city they planned to attack, the electrodes recorded strong P300 brain waves. The Northwestern scientist then compared the strength of all the brain waves to find out who was planning at attack on which city, when they were planning it and how they meant to carry out the attack.
The Northwestern scientists correlated the strongest brain waves with “guilty knowledge” every time. Weaker P300 waves were seen when subjects saw images not associated with their planned attack. Scientists also examined P300 waves from the students in the group that was planning vacations, and did not falsely identify any of them as terrorists.

Here’s an actual paper on the research (Rosenfeld & al, 2008):

If you’ve read my previous posts, you’ll know exactly what I’m going to say here. Brilliant research, doing complicated stuff, with fascinating possibilities, but greatly overhyped by the headlines, and slightly misrepresented by the text, with the clearest remarks about the true scope of the research right at the end of the article. I think the overall result of this is to make the reader cynical about any possibility of progress – “I read about the same thing five years ago, and it never happened: these scientists are always making fanciful claims” – and to underrepresent the complexity (and interest) of the research that is actually going on.

*To be fair to The Economist, the article also describes two other interesting studies which are a little bit nearer to the ‘mind reading’ headline**.

**But to be pedantic (and maybe unfair) no-one uses Technicolor nowadays, and you have to be pretty old to even remember the phrase ‘in glorious Technicolor’.


Grey Walter, W (1964) Contingent negative variation: An electrical sign of sensorimotor association and expectancy in the human brain Nature 203, 380-384

Libet, B. (1985) Unconscious cerebral initiative and the role of conscious will in voluntary action. Behavior & Brain Science 8, 529–566

Nishimoto, Shinji, Vu, An T., Naselaris, Thomas, Benjamini, Yuval, Yu, Bin, Gallant Jack L. (2011) Reconstructing Visual Experiences from Brain Activity Evoked by Natural Movies Current Biology, 21(19), 1641-1646

Pasley, Brian N., Stephen V. David, Nima Mesgarani, Adeen Flinker, Shihab A. Shamma, Nathan E. Crone, Robert T. Knight, Edward F. T PLoS Biology
Available at:

Rosenfeld, J. Peter, Elena Labkovsky, Michael Winograd, Ming A. Lui, Catherine Vandenboom and Erica Chedid (2008) The Complex Trial Protocol (CTP): A new, countermeasure-resistant, accurate, P300-based method for detection of concealed information Psychophysiology, 45, 906–919.
Available at:

How Neuroscience Appears in the Mainstream Press: some empirical support for my prejudices

A paper published this month in the journal Neuron by O’Connor, Rees and Joffe (2012): Neuroscience in the Public Sphere is a fascinating content analysis of how neuroscience has been presented between 2000 and 2010 in six mainstream UK newspapers: the Daily Telegraph, Times, Daily Mail, Sun, Mirror, and Guardian.
On the basis of other research by Racine and colleagues (referenced in the article) they point out that there are three main stories in representation of neuroscience research:

Neurorealism describes the use of neuroimages to make phenomena seem objective, offering visual proof that a subjective experience (e.g., love, pain, addiction) is a “real thing.” Neuroessentialism denotes depictions of the brain as the essence of a person, with the brain a synonym for concepts like person, self, or soul. Finally, neuropolicy captures the recruitment of neuroscience to support political or policy agendas.

I have complained in previous posts about the logical flaw in neurorealism, and I guess the habit of illustrating articles with a generic fMRI image of the brain (which I also hate) is an example of neuroessentialism.
O’Connor et al’s paper goes further than this, however, with fascinating detail of trends and content:

The data revealed that the number of articles published per year climbed steadily for most of the decade (Figure 1) [in original], despite drops in 2007 and 2009. Table 1 [in original] displays the percentage of articles that discussed different subjects. The most frequent category of subjects to which the media referred was brain optimization: 43% of all articles discussed enhancement of or threats to brain function. Thirty-six percent of articles referred to psychopathology, 24% to basic functions, and 14% to applied contexts. Fourteen percent discussed issues related to parenthood and 12% individual differences, while sexuality and morality both appeared in 11% of the sample.

They identified three main themes: brain as capital, brain as index of difference – so explaining differences between people in terms of differences in brain function – and thirdly, and what I’ll focus on here, brain research as proof of particular phenomena or beliefs.

The final theme captures the deployment of neuroscience to demonstrate the material, neurobiological basis of particular beliefs or phenomena. This was presented as evidence of their validity and was sometimes used for rhetorical effect. This theme traversed most of the code categories but was particularly salient within applied contexts, basic functions, sexuality, and spiritual experiences.

Two sub-themes here. First, neuroscience research tells us what is ‘natural’, and what is natural must be right… ” In social discourse, what is “natural” is often equated with what is just or right: implicit in the descriptive “is” statement is a normative “ought” statement.”  …the other is assuming that if you can show a neurological correlate of something, then that is a complete and sufficient explanation for it, even if the phenomenon is something which obviously also relates to social and historical factors:

For example, research on the analgesic effects of religious beliefs was used to explain how religious martyrs endure torture (Daily Telegraph, September 9, 2008); the tenacity of historical figures like Winston Churchill and Emmeline Pankhurst was attributed to their alleged possession of a gene linked to stubborn behavior (Daily Mail, January 3, 2008); and a study showing that informational overload can “crowd out” empathy was presented as evidence that social networking websites like Twitter “rob people of compassion” (Daily Mail, June 3, 2009). These were examples of overextensions of research, with implications drawn far outside the original research context. This overextrapolation of research was not limited to idle speculation but sometimes extended to calls for concrete applications. Daniel Amen, a psychiatrist and owner of a chain of private brain-scanning clinics, has suggested in the US press that all presidential candidates should have their grey matter probed. This, he suggests, would help to steer clear of a future Adolf Hitler (cursed with “faulty brain wiring”) or Slobodan Milosevic (who suffered “poor brain function”). (Times, January 7, 2008)

The authors point out that this is a powerful rhetorical technique:

The media data provide a naturalistic analog to experimental findings that brain-based information confers a scientific aura that obscures an argument’s substantive content (Weisberg et al., 2008). The ability to simulate coherent “scientific” explanations through cursory reference to the brain meant that neuroscience was exploited for rhetorical effect. Due to the size and range of the media sample, it was impossible to directly compare media coverage with the corresponding neuroscience research to precisely establish the extent they diverged. However, it seemed clear that research was being applied out of context to create dramatic headlines, push thinly disguised ideological arguments, or support particular policy agendas.

… and understanding of this has implications for scientists:

Rather than a one-way flow of information in which scientists passively impart “the facts” in a press release, the public engagement process thus becomes a dialogue in which scientists interact with, influence, and are influenced by society. Awareness of the public impact of neuroscientific information should also be encouraged within the policy sphere. Incorporation of neuroscientific evidence into policy debate should be closely monitored to ensure that the contribution is substantive rather than purely rhetorical and that neuroscientific evidence is not used as a vehicle for espousing particular values, ideologies, or social divisions.

I’ve quoted extensively from this article, because what it says is worth repeating. It seems clear and evenhanded, and is short and quite readable. It covers more topics than the one I’ve picked out, as well. Follow the link above and you can read it for yourself.

I found this article by following a post on the Neurobonkers blog: “New paper slams UK media for routinely misrepresenting neuroscience research to further ideological agendas”
Nneurobonkers looks as though it’s an interesting and entertaining blog, and I think I’ll try following it. “New paper slams UK media for routinely moisrepresenting” is a bit strong, perhaps. I’m tempted to believe that the Daily Mail might routinely misrepresent things to further ideological agendas, but that’s my prejudice. When my ‘Psychology and the Media’ option students studied psychology reporting in the popular press a couple of years ago we actually came to the conclusion that Daily Mail articles on psychology were comparatively quite accurate and informative, though the headlines for those articles did often seem to misrepresent the research. Can’t believe that The Guardian would misrepresent anything, though – but they do use that stupid brain picture a lot.

Update: Just noticed a useful blog post by, which gives information on the Racine & al research mentioned above, and other similar stuff, and a devastating example of how neuro information is misunderstood and misused (and misrepresented, it seems), in Cordelia Fine’s criticism of an assertion in Louann Brizendine’s bestseller The Female Brain that women are more empathic than men because they have more mirror neurones than men. Brainblogger’s post is worth reading if you thought the stuff above was interesting.

Full article reference:
O’Connor, Cliodhna,  Rees, Geraint & Joffe, Helene (2012) Neuroscience in the Public Sphere, Neuron 74, (2), 220-226

Refs mentioned above from the article:
Racine et al., 2005 Racine, E., Bar-Ilan, O., and Illes, J. (2005). Nat. Rev. Neurosci6, 159–164. PubMed

Racine et al., 2006 Racine, E., Bar-Ilan, O., and Illes, J. (2006). Sci. Commun. 28, 122–142. PubMed

Racine et al., 2010 Racine, E., Waldman, S., Rosenberg, J., and Illes, J. (2010). Soc. Sci. Med71, 725–733. CrossRef | PubMed

Rubinstein et al., 2001 Rubinstein, J.S., Meyer, D.E., and Evans, J.E. (2001). J. Exp. Psychol. Hum. Percept. Perform. 27, 763–797. CrossRef | PubMed

Final note: I’ve copied and pasted these references from the original journal articles, so they’re obviously in correct form for the journal. That form leaves out the title of the paper: seems particularly unhelpful, but I’m too lazy follow them through and find the titles for you. You can get an idea of the topics from the way they’re cited in the paper and the quotes above.

Was: Cognitive Psychology as the science of killing people; now: Neuroscience as the science of….

In this week’s lecture, I’ll present the case that the rise of cognitive psychology in the 50s and 60s, and then the development of computational models in psychology in the 80s, and cognitive neuroscience more recently, were heavily financed by the military, because they helped to provide the knowledge required to enable soldiers to operate increasingly complex weapons systems, and more recently to replace soldiers with smart weapons.

I admit that my view of the development of cognitive psychology may be biased because many years ago, as a hard-line pacifist, I refused to apply for an attractive post-doc research job (in visual search, the topic of my PhD thesis) because it was financed by the Navy – and maybe my career has been downhill ever since. I’m still a hard-line pacifist: show me a war and I’ll march against it (never seems to do much good)*.

But, every time I start thinking this is just an eccentric personal concern, something comes along which reminds me that psychological research is useful to the military, they do finance it, and it is something to be concerned about.

An example from 2008: ‘You really can smell fear, say scientists’ (  an article in The Guardian by James Randerson. Great study involving parachutists’ armpits and brain scanners, looking for a ‘fear pheromone’ (psychologists know how to have fun). And the fourth paragraph reads:

The research was funded by the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency – the Pentagon’s military research wing – raising speculation that it is a first step to isolating the fear pheromone for use in warfare, perhaps to induce terror in enemy troops. But DARPA denied that it had any military plans for fear pheromones or plans to fund further research into the field.

I was preparing this year’s lecture, and thinking that example was a bit dated, when along came (7 February 2012): Rise of the man-machines: how troops could plug their brains into weapons, by Ian Sample in The Guardian. That’s an over-sensationalist title: like most articles like that, the title should have a compulsory ‘sometime, maybe’ added at the end, but it’s a serious article about a just-released report by the (UK) Royal Society which “considers some of the potential military and law enforcement applications arising from key advances in neuroscience”. The intro to the report is at, and the full report is at:

From The Guardian article:

The authors argue that while hostile uses of neuroscience and related technologies are ever more likely, scientists remain almost oblivious to the dual uses of their research.

The article quotes Vince Clark, a US researcher who is using transcranial direct current stimulation to enable soldiers to spot targets more quickly, as saying:

As a scientist I dislike that someone might be hurt by my work. I want to reduce suffering, to make the world a better place, but there are people in the world with different intentions, and I don’t know how to deal with that.
If I stop my work, the people who might be helped won’t be helped. Almost any technology has a defence application.

Clark’s work is also potentially useful for dementia sufferers, so I hope he makes a lot of progress in time for it to be useful to me, but still…. (Actually another article by Sample the same day: points out “How dementia drugs could be used by the military”.)

Both the article and Royal Society report are fascinating reading, but I was struck that the Royal Society’s first recommendation for the scientific community is:

There needs to be fresh effort by the appropriate professional bodies to inculcate the awareness of the dual-use challenge (i.e., knowledge and technologies used for beneficial purposes can also be misused for harmful purposes) amongst neuroscientists at an early stage of their training.

So, that’s what I’m doing in my lecture (and here). All you early-stage neuroscientists, think about this. Just saying.

* Bring home our boys from Iran. I’d like to claim you read it here first, but Mad Magazine got there before me.

Good luck with that, Vince. You, me, and most Miss World contestants, they say.

Abuse and changes in adolescents’ and children’s brains

Two studies reported recently on changes in the brains of adolescents and children who have suffered abuse. Despite my prejudice against ‘we’ve found some kind of brain activity, so that explains everything’ research, this does look interesting, and maybe meaningful.
First ‘past abuse leads to loss of gray matter in the brains of adolescents’, reported in both Medical News Today: and PsyPost: (you probably don’t need both links: they say very much the same things, being lifted from the same Yale University press release). The study was on ‘forty-two adolescents without psychiatric diagnoses’. Hilary Blumberg, one of the authors, has published quite a bit on brain changes in people with bipolar disorder (and so is looking for Szasz’ ‘bad brains’: for all the criticism there is of strictly medical models of mental illness, it’s quite possible that some problems do have physical origins or physical accompaniments).

The brain areas impacted by maltreatment may differ between boys and girls, may depend on whether the youths had been exposed to abuse or neglect, and may be linked to whether the neglect was physical or emotional.
[…]The reduction of gray matter was seen in prefrontal areas, no matter whether the adolescent had been physically abused or emotionally neglected. However, in other areas of the brain the reductions depended upon the type of maltreatment the youth had experienced. For example, emotional neglect was associated with decreases in areas that regulate emotions.
The researchers also found gender differences in patterns of gray matter decreases. In boys, the reduction tended to be concentrated in areas of the brain associated with impulse control or substance abuse. In girls, the reduction seemed to be in areas of the brain linked to depression.

The original paper is Erin E. Edmiston; Fei Wang; Carolyn M. Mazure; Joanne Guiney; Rajita Sinha; Linda C. Mayes; Hilary P. Blumberg (2011) Corticostriatal-Limbic Gray Matter Morphology in Adolescents With Self-reported Exposure to Childhood Maltreatment Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med.;165(12):1069-1077.
The abstract is here:

Blumberg points out that adolescents’ brains are still pretty malleable, so these changes may not have long-term significance

Here’s another related finding (

When children have been exposed to family violence, their brains become increasingly “tuned” for processing possible sources of threat, a new study reports. The findings, reported in the December 6th issue of Current Biology, a Cell Press publication, reveal the same pattern of brain activity in these children as seen previously in soldiers exposed to combat.
The study is the first to apply functional brain imaging to explore the impact of physical abuse or domestic violence on the emotional development of children, according to the researchers.
“Enhanced reactivity to a biologically salient threat cue such as anger may represent an adaptive response for these children in the short-term, helping keep them out of danger,” said Eamon McCrory of University College London. “However, it may also constitute an underlying neurobiological risk factor increasing their vulnerability to later mental health problems, and particularly anxiety.

The stimuli used were pictures of angry, neutral and sad women’s faces. The heightened response was shown to angry faces, but not sad faces. The children had been ‘exposed to documented violence in home’ and were matched with controls. In the .pdf version, I can’t see any information about the age of the children, but there were 20 in the experimental sample.
The reference is McCrory, De Brito, Sebastian, Mechelli, Bird,  Kelly and Viding (2011) Heightened neural reactivity to threat in child victims of family violence Current Biology, 21 (23), R947-R948, and the full article is at

Again, this looks as though it might be saying something useful, though the ‘long-term’ claims would maybe depend on plasticity again.

Both news releases on PsyPost have the same old useless ‘brain’ picture on them.

Reasons to be grateful: you can boost your amygdala for a better life

There are quite a lot of references and links at the end

The Guardian had alternative headlines for this:
On paper: Happy people caught in a ‘cycle of positivity’, scientists find
Online: Brain scans of happy people help explain their ‘rose-tinted’ outlook has a clear, concise writeup of this (

Brain scans of volunteers who scored high on a standard test for happiness showed activity in regions that reinforced their happy dispositions and set them up for a “cycle of positivity”, scientists said. The positive outlook on life was not a reflection of naivety or ignorance of the world`s threats and dangers, they said, but an enhanced response to positive events and the opportunities surrounding them.
Psychologists Wil Cunningham and Tabitha Kirkland at Ohio State University uncovered the effect while scanning the brains of 38 volunteers as they looked at a series of pictures designed to evoke positive, negative or neutral feelings.
The negative images included an unhappy person sitting in a chair and someone being threatened with a gun, while positive images included a basket of kittens and a bunch of flowers. Among the neutral images were patterns and household objects*.
The scientists focused on part of the brain called the amygdala, an almond-shaped region used in early processing of information about the world around us and emotional reactions to it.
The scans showed that all the volunteers` brains reacted the same way to negative and neutral images, with negative pictures causing more arousal in the amygdala than neutral ones.
But the most striking result was in the happiest volunteers, who had scored five and above on a seven-point happiness test. When they saw positive images, the activity in their amygdalas rose much higher than it did in the less happy people.
The findings were reported at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting in Washington DC.

I’ve lifted that from without any guilt: it’s probably based very closely on a press release from the Society for Neuroscience. Lots of other news outlets posted the same story in pretty much the same words.

OK, so our attitude to life and our wellbeing are driven by our patterns of amygdala responsiveness, right? Well, maybe, but this reminded me of a well-known finding in positive psychology research: Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough’s 2003 ‘Gratitude’ research (reference at the end) They found, as described in the abstract (shortened here):

The effect of a grateful outlook on psychological and physical well-being was examined. Participants were randomly assigned to 1 of 3 experimental conditions (hassles, gratitude listing, and either neutral life events or social comparison) [they kept diaries in which they noted things in different categories – hassles, gratitude, etc –  according to their experimental group]; they then kept weekly or daily records of their moods, coping behaviors, health behaviors, physical symptoms, and overall life appraisals. […] The gratitude-outlook groups exhibited heightened well-being across several, though not all, of the outcome measures across the 3 studies, relative to the comparison groups. The effect on positive affect appeared to be the most robust finding. Results suggest that a conscious focus on blessings may have emotional and interpersonal benefits.

So, reflecting on ‘blessings’ or ‘things to be grateful for’ (positive things, though rather more experientially meaningful than a basket of kittens) increases wellbeing – and having an amygdala which responds strongly to positive things (well, kittens and flowers) is associated with higher reported levels of happiness – could there be some link here?

In the following argument, I admit that I’m confusing C&K’s ‘positive things’ with E&M’s ‘things to be grateful for’, which may not be justified, but I’m hoping they’re close enough to provide the basis for some speculation.
Note that Emmon’s & McCullough’s study is experimental, so we have some idea of causation, while Cunningham & Kirkland’s is observational, which is why I said ‘is associated with’ in the last paragraph. The usual assumption, when you read about ‘this brain activity is associated with that behaviour’ is that the relationship is deterministic, and, in this case, happy people are happy because they have happy brains, and certainly the way these stories appear in the press generally suggests that. But it looks here as though the relationship could be the other way round: could embarking on a gratitude programme be the thing that boosts your positive amygdala response? And might that lead to a positive cycle between gratitude/happiness and a happy amygdala? Or, of course, it’s possible that the amygdala is pretty trivial here: yes, it responds more strongly in gratitude-loaded people, but that strong response isn’t driving anything, it’s just dependent on other, more important things, such as a conscious focus on things to be grateful for.
What I’d like to see (here’s a possible PhD project, kids – or maybe 3rd year project if you’re at a rich university with easy access to fMRI: are there any of those?) is a study tracking amygdala response à la W&K in people who are going through an E&M-style ‘gratefulness’ programme. You might predict that the decision to practice gratefulness would boost the positive amygdala response: a reverse of brain-led determinism. It might be that W&K are onto this already; they have papers in press with words like ‘tuning’, time’ and ‘trajectory’ in the titles.
We’ve got one famous example of this kind of thing already: the study on the hippocampuses of London taxi drivers (Maguire, Woollett & Spiers, 2006).

Some sources:
Cunningham’s and Kirkland’s home pages, which give details of other research and published papers:

There’s a ref below to a chapter by Emmons & Shelton, discussing gratefulness much more widely, but also containing some details of the experimental research, in Snyder & Lopez’ (2002) Handbook of Positive Psychology.

Emmons, R A., Shelton , C. M. (2002) Gratitude and the science of positive psychology. In: Handbook of Positive Psychology. Snyder, C. R.; Lopez, Shane J.; New York , NY , US : Oxford University Press. 459-471.
Available at

Emmons Robert A., McCullough Michael E. (2003) Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 84 (2) 377–389
Available at:

Maguire EA, Woollett K, Spiers HJ. (2006) London taxi drivers and bus drivers: a structural MRI and neuropsychological analysis Hippocampus 16(12),1091-101.  gives you the abstract, which is pretty clear, thorough and helpful, and – as usual – shows that the actual findings are more complex than the myth. Some parts of the hippocampus shrank in the taxi drivers, and “we found that the ability to acquire new visuo-spatial information was worse in taxi drivers than in bus drivers”. Did you know that? Me neither.

*How weedy is this? Miserable-looking person? Basket of kittens? I could think of much more negative and positive stimuli than this. Maybe this is a response to (perfectly proper) ethical concerns – you can’t show people anything which might be so negative that they’re moved to tears: that would be experimental abuse – and so you shouldn’t use anything really positive either – that would be out of proportion to the negative stimulus. This may be being too fussy: everyday there’s something in the newspaper which makes me feel terribly sad. On the other hand, if you can get observable differences with trivial stimuli like this, it looks likely to be a powerful and significant (in both senses) effect.